Economics After Capitalism

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* Book: Economics After Capitalism: A Guide to the Ruins and a Road to the Future. By Derek Wall. Pluto Press, 2015

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William Pinkney-Baird:

"In his book Economics After Capitalism: A Guide to the Ruins and a Road to the Future (Pluto Press, 2015), Derek Wall (International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales) discusses various critiques of capitalism, and examines how we can create practical alternatives to capitalism and build a ‘democratic economy and a future free of rampant climate change, financial chaos, and the ravages of elite rule’.

Here, we outline the main arguments of his book:

As long as capitalism has existed, in whichever form, there have been a great many voices of dissent, movements and thinkers crying out and struggling against what they have seen as an unjust, exploitative and destructive system.

Indeed, as Derek Wall argues in Economics After Capitalism, such ‘anti-capitalist sentiments pre-date capitalism as an advanced industrial or post-industrial system based on profit and investment’.

Thus, Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the temple and the Buddha spoke out against attachment to materialistic possessions, peasants revolted against the enclosure of land, Karl Marx developed an analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system but key to the progression of human society, green movements have challenged the basis of capitalism on consumerism and economic growth, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico fought against the suffering created through free trade, and the Occupy protests have challenged an economic system in which the top 1% of the world’s population now have as much wealth as the bottom 99%.

Following an outline of the ideas contained within his book, Wall begins with those he terms ‘anti-capitalist capitalists’, those economists who have criticised neo-liberalism, globalisation, and the economics of austerity, whilst still maintaining the need for capitalism, albeit in a fairer and more stable form. However, such arguments, Wall contends, ‘act as a vaccine against the virus of anti-capitalist protest’ — particularly those more radical voices who ‘suggest that markets are innately undemocratic, that indefinite economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and that the market-based system is tyrannical because it reduces human life to a narrow pursuit of quantitative advantage’.

The remaining chapters of his book focus, for the most part, on those who have been more critical of capitalism, for a variety of reasons. In these chapters are found the ideas of an array of writers and theorists, including those who criticise capitalism through the lens of corporate power or the workings of global finance; those who focus on the drive for unsustainable economic growth or the cheapening of human existence as ‘all needs in a capitalist society are transformed into the needs for commodities’; those who turn their eyes to the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and imperialism or the gendered oppression inherent in capitalism.

But amid all of this discussion of capitalist as an exploitative and oppressive system, Wall provides a ray of hope through glimpses of an alternative, not only some of the solutions proposed by different thinkers and movements, but various movements that have actually put anti-capitalist ideas into practice. These range from anarchists during the Spanish Civil War building local economies based on anarchist principles and reorganising factory production through workers’ control; to local currencies throughout the world encouraging local economic activity as an alternative to capitalist globalisation; to organised networks of unemployed people in Argentina who self-organise their own economies.

Returning in his final chapter to the question laid out at the outset of the book (‘How can we create practical alternatives to capitalism that work to put food on the table, providing long-term material well-being not only for a minority but a whole planet?’), Wall sketches some thoughts on what he sees as the best alternative to capitalist economics–a system in which the commons takes centre stage. Drawing upon the works of both Karl Marx and Elinor Ostrom in emphasising the importance of the commons, Wall argues that ‘the anti-capitalist slogan above all others should be “Defend, extend, and deepen the commons”‘:

The commons works best by consensus and, unlike capitalism, does not depend on constant growth. It provides shared access to important resources so that human needs can be met with potential equity. Anti-capitalist globalisation could be labelled positively as the movement for the commons…. Capitalism seeks to extend commodification; the anti-capitalist movement resists by conserving the commons.

This embrace of the commons encompasses a range of struggles and movements: from squatting in unused buildings, to the digital commons of such projects as Wikipedia; from the right of workers to buy up the companies that employ them to renewable community energy. In addition to such examples of struggles for the commons, Wall identifies various other practical examples of anti-capitalist economic proposals, from a basic income scheme to wealth taxes, which will help promote a transition to a different kind of economy.

However, Wall warns us that under capitalism, ‘all alternatives tend to get corrupted, destroyed, or used to strengthen the system’. Both political parties and mass media are dominated by neo-liberalism, the rich and the powerful act together to preserve their privilege. Wall argues for the need for ‘tenacity, flexibility, and persistently burrowing away’ in the face of this power of capitalism, and warns of two failed alternative strategies: ‘to say that we have a basically fair, but flawed system’ or ‘to say that no change is possible until everything changes’. The capitalist system must be utterly transformed, but this is a process that needs to begin now.

The final paragraph of the book is worth citing at length, setting out what needs to be done:

- The political struggles to win power to create change and take on the powerful need to be discussed in detail. From class composition to political parties, there are many questions that need researching. The question of ideology, our imagined relationship to real world conditions, is also vitally important to discuss. There are many more books to write, but material political practice is of greater necessity. Let’s continue the intellectual task of understanding capitalism and alternatives to capitalism in necessary detail. Let’s challenge the 0.001%, who currently run the world, and let’s grow a new system. The future of capitalism is inequality, instability, ecocide and, even where it seems to work, it’s a system, invented by humans, that uses (and abuses) us as tools. We can do better. A democratic and ecologically sustainable future is necessary and possible, but we will have to fight for it. Let’s build it now." (




Note, there is also a book entitled: Prosperity Without Growth.

