What Will the World Be Like After Capitalism?

Fredric Jameson famously observed that "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism."  But imagining the world after capitalism is not as difficult as Jameson makes it sound.  The problem is not so much that we cannot think of any possibilities of what human existence will be like after capitalism; the problem is that we can imagine too many possibilities of what life will be like, and we don't know which of our imaginings, if any, is what will actually happen.  I certainly have no crystal ball.  Still, some basic common sense - and some materialist analysis - can give us a better idea of which possibilities are more likely than the others.

Will there be sexism after capitalism?  Sadly, most likely, yes.  Will the patriarchy continue to exist?  Unfortunately, it almost certainly will.  After all, sexism and the patriarchy have existed on Earth for a lot longer than capitalism has.  The roots of the patriarchy are far deeper than those of capitalism.  So I think it's likely that we will have to prepare to engage in a much longer and more protracted struggle to dismantle the patriarchy than capitalism, which will more or less collapse on its own.  And indeed the collapse of capitalism may make the struggle against patriarchy more difficult in some ways.

Will racism exist after capitalism?  Unfortunately, I think it probably will, too.  Racism, unlike sexism, has a shorter history than that of capitalism. The roots of racism are much less deep than the roots of patriarchy, or even of capitalism.  The "formal subsumption" of capitalism dates back at least to somewhere in the 14th century, whereas the "race science" (really pseudoscience) of Linnaeus, Buffon, Rush, and Cuvier only arose in the 18th century, and was limited to a tiny, mostly aristocratic audience of "Enlightenment" intellectuals, like Kant, Gobineau, and later Haeckel and Lapouge. The myth of race spread especially in colonies, areas of imperialist European domination, and former colonies like the United States, where the economics of the slave-based plantation system incentivized the propagation of the ideology of racism - and from there it spread around the globe.  Right wingers often imagine that racism has always existed everywhere, but in reality it only became a global phenomenon in the 19th century.  That having been said, capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction - left unregulated and unmitigated it will inevitably destroy itself as it becomes more productive (I've written about this, here).  But I don't see a similar kind of self-negating mechanism in racism.  There's nothing inevitable about the end of racism, at least not the way that the end of capitalism is inevitable.  On the contrary, racial inequality and hatred seem only to escalate unless we actively work to end them.  To end racism, we must actively engage in anti-racism.

And much the same can be said for a thousand other problems that beset humanity.  Will there still be x after capitalism?  Nine times out of ten, the answer is yes: if a problem exists now, it will probably also exist then, as well. Granted, sexism, racism, and all the other problems we now face will undoubtedly be dramatically, profoundly, irreversibly be changed by the demise of capitalism.  But they will not disappear, and it is nothing but vain foolishness to think that they will.  It is not that it's impossible to imagine a world without capitalism - it's that when many people set out to imagine a world beyond capitalism, they try to conjure up a utopia in which every problem has magically been solved.  And this is, indeed, very difficult to imagine.  The real challenge, therefore, is not so much imagining a world without capitalism, but managing to avoid the trap of this kind of utopian thinking.

Will there still be trade after capitalism?  To some extent, this is merely a problem of semantics, a question of how we define our terms.  After all, "trade" existed for thousands of years before capitalism.  Undoubtedly, goods and services will continue to have to be distributed among people.  If I am a welder, and you are a portrait painter, then some kind of interaction must occur in such a way that, in the end, we both have access to welding and portraits.  Will we call this trade?  Obviously it will no longer be the capitalist form of reciprocal distribution, but, well, tomato, tomahto. You can call it anything you like.

In other words, the world after capitalism will, in many ways, look very much like the world as it is exists today.  Will there be any difference at all?  Certainly.  Several differences, in fact.  What will these differences be?  To answer that question, one must understand what capitalism is.  There are a few layers to this understanding.

The first layer is to understand capitalism as a class system, one in which one class, the bourgeoisie, dominates another, the proletariat.  Capitalism was preceded by other class systems, such as feudalism, when the class of aristocrats dominated the class of peasants.  It's important to note that nearly every aspect of feudal society still exists: there are still kings and queens and dukes and duchesses and popes and knights and palaces and farms and monasteries and swords and powerful families and rivalries between them and arguments over succession and ideas of honor and just about everything else that existed in the feudal world.  But feudal aristocracy is no longer the dominant form of class relations.  The kings and queens are mere figureheads.  They exist for public consumption.  The locus of power is elsewhere. And one day it will be the same for capitalism - nearly all of the institutions of capitalism will remain, and yet the real power in the system will lie elsewhere.  A new class system will arise, I think most likely determined by ownership of or access to artificial intelligence.  This new class system will in many ways resemble capitalism.  Perhaps in some ways someone might make a torturous argument that they can interpret it as still somehow being a form of capitalism.  So be it.  (Similarly, there are people today who will tell you that instead of capitalism, we currently live in a kind of "neo-feudalism".  Again, this in many ways boils down to a semantic distinction, rather than a difference of material facts.)  But this will no longer be a class system based on human labor power, which I believe constitutes a fundamental change.

