There is no alternative but the alternatives: replacing anti-capitalism by post-capitalism

Capitalist Realism itself, is basically the cultural condition in which, with Marx, we stare with clear eyes at “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (4) but yet…keep calm and carry on. We are not unmoved exactly; but yet still we do nothing. The details of why and how, and the ramifications in various domains, are the object of the book.

The following excerpt comes from a stimulating review of a book by Mark Fischer, “Capitalist Realism”, positively estimated by the author of the fascinating and stimulating Angel Economics blog, which is quite aligned to our thinking at the P2P Foundation.

Here he responds to one of the observations of the author:

Thesis by Mark Fischer:

“For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue”

Response by Angel Economics:

“To some degree this is true. However, a closer look would reveal that throughout this stratum, within numerous subgroups – each in their different ways – there are explorations taking place of ways of doing things which go beyond capitalism. Most do not explicitly or self-consciously see things in those terms of course – to provide that awareness of the wider context and meaning, is the role of a movement (see below). But still. Thriving knitting groups; shared amateur photography (with a high degree of editing skill and artistic vision); open-source software; filesharing (the engine for this comes from the young, and many take this source of acquiring data simply as axiomatic); all sorts of geeky DIY, from biotechnology, pharmacology, permaculture, health analysis and augmentation, robotics; binraiding (shops throw out great stuff); swapping and ‘freecycling’ consumer goods; etc etc. There is a homebrew industrial revolution, and the young are often on its leading edge.”

This discussion is followed up by another one, about the extraordinary power of capital to coopt resistance. It does this either by creating a split between thinking and acting, it doesn’t care what you think, as long as you don’t take action (for example it can rejoice in the anticapitalist Avatar bringing in $500m or more, as long as it is not associated with concrete action); or, by interpreting your resistance as a spectacular performance which it can capitalize on.

Citing Fisher:

Capitalism does not merely appropriate but actually sets about producing cultural artifacts with pre-packed anti-capitalism in them. Taking a recent example, Fisher notes that “[a] film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity”

This leads AE to call for a more explicit anticapitalism as an answer against cooptation:

“All it would take for artistic works to become un-commodifiable in a stronger sense, would be the existence of a genuine anticapitalist political movement to which they could attach themselves. If there were such a movement which threatened capital, and it was generally known that some work expressed its aspirations, you can be sure it would become indigestible by MTV, the Wellcome Trust, or any other 400ft disembodied capitalist throat.

Putting this in other words: insofar as anti-capitalism is merely expressed or performed or displayed, it is not, truly, anti-capitalism.”

He concludes that:

“A proper political movement needs to be constituted with the basic aim of fundamentally restructuring socioeconomic relations.” (and even mentions current plans to create a ‘fifth international’)

And yet he must concede (as does this other blog author):

“The hard Left is peculiar at the moment. Popular discontent with the social status quo runs extremely deep and wide, and, in fact, is even often very clear about the identity or cause of its problems, viz. capitalism. And yet the hard Left virtually never seems able to tap into this.”

I would suggest that this condition is terminal, because the left as we understand it, is a movement of resistance against, but also co-evolving with industrial capitalism. While it can be proud of having achieved a redistributive welfare state (only partially dismantled under neoliberalism), it has a very long and consistent record of failure as anti-capitalist movement.

I would suggest the analogy with marriage, in order to explain the different feeling-tone of the P2P Foundation’s attempt to create a new type of peer to peer social movement, that is substantially different from the approach of the traditional left.

Think about a forced marriage, which nevertheless was acceptable because both partners benefitted (capital and labour). The relationship is fundamentally contradictory and conflictual, but fighting occurs only as long as the partners see a future in the relationship. As long as you fight against, but within the framework posed by capital as the dominant system, it actually means you are still attached to it. This is for me what anticapitalism signifies, beyond the radical but powerless demands to mouth a total opposition to the system of capital (in this, the radical left ressembles the catholic church and its demand to accept the credo first and above all). It is not only rather powerless and has a record of failure, but actually signifies a taking serious of capital as the central issue of life. Paradoxically, it feeds the beast that it wants to bring down.

