Is a post-capitalist world possible?

Yes, I know it's a cliché

This is one of the topics in which tends to result in nasty comments criticizing the text normally – usually people even read it. It’s a subject that brings all kinds of heated responses. Some see capitalism as a “necessary evil”, the best that we got and, since capitalism was the economic system that prevailed it’s probably the best we can do. I will ignore this reasoning for the sake of the argument that I will make in this article. For that reason I will start from the assumption that it is indeed possible to overcome capitalism and think about some new thing (whatever that new thing may end up being). And no, this is not an article defending socialism.

First, let’s talk about the “villain”

Usually when people talk about capitalism the tendency is an ideological exaggeration towards some extreme: or extremely optimistic about what capitalism has done for human progress and individual justice; or extremely pessimistic about the social and psychological damages that capitalism brings. Since we already have plenty of content defending either extreme I will try to make a more nuanced analysis – knowing there’s a risk of being misinterpreted.

It’s not a surprise that the capitalist economic system has its problems and also its qualities. On one hand the social division of labor brought something which were virtually impossible before – like social rise for example. On the other hand this same capitalism kept some of the vices from other systems – in particular the tendency that, once someone has more economic power he can use this power to gain more power, making more and more difficult for others to rise economically as well.

Many times the “cons” surpasses the “pros” because of capitalism’s own configuration and the visibility that those who take advantage from it easily gain. When fighting for less economical regulation, the “economic liberals” only reinforce how much a non-regulated economy tend to an unfair balance in the market – the opposite of the original goal of an ideal free market. Those who have more will always have more opportunities to have even more, mining the chances of social rise of those who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid – and this has nothing to do with meritocracy1. The fact that these same defenders of less/no regulations are always begging for it when things get bad – like in times of economic crisis – sound hypocrite. Especially if we consider that those people frequently represent mega-corporations or banks, whose owners pile up huge fortunes and are in positions of such privilege that it’s difficult for regular people to identify with them.

But as a system per se – and excluding those who seek to take advantage of it – capitalism has, of course, its merits. Today it’s possible to distribute goods and services to a much broader population thanks to this configuration. At least in theory, no one is the “owner” of the system like in feudalism or in the aristocracies from the ancient world – although we can argue that the owners of the Capital are the owners of capitalism, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Anyone can hope for a better social and economic position; and proportionally, there’s less starving people in the world today.

The configuration of the capitalist system allowed more access to goods and services and globalization in a level that would not be possible in previous economic systems. The capitalist economy become a common language between culturally different nations, probably avoiding many wars that now are fought in the realm of international trades – although I know capitalism had created some new conflicts as well. But on paper, capitalism seems like a good idea.

What really matter in this debate

When a debate about capitalism comes to light, it’s common to talk about its pro and cons and if the solution is to keep using it or to change it. This is, at least for me, the main problem and the reason why this debate always ride in circles and never evolves: to give capitalism a subjective value – for good or bad – instead of analyze it in a more practical way.

Considering that capitalism is the predominant system in the world, the real debate should be: with the knowledge that we have about other systems and the experience with the capitalist economic system that we have until now, is it possible to do better? Is it possible to improve the distribution of goods and services, decrease the insecurity, improve human relations, individual liberties and the social justice? A pessimistic vision would say that this is the best we can do, that the limits of the system aren’t related to it – like our biases and biological needs, for example. A more optimistic view would say the opposite: that it is possible to overcome capitalism and that it’s a system that accentuates, promote and/or create many of the problems that we take as human nature. According to this view, it’s indeed possible to do better. Both visions have its truths, at least in some level. Of course the answer demands that we consider several factors, and many are indeed outside the system. Questions of:
Human nature – egoism is accentuated in a capitalist system and can be decreased or is it inevitable no matter the system?
Ethics – it’s fair that a single person or a small group be able to possess disproportionally much more in comparison to other member of society, which many of them are significant contributors to this fortune?
Society – violence and crime are increased in a capitalist system or it’s impossible to escape it? 
Politics – full economic interference, no interference at all or interference only when it’s necessary?

Among other questions. Having a position about this and other issues is what will define what comes next.

But what about the alternatives? They even exist?

