Richard David Hames
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear ~ Antonio Gramsci
Recent events can seem scary, bland, or just plain bewildering – particularly for those of us who skate on the ice-thin surface of reductionist indifference. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. We can tune in to mainstream discourse – humdrum but relatively uncomplicated – or be equally deceived by what is on offer from alternative sources. Legitimate or otherwise, official or not, in the final analysis most broadcast information is just a filtered impression of partial truths.
After commercial factors are taken into account, the bias of most corporate media is political, casually shaped by history and habits. Editorial commentaries are crafted around an implicit doctrine. Explicit headlines accompanying carefully framed and edited images, proclaim that everything you need to know about the latest scandal, bomb scare, scam or Hollywood stars behaving badly is captured intact within. It is not crucial that we think too hard. In fact it is probably best we do not. The whole thing is packaged to keep us captivated, comforted, and amused.
Social media can be marginally more seditious in that all manner of differing reports, opinions and hot air circulate. This, too, is to be expected, given that social networks like Facebook or Twitter are shaped by congruent communities engaged in a manic reification of each other’s views, often in a style the authors hope will ensure their content goes viral – or at least causes outrage to a few. Such is Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame these days.
While the corporate media runs the risk of boring us with mind-numbing predictability, social media keeps us aroused with a mixture of rant, froth and an occasional yelp of anguish.
There are always important pointers should we care to probe more deeply. Checking facts, seeking the veracity of a statement by verifying its source, triangulating data, or figuring out embedded codes within diverse belief systems, is not for the faint of heart. But it can be well worth the effort if, by doing so, we are able to see patterns, comprehend what is going on in our collective ecology of mind, and use that to anticipate future events.
As a foresight practitioner I try not to make too many predictions – although that is what the media crave and what I’ve inadvertently become well known for. Indeed the more contentious or surprising forecasts the better. Personally I am much more concerned with making sense of the present. But rarely does an event occur out of the blue. There is always a dynamic context shaping incidents. Sometimes the backstory is far more informative than eddies on the surface of our awareness. Within the context of politics and our geopolitical world-system the past few years have been particularly turbulent. Yet enlightening, too, as new patterns develop that confound long-established international relationships.
A sociopath, racist and adjudged serial liar was elected President of a divided America, with a friendly nudge from Russian hackers, impeached twice, and ignominiously dethroned before we could begin to process his 46,919 tweets. Although it is far too premature to suggest an accelerated unravelling of the world order, among the web of sensitive international relations that maintains the illusion of stability, it is highly likely that Donald Trump’s incumbency, and the gang of billionaires, bullies and hacks he appointed to his court, marked a further decline in the degrading of US political hegemony.
America’s partial withdrawal from the world stage created ambiguity. Retreat may not have been such a bad thing in the short term. The apparent wilting of an overly-intrusive US culture was welcomed in many parts of the world. China, the only power able to fill the financial and military void left by an American exodus, in spite of a bitter anti-China propaganda campaign by the US, still manages to keep its powder dry. For them there is no time to focus on anything other than the most ambitious domestic objectives in the 14th Five-Year Plan, celebrate 40 years of moving millions out of poverty, and address some of the deep-seated social issues, like land reform and taxes, for example, in Hong Kong.
Russia has its own economic problems and a war to wage in Ukraine. NATO is caught like a rabbit in Putin’s headlights. Chinese investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America are boosting the PRC’s influence in some countries – giving China an exceptional opportunity to expand its network of regional trade ties. But the Politburo is preoccupied with events at home. In order to maintain their grip on power the elite’s first priority must be to ensure that the country continues to modernise.
After 20 years in power the Russian electorate does not see any viable alternative to the current president. For most Russians, even now, Putin is associated with the country’s rise as a great power, the revival of its military might and the stabilization of the economy compared with the volatility of the 1990s. He has also overseen a considerable decline in the risk of terrorist threats in the country. There is a whole new generation of Russian voters who grew up in a country run only by Putin. Not all support him, but many young people are his biggest fans.
