By Raul Zelik
[This article published on 1/29/2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, www.deutschlandfunk.de. With the late Elmar Altvater, Raul Zelik joined in the spirited discussion “Surveying Utopia” (2010),]
For the first time in the history of humanity, we are living in a genuine world system, capitalism. It is winning to death. The exit from the overheated machine of capitalism represents an enormous challenge. We cannot avoid the question about common property in the search for social alternatives. Can greater social equality be achieved without changing property relations?
The world is thrown out of joint. War prevails in a whole region of the world from the West African Sahara zone to China’s borders. Hundreds of millions speculate how they can emigrate to a better life without drowning on the way. In the mega-cities of the global South, the drug trade is the only option for persons of the lower class. As a result, legal systems and communities break down. In the prosperous countries of the North, a growing part of the population hopes to uncouple from these sinister developments by erecting border walls.
In addition, we confront climate change, intensified religious fanaticism – not only in Muslim societies-, growing geo-political tensions and the rapid development of war- and surveillance technologies that make possible new forms of destruction and authoritarian rule.
What should be done in this situation is clear. What the new could look like must be discussed when the old dies. We need answers to the growing global inequality. Strategies of care are needed to stop the destruction of nature and the ruin of societies, a policy that interrupts the spiral of militarism and redefines security as a social question. How can we speak about this without falling into a dreamy unrealistic utopism?
Capitalism as a motor aggravating individual crises
What connects the individual crises? This must be explained first. On first view, the war in Syria and the Mexican drug trade, mass migration and intensified racism have very different causes. But if we take a step back to see the situation differently, a total connection cannot be ignored. For the first time in the history of humanity, we live in a genuine world system. We buy at the same markets, shop at the same shopping centers, spend more than an hour in congestion daily and follow the same calculus: what is paid out in benefits.
The differences have to do with incomes. The life of the upper class in Brazil, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia resembles amazingly the American model in many ways. In other words, our conduct is dictated by a total economic system – even when we emphasize our national identity and personal individuality. This total system is marked by a world market, transnational division of labor and the pressure to increase engaged capital. This economic system called capitalism represents a motor that aggravates the individual crises.
How is capitalism a motor? First, there is one’s own boundlessness. If one action principle is inscribed in our economic system, it is the principle of spatial and quantitative expansion – since the rise of the first world trade powers in the 14th century. This boundlessness means all persons are forced in the global division of labor and competition and the assets should grow enormously. The problem is that this is physically impossible. Assets and goods cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet. A world society arises that is deeply divided.
This is the second great characteristic of our economic system. It tends to intensify social contradictions. Today, the richest 85 persons have as much as the poorer half of the world population, 3.5 billion people (only eight persons have as much as the poorer half according to other calculations).
This connection is responsible for the migration streams discussed so much today. A third of the world population still lives from farming. Hundreds of millions lose their foundation of life because small farmers cannot prevail on the world market against industrial agricultural production. Whoever wants a realistic picture of current migration movements should visit one of the mega-slums of the global South. Despite its wealth, our world economy hardly satisfies their most elementary needs. This is manifest in the slums of Mumbai, Kinshasa or Bogota. A billion people live as “superfluous” in slums today.
The return of the seemingly pre-modern – the ruin of states, fanaticism, civil wars – has to do with this mechanism. The problem is that the countries of the South find no place in the world system, not that the world system has not been accepted yet. Industrial development of the South is hardly possible because the production capacities of industrial states are large enough to cover the whole world market. What is left is selling off raw materials and selling the state machine, not only plundering nature.
Breaking the population from traditional bonds
Our economic world system is winning to death. That accurately describes our situation. The whole world population has broken out of its traditional bonds and is unable to offer a new place to these people. It has made possible an unparalleled technological leap and aggravates the material distress of those who are made superfluous. It has produced gigantic wealth but does not know what leads to the formation of ever new bubbles. Finally, it has defeated all political resistance so there are no correctives anymore.
How can one exit from this proce4ss that colonizes our whole life and all spaces on the planet? In his 2015 essay written in Germany, the Spanish sociologist Cesar Rendueles gave a surprising answer. He writes that we have become victims of a utopian project and therefore should remember the rational. For Rendueles, the utopian is the present state and not the search for alternatives: the all-pervasiveness of markets.
Rendueles writes liberalism has pursued a project from the 18th century that could hardly have been more radical. The rigid social bonds of traditions, families and guilds were overcome and replaced with a flexible mechanism that manages without too many personal contacts: the market. Liberalism represented a great promise in this regard: more personal freedom and individuality. Rendueles contradicts himself here. Firm social bonds are the foundation of human existence. Without them, we could not exist. For at least a quarter of our life, we are dependent on the care and nursing of others as children, seniors or sick persons. Thus, the liberalism that starts from independent individuals pursues a transformation project liberating people from their most human side. However, no society can get rid of the real prerequisites of human existence for a long time.
