Capitalism and the escape to the commons

Author: Mieke van Hemert

“Before capitalism will go to hell … it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way”[i]. In the introduction of How will capitalism end?, Wolfgang Streeck interlaces his precise and nuanced academic discourse with a few stark images which add to the feeling of urgency one is caught in these days. It is fascinating and shocking to read his diagnosis of contemporary neoliberal society and the multi-morbidity of capitalism, but I like to look beyond the decay towards signs of emerging alternatives. Perhaps we cannot move the body, but circumvent it, taking ‘escape routes’ collectively and leave the cadaver to the elements? Before I present my belief in newly emerging institutions, based on everyday experience, let me briefly summarise Streeck’s diagnosis.

We live in a post-democracy, in which finance has become a government of its own. This private government, consisting of the globalized financial industry and the central banks has left public governments without any means to resolve conflicts and to defend themselves against ‘the three apocalyptic horsemen of contemporary capitalism’: stagnation, debt and inequality. The long term trends of declining growth, rising debt and growing inequality reinforce each other, as much else in the downward spiral we are in. The spiral of self-destruction became palpable with the sequence of debt crises since the 1970s and the onset of neoliberalism. It deepened with globalization destroying territory-bound defenses against the commodification of labour, nature and money and public government sliding into global governance. Since the financial crisis of 2008, these trends are continuing for the worse and ‘recovery’ amounts to worsening labour conditions and underemployment. Precarious employment, all sorts of flexible labour constructions and ‘disruptive innovation’ make for vulnerable, unorganized workers left to their own devices. This condition is being applauded in neoliberal discourse under such terms as ‘resilience’ and ‘creativity’. Add to this the pathology of ‘systemic disorders’ such as ‘oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy’, plus the self-reinforcing dynamic of public governments increasingly relying on and being lobbied by private firms in warfare, and you have, by and large, Streeck ink-black diagnosis of contemporary society.

But that is not all. Concomitant with the worsening power of labour and the celebration of individual competition and resilience under neoliberalism, Streeck sees a ‘pulverization of collective agency’ amounting to a state of social entropy. The sociologist sees something akin a Hobbesian state of nature as the inevitable interregnum that awaits us, since there is no opposition that can match the power of private government and no new order in sight:

“With individuals deprived of collective defenses and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on the motivation of individuals to cooperate with other individuals on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and greed and by elementary interests in individual survival”[ii].

Why does Streeck see only social entropy? I will not go into a theoretical discussion, but I like to take from the book Escape routes by Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos[iii] the outlook that every day, simple acts born from dissent and a desire to escape oppression can add up to transformation. Escape is something like free energy, not the energy expended with resistance, and it may result in self-organization. This is what I feel when I hear people talking about their personal engagement with some cooperative activity around food, energy, housing, education, care and other basic issues around which new institutions can be built, or actually are being built. Everywhere in urban areas, collectively maintained food gardens are springing up, often on wasteland. These playful commons initiatives are precarious, given the pressures to build on land where square meter prices are sky-high and the demand is huge, but they indicate a changing mentality. Outside the cities, Community Supported Agriculture is a growing phenomenon all over Europe[iv]. The Youth Food Movement appears to have embraced a paradigm shift in thinking about and experimenting with the whole materiality and symbolics of food, motivated by the wish for a fairer and sounder food system. I think these initiatives are saplings which can grow into firmly rooted institutions. This is far too optimistic for Streeck’s taste – he would probably see this as hopelessly naïve ‘resilient hoping’ as neoliberalism requires us to do. But there is more than capital on this earth – it even seems hardly important at all.

[i] Wolfgang Streeck (2016) How will capitalism end? Essays on a failing system London/New York: Verso, p. 36

[ii] Idem, p. 14

[iii] Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos (2008) Escape routes. Control and subversion in the 21st Century London/Ann Arbor, Mi.: Pluto Press

[iv] European CSA research group (2016) Overview of Community Supported Agriculture in Europe http://urgenci.net/the-csa-research-group/