Postcapitalism?

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The World Economic Forum knows it, the Pope knows it, and sociologists know it: this world can no longer accommodate growth capitalism. The planet has become too small for a social formation whose operating system requires the continuous profit-driven occupation of ‘noncapitalist strata’ (Rosa Luxemburg). Indeed, although the capitalist economy may still have grown at an average of 1.78 percent of GDP during the decades of neoliberalism (1973-1998), this growth came at a high price. When measured against pre-industrial levels, we have already crossed a ‘red line’ of planetary tolerance as far as climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle are concerned. At the same time, the fruits of what little growth remains are distributed increasingly unequally. While the gap in per capita income between the poorest and the richest regions was at 13:1 during the Golden Age, it rose to 19:1 during the neoliberal era (Angus Maddison). Today, 66 super-rich people own about as much as the poorer half of humanity combined. It is therefore no surprise that capitalism’s legitimacy is eroding dramatically, even in the countries of the Global North. But is this type of society really coming to an end, as Immanuel Wallerstein and others predict? Are we, as others have claimed, already in the midst of a transition towards a type of post-capitalist society? Is the question therefore perhaps no longer if, but how we are to overcome capitalism?

Quite frankly, I consider these sorts of thought experiments to be of little use. Yes, it may very well be that we are already in a transition that resembles that from feudalism to capitalism. The question as to whether this is the case or not, however, can only be answered by future generations of historians. What is true today is that capitalism will not die by itself, but there are many reasons to actively overcome it (David Harvey). This task is anything but easy, particularly as democracy seems to have run its course as the optimal political form for contemporary authoritarian capitalism to develop within (Bob Jessop). Thus far, however, visible alternatives remain vague and sketchy at best. The real task – including for a sociology that understands itself as public (Michael Burawoy) – is to actually develop these alternatives. I argue that we require a global debate on the contours of a democratic, egalitarian, non-capitalist, post-growth society. There are at least four coordinates that could serve as an adequate compass for such a debate. They include: critique of growth, substantive equality, radical (economic) democracy, and global cooperation. These coordinates can then, as I suggest, be assigned four core projects.

(1) A critique of growth implies scientifically attacking systemic mechanisms which create permanent destructive growth. We require modes of social regulation capable of rendering ecological and social destruction visible and counteracting the externalisation of follow-up costs. Furthermore, we need a global debate about ways of living that comprehend the break with superfluous consumerism and the ethical commandment of moderation as evidence of life quality.

(2) Substantive Equality is appropriate, because ecological sustainability cannot be achieved without social sustainability. What is urgently needed are projects of radical democratic re-distribution – from the North to the South, from the European centre to the European crisis countries, from top to bottom, from the strongest to the weakest – to the 60 million refugees of whom only a tiny fraction actually reach the capitalist centres, for example. An initial step may be a tax policy that turns the right to wealth into a temporary right, that closes tax heavens and taxes large assets in favour of investments in combating poverty, hunger and ecological destruction worldwide (Thomas Piketty).

(3) No redistribution will happen without radical, rebellious democracy. Here, the expansion of democracy to the economic sphere is of critical importance. The project of a new economic democracy will have to be fought for in and against the 1,318 companies currently controlling four fifths of global economic turnover. These corporations are essentially social institutions; their decisions influence the lives of several billion people. It is therefore impermissible for them to remain exclusively in private hands. Radical democracy thus means posing the ownership question. It means finding new forms of collective self-ownership (employee-run companies, etc.) beyond private and state property, which socialise and democratise decisions regarding the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘what for’ of production.

(4) Each of the projects mentioned here must take into account that charting a course towards democratic transformation today can ultimately only occur on a global scale. Ecological threats, economic crises, refugee movements and wars demand a new ‘world domestic policy’ (Ulrich Beck). Achieving this will only be possible if differing interests and conflicts between different states and regions of the globe become cooperative. We must create – beginning in our respective national societies – a mode of global cooperation without which the old sociologist’s dream of a ‘betterment of society’ in a global order cannot be realised.

These four suggestions should be understood in the sense of a democratic experimentalism. The suggestions obviously contain questions more than anything else, many of which are also for sociology: are these core projects adequate? Do they have to be amended or expanded? How can they be specified in detail? With whom could they be successfully carried out? And, not least: what should a new and better society be called? Just as Erik Olin Wright, I have no difficulty working on a compass that describes the coordinates for a transformation towards neo-socialist post-growth societies. But that is just an individual preference. My suggestion to sociologists is this: let us begin a debate about a better society beyond capitalism, and develop viable alternatives in dialogue with civil society – globally, through constructive controversy, immediately, and – as a first step – in this blog.


A longer text that develops the arguments in greater detail can be found at: http://stocktaking-scenarios.blog.rosalux.de/files/2015/12/D%C3%B6rre5final.pdf


Klaus Dörre is Professor of Sociology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena (Germany) where he chairs the Department of Labour, Industrial and Economic Sociology. He specialises in the Sociology of Labour as well as industrial and economic sociology. His areas of research include the theory of capitalism, finance capitalism, flexible and precarious employment, labour relations and strategic unionism, and the Green New Deal, among others. He is the current director of the Research Group Post-Growth Societies, funded by the German Research Foundation.

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