In Europe the situation is not much different. Ultra right-wing fundamentalists like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Siv Jensen, Heinz-Christian Strache and Francois Fillon have nationalistic designs on wresting power away from Brussels – this in stark contrast to Iceland’s voters who are rallying around a radical, technology-focused, left-wing party that champions political transparency. The austerity measures that were imposed on Greece seem to have become an intergenerational catastrophe – destroying pensions, dismantling essential services, and putting infrastructure projects on hold. A reconstructed fascism hints at future hurdles in the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey and possibly elsewhere. Italy is in chaos once again and should France decide to leave the EU, disintegration of the European experiment is virtually assured. Meanwhile the moral outrage shown by a largely disregarded blue-collar workforce in Britain has resulted in an exit from Europe that is still spawning apprehension in the UK and, more recently, the descent of the mad clown Boris Johnson.
Across Asia the situation is relatively stable – but that is no reason for complacency. Pakistan and India seem determined to continue their niggling skirmishes over Kashmir. North Korea’s erratic leadership could spark a conflict with the South at any time. Citizens in the Philippines are adjusting to life under Marcos Jnr. China is now troubling Taiwan with daily incursions into its air space. Thailand, having lost its revered King Bhumibol in 2016, is suffering further political instability, while Japan struggles to address a lengthy malaise caused by decreasing worker productivity, and an ageing population.
Most territories in the Middle East remain prey to the West’s protracted desire for oil, coupled with an arrogant assumption that some form of democratic order must be imposed in order to guarantee their supply. Israel is forever distracted by issues of sovereignty and its paranoid relations with Palestine. Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain the most prolific sponsors of Islamist terrorism. While, for the time being, practically the entire continent of Africa is regarded as superfluous – a bit player on the world stage.
Patterns & Consequences
Some of the patterns arising from these evolving geopolitical conditions are worrying. They point to undercurrents in our society that should concern us all. Unfortunately many of those who should take notice are blind to the consequences and not at all interested in exploring the underlying causes. They airbrush them out of their version of the ‘big’ picture.
From the perspective of a single individual, organization or state there is probably not too much to get excited about. People still have jobs to go to. Investors can still trade and create wealth. Governments will always have the occasional diplomatic spat over resources and territories. Poverty, inequity and injustice still exist. But that is life. Statistically speaking the trends are mostly positive. From the viewpoint of the human family, however, there are problems. And a significant number of these can be traced to basic flaws in the source operating model – the civilizational worldview – that manifests as our present day world-system.
I have spoken about the problem of unfettered competition in this context many times. One other key tenet, nested securely in the bosom of this deep-rooted belief system, is the notion of sovereignty. We generally translate this to mean that any physical or intellectual asset, such as land, an invention, piece of code, capital, opera, or even seeds, for example, can be owned by one (or more) individuals, to the exclusion of others. Owners control access to, and use of, these assets through constitutions, patents, copyright, and various other forms of protection. Nestle’s claim that it should be able to own the rights to the world’s drinking water is an example of how this principle can so easily lead to outrageous, though logically consistent, assertions.
The origin of this interpretation of sovereignty can be traced back to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. This is the theory that monarchs derive their authority from God rather than their subjects, from which it follows that rebellion is the worst of political crimes. This is the basis of L’ese Majeste laws in countries like Thailand, which make it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent. Yes, this is the 21st century!
The acceptance of sovereignty as a secular principle, applied universally, has led to numerous contradictions and compromises. At the geopolitical level it has been a prime cause of schism and conflict for the past 300 years.
In 1788 the British claimed Australia as their own, establishing a penal colony and gradually dispossessing the indigenous people of their rights. Following the Opium Wars, which still stand as one of the most shameful episodes in the annals of British imperialism, an even greater crime against humanity was when 13 European colonial powers sat down to parcel out the African continent in 1884, claiming lands that were not theirs, and using brutal force to quell any kind of local resistance. In downright disregard for native inhabitants and cultures the map of Africa was totally redrawn.
Untold laws have since been crafted by different parliaments around the world to justify and protect their singular interests – from trade agreements, defense, security and surveillance, to border protection and the issuing of national identity cards, for example.
It is possible that we will eventually broaden this narrow concept of an individual’s entitlement to own assets, with an alternative scheme, where sovereignty is construed as our collective entitlement to share resources. But for the time being we are dealing with the knock-on effects of false propositions like competition, scarcity and sovereignty. And it is beginning to look ugly.
