Okay for those who may have got bogged down in the thousand words or so about the Maoist-Eurocommunist struggle in the BLF in the 1970s in yesterday’s article on the left, a very brief recap of the last part:

  1. Though a unified left has disintegrated, the challenges it spoke of – the structural contradictions of capitalism, ecological collapse from overconsumption, and the nihilistic effects of a civilisation subsumed under the rule of the commodity – have largely come to pass and are visible to billions of people.
  2. In the East, capitalist development will not and cannot simply repeat that of Western capitalism, and enormous class struggles are in the offing.
  3. In the West, an increasingly educated population, and a society where large sections have become implicitly self-managing has made a socialist framework immanent in everyday life. To look around and see an absence of political alternatives because of the absence of old style rank-and-file politics is to make an error of assessment. Post-capitalism is evolving within the increasingly ramshackle apparatus of capitalism.

That’s the “is”. But what about the “ought”? Why a society based on some other principle? And why haven’t we spoken of it before?

Those of us on the left are wary of expounding abstract alternative schema in the absence of movements wherein they would be actively discussed. That varies in time and place. In Latin America today, there is an enormous amount going on. Though the public face of it is the frequently irritating antics of Hugo Chavez, in every country save the corrupt redoubt of Colombia, new modes of distribution, co-operative production, intersection between intellectual life and everyday existence are being developed.

Drawing as much from Catholic traditions of “subsidiarity” as Marxist notions of anti-imperialism, the continent is leaping ahead of everywhere else in finding ways of doing things that promote equality without penalising initiative. There, different types of alternatives can be actively and concretely debated.

And in the West, from the 1880s to the 1970s, such debates could transfix an audience. In the 40s, pamphlets by either the Communist Party or the forerunner of the NCC (expounding Santamaria’s loopy Pol-Pot idea to evacuate the cities and create rural communes run by bishops) could sell 50-100,000 copies. In the 20s, people queued round the block for hours to get tickets to hear GK Chesterton and Bernard Shaw debate public control of central banking — presenting alternative schema that would seem identical to us today.

These debates will emerge again, when there is no choice but to have them. At that point, consciousness will change remarkably fast. The acuteness, intelligence and reflectiveness that people apply to running a sports club, a parenting group, the quasi-theological manner in which they discuss the pros and cons of a video umpire for a grand final, will be transferred to the management of the parts of their lives that are now held out of bounds, as “the economy”, once the bankers have budded and burst the next few bubbles, and f-cked everything up beyond the recuperable abilities of the current system.

That transformation can probably be called socialism when it starts happening — because by that time, the dour images of the last time around — Brezhnev and British Leyland — will have faded from memory. For the moment one can talk more about the ethical principles that underlie it.

Would a transformed post-capitalist economic and social system abolish money, markets and property? Of course not. These things pre-date capitalism and will continue after it. Capitalism is the system and the era when these things dominate not only the way we produce our lives, but also the way in which we think about ourselves and our world.

A post-capitalist system reverses the current relationship between culture/society and market/economy so that the former determines the latter and not, as currently happens, economy dictating to society and culture.

As a rough schema that implies:

1) Social ownership of essential organisations. Anything that’s “too big to fail” — major banks, telecoms, utilities etc — should be majority-owned by the community. The share is held in trust, and represented by a “social board” parallel to, or mixed-in with the commercial board. The social board is elected, not appointed by the state.

Thus for example, the recent splitting of Telstra — a mild move to the left–– would see the wholesale arm of it acquire a social board, and pass into social ownership. The commercial arm could continue in the marketplace.

2) Relocalisation and decommodification — the current culture economy web of capitalism is based on an implicit social contract, that no-one ever signed up to. Under this contract you work longer and harder, while the price of essentials — especially home ownership — are ramped up into lifelong servitude to payment to institutions. The pay-off? Cheap consumer durables and entertainment services.

Forget the civilisational critique of this for a moment — on its own terms, it pitches the whole society into trembling economic fragility in which a whole way of life is based on Xmas sales, and shopping becomes an essential patriotic activity.

Of course this can’t continue — but the expectations it has raised in people cannot be assuaged by any shift to a harsher economy. A half-century ago, you could get people to work 48 hours a week for a weatherboard, a radiogram, a pub counter meal once a week and three course meal when their daughter got married. Any breach of the current contract — 50 hours in the office partition for $12 cocktails and DVD box sets — ain’t gonna fly.

Protestant capitalism cannot be re-established after consumer capitalism. And consumer capitalism cannot continue to sustain the Western economy. An economic-cultural crisis is in the works.

Such a crunch will necessitate a process of uncoupling notions of social progress from GDP growth, and a separation of the notion of freedom from consumer choice. As a social movement, the re-establishment of decommodified spheres of life, in everything from food production and house building to intellectual and cultural production. To facilitate this, the state will need to innovate and change tax scales and exemptions, land ownership systems, intellectual property laws — all to make more flexible and multiply-expressed forms of life possible.

The push for these things will occur en masse once the jerry-built, sellotaped-together and manifestly inefficient structures of global capitalism do not so much collapse as rust to a halt. Once that occurs, the culture itself will start to shift and change, to a more expansive idea of the human.

Just as the rise of liberalism and capitalism liberated a dimension of the human – our protean and promethean capacity — that feudalism had had to suppress in order to maintain itself, so a post-capitalist order will liberate what capitalism has to suppress, our capacity to shape our own lives through collective and communal dialogue about priorities and values (kidney machines versus jet skis, free time versus flat-screens).

Will that future be anything like the communism envisaged in the early Marx, or Lenin’s utopian State and Revolution? Emphatically not. Money, pricing, markets, wages will continue to exist — they simply won’t dominate existence. Social control of public institutions won’t end corruption, inefficiency, etc, but they will create a place where social debate and conflict over the running of society can be had in a genuinely democratic fashion. And it may not happen at all — or there may be rough times before it becomes possible.

Lethal global wars over resources, possibly encompassing a new generalised racism, coupled with violently repressive capitalist dictatorships, and a generalised victory of nihilism — such that we lose the capacity, for example, to see the moral horror of a free market in live organ transplants – may be the other result (anyone scoffing at this apocalyptic scenario should imagine they are reading it in 1909, in, say, Warsaw, by way of comparison). In that case, by the end of the century, the planet may be a giant charnel house. There is either going to be a victory of a genuinely democratic and human system, or a barbarism.

In that respect, a left vision grounds itself ethically on the notion — promulgated in the great religions, secularised by Kant – that humans should treated each other as ends, not means.

At a social level that decisively rejects any sort of classical liberal or neoliberal approach which is indifferent to economic relationships and equality in their conception of freedom. It subordinates property, etc to a wider conception of freedom. That someone can open a flower shop if they want to is an expression of freedom. That a bank owns our airports is an expression of its opposite.

At a cultural level, that implies that one has to stand up for a permanently decommodified areas of society — institutions such as childcare, crime and punishment, education (that does not rule out non-government education however) and so on. It implies not a defensive reaction to commodification, but a positive insistence that some things need to be outside of the market for there to be a culture, for the market to sit within the polis, and not vice-versa.

Clearly many of us have assumed too much in focusing on critical accounts of the contemporary world, and not enough of alternative visions – if the anodyne and idealess series of articles in the Oz over the past week is anything to go by.

As I noted, the choice appears to be deliberate — or maybe it is simply that the editors are as unimaginative and timid as the contributors they chose. Whatever the case, it’s clear that some of us are going to have to be more vocal and explicit about possible futures.

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Peter Fray
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