Dustbin of history?

Posted: 2 August 2017 in Uncategorized
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capitalism-is-over_

Back in April, Raumplan and Cascina Cuccagna organized an exhibit for Milan Design Week titled “Capitalism is Over.” The basic argument was that, while capitalism may have worked in the first few decades of the postwar period, during the “Golden Age” of capitalism—when “the demand for products and everyday objects rose to never before attained summits”—since the late 1970s, growth has slowed down and “following the neoliberal theories, governments promoted policies that fostered the expansion of financial profits and lower wages.” Their example was Olivetti:

The historical Olivetti attitude to resilience and innovation suffered a fairly marked setback during the crises of the Seventies, which reduced investments in the production sector and initiated the financialized economy that today is reaching its full development. The growth of profits corresponded to a loss of identity and of the centrality of production’s contents, that became increasingly interchangeable. Although since the Eighties Olivetti’s revenues and number of employees has steadily increased, it is also clear that the progressive dematerialisation of its core business doomed the company. Olivetti gradually lost its productive and innovative bent and became essentially a financial investment vehicle.

Martin Kirk makes much the same argument in a recent Guardian column, supplemented by the idea that people—especially young people—have lost faith in capitalism.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they want to travel back in time and live in the USSR. For millennials especially, the binaries of capitalism v socialism, or capitalism v communism, are hollow and old-fashioned. Far more likely is that people are realizing – either consciously or at some gut level – that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has as its single goal turning natural and human resources into capital, and do so more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment.

Because that is what capitalism is all about; that’s the sum total of the plan. We can see it embodied in the imperative to increase GDP, everywhere, at an exponential rate, even though we know that GDP, on its own, does not reduce poverty or make people happier and healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time inequality, poverty and hunger have also risen.

As I have argued before (e.g., herehere, and here) capitalism has a real growth problem. The premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has many people looking beyond capitalism.

To be clear, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we would all be better off with less or no growth. That’s certainly true for our natural environment, in terms of issues such as global warming, pollution, and so on. Fewer resources would be extracted; less energy would be needed, thus lowering the level of greenhouse gasses; and, in general, less environmental damage might be caused by our economic activities.

My argument, however, is about the predominant economic system in the world today. It is capitalism that has a slow-growth problem. And that’s because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.

It is a premise in the sense that capitalists—the capitalist class as a whole, not necessarily individual capitalists in one enterprise or another—can collect and utilize for their own purposes more surplus-value when capitalism is growing—when productivity is high, when more commodities are being produced, when the economy as a whole is growing. There’s more surplus available, even if workers’ wages are rising, and each member of the capitalist class can get their aliquot share of that growing surplus.

So, growth is a problem both for capitalism—since, in its absence, it makes it difficult to extract more surplus—and for us—since, in the drive to create more growth, we are forced to suffer through more inequality, poverty, and destruction of the social and natural environment.

It’s time then, yes, to accept the idea that capitalism deserves to be placed in the dustbin of history—and, at the same time, to begin the process of imagining and creating an alternative set of economic and social institutions.

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