The Future is Now: On the Anticipation of Post-capitalism

Cover Image by Lauren Panepinto

Introduction

The Future! Do we have one? Every stage of modern history seems to have its own peculiar relation to time. At first the future was a beacon of glorious progress; abundance sure to come! Then the 20th century showed that with great power comes great responsibility, and so the previous vision was amended with a coexisting specter of Armageddon. It was either ahead to the Jetsons or back to the Flintstones. Following that, the very concept of the future was cancelled by a neoliberal state of post-historical endlessness. You want change? Forget it! Our leaders insisted that there was no alternative to the global order they were instituting, and so we had better get used to it. In recent years, however, even this latter futurity seems to be fading. The key culprit is climate change; while the existing political order seems as unchanging as ever, its external circumstances are slowly but surely forcing crisis after crisis upon it. There’s a general sense that things can’t go on like this, that we are living in an inherently unsustainable system. Thus, either we reject it and build something new, or we wait as the rising tide slowly engulfs us. Neither seems to be happening as of yet, and that just leads to mass anxiety. For now, future is an uncertain one.

Still, it’s not as if there’s nothing to inspire us at present. Like I said, we’ve pretty much transcended the earlier sense of an end to history, and the joy of being part of history is that there is something for us to do. As soon as we realize that this system can’t be reformed, that its essential tendencies can’t coexist with the future it’s creating, we immediately enter the quest for an alternative. While some may reject this quest and retreat into apathy, others take up this task like a kind of climate bodhisattva. As a result of their collective endeavor, we are now blessed with a bewildering variety of potential futures. Of course, these can’t all be winners: amid the inspirational, we also find the incoherent, the implausible, and the downright detestable. Nevertheless, if we take those visions which are both realistic and utopian—and the only way to be a realist these days is to be a utopian as well—then a strange pattern emerges. Where once there was only the endlessness of capitalism, we now find a future without it. Here is the true yet imaginary dawn of what I call ‘post-capitalism’.

Defining Post-Capitalism

In a way, this concept is nothing new. Back when socialism as an ideology was first codified, it was already pitched as the next logical step after capitalism. Just as feudalism had been overtaken by capital over the course of centuries, so would the internal developments of the capitalist system inevitably give way to its own successor. Such eschatological optimism had quite a long run, all things considered, even if it took a more geopolitical form once the USSR emerged as a world power. Ironically, it was the latter’s decline and fall which eventually almost killed this narrative, displaced as it was by the triumph of neoliberalism. Only recently has it returned, the product of climate crisis and capitalist inertia. What we’ve come realize is that this parasitic system has no way of avoiding the death of its host. And since that host is our basic lifeworld, we must kill this parasite once and for all.

Indeed, if there is one difference with the confidence of anti-capitalists past, it would be this. While the system is headed for collapse in our present model, there is absolutely no guarantee that the result will be any kind of liberation. Our plight does not produce any kind of inevitable historical outcome, but rather places us amid a desperate struggle for survival. (This has really always been the case, of course, but at least the vulgar interpreters  of Marx used to have a bit more faith in History as such.) Deliberate effort is therefore the name of the game, and while this could potentially lead to an incoherent collection of haphazard ideas and initiatives, the nature of our problem is such that some broad tendencies still emerge. I suppose that’s how history happens in general: collective uncertainty producing retrospective inevitability.

Putting such meditations aside, my point is that we have regained a somewhat unified sense of what the world after capitalism may be like, and are already anticipating our own actions as part of its creation. So yes, we have a future again, but only in this form exactly: as the imaginary projection of what we know, want, and expect. This is what I take ‘the future’ to mean in general, as it helps us to make sense of those previous futures which have now become matters of history, and which are sometimes reformed into distinct retrofutures. Futurelessness in this context becomes synonymousness with our despair about what’s to come, and can therefore be resolved through fervent acts of imagination. Which is precisely what we’re going to do here.