"This paper argues that 1) economic growth is unsustainable ecologically and perhaps economically, even if environmental questions are set aside. In turn, economic growth does not correlate well with rising welfare in mature economies. 2) However, a capitalist economy needs to grow for structural reasons. Alternative economic structures that provide for sustainable increases in welfare, increased social justice and increased participation, are necessary. 3) Social sharing/ commons, a concept described most fully by Benkler, provides a way of raising standards of living, in an economy marked by static or negative growth in GDP. Free and open source software are perhaps the best known examples of social sharing." (



Derek Wall:

"Generally economic activity is conceptualized as either market based or state controlled. If capitalism is criticised the only alternative that is normally cited is that of a planned centralized economy. The experience of the Soviet Union suggests that the alternative to capitalism is bureaucratic, stifles personal freedom and is hugely inefficient. Command economies generally have a poor environmental record, although Cuba has been cited as having achieved sustainable development by the WWF.

However the growth of the world wide web, developed for no personal gain by such figures as Tim Berners-Lee has led to what the Economist has termed ‘an intriguing alternative’. Benkler (2006) has developed a sophisticated analysis of what he terms ‘social sharing’. We live in an increasingly knowledge/culture based economy and such an economy is increasingly dominated by non market based production. The development of free or open source software is one example, along with the operating system Linux.

Yochai Benkler's contention that social sharing provides an economic alternative to both markets and the state sounds both novel and obscure (Economics focus, February 5th). Yet the principle of “usufruct”, which allows resources to be used by any individual provided he or she leaves them in at least as good a state as they were given, can be found in ancient Roman law. Commons regimes (where local communities share the use of common land through rationing, so replenishing their resources without eroding them) are found throughout history and across four continents. Such sharing provides a way of restoring economics back to its original promise as a science that finds ways of matching scarce resources with unlimited human wants. In other words, while there may be no such thing as a free lunch, you can use my crockery as long as you wash and dry. (Economist 17th Feb, 2005)

Social sharing has an important role in providing access to physical consumer goods. Benkler notes the importance of car clubs as a way of improving access to transport through sharing. Such social sharing could be used to improved access to a range of consumer goods that are only used on occasion while reducing resource use.

I am personally skeptical that markets can ever work equitably or efficiently, however a line of thinkers drawing on Polanyi have suggested that markets can be embedded in local communities and made to work for rather than against human prosperity.

Equally Socialism can be based on worker participation rather than central control. Democratising economic control has a number of benefits. Already one of Britain’s most successful businesses is based on employee ownership, the John Lewis group. The concept of mutuals and the theme of open source/social sharing/commons suggest that interesting and effective forms of economic regulation that move us beyond capitalism and traditional command economies can be conceptualised."


"Moving to an economy based on social sharing rather than conventional market or governmental action has a huge number of implications. Government would increasingly act to roll back both the state and the market. While I am optimistic that social sharing could be extended over a whole economy, the role of social sharing in the form of FOSS is already part of mainstream thought. Social sharing will not raise revenue for government or the private sector but has huge potential for cost reduction. In an increasingly information orientated economy, the decommodifiction of knowledge has the potential to raise individual prosperity, reduce dependency on the formal market economy and to cut costs for all.

There are some obvious gains for government from quite modest changes. Free software has a strong track record, already governments across the planet are using it to cut tax bills. Patent reform could make it much cheaper to source pharmaceuticals, which would drastically reduced NHS bills. Open source principles would make it cheaper to research and develop new medical technology.

Social sharing will not create work but as one wag once argue if work was that good the rich would keep it all to themselves! Work should be meaningful and provide a means to gain access to all the goods and services individuals need. Low or no cost access to resources would mean that individuals would be less dependent on the formal economy. Work sharing and down sizing would become increasingly attractive as practical alternatives. In short, rather than a growth in employment, revenue and profit, social sharing would provide greater access to the resources that individuals need, greater prosperity with less conventional economic growth.


An economy beyond both capitalism and top down planning by central government, is possible, however the implications are vast. An economy cannot be designed as a minutely imagined utopia, Hegal famously argued we cannot over leap our age (Ware 1999: 8). For example, who would have imagined a market economy before the market or capitalism based on modern finance, several centuries ago?

My task here is to indicate that it is possible to think outside the boxes (capitalism or central planning), describing how an alternative economic system would function in detail is something beyond one essay from one author. The alternative put forward here is participatory so a blueprint would challenge its very nature. Merely putting commons/social sharing on the map of policy makers would be an achievement, this form of economic regulation is usually unrecognised by economists and politicians. It provides to my mind the germ of a solution to the dilemma of sustainable development, it must be encouraged to blossom.

My analysis may appear radical, in fact compared to the expansionary logic of capitalism it is rather modest." (