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January 25, 2011 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Life after Capitalism - Beyond capitalism, it seems, stretches a vista of... capitalism:
We cannot approach utopia in terms of material welfare because we can always imagine how increased resources could give us a more comfortable and rewarding life. Or perhaps it is better to say that from the standpoint of every previous century we have surpassed utopia, but failed to stop and properly appreciate the accomplishment.

An equally important answer, of course, is that Utopia does not require merely command over nature. It requires command over self, and command over society as well. Command over self is a matter of psychology. [W]e have not achieved utopia--in spite of immense material wealth--because we have approached it as a problem of engineering, and it is in fact a problem of psychology.
With over half the world still impoverished, it'll be a while before all our material needs are met and wants satisfied (+ we can imagine quite a bit, as Han Solo sez) still the marginal utility of wealth diminishes and so but if you can ignore positional goods, conspicuous consumption and status effects, what we'll literally be left with, it seems, are our values.
posted by kliuless (33 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is no such thing as a material need. All consumption is about meaning, and all meaning is social. The economy of stuff floats upon a true economy of attention in which we strive to be loved by others, and to be worthy of that love. When that goes wrong, people go greedy and chase the shiny things - the tail starts wagging the dog.

That's what Adam Smith actually said.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 8:38 AM on January 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


But perhaps Smith needs to be a bit updated, for material things often reflect class, fitness, position etc--the stuff we are learning from evolutionary biology. After all, an engagement ring is but a gaudy material symbol. and yet, it allows its owner to announce to others that her mate to be is indeed fit, well set etc. If any old ring simply announced an engaged woman, why spend thousands for a ring?
posted by Postroad at 9:00 AM on January 25, 2011


After reading several of the links, why was the first name that popped into my head "Hakim Bey"?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 9:07 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Why are we talking about going after or beyond capitalism? As much as capitalism changes, capitalism remains fundamentally the same. It's a bit like writing an op-ed on "life after Christianity" or "life beyond Christianity" in the year 325. I feel the same way when I hear "late capitalism" used for the modern era - just as many would find it presumptuous to assume that capitalism is the eternal endgame, it's presumptuous to announce that whatever the next stage is would have to be something other than capitalism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:08 AM on January 25, 2011


OK, here's an idea. Just throwing it out there.

Red Plenty referred to the tantalizing idea that using linear programming techniques, a sufficiently powerful computer could create a planned economy that would outperform capitalism in terms of providing material plenty. That was likely doomed back then though because a planned economy lacks the information in the form of price signaling that a capitalist economy has.

But right now, in an advanced economy, there's a vast amount of information available through networks like Twitter, Facebook, the web, email, etc.

So could it be that by now there is enough information available for a computerized planned economy to do this? Or if not now, then in the near future? If so, maybe capitalism could still be superseded by a better alternative.

To see this, think about the details.

Here's a situation where capitalism works well.

Suppose there's a shortage of barbers in Manchester, but a surplus of barbers in Liverpool. In a capitalist economy, price signaling starts a vast and incredibly complex cascade of changes. The price of a haircut goes up in Manchester, and down in Liverpool. So, smart Liverpudlian barbers start to move to Manchester to make more money. Mancunians who travel around a lot get their hair cut in Liverpool to save money. The extra money tempts retired Mancunian barbers back into doing business, and attracts students into hair-cutting courses. A Mancunian with an important need for a haircut, say for a job interview or a wedding, goes ahead and pays the extra price. A Mancunian who doesn't desperately need a haircut looks at the price and decides to leave it a month.

In a capitalist economy, these price signals act in a highly efficient way to match supply and demand, and to even out temporary price differences.

In a traditional Marx-Leninist economy, the central planner struggles with this situation. He just doesn't have the information to handle all this detail, to allocate the haircut to the guy who needs it for his wedding, to bring a retired barber back to work one an extra shift on Saturdays.

But suppose the central planner has a computer hooked up to the real-time web. Maybe now he, or his algorithm, can scan Twitter and Facebook and detect the shortage and the surplus. Maybe he adjusts the price of a haircut, maybe he allocates resources directly, but he handles the situation much better than his pre-Internet equivalent.

