What are some viable alternatives to capitalism

Let's undermine capitalism!

The great strategic proposals of the 20th century on how to respond to the evils of capitalism are no longer convincing to most people. The social democratic hope of taming capitalism by neutralizing its harmful effects through targeted state intervention has been massively undermined - on the one hand by the globalization and financialization of capital, on the other hand by the fact that the social democratic parties have closed themselves in the last 25 years Have known "mild" variants of neoliberalism.

In view of the tragic consequences of the revolutions of the 20th century, revolutionary efforts to replace capitalism by seizing state power based on a break with existing conditions, a forced dissolution of capitalist institutions and their replacement by an emancipatory alternative have also lost credibility. In short: both reform and revolution - the two fundamental transformation models of the 20th century - seem to have exhausted their possibilities. But what would be the way out?

Most large-scale social changes in human history take place “behind the back” of people, as a cumulative effect of unintended consequences of actions. If, on the other hand, one wants to have a “strategy” for social change, then it must be possible to bring about the desired social changes through conscious, deliberate action. This is particularly challenging when the goal of the strategy is to replace something as complex as "capitalism" with an alternative socio-economic system. It is not enough to state the gravity of the grievances that the world is creating in its current state, and it is also not enough to have reasonable grounds for believing in the desirability and feasibility of an alternative. There must also be the opportunity to act in the here and now in such a way that the likelihood of future implementation of the alternative increases.

Real utopias are needed for this. Instead of taming capitalism through reforms "from above" or smashing it by means of a revolutionary break, the core idea is that capitalism should be eroded by building emancipatory alternatives in the spaces and cracks within capitalist economies and at the same time around defense and Expansion of these spaces is being fought. Real utopias are thus institutions, relationships and practices that can be developed in the world as it is currently constituted, but which anticipate the world as it could be and help us move forward in this direction.

In hybrid capitalism: the appearance of another world

Existing economic systems combine capitalism with a whole range of other ways of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services: directly through the state; within the intimate relationships of the family to meet the needs of family members; through the networks and organizations of the so-called social economy or solidarity economy that act on the basis of the community; through cooperatives owned and democratically managed by their members; through non-profit, market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks that are dedicated to cooperative production processes, etc.

Some of these methods of organizing economic activity can be viewed as hybrid in that they combine capitalist and non-capitalist elements, some are entirely non-capitalist, and some are anti-capitalist. We refer to such a complex economic system as “capitalist” when capitalism is the dominant force that determines the economic living conditions of most people and their access to livelihood opportunities. This supremacy is tremendously destructive.

One way of challenging capitalism is to build democratic, egalitarian and participatory relationships and organizations within this complex system at every opportunity and to fight politically to expand and defend such spaces by changing the rules of the game in capitalist society. This in turn requires efforts to expand the democratic and participatory character of state power. The concept of undermining capitalism involves the notion that in the long run these alternatives will be able to expand to the point where capitalism loses its dominance.

This strategic framework combines ideas from earlier revolutionary and reformist traditions with some intuitions from contemporary anarchism. With recourse to the revolutionary tradition, he postulates as a long-term goal the overcoming of capitalism in favor of a democratic, egalitarian economy and society based on solidarity; however, the idea that this can be achieved by an immediate break with the existing power structures is rejected.

It goes back to the anarchist tradition that the importance of building alternatives in the here and now is emphasized: alternatives that already embody emancipatory aspirations in the world as it is today. However, the notion that such a structure could take place entirely outside the state is rejected. The emphasis on the importance of state policy in promoting progressive ideals stems from the social democratic reform tradition; What is rejected, however, is the notion that this is solely a question of the state, derogatory use of centralized power to neutralize capitalist “market failure”. As a result, we need a real utopia, namely a social and political project that fights for real democracy within is anchored by the economy, the state and society.

Breaks and opportunities, contradictions and potentials

If the capitalist state were a coherent, self-contained totality, whose structures are effectively organized with the sole aim of ensuring the long-term supremacy of capitalism, then there would be no prospect of capitalism playing a role in the expansion of emancipatory spaces . However, this is not the best conceptualization of the class character of the state and its impact on society.

