Questioning Capitalism

capitalism My last post argues strongly for a new vision of a world of well-being for humans and non-humans alike. The vision is that of flourishing, that is, existing in a state reflecting the best life available within the evolutionary context of all the species. Sustainability is the ability of the Planetary system of interlinked material resources and cultural institutions to enable flourishing to become presence and linger for a while.

I argue further that this will and can happen only with a paradigmatic or transformational shift in the basic beliefs that underlie the structures of our societies and the institutions within them. Anything less than a replacement of the beliefs that shape our way of seeing the world and human life is merely tinkering, tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In laying out a brief discussion of those beliefs and institutional correlates, I referred to capitalism as a suspect in creating the present and growing mess.

The institutions that have evolved on the foundation of these beliefs are the proximate cause of the problematic situation. Capitalism itself is suspect, perhaps not at its core, but in the present form it has evolved to take. I am not equipped to take a more critical stance than suspicion.

In a moment of serendipity, I came on a criticism of capitalism by Kim Stanley Robinson, an author of science fiction, best known for the Mars trilogy. The short piece appeared in the house organ of McKinsey, but is not available there. The link here is to a reprint of it in the Resilience Science blog. Here are a couple of key paragraphs.

Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You might say that Stanley is no more qualified to take on capitalism than I am, but he has been examining its place in today’s world in much more detail than I have. He, like myself, is not fettered with the blinders that economists and political scientists bring. What he says makes great sense to me. He includes a long bulleted list of things to do right now. Most have to do with climate change and are not particularly unique, but ends with a plea to start thinking about a post-capitalist world.

Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future. Perhaps we think that history has somehow gone away. In fact, history is with us now more than ever, because we are at a crux in the human story. Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial, an ostrich failure on the part of the field of economics and of business schools, I think, but it’s really all of us together, a social aporia or fear. We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Here I completely agree. In essence, this is what I have been arguing for some years. The place to start is to examine how to replace the current effete beliefs and to begin to design change mechanisms, starting perhaps at the lowest levels of education. Second is to re-imagine how our political economy and other major institutions might have evolved if our belief structure was as I belief it must be to effectively (and realistically) represent the world of today. A good starting point would at the point when Cartesian knowledge\science and the normative views of the Enlightenment emerged.

Such an exercise must be carried very carefully, accepting that the outcomes will, perforce, be hypothetical. Nonetheless, this way of imagining how societies might have developed in a world build on love and care and on a pragmatic framework of understanding and action could give us a head start on redesigning the social world. We probably do not enough time for a Giddens-like evolution to work its way toward a social structure that would underpin flourishing. Any way to move more quickly would increase the probability of success.