Postcapitalist Futurology

Dec 1, 2011 by Tim

This past Wednesday we attended a talk by Kim Stanley Robinson.  For those of you that couldn’t make it, the seminar was mostly about the future history of a post-capitalist world; this is not fantasy, it is in fact an exercise in futurology, because even the most ardent supporters of the Free Market and all that jazz will admit that nothing man-made is eternal, and Dr. Robinson gave the initial output of 1,000 years from now, just to let you allow your mind to wander on the possibilities. After having got you to admit that in 1,000 years humanity will likely be under a radically different economic model than it currently is (after all, 1,000 years ago we were in Feudalism, 1,000 years before that we were in the era of ancient empiric bureaucracy, and 1,000 years before that we existed more or less neolithically), he then offered the much closer date of capitalism’s fading at around 200 years from now. Personally, I think that’s a BIT close, but his arguments were sound.

I am currently fascinated to know what my classmates think the future of Capitalism is, and the role Science will play in its transition. Robinson described the process in terms of emergence and decline; Capitalism itself is an emergence of Feudalism, which has declined to near non-existence (slowly, relatively speaking). It can’t last forever, though, as it is an unsustainable system: it encourages unemployment in order to keep wages competitive, it consistently undervalues natural resources via predatory dumping, and it results in an unbalanced society that leads to the poorest and the richest constantly destroying the environment (to paraphrase Dr. Robinson, if you HAVE to fell that forest to feed your family and slash-and-burn to grow your crops, you will; and if you have the means to eat naught but powdered black rhino bones, who’s rich enough to stop you?).

All things evolve; what do you think Capitalism will cause to emerge? In 200 years, Robinson predicted we would live in “System X”, called so because it is currently indefinable and purely speculative…but it will still have recognizable Capitalistic traits, at the very least. Within 1,000 years, however, this System X will have caused the emergence of System Y (if you agree with Robinson entirely), and we must wonder how Capitalist this new, radically unknowable system will be, if at all.

I discussed this matter with a poli-sci undergrad friend of mine, and he declared that Space held the answer to our energy crises and as Capitalism’s very existence is tied to scarcity, if more funds can be poured into removing Earth as the sole supporter of human life, scarcity may inevitably decline and the emergent System X will include aspects of Capitalism as almost a mere game, for those who choose to play/create and distribute.  For him, Science will play a more important role in the future than business politics.  My response was to remind him that SOMEone would have to take the initiative on space exploration if that were to ever come about, and it is simply not cost-effective.  The short-term gains are nowhere near the tremendous cost of leaving Earth’s gravity, and in the case of energy and others, who would invest in a Dyson sphere or similar space-based world-powering technology if it means rendering all other business obsolete?  We see this problem today with the resistance to adopt electric cars in the face of a massively profitable and well-entrenched oil industry.

What do you think the future looks like for global capitalism?  What will it inevitably give birth to, and how big a role with Science (be allowed to) play?