What’s After Capitalism?

Kim Stanley Robinson got me thinking yet again when he posted this excellent article on post-capitalism.  Post-capitalism, by the way, seems to be as well-defined as post-human.  In other words, not.

But we ought to start figuring out what happens next.

Unregulated capitalism has problems.  The most recent example is the current recession/depression/downturn.  The images on the TV screen while I worked on my  fiction today were demonstrations at the G20 with signs saying – literally – that capitalism has failed.  There is at least some truth in those signs.  An AP article in the Seattle Times today suggests that countries with bigger social safety nets are riding this out a bit better than we are.

Don’t get me wrong — out of all the forms of economic governance we’ve tried on a large scale in the last few centuries, I like capitalism best.  After all, for all their lofty visions, communism and every other version of tightly controlled economy has also failed, and failed worse. We don’t want to return to Red Russia, to Hitler, to Mao, or to Stalin.  Ultra-rich CEO’s and failed banks are better than the loss of all human rights and – at least in some cases – widespread poverty.

So how can we do better?

One of the biggest tensions right now is between the present and the future.  Capitalism works in the present.  It rewards the next election, the next quarter’s results, and the stuff we don’t need that we spend the next paycheck on anyway (the current American version of  capitalism spends millions of advertising dollars convincing consumers to spend money we don’t have). But we have today’s problems that we need to solve for the future.  Climate change.  Energy. Population.  World health.  Genocide and war and terrorism.   And the future’s problems that we need to plan for: genetic engineering and nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

Today’s political and economic structure is neither nimble enough nor thoughtful enough to get us safely to tomorrow.   It’s also not compassionate enough.

So what’s next?  Kim Stanley Robinson offered some good ideas in his article (linked to above).

I’d propose the following set of  principles:

  • We need effective, transparent government that is not too large and not too small.  We need this in multiples, and worldwide.  But not just one.  A single worldwide government makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
  • Social movement must be allowed (people must be able to make their situations better or worse by their own actions).
  • We need values.  Not values that severely restrict people’s choices, but values that respect the rights of various people to make different choices; values that honor the idea that there just might not be one true way.
  • We need a base level of health and humanity for all.
  • Science has its problems, but still deserves great respect.
  • All people who can do so  must be expected to give back.
  • We need a model for economic health that doesn’t require ever-expanding consumption of throw-away goods.
  • The model must allow for world governance (not government) on issues about human rights and the health of the planet and war.
  • Power must be diffuse and offer checks and balances.  These checks and balances must work as well as the democracy here in America (not perfect, I know) and include the corporate world.

What am I missing?  What else do we need to think about to even frame the questions?

6 thoughts on “What’s After Capitalism?”

  1. It might be useful to survey how American culture has changed over the past 100 years, and what pressures caused those changes, to see if we can bring them to bear again. A friend of mine gives the example of Ladybird Johnson popularizing the term “litterbug,” and changing a culture of garbage-strewers to a culture that frowns on chucking plastic cups out the car window.

    Perhaps a similar technique could be used to put pressure to give back on those who have enough to do so. I’d rather see cultural changes than written-in-stone laws, where possible.

    And the biggest thing I think we should stress is the concept of living within one’s means, rather than incurring debt to live a more lavish lifestyle, but then being at the mercy of creditors and possibly losing everything. I’m not sure we can force people to adopt that new strategy until our country does the same.

  2. Hi Melissa,

    I agree with you on both counts. I think we need to grow up, which means we need to be responsible and helpful and compassionate. And besides, I don’t think you can mandate compassion or responsibility, although I suppose anti-litter fines help a little with that specific part. But anti-litter social stigma or education about how bad litter is are better tools by far.
    I also think we are making progress in many areas – we are less prejudiced in many ways, for example. But we need to change faster or the damage we’re doing could overwhelm us.


  3. Kwok Ting Lee

    “All people who can do so must be expected to give back.”

    I get very nervous when I see a statement like this. It strikes me that this is a very deep infringement on the right of an individual to exist for himself or herself, and not as an instrument of society or of some “greater good”. While I am perfectly happy to commend people who voluntarily choose to “give back” to society, I am reluctant to enforce it by either exactions of the state (i.e. welfare statism) or by the more subtle social pressure exerted by “expectations”. Expectations have a way of becoming obligations. And obligations become fetters, until at last the more productive are viewed not as individuals in their own right but simply as “resources” to be used up for the “greater good”.

  4. If you are serious about your question, you need to look at what incentives will encourage the behaviors your proposed commonwealth seek, and what disincentives will discourage the behaviors you proposed commonwealth seeks to avoid.

    I speak of incentives because merely relying on the altruism to cajole people to act against their own best interest is an unprofitable speculation; likewise, relying on the wisdom and altruism of political leaders to govern the lives and property of others, when the leaders operate outside the bounds of law and custom, is fraught with peril.

    I suggest you read Adam Smith’s WEALTH OF NATIONS for a cogent analysis as to the incentives which impel men to act.

    I could suggest also that a close examination of history will yield answers, even if they are answers that surprise you, if you see what has worked in the past to approach the type of society you envision.

    For example, look at examples of community action, of what you call “giving back” to the community, and see what causes it. The great Cathedrals of the Gothics were public works, as was the charity of Jewish communities in the Roman Empire. The social unity of the Orangemen in Ireland is another example, where the presence of a turbulent population of another race and religion drove the colonists into closer social union. Again, among Eskimos, it is unheard-of to not share scarce meat during starvation times, which are frequent. There, for example, we have three situations that prompt notorious public altruism: prompted by religion, by danger, and by want.

    This might be merely the beginning of an arduous process of research and reflection.

  5. Hi Kwok Ting Lee,

    I agree with you that mandated “giving” isn’t giving, but could violate a right to make choices for oneself. But I do think we could gain a lot of a culture that promoting people helping each other. There are a few reasons that I believe this:
    There isn’t enough government to provide all of the help that is needed, nor should there be (that is another form of forced giving – one I support to the extent that a base level of education, shelter, health care and food can be provided for all, but which has the economic dangers of too high a rate of taxation)
    People who are willing to help others when they can seem to be happier. In fact, advice I’ve been given for times I feel sorry for myself isto go out and help someone else, and has proven to be good advice)

    The term “giving” should – I think – be widely interpreted, which goes with the idea of tolerance. It might be money or advice or literal help (barn building or tutoring) or picking up trash while walking down the street. It might be possible at different points in different people’s lives. But I would like to see it be celebrated and appreciated. I don’t think doing something for the greater good makes one exist for the greater good. But we have a lot of problems right now that are at least partly caused by acting too much in self-interest. There is a balance there.

  6. Thanks, John. Yes, I think it’s worth looking at history and I appreciate your examples. I have read Adam Smith, but it was twenty years ago. Maybe I should grab another copy. At any rate, while its time to look for some economic/governance tweaks or even new models to get us through the next century or so, there is every reason to keep things that have worked.

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