Imagining postcapitalism: an introduction

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This diary will argue the necessity of imagining a world after capitalism in this era.  This is so because the left, in America and elsewhere, currently finds itself in a cul-de-sac both of intellectual and of social proportions.  Centrally, I criticize the left for not using its imagination to fight what Antonio Gramsci called the “war of position.”  This will be part of a diary series, “Imagining postcapitalism,” which will be posted here and elsewhere, as the foundation for an online think-tank of sorts.  The “postcapitalism” group on DK4 will be one of a number of foci for this online think-tank.  Other contributors will be encouraged to post diaries as part of this series, to infuse a variety of perspectives into the project.

(crossposted at Orange)

If this is the prevalent imaginary of humankind in the contemporary Western world, the rebirth of the project of autonomy requires tremendous changes, a real earthquake, not in terms of physical violence but in terms of people’s beliefs and behavior.  It involves a radical change in the representation of the world and of the place of human beings within the world. The representation of the world as the object of increasing mastery or as the backdrop for an anthroposphere must be destroyed.  (Cornelius Castoriadis, from “Figures of the Thinkable, p. 149)

What would it take to have a real revolution?  And, here, by “real revolution” I mean a revolution that really changed the shape of society, and not merely a coup d’etat or election or other such procedure which put a different group into power while leaving the overall trend more or less the same.

The above quote by Cornelius Castoriadis was written in an essay titled “What democracy?”  Castoriadis wrote those sentences in the wake of the early-1990s collapse of the eastern European regimes, as well as of the supposed “democratization” of much of the Americas.  His argument was a familiar one: the extension of formal democracy to much of the world was a legal nicety, since “from the standpoint of effective social-historical reality, not of the letter of the law, we live in highly inegalitarian societies, including and above all, with respect to power of all sorts.” (p. 122)  Much of the argument in “What Democracy?” critiques the idea of representation, using arguments which should be familiar by now: real power rests in the hands of the political parties, the politicians themselves are unimaginative conformists , the rich are the ones with real power, the real decisions are the ones being made in secret, and the choices being presented to the voters are fundamentally unimportant.  Thus voting does not really decide a whole lot.

Castoriadis did not view present-day representative democracy as a sufficient condition of fundamental social change, of any sort of real revolution.  In fact, from his perspective democracy as such did not really touch (much less change) the “regime of liberal oligarchy” (p. 145) which is bringing planet Earth to ruin.

Castoriadis saw the “social-historical reality,” of our time and of other eras, as largely determined by the “project of unlimited rational mastery,” in which the competition of various powers to produce the most effective methods of domination determines the shape of society.  (We’re going to hear more about this “competition,” of course, in the forthcoming State of the Union address.)   The ultimate end of the project of unlimited rational mastery appears to have been a global capitalist system, which lost its last ideological contender when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991.

Castoriadis thought that the only event which would really change the “project of unlimited rational mastery” would be a change in the “social imaginary,” thus the quote at the top of this diary.  The definition of “social imaginary” given in Wikipedia is a bit vague — what is at stake in the idea of the social imaginary is that the social order is not merely constituted by buildings, institutions, and physical forces, but must be consistently imagined and reimagined by those who play its social roles.

An example I typically use to illustrate the social imaginary is that of law.  The law is indeed constituted by courts, cops, judges, jails, statutes, lawmakers, and other material artifacts of “the law,” but for all of the legal authorities to do their jobs in the everyday function of “the law,” the substance of the law must be consistently imagined and reimagined for it to have any substance at all.  Typically we call the legal imagination “legal interpretation” or perhaps “jurisprudence,” but insofar as doing its work involves acts of imagination, it is part of the “social imaginary.”

My example of law, above, can thus be applied to the whole of the social order.  The social order is constituted by networks of communication, transportation, energy, administration, money, and so on, but all such networks are kept going by a social imaginary, a symbolic order, with which we create and recreate the power of the United States, the global wealthy elites, the corporate economic order, and so on.  The social imaginary is the part of the framework of the social order which it will be most necessary to change if we wish to change the social order itself.

We can see what change would be necessary to achieve the aim Castoriadis laid out by thinking of the science of ecology and its role in present-day world society.  Ecology is a science mostly studied in academic departments, but rarely applied in real life.  What if all of our endeavors were applications of ecology, and we applied ecology in our everyday life with the ultimate goal of preserving Earth’s ecosystems?  What would that look like?  This is the sort of imagination I have in mind here.

