After capitalism, what comes next? For a start, ethics

31 07 2015

Jenny Cameron, University of Newcastle; Katherine Gibson, University of Western Sydney, and Stephen Healy, University of Western Sydney

If the comments generated by the recent publication of excerpts from Paul Mason’s forthcoming book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, are anything to go by, its release at the end of the month should kick up a storm.

Mason’s book is about a seismic economic shift already underway, one that is as profound as the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. In the excerpts, Mason observes that:

… whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.

The shift is evidenced by developments such as collaborative production and the sharing economy. Mason attributes this economic transformation to advances in information technology, particularly the global networks of people and ideas that are now possible.

Such large-scale pronouncements inevitably generate an equally strong pushback, albeit in very different ways. For example, some comments on the published excerpts align with Fredric Jameson’s observation that sometimes for the Left:

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Other comments are more aligned with climate-change denialism and the sentiment that “it is easier to desire the end of the world than to desire the end of capitalism”.

For those of us who research and practise in the area of what might be called “diverse economies”, Mason’s provocations are welcome. They help to shed light on the array of economic activities that are usually ignored in discussions about economics and they provide an opportunity to debate our economic future.

Enabling but not guaranteeing a better future

Mason’s is a technologically focused vision of transformation. Information technology provides both the catalyst and the means for transitioning from capitalism to a new post-capitalist world. This world will be characterised by “a new way of living” and “new values and behaviours” as unrecognisable to us today as the gritty world of belching factories and waged work would have been to the landed gentry and tenant farmers of pre-industrial Europe.

But there is one important difference between Mason’s post-capitalism and the capitalist and feudal systems that preceded it. The reshaped economic system will, according to Mason, offer hitherto unrealised economic freedoms and liberties with:

… the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away.

There is no doubt that information technology is transforming the lives we can now lead. But technology does not in and of itself guarantee a better future. The much-vaunted “successes” of the sharing economy do not necessarily improve the precarious and exploitative working conditions of those who sign up. For instance, drivers are finding this with Uber, the app-based ride-service that is networked across 58 countries and had, in December 2014, an estimated value of US$41 billion.

Where information technology is generating better futures it seems to rest on explicit ethical commitments that are developed independent of online apps and cyber networks.

For example, in Japan, Fureai Kippu (literally “ticket for a caring relationship”) is based on a commitment to caring for the elderly. Volunteers earn “time credits” by providing care to elderly people. They can transfer these credits to relatives or friends who need care, or they can save the credits for their own future use.

Fureai Kippu emerged in the 1980s, building on a tradition of volunteerism and reciprocal assistance. Technological advances have enabled the network to spread geographically. There are now schemes in London, Los Angeles and Switzerland, and credits earned in these locations can be transferred to relatives or friends elsewhere, including Japan.

Mayumi Hayashi talks about the successes of Fureai Kippu in providing elderly care in Japan.

Technology is augmenting relations of care for others. Technology does not bring these relations into being.

The ethics of the new economies

In our research on the diverse economic practices that exist outside the purview of mainstream economics, we find people are forging new types of economies around six ethical concerns:

  • What do we need to survive well?
  • What happens to surplus, or what is left over after our survival needs have been met?
  • How do we act responsibly to those whose inputs help us to survive well (whether other people or the environment)?
  • How much and what do we consume in order to survive well?
  • How do we care for the commons – the gifts of nature and intellect that we rely on?
  • How do we invest so that future generations can also live well?

For us, these are the different rhythms around which new forms of economic life are taking shape. Like Mason we see these new forms as the building blocks of a “post-capitalist” world (as we wrote about almost ten years ago in A Postcapitalist Politics). Unlike Mason, we see innovations in information technology and networking as supporting rather than driving the economic changes that will be needed.

Our route to post-capitalism foregrounds the ethical dimensions of economic life, and how technologies and regimes of governance might:

  1. Foster less “me”- and “now”-focused subjects of history;
  2. Support more responsible interactions with the ecologies in which we live.

Mason rightly points out that post-capitalism calls forth new types of human beings. He looks to:

… young people all over the world breaking down 20th-century barriers around sexuality, work, creativity and the self.

