An Introduction to Outgrowing Capitalism


The theme of these essays is expressed in the title of my study contract with Evergreen: “Outgrowing Capitalism”. The name is something of a tongue-in-cheek reference to the apparent absurdity of the statement (how do you outgrow a system that is practically synonymous with growth?), followed by what I hope are refreshingly practical approaches towards actually accomplishing this ambition. More specifically, I am looking for trends, tendencies, patterns and points of leverage within the existing world system/mode of production we call “capitalism” that carry within them potential to become competitive with and eventually supplant, or outgrow, existing modes of production.

I am not putting forth a complete theory of socialism, communism, liberalism or any other sort of prescriptive approach to transition. Instead, I am drawing on the methodology of books like Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, which do not presume to make predictive claims about the future but instead examine probabilities, and attempt to account for a wider range of outcomes. I believe this approach is wiser, as the world we inhabit is too complex to ever be fully predictable.

To use a metaphor from another highly stochastic system – the atmosphere – we can never predict the weather with perfect accuracy, but we can make more accurate conclusions about the emergent phenomena at larger scales, such as regional and global climate. These predictions are statistical, and the farther out models attempt to predict, the greater the variation in outcomes. In the same way, changes in the world economic system are highly variable and difficult to model but general trends and potentials may be identified. And unlike “purely physical” systems of climate I am looking at a very human system, which must also account for human values, will and volitional action to attempt to take the reins of history and direct the present society towards a more optimal future.


An underlying bias of this research is that capitalism, despite the many material benefits it has conferred on human society, is at its core and unjust and unsustainable system that must be replaced by a successor that is able to deal both with issues of furthering human well-being and as compatibility with planetary ecological boundaries. Like many scholars of capitalism before me, I think that there is good cause to believe that the current system “contains the seeds of its own destruction”. But which of those seeds will be fertile in a highly dynamic environment is still a very open question. This is why future-telling and preparation is as much an imaginative and creative act as it is a statistical one. History has always been a matter of choice, or more accurately, aggregated choices of billions of people filtered through social, political and economic institutions. It is this imaginative dimension which as lead contemporary authors like Kim Stanley Robinson to declare that science fiction is the best and most accurate form of literary realism emerging in the 21st century. As the increasingly networked and educated peoples of the 21st century are discovering, ideas in a highly connected society can have impacts hugely disproportionate to their point of origination. Propaganda, marketing and cultural phenomena are now contested in the realm of the meme. Virality is manipulated by activists, marketing professionals and state operatives alike. Because the battle for the popular imagination is now taking center stage in history, speculative and informed utopianism – daring to imagine a better future and the steps needed to reach it — is now more than ever a viable socio-political strategy. As Robinson says, in the 21st century we are all science fiction writers, collectively writing the future(s) of humankind. In a sense this work is my attempt to understand my contribution to this project.

Here, I will be digging deep into a range of disciplines to pull off this feat of speculative fiction. For my theoretical premises and premonitions I will be presenting views on political economy, restoration ecology and climate science, crisis management, industrial/info/bio/social technology, organizational development, speculative fiction and histories of social revolution.

But theory without practice, is like a strong knife with a dull blade and idealism without experience is just hypothesis without the laboratory. Thankfully, I have been graciously offered space at the perfect lab to hone my ideas and temper my ambitions into a fine instrument for social transformation.

The main thrust of my study this Winter will be through my work with a nonprofit local to Olympia, Washington — the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. There I will be assisting with some of their ongoing projects, beginning with the startup incubation of a Home Care Cooperative, possibly expanding into grantwriting and the development of a local Cooperative network or federation. In addition, work I do at the Flaming Eggplant, a student-run collective cafe at the Evergreen State College, as well as my work in social/political movements outside of academia will provide important test sites for the analysis and experience I develop here. [More on my hypotheses on cooperatives next time]

This work will allow me to compliment my theoretical practice with practical practice (praxis, to use the fancy shiny lefty-academic word for it) and assist in the growth of potentially transformative forces within the current neoliberal/feudal hellscape we currently inhabit — ones which I hope to show may someday outgrow, out-compete and eventually obsolete the system we call capitalism.

My voice will be inconsistent, and quite fucking frankly, unprofessional and un-academic at times. My ideas will be wildly inconsistent, maybe even incoherent and the delivery may fall flat. You might find me hopelessly Utopian or pragmatically contemptible. I may give you fiction, I may give you facts. It may read like a diary or it may read like a research paper. But after all, this effort, as with all previous efforts, is but an attempt, an experiment, an essay. This world is in desperate need of people taking wild guesses, synthesizing, dreaming,scheming and fighting like crazy to pull it all together and get our wonderful species to do the impossible (survive the next 200 years)

I hope that you find it worth reading. I hope you love it, hate it, and most importantly engage with it. Send me comments, send me memes. Let me know if my thoughts made you think thoughts. Let me know that I’m not just writing into the void. Communication is all we have. Let’s make it do something incredible.

For the curious and spoiler-friendly reader, here is an introductory summary of the themes I will be investigating to (in)form my hypothesis. This is by no means complete, and I am actively seeking suggestions.

On one hand, I will be studying questions around the existing system, searching for contradictions and areas of potential transformation

  1. Ecological crisis of Capitalism
    1. Climate science and modeling response to disaster
    2. Industrial ecology and limits to production
    3. Thermodynamic challenges to capitalism
    4. The Anthropocene and the sixth mass extinction
  2. Post-scarcity crisis of capitalism
    1. The cost of zero: digital production and price formation
    2. open source, peer-to-peer production, social networks
    3. full-automation and the end of employment
    4. ecological production: energy, agriculture and manufacturing
  3. Social crisis of capitalism
    1. Democracy vs the market?
    2. Will neoliberalism end capitalism?
    3. The fight for the city, the commons and the public sphere
  4. Imaginative crisis of capitalism
    1. Can history ever “end”?
    2. Dystopias, Utopias and limits to the possible

And on the other, I will be looking at various strategies, institutional forms, industries and poinst-of-leverage relating to these four areas, and attempting to synthesize my findings into some sort of coherent program or conclusion. These can be loosely summarized as:

  1. A cooperative response to the ecological crisis
    1. Cooperative Mobilization for Disaster Response and Reconstruction
    2. Weather Underground – radicalizing the firms, cities, states and nations joining the movement for rapid decarbonization
  2. A cooperative management of abundance
    1. Institutional and legal frameworks
    2. Economic feasibility of “socialism” in the private sphere
    3. Current developments and opportunities
    4. Hackers, FabLabs, Wikipedia and more
  3. A cooperative response to the social crisis
    1. Experimental democracies
    2. Managing the commons, reclaiming the square
    3. Municipalism and post-national liberation
    4. Healthcare, Public utilities, open internet and other quality of life enhancements (what do we do this the state and all the money?)
  4. A cooperative imagination (many other worlds are possible)
    1. We are all science fiction authors
    2. Seizing the memes of production

A theme you can expect to find throughout is that of the cooperative. Defined differently in different places, legal systems and times, I will be examining the cooperative form at its most concrete (through my internship work) as well as its most abstract and experimental. My basic assumption underlying this pursuit is that cooperation, and by extension democracy, are the primary social impulses best-poised to challenge the physical and ideological hegemony of capitalism. I will attempt to provide ample evidence of this most basic hypothesis throughout the course of this project. Stay tuned for my next piece on Friday.


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