Will Capitalism Cancel the Future?

Otis Harding-Hill

6873 words

52 minutes

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“We must look the beast in the eyes if we want a way out” (Berardi F. 2017)

Globally, we find ourselves in a critical situation, creatively, politically and environmentally. I will present the argument that this crisis is the result of the capitalist legacy of dDeveloped iIndustrialised cCountries, and propose that to avoid the future being cancelled we need to find a radical alternative.

I was born in the UK just after the turn of the millennium, a time of hope and optimism for the world. Many developed countries had lived through one of the longest periods of peace in their histories, whilst new developments in technology were providing unprecedented access to information and global connectivity. What we might have imagined as the start of a new chapter in the world order, built on collective consciousness and socialist reform, has instead become a period of time overwhelmed with uncertainty and in which anxiety is embedded in every part of our lives. Today we find ourselves in a cultural and political deadlock, which I will argue results from capitalism, and in particular the Neo-Liberal form of it, since it has a grasp on every part of our lives.

Neoliberalism is the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be liberal and capitalist, with only a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state (Vallier K. 2021). It has created a world based around driving our desires to constantly consume. This is done by reinforcing the idea that the Neoliberal system offers ‘individual freedom’’and a positive sense of self. While this may offer a distraction from the anxiety that is riddled throughout our everyday lives, I will argue that it also numbs societies ability to collectively react and resist the status quo, politically, creatively and economically.

Setting out the perspective that society is currently in a period of crisis, one where capitalism presents a real risk of ‘cancelling the future’, by distracting us from the real threats to the future of our planet, I will then explore examples of creative, political and economic movements that have attempted to challenge the enduring grip of capitalism, and present the opportunity for a radical alternative approach for the future.

Chapter 1: Situations of the past

The deadlock we find ourselves in now can only force us to speculate about what is in store for the future. Like many of the daydreamers and conscious thinkers of the past, we could romanticise the future and what it holds, but the overriding uncertainties of the present make the future seem unimaginable. Resistance as we know it was largely defined by our generational predecessors who attempted to reimagine the world for a different future. Modern-day resistance is much more complex, the rules, regulations, laws and distractions of day-to-day life make the battle for change all the harder.

The Institute for Precarious Consciousness published an essay on ‘Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancyd’. The essay lays out the phases of capitalism and the dominant effects on the population. A feature of each phase is that the dominant effect is a public secret and as long as the dominant effect is a secret, resistance against that phase will not emerge. (CrimethInc. 2017)

In the 19th century, the overarching effect of capitalism and the process of industrialisation was‘misery in the daily life of the majority of workers. Lack of welfare benefits, workers’ rights, education and healthcare had led to a vast majority of people living in a state of economic, social and political vulnerability. Revolutionaries fought to expose and address this vulnerability and social injustice, to ensure a social minimum standard was established for general welfare and rights. (CrimethInc. 2017)

The outcome of these revolutionary protests was that by the mid-20th century, consumption, healthcare and education had become more widely accessible to all in society. Propelled by the aftermath and recovery from the Second World War, the industrialised world was developing and groups were working together to establish a general sense of security in daily life. The effects of the Fordist system were in full swing; people had full-time jobs and guaranteed welfare, whilst mass consumerism, mass culture, and the labour movement were all accessible to the population. The general feeling of security from secure jobs and welfare reduced the levels of social injustice felt previously.

Mid-century capitalism, in theory, gave everything needed for ‘survival’, and a comfortable existence, yet it offered no freedom. The economic and social power remained in the control of the few, the system in place was based on the mass production of goods, and the need for ever-increasing consumption to make it successful. The dominant outcome of this period of capitalism was ‘boredom’. Boredom resulting from the inability to directly effect change in the existing economic status quo.

A wave of resistance to fight this ‘boredom’ came in the 1950s. The tactics of these movements were developed by a post-war generation, to escape the ‘work-consume-die’ cycle which had been manufactured by Fordism. The revolutionaries of this era fought for liberation from the shackles of the Fordist system. Many countercultural movements emerged, which attempted to challenge and change the capitalist rules governing society, aiming to escape the endemic work cycle.

