What 2020 Taught Us About Post-Capitalism

One big truth about 2020? In the aftermath of the pandemic, we should never see capitalism in the same way again. Here are three powerful dimensions of that perspective shift.

2020 laid the groundwork for a fundamental shift: from capitalism to post-capitalism. Let’s explore that.

Markets are Tools not Gods

Under the neoliberal variant of capitalism that has dominated the last four decades, markets are the optimum, standalone machines for the organisation of human affairs. Government’s role? To get out of the way, and let markets work. But in 2020 we learned – surprise! – that when crisis strikes, everyone becomes a believer in the power of government. During lockdowns, only massive government support has prevented the outright collapse of national economies. The truth has been driven home: markets are social phenomena, necessarily underpinned – and underwritten – by an infrastructure provided by the collective.

Big Government Fuels Innovation

Sure, private industry created the vaccines. But only against the backdrop of massive government action to de-risk their work. One example? In the summer, Pfizer closed a $2 billion advance purchase order with the US government. With financial return all but guaranteed, the corporation was liberated to throw massive resources at ultra-fast safety trials. For decades we’ve been told that governments stifle innovation. The truth, as economist Mariana Mazzucato says, is that only government has the heft to support innovation on a grand scale. Government, not Silicon Valley, gave us the internet. A government put humans on the moon.

As for the ‘lone billionaire genius’ model? Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity have taken around $4.9 billion in government support across their lifetimes.

Another Kind of Corporation is Possible

A certain type of Woke Capitalist has long been calling for ‘a new kind of business’. But in its current incarnation, this movement is anti-corporation. Corporations, we’re told, are the past: big, slow, cynical. The future belongs to plucky, agile, idealistic startups. Not Nike, but Allbirds. Not Nestlé, but Impossible Burger. The past year exposed the limitations of that view. Who rode to our rescue? Giant, legacy corporations: Pfizer (who supported German drugmaker BioNTech) and AstraZeneca. What if it’s reinvented corporations, and not startups that hold the key to a new, enlightened capitalism? To realise that vision, we need a radical reimagining of what the corporation can be. The foundations have been laid.

Welcome to Post-Capitalism?

Where is all this taking us? The pandemic has mapped out the battlefield for a coming war of ideas over our economic future. The idea that we might transition to some form of post-capitalism no longer seems outlandish.

Here are three angles on the coming clash:

Moonshot Ideologies

In 2020, Government and industry combined to shoot for a vaccine. They hit the target. That means the political case for a Green New Deal – which would see government and business come together to tackle climate change – just became far stronger. Remember, in its most developed form the GND is more than just another policy. It amounts to a blueprint for a new economic model; one that would reimagine the relationship between government and the private sector, and seek to subjugate markets to new visions of human wellbeing.

New Money

National governments have spent unprecedented amounts of money, and run up huge deficits. Get ready for renewed discussion around an emerging, highly controversial new economic idea: Modern Monetary Theory. It gets very wonkish fast, but MMT says governments can freely invent new money to pay for public services and fuel full employment. In other words MMT strikes at our very understanding of money, and asks us to believe it might behave in altogether new ways.

A Leisurely Walk to the Commons

The deep context here? New technologies are undermining concepts fundamental to capitalism in its current form. Digital copies have already undermined old ideas about ownership. In the decades ahead, networks of people and objects will implement a similar logic. Why own a car, when a network of autonomous vehicles is always in motion? In a world of networked abundance, perhaps capitalism as we know it simply fades away, as the ideas that support it – ownership, labour, capital – become less relevant in the lives of millions.

David Mattin writes New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society. This post first appeared as New World Same Humans #49.

Photo by Roland Denes on Unsplash