ARTICLE n. 18 / 2021
By Paul Mason
The Future is over
How capitalism will end is really clear. It’s still cool, in the entry exams for elite universities, to claim that «capitalism is the greatest system ever invented». But even the most confident voices now betray a tremor when asked if capitalism must survive.
Because climate change has placed a ticking clock into all future scenarios. If we do not get carbon emissions to net zero across the planet – and well before the official target of 2050 – the environmental and social feedback loops will destroy what’s left of the world order.
Paradoxically, during the entire history of Marxism, anti-capitalism was a non time-specific proposal. From Edouard Bernstein to Vladimir Lenin, the original thinkers of both communism and social democracy shared the belief that they had time to spare.
The social democrats thought capitalism would grow over slowly into socialism, through the state-isation of industrial control and planning, through welfare systems, and through the slow self-education of the working class.
The revolutionaries believed, as Rosa Luxembourg wrote on the eve of her murder in 1919, that «revolution is the only form of war … in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats». Each defeat would wear away the illusions of the workers, diminish the middle ground between the workers and the bourgeois, and its lessons would be codified in meticulous after-action reports by the revolutionary cadres. Crisis would do the essential work of radicalisation and destruction, but its timing was beyond human control.
Climate change short-circuits the calculations of both the revolutionaries and reformists. The future of humanity revolves around the single question: can industrial capitalism – which has been for 250 years the ultimate «complex adaptive system» – adapt quickly enough to deliver a circular economy, stabilise the biosphere, and stop burning carbon?
I think it could – in theory. The state would need to take command of energy production, re-engineer housing and transport systems, indeed the entire geography of the modern city, and manage all industries based on individualised fossil fuel consumption – from the oil industry to the automobile industry – towards extinction.
The costs would be enormous. The 2008 crisis hiked global debt-to-GDP levels to 320% of GDP. The Covid crisis of 2021 has hiked them some more. But capitalism is already living in the oxygen tent of central bank money creation and unpayable debt – so it is conceivable that part of the policy elite might accept the need to hike debts, deficits, borrowing and spending even higher, in pursuit of the zero net carbon goal.
However, in practice it is not likely that capitalism saves the world. Because in every major country, policy has become captured by the short-term self-interest of existing capitalists: not just the oil and energy giants but the airlines, the plastic dumpers, the forest destroyers and the property developers – all of whose interests run counter to the rapid flattening of carbon output on this planet.
Unfortunately, in addition, the aging populations of the democratic world have grown to love carbon and the lifestyle of wasteful consumption: to date, in the states that matter, the elderly have mobilised against the interests of the planet and the people who will still be alive on it in 2050.
As social democracy shrivels, all that its leading intellectuals offer is the prospect of «decent jobs» or the «dignity of work» – without considering for a single moment the transition beyond compulsory work, and work-based lifestyles, that must happen if the planet’s climate is to be stabilised.
So the transition we must envisage is threefold: beyond carbon, beyond the market and beyond work.
To achieve zero net carbon the state must allocate and own resources. To transition beyond the market, the commons must be massively expanded. Leisure time must grow into the space created by the rapid automation of work.
If we can be honest about this vision, we will not find it alien to the radical tradition. I am not only talking about Charles Fourier and his phalansteries, or the brief flurry of freedom that took place during the Paris Commune. Even as late as the Belle Époque human culture was capable of encapsulating our dreams of a low-work, sustainable future – albeit only in the science fiction of socialists like Alexander Bogdanov and William Morris, or in the aestheticism of the Bloomsbury Group.
However, there is nothing belle about the époque we’re living through. The dangers are all too clear. Climate change, the economic dysfunction of neoliberalism, the breakdown of the rules based international order, and the emergence of massive power asymmetries between tech corporations and people: each has combined to create a «general crisis of capitalism», similar to the «general crisis of feudalism» which opened up in the late 14th century after the Black Death. The onset of Covid-19, the latest but not most devastating of the zoonotic viruses to cross from our devastated forests into our slum-ridden global cities, simply tells us that capitalism is reaching the limits of its compatibility with the earth’s biosphere.
So the next 20 years look like a funnel, through which all the geopolitical tensions will get channelled, speeding up the flow of the general crisis while creating turbulence and unpredictability within it.