One of the key Avantgarde movements of the Post-War era that focused on challenging the capitalist status quo was the Situationist International movement. Raoul Vaneigem, one of its members said:

We do not want a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation is bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom” (Vaneigem R. 1967)

The Situationists pioneered tactics directed purely towards the act of challenging being bored. They aimed to revise the world by consistently questioning all parts of society and re-examining the idea of ‘happiness’. Over a period of years, the group rejected many of the systems which had been implemented as part of the post-war Fordist economic push and contributed to the protests and disruption surrounding the period of 1968 in Paris. The Situationists wanted to create their own way of interacting with the world and did so through their constructed acts of defiance:

“They were at war with the world but light-heartedly. Their task was a prodigious inactivity. The only causes they supported they had to define for themselves” (Wark M. 2008). The Situationists were a select but visionary group of individuals. “They attempted to restore the idea of ‘critical thought’” (Wark M. 2008).

A central notion of the movement was defined as ‘the Spectacle’, as defined in the pivotal Situationist text ‘Society of the Spectacle’ written by the leading Situationist figure and filmmaker Guy Debord. ‘The Spectacle’ refers to many aspects of modern society; our image-saturated, manipulated way of life where almost everything is ‘commodified’. ‘The Spectacle’ as a theory lays out an alternate reality where media and culture have been remade so persistently that any notion of ‘the authentic’ is now impossible. Debord references the idea of alienation and dissatisfaction as key drivers of ‘The Spectacle’. The text offers an eerie prediction for how modern life will develop and has gone on to do so (Debord G. 1967).

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (Debord G. 1967).

Through understanding ‘The Spectacle’ as a critique of capitalism and consumer society, the physical and conceptual work of the Situationists stands out as a form of resistance. The text, published a decade after the group was formed, encapsulated much of what it fought for and against.

The Situationist International was from the very start concerned with the radical critique of capitalist society and the development of proletarian revolution.” (Hemmens A. Zacaria G. 2020).

The Situationist International produced key concepts that were the foundation of the movement, and opposed the organisation of temporary culture; outlined in the diagram presented on the cover of The Situationist publication “New Theatre of Operations for Culture” 1958 (fig. 1).

New Theatre of Operations for Culture by The Situationist International

Figure 1: New Theatre of Operations for Culture by The Situationist International

The Situationists’ work was focused on understanding and recreating their environments. Détournement is one of the many concepts that were created to revolutionise the fight against boredom: Détournement, meaning ‘diversion’ or ‘rerouting’(Debord G. Wolman G. 1956), is an act where cultural products of the past are sampled and integrated into new creations, resulting in a powerful creative tool used by the movement to disrupt and fight against the existing capitalist perspective.

The 1959 film ‘On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Moment In Time’, by Guy Debord, provides an example of an act of Détournement. The film’s narration contains ‘detourned’ phrases ‘re-directed’ from a variety of sources such as classic thinkers and a sci-fi novel. Debord moves from showing footage of anti-colonial protests in Vietnam to then jumping to a soap commercial, juxtaposing the reality of anti-Vietnam (anti-capitalist) protests, against the frivolousness of consumerist soap commercials; all the while using Détournement to represent the fight against ‘The Spectacle’ and capitalism.

Détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle. The cheapness of its products is the heavy artillery that breaks through all the Chinese walls of understanding. It is a real means of proletarian artistic education, the first step toward a Literary Communism.” (Debord G. Wolman G. 1956)

The concepts and practices of the Situationists gained them almost mythic fame within Avant-garde circles. Their ability to re-imagine the world around them allowed them to escape the restrictions of a world which had many physical and mental limitations for the average person. The Situationist’s concepts were focused on ‘self-liberation’. Debord and Wolman argued that Détournement is a cheap and powerful ‘weapon’ that anyone can use; an act that completely re-envisions the way we interact with cultural objects of the past. This act is still relevant, as it equips us with tools to help us understand the world around us in times of political crisis. The Situationist’s believed that capitalism alienated the individual and limited creative potential, whilst maintaining consumerism and conformism at the forefront of the capitalism system. Detournement was a crucial form of resistance against the prevailing system of capitalism. Despite the Situationist’s relatively short period of activity, they have had a lasting impact on highlighting the connection between art, culture and social change.

