Post-capitalism: what will it look like?
The term ‘post-capitalism’ has come much to the fore in recent years. It is used, generally by left-wing critics of capitalism, to mean the social arrangements they would like to see replace the current global system of society in which a small minority of people own and control the large majority of the wealth and resources. This has been widely referred to as the ‘top 1 percent society’, meaning that 1 percent of the population own 99 percent of the wealth. Though this figure may be something of an exaggeration, not many would dispute that capitalism, now dominant throughout the world, is a system of massive inequality. Among the justifications offered for this by its supporters is that those who benefit overwhelmingly deserve to do so because they possess and apply such valuable skills as judgement, forethought and entrepreneurial ability. It is portrayed as providing the incentive and the drive for people to constantly improve their conditions and those of the whole of society. The system’s critics, on the other hand, point to the ingenuity and cooperative ability of the human species as a whole as well as the existence of technology beyond the wildest dreams of earlier societies, to argue that modern society could produce an abundance of goods and services to provide everyone on earth with a secure, comfortable existence if only it were organised on the basis of the satisfaction of needs rather than the maximisation of profit. However, what these critics differ on is how such a society is to be brought about and, an obviously connected matter, the details of how it should be run.
Precisely this problem is the focus of a new book entitled Beyond Money. A Post-Capitalist Strategy (Pluto Press, 2022, xviii+205pp) by Anitra Nelson, a writer and activist in Australia. Nelson may be known to readers of the Socialist Standard for the 2011 book she co-edited, Life Without Money, in which socialism is referred to as ‘a money-less, market-less, wage-less, class-less and state-less society that also aims to satisfy everyone’s basic needs while power and resources are shared in just and “equal” ways’. In this new book, she reiterates and amplifies this concept characterising money as ‘the driver of political power, environmental destruction and social inequality’ and arguing that it has to be ‘abolished rather than repurposed to achieve a post-capitalist future’. It is in this understanding, that post-capitalism must mean the end of money or it is not post-capitalism at all, that Nelson goes beyond those left-wing critics of capitalism who argue that the system can be run in a somehow more ‘benign’ way with money being retained. As John Holloway puts it in his introduction to this book, ‘modified forms of money and markets are included or inferred in practically all visions of post-capitalism’. Nelson is intensely and coherently critical of all such visions with their recipes for ‘post-capitalism with money’. Here she is referring to such schemes as guaranteed minimum income, universal basic income, local community-based currencies, forms of alternative monies or labour exchange systems such as LETS, all of which she rejects as ‘hardwired to capitalist imaginaries and practices of markets and trading’ … ‘Reformers still imagine that they can alter capitalism in various ways to enable us to meet the challenges of socio-economic inequalities’, she states, insisting that ‘unless post-capitalism is money-free, we will fail to establish a world beyond capitalism’.
In this compellingly written book, she sums up what she calls ‘late stage capitalism’ in the following highly recognisable terms: ‘We witness flagrant overconsumption, massive waste and obesity alongside food shortages, starvation, famine and absolute poverty both within and between nations’, with the vast majority ’who cannot enjoy the full benefits of their everyday work and have little say in how they live or work’. And she sees all attempts, no matter how well meaning, to ‘mould money to progressive ends’ as bound to fail. We simply cannot, as she puts it, ‘tweak the system to overcome its weaknesses’. The words she quotes from the writer Eduardo Galeano sum this up well: ‘Capitalism is sold as freedom but experienced as control’. In two powerful early chapters on ‘Capital and Crises’ and ‘Money: the Universal Equivalent’, minutely researched as all areas of this book, she points up capitalism’s inability to respond to the planetary environmental crisis which it has created, providing jaw-dropping figures on, for example, the rate of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. She dismisses ‘green’ solutions to all this, even those current among people who called themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘anarchists’, since they invariably involve ‘finance, trading and production for the market’, part of what she ironically terms ‘this market-based wonderland’. None of this, she argues, can be proof against the systemic crises which capitalism with its tendency to overproduction for the market (though not for real needs) is irreparably prey to. The core problem, she insists, lies in the very practice of trade involving exchange of goods and services via a so-called ‘universal equivalent’, in most cases money, but even characteristics of other forms of exchange, such as barter and ‘other monies’. Her conclusion here is that ‘we can neither address inequalities and unsustainability nor establish post-capitalism without moving beyond money’. And she sees post-capitalism in these terms as ‘already emerging in enclaves and practice’ both locally and globally among ’numerous distinctive social and environmental activists’ and movements. For this kind of activity she coins the concept ‘real valuism’, to distinguish it from activity based on the kind of value that is fundamental to capitalism, ie, exchange value practised through trade.