With this argumentation, Rendueles joins the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi who explained the great catastrophes of the 20th century – the world wars and intensified totalitarianism – with market processes in his 1957 work “The Great Transformation.” The boundless “dis-embedded” market, Polanyi’s term, leads to cultural, social and ecological neglect and thereby destroys the two prerequisites of every economy – society and nature.
In contrast to this, the project of the left has always been clear: to use a lever to solve the great social problems. The analysis of power relations has convinced the left that changing property relations represents such a lever.
Obviously, it would be naïve to believe poverty, destruction of the environment, fundamentalism and the oppression of women would simply disappear if the ownership of massive production facilities passed from private to common hands. Still, the cited problems would be easier to solve in political deliberation as society’s process of reaching agreements. The private interests of property owners would no longer decide over locations of investments and how people live, produce and consume. Society could consciously decide these fundamental questions. A first result would certainly be reducing inequality and guaranteeing a secure existence to eve3ryone – the most effective means for combating violence – as everyone knows.
Questions about common property
This approach, the assumption that common property could be the solution to our problems seemed entirely refuted after the 1989 implosion of the socialist states. The sluggishness or inertia of state bureaucracies and the missing incentives for individuals made the socialist economy inefficient. In the socialist states, basic public provisions – health care, education and culture – were emphasized but littler remained of the emancipatory promise. There was no talk of reducing working hours or liberation from stupid activities.
The environmental destruction was even more dramatic than in capitalist societies. The socialist camp also fell far behind the middle class states as to the democratic right to join in the conversation.
There are two important arguments why we cannot avoid the search for social alternatives and the question of common property. Firstly, nothing has changed in the basic problem of massive private ownership of the means of production. The power of corporations, real estate funds and the super-rich stand in the way of social solutions again and again.
We all know this. In surveys, a majority of the interviewed say it would be good if wealth was distributed more justly and billionaires had to pay more taxes. Even though growing inequality rips apart society and public institutions rot, the interests of the majority of the population do not prevail.
How can this happen in a democracy? The answer is that mammoth wealth systematically prevents a more just distribution of wealth. The power of mammoth wealth increases continuously. Businesses become larger, the rich become richer and lobbies become more powerful. On this background, the British political scientist Colin Crouch coined the term “post-democracy” a quarter century ago. Socialism may have run aground. But the power of private wealth and the logic of capital multiplication remain insurmountable barriers for democratic solutions of social problems.
Here is a second reason why the question of common property should be raised again. The traditional liberal thesis is that an economy based on common property cannot function because goods belonging to the general public are not maintained and individuals do not become engaged without individual incentives. But, this thesis was thoroughly refuted in the last years.
The analysis of the commons shows that collective property was very well managed over long periods of time and can be a foundation of innovative technological processes.
US economist Elinor Ostrom received the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics for her studies on the commons. She showed that traditional commons – grazing or forest land, fish stocks near the coasts, irrigation systems, buildings, and so on – were collectively used and sustainably maintained by communities over centuries. This happened in self-organized systems where rule infractions were punished without any state control authorities. Ostrom’s studies circled around the question what are the necessary prerequisites for functioning self-organized systems of common property. For example, rules must be developed in common and be changeable. A certain monitoring and the possibility of fines are unavoidable.
Traditional and Modern Common Property
The following observations are immediately obvious. When people develop rules in common, understand their meaning and a form of mutual control prevails, people normally abide by agreements and set common interests above individual interests. Modern common property exists, not only traditional common goods. We are all familiar with the digital commons, with goods that are produced by many, used by everyone and belonging to no one. The Online encyclopedia Wikipedia and free software like the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser are examples.
This digital commons arose in remarkable work processes. An international community of programmers cooperates without hierarchical work organizations, without bosses, and without return material favors. The actors cooperate simply because they found working together, discussing other problems and making the product available to everyone interesting.
This commons economy based on common property and free association was displaced by the market in the last years and cannot be simply projected on society. Whether one performs an interesting activity (like programming) or sweeps the trash free of charge makes a great difference. Common property did not make the socialist states collapse.
What does this mean for our initial question about the search for alternatives? There is only one plausible way out: a common economic alternative must be developed out of society and is already democratically “socialized” in its genesis process.
Many anti-capitalist authors have advocated this is the last decades. For example, US sociologist Erik Olin Wright illustrates the problem of a power triangle of state, capital and society. Capitalism expands the power of capital over the state and society and socialism upgrades the state. The challenge today is empowering society over capital and the state.
This already happened day in and day out for many decades. Ten percent of the world population is organized in cooperatives. Apartment buildings built and managed together are controlled by democratic structures or produce industrial goods as a cooperative.
Society is empowered where political pressure strengthens basic public necessities: when childcare is free, the healthcare system, pensions and local transportation are financed publically and in solidarity and controlled democratically. An important role comes to the state in Erik Olin Wright’s reflections. An aggregate social institution is needed that generates solidarity. Different than in socialism, the state from Wright’s perspective is more a guarantor than a central authority of the process.