Under the Surface
Contempt by the privileged elite for the waves of national populism breaking on the shores of democracy is being countered by a flourish of anti-elitist discourse. Fake news, disinformation and propaganda – coalescing from alternative versions of a myriad half-truths, misinformation and lies – is given as much credence as officially-endorsed interpretations of the facts in the mirror-maze that is social media. The absence of any real resolve from world ‘leaders’ to enact laws that curb corruption, organized crime, pollution and ecocide has become a festering wound. Even the self-satisfied nature of the UN Glasgow Climate talks in 2021 has turned foetid as hope for substantial progress recedes due to the lack of binding enforcement mechanisms.
Around the world lobbying and advocacy are drifting to the conservative side of the political spectrum – fostering anti-establishment groups. These are becoming adept at coordinating disgruntled citizens who, reliant on public services, are demanding protection from global markets and discriminatory trade agreements. Financial globalization as currently structured, and the lingering quest for unfettered growth, have brought the echo chamber of neoliberal economics into further disrepute. Yet still it staggers around like a Zombie insisting upon its continuing relevance.
Such disturbances mean little to the private sector. The large institutional and lending banks remain relatively untouched by political events. Technology giants, fashion houses and global brands still get away with exploiting our addiction to novelties and accessories, intended to incite envy – but redolent of a widespread discontent. It turns out we are unhappy consumers. Preoccupied with possessions, and the social image we hope they project, we are caught up in an exhausting real-life game of trivial pursuit. Corporations, indifferent to our predicament, continue on their merry way, stuffing money into the pockets of remote owners, while utilizing the cult of compliant celebrity to market an array of bland products we do not actually need, and that will almost certainly add to our unhappiness once the spending spree subsides.
Probing below the surface, some of these correlations point to several challenging social questions. Is all of this a sign that we have consigned ourselves to an indigent, choleric future, for example? Or is it the eerie calm before a tsunami of change sweeps away the deep-rooted corruption that erodes our most life-critical social, political, industrial and economic practices?
Certainly many systems, including economics and governance, are no longer working as was originally intended. As structured they might still benefit a few but, no longer fit for purpose, they are rapidly collapsing under the yoke of a global population approaching 8 billion people. Will populist fury continue to see the devolution of authority away from national and international enterprises, toward cities and local communities? If so, how likely is this to stall the indispensable global cooperation needed to tackle climate adaptation and the refugee crisis for example?
And if the rate of technological innovation continues to outpace the ability of governments to do anything more than patch up the present, will an ever-growing number of critical decisions with long-term implications be taken by corporations, hackers, special interest groups, social networks – and even autonomous algorithms? Or are these dynamics just the mess we will to navigate in order to transition from a dated industrial-colonial model of society to something more informed? One in which the false propositions that have congealed into a dispassionate and harsh world-system can be reinvented in order that the world works better for everyone?
Societal transitions are never easy. Whether evolutionary or revolutionary, social or political, technological or philosophical, disruption to established patterns is an inevitable corollary of change. Our modern inclination to embellish and sanitise history, and to enshrine a limited repertoire of myths accentuating linear progress, within an equally imperfect capitalist credo, doesn’t help. We’ve seen how it can lead us astray, warping intentions, and bringing frustrating delays to the realization of vital ideas.
When bemoaning recent horrors it is so easy to forget that present-day crises are neoteric expressions of a prolonged series of disturbances that have been tearing at the fabric of society for a good part of the past 250 years. This terrain of intersecting crises is symbolic of a world-system that has fallen victim to the curse of modern civilization. Growth – not towards a healthy, more mature society, but a cancer on advancement. Some claim growth is integral to the human condition. But during the recent period of exponential economic and population expansion, international and civic turmoil, brutal colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and genocide have been the norm – as has been the regrettable tendency to frame every issue in the most elementary of binary terms – yet another regrettable outcome derived from the use of sovereignty and competition as generally agreed organizing principles.