Now, before I go on to discuss the exact attributes of this imagined post-capitalist future, there’s one more point of clarification to be had. The term “post-capitalism” carries a bit of a double meaning, ironically because it’s meaning is too simple altogether. It can technically be used to describe any socio-economic order which happens to follow that of global capitalism, from cyberpunk techno-feudalism to the marauding of the nuclear wasteland. Naturally, that is not how I’ve been using it so far: what I mean to describe is a world which has left capitalism behind it for the sake of a more just and equitable society. Insofar as this shares anything with the more neutral definition, it’s the reminder that this new system still relates to the previous one. Just as post-modernism developed as a reaction of modernism, so does the post-capitalist world exist as a product of what we sometimes (optimistically) call ‘late capitalism’. This aspect of natural progression should not be overemphasized however, lest we return to the kind of teleology I hope to avoid. Only if we consider our own intentionality to be part of the historical process, will the latter turn out to be anything like the post-capitalism we now imagine. We have to be self-fulfilling prophets.

That said, there is another point to calling this future arrangement ‘post-capitalism’ instead of socialism, communism, et cetera. Not only does it develop from what has come before, but the plurality of efforts and initiatives involved means that no single term or program could capture all of them. Indeed, we can even expect some significant part of capitalism to remain under this new arrangement, much like how certain remnants of feudalism still exist at present. Social change is rarely total, never immediate, and its causes don’t have to derive from conscious effort. As such, post-capitalism will not be wholly caused by anti-capitalist actors. Our push may be the most direct and forceful aspect of it, sure, but it won’t be the only part of this overall paradigm shift.

In general, there is a lot to be learned here from that earlier transition between feudalism and capitalism, as well as the internal developments of capitalism itself. The drive of revolutionary actors was always just one part of a larger dynamic between the ruling, the ruled, and a whole bunch of external actors and factors. The fundamental changes took a long time, and always proceeded in a halting and incomplete fashion. It’s why there are still so many constitutional monarchies around, or why global capital doesn’t reach into every aspect of every social interaction (thank goodness). There’s always more to the world than any one system can capture, however utopian that system might be. History does not obey.

To bring it all together, I would say that our understanding of post-capitalism is caught up in an essential dialectic. Within this concept, there is an inherent tension between what we want and what is likely, between our own position and the larger movement. It is the central contradiction of post-capitalism, and will recur as we move forward. Watch out for it!

Inspiration in Prefiguration

Finally, with all these caveats incorporated, we can begin to wonder about the particular makeup of the world after capitalism. A good first question would be one of inspiration: where are we getting our ideas from? What’s important here is that we’re not just looking for nice suggestions of a non-capitalist society, but also for a plausible way to achieve this central vision. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the quest for plausibility is often a quite conservative impulse; we don’t want to sell out our principles before we’ve even given them form.

As a way of reconciling these concerns, I would introduce the notion of ‘prefiguration’ to our post-capitalist imagination. This term denotes those social and political practices which eliminate any means-ends distinction in their mode of operation. In other words, the way they effect forms of radical social change is by directly instantiating (part of) their desired society in the here and now. By mostly focusing on examples of this kind of organization, I believe we could easily find a good amount of present-day inspiration to pull from. After all, the form of the future is reflected in such projects.

So, what sort of post-capitalism is indicated by these prefigurations? The first thing to note would be the sheer diversity of socio-economic strategies on display. Even though most of the initiatives I’m basing this impression on could be described as some kind of libertarian socialism, it is precisely the free and diffuse nature of this ideology which produces such a myriad of examples. It is utterly unlike that programmatic modernism which the old state socialists would use to plan out their utopias. Instead, we see a proliferation of local and decentralized initiatives, individual projects which nevertheless exist as part of some larger aspiration. Though their collective aims are quite general, I still believe I can summarize them here.

In matters of production, that classic concern of the anti-capitalist cause, there is a clear tendency towards the democratization of work. Whether it happens through renewed unionization drives (which may or may not be prefigurative) or else the founding of worker co-operatives, it seems as obvious as ever that the means of production must be seized from capital. The only real question in this regard is whether we can do so without essentially preserving the capitalist market system. Unions and co-operatives cannot abolish capitalism all by themselves; if we are to avoid its endemic drives towards growth, commodification, and rent-seeking, we require a larger system of economic coordination.    