But this is a fairly shallow understanding of capitalism.  Another, higher layer of understanding comes when we consider capitalism not simply as a class system - a system in which one class dominates another - but as a system in which all are dominated by the commodity form.  It's true that it's more difficult to imagine how a system like this could possibly end - but not impossible: Karl Marx himself presents us with an image, however briefly, in the Critique of the Gotha Program.
But unfortunately, if you try sitting in on a meeting of a Marxist or otherwise socialist organization today, chances are, they will tell you that the end of capitalism will be a giant magic wand that erases all problems like sexism, racism, and so forth.  This is not a materialist analysis; it is a recruiting tool.  The smart ones in the organization already know that none of this is true.  But at this point it's a pretty ineffective recruiting tool, because now capitalism actually is ending and we can all see that none of these problems are going away.  So if this isn't a good way to understand what the world will be like after capitalism, then where can we turn?

Here's an idea: if you want to understand what the world will look like after capitalism, simply turn on your television.  Almost every movie, every video game, every cartoon is a self-contained, magical world without capitalism.  The most obvious example that everyone points to is Star Trek - a universe in which there are still problems, certainly, and conflicts, but no longer specifically the class conflict between capitalists and the proletariat.  But really, where is the capitalism in Peppa Pig?  Or Thor: Ragnarok?  Or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina?  Many shows, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, have conflicts - usually stupid, unnecessary conflicts - between characters, but usually not directly because of class conflict, because in a given conflict, both of the parties are usually rich enough that economic issues are not a life-or-death concern, the way they are for the proletariat.  My favorite representations of such worlds are shows like The Hills and Jersey Shore.  In these "reality" TV shows, there are always conflicts between characters - about sex, loyalty, status, and so on - but almost never conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  In the future, if we play our cards right, we will all be like characters on The Hills.  We will all have enough to have their kinds of problems.

It's quite easy to imagine a society in which an exploitative capitalist class has been eliminated, because, for the most part, in our self-representations, they have already disappeared.  Even on the news, we hardly ever hear about them.  At most, we may hear some dark and vague, often confused and self-contradictory warnings about George Soros, as an evil puppetmaster, or Martin Shkreli as a young jerk who made smug and snarky faces when he appeared before Congress.  These kinds of scapegoats have appeared from time to time, but almost always in individualistic, moralistic terms, and almost never as a figure of any kind of coherent class analysis.  Bernie Madoff is a perfect example: a cartoon villain of a capitalist, villified because he victimized other capitalists.  The capitalist class, per se, is nowhere to be seen, and if they are referenced at all, it is usually only to emphasize that they are regular folks like you and me, as in the case of Madoff's victims.

(An interesting exception to this general rule is Donald Trump's movement.  Usually American politicians, if they project a class position at all, like to portray themselves as hardworking "jes' plain folks," who were born in a log cabin, chopped down a cherry tree, and promise to roll up their sleeves and work hard for you, the voter.  At most they may present themselves as skilled labor, as members of the "professional-managerial class" as it were: doctors, lawyers, professors.  Trump is the most prominent politician in recent memory to emphasize, with great pride, indeed to advertise his membership in the capitalist class.  That he was able to attain the heights of power through such boasting speaks to the precarious position of a capitalist class in crisis, who fear losing their status and desperately seek out a politician who will forthrightly represent their interests without pretense of doing otherwise.  But this is the exception that, in a kind of wild inversion, proves the rule.  For while most politicians are capitalists that try to represent themselves as not belonging to the capitalist class, Trump is merely the representation of a capitalist.  His own businesses went bankrupt long ago, but banks like the notoriously corrupt Deutsche Bank propped up his image as a capitalist, so that he became a game show host, a celebrity, and most importantly the living representative of a brand, which shared his last name.  His status as a billionaire has been for decades a bit of a scam, a role that he played on TV, including as part of literal kayfabe of the WWF.  Am I reading too much into this to say that the case of Trump indicates that we are entering into a period of history in which what an earlier era knew as "captains of industry" have become mere figureheads, as empty as the Queen of England?  I see this as an early sign that the locus of real power is already moving elsewhere - that "capitalists" like Trump are already becoming little more than entertainment, and even a kind of distraction.)

There is, of course, a flip-side to the absence of the capitalist class from our self-representations: equally absent, if not moreso, from our spectacular self-representations are the most exploited sectors of the working class.  As Raoul Vaneigem put it at the beginning of The Revolution of Everyday Life, the proletariat has "disappeared".  Oh, we may see the "labor aristocracy," like Bill Cosby, obstetrician or Homer Simpson, nuclear engineer, who are able to afford beautiful houses in the suburbs, we may see office workers or (constantly) police and attorneys, but where are the sitcoms that take place inside a sweatshop?  I want to see Foxconn on Fox.  But I digress.

With a few notable exceptions, the world portrayed in our media is already a classless world.

Bamboozled by such representations, there are even people out there who have convinced themselves that we live in a classless world now.  But don't be too smug in mocking such people - although, at a conscious level, you probably recognize that class and class conflict still exist, this does not mean that you are immune from the propaganda.

In other words, what I'm getting at is: in the best case scenario, life after capitalism will look a lot like the way we think life looks now.  It will be, in reality, the way capitalism presents itself and represents itself, in its spectacle: where both the exploitative capitalist class and global exploited labor have been eliminated, not only from our representations, but from reality.

Of course, the best case scenario is unlikely.  It's much more likely that, after capitalism, we will be confronted with new conflicts and new miseries that our current self-representations could not possibly have predicted.  
But I think that, most likely, millennia if not centuries from now, capitalism will be seen as a relatively minor event in the progress of humanity.  It will have lasted less long than feudalism, and much less long than the slave states and empires that preceded feudalism.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Capitalism is Ending


The Ego Is Not Selfish Enough