A Manufactured Normalcy
So what of economics and its future? In a world increasingly defined by our flaws and inadequacies, as much as by our successes and ingenuity, public spending of the kind espoused by John Maynard Keynes is as inappropriate as Milton Friedman’s free market prescriptions. Essentially the globalization of industrial capitalism, in which old forms of power were replaced by the promise of universal prosperity, has ensured that neither of these approaches, enacted in their purest sense, can ever be optimal. Establishment pledges of wealth and wellbeing, from these two ideological extremes, have not been realized. Instead, massive disparities in power and prosperity have led to anger, social exclusion, frustrated expectations, poverty and an alarming resurgence of xenophobia.
Examining evidence accumulated over the past 75 years from all around the world, observing particularly the inexplicable escalation of hubris, self-righteous entitlement and defensiveness exhibited by the incumbent elite, including their increasingly unstable behaviour, narcissism, inability to think through the consequences of their decisions, habitual use of state brutality and a dumbed-down obedient media to help achieve civic compliance, before placing all of that in the context of the history of sapiens on this planet, it is abundantly clear that our shared civilizational worldview is dystopian in the extreme.
The planetary emergencies facing us are similar to those faced by the crew of Apollo 13 – only on a much more massive scale. And this time the crew is not three astronauts and the team in Houston – it is the entire human family inhabiting spaceship Earth.
At this stage the causes of our predicament are probably inconsequential. So is the original mission. Systems needed to sustain life are failing. There is simply no time to blame others, nor can we stick rigidly to our original plans, even if we knew what they were. Our situation is perilous. It has escalated to a point where none of our rehearsed responses are effective. Now there is one imperative. It is to jettison old assumptions and use our collective creativity to totally reconfigure how we can continue the journey and reach land safely. This is no longer just an engineering problem, for we are dealing with a multitude of intersecting beliefs, faiths and cultural conventions too.
What does this mean in practice? It means we need to confront the deficiencies of a derisory worldview that has given rise to an even more toxic world-system. Outside of science fiction it means there is an absence of destiny narratives that can usefully guide us. The adventures of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise are no longer sufficient to inspire us.
This means an increasing number of our most life-critical systems and arrangements, including how we provision for the next generation and take better care of each other, are deteriorating, unable to cater for a population approaching 8 billion inhabitants. It means our current socio-economic frameworks, political institutions, technical trajectories and methods of governing are all defective in some way. It means that what we do can no longer be measured by pre-established norms and indices. It means that many of the past assumptions, tenets and social codes, to which we still stubbornly cling, are not just incapable of helping us find a way out of the labyrinth, but in many cases are making matters much worse.
Ultimately, all of this means we must purge our world-system of those constraints, irrespective of ideological slant, faith or moral justification, that originate in a worldview reinforcing class, partition, inequality, competition, individualism and conflict, and that consequently benefits fewer and fewer people.
Rebranding the status quo as innovative, and acting uncritically to sustain it, is commonplace but utterly useless. It’s easy to espouse and enact cosmetic change, when it is accompanied by deficient analysis and clumsy thinking, then promoted using weasel words. But cosmetic change is a band aid. It’s an imposter and does not serve our purpose well. Renewal from first principles is a more painful proposition, especially when it means starting with reform of the global financial system, or a reconceptualization of ideological posturing.
Although it is clear that capitalism as practiced is in crisis, that it seems to reward the basest impulses rather than the finest, it is almost impossible to seriously contemplate the end of capitalism. Yet more and more people are talking about a post-capitalist society. What do they mean by that? Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of a leap beyond capitalism, or is this merely a cosmetic lie? What signs could possibly indicate that the days of capitalism are numbered? And how would this supposed end-game be marked? German economist Wolfgang Streeck is absolutely clear:
Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.
From the dawn of printing, and the rise of the merchant classes in the 15th century, capitalism was always an improbable, highly flawed, brilliant idea. Yet it has survived many crises throughout its long history and the market economy continues to spread across the world in one form or another.
At the same time, there are those within my own circle who refuse to entertain the proposition that capitalism is in crisis – possibly one that could prove to be terminal. Prompted to re-define the purpose of business and finance from different angles, but in deference to a modern lexicon with its nods to social impacts, check-the-box ESG agendas, and a more conscious or ‘stakeholder’ capitalism, they persist in picking up scraps of disparate ideas, rearranging words, and pushing them into trusty old scaffolds, hoping that images of BlackPink or Beyonce on the label will persuade us of their brand-new intent to ‘reset’ capitalism. But how can we trust all of this when the instruments of social ruin – that is growth, profit, credit and debt – remain untouched? How can we support an industrial model whose redesign uses new technologies to ramp-up production and extract more value from those who can least afford it, when we can already see how toxic that system has become?
