16 October 2020

Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present

by Yanis Varoufakis

(The Bodley Head)

David Purdy writes on politics and economics and is a member of Democratic Left Scotland.

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Imagining a better world

The former Greek finance minister’s take on utopia is, suggests David Purdy, a worthy addition to the literary genre

YANIS Varoufakis is a man of parts: Professor of Economics at the University of Athens, former Greek finance minister, scourge of the EU establishment, co-founder of the DiEM25 movement and, since 2019, one of its elected representatives in the Greek Parliament. He has now published an ingenious and entertaining novel, offering a glimpse of a parallel world where, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, a global hi-tech revolt led by the Ossify Capitalism (OC) movement has created a democratic, post-capitalist social order. There are no commercial banks or stock markets, companies are owned equally by their staff, and work, land, money and digital networks have all been decommodified and democratised. Goods and services continue to be produced for the market, but the economic and political realms of society have been reintegrated, ending the divorce brought about by the development of capitalism.


Defeated by modernity

Utopian fiction can be dull and didactic. Varoufakis avoids this trap. To be sure, he employs the standard devices of the genre: the discovery of a hitherto unknown land, the guided tour of its institutions, and the return to the known world with the news that there are other and better ways of organising society than the ones we are familiar with. But his “tall tale” is lively and engaging, the central characters are vividly drawn, and the plot grips the reader down to its final, poignant twist. What is more, although the Other Now is a big improvement on ours, it is by no means perfect. In a chapter headed “Trouble in Paradise”, for example, we learn that the OC revolution has not made any fundamental difference to the relationship between men and women. “Mountains move, banking becomes extinct, even capitalism dies … but patriarchy lives on like a hard-to-kill cockroach. The difference is that it is now disguised beneath an even thicker veneer of political correctness.” (p158).


The chief protagonists of the drama are three friends, each of whom is torn by inner conflicts. Costa is a computer engineer who rails against the tyranny of the tech giants. Having made a fortune on the stock market by short-selling overpriced tech shares, he has set up his own laboratory in Silicon Valley where he is trying to build a quantum computer and dreams of liberating humanity from the toils of surveillance capitalism. Iris, a graduate in social anthropology, is a Marxist feminist whose revolutionary zeal and collectivist values are at odds with her contrarian temperament and solitary lifestyle. Eva is a recovering investment banker turned academic economist. She is also a single parent with a teenage son from whom she has become estranged. A passionate individualist and libertarian, Eva is painfully aware of the absence of human bonds in her life. What the three friends share in common is that each has been lured in and then defeated by modernity: Iris by the successive calamities that overtook the European left in the twentieth century, Eva by the weapons of financial destruction that she herself had helped to peddle, and Costa by his misplaced faith in the emancipatory promise of digital technology.


Corpo-Syndicalism

In the course of his lab work, Costa accidentally opens up a wormhole in the fabric of space-time. Through this he is able to communicate with Kosti, his alter ego in the Other Now, who tells him about the “Three Years that Changed the World.” From 2008 to 2011, the OC movement, led by tech-savvy activists and channelling popular outrage at the greed and recklessness of the bankers, organised a series of mass direct actions across the world which brought down the mega-firms and mega-banks, and laid the foundations for the emergence of a new form of business organisation known as Corpo-Syndicalism.


This digitally enhanced version of anarcho-syndicalism combines flat management structures with a system of corporate democracy in which each firm is owned by those – and only those – who work for it. No one, however, owns more than one share and all major decisions are put to a vote of the whole workforce, each person having one vote. The firm’s sales revenue, after covering the costs of bought-in supplies, is divided into five slices: one portion, normally 5%, is paid in taxes; the rest is allocated to fixed costs, research and development, basic pay and staff bonuses, the relative sizes of these four slices being decided collectively as part of the firm’s annual business plan. Basic pay is shared equally among all members of staff. Bonuses are awarded according to a points allocation similar to that used in the Eurovision song contest, except that reciprocal voting agreements are frowned on. New staff members admitted to the firm following an interview and a vote of the existing members become shareholders just like incumbents. Wage labour is a thing of the past.


So too is the stock exchange: there is no trading in shares, just as we prohibit the purchase and sale of votes. Shares in the Other Now are a form of franchise, conferring an automatic, non-transferable right to participate on equal terms in the decision-making of the company one works for. In our world, of course, share prices reflect the stock market’s collective judgment of the recent performance and future prospects of listed companies, with particular reference to their profitability, and as these prices rise and fall, relative both to each other and to those of other types of asset, investors adjust their holdings accordingly.


In the Other Now, every company is graded according to a “Socialworthiness Index” by regional panels of randomly selected citizens, known as Citizens’ Juries. These are drawn not from the general public, but from a digital stakeholder community formed whenever a new company is registered, which can be joined at any time by its customers, users and the communities served or affected by it. The juries monitor each company’s conduct, activities, social impact and environmental footprint, using a standardised rating system developed and refined over time across different industries and jurisdictions. Once checked and settled, these ratings are published online. If a company’s ratings consistently fall below the legally specified threshold, a public inquiry is ordered that may lead to deregistration, in which case the firm is either shut down or put out to tender.