Possibly, probably, he's still not quite as efficient as the capitalist free market would be. But without the need for a vast capitalist banking system, he may well be able to avoid financial crises like the one we've just had, or are still in. He may be able to smooth out or eliminate the boom-bust cycle.

If he can gain more efficiency from avoiding crises than he loses from the lack of capitalist information, then he has a planned economy that functions materially better than capitalism.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:10 AM on January 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


But suppose the central planner has a computer hooked up to the real-time web. Maybe now he, or his algorithm, can scan Twitter and Facebook and detect the shortage and the surplus. Maybe he adjusts the price of a haircut, maybe he allocates resources directly, but he handles the situation much better than his pre-Internet equivalent.

I had a computational linguistics professor who did something like this - he had his computers "read" the online newspapers, day in and day out, to determine what was going on in the world, using software that was designed to identify trending words and phrases. He applied this information to movement in the bond market, however.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:19 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


these price signals act in a highly efficient way to match supply and demand, and to even out temporary price differences.

So I keep hearing, yet near parity between US and Canadian currencies has had no effect on prices North of the border over the last couple of years. So, no.
posted by Hoopo at 9:21 AM on January 25, 2011


I'm always hearing about that from my Canadian relatives but I've never gotten a good explanation. Something to do with the size of the market and different regulatory regimes? Quebecois labelling rules?
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2011


There is no such thing as a material need. All consumption is about meaning, and all meaning is social.

Postmodernist claptrap. We need, at a minimum, food shelter and in colder climes clothing in some combination or another to survive for long. These are real material things and they are absolutely necessary. We need them. They are material.

Now if you are talking about nicer things, yeah absolutely. Nobody needs baubles, bangles, beads. really nice clothes or a nicer house than the Jones's next door - except in a social context.
posted by lordrunningclam at 9:29 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Capitalism incentivizes the mistreatment of the poor, for that reason alone I don't think it can be society's end game economy.

That said, I don't Capitalism is going away until we get some sort of post-scarcity economic plan figured out. Possibly something along the lines of the economics 2.0 that TheophileEscargot mentioned.

Or maybe I've just listened to too many (International) Noise Conspiracy albums and read too many Charles Stross stories to think about this in any sort of non-uptopian way.
posted by cirrostratus at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you will find that shelter and clothing are immaterial needs. i.e. they are abstractions. Any particular item that fulfils these needs - any material object of consumption - whether a shack or a foxskin coat has meaning.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 9:37 AM on January 25, 2011


I think you will find that shelter and clothing are immaterial needs. i.e. they are abstractions. Any particular item that fulfils these needs - any material object of consumption - whether a shack or a foxskin coat has meaning.

Wha? So shelter and clothing aren't material needs because they can be satisfied with a material object? Son, if you think there are no material needs to are one lucky tuffy! I'm jealous of you.
posted by fuq at 9:44 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


hey guys is this the homeless naked breatharian support group

oh wait i don't need any support either, i'll see you guys later
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:47 AM on January 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


TheophileEscargot: But the central planning agency is amenable to Government control in a way that the market resists. So (making something up) the politicians make the agency make cleaners earn more money, because public sentiment says that we should pay more for cleaners. But the employers of cleaners don't want to pay the new amount, so they go "off the books" and employ the cleaners at the old rate, or sack their cleaners. So either we have to employ more control to make people act economically in ways they don't want to do or the planning will become inefficient.

Of course, this reflects what happens at present, to some degree. For example, people want to buy heroin at a certain price, but for political reasons the state decrees this is bad, so the people who want to buy heroin get sub-standard product at higher prices than the market would provide and the state loses the tax revenue. I'm simply arguing that this would be even more of a problem if you had a centralised planning system, even a "perfect" one, because you no longer have the individual decisions of people forming the market, you have a centralised body with its own opinions about how much things could cost. There's no way we could resist fiddling with these opinions and breaking the planning mechanism.

So even if we could make the system deliver perfect material prosperity we couldn't agree what perfect material prosperity was...
posted by alasdair at 9:48 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you will find that shelter and clothing are immaterial needs. i.e. they are abstractions. Any particular item that fulfils these needs - any material object of consumption - whether a shack or a foxskin coat has meaning.