Just as concrete capitalist economic systems are to be viewed as hybrid ecosystems of different economic conditions under which capitalism predominates, the capitalist state should be viewed as a heterogeneous system and loose coupling of mechanisms under which the capitalist predominate to different degrees. These deviations in the equilibrium of the interests embodied in the state are the result of the respective history of the struggle for the state. The course of development of compromises and concessions, triumphs and defeats is inscribed in the formal design of political institutions and the norms that apply to them. The extent to which a given state is capitalist - in the sense that it has mechanisms to preserve capitalism - varies in time and place.

The problem of democracy is of particular importance for assessing the different class character of different state apparatuses. The more robust the democratic character of the accountability obligations peculiar to a particular apparatus, the less the class character of this apparatus can be regarded as purely capitalist. Even conventional parliamentary democracy always shows a contradicting class character: it may be the case that the rules of the game of electoral democracy, as generally asserted by Marxists, have the general effect of containing class struggles for the state in a way that is conducive to capitalist domination tame, but it is also true that elections, insofar as they involve genuinely democratic competition, create potential, class-related tensions within legislative organs. In times of crisis or when the population is mobilized, these tensions can loosen the limits of what is possible and make new forms of state initiative conceivable.

Demands for a deepening and revitalization of democracy can therefore be understood as demands for a weakening - not an abolition - of the capitalist character of the state apparatus. It is not just about the democratic accountability to which the traditional state machinery is subject, but also about the various parastate commissions and organizations with which all modern states interact. The deepening of democracy is not only a question of the democratization of centralized nation-states, it is also about the democratization of local and regional state apparatus. Struggles for the democratic quality of the local state can be of particular importance if it involves thinking about the ways in which state initiatives can expand the space for non-capitalist economic initiatives.

The dialectic of the state

The notion that the state merely has the “function” of reproducing capitalism resides in the implicit assumption that there is a coherent process by which the state can meet the many different conditions of the reproduction of capitalism. However, there are many contexts where this is simply not the case. In particular, there can be a discontinuity between the relatively short-term reproductive effects of state actions and their long-term, dynamic consequences. The reproductive effects that state actions develop with regard to the prevailing economic structures are the result of actions that primarily react to immediately existing conditions and challenges. That is the reason why the feudal state, for example, promoted trade capitalism, although its dynamics in the long term led to the disintegration of feudal relations. Commercial capitalism helped solve immediate problems of the feudal ruling class, and that was crucial.

Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century, the capitalist state promoted the development of the lively public and state regulation of capitalism that accompanied social democracy. Social democracy helped solve a number of problems within capitalism - that is, it served the reproduction of capitalism. At the same time, it expanded the space for various socialist elements within the economic ecosystem: the decoupling of social security from the labor market through the state protection of a substantial part of the material living conditions of the workers; the expansion of the social power of workers within capitalist factories as well as in the labor market; the democratic regulation of capital to address the most serious negative externalities that drive investor and corporate behavior in capitalist markets (pollution, dangerous products and working conditions, predatory market behavior, and so on). Although many capitalists may not have welcomed these state initiatives and even perceived them as a threat, the social democratic state contributed to the solution of practical problems and was therefore tolerated.

The fact that a series of state actions contributed to the stability of capitalism in the middle of the 20th century is sometimes interpreted as an indication that these measures had no non-capitalist character and in any case cannot be viewed as corrosive to capitalism. However, that is a misconception. It is entirely possible that some form of state intervention could have the immediate effect of solving problems for capitalism and even strengthening capitalism, but nonetheless setting in motion a dynamic that has the potential to over time the domination of capitalism erode. In fact, it is precisely this characteristic of social democratic initiatives that ultimately led to the attacks on the social democratic state carried out under the banner of neoliberalism as soon as the capitalist class began to see the expansionary state as the originator of increasingly suboptimal conditions for capital accumulation.