While we too welcome the widespread acceptance of transformations that feminist and queer politics initiated, there is a worrying undertone of hyper-individualism and libertarianism if we limit ourselves to these examples.

We find glimpses of post-capitalist subjects on a wider canvas of how people are transforming the ways they take responsibility for other humans and “earth others” (or what Pope Francis calls our common home). Think, for example, of the workers in Argentina who, after recovering rundown factories in the 2000s, said things such as:

The factory isn’t ours. We are using it, but it belongs to the community … The profits shouldn’t go to us … but to the community.

We find glimpses in how the people of Norway manage their sovereign wealth fund by foregrounding the well-being of future generations. As one Norwegian economist explained:

We cannot spend this money now; it would be stealing from future generations.

Instead funds are invested for the future and increasingly in investments, such as clean-energy technologies, that will also benefit environmental futures.

Technology and networks in themselves are not liberation. But they can serve to sensitise us to the indivisible nature of people and planet, and to amplify our capacities to empathise, work together and find a way forward on a planet that is damaged, but not beyond repair. In our view, this is the post-capitalism our present circumstances require.

The Conversation

Jenny Cameron is Associate Professor, School of Environmental and Life Sciences at University of Newcastle.
Katherine Gibson is Professor of Economic Geography, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney.
Stephen Healy is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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7 responses

31 07 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Hopeium, chaos will follow. After the chaos then it is a possibility something better will arise from the ashes. Seven billion to less than 1 billion will not happen without huge pain.

That does not mean we should not try, a few will succeed in building something better and transition so much better. For the majority; death. For the majority of the remainder; suffering.

31 07 2015
mikestasse

For the majority; death? I thought we were all slated to die, no matter how clever……..

1 08 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Good ideas sharing, caring, future orientation and ethical behavior. It will not save civilization. It may save some smaller communities from the worst, but the general picture will be starvation and bloodshed.

That is why you have moved to where you have moved. I cannot convince my family to move, they cannot see what is coming down and soon. Suburbia will be the absolute worst place.

Regardless of any hope of success, it is the right way to go.

Oh and I would rather go quietly in my sleep that in a riot. Yes we will all die, how and when matters.

1 08 2015
mikestasse

Yep, I’ve always said “it’s how you check out that counts”.

1 08 2015
Idiocracy

Indeed, the end of suburbia (as a product of civilisation/capitalism) will not “For a start” begin with ethics, yet alone the alienated and then suddenly desperate and destitute masses joining hands in solidarity singing “This land is your land”… It will be anarchy (and no, not the good one 🙂 )!!!

As much as “how” you check out being critical, I think it’s also just as much about “how far away” you can check out too.

That’s why any Billionaire with their head half-screwed on already own’s a remote Doomsday Ranch and/or Island. 😛

4 08 2015
Phoenix

I don’t know how the authors are observing a rise in social conscience. What I have seen is the decimation of the community spirit that once existed in our suburbs and in virtually all aspects of our lives in the mid twentieth century.

I have converted my entire yard to a fruit and vegetable garden. We inevitably have periodic gluts of various produce that we give to our neighbors. From what i have observed it is only people aged over 50 who even bother to talk to neighbors and others in their community.
For all of the rest, the order of the day is me, me, me. This individualism is reflected in the way businesses are run and the way governments are elected and act. It is not politically correct to say so, but the only exception i have seen to this trend is through various religious groups.

I am convinced that this overall trend will not change without a major catastrophe. As mentioned above, through greed and the tragedy of the commons we will witness a collapse of the economic system. This will be associated with a significant reduction in population. Hopefully in Australia we will be spared the worst of this, provided we can keep our population down closer to sustainable levels prior to the collapse. Maybe after these events then a reversion to more community oriented operating system is possible. However such reversion is not guaranteed.

4 08 2015
brendoncrook

As the comment above says. It’s the me, me, me culture.
It’s a culture that only talks to itself, about itself & indeed takes photos of itself.
It cares little about any other species & so totally indoctrinated by it’s own illusions of grandeur it will collapse & almost no one will no why.
I do hope out of it all comes some sort of realization down the ages to come that we are only alive because of our connection to all life……………………Perhaps, sadly a hollow hope………………….

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