Luckily, the aforementioned revolution in labor relations is imagined as part of a larger transformation of the economic paradigm. The entire capitalist calculus will have to be altered if its many excesses are to be avoided and redressed. Even if the post-capitalist relation to markets is rather ambivalent—it really depends on how you define the term—there seems to be a marked tendency towards altering the main modes of exchange. Terms like demurrage, parecon, and the commons signify just some of the ways in which the global financial system is being rethought. While not all of these designs are equally radical, and many of them yet lack a proper prefigurative expression, those that have been implemented represent the beginnings of a profound social-material transformation. Through ecological accounting and mutual aid, the healing of this world can finally commence.

Beyond these economic concerns, let us also take a moment to consider the more explicitly political aspects of this prefigured post-capitalism. In general, these seem to trend towards an anarchistic understanding of participatory government, the kind of ‘democracy’ which relies more on collective deliberation rather than representative electoralism. While the usual democratic dangers of charismatic authority and majoritarian enforcement remain, the resulting tendency is still one of diminished statism. The value of direct communal self-government (potentially combined with a delegated form of ‘federalism’) is one which every revolutionary generation seems to reinvent for itself, from the Commune of Paris to the soviets of Russia to the caracoles of present-day Chiapas. Practicing this form in the here and now will therefore serve as both liberation and preparation, keeping our organizational weapons sharp and scalable even as they already affect us presently.

But this is just one example of political prefiguration. When taken as part of a wider drive towards the ‘destitution’ of kyriarchy, these democratic practices can be easily connected to such causes as police abolition and open source insulin production. Their overall aim is to create a parallel political order which could ‘hollow out’ the existing powers of state and capital by its very existence. Incidentally, this is the ‘theory of change’ which proponents of prefiguration generally appeal to: through the establishment of ‘dual power’, a set of parallel institutions which exist along but also against the state, we begin the mobilization which will allow us to eventually if not progressively free ourselves altogether. Where one wanes, the other waxes.

Thus for prefiguration and its (dual) power. While this mode of organization is certainly central to our conception of post-capitalism, it is important to recognize that not all indications of the coming revolution are strictly prefigurative. To be sure, the imprint of this better world may be recognized in everything that works to realize it; it’s just that this component won’t completely mirror it already. Roughly speaking, these non-prefigurative prefigurations fall into two categories: either they’re the instrumental means of state and non-state actors, or else their form is imaginary altogether.

Instrumentality and the State

The first of these categories might be a bit confusing. So far, the way I’ve discussed political prefiguration has mostly been from a non-state or even anarchist perspective, thereby creating a conflation which technically isn’t true. If prefiguration merely refers to the synchronization of means and ends, then this can apply to the state as much as to any other political actor. However, because state socialists have historically defended the state for its instrumental value, presenting it as the primary means of achieving the statelessness of communism (however plausible that seems), the aforementioned conflation appears quite naturally.

Still, if a post-capitalist world is going to be established, it seems unlikely that those who wield the residual power of the state will treat it in a purely instrumental fashion. Even now, some of the most impactful designs on how to tackle capitalism and the climate crisis—like full employment and the circular economy—still treat the preservation of state society as their primary concern. Though  we might expect that these ‘conservative’ initiatives will ultimately dig their own grave, dismantling the very basis of capitalism in their attempt to ‘green’ it, we should not misunderstand the intentions of its architects.

To put it another way, prefiguration is to some extent a matter of perspective. One ideology’s means can be another’s ends, and it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which. For example, if we look at such state policies as bail reform and basic income, there is a clear distinction among their proponents between those who see these changes as short-term gains in an ongoing struggle, and those who take them to be just ends in themselves. Based on the anarchistic view which I have been extolling here, it’s clear that the more instrumental reading of these changes is the one to be emphasized.

