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After capitalism?


Fredric Jameson famously remarked that “someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”  (The aphorism is now usually attributed directly to Jameson himself, with the first four words omitted.  If you’re interested, the story of its somewhat convoluted genesis is here).

I thought of that remark when contemplating the following statistics this morning:

Average hourly earnings of production and non-supervisory personnel in the US labor force:

February 1968: $21.48 (2018$)

February 2018: $22.40

Per capita US GDP, in chained 2009 dollars:

1968: $22,760

2017: $52,434


Now to be fair something something Iphones, cost of medical insurance. . . sorry can’t do it.

“Obviously” this isn’t working all that great any more, except for the 10% 1% .1%, along with 62.5 million or so temporarily embarrassed millionaires, give or take.

And of course the ever-increasing wealth gap between capital and labor isn’t the whole problem, not by a long shot — not with all those tricky environment-destroying externalities that show no prospect of being internalized any time soon, plus the alienating nature of so much contemporary work, even when it’s prestigious and well-paid, the soul-destroying essence of ever-more rampant consumerism etc. etc.

As Jameson implies, we’ve reached a stage of cultural discourse in which critiques of capitalism are treated as if they were critiques of the laws of thermodynamics or the molecular structure of water: that is, as attacks on the fundamental laws of the world, as opposed to criticisms of what in fact is a very recent historical development.

All of which raises the question: what elements of the contemporary political and economic culture can be usefully re-imagined?  Specifically, when people say they are in some sense “opposed” to capitalism as it exists today in the USA, or in the developed world generally, what are they opposing, and what ought to be preserved, in at least some form, of our present arrangements?

This being the internet, I suppose I should stipulate that my question is in no way rhetorical: I haven’t thought much about this, and the question itself is a product of my own growing unease with the economic status quo, as opposed to some sort of well-thought-out commitment to various possible alternatives.  So this post is intended to spark discussion more than anything else.

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