ALLAN PATIENCE. The End is Nigh! Anticipating a Post-Capitalist World

Capitalism is in crisis. What Marx referred to as its internal contradictions have begun undermining its very foundations. It is time to ask what a post-capitalist world will be like.  

It is perhaps unsurprising that two of the most brilliant analysts of our economic times come from democratic socialist backgrounds in Europe. In Europe there has always been a deep distrust of the Anglo-American obsession with neoliberalism’s ideological repudiation of community and society in the development of a healthy economy. Dismissed by neoliberal advocates as the nostalgia of “old Europe”, new forms of democratic socialist analyses of local, regional and global economies are increasingly coming into focus as neoliberalism’s failures stack up unrelentingly. These failures are largely unseen or avoided by economists in the United States and their camp followers in the UK and Australia who have nearly all been educated in an era of neoliberalism. They are in denial of the fact that not only has neoliberalism failed to meet any of its claimed goals, but it has worked assiduously and devastatingly to undermine the very foundations of late modern capitalism. The whole shambolic structure is tottering on the edge of an abyss.

The two Europeans are the Frenchman Thomas Picketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and the German Wolfgang Streeck (How Will Capitalism End?). Picketty’s book has shown how socio-economic inequality is fundamentally destructive of sustained economic growth. Nonetheless, Western (capitalist) economies continue merrily down the road to nowhere constructed by the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan (and slavishly followed by Australian politicians on all sides ever since).

Picketty has warned in no uncertain terms that neoliberal economies are creating the most egregious socio-economic inequalities in history. Adding grist to his mill is the recent Oxfam report showing that a mere eight multi-billionaires now own more capital that half of the global population.

Wolfgang Streeck’s latest book is reminiscent of Max Weber’s bleak predictions about the inevitability of a soulless, dehumanizing capitalism locking up our very humanity in an “iron cage of rationality.” Streeck’s analysis of the end-days of capitalism suggests that history is indeed ending, but not because (as Fukuyama predicted) liberal capitalism had triumphed over all its opponents (especially communism), but because it has eaten up its critics and opponents, thereby obviating all possible alternatives to its predatory ways. (Witness how the ALP is today as grotesquely neoliberal as the Liberals – they truly are tweedledee and tweedledum.)

If Streeck is correct (and he has a long and impressive history of economic scholarship to back up his sober and very sobering analysis), then we need to anticipate what a post-capitalist world may look like.

Streeck thinks it is going to be horrible. It will be largely a neo-corporatist development entailing close collaboration between big capital, union leaders, government and the military. (Think fascism in Germany and Spain from the 1920s to the end of World War II.) Presumably in this hideous scenario, Muslims will be the new Jews and concentration camps and the whole evil paraphernalia of the repressive state will be constructed to create a ruthless form of post-capitalism. Jobs will disappear. Capital will be intensely concentrated in very few hands. In retreat from globalization, the privileged rich will withdraw into security enclaves dripping with every luxury imaginable. (Think of the gargantuan bad taste of Donald Trump’s New York penthouse.) Meanwhile the masses will be caste adrift in a polluted and miserable world where life (as Hobbes put it) will be nasty, brutish and short.

This prognosis about our post-capitalist world is part of what Enzo Traverso has called “left-wing melancholia,” pointing to the failure of the critics of neoliberalism to come up with real alternatives to the kinds of horror scenario drawn so compellingly for us by Wolfgang Streeck.

The problem is that this “melancholia” is a form of collaboration with the neoliberal agenda. It represents a massive failure of imagination by democratic socialists to come up with hard-hitting and well-documented critiques of neoliberalism while providing programs for transcending the appalling possibilities that a post-capitalist world may entail.

The time is ripe for some creative imagining of a new post-capitalist world that frees us all from Weber’s iron cage, that will repair neoliberalism’s vast and catastrophic failures, and that will lay the groundwork for cosmopolitan and cooperative world. It’s time for an end to melancholia that in reality is a form of mental laziness and ridiculous self-pity.

Three immediate steps can be taken to start on this great journey.

First, democratic socialists need to work out how to join with the forces of what the American international law professor Richard Falk called “globalization from below.” This alludes to the strengthening of international movements discussed in John Keane’s excellent book, International Civil Society? 

Second, they need to come up with a new account of democratic governance – one that rids us of the fiction that the current politics of representative government are the highest possible form of democracy. There is nothing about representative government that is democratic. All it amounts to is what Pareto described as “the circulation of elites.” Today those elites have become ever more remote from – and haughtily contemptuous of – the people they rule.

Third, we need to see states becoming deeply engaged with the so-called “free market.” Apart from re-regulating economic activity, this means positioning public enterprises in strategic parts of the economy, to compete with the private sector, not on their terms but exclusively in the interests of all citizens.

The post-neoliberal era is already beginning. Either a grimly post-capitalist, neo-fascist world awaits us, or one shaped by a new and highly creative democratic socialism. It’s time for some great imagining.

