Post Capitalist Society
Into the dustbin
For the past while I've been reading economic histories with a small reading group.
First we read "Fossil Capital" by Andreas Malm. This looks at how and why steam power rose to be the dominant energy source - starting in England. A pdf file of it is at: https://geosci.uchicago.edu/~moyer/GEOS24705/Readings/From_water_to_steam.pdf
We're now reading "Blood and Money" by David McNally. This is about how the money we use every day evolved. That is a long involved story involving slavery and piracy and raiding to an extent I never realized.
David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Years" presents a similar overview of how our society evolved.
A book in a similar vein is "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond which presents a sort of ecological perspective rather than an economic one.
These are "big histories". They start in prehistoric times using archeological evidence and present a narrative that shows how our present society evolved.
Big histories are different than the "beginning histories" that I got in high school long ago and that I suspect are still being taught.
I have no problem with "beginning histories". Kids need to learn about past civilizations and the rough chronology of their occurrence.
They need to get the idea of kings and queens and popes .
That's an essential foundation that big histories depend on.
Malm and McNally embrace Marx's economic analysis of society.
The thing that strikes me about these big histories is how impersonal they are.
For instance, I'm reading about how fiat money evolved in England in the late 1600's. Prior to that money had to be 'backed' by something deemed to be intrinsically valuable like gold or silver.
Fiat money is different. It is just printed up and spent. At the time, the English state needed a lot of money to finance it's wars. I'm not sure of the details of the mechanism but the upshot was that the Bank of England just printed up the money and gave it to the State in return for an entitlement to future tax receipts.
The State would spend the money on troops and warships; that is, would pay people to build the warships and pay to support the troops with that money. That is, carpenters, and farmers, and all sorts of business people would be paid with the fiat money.
They would exchange it among themselves and so the fiat money would become a general medium of exchange. On the face of it such a scheme seems unstable and unlikely to work. I read that in fact it was tried a couple of times in China and always collapsed.
I read the interesting fact that before the industrial revolution, the main thing making some people very rich was plantations whose labor was provided by slaves.
That is, rather than just extracting wealth in the form of gold or silver, the English were making productive plantations that mass produced commodities like tobacco or sugar or cotton. Productive systems like that can grow exponentially; unlike extractive systems.
My reading is that the way plantations were financed (by selling shares) created a large class of people that was used to the fact that the value of this share now depends on what the future production of a plantation will be. This made fiat money viable among them. And was one of the reasons England was able to dominate the global economy for hundreds of years.
Back in the day, the Bank of England was a private enterprise owned by shareholders, that was underwriting government debt.
Fast forward to the present.
Now, many nations have central banks that perform the same role that are actually arms of the state rather than private enterprise. Even the Bank of England is publicly owned now.
I admit that there are many aspects of our current monetary system that I don't fully understand, like how things like bonds work.
But I've come to see that the size of government debt doesn't seem to be very important - it's kind of an arbitrary number.
What is important is that society produce all that it needs on a moment to moment basis.
Canada is a fortunate country - we seem to be able to do that even placing the level of 'need' high.
Other countries are not so fortunate.
The way Canadian society has responded to the pandemic has been amazing. Suddenly there was a lockdown and most people had to stay home from jobs. Bingo - a very generous monthly payment emerged to enable people to pay their expenses. Companies got aid to keep them in business. Nobody was concerned about the deficit.
Of course, this all fits snuggly with the idea of a Universal Basic Income, but we have to think about this more deeply.
The idea here is that all of that falls apart unless a society produces what it needs on a moment to moment basis. And here we run into a problem - what defines that need?
Right now it's the interests of rich people that determines what gets produced. History shows that rich people don't really care about the misery that serving their 'needs' entails. Once rich people considered slaves as a measure of wealth. One slave ship captain had all his captives thrown overboard and then tried to recoup the loss from his insurance company. The factory owners employing child laborers were not concerned with their welfare.
In fact, they understood that all that they considered to be civilization rested on their ability to abuse poor people.
We can't trust capitalists to act in the public interest.
And left to their own interests the capitalists are well on the way to wrecking the global ecosystem as well as impoverishing most people.
The situation is gloomy.
But I'm an optimist - I think we will get past this bad bit and move on to a post capitalist society and wonder what that might be like.
For instance - I think that a UBI will be a feature of that society, but that will push many other changes. For instance - if most people are supported by the UBI then they will basically be on a fixed income. I think this income has to be generous compared to the cost of living; the UBI shouldn't be at a poverty level.
But this won't work in a free market for rental housing for instance. We know from historic experience that landlords would raise the rent to whatever the market would bear and that would drive people into poverty because their income would be inadequate for their other needs.
Years ago, Canada tried to control rents. In a free market it just didn't work. Capitalists need to invest in what is most profitable. They couldn't care less about people's need for affordable housing. So a UBI might cause a massive increase in housing built by the State for social purposes and not for profit.
Another aspect of post capitalist society is that the State should be in control of most of the productive facilities that society needs.
That is, if we decide that we need more and better solar panels, the State should just do that directly rather than bribe capitalists to do it with subsidies and tax breaks.
I think that a new arm of government would be needed to oversee a publicly owned productive apparatus. Something that is quasi-independent, like say the military or courts, that is supervised and directed by a democratic legislature.
The idea of a post capitalist society would be to let the paradise on earth that our very productive technology can enable to emerge. The capitalists have had their chance.
What do you think?