Post-capitalism though is different. It is already profoundly convinced that the system of capital is dying, because it knows that an infinite growth machine is a logical and physical impossibility in a finite worth that is now seriously subject to biospheric destruction. But it also knows that empty radical stances are powerless. And it knows from the record of history, that whenever new hyperproductive alternatives of value production occured, as it now does with peer production, governance and property, they were at first used by the previously dominant but dying core system, before replacing it. So, we essentially do not worry that forces of capital use open, participative, and commons oriented modalities to strengthen themselves, because by doing so they actually strengthen the post-capitalist alternatives. What matters most is not the fear of cooptation, but rather the protection of the autonomy of the post-capitalist peer to peer logics that we apply amongst ourselves as peer producers. If we live this core relationship in the core of the value production modality, and the market players use the commons to create added value for the market, this is acceptable to us to the degree that the core functioning remains possible. Only when market players use their dominance to subvert the core logic, say by creating ‘fake distorted commons’ (as explained by Massimo de Angelis), do we worry and fight back.

Therefore as post-capitalists, we know that we have to build and construct alternatives, but the core of our consciousness is not directed against a powerful enemy (because we know the Emperor is already naked), but rather to insure the conditions for the survival and thriving of the human race, in the period of terminal transition. We also know that demanding acceptance of a credo, is counterproductive and isolating, though we do have social charters, that state clearly the minimal demands for operating in a commons. We just ask that you behave in that equipotential way, not that you sign up to a anticapitalist credo. Rather we work with everyone which agrees in the positivity of the alternative, and do not care that they may say they support capitalism, as this can means so many different things to so many different people. In fact, since we are able to divorce the market from capitalism, we know that many market players are natural allies, as they themselves already subverting the core logic of accumulation of capital. Fair trade, socially responsible investments, social enterpreneurs and the like, are already subsuming the forms of capital, to logics which are no longer about accumulation but about the production of social goods. These enterpreneurs are not the enemies of peer producing communities, but allies. They are groping towards the chaotic attractor that is the peer to peer logic of partnership in the creation of value. As peer producing communities we must choose to preferentially treat with those market forces that respect our autonomy, and have formats that are maximally aligned with our own ethos, but we accept all those that respect our autonomy and core functioning as a commons. This in my view can create a much wider alliance of social forces, than a mere anti-capitalist alliance, which is in the current configuration, usually a marginal affair of true believers.

The importance is to maximize those type of social relations, in my view ‘peer to peer’, which go beyond the greed and mere exchange of the capitalist marketplace, and make us live today, the social logic which we want to become the core of the new society and civilization of tomorrow. Post-capitalism means living our values today, and creating the institutions to strengthen and defend it, without waiting for capitalism to die. As previous systems which had become parasitic, and were faced with a more socially productive alternative, invariably did. This does emphatically not mean a passeist or non-political attitude, just a more judicious management of our transformative energies. The wounded beast has outlived its usefullness, let’s move on.

To conclude, another challenge to the traditional left strategy, by John Robb:

It’s

dated nostalgia for populist movements and progressive government reform — that legacy thinking is utterly useless, as a strategy for success, given the rise of a dominant and sovereign global system that doesn’t have any governing body to appeal to

What do you think?

2 Comments There is no alternative but the alternatives: replacing anti-capitalism by post-capitalism

  1. TheMediumDog

    Regarding this thesis, on post-capitalism as distinguished from the Left, and the more general comments – a few points:

    1. Partly, we’re just dealing here with definitions. Personally, I would define the Left as that political position and constituency whose highest value is social justice. (The Right’s would be freedom, I suppose). As such it obviously always remains around, just waxes or wanes empirically. But even on that empirical ground, it seems to me that with your ‘marriage’ analogy you are DEFINING the trad. Left as (to get out the old terms) reformists. But that’s only ONE strand, even in the labour movement.

    2. I would caution against being convinced that capital is dying. I see no logical nor physical impossibility in the perpetuation of the basic relations of capitalism. The state of the biosphere is no limit – it can be incorporated, via geoengineering. And I am not at all sure that, even in the most radical visions of techno-futurism (except where we become a single Borg-like organism, which defines the problem away), power-differentials exploited economically (what capitalism basically is) will simply dissolve.

    3. For all the imagination and exciting work that is occurring, under the broad heading of P2P/post-capitalism, my sense is that we are still talking about a relatively minor portion of the economy. The trend may be upward; we may be talking about structually important sectors where there are P2P relations. But it is seriously misleading to over-emphasise this, or to see it pointing inevitably toward the future.

    As soon as you countenance other trajectories, a unified political movement in a stronger sense starts to seem more important.