Perhaps we should expect as much. After all it is only a few years ago that the global economy tanked, almost taking the entire international banking system down with it. From that day to this, the structural bedrock of the system has remained unscathed. A reassembled shadow banking system is even bigger than it was in 2008. New rules demanding banks hold more reserves have been diluted and delayed. The insatiable greed of the industry remains unscathed.
In the absence of alternative models, the conditions for further financial crises are mustering. Real wages have fallen or remained stagnant in Japan, Australia, the southern Eurozone, the US and UK. Flushed with free money, the one per cent has become wealthier. The super-rich increased their fortunes by almost 25 per cent during the market turmoil of a pandemic that decimated the economy and threw many into unemployment. Meanwhile, compensating strategies, from austerity on the one hand, to the pumping of massive investments into the markets on the other – are mostly failing to fully resuscitate the unresponsive body.
The downfall of present-day capitalism is unlikely to be an impetuous revolution brought on by the proletariat, as forecast by Karl Marx, but a more bitter, disorderly and prolonged affair. To some extent this collapse is being hastened by modern industrialists, explicitly by the harm they have inflicted on a workforce needed to keep the system in balance. Yet so much of that work is pointless, facile and tedious.
The idea that capitalism might be modified in some way to ensure equality and social justice is utopian and tired. What remains is a succubus, continuing to eat away at the life force until a viable metamorphosis can occur. But how can we claim capitalism is dying? Where is the evidence? Like all great lies, there are several explanations. But the central truth is not hard to find.
Late-stage capitalism was a product of the industrial revolution. From the earliest years it was tied to (i) the consensual hallucination of democracy, (ii) the equally deluded notion of societal progress as a one-dimensional financial phenomenon, and (iii) the capacity of coal, oil, and eventually gas, to provide the energy needed for the mass production of factory-based manufactures.
Capitalism was also the main ingredient in a wealth extraction architecture that benefitted only small numbers of people. In that sense, tensions between the accumulation and concentration of wealth on the part of the capitalists, and the demand for the redistribution of wealth on the part of workers and their families, has always been an unresolved incongruity. Any number of predatory schemes were devised, and still persist, to protect the affluent – ranging from tax havens to dubious trade agreements and, more recently, austerity measures imposed on the poorest, most debt-ridden countries. The poor and the disadvantaged remained so. Wealth did not ‘trickle down’ as was supposed. It started as a joke and was always thus.
The basic formula of capitalism is simple and unseen: devices are used to constantly shift money from those who produce and buy goods to those who own the means of production. Although this initially served a purpose, the growing of markets and encouraging innovation, there are drawbacks to this formula – such as the constant need for compliant workers with cash to spend on purchasing the fruits of their labour. And yes, we now see the need for continuous economic growth, driven by competitive behaviour, constructs a trap from which it is difficult to escape.
Ultimately, though, this system has become technically and socially unviable. It must inevitably collapse – unless it can find ways to transform each of the five following factors:
Scarcity – As previously explained, mainstream classical economics proceeds from conditions of scarcity. Conventional business models use all manner of legal devices, including copyright, trade marks and patents, to ensure that their knowledge assets are owned and protected from use by others. Access to those assets are either denied absolutely or available to rent. The availability of free information is thus suppressed.
A major problem with this prescription is that while each manufactured object still has a production cost, the cost of reproduction is negligible and gradually falls towards zero. This trend towards zero marginal cost has meant there are far fewer profits to extract from industrial production.
Not only that, but the enormous amounts of information in circulation are corroding the ability of the market to accurately determine prices. Scarcity destroys the price formation mechanism. That’s because while markets are based on scarcity, data and information are not scarce. On the contrary they’re abundant.
The orthodox defense against such phenomena has been to form monopolies. Apple has famously done this with the music for purchase on iTunes. It is unlikely such monopolies will endure. By fabricating business models and valuations based on the capture and privatization of all socially produced information, corporate monopolies are increasingly finding themselves at odds with one of the most basic of human needs. To share and to use ideas freely.
