Can you imagine a Scotland where commercial banks are redundant, companies are owned by workers and land is held in ‘the commons’? Yanis Varoufakis’ new book, Another Now, envisages what a post-capitalist present could look like.
The former Greek Finance Minister has written a number of best-sellers since his dramatic, albeit short-lived, battle with ‘The Troika’ in 2015. Another Now is his first foray into fiction, and his first attempt to sketch out an alternative to contemporary capitalism.
The need for such an alternative is increasingly obvious. As French philosopher Bruno Latour has pointed out, the pandemic is likely to be just the beginning of an age of ecological crisis, with climate breakdown and the collapse of biodiversity much harder to resolve than Covid-19. Not only is capitalism exhausting planetary sustainability, the internal workings of the system are defined by run-away inequality and permanent financial instability. Even falling global poverty rates – the best defence offered for global capitalism by its advocates – appear to have stalled.
Despite this, we live in an era of what the late Mark Fisher described as ‘Capitalist Realism’, where it is “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This is as true of Scotland as everywhere else, where a sharp polarisation on the constitution contrasts with an unspoken consensus about how the economy should be run.
Whether it’s the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission report on independence with its vision of returning Scotland to the peak of the austerity days under the Tory-Liberal coalition government or the Tory ‘Empire 2.0’ vision of Brexit, fundamentals are just presumed to be non-negotiable: the City of London should be the financial beating heart of the economy; corporations should operate based on shareholder value; and states exist to protect capitalism from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Does Varoufakis offer a viable alternative?
Another Now revolves around the character of Costa, a biotech whizz who accidentally creates a machine which taps into a parallel reality that broke off from ‘Our Now’ in September 2008. Costa can contact the alternate version of himself in the ‘Other Now’, who explains how a post-capitalist world was forged by a revolt of ‘techno-syndicalists’. Costa and his friends Iris, a Marxist-feminist, and Eva, a libertarian ex-banker, explore the Other Now in lively debate reflecting their diverse backgrounds and ideological perspectives. Iris and Eva then use Costa’s machine to see what the Other Now version of themselves think about this post-capitalist world.
The Other Now economic model is described as ‘corpo-syndicalism’. Companies have been democratised so that they operate on the basis of ‘one person-one share-one vote’. Tradable shares in these companies are banned, making commercial banks and financial markets “redundant”. Instead, everyone has a personal bank account with the Central Bank when they are born, with self-contained funds for different purposes: a pension; a type of UBI funded from the dividends of capital (now under shared ownership), and the means to directly invest savings in companies through person-to-business loans.
The core changes to the Other Now reflect what Varoufakis sees as the fundamental problems with the capitalist system. That is, not market exchange and competition, but labour exploitation and the control exerted by the private banking sector’s credit creation, both of which are brought together through the capitalist firm. As capitalism expanded, businesses became mega-firms which required mega-banks to finance their growth. Collectively, this has been described by economist John K. Galbraith as the ’Technostructure’, which commands the world’s resources to such an extent now that it can bend markets, and much else besides, to its will. Today, the leading lights of the Technostructure are the likes of J.P. Morgan and Amazon, which seem to become more powerful after every crisis, eating up competitors, monopolising markets and dominating the regulatory environment to protect their interests.
The Other Now seeks to avoid the emergence of any centralised authority which can dominate the economy as a whole, whether that is the Technostructure or a USSR-style command and control model of socialism (which, Varoufakis argues, are not so dissimilar). For example, a de-centralised ledger system similar to the technology behind Bitcoin is used to facilitate the Central Bank personal accounts. A “citizens’ monetary assembly”, another random selection of citizens, is in charge of appointing and supervising the Central Bank. Community currencies can also be established alongside Central Bank money. A similar ethos is applied in policies to land, international trade, digital platforms, big data and more. Varoufakis’s “markets without capitalism” applies digi-tech solutions that are all perfectly doable in the here and now (this isn’t a futurist book, even if it is sci-fi) to build transparency, democracy and heterogeneity at a global scale.
How does the Other Now come about? A global movement led by savvy tech youths, the “OC Rebellion”, orchestrates a number of “tech strikes” attacking the Technostructure. The ‘Crowdshorters’ use software to unpick the contents of Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs), made infamous by their key role in bringing the global economy down in the 2008 financial crash. With this information, they organise debt strikes on targeted CDOs, using crowdfunding to cover the late payment fee for strikers. The debt strikes bring the banking system to its knees. Similar tech strike tactics are deployed by the ‘SolSourcers’ targeting pension funds, the ‘Bladerunners’ targeting big tech, and the ‘Environs’ which hasten “the demise of the fossil fuel industry”.
While the tech strikes are plausible – Varoufakis insists that “by privatising everything, capitalism had made itself supremely vulnerable to financial guerrilla attacks” – there are obvious question marks about why we have not really seen this at all so far in the digital age. Maybe Varoufakis is a prophet of a coming age of anti-capitalist tech rebellion that the rest of us don’t have the imagination to see yet, but whereas Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels drew on the real events of the 1848 revolutions in Europe in their Communist Manifesto, Varoufakis’ inspiration feels less rooted in experience.
There was also a clear logic behind the idea that the industrial working class would be the “gravedigger” of capitalism, whereas Varoufakis’ historical agent of change appears to be savvy tech youths who know how CDOs work. While digital technology clearly does connect up the world in ways which could present opportunities for coordinated action which were not feasible in the past, the main outcome of the digital age so far has been to empower states, increasing surveillance capabilities to levels that the KGB would never have even dreamed of. Again, maybe tech revolts are the vanguard of a post-capitalist future, there’s just not a lot of evidence at the moment to prove it.
The other issue with Varoufakis’ “techno-syndicalist” revolt is that politics has been ultimately critical to all revolutions in the past but is almost entirely absent from Another Now; the tech revolt grows from the UK to the world apparently without any hitches. Those familiar with Varoufakis’s background and work will understand why this is: he has always sought to leap over national politics, seeing the international terrain as where fundamental change will come from. The problem with this is that democratic politics still largely takes place within nation states, while the international sphere is mainly the preserve of elites. To win consent for any global transformation, the tricky work of national politics can’t be avoided.
Should Scotland be braver?
Nonetheless, Varoufakis deserves credit for putting his cards on the table and outlining his conception of a post-capitalist future. And even if one does not embrace every dot and comma of Varoufakis’ vision, there is plenty that Scottish politics could take from his ideas.
Writing before the 2014 referendum, the former Greek finance minister argued that “Scotland must be braver” by developing a bolder vision for independence than the SNP were offering. Key to this was breaking with the Bank of England and establishing a Scottish currency. Since then, the SNP’s currency position has changed from advocating a currency union to sterlingisation but the “monetary dependence” that Varoufakis warned of remains the same.
In truth, a Scottish currency would be no more than a starting point from which a new financial system could be built to break dependence on The City and re-purpose finance around social and ecological imperatives. This is essential if formal political sovereignty were ever to translate into economic sovereignty, and if Scotland’s chronic private and public under-investment (only Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and Lithuania invest less per capita) is to be overcome.
Second, the idea of worker owned businesses is one that holds many advantages for a Scottish economy which has the lowest level of domestic owned firms out of any region in the UK. Worker ownership anchors firms in the Scottish economy, reducing the billions which are lost in financial outflows from Scotland each year.
A publicly run financial system investing in worker-owned firms would be a truly brave vision for Scotland’s economy – but do we have politicians who can see beyond the doom-laden horizons of Capitalist Realism?
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