The smell of post-capitalist spirit is in the air. Recently on his un-dated blog, integralist Zak Stein wrote, “Thus, revolutionary praxis, or totalizing depth praxis—integral activism aimed at replacing capitalism with a new economic system—should be one of the goals of the integral movement, perhaps its most important goal.” (see “The Integral Movement Is An Anti-Capitalist Movement: ITC Debate Preamble”).
Last Friday, economics writer Paul Mason said, “[W]e are entering the post-capitalist era,” in the Guardian (see “The End of Capitalism Has Begun.”)
In a rebuttal/response piece at Forbes today, management author Steve Denning writes “What we are looking at is not the end of capitalism, but rather the next phase of its evolution.” (see “Is Capitalism Ending?”).
The first of these articles was prepared as a debate preamble for an Integral Theory conference, so it does not attempt to expound a complete argument. Instead in the spirit of provocation, Stein seeks to light the fire of debate by boldly proposing to integralists that their philosophy is “anti-capitalist”. Furthermore, he says that integral theorists have poorly misunderstood Marx and not adequately digested Marxist philosophy in their writings, for instance by casting Marx as a theorist of the Lower-Right Quadrant rather than an integral thinker in his own right. Stein claims “a commitment to integral meta-theory entails a commitment to the disruption and ultimate overthrow of capitalism.” What are good first steps?
We need to work out an integral diagnostic critique if capitalism, leavening integral theory with the best of the non-reductive Marxists (or Integral Theorists could actually read Bhaskar’s Dialectic). We also need to engage in projects that articulate and exemplify real alternatives, integral concrete utopian futures for economic and productive systems, as well as new forms of organizational governance and cooperative structures.
Stein’s program is theoretical and proscriptive, but it looks like Mason and Denning are mainly writing descriptive accounts of the ambiguous, amorphous, and continually innovative state of economics, mainly in a British setting for Mason, especially with regard to technology companies. Mason fired the first shot with a missive claiming the end of capitalism is near. After bemoaning the fall of the political left from his heyday advocacy of overthrow of the existing order to its sorry state as a critical force offering merely piecemeal reforms, Mason sees a threefold reason for hope.
Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.
Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.
Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.
There’s more to Mason’s article that may make it worthwhile to read the full article, though I must admit to finding it a bit tedious. Essentially, based on these three points above plus a smattering of miscellaneous observations, he wants to direct “the logical focus for supporters of postcapitalism” to “build alternatives within the system; to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition – not the defence of random elements of the old system.” His three arguments are meant to provide hope that the left’s long-sought changes are already upon us.
Denning doesn’t see it quite that way, though he is friendly to the idea of evolutionary stages within capitalism. As a writer, Denning is committed to the view that the “Creative Economy” is emerging in the midst of capitalism, making obsolete the old ways of working. It requires not just new technologies, but a change in mindset. And it deals with the fact that work and meaning-making are more intimately connected than ever before.
Denning does not buy the idea that capitalism is on its way out; he sees us entering another stage in its evolution. He looks at Mason’s evidence to the contrary, and says hey what?! One by one, the Forbes writer attacks the theses of Mason’s article, calling into question (a) his belief that the “sharing economy” is not a business, (b) his claim that there is less need than ever to work, (c) that Google prevents access to public information, (d) that Wikipedia could replace firms like Apple, (e) that global firms are doomed, and (f) that “a new kind of human being” is emerging.
Take the disagreement regarding the “sharing economy”. Mason seems to believe that the “sharing” economy with firms like Airbnb and Uber are a fundamental shift out of capitalism, wearing the cloak of capitalism only incidentally. But this is a Romanticist’s distortion, according to Denning. In fact, Airbnb and Uber are essentially part of the old rental economy, and any pretense to the contrary is a mistake. Who is correct? I think they both have a claim on the truth. I would not say that the term “sharing economy” is a misnomer, as Denning would have it; there does seem to be something new about the spirit and motivation (the Upper-Left quadrant) of these companies that is worth putting attention on. It could turn out to be highly significant, and I think it’s a mistake to refuse it any validity. On the other hand, it is worth the reminder to any economist wanting to emphasize the newness of the sharing economy that the burden of proof is on them to show how it is truly new in significant and interesting ways, and not merely the old rental economy. Proponents of left-leaning economics ought not assume that the latest trend in sharing is really unique on the face of it.
Again and again, Denning makes seemingly valid criticisms of Mason’s thesis. I must admit to not taking sides on all of these back-and-forth claims because I’m not an economist and found several parts of Mason’s original article difficult to follow. Regarding claims that I found vague, Denning seems to have a clear idea of what Mason meant, and Denning makes the case that those ideas are wrong. I’m just not sure Denning is really interpreting Mason fairly, since I thought Mason laid out his arguments unclearly and therefore unpersuasively. Perhaps Mason will reply to Denning and get the upper hand; it could happen!
The integralist in me watches the debate between Mason and Denning not merely as any sort of random interaction, but as a sort of Green v. Orange/Teal divide. They both look at different parts of the same animal and one sees socialism in a new guise and the other sees the evolution of capitalism. One emphasizes the pluralistic and communal and non-competitive features of certain ambiguous economic phenomenon and sees proof of Green phenomena; the other emphasizes the continuity of ambiguous phenomena with the older, capitalistic, market-driven Orange forces elevated possibly in evolution to Teal structures.
That’s why when I read Zak Stein, the integralist, as offering a bit of a red-hued wild interpretation of options available to integral theorists. Sober integralists no more insist on anti-capitalism as they insist on anti-Western medicine or anti-organized sports or anti-religion or anti-mainstream society. Anti- is a fighting word!, and sober integralists do not seek the overthrow of what is (and make no mistake, while there are peaceful varieties, socialism is a social movement and theoretical tradition strongly linked to violent methodologies), they seek to transform and evolve and develop it. It’s just a fundamentally different orientation. Stein knows this, so I think he may be writing cheekily.
On the whole, I think integralism as a philosophy is more temperamentally suited for the Hegelian than the Marxist, though there’s room for a wide spectrum of both left and right Hegelians, provided no one is too reductive or absolutizing. In other words, there can be left Hegelians among us who look at Uber and see a “sharing economy” and the rise of the End of Capitalism; and there can be right Hegelians among us who look at Airbnb and see the old rental economy in a slightly evolved form, not particularly threatening capitalism at all.
(But maybe I’m just saying that because no integralist has yet taken up Marx’s mantle and shown his continued relevance for integral theory today. By all means, if there are theorists like Stein who want to resuscitate any neglected aspect of any philosopher not previously well integrated into the integralist’s consciousness, then I look forward to hearing them make their case and possibly expanding our horizons.)
Both the right and left Hegelian in me are attracted to Mason’s claim that there is a “new human being” emerging in ways that aren’t yet well understood or appreciated. Denning dismisses the effusive terminology, but even he sees a “change in mindset” in our midst. The best way forward for a Teal/Turquoise response to the ambiguous economic currents in our day is to champion the human being, healthy and whole, and everything in the spiral and spirit of development that makes them so.