When we talk about a post-capitalist society, the usual thing is to think about a transition to some kind of socialism and/or communism – which is odd, considering that one is an economic system while the other is a form of government, and technically would not be comparable with each other. That’s because the dichotomy left/right is what we grew up with. But we can’t think of changing a system to another one that is now hundreds of years old. We have to think forward; after all, they’re both products of its time. And the world carry on since then, with new problems and challenges that neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith would had being able to conceive.

There’s a quote, frequently attributed to Einstein – but I cannot say it was really him who said it – that reads: “you cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that you had when you created the problem in the first place”. I believe there’s a good argument to be made there. Capitalism, Socialism, Anarchism, Monarchy… All of those ideas are part of the old mindset. If we really want to overcome capitalism and carry on to something better, we need to learn from the old models, but thinking towards something actually new, more suited to our needs and our current problems, like:
The increasing growth in world population;
The profound cultural differences;
The climate change;
The management of limited resources;
The distribution of goods and services;
The technological advancement;
The real time flood of information;
The new models of interpersonal relationship;
And so on.

Talking is easy

Thinking about something totally new is extremely hard. Some would say it’s nearly impossible. It would not be possible for people from feudal societies to think about a system like capitalism the same way it was not possible for indigenous people in Brazil to understand the greed that the Portuguese conquerors had for rocks that they could not see any real value. The Greek Philosophers, the greatest minds or their time, couldn’t imagine a post-slavery society in their utopic visions of the world. Even the afterlife in most religions is just an imitation of the social/political system of the society in which the said religion are rooted.

So how can we think of something new? This is the million-dollar question. But there are those who dwell over these questions. The late futurologist Jacques Fresco promote for decades his idea of a post-capitalist society called The Venus Project. Like every idea that proposes a solution to all of the world’s problems, It has its supporters – in an almost religious way – and its critics. But it’s at least an attempt to think in a detailed and systematic way about a new system taking into consideration the current problems of the world and the possibilities of today’s technology. I don’t remember another alternative that is so well thought out.

So, is it possible to think about a totally new – and better – system?

Well, the good news is, during all History of humankind, new systems were created, changes in status quo were made and human mentality were transformed. Slavery is not seem as something natural or socially accepted anymore. We refine our ethics in relation to punishments. We shift from a profoundly religious Europe to a more rational Europe. We left the aristocratic heritage and its authority behind and began to focus on individual skills, and so on. Changes happened. There’s nothing that indicates that it will not happen again.

One can argue that there’s still much to do regarding the topics I mentioned above. That much has change, but in practice, nothing changed. But the truth is we live in a world where racism is a crime. It’s a step forward. It’s possible to get even further ahead? If we think we can’t, we close ourselves to new ideas and we will never be able to overcome our own mental limitation. We will keep trying to solve the problems with the same mindset we had when we created it. But if we think that the answer to this question is “yes”, we already got one step forward. The next is to focus on “how”.

I don’t think we will get to solutions trying to bring back old ideas. But it is important to recognize the past, learn from it and have it as a reference point. We can’t put all humankind in suspended animation and wakes us up a decade later with a new mindset in a new world. A new system will have to grow gradually. That’s why the title of this article refers to a “post-capitalist” world and not a world “without” capitalism. Whatever comes next will not be created from scratch; it will be the result of what capitalism got right and what it got wrong. This is the best interpretation of “progress” that we can have.

So, is it possible to think about a post-capitalist world after all? In a way, we already are. We are starting to think about things like creative economy, collaborative communities, basic income, decentralized virtual currency, 3D printing, among others. These ideas are starting to bring new solutions to old problems. Some of those ideas may disappear with time, but others will stay, grow and transform into other things, things that we can't even imagine – just like societies from the past couldn’t imagine post-slavery, post-feudalism or post-barter worlds.

But the truth is that I think this is not even the right question. It’s not about thinking if overcome capitalism is necessary or possible; it’s about thinking if we can do better than what we have now. I believe we can. History already show us that. If we will actually do it, that’s a totally different question.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, a short horror comic about Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence are available at Amazon – digital and print.

Further reading: The Venus Project Website

1. The concept of “merit” is a topic for another time.