Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

Some Visions of Post-Capitalism

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Play Don’t Work

The book that I have read about Marx that most inspired me was Marx’s Theory of Alienation by the Hungarian Marxist philosopher István Mészáros, published in 1970. Mészáros argues that the first full-fledged elaboration of Marx’s philosophical system is to be found in the theory of alienated labour of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (also known as The Paris Manuscripts), which were first released by Soviet Marxologists in 1932. In this seminal text, Marx writes of the estrangement or alienation of the worker under capitalist conditions of production both from the process and from the product of his labour, as well as from social-psychological reality. It is the chain of overseers in the power hierarchy of the mainstream capitalist organization who dictate to the worker what he must do in his daily activity and how he must go about doing it. Not only is the product of his work an alien fetishized commodity, but “the worker sinks to the level of the most abject commodity.” Forbidden to be active in freedom, the worker “does not affirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free physical and mental energy, but instead disciplines his physical nature and ruins his mind.” “The more the worker works himself to the limit… the poorer he and his inner world become.”

But Marx is not against work per se, which he regards as a healthy objectification of man. In a possible future non-alienated variation of work, man will come to be truly human for the first time. He will realize what Marx calls man’s species-being. Objectification is something like the creative and meaningful métier of the artist. But “in the sphere of political economy [capitalist organization under the prevailing paradigm], this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker.” Man is estranged from his own body, from nature, from other human beings, and from his spiritual dimension.

In his book The German Ideology (1845), probably heavily influenced by Robert Owen, Marx writes of the utopian possibility of transcending the division of labor, and what this could mean for individual happiness. In positive freedom, man would “do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, do exactly what we feel like doing at the moment [wie ich gerade Lust habe], without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” In the capitalist mode of production as we know it, “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.”

In a post-capitalist mode of production, which Marx in The German Ideology calls communist society, and which Murray Bookchin more recently called post-scarcity anarchism, “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes.” What the Soviet Marxist-Leninist translator Salomea Ryazanskaya renders as accomplished is the German ausbilden, a verb in wide circulation in the current German economy referring to vocational education. The early Marx envisions a replacement of work by play, creativity, freedom for the individual, diversity of activities, and deep respect for scientific knowledge (including the social sciences and the human sciences) – while retaining productivity. I have cited passages on creativity and diversity of activities that are explicitly in favour of their advancement, but there is much controversy in the scholarly literature over the status of play in Marx’s thought.

To quote from The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem, the Situationist who was widely read by the activists in the May-June 1968 student-worker near-revolution in France: “Modern technological expertise, just as it makes everything considered Utopian in the past a purely practical undertaking today, also does away with the purely fairy tale nature of dreams. All my wishes can come true from the moment that modern technology is put to their service.”2Homo Ludens or Man the Player, to use the phrase of the cultural historian Johan Huizinga, is reborn in the potential possibilities of new media and new technologies.

In Chapter Forty-Eight of Volume Three of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx writes about the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom:

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases… in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilized man… Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control… But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy, which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.

For Marx, the realm of freedom only comes into view after both capitalism and socialism. Socialism based in the mode of production is still capitalism – the state capitalism of only one monopoly capitalist. At the same time and paradoxically, the development of the productive forces under capitalism and socialism is the prerequisite for the emergence of the realm of freedom, autonomy, or technological anarchism.

Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism

Writing in 1968, during the height of the anti-Vietnam War, student, counterculture, and civil rights movements in America, Murray Bookchin wrote in his essay “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” about the potentiality of the technological revolution of cybernetics being the precondition to the realization of a society without class divisions, exploitation, domination, drudge work, or material poverty. Bookchin was ahead of his times. Consciously evolving beyond Homo economicus, humanity will, for the first time, experience life rather than survival. Bookchin emphasizes that this possibility of freedom does not mean the actuality of freedom. He was acutely aware of technology’s decidedly negative side. The control of technology by capitalism “reinforces the established organization of society and everyday life.”

Bookchin also foresaw the devastating consequences of capitalism (the course we are on now) for pollution of the environment and destruction of the natural ecology of humanity’s planetary habitat. In an era when humanity’s very existence is endangered, the relationship between life and survival gets reversed from the classical economic view that we must survive before we can live. We will either become anarchistic and fully live or we will get annihilated. We can no longer afford to go through a transitional stage of centralized organization (as Marx and Lenin believed); we must act ethically and expressively in the here and now, we must be self-liberating. We must emancipate the immediate circumstances of our daily lives and our concrete existence. There can be no separation of means and ends, of the revolutionary process from the revolutionary goal.

In “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” written in 1965, Bookchin seeks to separate the “liberatory potential of modern technology” from its use for destructive ends. Cybernetics is that technology which can move us from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. Cybernetic machines can correct their own errors, be equipped with sensory devices to replace the audiovisual senses of human workers, and can substitute for the human worker’s judgment, skills, and memory. The feedback principle, information transfer, and the self-regulating control mechanism are central to first-order cybernetics as formulated by Norbert Wiener. “The machine has evolved from an extension of human muscles to an extension of the human nervous system.” Technology has passed from invention to design. Bookchin foresees “the possibility of a materially abundant, almost workless era in which most of the means of life can be provided by machines” and the emergence of new “ecological forms of human association.”

Creative designs of cybernetic technologies will free us to ask new questions about how machines “could be used to foster human solidarity and to create a balanced relationship with nature and a truly organic eco-community.” Either a balance between humanity and nature will get restored or the human species will be finished. Technology-becoming-ecological can reawaken our sense of interdependence with nature. To achieve the goals of reintegrating a free community with its natural environment and developing decentralized technologies for life, Bookchin concludes that machines will participate in the creativity of human arts and crafts.

