The Dismal and Hopeful Future

One doesn’t have to be a brilliant social analyst to see that the contemporary world order is doomed, destined to start visibly crumbling within the next decade or two at the latest. The neoliberal system, in fact the corporate capitalist system, is radically unsustainable. It is too unstable, too universally rapacious, too humanly exploitative and environmentally destructive, too demoniacally self-consuming–for capitalism can profit from its self-immolation!–to last much longer.

Is it even necessary anymore to argue for these claims?

Capitalism means self-sabotage. Its profit-making interest lies in paying wage-earners as little as possible, and ideally in mechanizing and automating them out of existence, for they’re expensive and troublesome with their demands for “rights” and other such nonsense. On the other hand, capitalism needs markets; it needs entities to sell things to, for that’s how it makes profit. Any sort of entity would serve its purposes–alien creatures, super-advanced machines, genetically enhanced chimpanzees, whatever–but, tragically, capitalism has so far been forced to do business with the very beings it exploits and wants to deny income to: humans!

Cruel irony! The mass of mankind, against which capitalism wars in the sphere of production, it has to make nice to in the sphere of consumption, to blandish and cajole into buying commodities. This fusion of consumer and producer in the same being is the tragic contradiction that torments capitalism and drives it to manic-depression–exuberance followed by depression followed by exuberance. The capitalist elite revels in Romanesque orgies as it squeezes money out of the sweat and blood of the workers, but the party ends once markets have, as a result, so shrunk–or the worm of doubt has so grown in the minds of investors–that investment is cut back to the point of ending growth. The spread of credit may keep the party going for a long time, postponing the full effect of long-term stagnating or declining wages (and ever-more-precarious employment), but the reckoning has to come sooner or later. An economy cannot be sustained forever on wishful thinking, namely the wish that aggregate demand will remain indefinitely high even as less and less of the nation’s wealth and income are going to the bottom 99 percent.

All this is just Marxian common sense, which Keynes diluted and helped make mainstream during and after the Great Depression.

So, we’re in a situation now quite similar to that which caused the Great Depression. There isn’t any doubt that we’re in for another such event, this time more global and protracted (though also uneven and possibly not as dramatic, at least initially). We’re entering the epoch of stagnation and crisis–environmental crisis too, and population crisis, and political crisis, and every other crisis you can think of. We’re embarking on the slow demise of a civilization.

Incidentally, the common comparisons between the current situation and the fall of the Roman Republic and the Empire are not altogether facile or superficial. In all three cases, the rise of “income inequality” is a determining factor, as the top one percent or fraction of one percent notesundergroundwrightappropriates ever more wealth and increases its power. In the case of the Roman Republic, which succumbed to civil wars and Julius Caesar and then the Empire, republican forms were gradually corrupted by the enormous wealth that flowed to Rome’s elite as a result of its imperial conquests and plundering. (Sound familiar?) The rich were able to dispossess many of the poor, including soldiers, from their land, and the senatorial government did little to address the impoverishment of the masses, since it represented and consisted of the (congenitally short-sighted) rich.

Soldiers therefore became intensely loyal to their generals, since it was only through a general’s land grant that they would be guaranteed an income after being discharged. Ambitious generals were thus able to build up huge, loyal private armies that made them effectively autonomous of the Roman government. The Senate could only look on helplessly as civil wars between generals ensued, the ultimate victor of which was Octavian, or Augustus.

Such social calamities are always what happen when the rich get too rich and are given too much license to do as they want. They dismantle or ignore rules that aren’t in their short-term private interest–rules, nowadays, like the welfare state, protection of public resources, and collective bargaining between employers and employees–which inevitably causes the slow disintegration of social bonds, of any kind of social compact, public-spiritedness, and the very fabric of society. Privatization (such as Rome’s privatization of the army and much of the land, and the U.S.’s privatization of education, natural resources, etc.) destroys public goods, thus ultimately destroying society itself–for what is society if not one great public good, one great “commons”?

There is much we can learn from the fall of Rome, which happened twice and from similar underlying causes both times.

But as for the future, is there any hope? It might seem not, but, ironically, some hope is justified by virtue precisely of the catastrophes we’re in for. At the same time as these corrode the foundations of a depraved civilization, they will create–or rather, are creating–the conditions for an upsurge of popular movements and democratic initiatives that will begin outside the mainstream and eventually become visible and widespread. As any Marxist–anyone with common sense–should understand, history progresses largely by means of silver linings in terrible circumstances. This is the essence of the so-called “dialectical” interpretation of history.

In this connection it’s worth mentioning the three possible “plans” that left-wing activists in Greece have come up with for their country’s future, since their conceptualization, if modified, applies to the future of the entire world. Plan A, favored by the Syriza government, was to remain in the eurozone but end austerity. That plan hasn’t worked out so well, in light of Syriza’s capitulation to the Troika. Plan B, favored by the left wing of Syriza, envisioned a Greek default and exit from the eurozone, followed by rapid statist reconstruction of the economy. This plan, too, is unrealistic, at least for now.

Plan C is what’s left, and ultimately the one that is both most revolutionary and most realistic. Jerome Roos’s formulation is clear and compelling:

[Plan C calls for] a reinvigorated project of the commons and communal solidarity. In contrast to both Plan A and Plan B, Plan C would be a bottom-up project organized by local communities that would situate itself directly on the terrain of everyday life. Its main contributions would be threefold. First, through solidarity networks and communal support systems, it would enhance popular resilience by securing the means of social reproduction under conditions of extreme precarity.

