In the previous instalment of this article in Parapolitics, I had discussed the situation arising out of the Covid 19 pandemic in terms of the possible implications of the global lockdown and ‘quarantine of consumption’, for post-capitalist futures. In this part, I will discuss (a) the conditions that make such futures not just imaginable but possible and (b) indicate certain directions that such futures are already taking – for the paths that we tread now are the ones that lead to the future.
Theory/ Concept/ Discourse
Since all talk of post-capitalist futures only sounds outlandishly utopian and out of sync with what we see around us with the ‘naked eye’ as it were, it is necessary to first clear our field of vision a little. And, let us be very clear here that this ‘clearing of the field of vision’ is not, in the first instance, about practices on the ground but about the field of knowledge – and theory in general. And before any hard-boiled hysterical-materialist tries to tell us that all this is idealism and that the ‘real’ stuff is materiality and things only happen in practice, I want to make three general points here. First, for the more theologically oriented: it was Lenin who said repeatedly that ‘without revolutionary theory, there cannot be any revolutionary movement.’ (What is to be Done?) Not only that, he also insisted (after Kautsky) that left to its own, the working class movement could only produce ‘trade union consciousness’ and that ‘socialist theory’ had to be imported from outside (basically bourgeois intellectuals) into the working class movement. This understanding was to lead to all kinds of problems including vanguardism but we will let that be for now.
Second, (and here matters get a bit more complicated) look at any ‘movement’ anywhere in the world and it will be clear that the relationship between theory/ discourse and practice reveals the same pattern. What Lenin said is, in a different way, not just true of Marxism/ socialism but also feminism, environmentalism, queer politics and so on. Indeed, it is equally true of the great religious movements of yore – every one of them had to first pronounce the idea that distinguished it from previously dominant ones. It is no less true of the nationalist and fascist movements of our times. In fact, this is also true of ‘modernity’, which too, we often forget, was the outcome of a set of movements in different domains. The discourse of modernity did not simply describe a set of phenomena, practices and institutions – but actually produced them as normatively desirable and insituted them. Its discourse laid out the contours of what the modern State and Law were all about and how states should act.
The ‘theory’ or the concept does not have to be true (think of Hindutva, for example), but as Deleuze and Guattari would say ‘it produces resonances’ and orders the field in a particular way. (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?) What the enunciation of a concept does is either to make visible (and intelligible) certain practices that might already have been there or, make possible the articulation of a certain set of experiences in a way that they immediately start making sense to a large number of people. So, we can legitimately say, in retrospect, that ‘queer’ sexual practices perhaps have existed through all ages but they are only brought into our field of vision once theory itself has been ‘queered’ in a manner of speaking. Not only does it allow us to see the existence of such practices in the past but as a precondition, first makes visible the ‘heterosexual matrix’ (Judith Butler) that has so long invisibilized all but the male and the female. Its enunciation immediately makes it possible to see how much of effort, time and investment goes into maintaining this binary sexual division and how so often ‘abnormal’, in-between cases, are subjected to medical intervention.
Something of that sort happens with the ‘economy’ as J.K. Gibson-Graham showed very convncingly in their book The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996). Essentially what Gibson-Graham did was to ‘queer’ capitalism by showing that the economy did not simply consist of Capital and Labour (a capitalocentric notion analogous to the phallocentric one with regard to gender); rather, it comprised a series of different economic and social forms and transactions that had been made invisible by our theoretical frames. Their (Gibson-Graham was the single authorial persona adopted by Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson) intervention was made from their own locations in the United States of Americal and Australia but it made it possible for us to see a whole range of forms in societies like India’s that constituted such ‘non-normative economies’. These include the different forms of informal economies, peasant production, cooperatives, small credit and self-help groups run by women (called ‘committee’ dalna in northern India), hawking, rikshaw pulling, vending and so on, not as remnants of a past that had to be ‘eradicated’ and subsumed into the formal (read: corporate) economy, but as forms that should be strengthened. I will return to these forms in greater detail later but for the present it should be underlined that already, more than two and a half decades before Gibson-Graham, the Internation Labour Organization’s (ILO) Employment Mission to Kenya found something astonishing: what had been called the ‘traditional’ sector till then had actually expanded rather than diminishing as per expectations. Just a few years before that economic anthropologist Keith Hart reached exactly the same conclusions from his work in Ghana and proposed the concept of ‘informal sector’ in place of ‘traditional sector’. The idea was to recognize it as contemporaneous rather than see it as a remnant of the past to be eliminated. The ILO adopted Hart’s terminology and it acknowledges that the ‘conceptual discovery’ of the idea of informality had changed the terrain.
