Dirk Knemeyer

Post-Capitalism

The recent “Occupy Wall Street” movement and its related rallies has convinced me it is time to dust off my now nearly 20 year old theses on the ills of capitalism and why it is ultimately a self-destructive system. I also have some more recent ideas on what we should be doing instead.

You see, back in university I wrote papers and even gave speeches about the inherent failures of capitalism. At the time, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, people thought I was a nut. With each day that passes, as the devastation we’ve done to the Earth becomes more apparent, as the chasm widens between the haves and have-nots, I can only think that what once were simply my theories are playing out as – most unfortunate – realities.

The fundamental problem with capitalism is that it rewards companies and individuals for ruthlessly furthering their own interests with near-total disregard for society, the Earth, and individuals who might be harmed by their pursuits. This sort of sociopathic system being the operating principle for a functioning society can only bring out the very worst in people, and ultimately harm and even threaten that same society.

Why shouldn’t someone go to Wall Street and make a ton of money at the expense of others?

Why shouldn’t someone dump chicken waste from their plant into a nearby river, as opposed to pay more to dispose of it in a better way?

Why shouldn’t an oil company drill underwater and risk massive pollution in the event of a catastrophe?

The rules of the system, and the reward mechanisms built into it, encourage that behaviour. By definition, people who exploit available opportunities in those ways are treated as paragons. When they re-invest their profits in donations to their alma mater, or their hometown, we name buildings and parks after them. They become the esteemed pillars of the community. Yet, more often than we realize, the net balance of their account with our world is sharply on the deficit side.

Steve Jobs is an excellent example. In the wake of his premature death, the world has fallen over itself extolling his virtues. In calling him “The Greatest CEO Ever”, we are positioning him as the best of the best of the capitalists. I certainly enjoy my Apple products, and I admire qualities and accomplishments of his. But the degree of one-sided celebration of his life is disingenuous. As is the case with most people who’ve clawed their way to the top, Jobs routinely treated people very badly. More, the factories, materials and processes used to make modern Apple devices – most notably in Chinese and Taiwanese factories – are fraught with human rights and carbon footprint issues. All of those lovely devices we covet and treasure come at a cost that we don’t often see but most certainly is there. What is the point of diminishing returns for evaluating material progress and gain against human and planetary loss?

In a virgin 18th and 19th century United States, plump with land and valuable resources, this was not apparently a problem. The relative pollution was a drop in the bucket, and there was plenty to “have” for the plucky, enterprising soul willing and able to go out and take it. There could be a growing middle class; there was plenty to grow from. Sure, there were human rights violations and labour abuses as part of the industrial machine, but people cared about them and a bevy of then-essential unions were created to offset the most egregious cases.

The United States of that era represented an extraordinary opportunity, an undiscovered country to develop. To be sure, much value was created and success was enjoyed. This was seen as a vindication of the capitalist system. Really, it was simply an arbitrage, our reaping the benefits of a new and prosperous land. Since then the context has massively changed: we’ve neared the point of optimization, in the process no longer enjoying the bounty we did before, and the collective weight of world industrialization has put our Earth into cardiac arrest and left many experts concerned that the damage done over decades of abuse may have made our condition terminal.

And it comes back to capitalism. If you incentivize people and collections of people (companies) to get their greatest rewards for being sociopathic, it should surprise absolutely no one when they choose to be precisely that. The very premise of the system – that the free market will be self-regulating – only holds true for questions of optimization. Sadly, optimization almost inherently comes at the expense of humanity. Thus the free market engine, which does a marvelous job of regulating out the less competent and able – arguably a good thing in the context of that system – also does a terrible job of protecting people and our collective humanity against abuses.

In a country like the United States, which thinks of itself as principled and fair and working for the people, it creates the maddening cycle of individuals and companies exploiting the system, thousands if not millions of people being hurt for it, and the entire system suffering thanks to the sociopathy of the perpetrators. It is like encouraging someone to get drunk and drive, then paying millions of dollars in restitution to the families of the busload of children the drunk driver killed. Everyone loses: the drunk driver is a criminal pariah, the families are much worse off regardless of the pay-off, and the entire community is shaken and financially impacted by the mess. Yet we ply the next driver with liquor and hand them the keys once again. And then everyone is shocked and indignant when another busload of children are killed. What, pray tell, else do we think would happen?

When I deconstructed capitalism in university, the cutely idealistic perspective I took was: how can any of us be buying diamond rings, or buying boats to ride around in, knowing there are people out there who lack for food and shelter? It seemed self-evident to me that it was insane for some people to binge on absolutely non-essential accoutrements while other denizens of our lovely planet were suffering. Now, today, I see and acknowledge that it is typical and even OK for people to prefer to focus on their own desires even as others are unable to meet their most basic needs. We are, by nature, selfish creatures. Still, there are limits. There should be an objective “too much”. I’m thrilled that people are finally getting mad about CEO pay, because top-of-the-org-chart stratospheric salaries are among the most nonsensical aspects of capitalism today. The ends of the spectrum must, absolutely must, get closer to the middle.

