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Book Review: Another Now - Dispatches from an Alternative Present

YANIS VAROUFAKIS’ PAINTS HIS VISION FOR SOCIALISM IN A SCIENCE FICTION FABLE

22nd June, 2021

Written by Rubin Mathias

In Another Now, heterodox economist Yanis Varoufakis uses the science-fiction storytelling device of alternate realities and time travel to untangle the current monetary and financial systems. Varoufakis had been Greek Finance Minister during the 2015 Greek Financial crisis with him trying to negotiate with the European troika and resigning after being unable to come to just terms. He comes from a mathematics and economics background. He has written several books on political economy, game theory, and his introductory book on the history of capitalism Talking to My Daughter was a Sunday Times Bestseller. Varoufakis has extensively written, spoken, and lobbied for progressive and socialist policies. Another Now sets out to sketch an alternative to the current free-market capitalist order.

 

Another Now starts when the technologist Costa discovers an alternate reality, the Other Now where mass financial and technology rebellions after the 2008 global financial crisis have managed to create an alternate global economic order. The book pans out as a discussion between Costa and his friends Eva, a former liberal banker, and Iris, a Marxist feminist, and their alternate counterparts in the Other Now. Yanis uses the three characters to discuss the various perspectives and takes the reader through a ride in the economic history and ills of capitalism while providing the possible solutions to them. We then set out to learn the historical and economic basis for the necessary disposal of modern techno-feudalism and transition to a society of true democratic mutual aid.

 

The 19th-century classical political economists conceptualized using market forces for the liberation of society from feudalism. They were keen on the end of economic rent which included exploitative lending, land rent, and natural monopolies which at the time were the Dutch and English East India Companies. The modern-day market architecture has accomplished none of that and pushes the ploy of “reducing big government". The only victims of such a reduction are public services. Private banks, unethical monopolies which degrade the environment, and mass-surveilling Big Tech corporations keep on flourishing as laws ensure their dominance and rent-seeking while being further driven away from public accountability. From the classical criticism of rent-seeking, Marx added his theory of surplus-value exploiting wage labour. Further additions included imperialist rent where profits were made by underdeveloped nations fuelling the growth of the colonizing nations. To counter these issues we need to get rid of surplus-seeking mechanisms that shield these rent-seeking arrangements and decentralize markets with democratic oversight to prevent concentration of power in either governments or corporations. The targets of such action would be share markets, wage labour contracts, private banking, neocolonial debt bondage, mass surveillance, and big tech. This necessitates the discarding of stock markets, private banking, and capitalist property-hoarding rights.

Worker Democracy

Another Now’s discussion starts with Yanis’ template of corpo-syndicalism. It’s derived from the anarcho-syndicates and worker cooperatives like Mondragon and Coop. At their core lies the idea of one-person, one-share, one-vote. Shareholding rewards non-attendant proprietorship which is independent of work (that is wage pay including the jobs of managers/administrators). All major decisions in mega-corporations, which have a significant impact on global supply chains and consequently people, run on the one-share-one-vote principle, which is in the hands of few individuals who hold the majority of shares. Thus, corporate decision making is essentially authoritarian with individuals having mostly no direct involvement in the firm but only absentee ownership. There is a system that incentivizes such absentee ownership over the interests of the public and the employees. Tradeable fluid shares make way for speculation and share price inflation which again rewards short-term profits for the few market manipulators over long-term investment. Workers under wage labour contracts and communities are perpetually reliant on this corporate autocracy and are the first to endure underlying joblessness, underemployment, and capital departure from speculative accidents, mechanization, health and ecological hazards, and so on. Therefore, democracy must be extended to the workplace and the economy. The way to do this is to grant single non-tradable shares only to employees working in a company. While this might sound radical, it is no more radical than what the notion of adult universal suffrage might have been about a century ago. The goal is to create moderate-sized worker-controlled firms instead of democracy-destroying monopolies like the East India Company, United Fruits, Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and more recently the big technology monopolies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which accumulate power beyond the ambit of states and have no public answerability.


From worker ownership, how do we address the question of raising funds, taxation, and revenue distribution? Replacing arbitrary speculation-fueled stock markets and authoritarian credit rating agencies, which only profit the ruling classes, would be a social worthiness index for firms. This would be compiled by the community at large. Also, citizen’s juries would have the power to dissolve enterprises failing to consider public and community interests. Company reserves would be raised with respect to the social worthiness index. Five percent of all revenues would be taxed by the state which wouldn’t necessitate income or sales taxes. The rest of the ninety-five percent would be divided into slices for fixed costs (like equipment, licenses, bills, rent), R&D, a slice from which equal payment is made to all employees, and finally, a slice for bonuses. Taxes would also be derived from the leasing of land for private, time-restrained use. Bonuses are decided mutually by voting on the basis of the perceived value of contributions. This in effect would dissolve share markets and contractual wage labour markets while instituting democracy at the workplace.

Universal Income

Varoufakis’ second target is private banking and the money-income supply with it. Most of the money created is in the form of deposits by private commercial and investment banks. It is then loaned to capitalists who buy shares and raise their prices for profits. This is in contrast to the free market myth that it would be invested back in firms and possibly raise wages and pay dividends. The high share prices fuel more lending which finances mergers, acquisitions, takeovers creating “too big to fail” super banks and corporate cartels. Private banking’s private money and debt creation rose from the future expectations of profits. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the aftermath of the Second World War imposed certain restrictions on the power of banks and their collusion with big corporations for extended overdraft facilities. However, these were overturned by Reagan and Thatcher along with the rise of the Washington Consensus. Also, Bill Clinton repealed the Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial from investment banking leading to the 2008 Financial Crisis. This financialization of markets causes frequent financial crises with modern ones reaching a bewildering scale. Yanis’ solution is to replace it with public banking coupled with ideas inspired by a universal basic income. Every citizen would have a direct account with the central bank with 3 funds. The first, a Legacy account created and funded by the state in their name, available after reaching a certain age.  The second, a social dividend similar to a universal basic income but funded by taxation from entire corporate revenues instead of labour wages which fund individual income and sales tax. Finally, an accumulation savings-like account to which one receives their salaries, bonuses, and other income.

