I get in trouble, sometimes, for being critical of…ta dum…capitalism. Eye roll. It's painted as some kind of radical stance, Not a capitalist? Then…you must be a socialist!! And that means you're dangerous!! The only two choices right? Eyeball roll. We're going to talk about the future of economics and politics in this essay, in way more intelligent and sophisticated terms than that. Not left or right but new.

And by the way, I go way deeper into this question of capitalism at The Issue, my new little website, where if you haven't joined us yet, by all means, mosey on over, you should.

Now. Capitalism doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation these days. The majority of young people don't think positively of it, and there's a reason for that, which is that their lives are currently being wrecked. So. To be critical of capitalism? That alone should establish that it's hardly "radical," rather, it's popular. But what does it mean to be critical of capitalism, anyways?

We can think of many forms of being critical. There's the old, ideological, way — and that has a long, long history. Among the many historical critics of capitalism were Einstein (a socialist), Orwell (another socialist), Upton Sinclair, who famously wrote the jungle, and plenty of economists themselves, right down to John Maynard Keynes, who more or less invented modern economics. And of course, there was Marx, and all his intellectual descendants, from Adorno to Baudrillard.

This is more or less the way we're still told to think of "critics of capitalism." In other words, that there's an ideological dichotomy, and you've got to pick a side. Capitalist or socialist? Which one are you? And so a process of identity fusion results. People begin to think of themselves as "capitalists" or "socialists," and the bitter divisions of identity politics soon ensure. Alongside that comes the focus many of these ideological critics had on class war, and that only hardens divisions further.

Now. What's different about this age? We don't have to be ideological critics of capitalism anymore. Theorists and moralists, if you like. You see, I'm not against capitalism in some kind of hard moral or theoretical sense, like, say, Upton Sinclair or Marx were. Me? I enjoy having a leather jacket or the gear in my music studio and so forth. No big deal morally or theoretically, to me. But.

There's another sense in which critical appraisal of capitalism is called for. A new way. That's in pragmatic terms. Is the system working? And if so, how? You see, what's different about today is that we have evidence. When many of the ideological critics of capitalism were thinking away, they were predicting problems. They saw terrible moral failures at the heart of capitalism, to be sure, but their criticism was largely about the instability of a system in the future to come.

The difference is that we now live in that future. And we're awash, ironically, funnily, in (often pretty dystopian) data and evidence about it. Now we can just be everyday pragmatic questioners, versus hardened moral objectors, or tome-wielding critical theorists.

So what does the evidence say? Before I get to that…

Ideological critics of capitalism. That's the hardcore stance, usually, or some variant of it. Everything from the abolition of private property to the nationalization of all industry. Sure, there are people in the world who still believe that, and that's fine. Then there's the softer variant of thought which descended from this classical ideological criticism, which came to be called "social democracy," in which we have mixed economies, roughly half private and half public.

Ideology leads to politics, which is about beliefs, or things we expect to happen, or want to happen. Left, no private property, right, everything private. What I want to teach you to think about isn't that dichotomy at all, but to shatter it. Not left or right but new.

So, which kind of critic am I? Moral? Theoretical? Neither one. I'm not advancing any kind of ideological criticism at all. I'm not predicting problems, or objecting in some abstruse, theoretical way. I'm simply observing what we see happening around us today, in factual terms. And the answer I arrive at isn't "capitalism" or "socialism" but something new, which we'll just call, here "post-capitalism," for now.

What do we see? There's number after number we've discussed recently. The majority of Americans are "cashflow negative." 70% feel "financially traumatized." Young people are "numb" and "can't function." I could go on endlessly, from medical debt to student debt and beyond.

It's in this sense that capitalism needs critical appraisal. When we see numbers like this, we're all but forced to ask the question, at least if we're thinking seriously, is this system working?

Now. Systems "work" on different levels. In their own terms, and sometimes, often, those terms are opposed to broader ones. So if we ask "is capitalism working," we end up with two different answers. The first one is the one that pundits will throw out, "everything's great!," because in its own terms, profit, GDP, growth, etcetera, things seem to be fine. So in its own terms, which is delivering gains to elites, aka capital to the rentier class, sure, it's working out beautifully. But is that all we want from a system?

That's the more intelligent question. And that's where my answer's different. I think that we should have a form of political economy that maximizes well-being. If capitalism could have done that, it would have been quite alright with me — but the problem is that capitalism seems to be doing the opposite, and you can see it in all the many crises around us, from climate change, to despair, to growing poverty, to falling living standards.

So. Not left, not right, but new. Maximizing well-being. And in a very real sense, our politics are failing now because they're forms of clinging to failed understandings of the world. Abolish private property! Get off my lawn!! We can bicker over this for another several decades, while the world burns, or we can shift paradigms to: elevating and expanding well-being.

Where does this idea come from, anyways — that a form of political economy should maximize well-being, not just profit? It goes back to Aristotle, which is why I often use the ancient Greek word "eudaemonia," or a life well lived, to describe it. In other words, it, too, has a long history. Aristotle's theory of ethics was centered around the ""Golden Mean," and in the same way, this idea isn't about politics or extremes of any sort. It's just about a well-rounded life. In other words, it has the potential to break the dichotomy — "if you're not a capitalist, you must be a socialist!"