Second, by creating new and strengthening existing organs of popular power, the commons would collectively act as bases for continued grassroots resistance to further austerity and dispossession. History has shown that, without powerful grassroots movements exerting pressure from below, even left governments are easily led astray by the siren call of domestic and international capital. To prevent this, the still relatively small and dispersed movement of commoners will have to become an organized force of political opposition.

Third, a project of the commons has revolutionary potential insofar as its protagonists manage to reclaim the means of production and reproduction; democratize workplaces, communities and existing political institutions; and contribute to a fundamental transformation of social relations from below. All of this is clearly still a far way off, but Plan C is precisely about cultivating this sense of perspective and direction — taking the struggle far beyond the stale dichotomies of state and market, euro and drachma.

These ideas are stated in the context of the crisis in Greece, but they generalize worldwide. Plan A, for us, is the path that the left wing of the Democratic party would pursue: remain basically in our current political economy, enact no sweeping reforms, merely tinker technocratically in a more proactive way than the Obama administration has done, particularly with regard to issues of the economy and the environment. This plan would fall victim to the profound unsustainability of the corporate-capitalist political economy that it doesn’t truly challenge.

Plan B would amount to a thoroughgoing shift in the state’s policies, in fact a global shift (necessarily), incorporating something like Thomas Piketty’s global wealth tax, but also much more. In order to set society on a new track, it would necessitate radical-left state intervention in the economy on a level that would make the postwar European welfare state seem puny.

Given the balance of power between big business and the democratic resistance, this option is totally impossible.

The only other option is the Plan C that Roos outlines–and that Gar Alperovitz and others have discussed in the context of the United States. Slowly build up a new society from below, a less atomized and more democratic society. Spread cooperatives of every kind, and public banking, participatory budgeting, perhaps community land trusts and community development corporations, “solidarity networks” and “communal support systems” of types that can’t really be foreseen at present. All this has to be done in alliance with overt political resistance, social movements that force the state (at all levels) towards the left, but not in a sudden colossal coup that attempts to reconstruct society from the top down, an impossibility.

What’s important to understand is that Plan C is not simply something that should be done, something that depends only on the will of activists (however important that is); rather, it almost certainly will be done. It is the direction in which history is proceeding, coincident with the deterioration of corporate capitalism. In the coming decades, as crisis savages civilization, people and communities across the West and across the world will be driven, for the sake of their survival and their political dignity, to invent creative solutions to their plight–to network with each other and to cooperate in the production and distribution of resources. The state will mutate–in ways we can’t foresee–in response to these initiatives and this resistance, and slowly, laboriously, a very different society will mature in the interstices and finally in the mainstream of a dying ancien régime.

I’ve discussed the “historical logic” of such transformations here and here–where, incidentally, I also explain why this “gradualist” model of revolution is the only one consistent with the logic of Marxism. Marx and all his followers misunderstood his own thought when he and they adopted a statist model of revolution (as if social revolution consists of seizing the national state, shooting your opponents, and then somehow instituting economic democracy through bureaucratic channels of political will).

Plan C will mature far in the future, but the seeds of it are already planted, even in the U.S. Yes! Magazine has showcased some of these, and the Democracy Collaborative is one of the organizations in the vanguard of the coming revolution.

Among the many glimmers of hope are the following. Several cities in the United States have begun investing in worker cooperatives, which are, in essence, examples of socialism–economic democracy–on a small scale. (The common leftist criticism that, for now, they are forced to operate in a capitalist context and engage with the market is irrelevant.) New York City’s 2016 budget includes $2.1 million for developing worker co-ops, up from $1.2 million in 2015, which itself was up from $0 in 2014. Madison, Wisconsin is giving $1 million each year for the next five years to establish new worker co-ops.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio have had so much publicity since 2010 that it’s hardly even necessary to mention them here. Similarly publicized has been the United Steelworkers’ cooperation with Mondragon to establish manufacturing worker cooperatives, the first time since the 1880s that a mainstream labor union has been so closely involved in establishing co-ops. Nor is it the only one.

Participatory budgeting, having been tried first in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, is now finally starting to spread across the West. It came to the United States–to Chicago–in 2009, and since then has been replicated in many other cities, though as yet only on a small scale. As its successes are publicized, it will continue to be replicated and expanded.

Public banking has had difficulty in expanding beyond North Dakota, the only state with its own bank, a remarkably profitable and socially efficacious one. Since 2009 a plethora of bills have been introduced in legislatures to establish state banks, but so far none has come to fruition. Entrenched interests have been able to stifle the growing advocacy for socially conscious banking. But one can expect that after the next financial crisis–an inevitability–and then the next and the next, the capacity of the elite to resist radical change will weaken substantially, largely because of massive popular movements.

Karl Marx was right, though, not to try to sketch what sorts of institutions would spring up during and after the “revolution.” Even now, we don’t know what new forms of social organization will appear in the next forty years and after. Society is too complex for us to predict these things.

The main point I’m making is just the old Marxist one that progress works in mysterious ways. The political economy of the twentieth-century capitalist nation-state is being dismantled–by capitalism. The nation-state is being progressively atomized, fragmented, polarized between rich and poor, parcelized and privatized, which in the long run will cause the demise of capitalism itself. For capitalism and the centralized nation-state have grown up together since the fourteenth century, and they will die together. It’s possible they’ll take humanity with them, or that a Hobbesian state of nature will ensue, but more likely is that “Plan C” will mature to the degree, and at the same pace, that capitalism succumbs to itself.

The way that historical progress happens, through crisis and the heightening of mass misery to the point that the elite can no longer resist popular movements, is indescribably cruel, but it does, at least, give us cause to hope for something good out of the horrors that await us.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is