The great upheaval: the globalization and financialization of capital

The world of the first decades of the 21st century looks very different from the time in which social democracy flourished. The globalization of capitalism has made it considerably easier for capitalists to shift their investments to parts of the world where there is less regulation and where labor is cheap. The threat of such a shift in capital, coupled with a multitude of technological and demographic changes, has fragmented the working class and weakened the labor movement, so that the working class is now less able to resist and to mobilize politically. In connection with globalization, the financialization of capital has led to an enormous widening of the wealth and income gaps, which in turn has increased the political influence of the opponents of the social democratic state.

Perhaps the decades of the so-called “golden age” were merely a historical anomaly, a brief period in which favorable structural conditions and the robust power of the population opened up the possibility of limiting the domination of capitalism. Before that time capitalism was a greedy system, and under neoliberalism it has become so again, returning to the traditional nature of capitalist economic ecosystems. It is possible that the dominance of capitalism simply cannot be eroded in the long term. Advocates of the concept of revolutionary breaks with the capitalist state have always maintained that the hegemony of capitalism cannot be permanently weakened by reforms; such efforts would only distract from the task of building a political movement to overthrow capitalism.

So the question that arises for capitalism in the 21st century is whether the kind of discontinuity observed in the second half of the 20th century remains possible within the capitalist state. Are there state interventions through which capitalism can solve its own pressing problems, while at the same time these interventions have the potential to expand in the long term the spaces in which democratic and egalitarian economic conditions can develop?

For the optimism of the intellect: Think against Gramsci with Gramsci

A famous statement by Antonio Gramsci is that we need a pessimism of the intellect with an optimism of the will at the same time. In order to maintain the optimism of the will, however, we also need at least a little optimism of the intellect. There are two trends that give cause for optimism about the future possibility of the type of government initiative that could unleash the dynamics of long-term erosion of capitalist domination. First of all, it is likely that climate change will usher in the end of neoliberalism. The necessary adjustments to climate change, quite apart from the problem of mitigating global warming through the transition to fossil-free energy production, will require a massive expansion of state-provided public goods. The market is simply not going to build dams to protect Manhattan. The resources required for such government interventions could easily reach the proportions known from the great wars of the 20th century. While capitalist corporations will benefit tremendously from the production of such infrastructures - just as they would benefit from military production in wartime - funding such projects will also involve substantial tax increases and ideological efforts to rehabilitate the growing role of the state in providing public resources Require goods. If these developments take place within the framework of a capitalist democracy, then this revival of the state in its role as a provider of public goods should open up new political leeway for more comprehensive, socially oriented state interventions.

The second trend that the capitalist state will have to face in the course of the 21st century concerns the long-term employment effects of the technological changes accompanying the informatics revolution.Of course, every wave of technological change gives rise to speculation about the destruction of jobs and the ensuing consequences of widespread marginalization and sustained structural unemployment. In the case of earlier waves, however, economic growth ultimately created enough jobs in new sectors to make up for the employment deficit. The forms of automation peculiar to the digital age, which are currently deeply penetrating the service sector, make it appear much less likely that future economic growth, mediated by the capitalist market, will generate sufficient employment opportunities. The problem is exacerbated by the globalization of capitalist production. These problems will only get worse in the course of the twenty-first century, and no spontaneous action by market forces will solve them. The result will be the growing precariousness and marginalization of a significant part of the population. This trend, apart from considerations of social justice, is likely to lead to social instability and costly conflict.

The return of the state - and democracy

Taken together, these two trends pose serious new challenges for the capitalist state: the need to massively expand the provision of public goods to respond to climate change, and the need for new policies to address the widespread economic marginalization and insecurity caused by technological change. This is the context within which the mobilizations and struggles of the population have some prospect of generating new forms of state intervention, which in turn could promote the expansion of more democratic-egalitarian forms of economic activity alongside capitalism and within the hybrid economic ecosystem.