It is in her chapter ‘System Change not Climate Change’ that she systematically tackles what she calls ‘inappropriate approaches’ to solving the ecological problems caused by capitalist production. She makes short work of ‘green innovations’ and ‘green technologies’ that continue to ‘focus on trade, markets and money’ using such tactics as trying to ‘price the environment’ and ‘integrate costs of externalities’. So she dismisses as futile such policies as carbon trading, carbon offsets and water trading and explains in meaningful detail why, in a profit-based, or even just money-based, society, they cannot have significant impact. She tackles even apparently radical critics of capitalism for their lack of imagination in wanting to maintain money in some form, for example with alternative currencies or ecological footprint accounting. She sees money as ‘social not natural’, but also recognises that monetary practices are so ingrained that even some of the most radical thought finds it difficult to dispense with ‘economic contortions and statist dead ends’. A case in point is Extinction Rebellion, one of whose newsletters she quotes as stating ‘Money is an ingenious technology that allows for social energy to operate across space and time’. Other targets are ecological economist Joe Ameni for his description of money as ‘a foundation of human civilization’ and Alf Hornborg, the human ecology anthropologist well known in environmental justice movements, who talks about redesigning money on the basis that he ‘cannot believe that it would be feasible to completely abolish money and markets in human societies’. ‘Hornborg’s “post-capitalism”’, she goes on, ‘retains wage labour, entrepreneurs, taxes, trade, production for trade and banking’. Others who are able to see beyond the limits of monetary arrangements are regarded more favourably. Examples of this are of course Marx, but also mid 20th century Austrian economist Otto Neurath and, in the present day, philosopher John O’Neill with his book Life Beyond Capital, eco-feminist Friederike Habermann for her chapter in the 2017 book Society After Money, and Adam Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, contributor to Life Without Money (2011) and long-standing contributor to this journal.
The role of technology is also an important element in Nelson’s analysis. In her chapter entitled ‘Technology and the Real Debt Cycle’, which includes an illuminating section on ‘Marx on capitalist technology’, she brings out vividly the way in which the progress inherent in new technologies and new inventions is perverted by the use they are put to by the profit system. So rather than use technology for ecologically and socially beneficial ends, ‘the bottom line of capitalists’ decision making over what is produced is profitability’ and not efficient operation, despite capitalism’s frequent claims to efficiency. The solution proposed to capitalism’s inefficiency and inequity in its use of technology is non-monetary production using the collaborative capacities inherent in the human animal to allow collective decision-making on which technologies should be developed and used and how. And, above all, such decisions should be based on ‘the common good, all the while being restrained by the implications and ramifications for the Earth’.