Money, banking, saving and investment

The replacement of capitalism by a more egalitarian and democratic form of market economy is buttressed by complementary changes in the banking and financial system. There are no commercial banks. Instead, the Central Bank provides every citizen, from cradle to grave, with a free personal bank account known as Personal Capital or PerCap. This comprises three funds, which are kept strictly separate: Legacy, Accumulation and Dividend. Legacy is a trust fund, credited by the Central Bank to each newborn child, which becomes accessible, with safeguards, when the child comes of age. Accumulation is a depository for people’s earnings. Dividend is a monthly sum, graduated according to age and disability, paid to all citizens throughout their lives and financed largely from tax revenue. Scales of payment provide sufficient income for people to live modestly without engaging in paid employment. This guarantees freedom from destitution and the stigma of means testing. It also creates a platform for work outside the market economy and enables young people to experiment with different careers and to study non-lucrative subjects.


In the absence of stock markets, funds for start-ups or corporate expansion are raised via direct lending from people’s PerCap accounts. Most people live off their basic pay and Dividend income and save their bonuses in Accumulation, which they can lend to corporations – either the ones they work for or others they wish to support – and on which they receive interest. The Central Bank sets the base rate of interest, which varies around an average of 5%. Thus, for every $1,000 kept in Accumulation for twelve months, savers can expect to be credited with $50 at the end of the year. The Bank’s Charter requires it to adjust the quantity of money with a view to controlling inflation and enabling the production of socially valued goods and services.* To this end, it raises the interest rate on PerCap saving when inflation threatens and lowers it when activity is sluggish. It can also adjust the scale of Dividend payments. The Bank is supervised by a Monetary Policy Committee, which in turn is appointed by a Citizens’ Assembly, comprising a rotating panel, chosen by lot according to a formula designed to ensure a fair representation of society.


Community-based currencies exist alongside the national currency. These are designed to keep locally generated income within the community and can be converted, for a small fee, into the national currency. International trade and money flows are regulated by the International Monetary Project, the successor to the IMF. The remit of the new body is to stabilise the world economy and invest directly in underdeveloped or neglected regions without loading them up with debt. The IMP issues a digital currency called the Kosmos, which is not used in transactions between persons or companies, but serves as an accounting unit in relations between countries and trading blocs. All cross-border trade is denominated in Ks and the IMP is empowered to penalise countries which run persistent trade deficits or surpluses by imposing a Trade Imbalance Levy. The proceeds of the Levy are used to fund development projects, which in turn makes it easier to persuade poor countries to limit carbon emissions, protect bio-diversity and co-operate with multilateral programmes aimed at managing migration.


Thought Experiments versus Political Projects

My account of the Other Now is the merest outline. I have omitted to mention the public ownership of land and the associated conversion of private ground rent into public tax revenue, together with the arrangements for deciding the pattern of land use and for allocating residential housing and commercial premises to occupants. There are also issues about which Varoufakis himself is silent or sketchy. He has nothing to say, for example, about the organisation and finance of health care, education and other public services, though he does inform us that income tax, sales taxes and VAT have all been abolished, leaving corporate revenue and land as the only remaining sources of public revenue. But in the absence of more fiscal detail, it is open to doubt whether such a limited tax base would suffice to cover Dividend payments on a scale that would make participation in paid work genuinely optional. Nevertheless, Another Now is, in my view, a worthy addition to the literary genre that began with the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516.


That said, utopian visions or thought experiments – however detailed, coherent and appealing – should not be confused with political projects.** More coined the word utopia as a playful amalgam of the Greek words eu (well or good), ou (no or not) and topos (place). It thus signified somewhere good that was nowhere on Earth. To reinforce this point he was deliberately vague about the location of his imaginary island. More’s equivalent of Costa in Another Now was a mariner called Hythlodaeus (the name means “babbler of nonsense”), who had just returned to Europe from a voyage to the newly discovered Americas. In later centuries, when the globe had been circumnavigated and mapped, writers of utopian fiction resorted to time-travel to get from here and now to there and then, conveniently blurring the line between imaginary worlds and long-range predictions. And in an age when the race is on to build the first quantum computer, the portal to a better world is a wormhole in the multiverse.


Personally, I found it easier to suspend disbelief in the wormhole than to accept the author’s counterfactual history of how the Other Now came into being. Discontent with the world as it is and the desire for a better one are as old as civilisation. More may have invented the word utopia, but he had plenty of precursors, from ancient beliefs in a golden age – set in the past rather than the future – to medieval fables of the land of Cockaigne – a peasant paradise of material abundance and hedonistic abandon – and religious visions of the millennium. In depicting or theorising about a better world, we can – and indeed, must – ignore the constraints, obstacles and opposition that have to be reckoned with by collective actors seeking to change the world in real historical time. Political projects involve movement in a resistant medium where, in the words of Scotland’s national bard:


“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,

An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain for promised joy.”

NOTES

* Here and elsewhere, Varoufakis appears to endorse the claim made by proponents of the Quantity Theory of Money that price inflation is a consequence of monetary mismanagement, occurring when the central bank allows the stock of money in circulation to grow faster than GDP. This claim has always been disputed and is now widely discredited. Over the past decade, despite the policies of quantitative easing pursued by central banks, inflation rates in the advanced capitalist countries have frequently fallen below the targets set by their governments, sometimes even becoming negative. Large corporations have hoarded money rather then spending it; commercial banks, unable or unwilling to expand their loan books up to the permitted limit, hold excessive reserves at the central bank; and some of the money created by central banks has found its way into the stock market and the housing market, pumping up – or propping up – the prices of financial assets and real estate, and enriching their owners in the process. Perhaps Varoufakis thinks that in a post-capitalist world with no commercial banks, the Quantity Theory would come into its own.

** For the further distinction between political projects and election manifestos, see my article A Period of Reflection in the Features section of this website.