    I propose a challenge to the P2P foundation: To display, unambiguously, with statistics to back it up, the portion of world GDP (or, you can choose different measures if you think GDP misses what is important) currently under P2P relations; and to ground firmly projections into, say, the next 5 years.

    4. I STRONGLY disagree (though I know I’m in a minority here) that market relations are compatible with P2P/a ‘commons’ structure. And equally, I think divorcing the market from capitalism is not coherent (I will argue this with all comers). That doesn’t imply that private firms producing, say, a Reprap can’t be part of the wider movement. But we must be lucid and clear – fuzziness is the precondition of cooptation.

  2. Michel Bauwens

    Interesting points.

    I agree with some of your points, but not all. So here my reactions:

    1) I agree with your understanding of left-right dynamics, though only a portion of the right is for freedom, the other is actually for authority. I’m not against the left, I consider myself squarely on the left, but the P2P Foundation itself is pluralist, i.e. seeks to work with all who agree pragmatically with the construction of concrete p2p projects and world-building as a focus. Concerning the left, I like a left which is thoroughly cognizant and self-reflexive of its historical relationship with the industrial system and era.

    My marriage analogy does not imply reformism, on the contrary, I’m saying that even when the focus is total resistance, it is still focused on the ‘enemy’ and paradoxically feeds his existence. So I would insist that resistance (unavoidable when you’re under constant attack) is always coupled with alternative-world-construction and already living the maximum amount of relations and ethos and value production of the world we want and see possible.

    2. Regarding capitalism as dying. I agree this is contentious. My conviction is, almost per definition, that an infinite growth system is logically and physically impossible, and that, if no p2p emerges, other oppressive systems will emerge. See what happened after WW I, and the death of that hyper-liberal wave, you had fascism, communism, and profound state control in the other countries. Pure capitalism was nearly dead and no social forces really believed in its survival. Now, some people believe that green capitalism can integrate externalities, but I think it suffers from huge contradictions that are only a temporary solution. I could be run. But geo-engineering I do not regard in any way as practical in any real sense. It’s a pipe dream, and I can’t imagine that humanity will tolerate such grand risks.

    3. Regarding the proper place of p2p. Nothing in our literature would suggest that p2p is nothing but emergent. We are in the situation of Marx who witnessed a few thousand workers in Manchester, yet had the intuition that this was the new logic of society. In other words, there are empirical signs that the very DNA of our economy and politics is changing, in the direction of p2p. This is observable and the 10,000 wiki pages and 30,000 tags are empirical confirmation. The question is therefore indeed whether is it just a subsystem, easily integrated in capitalism, as most analysts think, such as Benkler and Lessig say, or whether the post-capitalist logic inherent in the p2p dynamic, will go from seed form to parity to dominance. The latter evolution is the ‘bet’ of the P2P Foundation, but of course, we can’t prove that future, and I fully accept a different scenario, i.e. a different post-capitalist scenario that is oppressive and possible worse than capitalism. However, my insistence of p2p ‘transcendence’ in no way obviates the need for political action and for a unified political movement. If you read our statement of principles, this is one of the key goals, a unifying of social forces that support more equality and justice, and hence, an interconnection of the free culture movements, worker and farmers movements, and “socialized enterpreneurs” that help sustain our commons.

    Now if you have the funds for me, we nevertheless gladly produce such a statistical study, and we have collected a sizeable number of statistics and metrics confirming p2p growth. Barring funding, you could go through the appropriate tagged material on the topic.

    4. If you disagree that market relations can co-exist with p2p and a commons structure, you would be forced to deny that the free software and open hardware models exist, since currently, they can’t exist without those market relations, no alternative value system is able to sustain them at present. No Linux, no Arduino, with their market ecologies. Perhaps Wikipedia, but it is patronage driven and therefore also indirectly relies on the market structure. However, imagining a commons that does NOT rely on such market ecology is theoretically possible, is possible, and it is my expectation that in a political economy where p2p has effectively become the dominant core, it will evolve in that direction. For now, FS/OH projects are not long term sustainable, and they have nearly all chosen for the combination of commons/community, FLOSS/OH Foundation governance, and enterpreneurial coalitions linked to the market. We could work as open communities to create coalitions adopting formats, such as coops, that are much more inline with p2p values, and this is one of the priority planks at the P2P Foundation. However, signs of such evolution are extremely weak still.

    Michel

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