Another intervention by scholars like Timothy Mitchell (Rule of Experts) and Michel Callon took a decisive step in this regard: instead of saying that the ‘economy’ is an imagined construct, they (especially Mitchell) showed that the ‘economy’ was in fact, actually put in place by the emerging discipline of economics/ macroeconomics, more particularly in the early decades of the twentieth century. Its materiality is nowhere denied but the fact that it is put in place via a series of conceptual interventions and apparatuses is underlined.
Third, the question of technology as we have inherited it from the vulgar Marxist tradition: This way of seeing it understands it as a ‘secular development of the productive forces’; as an objective process that supposedly constitutes the ‘material basis’ of all that happens in the domain of ideas (even the relations of production are determined by such developing prodductive forces). While many Marxists have given up on the notion that ‘ideas’ arise on the economic base in some crude fashion, most of them still hold that this is an objective process which is therefore irrversible. Now, a moment’s reflection is enough to show that any – even the smallest – development in technology is a result of some development in the area of scientific knowledge – it simply does not happen of its own accord. A scientific development or breakthrough (as in the case of Artificial Intelligence [AI]) is a consequence of some theoretical development in the field of knowledge. However, which technology is adopted and becomes dominant is determined by specific decisions that are tied to decisions of corporations based on matters like estimations of future profits, scale of investments, pushing through by government policy. No technology develops ‘on its own’, and since it is put in place through specific decisions of profit (e.g. labour saving) and surveillance etc, they can also be reversed.
Yes, we cannot go back to the 20th century and reverse decisions regarding technology taken then but the effects of many such decisions can be reversed or re-envisioned in a new way. Such things keep happening anyway, especially when it suits the needs of capital. Thus for example, the large factories and plants of the early twentieth century Fordist production era, were simply abandoned and dismantled once capital moved to ‘flexible accumulation’ of late-twentieth century. The landscape of abandoned factories still exists in many parts of the world including Europe and the USA – some of them having already been repurposed into parks or museums, even shopping malls. Decommissioning of large dams too is not a process unknown to humanity. China, the current industrial hub of the world (and at the centre of the COVID 19 controversy) has not just abandoned factories but abandoned ghost cities across different provinces.
In short, neither is technology (or development for that matter) a demiurge, an objective power before whose will the world must bow, nor does the irreversibility argument have legs to stand on.
The New ‘Copernican’ Revolution
I borrow this term ‘Copernican Revolution’ from the work of US environment analyst Lester R. Brown who talked about it two decades ago. Where Brown talked of the need for a new Copernican revolution, I argue that it has actually been underway for quite sometime. Parenthetically, we should perhaps call it the ‘Al-Shatir-Copernicus Revolution‘, considering that today we know that Copernicus actually worked with the great Syrian astronomer, Ibn al-Shatir’s models – a fact that the Polish Copernicus in the 16th century never hid but which was erased from subsequent history. If the Al-Shatir-Copernicus revolution completely blasted the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun revolved around it, we are confronted with a similar earth-shaking revolution today. Its elements have been with us for sometime now and they have increasingly led to the realization that there is something fundamentally wrong in the belief that has been our lodestar from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on – that nature was something to be exploited and dominated/ tamed for serving the needs of the new sovereign – Man. ‘Nature’ was seen as merely a provider of ‘resources’ and ‘raw materials’ for what later came to be known as ‘the Economy’. The ‘Economy’ was the larger set; ‘nature’ was its subset. The roots of this idea actually go back to the Cartesian moment and to what Bruno Latour has called the ‘Great Divide’ – that point in the emergence of the modern world when ‘Society’ became separated from ‘Nature’, ‘Humans’ separated from ‘Non-humans’. Humans became the centre of the universe and ‘the Economy’ – in the specific sense of an entity with its own laws – the centre of human existence. This new entity would actualize the creation of more and more wealth as a marker of Progress. We can call this the point of emergence and dominance of the Western episteme.