Post-Situationist groups, such as The Bernadette Corporation, were further developed the concepts originated by the Situationists. In 2001, The Bernadette Corporation, a New York and Paris-based collective, temporarily merged with Le Parti Imaginaire, a faction of post-Situationist intellectuals that were linked to the anti-globalisation movement. The groups collaborated to create the film “Get Rid of Yourself”. The film is a collection of archived footage repurposed to create a dramatic testimony to protest culture. The film contains footage from the G8 summit which was held in Genoa in 2001 and the anti-globalisation protests that happened in objection to the summit. The film has a powerful, cultural message, including identifying the radical Black Bloc protest movement.

Alternative forms of resistance lie in slightly less radical forms. Richard Littler’s blog ‘Scarfolk Council’, is a collection of satirical ‘propaganda’ basedaround a fictional town called Scarfolk, which is stuck in the year 1979. The town is based in North-West England, reflecting the very real political and social hardships this area has historically faced. His blog is an assortment of advertisements, images and public information posters in the style of government-issued publications. Littler ‘disrupts‘ the original information, creating a new subversive message that comments on politics and culture through the lens of the imaginary town ‘Scarfolk’.

Government Self-Support Scheme Posters (1971-) by Richard Littler

Figure 2: Government Self-Support Scheme Posters (1971-) by Richard Littler

Littler’s work centres on sampling products of the past, re-directing the original meaning to create an outcome that is far from the intended original message (fig. 2). Littler’s work repurposes familiar formats of communication, carrying through the Situationist concept of Détournement. Littler’s work provides a dark, comedic insight into the haunting nature of British culture and politics in his depiction of a town stuck in time. The town is an analogy for our current social situation, our inability to escape 20th-century culture and its political and economic struggles. It raises the wider question of where do we see our culture evolving? A recent example of resistance can be seen in the work of Led by Donkeys; a British campaign group that operates by hijacking, repurposing or detourneing advertisements in attempts to convey a new political message. The group reinterpreted Tweets and political posters from Brexiteers, creating new messages that revealed alternative economic statistics of the Brexit campaign (fig. 3). Détournement is once again used to challenge and help communicate alternative perspectives about complex social and political issues.

These provide examples of movements that attempted to challenge the enduring impact of capitalism on society. However the dystopian ideology that "it’s easier to imagine the end of the world then imagine the end of capitalism", which is a phrase that Mark Fisher adapts within his book Capitalist Realism (Fisher, 2009) is the logic which remains at the centre of the continued success of the capitalist system. For many people, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer an issue to be challenged. It can be argued that this pervasive ‘ignorance’ is a deliberate by-product of modern consumer culture and is an essential factor in capitalism’s enduring ability to preempt any form of resistance.

“The internet and technological revolution offered a potential for new beginnings, a new freedom of information that has instead only carried the oppressive weight of the past” (Harder for ‘The New’ to Emerge. Reynolds S. 2010)

The cultural malaise of the present, which results from the enduring impact of capitalism, has led to us constantly retrieving and reviving cultural objects from the past. PR and branding giants deliberately use nostalgia and ‘history’ to add to our dissatisfaction with the present.

Led By Donkeys, 2023

Figure 3: Led By Donkeys, 2023

Chapter 2: Ghostly Nostalgia

20th-century experimental culture and ‘free thinking’ movements produced the sense that ‘alternative’ ways of living were readily available. However this was an illusion as capitalism in its ever-developing and shapeshifting way had managed to largely absorb the struggle against ‘boredom’. The boredom that once led to the expansion of many sides of alternative culture through resistance and protest, has now been completely flattened by current the 21st-century consumer society.

The accelerated nature of the consumer world has meant that everyday life has sped up yet culture has significantly slowed down “… now, acceleration has become a structural necessity.” (Rosa H. 2015). Working patterns, political cycles, everyday technologies, communication habits and devices, have accelerated in unprecedented ways in recent years. This ‘acceleration’ has found us caught in a cycle that is almost impossible to keep up with and therefore react to or resist.

“We all live in an operating system set up by the accelerating triad of war, capitalism and emergent AI,” (Goodman S. 2017)

Consumer society now offers an endless range of products designed to constantly distract us; we find ourselves so overcome with distractions that our ability to be bored has completely diminished. ‘Boredom’, whilst being an oppressive feeling, can also result in creativity, inspiration and resistance. The Situationists saw boredom as pervasive and destructive, stemming from the repetitive nature of everyday life. Whilst this was once the case, capitalism has now constructed a new reality that has almost removed our capacity to be bored, and therefore to resist.