No a shelter is a material thing. I can walk up and bang my fist on it and if I bang hard enough I will hurt my hand (ok, maybe not so much if it is a tent, but I can still touch and feel it). It is solid, it is real and material. Same for clothing and food. The forms may vary widely (which I think may be what you mean by them being abstractions), but each is a real thing by itself whatever the form. And yes, they all have meaning, but the meaning does not negate their materiality - which is what you seem to imply.
posted by lordrunningclam at 10:24 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some pretty solid responses to my suggestion that all consumption is primarily about meaning. Perhaps I lack the nuance to explain what I mean properly. My point is that food is never just food, even in really poor countries (ask any anthropologist).

In commercial societies, the meaningfulness of consumption becomes ever more important. Adam Smith for example talks about the subsistence wage and how that changes as people get used to different things being necessities (like shoes or linen shirts).
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 10:42 AM on January 25, 2011


In a traditional Marx-Leninist economy, the central planner struggles with this situation. He just doesn't have the information to handle all this detail, to allocate the haircut to the guy who needs it for his wedding, to bring a retired barber back to work one an extra shift on Saturdays.

The problem with complete top-down planning is less that it's difficult to come up with a good plan (although it is difficult) and more that it's impossible to ensure that the details of the plan are carried out. At best you can set metrics and judge against them, but those metrics will always be gamed and at the end of the day the execution of the plan be carried out by various different actors who may not share the same goals as the planners. You can adjust the price of a haircut, but how do you control the quality of a haircut? In the Soviet era, factories gamed the quota system by cranking out the cheapest, easiest to produce goods possible. Unless you come up with an elaborate and foolproof system to ensure that everyone involved follows the plan, it will never really function as intended in the real world.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:58 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


My point is that food is never just food, even in really poor countries (ask any anthropologist).

No, it isn't. But food's gotta be food before it's anything else.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


individual decisions of people forming the market, you have a centralised body with its own opinions about how much things could cost. There's no way we could resist fiddling with these opinions and breaking the planning mechanism.

Individual decisions don't form the market. Decisions of the wealthy and powerful firms inform the market. After 2008, it's obvious how centralized something like the NYSE is, "with its own opinions," etc...

what if the centralized body were participatory, moreso than the market is?

http://www.zcommunications.org/zparecon/pareconlac.htm
posted by eustatic at 11:09 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The answer is anarcho-syndicalism. Just ask Noam or consult this handy guide.
posted by phrontist at 11:20 AM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


So really, the end goal is a kind of libertarian socialism, and syndicalism is how we get from here to there.
posted by phrontist at 11:22 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


So really, the end goal is a kind of libertarian socialism...

The main difference between a Marxist and an anarchist is that the Marxist believes that a transitional state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, is necessary to bring about the stateless society. As far as end goals, libertarian socialism is identical to communism.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:53 AM on January 25, 2011


Since we're in the realm of science fiction, I've always liked that Star Trek world. No money or politics there. Only the personal challenges of space exploration, ray guns, and sexy aliens.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 11:56 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


The problem with complete top-down planning is less that it's difficult to come up with a good plan and more that it's impossible to ensure that the details of the plan are carried out

And the problem with an engineering/systems analysis approach to economics is that they don't understand that these are the same thing.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2011


Since we're in the realm of science fiction, I've always liked that Star Trek world. No money or politics there. Only the personal challenges of space exploration, ray guns, and sexy aliens.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 11:56 AM on January 25 [+] [!]


No money there, except when there is. They never seem to be able to replicate dilithium crystals or bars of latinum, for instance, so there is at least a little scarcity.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 12:13 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


At best you can set metrics and judge against them, but those metrics will always be gamed and at the end of the day the execution of the plan be carried out by various different actors who may not share the same goals as the planners.

That's how everything works--period. Private sector, public or otherwise. This always happens. The private sector is no more or less subject to this kind of inefficiency. It's a rule of thumb in project management circles that any project milestones/metrics you define are likely to produce only the minimal amount of effort to ensure the metric is nominally met. That's why so many major enterprise level software implementation projects look like they're going along just fine and dandy (all the project dashboards are full of greenlights) up to the last minute. People find ways to define down the expectations of the metrics by getting cute about how narrowly or broadly they interpret them.

