Designing capitalism's successor

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We live in a world dominated by capitalism — yet capitalism itself is quite clearly not working well in its current form; Herman Royce suggests using its innate proclivities and talents to design its own replacement.

IT’S QUITE AN UNDERACHIEVEMENT. It hasn’t just been happening recently, though, it’s been going on for at least decades in one form or another. The Budget still being fought over with tenacity and ill-feeling, months after its announcement, and despite military distractions, is just a recent glaring example. But given the game rules, the dominance of monetary concerns should hardly be surprising.

I explained previously why an economic system built around the notion of profit guarantees instability,  because for someone to profit now, someone else must lose — now or later.

A side effect, however, is that game players inevitably find endless reasons for territorial disputes over entitlements, imagined or otherwise. Indeed, with the possibility of profit urging us on, with enough no longer ever enough and even more barely sufficient, the prospect of less – for whatever reason, whether justified or not – can only be highly objectionable.

Of course, the starting point for threats of less is always the claim that there’s not enough to go round, so we need to tighten our belts, cut back, pull our weight, and a host of other hoary clichés. Mind you, too often, the most cliché-ridden exhorters place little or no demand for sacrifice on themselves, only on those doing less well. But surely this is exactly what a competition of unequals must unleash, with some players more suited to the game by disposition, inheritance, luck, lack of empathy, and/or much else. Competition for profits, after all, is supported and motivated by the pursuit of self-interest, which is sanctified by the game rules.

So, no wonder winners expect losers to pay — or, to use an example frequently reported by Independent Australia, why too much of the media often pedals interests and opinions as news and tries to influence the public and even elections (by shamelessly barracking for one candidate or party and deriding others), as to do otherwise would be to not pursue self-interest.

The net result of our game rules must be perpetual battling, periodic swapping of austerity with expansion for its own sake, endless ebbing and flowing. And as long as we accept the game rules and look at it always from the same basic perspective ‒ the same givens ‒ the longer it will all go on, the more entrenched will be the instability and the ebbing and flowing, and the more extreme and hard fought will be the disputes.

Redecorating the shop window won’t be enough.

The only way to avoid the consequences of game rules as flawed as those of our economic system is to change them, but that is not under discussion except by aberrant types like myself. You certainly won’t hear talk of it in circles of authority or prestige — I doubt it even enters their heads. But it is, above all else, what we need to start thinking about. And to do that properly, we need to take a long view, not one of the self-interested short views currently dominant.

My long view is that nothing lasts.

Civilisation as we know it will not stay forever as it is. Everything has a successor of some sort, even if only entropy. But if capitalism will sooner or later be replaced, then it at least has the choice of determining to help or hinder its successor and the transition to it.

Why waste capitalism’s innate proclivities and talents?

Why not have capitalism design its own replacement, one meant to preserve and enhance the best of what it has produced, yet go further and do better? Why not a competition between corporations (they can afford it) — feasibility studies, design and development, prototypes? It might even be good for the economy. You can still call it capitalism if you want – if you must, if you can’t accept it has moved on – or you can even treat it as the last gift of capitalism.

Whatever, just get over it. It’s had its day.

The basis of any decent replacement for capitalist competition for profits, I suggest, would have to be cooperation for mutual benefit. A lot of what we take almost for granted in modern times would work really well, if only we could trust it to work (and the people behind it). We don’t really trust anyone if we’re in competition with them and that’s what we all are, economically at least. We’d have to cooperate to really change anything — and vice versa. And for that to ever happen, we need to clearly envisage the sorts of social and economic and political systems that would foster and support cooperation.

The good news is that there are plenty of ideas out there already, including participatory economics, inclusive democracy, and a free lunch. But hardly anyone knows about them. Many people – especially those most committed to the status quo or preoccupied with self-interested quibbling and power struggles – would undoubtedly dismiss the ideas without properly considering them, would treat them as impossible by default. But if change is really wanted, true alternatives have to be properly considered, with open minds.

It’s not like the alternatives aren’t attractive. To give one example, the free lunch ideas I’ve previously explained offer not just a one-day working week, but free home ownership without mortgages.

In contrast, the current arrangement forces most people to spend much of their lives slaving away to repay mortgages to banks, a process that funnels money to those who clearly have more than they need, on their terms, from those who actually earn it. And because interest functions like profit, it adds to the system’s innate instability.

Instead, and prevented only by vested interests and lack of imagination, we could all have the equivalent of interest-free credit cards to use for spending as we need, and repaying as we can manage.

Undoubtedly, account balances would shift back and forth between credit and debit as circumstances change, but only in a competitive economy might we expect the arrangement to be abused. In a system based on cooperation, and freed from financial stress by this very method of accounting and other innovations, the vast majority of people would surely act responsibly to stay in credit most of the time. And then, society might finally start working properly, more to its capacities.

Until attention is given to these sorts of possibilities, ideas for genuine change, we will keep quibbling, and repeating history.

It’s the world we live in.

Herman Royce is God Almighty’s biographer and self-appointed spokesperson, inventor of A Free Lunch, and the first person in history to say “Now I’ve seen you naked, I could never eat turkey”.

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