April 17, 2009
One of my recurring critiques of the anarchist movement is that it is focused too much in the past, whether that means adhering to the philosophies of thinkers who died a century ago or glorifying and seeking to replicate ad nauseum more recent victories like the Battle of Seattle. In relation to transhumanism, the anarchist movement is certainly either blind — or worse, reactionary, like the primitivists — when it comes to envisioning some of the practical and liberatory uses of technology to create the society we envision. When you factor in that anarchists hope to establish a future horizontalist social system, you would think there would be more effort placed into strategically planning how we go from here to there.
When it comes to the current economic crisis, there’s been a lot of effort to simply explain what’s going on and what the causes were. Even though there’s general acceptance that capitalism is going to be transformed once again, there’s hasn’t been much done to forecast what the outcomes might be. This is important for developing an anarchist strategy to this crisis, as the organizing to take advantage of an economic collapse is going to be quite different from organizing in anticipation of a more repressive yet social democratic state.
Guessing the future is never easy. Most futurists get it wrong, sometimes drastically so. Transformative black swans such as personal computing or the internet are often overlooked entirely. The point of playing the forecasting game isn’t too predict with absolute accuracy, however. Futurists typically assemble different scenarios that represent likely, or at least possible, outcomes, and then use these as a way to think about what *might* occur. This scenario-based approach lets people think about and prepare for the future with some flexibility, and also allows us to identify what some of the common themes are that appear in multiple scenarios and so identify those as (perhaps) more likely, or at least worthy of extra consideration.
With that in mind, I think it’d be a good exercise for anarchists to start writing up different scenarios for how this global economic crisis might play out. Perhaps there are already some scenarios out there that I haven’t stumbled across yet. I don’t have the time to write up a bunch of scenarios in detail myself, but I can at least get the ball rolling by providing some potential scenario seeds. So here are a few short blurbs on what I think some potentials outcomes might be:
Scenario #1) Business As Usual
Obama & Co. work hard to save the system and let the financial sector continue on as is. Rather than nationalization, however, the private sector gets bailed out and remains autonomous while the public takes the losses. This system is not easily sustained, however, so for an indefinite period we see increased economic hardship as the bankers continue to take risks that everyone else pays for, increased military action as the US seeks to dominate and open up new markets, and increased repression as the the state puts down those who get fed up enough to fight back.
The Quiet Coup spells out this scenario a bit:
The first involves complicated bank-by-bank deals and a continual drumbeat of (repeated) bailouts, like the ones we saw in February with Citigroup and AIG. The administration will try to muddle through, and confusion will reign.
Boris Fyodorov, the late finance minister of Russia, struggled for much of the past 20 years against oligarchs, corruption, and abuse of authority in all its forms. He liked to say that confusion and chaos were very much in the interests of the powerful—letting them take things, legally and illegally, with impunity. When inflation is high, who can say what a piece of property is really worth? When the credit system is supported by byzantine government arrangements and backroom deals, how do you know that you aren’t being fleeced?
Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear.
Scenario #2) Economic Collapse
Despite the best efforts of the financial capitalists to save their system, the crisis has already progressed too far, and the house of cards finally comes tumbling down.
Again, The Quiet Coup spelled out how this might look:
The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we’ll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe’s banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration’s current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy “stress scenario” that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks’ balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.
Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated.
The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.
Of course, what happens in the wake of such a collapse is a big question. It might propel us towards a regrouping of capitalism, perhaps steering towards one of the scenarios below. It could create an opening and an awakening that spurs mass action to instill a new, more egalitarian and horizontal system. It could also create an opening for a resurgent fascism (see below). Or it could be Mad Max, who knows.
Scenario #3) Neo “New Deal” Capitalism
Many people are looking back at the New Deal for methods to restore the economy. These usually incorporate initiatives like major public building projects, job and relief programs, nationalizing banks, and increased entitlement. This Alternet article spells out such a plan in detail. While it doesn’t seem that Obama’s current plan is likely to steer this way, there’s a small chance that popular pressure might force some of this into being (and this outcome is possibly preferable to the ruling financial interests than many of the other options).
Scenario #4) Reformed/Social Capitalism
Bowing to public pressure, and pressure from non-risk-taking capitalists, capitalism is forced to re-invent itself, taking on more of a social-democratic/socialist aspect. There’s already a sizable portion of the US population that is amenable to non-revolutionary forms of socialism, such as those found in many western European countries.
