Three Scenarios for the Future of Capitalism

We currently see many articles about the the evils of capitalism, the end of capitalism and possible post-capitalism futures. I was invited to talk at the One Planet Anti-Conference a couple of weeks ago on the topic ‘whether or not capitalism can be transformed to “realize” that the earth is capital’. I wasn’t well, so couldn’t do the talk, but thought I’d write down my thoughts here anyway.

As a futurist I often think in scenarios, so with this question in mind, I tried to explore three of these.

1.  Capitalism will eat itself

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This is a scenario which probably has been best described by Jeremy Rifkin. Capitalism will eat itself and self-destruct as exponential technology pushes marginal cost towards zero. Rifkin says:

No one in their wildest imagination, including economists and business people, ever imagined the possibility of a technology revolution so extreme in its productivity that it could actually reduce marginal costs to near zero, making products nearly free, abundant and absolutely no longer subject to market forces.

As we know, capitalists are some of the most excited cheerleaders of exponential technology, and if Rifkin is right this will lead to self-destruction of capitalism.

2. Capitalism will be replaced by something better

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This scenario is popular in leftist and progressive press, which has long anticipated and pushed for a new system beyond capitalism. Most of them have now realised that Marxism is inflexible and won’t work, but that there are other possible futures. Some look at hybrids such as conscious or responsible capitalism (see my thoughts on those here), which still keep elements of capitalism, and some look at completely new post-capitalist systems. The most interesting of the latter is the peer-to-peer movement, which is working on a so-called commons transition, with “policy proposals and ideas to implement a Social Knowledge Economy:

“…an ethical economy, a non-capitalist marketplace that re-introduces reciprocity and co-operation in the market’s functioning, while co-creating commons and creating livelihoods for the commoners. This type of economy and market in which co-operation, mutuality, and the common good define the characteristics of a new kind of political economy, point the way to a new state form, which we have called the Partner State.”

This economic system is already found in some clusters around the world. In Greece, Spain, some American cities etc. where collapsing economies have spurred local peer economies, community exchanges and complementary currencies. The open-source software and DIY hardware movements have always had a peer-to-peer philosophy. And the internet has enabled new global links between these clusters, which now begin to form networked neo-tribes (intentional communities, hacker & art collectives, coworking spaces, grass-roots movements, eco villages, entrepreneurial hubs, etc).

These post-capitalist clusters of people with local-centric AND global-centric values might with cryptocurrencies and local exchange mechanisms, create true peer-to-peer economies, which are more relevant than capitalism in our modern networked societies.

3. Capitalism will be around forever

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We often forget that economic systems are fluid, organic and not fixed in time. No one decides that we suddenly shall have a new dominant global economic system. Sure, they do in China and other totalitarian places, but most systems have historically emerged as various factors have allowed this in a few clusters. And then found relevant in other regions so have migrated there.

I’m not that well-read on the history of capitalism but according to Wikipedia, “Early Islam promulgated capitalist economic policies, which migrated to Europe through trade partners from cities such as Venice.” Industrial capitalism then emerged in England with the industrial revolution, and later global capitalism became the dominant global system, as various countries adopted the gold standard and started trading in the globalized world.

But in most of the world, other economic systems still prevailed. In fact, earlier systems such as slavery and feudalism are still used in many places in the world. Once, systems and practices that were accepted for us in the developed world are now seen as despicable. Values and wordviews shape our economic systems. And vice versa.

So in the same way that bartering, slavery and feudalism are still used in the world (there are between 12 and 30 million slaves working away in the world as I write this), capitalism will likely also be around for a long time.

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What interests me with these three scenarios is that they all pretty likely will happen. They are not mutually exclusive of one another, and we can choose to step into any of them as individuals, organisations or societies.

So how would you approach these scenarios?

How would you act if these stories of the future would become true?

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Some of my issues…

ice

This image came up on Facebook yesterday, with the heading: We can now only watch as West Antarctica’s ice sheets collapse, and a link to an article written by a researcher at  ANU College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at Australian National University.

And we all reacted in different ways;

“Oh my God! This is terrible!!! But I better keep calm and carry on. We will solve this together”

“Shut the fuck up! Who’s this ANU researcher? Who funded him?”

“Here we go again… Another article about climate change and melting ice… Booooring!!!!

etc etc…

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Around five, six years ago, these articles had a profound effect on me. I started to really grasp that it was up to all of us (including me) to change ourselves if we were to avoid serious consequences of climate change. And by change I don’t mean starting to recycle or drive or fly less. No, I realised that we needed to change big-time. Change the games we play.

So I decided sometime back then that I couldn’t play the game any more. The game called “Work hard in the current paradigm and all will be fine” or something along those lines. Sometimes, since then, I have tried to re-enter that game, but haven’t been allowed in. I’m not welcome to play and have finally accepted this. I am doomed to observe from the outside. Or build a new game…

Back then, I came across this Buckminster Fuller quote:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

And like most of the people who inspire me and who I play with now, I took that quote to heart. We need new models. But we don’t know what these are. We have to build them without plans, goals and instructions. There are some hints of course, but we have to stay with uncertainty and trust emergence. We have to move together, slowly and blind-folded, towards what feels right, rather than what we think is right, in these postnormal times.

Futurist and writer Zia Sardar defines postnormal times as:

“All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterized by three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions.”

We won’t know what these new models that Buckminster Fuller talked about look like. But we start to understand what things no longer work. And these are no longer small things. These are huge, deeply ingrained and trusted models in our societies. Models that have worked until now. Models that have pulled billions of people out of poverty. Models that have increased our life spans with many decades. Models that have given us comfort and wealth. But now they are obsolete. And we have to listen to Buckminster Fuller. We have to stop fighting them or try fixing them. We have to let go of them and start to build new models.

Here are some of the current models which bother me and I think are obsolete:

1. Democracy

2. Hard Work

3. Cars

4. Settling

5. Heroic entrepreneurship (a.k.a. dickhead entrepreneurship)

Over the next couple of weeks I will post on each of these – my issues. Perhaps this will allow me to let go of them slightly. They bother me a lot, but if I write down my thoughts on them I hope I’ll feel lighter.

I believe that we’ll have to replace these five with “something else” if we are to avoid catastrophic global collapse. And the good thing is that many people have worked on this for a while now 🙂