The creation of social media provides a whole new ‘alternative’ reality that requires a high level of involvement and stimulation. This comes with the constant pressure to develop social media ‘secondary’ identities, and finds us constantly involved in maintaining these online identities. Boredom has been traded for the constant anxiety and the kind of pressure induced by ‘cyber capitalism’.

In the book K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, Fisher writes: “It is just that no-one is bored — because there is no longer any subject capable of being bored. For boredom is a state of absorption — a state of high absorption, in fact, which is why it is such an oppressive feeling.” (Fisher M. 2004-2016)

Fisher proposes that in the modern age of capitalism and in particular within cyberspace, no one is bored, but everything is boring. Boredom is something that consumes our entire being into a state of agitation, numbs us into inactivity and lack of resistance and is integral to the preservation and success of capitalist-driven cyberspace.

Our inability to be bored finds us deadlocked in time, where we are constantly looking into the past and romanticising the ‘simpler times’. This nostalgia and attachment we feel to the past has been manufactured by Post-Modern consumer society, into a sensation Jameson in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, calls Nostalgia Mode (Jameson F. 1989). He characterises this concept as a Post-Modernist attempt to completely glorify and commodify the past, arguing that currently there exists an inability to create original representations of our current experiences. Nostalgia Mode is a method used throughout pop culture and is a deliberate ‘exploitation’ of our history, that highlights the inability for us to ground ourselves in the present. Jameson argues that it’s a Post-Modern tactic used to disguise our ‘object-centric society’"whilst creating a whole new idealised world based on a loose, nostalgic, interpretation of the past. Jameson uses Hollywood films or ‘nostalgia film” as examples of his concept.

Olivia Wilde, in her 2022 film ‘Don’t Worry Darling’, provides another example of nostalgia mode, through a glossy, stylistic interpretation of 1950s American fashion and culture. The film portrays a utopian town in American called the ‘Victory Project’, a town occupying the ‘American Dream’. The film is a cinematic embodiment of Jameson’s concept, packed with historic stereotypes portraying how "the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.” (Jameson F. 1989).

The approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage.” (Jameson F. 1989)

This new breed of nostalgia, which has become firmly rooted in our way of thinking, has evolved from the rapid transformations our society has gone through in a remarkably short space of time. Economic transformations, technological innovations and cultural shifts have completely altered the rhythm of everyday life. It can be argued that this has resulted in society’s inability to find comfort in the present, which is causing nostalgia for the past to be intensified. Central to this is the internet, which acts as a limitless archive providing constant access to the ‘oppressive weight’ of the past. Reynolds describes the internet as “an online assembly and a huge archive of old pop culture” (Reynolds S. 2016).

We now all live inside a capitalist cyberspace, where the majority of the population carry smartphones which act as portals into a vast alternative reality full of data. This accessibility to information leaves every one of us with an endless archive of past culture which can be accessed within seconds. This accessibility to information has caused a fundamental shift in the way we now interact with ‘cultural data’. Reynolds suggests we are living in a ‘YoutubeWikipediaRapidshareiTunesSpotify era’ (Reynolds S. 2010.p58) which has utterly transformed our relationship with time and space, leaving society in a state of limbo where our association with the past, present and future is slowly deteriorating.

In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher highlights Berardi’s concept of ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ as a title for the first chapter of his book (Fisher M. 2014). Fisher develops Berardi’s phrase further, in order to suggest how societies’ attitude to the future has progressively decayed over the last 30 years. Fisher attempts to explain the relationship between late capitalism and societies’ obsession with retrospection, in which he explains that Neoliberal Capitalism has created “a world of over-stimulation and precarious work that is suppressing artists from creating ‘the new’":

In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s.” (Fisher M. 2014. p14)

The decades that have followed have been increasingly precarious and full of economic uncertainty, with welfare cuts, the cost of higher education and rising house prices resulting in massively reducing the ability, time and energy available for cultural production. This raises a crucial question, will Neo-Liberalism destroy society’s ability and motivation for cultural production?