This scenario is spelled out a bit in Jump! You Fuckers!:
The choice is not simply between state control and private capitalism, whatever the empire-builders in the state and corporate bureaucracies would like to tell us. The structure of companies has an important, a crucial, bearing on the opportunities for financial speculation. Employee ownership reduces them to zero. A system revised at the level of transnational capital flows must also be reformed at the level of the enterprise. State bailouts should be followed by employee buyouts as a matter of course. It is only a kind of intellectual exhaustion to insist that once the economy has been nursed back to health it should be returned to the supervision of its tormentors.
As Richard Wolff points out, employee ownership and control, with oversight of management being seen as normal part of working life, will make a reformed global financial system more durable, by giving knowledge and economic power to those with an interest in defending it. Financial engineering gives way to, well, to engineering, and other materially productive activities, since owners who are also workers and future pensioners will have little interest in accelerating the balance sheet by selling assets and loading up on debt.
Employee ownership ensures a more even distribution of wealth within companies and in the wider society. And, by offering workers an alternative, it forces companies that remain privately held to pay their employees better. Trade unions need to be given enhanced powers to ensure that workers are able to secure a greater share of the wealth that they, after all, create. They can also play an important role in balancing the inevitable asymmetries of information and expertise that exist between management and the bulk of the workforce.
Kim Stanley Robinson also lists a number of suggestions for pushing things in a pro-science and pro-ecological direction. Global Guerrillas also notes a list of ways to make the capitalist system more resilient (none of which will ever fly).
Scenario #5) Transitional Economy/Servant Capitalism
In this version of the future, the social pressures brought on by new technologies (as we transhumanists are familiar with discussing) will reform capitalism into incorporating more cooperative and eco-friendly elements. This is quite similar to Scenario #4, except that new technologies are the catalysts for change that really push things along (you didn’t think I was going to leave transhumanism out of this discussion, did you?). On a longer scale, this could perhaps be looked at as a transitional phase from current capitalism to the potentials of post-scarcity opened up by nanofabrication and other abundance technologies. Key factors here include increased digital networking and connectivity (bypassing information barriers and mixing cultures), the rise of open source and other challenges to copyright like creative commons, sousveillance (universal surveillance of all by all) and the participatory panopticon, minifacturing and RepRap models, roboticization and artificial intelligence, unlocking proprietary knowledge, and so on.
From After Capitalism:
To find insights into how the current crisis might connect to these longer-term trends we need to look not to Marx, Keynes or Hayek but to the work of Carlota Perez, a Venezuelan economist whose writings are attracting growing attention.
Perez is a scholar of the long-term patterns of technological change. In Perez’s account economic cycles begin with the emergence of new technologies and infrastructures that promise great wealth; these then fuel frenzies of speculative investment, with dramatic rises in stock and other prices. During these phases finance is in the ascendant and laissez faire policies become the norm. The booms are then followed by dramatic crashes, whether in 1797, 1847, 1893, 1929 or 2008. After these crashes, and periods of turmoil, the potential of the new technologies and infrastructures is eventually realised, but only once new institutions come into being which are better aligned with the characteristics of the new economy. Once that has happened, economies then go through surges of growth as well as social progress, like the belle époque or the postwar miracle.
Before the great depression the elements of a new economy and a new society were already available—and encouraged the speculative bubbles of the 1920s. But they were neither understood by the people in power, nor were they embedded in institutions. Then, during the 1930s, the economy transformed, in Perez’s words, from one based on “steel, heavy electrical equipment, great engineering works and heavy chemistry… into a mass production system catering to consumers and the massive defence markets. Radical demand management and income redistribution innovations had to be made, of which the directly economic role of the state is perhaps the most important.” What resulted was the rise of mass consumerism, and an economy supported by new infrastructures for electricity, roads and telecommunications. During the 1930s it wasn’t clear which institutional innovations would be most successful (fascism, communism and corporatism were all contenders), but after the second world war a new model of state regulated capitalism emerged characterised by suburbs and motorways, welfare states and macroeconomic management, which underpinned postwar growth.
Seen in this light the great depression was both a disaster and an accelerator of reform. It helped to usher in new economic and welfare policies in countries like New Zealand and Sweden that later became the mainstream across the developed world. In the US it led to banking reform, the New Deal and the GI Bill of Rights. In Britain depression, as much as war, led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS.