We should expect classic moments of «overdetermination» – in which crises break out that are so clearly multicausal that the existing system has no solution. As I write, with Russian troops massing at the Ukrainian border, and closing off parts of the Black Sea, it is hard even now to say what Putin actually wants: is it water for Crimea from the River Dnieper, or to provide a sideshow while he kills Alexei Navalny, or simply to feel better as he completes his morning swim. Most future crises will feel like this – a mixture of climate, economics, nationalism and mercurial egotism.
No backward-looking ideology will survive a crisis on the scale I expect for the western world in the next 20 years: not liberalism, not social democracy, not the Leninist re-enactment industry, not even the new Green technocratic centrism that is filling the political void in northern Europe.
Because the political threat we face is new. An oligarchic conservatism has appeared which regards democracy as decorative, the central bank as a machine for driving asset values upwards, and the state as a conveyor belt of profits to the owners of now-privatised public services.
If you need convincing, look at Britain during the Covid-19 epidemic, where some $11 billion worth of contracts were given, without adequate competition, to companies aligned to Conservative ministers, many with no track record of providing the goods and services suddenly needed.
Like all elites, oligarchic conservatism needs a mob to support it, and what feeds that mob is the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and exultant lying that have become routine political practice for Britain’s Tories, Italy’s Lega and Fratelli, the US Republicans and the Spanish Partido Popular.
From Matteo Salvini with his Pivert-branded hoodie, to Trump with his blatant appeals to the Proud Boys, the oligarchic right is giving open signals to its violent racist base. For now, they operate in synergy. The oligarchs create a space for the fascists to operate within, the fascists stay away from political power, content to wield power through the YouTube algorithm and the anti-migrant riot.
The right wing populist parties were once touted as a firewall, to contain racist sentiments within respectable political formations, preventing the revival of fascism. But today the firewall is on fire.
In the future, if the oligarchs fail, the fascists stand ready to implement the ultimate nightmare of the 21st century: a climate-inspired global ethnic civil war. This project is the sole subject of the Tolkien-length books the elderly «new right» theorists churn out, from Carvalho to Faye to Dugin to Linkola.
In the face of these new threats, and the urgency of climate change, both liberalism and the left look lost. Each has become a form of nostalgia – for the Blair/Clinton/Schroder world or for the industrial struggles of the 1970s.
It seems lost on many progressive people that, as the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine insisted, historical time is an arrow: it moves forward, creating complexity out of simplicity, through irreversible processes.
The end of history delusion may have died on 9/11 – and should certainly be dead and buried after the Capitol Hill riots. But the most pernicious legacy of the neoliberal ideology is the technocratic delusion of reversibility: that if we create a problem there must be a bureaucratic or market solution that allows us to reverse out of it.
There is not. The only way to escape climate change is to move forward – with a radical and immediate upheaval in the way we live. The only way to escape the new great game of power politics between Russia, China, Europe and the USA is to spread revolutionary democracy to all states governed by oligarchic elites. The only way to end the stranglehold of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Alibaba is to break them up and start the Internet again, with intellectual property destroyed as a concept. There is no possibility of «reversing out» of these crises as one would a parking space.
The sociological material for such a revolutionary change is at hand. It is no longer simply the «proletariat» – though it exists in vast numbers across Asia and the global south. It is, as Brecht suggests in the final scene of his movie Kuhle Wampe, «those who don’t like the world as it is». The network has given us the means to communicate and a new model of organisation. Rising education and access to information have created the most educated generation in the history of the world.
The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, when he was still a Marxist, wrote that capitalism represses the human potential so fully that we never really know how close we are to a great advance. Yet in the mass movements – the revolts in Belarus, Myanmar, the Indian farmers movement, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo – we can feel how close we might be.
In the space of 50 years Western culture has exploded with the voices and dreams of women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people and those from the most marginalised working class. The communard Louise Michel dreamed that «the poetry of the unknown» would one day be heard: today it is heard loudly.
So we are closer than we think. The tasks can be enumerated briefly. Defeat the new fascism with an alliance of the centre and the left, as in France in 1936. Radically expand democracy. Commit all democratic countries to rapid decarbonization plans. Unleash the soft power of these renewed democracies towards the aim of democratising Russia, India and China.
What should be the name for such a project? Postcapitalism would be the one-word summary. A more explanatory term might be the one adopted by the exiled reformists of Germany after their defeat by Hitler in 1933: revolutionary social-democracy.