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

serpent-eating-tail

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

types-of-innovation-s-curves

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?

Four Scenarios for Humanity Based on Rolling Stones Guitarist Keith Richards’ Life

Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones is known as a rock’n’roll survivor. Unlike mythologized stars like Janis, Jimi, Jim, Kurt and Amy, who all died young, Keith is still with us. And not only that: He’s had an amazingly eventful and crazy life with several near-death experiences. Over the years, sensationalist music journalists, fans and other close observers have speculated on his self-destruction many times, but surprisingly Keith is still with us. With us on the global stages, touring the world with an old Fender Telecaster and a cheeky grin on his lips.

Sometimes I think of our planet as being a bit like Keith. A survivor that has been through remarkable things: Ice ages, supervolcano eruptions, asteroid impacts and so on. And now it seems like good old Earth is up for another big challenge: The Anthropocene – this era where the clever, fast, ruthless organisms called humans geo-engineer and hack their way into the planet.

So what are some plausible scenarios for us humans on this planet? Well, here are four of them based on some of the eras in the Keith Richards’ life:

 

1. Mischievous Lad

Keith 1965 (CC BY-SA 2.0 – Kevin Delaney)

The Rolling Stones formed in London in 1962. In the swinging 60s London, there was a naive belief that rhythm & blues and rock & roll could change the world. And it actually did. Keith and his merry band of musicians built on the old American rhythm and blues tradition, and turned it into something of their own. Together with other young mischievous lads like The Beatles and The Who they took the world by storm and global domination ensued.

But long West End nights at places like The Marquee Club were often followed by early morning flights to gigs in other countries. This lifestyle required stimulation beyond natural and legal highs. Amphetamines and other drugs were needed to keep playing and partying.

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In the Mischievous Lad future we’ll all keep on playing the game. We’ll keep on churning out hit songs, like there is no tomorrow. We’ll go on never-ending global tours because the show must go on. Just as Keith and his fellow 60s musician friends were fuelled by “uppers”, the planetary citizens in this future will be fuelled by various drugs and medications to keep us going.

 

2. Elegantly Wasted

Keith 1972 (CC BY-SA 2.0 Dina Regine)

In the late 60s and early 70s Keith Richards turned into an enigmatic, globetrotting counter-culture hero. Like other elegantly wasted aristocrats, successful artists and rich debauched heirs, The Rolling Stones set up camp on the French Riviera for the summer. In 1971, Keith reigned like a king in the Stones’ rented villa at Villefranche-sûr-Mer outside of Nice. Here, surrounded by his friends, he waterskied and entertained princes, writers and mannequins by day, drank bourbon and recorded incredible music by night. He could do whatever he wanted to do. However, the British tax authorities, various drug dealers, former girlfriends and others were on his back.

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In the Elegantly Wasted future we will have lots of fun, since we will do what we like to do. We won’t have any money or material wealth but we will have lots of friends. The space we inhabit will look very different, where most things are derelict and overgrown with plants and scattered with strange technological gadgets. Essential societal institutions like hospitals and fire departments will still function. Many of us will die on the way to this future but those who survive will thrive.

3. Heroin Casualty

Keith 1982 (CC BY-SA 3.0, Gorupdebesanez)

The elegantly wasted Keith sunk deeper down during the 70s, and in the 80s many counted him out as his severe heroin habit got in the way of his creativity and life. He was rumoured to have replaced all his blood at a special clinic in Switzerland because it was so toxic and could kill him from within (!) He was emaciated, dark and gloomy – a ghostly shell of his former gloriously, elegantly wasted self. The cheeky grin was gone.

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Too much excess, wild weather and apocalyptic events make way for the Heroin Casualty future – a scenario, which feels like sleeping on a damp mattress in a dark and gloomy basement. The Heroin Casualty future is a bit like those dystopian zombie futures we’ve seen in the movies, but where the narrator has a constant flu with accompanying phlegmy cough. Our vital infrastructures have collapsed. All is dark and the streets are full of lethal threats and diseases. The global society in the Heroin Casualty scenario is all but resilient, as all systems are out and only the faintest of reserves remain. A virus outbreak could end all life.

 

4. Captain Jack Sparrow’s Dad

Keith 2008 (CC BY 3.0, Siebbi)

 

Keith survived the cold, lethal period. And from the 90s and onwards he’s taken on a crazy, colourful and unpredictable character: The role as Captain Jack Sparrow’s dad in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Johnny Depp, who plays the charismatic captain, is friends with Keith, and when asked if he wanted to star in the sequels, Richards said yes. He had always considered himself a pirate, so why not?

Captain Jack Sparrow’s dad was once the most feared pirate in the world, so is highly respected and feared by all the pirates in the Brethren Court. He was once the Pirate Lord of Madagascar but later resigned to become the Keeper of the Pirate Code, the Pirata Codex, which he keeps with him at Shipwreck Cove.

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The Captain Jack Sparrow’s Dad future is similar to the Pirate future, which is propagated by many thinkers and hackers around the world today. A global, transparent future based on direct democracy, where all is open and free, as pioneered by The Pirate Bay and various European pirate parties.

Captain Jack Sparrow’s dad is however different from the regular Pirate future. This future is older, wiser but slightly erratic and nutty. The Captain Jack Sparrow’s dad future has been to hell and back, but on the way it went through a fundamental paradigm shift. It is something of a wise fool with its youthful cheeky grin intact, but with strange beads and braids in the hair.

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Keith Richards is still alive and a fifth scenario for the future of humanity will be added to this list when we have identified it. Or as Keith himself puts it:

“I don’t want to see my old friend Lucifer just yet. He’s the guy I’m gonna see, isn’t it? I’m not going to the Other Place, let’s face it.”

 

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With apologies to Jim Dator for (ab)using his four Alternative Futures archetypes.