 

What is achieved in the withering away of private banking to central banking? A central bank account circumvents private retail commercial banks for making transactions and holding savings. It also bypasses private investment banks for investing in firms while workers invest directly in companies via their accumulation accounts by pooling funds. There needs to be strong popular demands to democratize central banks decision-making on money creation which again would be achieved by citizen juries. The shift to public banking and the democratic transformation of money to a public utility can be accelerated by providing tax benefits and higher interest rates on depositing money with the central bank account, which private banks wouldn’t be able to provide making them obsolete.

Techno-rebellion

The strategy which brought about the demise of capitalism in the Other Now is mass movements coupled with technological and financial rebellions. While the initial momentum of Occupy Wall Street was inspiring and mass movements are pivotal, finance operates digitally in streams of transactions. Then what needs to be targeted is the fragile hypercomplex, risk-hiding, debt instruments by the means of crowd shorting. These debt instruments have spread through privatized utilities, where utility payment debts have been sold to financiers then traded in global financial markets. Untangling these and organizing short-term payment strikes aimed at utility bills such as telecom, power, and water can implode finance capitalism’s pyramid schemes, and force the transition to public banking. We saw the traces and forms of such a technology rebellion in the recent Gamestop incident which Yanis noted.

 

Wealth redistribution to the Global South

The future after capitalism cannot be discussed without addressing western imperialism and the neocolonial debt bondage of countries of the Global South. The US was the dominant surplus nation after the Second World War, which changed due to its military spending in Korea and Vietnam by the late 60s. The only way to maintain its dominance was if it gained the surpluses from the now enriched oil nations for investment in its financial system and recycle them. Nixon removed the convertibility between gold and the dollar. With the dollar now not pegged to gold, foreign governments were forced to buy US government bonds to fund American debt, thus, preventing dollar devaluation which would have jeopardized American exporting interests. This in effect was a global tax. Banks like Citibank and Chase would make loans to dictators and governments in the poorer nations initially at low interests. When the governments couldn’t pay back, and interest rates skyrocketed due to American neoliberal policies, the IMF acting as a debt enforcer would force these nations to abandon food subsidies, public healthcare, education, and all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth to finance the continued payments of debts to the rich developed nations and financiers.

 

Yanis’ solution is to replace debt bondage with John Maynard Keynes’ idea of an international unit of account currency for trade between nations and trading blocks for measuring trade imbalances. To counter unequal balance of payment issues and market volatility due to speculation, charges would be levied for Trade Imbalances and Surge Funding. These funds are directly transferred for redistribution, development, and green transition for the global south, not given out as loans. The strategy to get this done would involve coordinated strikes such as Progressive International's  Make Amazon Pay. However, how these online western campaigns would appropriate and/or coordinate with the agrarian struggles and questions of the global south is to be considered.

 

People don't have the same degree of freedom as goods do in capitalism. Vegetables from Africa are exported to Europe, while African die in the thousands while trying to follow them. Immigration always creates net wealth but natives only are made to see only more resource competition for social housing, healthcare, and education. A Human Movement Project should be instituted where communities facilitate migration and extend global solidarity.

Ending techno-feudalism

The final piece of the puzzle is Big Tech companies and their mass surveillance. The big technology corporate monopolies don’t depend primarily on Wall Street’s fictitious money or pension fund shareholders. They derive their value by proletarianizing us all, turning our thoughts and actions into products. While a more conventional corporation like Walmart still has to pay 40% of its revenue in wages, Facebook pays about 1% in wages and nothing to its content-creating users from which it gets its precious data. This data translates to the surveillance power of tech companies. Share markets and investments keep funding hyper-speculative loss making giants like Netflix and Uber while forcing austerity on the public. What is needed is legislation granting property rights over personal data, a Digital Rights Act, and the remuneration to the public for the use of such data by firms. The book also envisions a Sovereign Data Fund where public and private data is stored anonymously. Companies like Google which have used public data (like from the UK’s NHS) would need to pay a royalty and license it. The more successful a technology, the more public revenue from it which can be used for more funding of innovation without resorting to predatory investment.

 

The Imperfect Other Now

With a relatively extensive ambit of radical transformation, the Other Now isn’t perfect by any means. There would continue to be several issues not resolved by this version of postcapitalism. Forms of bigotry like patriarchy, xenophobia, and racism would need more societal changes to further address. There is still no freedom from the market which is acknowledged when the character Iris notes that we still need to progress towards non-market reciprocity and unconditional exchange. An economic crisis is envisioned in such a scenario highlighting some of the possible loopholes in such a system but conveniently shown to be solved. While neocolonial debt is addressed, the fact that the military might of western imperialism might be tackled with mass movements and strikes alone is a bit difficult to envision. The book is also filled with many philosophical arguments from its characters while addressing these issues which add to its quotability and relatability but seem a little overbearing at times. Another Now is aware of its limitations and the sheer difficulty in creating a socialist post-capitalist order. It addresses our concrete realities systemically while pushing forward the realms of our collective priorities and possibilities.