Dr Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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7 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. The End is Nigh! Anticipating a Post-Capitalist World

  1. Andrew Deakin says:

    This remarkably dystopian view of modern life is bereft of evidence.

    A casual glance at global development since the Second World War reveals unrelenting increases in the standard of living, substantial decreases in poverty, and, since the collapse of Eurpoean communism, a greater incidence of personal freedom for the average citizen.

    Many challenges remain. The most significant of them include contesting the rise of irrational religious governments (no names, no pack drill), managing the economic implications of reduced population growth and an ageing citizenry, facilitating continuing beneficial advances in technology, and enabling a more evidence-based analysis of the global impact of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The writer exhibits all the symptoms of 1970s and 80s Club of Rome static projections of the limits of growth, accompanied by an apparent nausea and distaste for modern life, and characterised by the simplistic Utopianism of the 1970s ‘counter-culture.’ Possibly, his distemper is a symptom of an unintelligible nostalgia for his youth (1970s, I betcha).

  2. NEIL says:

    Agree, Dr Patience. This system is a waste of time and it’s intellectually tedious. Junk it and move on. More interesting life-patterns in neolib’s stead …

  3. Greg Bailey says:

    An excellent summary of two seminal works and the implications thereof. I wonder if neoliberal “institutions” are so strongly entrenched that real change of the kind Alan suggests is at all possible. I would also note that corporatism has existed, at least for thirty years, as the governing organisational mode in big business, government, and the large unions. All such groups essentially work for the benefit of their own CEO and management and are substantially divorced from their own employees, and from those they are supposed to represent.

    Whllst there is some disagreement between government and opposition, it is within very narrow limits, none of which seriously question the underlying axioms of neoliberalism. Then there are silly journalistic pieces, like the one in today’s Age (1/2/17) by Ross Gittins that talks about individualism in society coming from our political leaders rather than seeing it as built into neoliberalism as a direct social consequence of market relations and as arising from digital technology which is predicated on atomistic individualism.

    Alan’s three programmes for realistic change are all welcome, but where will they start from?

    • NEIL says:

      Greg hits on a crucial point. For all the talk of Gallup surveys, employee engagement is only ever contingent on fat cats getting fat. This, to my mind, is a silly system …

  4. slorter says:

    Capitalism is inherently unstable! My worry is like all systems that found themselves in decline violence was the inevitable outcome! The global development since world war II has scene perpetual war, a world where cheap labour conservatives have successfully kept wages low, or debt pressure high, stopping workers who will be less likely to complain or make demands. As workers struggle to provide their families with all the temptations that a capitalist society offers, they become far less likely to risk their employment, and less able to improve their situation.
    At bottom, conservatives believe in a social hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”. They have taken this corrosive social vision and dressed it up with a “respectable” sounding ideology which all boils down to the cheap labour they depend on to make their fortunes. The larger the labour supply, the cheaper it is. The more desperately you need a job, the cheaper you’ll work, and the more power those “corporate lords” have over you. Cheap-labour conservatives don’t like social spending or our “safety net”. Why? Because when you’re unemployed and desperate, corporations can pay you whatever they feel like – which is inevitably as little as possible. You see, they want you “over a barrel” and in a position to “work cheap or starve”.
    It has given rise to the fascists and the irrational, attacks on sovereignty, stagnating go nowhere jobs, youth unemployment, refugees and with this personal freedoms diminished and the rewarding of a corrupt few at the expense of the mass! The evidence is out there if one is prepared to remove their head from their posterior and have a look!

  5. Dog's Breakfast says:

    Thank you Dr Patience. Well worth considering what a post-capitalist world will look like, as failure to do so will certainly shorten the odds of ending up as a corporate/military/fascist domain. I was always hopeful that we would recognise it beforehand and veer back to a social democracy, clearly the best form of government for the societal benefit. The correlation of dropping or at best stagnant living standards for the bottom 50% with the rise of neoliberalism is clear, and causative. It is precisely what neoliberalism promotes.

    Mr Deakin’s comments are fair, at a casual glance. Left-wing melancholia is a luxury that cannot be afforded at this time. However a casual glance at his observations would suggest that much of the recent decrease in poverty is attributable to China (a communist state) and India (hardly a hotbed of neoliberal orthodoxy). The greater incidence of personal freedom he assumes (at a global level) denies the substantial and continuing loss of freedom across the western democracies of the last 15 years.

    In restricting Mr Deakin’s observations to post-WWII growth, he seems to have missed the point of the article, that the vast majority of that growth is bifurcated, with high growth during the social democracy era and low growth (real and in living standards/wages) post the rise of the neoliberal agenda. It is hardly bereft of evidence, and negates the likenesses of current inequality with similar conditions pre WWII.

    Worth more than casual observation.

    • Albert Haran says:

      Re my post of “give the dog a bone” .
      This was to imply that the DB post was a great reply to Mr Deakin’s post and was worthy of a reward .
      I fail to understand how the comment did not pass scrutiny.
      If you have time RSVP.
      Thanks
      Albert.

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