Emancipatory Overcoming of Capitalism
Another important American theoretician – the Marxist sociologist David Harvey – explains that post-capitalism must arise as a social movement that joins solidarity, democratizing, ecological and emancipatory practices. He is convinced a post-capitalist alternative must arise as capitalism once arose. Capitalism prevailed from the 14th century because different processes reinforced each other: technical innovations, a utilitarian relation to nature that exploits the environment, the little middle class family, the special autonomy of cities against the feudal lords and the opening of global trade through the bloody colonialization of the South. None of these developments had the goal of introducing capitalism. The new system was relatively accidental but stable.
The challenge today is greater because it involves replacing capitalism with something new. The new can also be much worse than the existing. The task is to press ahead with an emancipatory overcoming. The diverse developments in society must be judged by whether they have more an emancipatory or reactionary effect, whether they reduce rule conditions or push back social and democratic achievements of the modern age in favor of authoritarian forms of rule.
Some theoreticians of post-capitalism expect technical development will lead almost automatically to a better situation. For example, the accelerationists, a modern school of philosophy around the British theoreticians Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argues in this direction. We should rely on technological progress because automated production has an emancipatory effect in three ways. Firstly, it ensures the manufacture of goods will be low cost…
The second positive effect of automation is that the importance of cooperation becomes greater. Automation actually makes knowledge into the most important production factor. The universal knowledge planted in software and often not referred to any specific group of programmers creates the value and no longer the concrete activity of the individual worker on the assembly line. This knowledge develops best when it is freely shared and is more compatible with common property than with private. Free cooperation and open access possibilities have been foundations of knowledge production since time immemorial.
And thirdly, automation liberates us from vexatious labor, the accelerationists say.
The Care Ethic as a Third Way
The problem with this argumentation is that it returns to a bad tradition of the left: historical determinism. This thinking was characteristic for the workers’ movement of the 19th and 20th century. Social progress appeared as a by-product of technical development. Social democrats were convinced the state could be managed and waited for anonymous stock corporations to mutate into socialist enterprises. On the other hand, the communists thought backward societies had to first be industrialized with force before social emancipation was possible. The consequences are well-known. Social democracy made its peace with conditions while the communists erected one development dictatorship after another.
We should not fall too quickly to enthusiasm over technical progress. The debate around social alternatives needs strong correctives directing attention to social processes. The term “care ethic” – comes originally from the feminist context. Unlike the liberal enlightenment, a moral philosophy of caring emphasizes the importance of mutual dependencies. The care ethic stresses social relations while traditional ethical approaches start from individuals and focus on the question whether the actions of individuals are virtuous, what consequences can be expected or what motives move actors. Preserving the network of social bonds is central.
Liberalism measures the success of society by increasing assets while socialism highlights the growth of goods production. On the basis of the care ethic, an economy would be judged by whether it strengthens social bonds, cares for the weak and protects nature.
Social questions are raised in the “post-growth” debate. The ecological limits of growth can no longer be denied considering climate change. More and more economists and sociologists plead for abandoning the growth paradigm. The emphasis is on “de-growth” or conscious shriveling. But most authors fade out the fact that this is hardly possible in capitalism. How can assets be increased when goods production declines?
Ideas move us forward in the post-growth debate. For example, there is the concept of the good life, “buen vivir,” that originally came from Latin America. Traditional indigenous societies of the Andes use the term to describe a harmonious existence in unison with community and nature. While our prosperity is defined by consumption, the term buen vivir recalls that a fulfilled life for the human genus is characterized by reliable and inspiring social relations, physical well-being and being embedded in a diverse nature.
What Needs Do We Have?
If these ideas are taken seriously, we must agree in a new way on the real needs to be satisfied. Production of our desires is completely colonized today by a profit-oriented advertising- and culture industry.
A series of debates must be connected. Unlike what is often assumed, we have an idea where the journey must lead. Most of us would agree more equality between the genders, reducing working hours, a more just distribution of wealth, the ecological reorganization of our lifestyle, strengthening basic public services and a far-reaching democratization of all areas of our lives including the working world would be desirable. Many of us would also agree strengthening common democratic property – as flashes up in energy cooperatives or municipal public utilities – would be a sensible measure.
We know what distinguishes emancipatory progress. Post-capitalist alternatives that are more than fantasies must become real in concrete steps. Social practices and institutions going beyond capitalism already exist today. The political task is to bring these practices together into a movement that depends and does not abandon the social and democratic achievements of the modern age.
Such a change had presumably little to do with the revolutions of the 20th century. This change must also be clearly distinguished from classical reformism. On one side, the problem is that a comprehensive transformation must be concretized in everyday social practice and cannot be simply “introduced” by capturing state power. On the other side, such changes produce enormous resistance as soon as they leave the niches of alternative life. This means, social pecking orders or hierarchies of power must be changed to make possible a common solidarity project and a care ethic. Changes are impossible without social struggles even when revolutionary assumption of power is not on the agenda.
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