Two government responses to these pressures could lead the hybrid economic ecosystem to follow some of the paths of the socialist compass. First, these ideological upheavals and political pressures could promote the expansion of the sector of directly subsidized employment related to the provision of public goods and services - that is, the statist and participatory socialist paths. Wealthy countries can undoubtedly afford a large government-sponsored sector of employment; the problem is one of the political willingness to raise the tax rate to that end, not one of the economic pressures that come with such a move.

Second, the state could seriously consider changing the relationship between income and work in a more fundamental way: through the introduction of an unconditional basic income (UBI). This is a political proposal that is already being discussed more and more publicly in the second decade of the 21st century.

Unconditional Basic Income - a symbiotic reform

The UBI is a possible form of government intervention that responds to the considerable challenges the capitalist state faces in the face of the loss of adequate employment opportunities in capitalist markets. It is an exemplary symbiotic reform, since it solves a problem within capitalism and at the same time expands the scope for social empowerment.

From the standpoint of the reproduction of capitalism, the UBI would do three things. First, it would alleviate the worst effects of marginalization inequality and poverty, thereby contributing to social stability. Second, it would support another model of gainful employment: self-employment as a means of generating disposable income. With the UBI, a broad spectrum of market-oriented, self-employed forms of employment would appear attractive to people even if self-employment does not generate enough money to be able to make a living from it. For example, one can imagine that more people would be interested in becoming smallholders or professional gardeners if they had a UBI to cover their living costs.

Third, the UBI would stabilize the consumer market for capitalist production. As a production system, the automated production processes of capitalist companies are inherently faced with the problem that they do not employ enough people to be able to sell the goods produced. However, the BGE now creates a broadly diversified demand for elementary consumer goods. For these reasons, the UBI could become an attractive political option for the capitalist elite, especially in the context of the exhaustion of neoliberal ideology in view of the restoration of an actively regulating state.

But if the UBI is an attractive solution to the problems that capitalism faces, how can it at the same time contribute to the undermining of capitalism? A central characteristic of capitalism is what Marx called the double separation of the workers: their simultaneous separation from the means of production and from the means of subsistence. The unconditional basic income abolishes the separation of the workers from the means of subsistence, although the separation from the means of production remains; in this way it directly modifies the basic class relations of capitalism. A tax-financed, government-provided and unconditional basic income would allow workers to refuse capitalist employment in order to engage in all sorts of non-capitalist economic activities, including those created by social power.

For example, workers' cooperatives would gain some economic viability if the cooperative members had a guaranteed basic income regardless of the commercial success of their business. The basic income would also help to solve the problems that workers' cooperatives are currently struggling with in the credit markets, because loans to cooperatives would become more attractive for banks: Such loans would suddenly be less risky, since the flow of income generated by a cooperative does not cover maintenance the cooperative members would have to cover. The UBI would promote a flourishing of the social economy and solidarity economy, the non-commercial performing arts, community activism and many other things and thus expand the scope for sustainable, i.e. socially empowered economic conditions.

More time, more space and less capital - new technology as an opportunity

In addition, the very technological developments that create the problem of marginalization, ironically, could also create a more robust framework for the expansion and deepening of those economic activities that are organized in a more democratic, egalitarian and solidary manner. One of the material production conditions that help to anchor capitalism is the increasing economies of scale of industrial production: If the unit costs of a product are much lower, provided that it is manufactured in hundreds of thousands and not just in small numbers, then it becomes much more difficult for small-scale producers to stay competitive in the market. Massive economies of scale are the hallmark of the industrial age of capitalist development. The new technologies of the 21st century are about to dramatically reduce economies of scale in many sectors, making small-scale, localized production more viable. Basically, the means of production that one needs to have in order to be competitive in the market can be acquired in the digital world with an ever decreasing amount of capital. This, in turn, promises to make socio-economic companies and workers' cooperatives based on the principles of solidarity-based economy more sustainable, as they work more effectively if they operate on a comparatively small scale and align themselves to local markets. Formulated in classic Marxist diction: The change in the productive forces expands the potential for new relations of production. Other government measures, many of which could be organized at the local level, could further help stabilize a dynamic non-capitalist sector. One obstacle that stands in the way of many variants of social production is the lack of space: communal gardens and courtyards lack land, there are no workshops for customized production, designers lack offices and studios, performing artists the stages and so on. If a local state had an interest in supporting such increasingly democratic-egalitarian forms of economic activity through an infrastructure that is conducive to them, then it could provide such spaces as public facilities. Municipal land funds could protect urban agriculture; publicly provided or subsidized creative spaces equipped with digital manufacturing technologies could support certain types of material production; Educational institutions could offer special training that addresses issues of cooperative management and social production.