Taken together, there are plenty of ways in which our likeliest post-capitalisms will fall far short of the full slate of social revolutions. By taking note of this intermediate phase, however, we allow ourselves to frame certain maneuvers as merely instrumental in nature, as a means to either alleviate acute suffering or else build to the destruction of its cause. While the full and immediate realization of utopia will always be preferable, any strategy that can’t be wholly prefigurative must account for a more instrumental theory of change. This doesn’t mean our capitulation to the state, mind you; it’s just that dealing with the state is often an unfortunate necessity of context. We must have some attitude towards it, even if that attitude consists of only sheer and utter enmity. Damn you, vile leviathan!

Imagining Utopia

So much for instrumentality, our ability to conceive of actions and programs as part of a wider and indirect strategy. A much more pleasant form of non-prefigurative ante-post-capitalism is found in the realm of the imagination, where we are free to picture our liberation without the pesky constraints of the present moment. Plausibility becomes naught but a suggestion once we engage in this utopian mode of thought, an exercise which is as refreshing as it is motivational. Indeed, if any accounting for contemporary reality is necessary, it is merely to sketch a path from here to there, to make the realization of utopia seem within our reach. Other than that, we can let our dreams be dreams.

Of course, the specifically post-capitalist utopia is itself a more particular beast. Taken as a kind of literary sub-genre, we must necessarily situate it in its historical time and place. For as much as their form and function can sometimes seem unchanged from the days of Bellamy and Morris, their contemporary context is quite different altogether. A century of dystopia in both fiction and reality has made us perhaps a bit more skeptical towards promises of a perfected world. Even if we want and need some big, bold societal solution, we are also far too conscious of its authoritarian potential.

Modern utopian literature is not insensitive to these concerns. Over the past fifty years, this genre has steadily evolved into a form where utopia is also already meta-utopia. What I mean by this is two things: first, that many contemporary examples of utopian writing are also concerned with the desirability of utopian thought as such, questioning their own function within the text; and secondly, that any singular vision is warded off in favor of a structured plurality, the internal disputation of various utopian factions. If all of this seems a bit confusing, just imagine a vast archipelago of social experiments, all of them constantly fighting amongst themselves even as they have no idea of what they’re doing altogether. That is the modern utopia.

With this in mind, perhaps my earlier definition of post-capitalism itself now looks a bit more clear. If even the most unabashed utopians are prioritizing pluralism and self-consciousness as preconditions of a better world, then clearly these factors should be reflected in the coming paradigm. The overall attitude this mode of imagination encourages is one of simultaneous idealism and openness. Both of these are necessary ingredients if we are to proceed towards a better world, freely but fervently. Though we cannot and will not control of the processes involved, at least we can grasp our role within it, along with the effort we can exercise to push things in the right direction. Such is the function of utopia at present.

But this explanation wouldn’t be complete without some concrete examples. While utopian fiction isn’t always known for its concreteness—except perhaps in displaying the bizarre idiosyncrasies of its authors—its recent incarnations have put a greater emphasis on depicting possible if not plausible scenarios. A key author in this regard is Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars Trilogy provides a paradigmatic example of the archipelagic model I sketched just earlier. Kim has not been idle since writing these books back in the 1990s, and his latest work, The Ministry for the Future, may just be another archetypical case study. In this grand history of the near future, he lays out how our current climate crisis may be tackled through the progressive establishment of a post-capitalist world system. While much of the focus is on high-level social and financial policy, the novel does not shy away from pointing out the necessity of eco-terrorism. Only when politicians and corporate executives fear for their lives can we bring about the necessary changes. Thus, as the global ruling class is forced into movement from below, the economic superstructure finally begins to shift into an alternative post-capitalist model. Though this process is still ongoing by the end of the book, and arguably falls short of a proper non-capitalist reality in various aspects, the indication of a viable path to such vast societal changes is still to be lauded. Without the inspirational imaginings of people like Robinson, our present future would certainly be a lot harder to deal with.

