The country of one’s dreams must be a country one can imagine being constructed, over the course of time, by human hands.”
Among capitalism’s many critics, it is standard procedure to state that neoliberalism has failed and that unless our societies construct a new paradigm for how economies work, human societies will collapse under the weight of an unsustainable and environmentally catastrophic capitalist system.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the most powerful purveyor of neoliberal ideas over the last forty years, has now admitted that perhaps its signature ideology has been oversold, and that the costs of free market ideology may have outweighed the touted benefits. When this happens, we may be sure something has reached a breaking point. Whether this signals a fundamental shift in thinking, or a tactical maneuver to preserve the status quo, is a matter of political perspective. (My money is on the latter.)
In fact, neoliberalism has not failed. From the vantage point of its ultimate purpose—maximizing wealth to the owners of capital—it is succeeding admirably. As a doctrine, it is true to its principles. The problem is that these principles are not just unsustainable—they are pathological. The deification and normalization of greed and the hoarding of wealth by an ever-shrinking and increasingly predatory minority has brought us to the brink of economic and social collapse.1What is more, the dominance of neoliberal ideas in our culture has literally deprived people of the capacity to imagine any alternative. This is the ultimate triumph of ideology. If ever there was a time when alternative visions of how economies might work were urgently needed, it is now. The absence of alternatives from public debate is one clear symptom of the crisis we are in.
The election of Donald Trump in the US, the success of Brexit in the UK, and the rise of neo-fascist parties across the face of Europe only highlight the continuing failure of leftist movements to present such a vision and to address the massive discontent that is now driving political developments. But it is also true that the direction this discontent can take is still up for grabs. Despite recent disheartening events, the election of Syriza in Greece, the popularity of the Sanders campaign in the US, the rise of Podemos and Barcelona en Comú in Spain, and the success of the Pirate Party in Iceland show that the triumph of right wing reaction is not guaranteed. But the failure of Syriza to challenge the status quo in Europe and the rise of Trump in the US also indicate that a change of political direction is not tenable within the parameters of our present institutions. We have entered an age where it is entirely likely that change—in whatever form—will come not as a result of conscious political effort on the part of social movements, but rather from the collapse of the current system.
What is entirely unknown is what form this change will take. Already, the absence of an alternative to capitalism has given rise to forms of reaction not witnessed since the fascist era of the 1930s. Even more frightening is that the pathology of fascist ideas has taken hold in what were once the strongholds of liberal democracy. In the US, the first weeks of a Trump administration has revealed the face of an Orwellian dystopia in the making. It seems clear that the urgency of our present moment is now primarily political. The consequences of global warming, growing inequality, disappearing civil liberties, and the consolidation of the surveillance state all point to the necessity of political mobilization on a scale not seen since the uprisings of the mid 1800s. It is also clear that any such mobilization must be propelled by a vision and a plan that concretely and radically challenge and transform the underpinnings of our current system.
It means the recovery of economic and political sovereignty by nations, the radical curtailment and redistribution of wealth, the social control of capital, the democratization of technology, the protection of social, cultural, and environmental values, and the use of state and civil institutions to promote economic democracy in all its forms. Above all, it means the evolution of new forms of governance that deliver decision-making power to citizens in an era of global power dynamics. A tall order. But if the grievances that are polarizing societies across the globe are not channeled in ways that offer people constructive pathways to reform, positive visions of society that they can believe in, ways of life that have meaning beyond self-aggrandizement and the worship of money, what comes next will be a nightmare, fueled by rage and resentment. In the US, we are seeing this unfolding before our eyes.
Thankfully, the elements of a new imaginary are all around us. The outlines of a new political economy that is both humane and in which the fulfillment of the person is conjoined to the well-being of one’s community are already visible in the innumerable examples of cooperative and social enterprises that are showing daily that social values can be the basis for a form of economics in which the common good prevails. Ethics can be a basis for a new economic order. In this essay, I will not dwell on what has gone wrong with late stage capitalism. The seemingly permanent state of economic, social, and environmental crisis that it has engendered is evidence that our economic system is both unjust and unsustainable. Nor can I address all aspects of what a Next System entails. What I will do is describe elements of political economy that I think are indispensable for paradigm change; including, the forms by which such an economy might function; the roles of citizens and the state; the role of technology; and, examples of how these ideas may be realized in strategic areas. These include the provision of social care, the creation of money and social investment, the creation of social markets, and the containment of corporate power. It is true that the rapid regressions that we are now witnessing daily clearly require urgent and immediate action to resist very specific threats that affect real lives and cannot wait for what may come next. These range from the erasure of civil liberties, to the rollback of environmental protections, to the racist discrimination against minorities that is now public policy. But if these regressions are in fact symptomatic of a political order in crisis, as I argue in this paper, thinking about what comes next can ensure that the urgency of our actions in the here and now reflect a vision for the long term that gives meaning and coherence to what we do today.
George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism – The Ideology at the Root of all Our Problems,” The Guardian,
April 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot.
This paper by John Restakis, published alongside three others, is one of many proposals for a systemic alternative we have published or will be publishing here at the Next System Project. We have commissioned these papers in order to facilitate an informed and comprehensive discussion of “new systems,” and as part of this effort, we have also created a comparative framework which provides a basis for evaluating system proposals according to a common set of criteria.
Continue reading, download the PDF here.