Each wave of new technology brings diminishing returns. Logically then, the only way to prop up revenues is to find ways of keeping the technology scarce. This can be done by accelerating in-built obsolescence, for example, a devise major manufacturing brands and communications technology companies have been doing for decades, deploying deceitful marketing spin, or shifting wealth into the illusory world of speculative finance.
The latter is fraught with risk. Speculation leads to market crashes, financial collapse, and so-called structural readjustments. These trigger a spiral of debt, following which the most popular policy solution is to apply austerity. These potentially catastrophic policies are not simply about months of spending cuts and deprivation. Austerity means salaries, social wages and living standards are all driven down, for months or years, until they correspond more closely with those of the middle classes in the emerging economies of China, India and Africa on the way up.
Knowledge – There are more unrelenting matters. As an economic resource, information is displacing most forms of industrialized labour and processing. Innovation and creativity, the most beneficial forms of knowledge in the world today, have become crucial factors for the valorization of capital. Moreover they are an unlimited resource. As such they are already giving rise to a new form of post-industrial capitalism.
Initially, machines did the work previously undertaken by humans. Automation replaced blue collar workers. Today smarter machines are increasingly doing tasks traditionally associated with management and the professions, thus eroding still further the need for human labour. The next wave of artificially intelligent androids, presently stalled as our social infrastructure cannot abide the uncertain consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of both full-time and casual work needed from human workers. Or at least that is the theory.
Because we have not invented any widely acceptable solutions to unemployment, nor indeed to the casualisation of the workforce, and human worth and dignity are measured in terms of earning an income from paid work, two tracks become equally feasible. Firstly, we could simply design new or different tasks for humans to do. Current statistics actually illustrate that this has been our favoured course to date. Secondly, we could leave the majority of tasks to robots and enjoy more leisure time. In that case it is highly probable individual purchasing power would weaken, thus shrinking the market for many goods. Production, too, would fall, which would be a good thing for the environment.
Clearly investigating alternative solutions, like a universal living wage for those without work, or creating new kinds of socially- and environmentally-beneficial work, is therefore critical. Meanwhile various forms of ‘knowledge commons’ foreshadow original, more equitable, forms of production and exchange. Because knowledge is neither scarce nor limited, abundance poses a real threat to traditional institutions and corporations. Once they have lost control over their proprietary knowledge they will lose their competitive and comparative advantages.
Predictably, in defiance of its social nature and universal access, most died-in-the-wool industrialists and their lawyers persist in trying to exploit knowledge-based work through the one device they know best: privatization. In time this too will fall.
In a society where we can trade information and knowledge using substitute modes of value creation, including open source, peer production, and cooperative networks, for example, the production-commodity-money-consumption logic bolstering the predatory nature of capitalism is increasingly obsolete. Indeed the ecosystems of free knowledge and thinking are a threat to all conventional power structures. When the knowledge monopolies crumble, everyone goes back to zero.
Virtue – If the previous two factors alone were insufficient, an end-game where the most affluent one per cent of households globally own 43 per cent of all personal wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own only one per cent, is just unsustainable. Apart from the obvious moral dilemma there is also a massive utilization issue. By and large the top one per cent hoard their wealth. Most of it was derived from owning industrial and corporate assets. They guard this wealth aggressively and it remains mostly inaccessible to anyone other than a tiny coterie of insiders.
In the past this extractive wealth has been a potent force, and the most powerful in the land still have a substantial store of it to spend. But nowadays a new kind of wealth is being created. Increasingly, though not quite yet, this wealth is beyond appropriation by private individuals. But by capturing the economic moral high ground it possesses an almost unstoppable momentum. The new prosperity, generated by many and shared by many, is an open, participatory, decentralized, peer-driven undertaking.
To some extent it is still about new skills and business models – crowdfunding versus venture capital, for example. But other performance criteria, such as personal empathy, a sense of design, aesthetics, anticipatory foresight, intuition, flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship, have surpassed the roles that formal knowledge, craft qualifications and vocational skills used to have. In other words a new moral compass is being applied to business and its development.