The precariousness of our present Neo-Liberal society has made it harder to grasp the moment we live in, and society is experiencing a disconnection between time and our surroundings. Laura Ford’s ‘Savage Messiah’ (Ford L. 2011) is a publication that explores this. The context is London, as she navigates her way through the ‘Neo-Liberal dominated capital’ (fig. 4). Using London as a metaphor for the ‘boredom’ created by capitalism, Ford actively reconnects with the city’s forgotten past and present. She explores the city, rediscovering the streets and spaces through the act of ‘Psychogeography’, a playful act aimed at creating new ways of physically navigating through an urban environment and interacting with its architecture and spaces. This was much like the Situationists, who originally practised this act in Paris in the 1950s and ’60s. Ford deliberately reconnects with the physical world at a time when London is going through immense changes. She proposes that ‘London space’ is a commodity much like cyberspace; and that it’s struggling with its direction and its use of time. London, much in the same way that capitalism is driven by over-activity with no discernible ‘endpoint’. Fisher summarises the work:

Savage Messiah is about another kind of delirium: the releasing of the pressure to be yourself … a depersonalised journey out to the erotic city that exists alongside the business city.” (Fisher M. 2014)

These examples present the perspective that modern cities and cyberspace share many similarities; both are designed to maintain ‘hyper-connectivity’ and promote continuous consumption. These physical and cyber spaces are built on the notion that everyone is a ‘product’. Our consumption within cyberspace creates algorithms that tailor products to our own tastes, leaving us caught in loops of personalised information that result in distracting us from the crisis and exhaustion the world faces. In the physical world, late capitalism has bred and nurtured a reliance on desires, as long as the individual is constantly faced with desirable objects and situations then the capitalist system will continue to flourish.

‘The Projective City’ is a concept created by Luc Boltanski and Eves Chiapello, in ‘The New Spirit of Capitalism’ (Boltanski L. Chiapello E. 1999). Within the context of the ‘new spirit’, they use the notion of a Projective City as a ‘metaphorical model’ for the age we now live in. It is said we are now in the third age of capitalism, where the Projective City is laid out in contrast to previous periods referenced as the 'Domestic City’, or the 'Industrial City’. They propose that within this new city, we don’t maintain normal jobs, instead we manage a diverse range of ‘projects’. The main goal is to create flexible and constantly changing ‘networks’, where the ‘players’ in this city are constantly reconnecting, and the separation between work life and non-work life has completely broken down. (Boltanski L. Chiapello E. 1999).

According to Boltanski and Chiapello, “The city is created on the mediating activity employed in the creation of networks”. This city is a capitalist city, driven by ‘overactivity’ and ‘networks’, where the key to success is to be ‘well connected’. Within this ‘city’ all personal relationships are commodified, meaning there is little distinction between a ‘friend’ and a potential ‘business partner’. "The capacity for capitalism to commodify almost everything within this world is made simple, as the purpose of the individual is to be constantly ‘hustling’ and ‘networking"(Boltanski L. Chiapello E. 1999).

Boltanksi and Chiapello’s model highlights the complexities of modern capitalism, arguing that the patterns which were once associated with a separate corporate life are now blurred into everyone’s lives on so many levels, even into creative areas. Where once we might have believed these creative areas were often opposed to the capitalist structure.

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield

Figure 4: Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield

Chapter 3: Set up for Failure, or the Future?

We live in a time where, in developed countries, the capitalist system is the norm. To many it is the only viable and imaginable economic system in the modern day. “The socialist detour, which carried roughly one-third of humanity as of the mid-1980s, has nearly vanished by the end of the twentieth century” (Sachs J. 1999. p90).

By the end of the twentieth century, the majority of the world’s developed countries had adopted the basic structure of modern capitalism. At the start of the twenty-first century this began to be acknowledged as a ‘Global Capitalist’ system. “The twentieth century opens with a recognisable international system that can be fairly categorised as global capitalism.” (Sachs J. 1999. p91).

While it can be argued and shown to be a system built on exploitation and inequality, it seems to be the only economic structure that has lasted successfully. It, therefore raises the central question “… is capitalism the Future?”

Capitalism is proven to feed off the innate human stimulus-response of ‘positive behavioural reinforcement’; if we behave in a favoured way we will receive a positive response. “Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behaviour, you will see more of that behaviour.” (Brooks A. 2010).