Thus the name of my project, here, is “imagining postcapitalism.”  I want to see the capitalist system changed through a change in the social imaginary, hopefully at some point before the capitalist social order destroys itself and takes out the ecosystems of planet Earth with it.  My project starts from the presumption that there is a necessary role for the imagination in creating the revolution which will replace the capitalist system with something better.  Before a world without capitalism can be created, it first needs to be imagined: imagine a world without capitalism.

So what would it look like?  How are we going to the corporations into bankruptcy while setting up our own economic system based (perhaps) on local currencies, sharing, and affinity groups?  How would we deal with the environmental mess the capitalist system left behind?  How can we end the prison-industrial complex?  Urban poverty?  Hunger?

“Imagining postcapitalism” is not an exercise in what Friedrich Engels called “utopianism.”  The utopian blueprint, as discussed in marxist literature, is a plan for “how it’s all going to work out” once the revolution happens.  The standard marxist critique of “utopianism” as such takes its cue from Engels’ Socialism Utopian And Scientific, and the standard blueprint for utopia is usually ascribed to Charles Fourier, who was largely an inspiration for 19th-century communes because his plan had everyone living in giant hotels which he called “phalansteries.”  Engels disdained Fourier and the other utopian socialists for what he called “scientific socialism.”

Now, Fourier was a very imaginative man — a reading of The Theory of the Four Movements will tell you that.  And of course many of his ideas seem kind of foolish.  However, we can see from actual applications of so-called “scientific socialism” that neither the social imaginary, nor the imagination, disappeared when the 20th-century socialists tried to create a better world than the one ruled by the capitalists.  Even the gray bureaucrats of the Soviet Union had to employ some form of imaginative thought to do what they did — though for Cornelius Castoriadis the Soviets counted as just another symptom of the intellectual conformism of our time.  (Thus for Castoriadis there was no fundamental difference in the social imaginary of Soviet life from that of the life of capitalist society — just a difference in the form of government the Soviets employed.)

Nor is this a matter of mere philosophy — for when we imagine postcapitalism we’re imagining the revolution itself.  Is there only one cut-and-dried way of conducting a revolution, good for all times and places?  The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci pictures social revolutions, in general, as occurring in two stages:

1) The war of position, fundamentally a culture war in which cultural entities are recruited and fortified to promote social change

2) The war of maneuver, an open insurrection against the capitalist system.

Currently, we are in the culture war, the war of position, and if anything, the “left” version of the war of position in the US is sorely lacking in imaginative details.  “Progressives” write their Congressmembers, participate in campaigns, and so on — it doesn’t seem as organized (or half as imaginative) as the “war of position” being waged by the Right, with its connections between mass media, churches, local organizations, think tanks, and so on.  One of the strengths of, at least in its DK3 version, is that it could serve as a base for the promotion of a unified culture of the “left.”  I can’t really say how that will work with DK4, with its emphasis upon “groups.”

Thus we are back to imagining postcapitalism.  Now, I am not clear that we are, as a human species, making very much progress in this at all.  Perhaps there are organizations here and there who have imagined a postcapitalism — three come to mind (the Zapatistas, the MST in Brazil, the MAS in Bolivia.  There’s also “21st-Century socialism” as a movement in the Venezuelan context.)  As Kees van der Pijl argues at the end of his recent book Nomads, Empires, States, world politics appears to be headed for a resurgence of tribal (see e.g. the former Yugoslavia) and nomadic (see e.g. Turkish-origin residents of Germany, or Mexican-origin residents of the US) modes of social organization, and most of these social units aren’t really organized into any mode of social being far beyond that of survival in a world of 793 billionaires and 3 billion people earning less than $2.50/day.

And then you have the balkanized small-group “left” in the United States.  I intend to create a “postcapitalism” group when DK4 starts, but at this point I feel that it will end up as just another small group in a sea of small groups.  What I’d like is for there to be another place to go on the Internet which could be effective as a base for the creation of a broader united “left” in the US context.  Can such an internet site be created?


So far, I have two diaries in mind for this project:

1) Political economy, in which I will discuss the original separation into politics and economics of a field known as political economy, and why a rediscovery of political economy would be helpful to imagine the economic order as something not set in stone.

2) Rhetoric, in which I will discuss what really counts as “persuasion” in the capitalist social context — having of course to do with money.

From there I would be interested in hearing your ideas.


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  1. I went to dkos and posted there but was dismayed by the knee jerk reactions of those who find the prospects of anti capitalism so fearful and have equated the squid on humanities face with Democratic governance.

    I would love to join your group. I tried to do the anti capitalism group on Sundays but found that many there were so overtly hostile to lefties who did not support Obama or believe in his vision I quit coming. People who routinely insult and vilify the left coming and taking about the evils of capitalism was too hard to swallow. I felt unwelcome.