The contours of the new revolution have still to be spelt out and it has to be named, but in a sense it is already telling us that just as the Earth was not the centre of the Universe (in natural sciences), so are its inhabitants not the Universe’s centre (in the social sciences and philosophical sense). The new revolution is simply telling us that it is a vain and puerile idea for humans to start believing in the fiction of their sovereignty, and to think that they and their ‘economy’ over-rides that larger entity – call it Nature, call it Ecology or whatever else you want to. As a matter of fact, we are now facing a situation of widespread disenchantment with the all-powerful, world-conquering Western episteme. As more and more cultures across the world face the destruction of their cultures, their environment, their ways of living and being, they have begun to articulate different kinds of relational ontologies drawing on traditional ideas of living – Ubuntu (the Zulu idea that a person is a person through others), Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay in its Quechuan indigenous version, Suma Qamana in the language of the Aymara people of Bolivia, idea of happiness in our neighbouring Bhutan – all of which articulate a notion that is directly opposed to, (1) the idea of the ‘homo economicus‘ – the self-maximizing ‘rational’ individual given to us by the ruling Western episteme. (2) the idea that ‘Man’ is sovereign, meant to rule over nature. They see humans as themselves belonging to a larger cosmos where they are but partners like other species. These ideas are no longer related to some marginal practices attributed to indigenous communities that we had, under the spell of the Western episteme, assumed to be ‘past forms’ destined to go extinct. These ideas have been enshrined in the Ecuadorian and Bolivian constitutions. There is of course strong political reaction from powerful corporate capitalist interests and the struggle to establish these ideas will certainly go through ups and downs but the fact that these constitutional provisions were publicly debated and accepted – in the Ecuadorian case through a referendum – shows that these are gaining massive acceptance within larger publics. The mainstream itself is changing.
And it is not just among indigenous people that the turn towards such ‘relational ontologies’ is being articulated; we can see serious efforts to reconnect with such ideas within say the Chinese or Indian, especially Buddhist thought. It is a different matter that the Chinese and Indian elites still live in the fantasy world of neoliberal capitalism but there is little doubt that slowly but surely the spell is breaking outside the charmed circle of political elites. In the first instalment of this essay, I had referred to people from the corporate world moving into different lifestyles – outside the frenetic speed of the city life – into slower but more meaningful activities dedicated to anything from teaching poorer children to organic farming to the arts. They do not intend to go back to the caves as most unrepentant modernists still seem to believe; they seek more meaningful lives outside the world of state and capital. In the last section of this essay, I want to now briefly sketch a picture of the possible new directions in which our future thinking will have to move – and these are based entirely on what is actually happening in the world today.
Post-Capitalist Futures: A Guide Map
It is obviously impossible for anyone to lay out a guide map – leave alone a blue-print for the future. And since my own proclivities are decidedly against apriori programmes and blueprints, I will only map out what is already there but which we might hopefully now be better able to see.
At one level, many of the things I will identify below have been in existence for a very long time but we could either not see them or saw them as ‘remnants of past forms’ destined to go extinct.
Let us begin then by asserting (once we have figured out that all entrepreneurship, trade and commerce are not capitalist) that post capitalist futures are likely to be composed of a rainbow of economic and social forms. It will mean the co-existence of a range of different forms of ownership of property ranging from the commons to cooperatives, private artisanal/ craft to peasant, from simple usufruct rights to urban or forest lands to direct state/ public ownership. Matters like public health and education will most likely be in the hands of the state, as is being increasingly recognized now.