The new paradox - alternatives to capitalism in capitalism

The combination of a UBI that makes it easier for people to exit the capitalist economic sector, both with new technologies that favors the development of non-capitalist forms of production, and with a benevolent local state that provides the relevant initiatives with better infrastructure, would mean that the economic sector organized by social power could take on deeper roots over time and expand in ways that were previously unanticipated. All of this would - and it is important to emphasize - happen within capitalism, so that non-capitalist forms of production would inevitably have to find ways to join the imperatives of capitalism in a positive way. Producers from the non-capitalist sector would obtain a substantial part of their consumer goods from capitalist companies. And even with this new configuration stabilized, the state would still be the overseer of an economy in which capitalism plays a prominent role; in all likelihood this economy would still be ruled by capitalism. The predominance of capitalism would be reduced insofar as the maintenance dispute would be less strongly determined by it, and new possibilities for lasting struggles to expand social power within the economy would arise.

The UBI is thus in a paradoxical relationship to capitalism. On the one hand, it can help solve a number of real problems within capitalism as well as the vitality of capital accumulation, at least in some sectors.

On the other hand, it has the potential to help unleash a dynamic that strengthens social power in such a way that the predominance of capitalism is weakened and the economic ecosystem is steered on a path that points beyond it. So if a generously calculated unconditional basic income could be implemented and defended, it could both erode the dominance of capitalism within the overall economic system and ease the conditions of capital accumulation within those reduced spaces in which capitalism continues to operate.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about such a development. There is certainly no guarantee that a generously calculated basic income will ever be introduced, nor that if it is introduced it will be accompanied by government initiatives to create an infrastructure that will encourage the expansion of democratic, socially empowered forms of economic activity. There is also certainly no guarantee that recipients of the unconditional basic income would use it to develop empowered economic structures. The BGE can also be used exclusively for private consumption. As Philippe Van Parijs writes in his book “Real Freedom For All”: The UBI ensures a redistribution of “real freedom” and empowers passionate sunbathers as well as workers' cooperatives and the social economy. The reference to the danger that parasites could exploit workers is one of the most powerful moral arguments against the UBI, and such arguments could undoubtedly block political efforts to introduce the UBI or at least result in the entitlement to UBI being linked to undesirable access restrictions .

In addition, there is the following: An unconditional basic income that would be calculated generously enough to set a dynamic expansion of non-capitalist economic activity in motion would be costly, although not beyond the fiscal possibilities of capitalist states. So it is likely that the UBI, if introduced, would be below the level necessary to maintain a culturally respected standard of living. However, that would also undermine the potential of the UBI to cause long-term undermining of capitalism. In terms of its emancipatory potential, the UBI is therefore largely dependent on the political and ideological conditions under which it is introduced and developed.

If the boundaries of the possible resulting from the capitalist character of the state are so narrow that state actions which favor the development of non-capitalist economic processes are excluded, then there is little prospect of undermining capitalism. If, however, a gap is possible between current problem solving and future consequences, and if relevant social forces are mobilized, then the expansion of an economic activity that embodies democratic, egalitarian and solidarity values ​​could be possible. That would in turn represent the basis for a possible course of development that points beyond capitalism. This justifies my optimism of the intellect - despite the tough conditions.

The contribution is based on “Real Utopias. Ways out of capitalism ”, the author's new book, which was recently published by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin - with an afterword by Michael Brie. The translation from the American is by Max Henninger.