On this note, another significant work in the emerging post-capitalist literary tradition is Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis. Compared to Ministry for the Future, this book assumes a more traditional utopian form, being very reminiscent of its late 19th century antecedents. Much as in those narratives, here we find that an accident of science leads to the discovery of a wondrous alternate reality. More specifically, a wormhole is opened by one of its protagonists which leads to a utopian parallel universe, one that split off from our own around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. Where we collectively squandered this golden opportunity for drastic systemic change (much as some of us tried to effect it), this world successfully transformed the global economic order into one of democratic market socialism. While the big picture falls far short of the kind of ‘full anarchy’ I would be aiming for, it still meets the definition of post-capitalism through its collation of various fundamental social changes. In spite of its faults, it’s still an impressive societal sketch altogether, grappling with the dizzying volume of contemporary left-wing proposals in a way that’s both general and idiosyncratic. Whatever it is, I think it’s worth reading, if only to imagine a suitable ‘Morris’ for the ‘Bellamy’ that is Varoufakis. As usual, a utopia is only as useful as its context.

Finally, I would like to consider some of the lapses in our collective imagination. As useful as these aforementioned works might be, they are but the beginning of what I believe utopian fiction could accomplish at the present time. For starters, they yet encompass only a fraction of the technologies and initiatives which would be involved in establishing a post-capitalist society. While I’m no fan of techno-fixes, the potential of radical ‘low-tech’ simplifications along with that of decentralized energy and fabrication networks is hard to deny. In fiction, some of this material reimagination is captured by the work of Cory Doctorow (whom I’ve shamefully read too little of), as well as the more general aesthetic of solarpunk. Unfortunately, the popularity of the latter genre still seems to be lagging behind that of other ‘-punks’, perhaps due to its lack of a breakout work like William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Whatever the explanation, it is vital that the technological imagination of post-capitalism isn’t left to the eco-modernists, whose ongoing domination of nature is exactly part of our present problem. We need utopias that are willing to go to the root of the issue, preserving a vital pluralism while also criticizing those visions which would undermine our entire effort through their unsustainability. Even if terms like ‘degrowth’ are taken increasingly seriously on an academic level, their ethical import is not yet properly reflected in our collective imagination. That needs to change.

At last, then, I would suggest that our utopian imagining itself becomes a bit of a prefiguration. What I mean by this are broadly two things. First, that we leave our visions open and incomplete, both to prevent the sly authoritarianism which marks any total picture of society and to encourage others to fill these blanks in for themselves. Secondly, that we provide these utopias freely, outside of the bounds of intellectual property. A free society is built on free information, and while certain works and rituals certainly deserve to be privileged, none should be restricted through the formation of capital. For us to put utopia behind a paywall is already to enclose it. Let not our medium hinder our message.

Conclusion

And with that, I think we’ve come to the end of this brief exploration. The horizon of post-capitalism, for as much as I’ve tried to sketch it here, is still very much uncertain. We have to squint to even see it, reading between the lines our culture for a hint of what’s ahead. Of course, once you take note of these tendencies, the challenge of keeping them all coherent is still greater. It’s for this reason that I would compare it to the method described in my earlier piece about the future; while the possibilities of post-capitalism are just a fraction of our total futurity, their dizzying diversity is still quite similar. I guess the future is fractal like that.

Anyway, my point is that none of what I’ve discussed above should be taken as a definitive determination about the world after capitalism. Indeed, there can be no such determination until the damned thing has been realized! Still, I think its present imagination can lend us equal parts solace and resolve, knowing that the world which confines us presently need not be our only option.

In fact, it’s the very variability in potential futures which should give us pause. We are never the only people working towards the abolition of capitalism, conscious or otherwise. By taking notes of these other agents and their programs, we can learn to properly anticipate and influence the course of events. Though the future is not some great chess game of various cynical actors, neither are we free to create it unilaterally. There are always others to be taken into account.  

In the end, however, I would like to end on a hopeful note. For as much as these happenings are ultimately out of our hands, we can still find joy and freedom in the role we’ve made for ourselves. Even as part of a greater movement, we still have power over our attitudes and actions towards it. This is true of the future as much as the now; the movements I’ve projected are already being prefigured today. In this precise way, the post-capitalist future is inescapable; all of its musings and maneuvers exist wholly in the present moment. When we imagine it, when we prefigure it, post-capitalism is already here.

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