Last month I read Douglas Rushkoff’s article Are Jobs Obsolete?. While I applaud the spirit of his perspective, in practice the thesis is ridiculous. Eliminating jobs and simply providing the equivalent to a welfare-level subsistence for all is naive. Idle hands are, indeed, the devil’s playground, and coupled with the fact we have many undesirable-but-necessary job functions remain to be performed, it would hardly be practical to simply gift people what they need to survive without having to contribute to it. I would suggest consumers’ ability to get whatever they want too easily is part of the rotten core of late capitalism, and certainly a factor in the United States’ obesity epidemic and plummeting educational performance relative to other nations.

So, what’s my solution? What does my “post-capitalism” look like? Very simple and straightforward:

1. We determine what constitutes a “baseline for decent living.” Some sort of shelter; some degree of healthy nutrition; presumably electricity and some of the technologies it affords; fresh water; waste disposal; police and fire; a judicial system. Whatever the totality of those things are, they are things the current society deems as the baseline, and we provide them for every last citizen.

2. We determine the totality of effort necessary to provide that “baseline” for all citizens. It is determined down the last (wo)man hour. Nothing else is necessary. Entire industries that simply prop up capitalism but are not essential to the human condition – banking, insurance – disappear overnight, freeing up incredible amounts of human capital.

3. Each citizen is responsible for an exactly equal share of completing the tasks required to provide the “baseline” for all. This is determined by…wait for it…a free market system. Each week? month? every single one of us is responsible for providing our proportion. We can bid to spend very few hours and clean out the sewers, thus fulfill our quota quickly with terrible work. Or we can bid to spend more hours and be a night watchman, fulfilling our obligation slowly with more relaxing work. This type of jobs market is trivial to handle in an organized way thanks to cloud computing and handheld computing devices. The system rewards you for doing harder/less desirable things. Yet, everyone contributes.

4. Anything you do over and above that is how you get more credits. Credits to be able to do less later. Credits to be able to trade up for desires, for “luxury” things that are beyond the bounds of the “baseline for decent living”. In reality, the amount of time it would take to perform all of the tasks to enable our “baseline” would be far, far, far less than what we currently work in a given workweek. We’re going to some time on our hands. Time to do things we are interested in. Time to pursue our desires. We can even pursue those things and trade them for credits, so we don’t have to do the “baseline” work because people doing that work are happy to work in our place, to give us those credits in exchange for our fulfilling their desires with out other work.

5. The government would regulate away the ability for those pursuing their desires to do so at the expense of others and the planet. We might be free, but that does not give us the right to exercise that freedom at the expense of other people today or tomorrow. This is an essential component to ensuring our continuity as a species and our continuing to operate with humanity.

The result? We are required to work much less – our hitting the “baseline” would be easy – yet EVERY citizen would be able to live with dignity, place and purpose. We still have the opportunity to pursue our desires, and certainly those who work hard would – through accruing credit – buy themselves more opportunity in the system.

That sounds like a much better world to live in than the one we inhabit. And, functionally, there really are not barriers to getting from here to there beyond our will to do so.

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4 thoughts on “Post-Capitalism

  • October 18, 2011 at 11:28 am
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    Brilliant. In fact, such a brilliant solution, it’ll never, ever happen. It doesn’t involve violence, greed, graft, imperialism, class hierarchy, or anything else the people in “power” currently thrive upon. They’ll scramble F-22’s against their own citizens before they let such a plan come to fruition. 🙁

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  • October 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm
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    I think the worst thing you could possibly do would be to make it possible for people to work less hard. People don’t work hard enough as it is.

    Rushkoff actually gets the point right but the solution wrong: there are indeed too many people. But I don’t know how he gets from there to providing everyone with some kind of baseline existence. The implication of that is that when someone decides to have children, he or she is making a decision for me and you that we will support that child with a “baseline existence.” I have no problem with that person’s decision except that they and the child should shoulder the consequences of that decision, not me.

    More reasonable would be for people to prove what they have to offer. You seem to have no problem with a 19th-century view of America – given the current level of automation and industrialization, you could certainly return to that and sustain a smaller population today.

    If people want to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors, they should be free to. But the consequences should be borne by them, not by others. If those people are able to bear the financial consequences of those decisions, either out of pocket or through insurance arrangements, that’s great. If they can’t, they should have made more money.

    People have a very great capacity of work and achievement. Unfortunately, our current standard of living has encouraged a whole demographic to invest its time in Warcraft leveling and SMAC tech optimization instead of productive contributions. I wonder what “Joel” up there does for a living. Astronaut? Medical oncologist? Or tired fanboi?

    The world needs to have a more definitive and consequential delineation of the haves and have-nots, without such a safety net, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that except for your personal sense of guilt, which is your very own personal problem.

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  • January 5, 2012 at 12:27 am
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    Great piece. I think it is important for us to start talking about what the next phase of society is going to look like. One thing is certain, strong ai and rapid robotic development is going to continue to remove ‘jobs’ from the equation and I believe the rate will accelerate sharply in the next 20 years.

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  • April 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm
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    Capitalism isn’t the problem, we are. We would just as surely corrupt any alternative. As you said yourself, “We are, by nature, selfish creatures.” Besides, where are we going to find the angels to organize and run this “post-capitalism”?

    The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.

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