We should change our conception of what human beings are from Homo economicus to an idea of a creative human. Man and woman are alive. We are living beings. Like all living organisms, we are capable of growth. The human is not just a creature who needs to eat, to nourish herself through ingestion. As Albert Camus teaches us in The Myth of Sisyphus, the essence of the human is that she is a creative being. The creativity specific to the human is social: more precisely, it is social-individual (Camus, The Rebel). Our creativity takes place in the context of society and culture.

Yanis Varoufakis’ Vision of Post-Capitalism

In the year 2020, the former economics minister of Greece and libertarian Marxist thinker Yanis Varoufakis published a dialogical discussion about post-capitalism among three fictional protagonists in the guise of a science fiction novel called Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. In that writing project, Varoufakis issued the challenge to himself of describing in a detailed blueprint the principles of how a democratic socialist economic system (in a parallel timestream to our own world) would actually work. He also gave himself the task of presenting concrete ideas of how we could get from here to there.

The novel is an ongoing and sometimes interrupted conversation among three intellectually thoughtful main characters who have each become disillusioned with a specific worldview in which he or she previously believed.  Iris is an academic economist and ex-banker who believed in neo-liberal right-wing libertarianism, but who has now come to understand that the really existing capitalism in which we are living has little to do anymore with the so-called free market capitalism of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Eva is a Marxist-feminist anthropologist who is disillusioned with the prevalent versions of both of those ideologies. Costa is a techie engineer who has lost faith in his earlier conviction that digital technology will deterministically lead to human liberation and a better society.

A wormhole in the space-time continuum has opened up which allows each of the characters to communicate with their alternate selves in a post-2008 economic crash reality where an Occupy Wall Street-type of radical post-capitalist social movement has changed the world. According to renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, various kinds of traversable wormholes enabling time travel are possible. Two different timelines associated with the same (or more than one) physical location could become connected by means of an outward flaring neck or throat. Thorne’s speculations are a further detailing of the Einstein-Rosen bridge to a mathematically required parallel universe which had, since German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild’s work on black holes of 1916, always been regarded as an essential solution to Einstein’s field equations in his general theory of relativity. It is the general relativistic property of spacetime curvature, providing the basis for exotic opposition between the wormhole’s two mouths (contiguous in space yet deferred in time), that can be harnessed into building a time machine, or instigating a bifurcation or forking of time into the two parallel streams.

In the post-capitalist economy fictionally envisioned by Varoufakis, work, control over production, digital networks, democratic politics, land use, money, and the internal culture and operations of corporations have been fully democratized. There are no bosses and no hierarchies at any level of the enterprise. There is so-called flat management where no one tells anyone what to do. Companies are self-managed and self-owned by their workers who all have equal shares. There is a guaranteed universal basic income and decent housing is a human right. Climate change and global warming have been brought under control. Digital technology has been designed and deployed to create a good society of much greater equality. The power of both corporations and the state has been cut down to size.

For Varoufakis, we are already living in post-capitalism, but in the bad sense. He calls the current system a form of techno-feudalism. Wall Street is run by giant financial conglomerates and hedge fund managers. Every industry is controlled by a few monopolistic mega-corporations. Each of these behemoths is like a “small Soviet Union.” Economic inequality has become obscene with the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest one percent and much of the population sinking into poverty. The state bails out failing banks and provides corporate handouts. In short, we have socialism for the very few and austerity for the many. Financial speculative capital and the flows of global money through the electronic networks detach themselves virtually and in a hyperreal way from any real economy or real production.

Universal Basic Income

Around 1970, counterculture authors Robert Anton Wilson and L. Wayne Benner devised the principles of what they called the RICH economy. Wilson and Benner held that unemployment, far from being something to shudder at, is a desirable state for humans and should be the goal of an advanced technological society. As the advance of cybernetic technology increasingly brings about the advent of self-programming machines, maintain Wilson and Benner, much of the work previously done by humans becomes obsolete. Rather than viewing this as a disaster, we should instead embrace the cybernetic age and its potential to make possible “the toil-less society as the utopian goal humanity has always sought.”

The first stage of the four-stage futurist program of the RICH economy (Rising Income Through Cybernetic Homeostasis) envisioned by Wilson and Benner is that society should encourage the augmentation of unemployment occasioned by cybernation. In Stage Two, society should implement one of the three ideas of the National Dividend (every citizen gets treated as a shareholder of the Gross National Product output of the nation), the Guaranteed Annual Income (today called the Universal Basic Income or UBI), or the Negative Income Tax (an idea of the celebrated University of Chicago libertarian economist Milton Friedman). The relatively simple and straightforward logistics of the UBI could also eliminate the excessive costs and complex bureaucracy of existing state social welfare systems. The UBI could also remove the psychological stigma and debasement associated with being a welfare recipient.

In Stage Three, the Universal Basic Income or similar gets slowly raised to the level of supporting a comfortable middle-class standard of living for every citizen. In the fourth or final stage, the state is called upon to make a massive investment in adult education. All citizens who desire it can receive retraining in advanced practical and technical skills, in natural science and technology, in the humanities, the arts and design, and the social sciences. Robert Anton Wilson suggested that the societal ultimatum of the work ethic – “Find a Master to employ you for slave wages or abide in squalid poverty” – is obsolete. What we need instead is a work aesthetics where each individual is emboldened and has the opportunity to realize her creative promise.

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