This poses a reasonable explanation as to why ‘human nature’ may be designed for a capitalist economic structure. An early example that identifies this behaviour can be found in the psychological experiments carried out by B.F. Skinner. The experiments discovered ‘operant conditioning’ by training hungry rats in a box to pull a lever to receive food, showing that there exists an innate animal instinct for positive reinforcement, an instinctive animal response we see throughout nature (Brooks A. 2010). shakespeare sisters

This basic, yet fundamental part of nature, has become the foundation of our political and economic system. ‘Positive reinforcement’ practically lays out the basis for the whole of consumer capitalist society; we spend money, we receive something nice, and we feel good about it. Through these acts, we learn to be consumers because ultimately the ‘stimulus-response’ effect is positive.

Money is a more complex reinforcer of human behaviour, but remains central to the enduring ‘success’ of capitalism as the dominant system globally. Money holds value when exchanged for real rewards, it is the essential tool to gain rewards. capitalist consumer society lives off our need for money to access the rewards we are encouraged to want and ‘need’ ’ to ‘be happy and fulfilled’ and that we perpetuate through positive reinforcement.

While not arguing that capitalism is the most equitable economic system; as the structure of capitalism is built on ‘positive behaviour reinforcement’ it continues to prove its viability as it relates more closely to innate human behaviour than the alternatives which have been tested in Developed Countries in recent history, such as Communism and Socialism. However, although capitalism may continue to be viable it remains flawed and a negative drain on our creative future. Capitalism at its roots deals with reinforcing behaviours stimulated by ‘needing more’. It is a system that is driven monetarily, constantly needing to increase profits. If something can be commodified and monetised, capitalism will do it. To begin to understand how we can break out of this societal deadlock into a more positive future, we have to understand the key components of our current economic system. Jameson has defined the current period of capitalism as ‘Late Capitalism’:

The ‘late’ stages of capitalism carry a sense of structural change; that things are different, that through industrialisation and modernisation, we have gone through a dramatic transformation, where we are now part of a system that is aged and nearing its final stages” (Jameson F. 1989).

According to Jameson, late capitalism emerged in the 1950s, formed in the Post Second World War period at an embryonic time for culture and politics and synonymous with Post-Modernism. Jameson proposed that late capitalism offered a more dynamic structure than its predecessors.

“… the economic preparation of Post-Modernism or Late Capitalism began in the 1950s after the wartime shortages of consumer goods and spare parts had been made up, and new products and new technologies could be pioneered”. (Jameson F. 1989)

Post-Fordist work systems, rapid high-tech advancements, increasing income inequality and the concentration of financial capital are all elements of the late capitalist system. As we move into the later stages of capitalism, the profound flaws of this system are being exposed. We have seen Governments increasingly motivated by narrow short-term political goals, whilst there has been increasing austerity and inequality in recent years. Meanwhile, capitalism’s central ‘flaw’; that its success is driven by the need to continually increase consumer demand; is resulting in the global environmental state of crisis we find ourselves in. This is central to the argument that capitalism will cancel the future and an alternative model must be found. In ‘Acid Communism’, Mark Fisher highlights the underlying risk to the future of the current capitalist model: “Capitalism: a system that generates artificial scarcity in order to produce real scarcity; a system that produces real scarcity in order to generate artificial scarcity. Actual scarcity — scarcity of natural resources — now haunts capital, as the Real that its fantasy of infinite expansion must” (Fisher M. 2020).

Artists have attempted to represent the complex challenges of modern capitalism. ‘Agency’ (2018), an art show held at the Nome Gallery in Berlin, featured the work of seven contemporary Artists, and was curated by James Bridle. The show captures a collection of work intended to “critically engage with the most technologically complex and politically pressing issues of our times” (Bridle J. 2018). The collection of works represent the stark reality of our present times.

“We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it. In an age of planetary-scale networks and opaque, remote systems of governance, how do individuals retain the capability for creative thought, meaningful action – and a sense of humour?” (Bridle J. 2018)

‘Human and Talisman’ 2016, by Morehshin Allahyari, is a 3-D printed sculpture that represents a talisman of climate change inspired by Islamic theology (fig. 5). Huma is said to be the "bringer of heat and fever", representing the urgency of the climate disaster which is being worsened by capitalist growth. “Huma is not here to save us from climate change, she’s here to assert that it’s coming for all of us and won’t discriminate” (Bridle J. 2018).