Personally, I think that one big problem is that, while everyone seems to be painfully and acutely aware of just how uselessly vague a term like "fascism" is, we've yet to really come to grips with the absolute conceptual void that "capitalism" represents, since we've only recently had to confront the question with the collapse of communism, the ersatz opposite number we defined "capitalism" by in negative terms for so many years. "Capitalism," depending on who you ask, is either everything under the sun or the only thing, but teasing out any more specifics than that--other than silly basic stuff like "Capitalism is for property rights"--is pretty hard. No one wants to say that Capitalism is an economic system in which people who own lots of property are viewed as entitled to greater social, economic and political power regardless of how they acquired their wealth, because that description could apply just as well to the feudal and monarchical systems that our bloody experiment in revolutionary Democracy was supposedly meant to rebuke.

(Re-reading some Mark Twain recently, I was struck by just how thoroughly we seem to have recently turned against the spirit of our own founding mythology. It's sad.)
posted by saulgoodman at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


"Post scarcity"? What planet are they talking about?
posted by knoyers at 3:02 PM on January 25, 2011


Capitalism is obviously the "ism" of choice for people with with capital.

The rest of us need something different.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:33 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Man, it annoys me that the capitalists have convinced so many people that capitalism is the same as markets. What makes an economic system capitalist is that people can make money/profit off of merely owning capital (thus the name). From Economics for Everyone by Jim Sanford,

There are two key features that make an economy capitalist.

1. Most production of goods and services is undertaken by privately-owned companies, which produce and sell their output in hopes of making a profit. This is called production for profit.

2. Most work in the economy is performed by people who do not own their company or their output, but are hired by someone else to work in return for a money wage or salary. This is called wage labour.

posted by eviemath at 4:59 PM on January 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Suppose there's a shortage of barbers in Manchester, but a surplus of barbers in Liverpool. In a capitalist economy, price signaling starts a vast and incredibly complex cascade of changes. The price of a haircut goes up in Manchester, and down in Liverpool. So, smart Liverpudlian barbers start to move to Manchester to make more money. Mancunians who travel around a lot get their hair cut in Liverpool to save money. The extra money tempts retired Mancunian barbers back into doing business, and attracts students into hair-cutting courses. A Mancunian with an important need for a haircut, say for a job interview or a wedding, goes ahead and pays the extra price. A Mancunian who doesn't desperately need a haircut looks at the price and decides to leave it a month.

Someone should read that over some mellow electronic music and put it online. Seriously.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:28 PM on January 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


From the wiki article about Libertarian Socialism:

"Libertarian socialism is opposed to all coercive forms of social organization"

but also:

"Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens' assemblies, trade unions and workers' councils"

Meet the new social organization, same as the old social organization.
posted by storybored at 8:24 PM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Haha yes. I think a while back when I tried to make sense of "libertarian socialism" the same passages stood out to me.

As for using Facebook and Twitter as a basis for a planned economy, I can't wait until our entire economy is measured in terms of status updates and scandals.
posted by viborg at 10:28 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hear people use the word capitalism to automatically imply evil rich people hoarding goods from the poor. And I hear people use socialism to imply state in which all freedom is squelched.

Does it REALLY have to be one or the other? I mean it might be, maybe we do EITHER have to have appropriate social programs up to ensure scholastic, acedemic, and career success, to make sure people have what they need to succeed as parents and workers and the like
OR have the freedom to live our lives the way we want.

It strikes me though, that maybe this doesn't have to be such a dichotomy? I mean couldn't we have social programs designed to give people the tools they need to succeed in a capitalist economy? Is that totally radical?

Couldn't we have housing programs that operate on the principle "You can a have a cot, meals, counseling, lifeskills training, and job training for free but if you want your own room, a TV, a stereo, cable, or to move into a better place you need to learn how to earn your own income to buy those things. We're here to help you learn how to do that and process the life issues and internal obstacles that have made this hard for you."

Is that impossible?
posted by xarnop at 2:10 PM on January 26, 2011


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