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Page added on September 25, 2014

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Post-Capitalism thumbnail

In an interview recently, Aftab Omer observed that I seem hesitant to describe Sacred Economics as a post-capitalist economic vision. I replied that I am not talking about the end of capitalism, bur rather a transformation in the nature of capital, so that capitalism no longer bears the social dynamics to which we are accustomed.

After the interview, Aftab probed a little deeper. “As you know,” he said, “the essence of capitalism lies not in the kind of money being used, but in control over capital in a broader sense. Why then do you not describe your thinking as post-capitalist?”

One reason is simply strategic: the term “capitalism” is so fraught with a century and a half of ideological baggage that it is impossible to use the term without triggering blunt political categorizations, throwing the conversation onto well-worn and deeply rutted paths. For example, it invites comparisons with the failed experiments in state socialism of the 20th century, or suggests that I don’t value individual enterprise and initiative.

There is a second, and deeper, reason why I avoid the term: if we define capitalism as the private ownership of the means of production, and post-capitalism as ending that private ownership, we are still reifying “ownership” or property as an absolute category. But in fact, ownership like money is nothing but a social agreement, a system by which society allocates certain exclusive rights to decide how capital is used. Even in the most resolutely capitalist countries, this right is never absolute: to take a trivial example, zoning ordinances severely limit what we can do with our property in American suburbia.

What is more relevant to me than the fiction of property is the precise nature of the social agreements that define and underlie property. In Soviet state socialism, despite ideology to the contrary, it was actually a small elite group that decided how the means of production were to be deployed (and who reaped most of the benefits). In that sense it wasn’t so different from Western capitalism.

Reading Sacred Economics, one might think, “This is still capitalism. It still allows private ownership of land, factories, intellectual property, and other means of production.” But if we don’t see ownership is a reified category, an absolute predicate, then the matter is not so simple. Because what is this “ownership”? What is the social agreement that the concept embodies? It is rather different than what we have today.

Echoing Roman law, to own something today implies the right to ”use, enjoy, and abuse” it. In other words, all the benefits derived from it are yours, and you are under no obligation to use it in a way that benefits society or the planet. (As mentioned, this has seldom entirely been the case in practice.) What would ownership mean if we significantly altered this Roman law conception? That is what Sacred Economics proposes. First, it circumscribes the private right to “use and abuse” property by penalizing socially and environmentally harmful activities like polluting. Secondly, inspired by Henry George, it separates as much as possible the “enjoyment” (i.e. the fruits) of ownership from the fruits of the labor and creativity added to the thing owned. This means eliminating “economic rents” – the proceeds one obtains through the mere ownership of property, as opposed to the improvement of the property or the wise use of the property. Thirdly, it limits the extent to which one may enclose the cultural and intellectual commons, in part by curtailing copyright and patent terms. Finally, it asserts a public interest onto financial capital by subjecting money to a demurrage fee, a negative interest rate, that discourages hoarding and encourages zero-interest lending, in essence making money less of a thing you can keep, hold, and own. Hold onto it too long, and eventually it will no longer be “yours.”

These might seem like technical reforms that leave the fact of ownership of the means of production unchanged, but actually they change what “ownership” means. When we understand that property is a fluid concept, a broad label we give to a complicated set of social agreements, then it becomes hard to say what is capitalism and what is not.

At bottom, the blurriness of the concept of ownership implicates the blurriness of the concept of the owner. Who, or what, owns property? The 17th-century thinkers that developed the philosophical foundations of property law (and law in general), Hobbes, Locke, Pufendorf, Hutcheson, etc., despite their differences, all pretty much took for granted a world of separate indivduals giving consent, entering into contracts, and making free-willed moral choices. It is from this assumption that libertarian ideas about the sanctity of property and the sanctity of contract are born, along with the irreconcilable difficulties that arise in integrating these with the good of the body politic. Private property (its presence or absence as an absolute category) goes hand in hand with the separate self. A system grounded in the understanding of our inter-existence, in the fluid and fractal co-construction of self and society, no longer takes ownership as a well-defined category. The terms capitalist, socialist, post-capitalist, and so forth, because they draw on ownership as an elemental concept, are therefore a little bit obsolete.

The new and ancient story

5 Comments on "Post-Capitalism"

  1. Jared on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 4:38 pm 

    story seems to cut off… no link?

  2. J-Gav on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 4:43 pm 

    All well and good but we ain’t there yet.

    I like Henry George but the reference to Roman law is very short and says nothing about how the church took it over in
    Europe lock, stock and barrel in the 12th century (Decretum Gratiani). I’ll leave Pufendorf for another post, maybe …

  3. J-Gav on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 4:55 pm 

    Also no mention of the critical battle of Bouvines, just about at the same time.

    King Philip-Augustus of France won that one for a change and King John of England returned with his tail between his legs, which, by the way, led the English barons to demand the Magna Carta (1215), the foundation of common law to this day.

  4. J-Gav on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 5:17 pm 

    It took a few centuries, but the (sort of) secular state ended up pretty much winning out over Church dominance by the end of the Renaissance (see the story of a certain Italian Geronimo, who, when in court was accused of blasphemy and asked to respond to the question “What is beyond the fifth circle in heaven?” replied “A gigantic plate of macaroni” leapt out the window of the courtroom and was never heard of again). The trend was further confirmed in the 18th century Enlightenment of course. There’s a lot more to be said about both sides’ roles in that struggle but I don’t think this is the time or place for that … we now have other priorities.

  5. Makati1 on Thu, 25th Sep 2014 8:14 pm 

    The Magna Carta had 800 years of trying to control the greedy and power hungry … no “freeman” (in the sense of non-serf) could be punished except through the law of the land, a right that still exists under English law today … but is now failing. We are all becoming serfs to the elite class and, by definition, losing the right to a fair trial.

    Soon we will be back to the tribal ideas of ‘ownership’. Our numbers will have been decimated by our current ‘ownership’ class to the point where we have to start again. IF we are lucky.

    You and I will probably not be here to see it, but our grand kids might.

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