Genuinely democratic decision-making on the appropriate use of technology and on all aspects of social life, whether at a local or wider level, is fundamental to this book’s vision and encapsulated by the author’s use of the word ‘commoning’, a concept which occupies a central chapter of her book. She demands ‘end game clarity’ and insists that this can only mean dispensing with private property, with the ‘world of things and beings’ being held in common. Nor does she refrain from putting flesh on the bone by explaining ‘commoning’ as a world society consisting of ‘ecotats’, ecologically balanced human communities, whose members fulfil all their own basic needs creating what is needed and necessary on demand and entering into agreements with other communities when necessary through temporary or ongoing ‘compacts’ whereby goods and services are shared and exchanged (even though non-monetarily). She provides significant detail on how she envisages such arrangements and networks would operate and in so doing gives profound food for thought about human nature, children’s education, the ability of humans to cooperate and the interest they have in doing so. The mature development of such a moneyless, cooperative system she terms ‘glocal integration’, giving it the overall title of ‘Yenomon’ (anagram of No Money). It is also a world in which ‘we make a concerted effort to meld the sustenance of our human selves with the regeneration of non-human nature’.
In a later chapter, ‘Indigenous Peoples, Real Values and the Community Mode of Production’, she goes on to give examples of small-scale attempts at establishing the kind of social set-up she would like to see established on a world scale and in so doing exhibits the kind of impressive in-depth knowledge and research which inform all aspects of this book. Her description and analysis of pre-colonial Australian aboriginal societies illustrates ‘their diverse, subtle and ecologically appropriate forms of collective provisioning … testimony to culturally attuned and sophisticated inhabitation of their lands and waters’. Equally insightful are her portrayals of the ‘horizontal’ social and economic organisation of the Zapatistas in 20th century Mexico, of the cooperative economy of the Kurdish Rojavan communities in very recent times, as well as of short-lived attempts at the abolition of money and trade and ‘free consumption’ in certain Republican communities during the Spanish Civil War. She adds to this what she calls the ‘living embryonic version’ of commoning to be found in the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, described as co-governing and self-organising and ‘based on commons principles and values supporting non-violent, just, collaborative, cooperative and sharing practices that respect earth and people’. All these attempts at non-monetary life are seen as characterised by ‘grassroots substantive democracy’ and as showing the way to ‘a decentralised community mode of production’ where people ‘co-design, co-plan and co-produce’ what is then made freely available on the basis of need, which the author sees as characterising a future post-capitalist and non-market world. She sums this up as ‘targeting the direct needs of people without the unnecessary, indeed confusing, contorting and destabilising, mediation of money.’
So Nelson makes a clear and refreshing distinction between these attempts at horizontal, decentralised and egalitarian communities and the actions of the left-wing social and environmental reformers who focus on activities like fair trade, social entrepreneurship and alternative ways to manage money. She sees the latter as ‘naïve experimentation and wasted energy’, the former as ‘really appropriate approaches’, exhibiting and exemplifying ‘community-based empowerment and self-organisation and social and environmental responsibility.
Acts of self-organisation or the ballot box?
While all this represents a refreshing antidote to the ‘post-capitalism with money’ camp, what is less persuasive is the author’s strategy for achieving on a large scale the kind of social arrangements she describes as existing in various places in a small way. Her advocacy of groups and movements that offer examples of democratic cooperation and sharing of resources and goods produced without the intermediary of money, which she wants to see ‘made more highly visible and replicated’ can only be commended. She considers that ‘acts of non-monetary production and exchange have the potential to disable and dismantle capitalist forces’, but it is hard to see how of itself this can be effective. Above all it seems to eschew the kind of democratic political action via the ballot box that we see as the most fertile route to the establishment of a democratic, moneyless, marketless society once the necessary spreading of consciousness of the need for that has been achieved. Without this instrument (ie, the ballot box), it is difficult to see how a socially conscious working class can take the power necessary to abolish capitalism and set about organising a genuine socialist society. Yet, positively the author does mention the SPGB and seems to identify her aims with ours (ie, ‘socialism will, and must, be a wageless, moneyless, worldwide society of common (not state) ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution’). With one possible difference, however – that, in the ‘small communities’ system she advocates, she appears to contemplate the idea of some form of (non-monetary) exchange between communities. But, despite these differences in ‘strategy’, there can be no doubt about the importance and value of this book, putting centre-stage as it does ideas and discussions about how to dispense with capitalism and establish a new society based on collective production for direct use.