One of the difficulties in our being able to imagine a world without capital has to do with that biggest fiction of economics – that for creation of employment, we need capital. We (read: governments) therefore, need to woo capital, to let it come on whatever terms it demands – tax holidays, freedom from adherence to labour laws, subsidized electricity, decent ‘investment climate’ and so on. The first thing to remember is that unemployment is a creation of capitalism; it cannot therefore be its solution. In the first world (‘advanced capitalist countries’), where it has destroyed all other forms of property (commons etc) and has over the years moved from ‘jobless growth’ to what has been called ‘jobloss growth’, there now hangs the spectre of AI that will in the near future eat up almost forty percent of the jobs in the USA alone. In countries like India too it can have disastrous consequences.
It is in fact, against the backdrop of the endemic unemployment and insecurity of ordinary lives that the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has come up in Europe. At one level, the roots of the idea have been traced to the 16th century, to Thomas More’s Utopia but it has been taken up more seriously as a possiblity from sometime in the 1970s. Andre Gorz in fact argued in favour of this idea in the 1980s and it has lately acquired an even more serious dimension as it has found its way into policy debates. It has been been acknowledged, as for example in James Ferguson’s Give a Man a Fish, that large parts of the population have become redundant in contemporary capitalism and they are not really ever going to get jobs. Demanding employment is chasing a chimera. Hence the demand for UBI. In the West, it has been a longstanding demand of intellectuals on the Left but it is only recently that it has entered the arena of policy debates indicating a much bigger shift. The reality also is that in most of the West, all forms of small property and the commons have been so thoroughly privatized/ destroyed that UBI looks like the only possible option.
I had briefly discussed how the situation created by the Covid 19 pandemic has led to a serious discussion on at least a temporary UBI even in the UK and the USA. The Spanish government has now stated that it is seriously consdering rolling out a permanent UBI plan to cope with the situation. It is also worth remembering that in India, Sikkim already has started implementing some form of UBI and in the run-up to the last general election, Rahul Gandhi as Congress President had proposed his NYAY program (Nyunatam Aay Yojana) – a version of the UBI. That the UBI demand was a left wing demand that is now being seriously discussed is because there is urgent need (even before the Covid 19 outbreak) to put some purchasing power in the hands of ordinary people. This is already an acknowledgement that the global capitalist economy has to be put on ventilator – it has been in a permanent crisis of sorts ever since the financial crisis of 2008 and that is now only going to aggravate further.
It may be useful at this point to return briefly to the question of the informal economies that we discussed earlier since, for most of the non-West that is an issue of central importance. More than 60 percent of the world’s employed are today employed in the informal economies. As a matter of fact, is now no longer a matter of the non-Wesern ‘developing economies’ alone. According to Martha Chen, by the 1980s, informalization and the debate around it was expanding even in the first world, though for entirely negative reasons, namely the move to post-Fordist ‘flexible accumulation’.
‘By the 1980s, the terms of the informal sector debate expanded to include changes that were occurring in advanced capitalist economies. Increasingly, in both North America and Europe, production was being reorganized into small-scale, decentralized, and more flexible economic units. Mass production was giving way to “flexible specialization” or, in some contexts, reverting to sweatshop production (Piore and Sabel 1984). These changes were (and are still) associated with the informalization of employment relations. Standard jobs were being turned into non-standard or atypical jobs with hourly wages but few benefits, or into piece-rate jobs with no benefits; production of goods and services was being subcontracted to small-scale informal units and industrial outworkers. In the process, the informal economy had become a permanent, but subordinate and dependent, feature of capitalist development (Portes, Castells and Benton 1989).’
Elsewhere, I have discussed how the financial crisis of 2008 led to a large-scale debate among economists and policy-makers regarding the informal economy. In most of the third world, it seemed to be the place that provided employment to people who had lost jobs in the formal economy. The reappraisal is important because it had so long been seen as comprising enterprises that evaded taxes and generally remained ‘unaccountable’ but is now increasingly acknowledged as a segment of the economy that functions on a logic that is very different from that of what Kalyan Sanyal has called the ‘accumulation economy’. Sanyal in fact explicitly calls this informal economy a ‘need economy’ and charactrizes it as the domain of ‘non-capital’. The point to be underscored here is that the sub-optimal and subsistence level functioning of many of the units in the informal economies is often a consequence of the fact that it has to function against great odds. Contrast those odds with the massive support and protection that big corporate enterprises get from governments and it will become clear that if these units were to get similar policy support they could function at an altogether different level.