Late capitalism is a system built on greed and overconsumption. It’s causing deep rifts throughout our societies and is resulting in the rise of Populist-politics.“… populism is very much an expression in the West of a sense of powerlessness: the powerlessness of ordinary citizens when faced with massive changes going on all around them” (Cox M. 2018). The resulting geopolitical and socio-economic divisions are bringing new anxieties and conflict into our lives; whilst the increasing scarcity of resources and extreme demands on our planet are being made shockingly visible by the destructive, over-accelerating nature of economic growth.

Artists have been at the centre of this argument for well over a century. William Morris described the nature of ‘modern’ politics and economics as a ‘war’ in the 1880s. Recognising the central threat of growing industrialisation, and the competitive capitalist model at its centre:

“… it is now a desperate “competition” between the great nations of civilization for the world-market, and tomorrow it may be a desperate war for that end” (Morris W. 1884. p134-158).

Morris argues that this ‘war’ is an eternal competition, with each nation pursuing their own advantage at the cost of someone else’s. It is a battle that ultimately no one will win. Competition drives modern economic systems, nation vs nation, creating demands for goods in an endless battle to produce the highest profits.

Human and Talisman by Morehshin Allahyari

Figure 5: Human and Talisman by Morehshin Allahyari

The widespread feeling of powerlessness of the individual in the face of ‘war’ is central to late capitalism. This powerlessness is integrated into our system as a way to subdue the population, making organised change all the harder. Berardi claims we are living in an ‘Age of Impotence’, where impotence is defined as an ‘inability to take effective action; helplessness’ (OED), a phrase which accurately describes the state of our current social psyche. “In this age of precariousness, powerless people have been unable to create effective forms of social autonomy, unable to implement voluntary change, unable to pursue change in a democratic way, because democracy is over” (Berardi F. 2017). Our current social and economic system thrives off creating and maintaining this general mood of helplessness.

We now live in a world where the intrinsic standard for our economy is that it must be constantly growing for us to be happy and healthy. Material accumulation’ feeds’ capitalist economic systems. The desire to buy ‘unnecessary’ products designed for convenience is created by consumer society, which in turn benefits and perpetuates capitalist economies. ‘A deeply unquestioned assumption of modern life is the need for ‘economic growth’ (Hickel J. 2020), the constant push for economic growth being the main driver for almost every country in the world. Yet this leads to the central question here; in an age of limited resources, why must we be constantly pushing to produce and consume more than the previous year? If we change this expectation and find an alternative to the enduring capitalist economic model, can we avoid cancelling the future?

‘Degrowth’ is a social, political and economic movement, that evolved from the critical analysis of economic growth and consumer society in developed Industrialised countries. The movement opposes capitalism’s perpetual expansion, arguing that it is having devastating effects on the living world. “The ’degrowth movement’ aims to build a collective consciousness and understanding surrounding the realities of the global imbalance and inequalities which are leading to the demise of our planet” (Hickel J. 2020).

“‘Sustainable Degrowth’ is defined as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions.” (Schneider, F., Kallis, G., & Martinez-Alier, J. 2010 p511-518).

Economists and supporters of ‘degrowth’ are working to create steps to aid the scaling down of the world’s richest economies whilst in parallel ensuring a more equitable distribution of wealth. Economic Anthropologist Jason Hickel, studies ‘degrowth’ and throughout his work argues that it offers a solution to the economic turmoil and disparity we are currently facing:

“We need to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of Growth that lies at the heart of our Economy” (Hickel J. 2020)

This is not a simple process; the industrialised world is built on economic expansion and growth, but as a movement it offers the prospect of a more positive and thoughtful future. Much like the work of the Situationists, the ‘degrowth’ movement aims to reimagine and reconnect with our environment but in a much more urgent and critical way. Both movements critique the capitalist system while offering creative alternatives to a system that is now threatening the future of our planet.

“Degrowth’ aims to decentralise this need for material accumulation as a key cultural imaginary, whilst refocusing societal principles around ‘simplicity, conviviality, and sharing.” (Kallis G. 2018. P10-11).