One implication of Perez’s work, and of Joseph Schumpeter’s before her, is that some of the old has to be swept away before the new can find its most successful forms. Propping up failing industries is in this light a risky policy. Perez suggests that we may be on the verge of another great period of institutional innovation and experiment that will lead to new compromises between the claims of capital and the claims of society and of nature. In retrospect these periodic accommodations are as integral to capitalism as financial crises—indeed it’s only through crisis and institutional reform that capitalism adapts to a changing environment and rediscovers the moral compass that is so vital for markets to work well. The late 19th century accommodation came in response to fear of revolution and gave us state pensions, universal schooling, trade unions and universal suffrage, putting paid to the ideals of 19th-century liberalism. A second accommodation came 50 years later out of depression and war, and made variants of social and Christian democracy the norm in every rich country, pushing up states’ share of GDP and introducing visible hands to guide the markets’ invisible one.***
If another great accommodation is on its way, this one will be shaped by the triple pressures of ecology, globalisation and demographics. Forecasting in detail how these might play out is pointless and, as always, there are as many malign possibilities as benign ones, from revived militarism and autarchy to stigmatisation of minorities and accelerated ecological collapse. But the new technologies—from high speed networks to new energy systems, low carbon factories to open source software and genetic medicine—have a connecting theme: each potentially remakes capitalism more clearly as a servant rather than a master, whether in the world of money, work, everyday life or the state.
Scenario #6) Global Government/Social Democracy
Thanks to globalization, capitalism no longer has borders and the world’s various state economies are increasingly intertwined. At the same time, communications and travel technologies have broken down cultural barriers and barriers to information exchange like never before (arguably spurring Islam’s current war against Western modernism). In this model, the threat of a world-wide economic collapse spurs a coalition of nation states to install a set of new, more empowered, global regulatory bodies, replacing the UN and structures of the past with the framework for a new gloval government. Over time, as this institution becomes more adept at responding to an increasingly globalized world population, it accumulates powers and responsibilities, superceding nation states in relevance. While a One world Government has generally been consigned to libertarian conspiracy theories in the past, the current situation does make it a possibility more than ever before.
From After Capitalism
Capitalism’s crisis is, of course, a global one, and has shown up the limitations of the global institutions that took shape half a century ago. China is set to become a dominant player in a strengthened IMF and World Bank, followed by India and Brazil. The G20 is edging out the G8 as the club that matters. And waiting in the wings are possible new institutions to police and manage carbon, to handle everything from global migration to the regulation of biotechnology, alongside less formal institutions to help the world’s public to engage, from e-parliaments to global campaigning platforms like Awaaz, an online newspaper.
What a global social democracy is most likely to be about, of course, is serving as a sort of “collective capitalist” force.Don Hamerquist sums this one up nicely in a response on the Three-Way Fight blog:
This is where Global Social Democracy enters the scene. The general capitalist class interest in stability and order is undermined by competing requirements for achieving it in certain national economies. This cannot be resolved by some laissez faire process any more than any other of the current issues of political economy can. It requires a state intervention, but one that will incorporate concession as well as repression. Who will decide which squeaky wheels are to get the grease? Will it be the Greek students threatening to ignite the spirit of ’68, or the bedraggled autoworkers of Michigan? An EU response will go in one direction, an U.S response will go in another direction, but ultimately there is far too little flexibility to grease everything.
This is going to be approached by some kind of global social democracy designed to materially buttress capitalist hegemony at points of stress. The material side is quite straightforward, even if it is currently difficult to see what instrumentalities will make it work. There is a less obvious ideological side that I can see working, not by distributing benefits, but by presenting a posture of willingness to do so that is being obstructed by social forces operating out of narrow self interest. This, then, will constitute the mythical ‘good’ capitalism which the metropolitan left has traditionally supported in its benighted way as an alternative to presenting its own plan of revolutionary reconstruction.
Scenario #7) Resurgent Fascism
Lest we forget that this is not just a struggle between capitalism and a more egalitarian and horizontal society, we must acknowledge the possibility of a renewed fascism. Many of the original forms of fascism grew out of the economic crises that gripped the world in the 1920s and 30s, as angered proletarians sought scapegoats and change and were seduced by appeals to populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. We are likely to see quite a few angry prole sin the years to come, and it is likely than many of them will be seduced by the extreme right. Navigating the Storm offers one framework for this kind of resurgent fascism could play out. We’ve already seen a growing fracture in the Republican Party in recent months as party leaders first scorned and tried to distance themselves from extreme ideologues in their movement like Rush Limbaugh, but were then forced to apologize and and make amends when their large reactionary and racist mass base erupted in response.
These scenario seeds are just a start. It would be nice to see some of them fleshed out in more detail, if anyone feels up to the task. These scenarios are not, of course, even mutually exclusive — one outcome could easily lead to another. Hopefully these will at least be in some use for radicals who are seeking to strategize about what our response to this crisis may be. Preparing for an economic collapse in the near future, for example, is going to require a much different orientation than settling in for a long, protracted death-ride of neoliberal capitalism over the next few decades and a subsequent transition to social capitalism. We can’t predict which way things will go, but we can choose the strategies and tactics that will serve us best no matter which of these outcomes (or something else entirely) come to pass.