Commons – Although all of that is very exciting, new business models and skills are only half the story. Conventional wisdom has shifted away from how best to accumulate wealth, towards generating impact via disruptions to the established order. In other words the power that came originally from traditional wealth is slipping away from individual owners and established investment opportunities. It is now focused on growing various forms of knowledge commons and the potential these have for leveraging massive social change.
Obviously there are tensions between these two kinds of authority – and not just in terms of their unfolding dynamics. How people think and feel about the new social economies – their right to engage, participate and benefit, together with an unflinching belief in radical transparency and shared accountability – are likely to be some of the defining features of the post-capitalist era.
Climate – A further impediment for contemporary capitalism, though infrequently considered as such, is the impact of global heating, increasing humidity, and an natural environment under stress from all human activity. Nature, as in the physical world of oceans and forests, has always been regarded as an extraneous factor in terms of neoliberal economics – unless or until it can be monetized. Economists have always regarded nature and its protection rather like religion or the arts – trivial sideshows in comparison to the real economy of manufactures, commerce, and trade.
Environmental destruction is still viewed in some quarters as an unfortunate, if inevitable, consequence of the need to produce more and more goods, so as to meet the growing demands from new customers in emerging economies. This craving for more and more stuff accelerated exponentially during the latter part of the 20th century by way of mass advertising and the rapid expansion of access to global markets. But nothing is served by ignoring it.
The Capitalist’s Paradox
So we face an inherent contradiction. As previously inferred, late-stage industrial capitalism relies upon three interconnected factors: (i) the availability of an ever-escalating variety of material goods at low cost; (ii) the continuation of our insatiable desire to purchase more and more goods, animated by repetitive marketing spin as well as planned obsolescence; and as a consequence (iii) the energy needed in order to manufacture and distribute these goods to the far-flung corners of the globe.
The first of these factors can be assured by various means. Theoretically it does not appear to be an insuperable problem. The second factor is slightly more conditional. For example, if we become in the least bit fatigued by the continuous advertising spin used to sell homogenized and bland products, seeking more uplifting ways to achieve happiness instead, the desire to share rather than to own could become a considerable problem for retailers.
But the third is a killer. The climate breakdown is an aggregate of the way we each choose to live our lives – multiplied by the sheer number of humans inhabiting planet Earth. While we often use the population explosion as the main justification for the burden we put on the environment, including changes in climate, the issue of lifestyle is of fundamental importance. Allow me to reiterate – this time in terms of cause and effect:
• Continued domination of a socio-economic world-system, shaped by the structures and ethos of capitalism, is contingent upon increasing affluence (reflected in the ability to access and acquire more and more material belongings) remaining the driving motive for ordinary people achieving the lifestyle they most envy and covet.
• To fulfil this desire there must be continuous growth in the number and variety of products available for people to purchase – along with competition to keep prices as low as possible, and the availability of human (but increasingly machine) labour to make them.
• In order to meet this massive and constant demand for new goods the industrial combustion of fossil fuels is then needed to provide the energy for manufacturing and transportation.
Note the paradox. The fuels that provide the power source required for capitalism to function optimally are also largely responsible for the global heating that is now an existential crisis. Without fossil fuels, capitalism in its current form is doomed. It becomes obsolete through its own inherent logic.
Environmental destruction is as much of an economic emergency as a social one. We ignore it at our peril. Air and water contamination, soil erosion, toxic waste, the decline in fish stocks, the extinction of entire species, rising ocean levels, and abnormal heating associated with greenhouse gas emissions, are causing disquiet as the entire world comes to a shuddering realization: in today’s conditions economic growth and development, driven by competition for scarce resources, is incompatible with human survival.
The Age of Post-Capitalism
Towards the end of the 20th century, neoliberalism began to break with a 200-year tradition that had become entrenched within industrial capitalism: financial crises inevitably provoked technological innovations that benefitted everyone. Since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan we’ve witnessed the containment of wages along with the smashing of the social power and resilience of the working class to help shape a political economy. The result is a rapacious system calibrated to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures on society.