This movement has been born out of a crisis. The environmental, political and economic risks we now witness globally are only a fragment of what we will face if we carry on accelerating down the path of capitalism. ‘Degrowth’ is an outcry for drastic change.

In ‘The Search of Planetary Intelligence’ (Bridle J. 2022), James Bridle considers a more thoughtful way for humans to thrive alongside their natural counterparts by gaining a better understanding of the natural systems that surround us. At a time where economic systems and technology threaten our existence, Bridle suggests we should "build a meaningful and free relationship with the non-human, one based on solidarity and cognitive diversity” (Bridle J. 2022).

An example of Bridle’s practical work can be seen in his 2022 project ‘Server Farm’, “… a proposal to build a computer out of, and in collaboration with, plants and other critters” (Bridle J. 2022) (fig. 6) Bridle’s work aims to bridge the gap between nature and technology by offering an alternative to current technological methods. Bridle’s work is thoughtful and hopeful, and aims to challenge ‘neo-colonial industrial processes which damage the planet’ (Bridle J. 2022).

Server Farm, by James Bridle, 2022 Server Farm, by James Bridle, 2022

Figure 6: Server Farm, by James Bridle, 2022

“To avoid climatic catastrophe, ecosystem destruction and resource depletion. This cannot be done with technological improvements and simple behavioural changes: the scale of the economy has to decline too” (Kallis G. 2018. P10-11).

Hickel suggests 3 main steps for what he characterises as ‘degrowth’ (Hickel J. 2020). The first step is to remove GDP as a public policy objective and instead generate a genuine measure of progress that removes social and ecological negatives. The second is to change the laws on ‘shareholder value’ that Corporations make a priority; challenging the central corporate aim of maximising shareholder returns. The next step is creating a fair distribution of wealth; focusing on equality rather than simply growth, where wealth can be redistributed more evenly, allowing people to work less and consume less. Hickel argues that necessary labour can be redistributed so everyone has access to the wage they need to survive, without having to create more growth and more jobs. Hickel states:

“This economy discussed is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, the argument that we should be making is, it is time for us to evolve past capitalism to something better, to a better way of being human, a better way of living in community, a better way of interacting intimately with the other organisms in our world. What we have ahead of us is something richer, something more intimate and something more loving” (Hickel J. 2020)


To avoid the very real threat and risk to the planet of capitalism cancelling the future, I have set out an argument for the need to create a future where globally everyone and everything can thrive. We need to better understand, address and challenge the risks and problems in the current prevailing systems and use this understanding, this collective knowledge, to create new systems that allow humans to flourish alongside the natural world.

We live in a time of existential fear. Feelings of hopelessness and anxiety are shared globally, as we are now starting to witness the planetary effects of a failed capitalist system. The current crisis capitalism has forged breeds disconnection and anxiety, as the enduring resilience of capitalism creates the illusion that there is no way to break out of this vicious cycle. The reality we live in now is full of contradictions. We see rapid advancements in technology, ones capable of achieving things that were unimaginable in previous decades, yet we constantly prove that we cannot cater to and share this planet harmoniously without destroying the natural world.

We find ourselves at a critical turning point, where we still have the time and potential to create something new. By learning more about ourselves and the world around us we have the opportunity to form new connections and new understandings which will lead to new possibilities. Much like collective resistance movements in the past, we need to understand the flaws in the current system to inspire change, by doing this and not blindly accepting that capitalism is the only viable system, there is potential for new systems to emerge offering a more considerate future.

Through the rejection of the existing capitalist structures and the building of collective knowledge there lies hope. By prioritising societal ‘health’ as well as planetary health, we can move past the consumerist trap that capitalism has created. We can use the potential of technological developments to expand our collective imagination, rejecting the self-serving, inward-looking goals of capitalism. The flaws in our current system show there’s no guarantee of its survival …“Like every social system we have ever known, it will not last forever. Our task now is to invent what happens next” (Srnicek N. Williams A. 2015).

By learning from those who formed resistance in the past, and forming new strong relationships with our surroundings, we have the opportunity to realign ourselves with the world. It is here that the new system for the future could emerge, a new era of creativity, harmony and understanding.


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