    I know I should not hold grudges but when people question your good faith because you are white and don’t support Obama and his nasty ass Third Way it’s hard to discuss any kind of vision of a society that is about democracy or economic equality. But I will show up and participate if I am welcome.

    Thanks for the diary look forward to the next. In order to realize any dream you need imagination and you need to not be afraid of following the vision as the direction is not mapped by where we are. It starts where we are like all change, it is up to we the people to find the direction and move towards the vision. your call for imagining a world with out capitalism is that start. all things are possible when you have the freedom to imagine and work together to implement the real dreams of common cause..      

  2. the eventual post modern world might be good.  I would rather focus on the engineered design of our demise though as illustrated in the infamous Kissinger quotes.

    • ANKOSS on January 25, 2011 at 03:13

    The current concept of money encourages dishonesty and predation. Money needs to be reinvented as a measure of esteem. This means an end to crude contractual pricing of labor and creation of new means of evaluating worth. Information technology may enable sophisticated and reliable measures of the “goodness” of a person’s work that can be the foundation of a new economy of esteem.

    Many of the finest achievements of our civilization have been motivated by the desire for esteem, not the pursuit of riches. While one can lie, cheat, and steal to achieve monetary wealth, one cannot fraudulently obtain esteem. That is a crucial distinction, and it will make all the difference in building a sustainable world civilization that can drive knaves and thieves out of the ranks of leadership.

  3. here, and once on the WildWildLeft by another PhD, if you are not in fact, he.

    I looked at some of the comments on the big Orange and your comment about us not knowing how to do a revolution is where I think we are as well.

    I have no idea what a post capitalist economy would be like.  I simply can’t imagine one any more than I can imagine life after death.  And I am an atheist.

    The root of capitalism is human greed, and under no circumstances have we been able to root greed out of any political/economic system or even come close to controlling it for any length of time.  Greed ultimately will corrupt every political/economic device man can imagine or devise.

    If you want a post capitalist world, you better figure out how to genetically transform man first.  Until we can change our DNA, we will always be in a capitalist world, though perhaps by a different name.

  4. Interesting thought processes!

    By thinking, in terms of a “different” realm, you can actually create that realm.  There is truth to that!  

    • Diane G on January 25, 2011 at 12:35

    to imagining post capitalism is indeed the fact it is based on a reward system for those who extract the most from other individuals. This reward system assigns power and influence to an increasingly smaller pool of individuals who employ every available means to create a social fabric and political economy that serves it.

    To imagine a system without that is to imagine a system that

    a) punishes, instead, those who extract too much from the “system.”

    b) still rewards exceptional efforts to improve the “system.”

    Our reward system thus far has always been in terms of material easing of one’s condition: surplus food, superior real estate, education, healthcare, ease of mobility, access to press.

    We need a different reward system, a new way of thinking.

    It may have to start with a takeover of the press. Is acclaim enough reward, and shunning enough of a deterrent? I don’t know, but I do know we need to start placing public value on good behaviors rather than selfish ones.

  5. This is a short excerpt from “Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country” by Hartmann that was released by Truthout in yesterday’s daily email blurb. In any conversation about a post capitalism economy, this is a must read, imho. Education is the pivot point to the system that he has described, as the priest that started it all in Basque country, started with a university.

    Once again I looked at the local news this morning and heard of another school being closed down, all because the working class says “no new taxes”. The biggest issue in my opinion is getting the rhetoric changed around to taxing the rich. But of course the dialouge is controlled by the rich so the uneducated don’t see the difference in taxing the rich and taxing the middle class, the cry is just “no new taxes”. Typical catch 22. Education is the lynch pin, and until emotions are taken out of the poitical dialouge, fear will rule the discussion, and education will continue to lose out to defense.

  6. experiences and the opportunities for people to share their discoveries of self? Our world is a very aggressive and competitive place requiring camoflaged intentions. The sphere of symbols (semiosphere) reinforces this. Knowing who we are deep down might be a little more important than knowing what we want to be. Our instinctive and intuitive abilities need to be awakened, and the maternal spirit of life rediscovered. Camille Paglia has it backwards: Apollo has built himself a world of trouble in a short two thousand years. What looks good ain’t necessarily so.  

  7. … imagine post-corporatism, so imagining post-capitalism is more a chore than an exciting vista, with all the “well, if these decentralized decisions are allowed to be made by that group using the medium of exchange to gather together resources, its that capitalist or not” semantic issues to wade through, when what I want to do is to plot how to take down the high barons of ecological destruction and replace them with something better, irrespective of whether or how much it might be considered “capitalist”.

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