That dichotomy's already being broken in the unlikeliest of places. When I criticize capitalism, is it just a way to get Big Business? Am I saying nobody should own a small business? Of course not. In fact, it's Big Business who's taking the lead in creating post-capitalism. It's taking the ideas faster and further than governments and nations are, than even international organizations are, right about now. See how hard plenty of the world's largest corporations are focusing on sustainability and equity, among many other dimensions of well-being? Sure, there are greenwashing concerns, make no mistake, but plenty of those efforts are real. And they themselves have to struggle against the system to do it. Because of course the second it begins to hurt their profits or share price, then even those CEOs, as powerful as they are, have a problem coming from the system, which is out for their blood.

That's capitalism. And that's post-capitalism being born, too. In that little example, you see both facets. So what do I mean by post-capitalism? What we've learned in the last half century or so is that neither system of extremes works — capitalism or socialism, of course. And yet today, even social democracy, the Golden Mean, if you like, is struggling, under attack. All of this points to a need for reinvention — not just picking sides in a tired and false dichotomy. It isn't working — witness the world's descent into political madness.

Post-capitalism means that we actually begin to transform our economies towards maximizing more than just profit — the many kinds of well-being. What small business owner, even, really just maximizes "profit" this nanosecond? You don't do that if you want repeat customers: you serve them well. And yet the system is what's ended up creating what by now are self-destructive incentives to maximize profit in predatory ways, over and over again, no matter the cost, even to the very organizations playing out this dance of ruin. Post-capitalism means understanding that's broken, and we need to change it, and more and more people are beginning to get that these days.

Again, none of that means, by the way, "the abolition of private property!!" or "full communism!!" or anything of the kind — this isn't about politics in that tired sense at all. The challenge for many is to see beyond just that dichotomy, and really begin to think about post-capitalism and well-being for the first time.

So what do we maximize, when it comes to well-being? Well, think of what we should maximize, or at least optimize, and you can choose whatever word you like for "create more of a surplus of," because surplus is what civilization and economics is really about. We need a surplus of…nature. Another one of…happiness, because right about now, the world's levels of stress, anxiety, and despair are spiraling off the charts. A surplus of social bonds, too, given the fracture of society. And of course money itself, which is hoarded at the top, and undersupplied at the bottom, which leads to destabilization by way of Roman levels of bread-and-circuses rage.

Those are just different, and clumsy, descriptions, of different kinds of well-being. It doesn't really matter which ones we choose, and that's not the point. The point is the system change, and the paradigm transformation behind it.

The truth is that different kinds of organizations are already making choices. So, for example, Scandinavia's got a budding bioplastics industry — that's a form of post-capitalism. Meanwhile, in France, there were attempts to measure and lift softer forms of well-being — another angle towards post-capitalism, too. Some visionary cities are redesigning urbanity itself to generate higher levels of sociality and creativity and belonging, which is also post-capitalism. I've already discussed with you Big Business, which has put different forms of well-being front and center, because it understands that if it doesn't, it's not going to survive much longer.

So the transformation to post-capitalism is already beginning to happen. This is another sense in which being a critic of capitalism is hardly some kind of radical stance anymore — if a company like Coke understands the urgent need for sustainability, and of course it's not going to figure it out overnight, or even in a decade, that's a very real attempt at post-capitalism, and it's hardly coming from Che Guevara.

Yet this transformation is already a struggle. An immense one. Plenty of shareholders don't like what visionary CEOs are doing. The fast speculative money that's come to rule the financial system doesn't really want or need change of this kind, and so it's against it — that's old school capitalism, resisting transformation. Then there are politicians, who are mostly baffled and befuddled, and can't really grasp that they need to update GDP, and create measures of national well-being, and connect the two, so that economies actually change. By themselves, so that incentives and possibilities and levels and rates of investment and consumption and so forth begin to alter.

We're living in this time of transformation. Capitalism, as it was, is a fading idea, now. Even smarter boardrooms know it: the biggest companies of the next 30–50 years aren't going to look anything like the behemoths of the 1960s, or 1980s. Nations are slower to make the shift, because politicians don't grasp the changes which need to be made, and of course, politics is beset by fanaticism. Architects, designers, urban planners, engineers, even the much maligned "human resources"— just some of the fields in which well-being's becoming a vital skillset to have, really. New, ones, too, are being born, from sustainability expert to inclusion specialist. All these are careers at the heart of maximizing well-being. That journey's just begun, and like any new chapter for something as large as a civilization, it's going to take time and effort to see where it leads.

There's a long way to go. And the window, of course, is narrowing, for transformation to happen, before the most dire consequences of the age we're in arrive. All that, though, is what it is to be "critical" of capitalism, these days. It's not about yesterday's dichotomies, but the hard work of creating the future, while we still can.

Umair (and Snowy!)