What happens to the big corporations in the scenario of post-capitalism we are envisaging? Certainly, they too will continue to exist alongside all the other forms but with one important difference. If decisions taken in corporate board rooms affect the lives of the community around either by polluting air or water, or are destructive of nature in any other way, then they must be subjected to severe periodic social auditing. Decsions like technological choices will also have to be included in such auditing.
Over and above these, there are important initiatives that have very concsiously tried to build alternatives – the idea of the solidarity economy for instance or the idea of commoning. Rather than explain what these are, let us hear from their proponents themselves – and bear in mind that these are now very significant initiatives involving reasonably large numbers of people. So here is Emily Kawano on the idea of the solidarity economy:
‘The solidarity economy is a global movement to build a just and sustainable economy. It is not a blueprint theorized by academics in ivory towers. Rather, it is an ecosystem of practices that already exist—some old, some new, some still emergent—that are aligned with solidarity economy values. There is already a huge foundation upon which to build. The solidarity economy seeks to make visible and connect these siloed practices in order to build an alternative economic system, broadly defined, for people and the planet…’
‘Over the past thirty-five years, solidarity economy practices have surged in response to the long-term crises of neoliberalism, globalization, and technological change. These trends have generated punishing levels of political and economic inequality and created long-term un- and under-employment, acute economic insecurity, and reductions in government social programs and protections. The wealthy elite are able to use their wealth and influence to skew political priorities toward corporate profits and away from social and environmental welfare…’
‘In this context, many people and communities have become tired of making demands on a deaf or under-funded government. Moved by a combination of desperation, need, practicality, and vision, people have turned their energy to building their own collective solutions to create jobs, food, housing, healthcare, services, loans, and money. These practices operate both inside and outside of the formal and paid economy.’
Such practices include a range of activities from workers’ cooperatives to community initiatives, credit unions, self-help economy, alternative local currencies and so on. ‘Commoning’, on the other hand, draws its inspiration from the old idea of the commons but insists on the practice of making things common. Here is David Bollier explaining the idea of commons and commoning:
‘I believe the commons—at once a paradigm, a discourse, an ethic, and a set of social practices—holds great promise in transcending this conundrum. More than a political philosophy or policy agenda, the commons is an active, living process. It is less a noun than a verb because it is primarily about the social practices of commoning—acts of mutual support, conflict, negotiation, communication and experimentation that are needed to create systems to manage shared resources. This process blends production (self provisioning), governance, culture, and personal interests into one integrated system…’
‘Commoners are focused on reclaiming their “common wealth,” in both the material and political sense. They want to roll back the pervasive privatization and marketization of their shared resources—from land and water to knowledge and urban spaces—and reassert greater participatory control over those resources and community life. They wish to make certain resources inalienable—protected from sale on the market and conserved for future generations. This project—to reverse market enclosures and reinvent the commons—seeks to achieve what state regulation has generally failed to achieve: effective social control of abusive, unsustainable market behavior…’
‘But rather than focus on conventional political venues, which tend to be structurally rigged against systemic change, commoners are more focused on creating their own alternative systems outside of the market and state. It is not as if they have abandoned conventional politics and regulation as vehicles for self-defense, or progressive change; it’s just that they recognize the inherent limits of electoral politics and policy-driven solutions, at a time when these channels are so corrupted.’
Every single one of the practices indicated here – including those like the social auditing of corporations – are indicative of the pathways to a future that is diverse and plural as well as more oriented to equity and fairness. Many of the activities that today exist outside the domains of the state and corporate controlled-market and may seem quite marginal can emerge as very significant players in that future, if the fate of the informal economies over the decades is any indication. The fact is, that is where a large majority of people made redundant by the coming technological changes, especially AI, will find their place – earning and living-in-common with others. This imagination of the future is fundamentally liberated from the ‘unemployment’ framework. It proceeds by making capital increasingly redundant.