Capitalism looks as forlorn a project today as did the millennial sects in the late 19th century. The republic of riot squads, corrupt and inept politicians, magnate-controlled media and the surveillance state looks as bogus and fragile as East Germany did prior to 1989. Millions of people are beginning to awaken to the fact they have been sold a fantasy at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is one of anger and a determination to change things for the better.
The main incongruity today is between the prospect of free, abundant goods and information, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. In the final analysis everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of liberated being. Or, as I expressed this in my book The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, the friction between the imposed formalities of the ‘cathedral’ in comparison with the free-flowing nature of the ‘cafe’.
So, to return to our original thesis, and assuming capitalism cannot endure in its current guise, what should we expect in a post-capitalist society? What might be possible that is constrained today? What kind of new relationships can we expect? And how could this reshape human nature? Will it evolve into a form of universal communion between all members of the human family that many of us desire? Or is that just too utopian?
Among various unknowns, one thing is very clear: differing modes of production have always been structured around distinctive propositions. In the past these uniquely advantaged or marginalized certain groups. Feudalism, for example, was predicated on tradition and a sense of duty. It favoured priests, the military and the aristocracy. But those who were marginalized under this system, such as lawyers and scientists, became the architects of the next wave of social transformation. Industrial capitalism was predicated on markets.
It is unlikely that a post-capitalist society, in which abundance is a precondition, will simply emerge as a modified form of today’s philosophy. On the contrary, it is entirely feasible that those marginalized or betrayed by capitalism, including the urban poor, women entrepreneurs, the unemployed, intellectuals, internet nerds, and the massive populations of those in the Global South whose voices are still waiting to be heard, will help expedite the transition into a post-capitalist era.
Naturally we cannot fully grasp what this society will actually look, feel, and be like, as many unpredictable factors could come into play. Nor can we imagine the kind of human beings the new society might eventually produce once economics is no longer so ‘front and centre’ to living, as corporations would still have us believe, and recedes into the role it must ultimately fulfil in terms of paving the way to a more sustainable and just civilization. In other words the means by which we reach the futures we desire, rather than the end goal.
Whatever criticisms can be placed at the door of present-day capitalism, and there are many, it did succeed in weaving together significant elements of human artistry, ingenuity, aspirations and expressions of progress in nurturing and sustaining its own inherent logic of acquisitive growth. It is also fair to admit that, until now, we have simply been unable to attenuate its more destructive aspects, or find an expedient way to live when deprived of its irresistible vitality and power.
Capitalism will not be forced into retirement any time soon. But eventually, hastened by a series of external shocks (including climate change, energy depletion, migration, and an aging and declining population) constraints within its own logic, and the coevolution of a more connected human family, it will be brought to its knees by a more dynamic, virtuous, mutually-beneficial system.
The seeds of that new system already exist, although one must look long and hard to find them. Barely visible in the niches and hollows of the markets, entire spheres of economic life are beginning to move at a new pulse, dancing to different rhythms.
The spread of collaborative production, social economies, parallel and cyber currencies, alternative producers, spontaneous action groups, open source software, local exchange initiatives, volunteer enterprises, cooperatives, and diverse knowledge commons are all proliferating. Driven not just by shared information but an impulse to engage, these forms of interaction and exchange do not respond to the rules of capital markets, paying no attention whatsoever to orthodox managerial hierarchies. Instead they are giving rise to new forms of ownership, new forms of lending, and new legal contracts.
To conventional economics such pursuits hardly qualify as economic activity. Government taxation agencies, indeed, are still inclined to refer to them as hobbies. But that is the point. They exist because they trade, albeit tentatively, in the currencies of post-capitalism: free time, free stuff, and networked activity. As such they inherently undermine the status quo.
Eventually a post-capitalist society will break into the mainstream from this unlikely yet promising genesis, reconstructing an economy founded on purer motives, values and behaviours, and where information is for social benefit – to be shared freely, and quarantined from being exploited, owned, or priced. In that regard new economic models, balanced between sustainable social and planetary boundaries, are also getting our attention and traction.
When that time comes, those of us still alive will wonder how we ever put up with an archaic paradigm for so long. Our children will be amazed that it took my generation several decades to grasp that what flows naturally, leads to empathy and cooperation, rather than envy and hostility, and assures human sufficiency as well as the health of the planetary ecosystem, is the most vital element of what it means to be human.