ANOTHER NOW: My political science fiction novel depicting a fully-fledged socialism we could have had – THE GUARDIAN

05/09/2020 by

When Margaret Thatcher coined “Tina” – her 1980s dictum that “There is no alternative” – I was incensed because, deep down, I felt she had a point: the left had neither a credible nor a desirable alternative to capitalism.

Leftists excel at pinpointing what is wrong with really-existing capitalism. We are good at demonstrating that it bears zero resemblance to the laissez-faire markets in which Adam Smith’s baker, butcher and brewer compete fairly to provide our daily bread, meat and ale. We wax lyrical about the possibility of some ‘other’ world in which one contributes according to one’s capacities and obtains according to one’s needs. But, when pushed to describe a fully-fledged alternative to contemporary capitalism, we oscillate between the ugly (a Soviet-like barracks’ socialism[1]) and the tired (a social democracy financialised globalisation has rendered infeasible).

From April 1979 to our 1986 Wapping defeat, I participated in many debates in pubs, universities and town halls whose stated purpose was to organise resistance to Thatcherism. I remember my guilty thought, following those tedious meetings, every time I heard her speak: “If only we had a leader like her!” I was, of course, under no illusion: Thatcher’s program was despotic, anti-social and an economic cul-de-sac. But, unlike our side, Thatcher understood that we lived in a revolutionary moment. The post-war class-war armistice was over. If we wanted to defend the weak, we could not afford to be defensive. We needed to advocate as she did: out with the old system, in with a brand new one. Not Maggie’s dystopic one, but a brand new one nevertheless.

Alas, our lot had no vision of a new system. Instead, we were in the business of bandaging corpses while Thatcher was digging graves to clear the way for her spanking new spiv capitalism. Even when we were putting up a splendid fight in defence of communities that deserved defending, our causes screamed “anachronism” – fighting to preserve dirty coal-fired power stations or the right of male rightwing trade unionists to reach sordid deals behind closed doors with the likes of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.

By early 2020, our defeat had become Modernity’s rout. What the 1984 miners’ strike had been to us, Lehman’s 2008 collapse was to the aspirational yuppies who had believed the Thatcherite mantra of self-regulating markets. Just as in 1991 we – social democrats, Keynesians and Marxists alike – realised that we would live the rest of our days as history’s losers, so in 2008 those labouring under the ideology of neoliberalism saw history erupt on their doorstep with similar soul-destroying force. Soon after, surveillance capitalism forced tech-evangelists, who thought they had seen in the Internet an irresistible global democratic force, also to shed their illusions.

Why Another Now?

The lack of a blueprint of any feasible alternative system to financialised capitalism has contributed to Modernity’s multiple defeats. They, in turn, landed humanity in today’s mire: a magma of unsustainable economies, pathetic democracies and dying ecosystems.

Of course, coming up with such a blueprint is easier said than done.[2] Karl Marx, not exactly an author lacking self-confidence, steadfastly refused to go beyond vague references to what comes after capitalism. Why? Because trying to write down a fully-fledged realistic utopia is too damned hard, not to mention risky.[3]

And yet, while perfectly mindful of the undertaking’s difficulty, two years ago I decided there is no… alternative: To fight Thatcher’s TINA, which lives on as the oligarchy’s greatest ally even after Thatcherism had lost its shine, we desperately need a comprehensive twofold account: How democratic socialism could work today, with our current technologies and despite our human failings. And how it could have transpired in our lifetime; e.g. following the 2008 bonfire of neoliberal certainties.

My reluctance to attempt such an undertaking was immense. Two people helped me overcome it. One is Danae Stratou, my partner. From the week we first met, she has been telling me that my critique of really-existing capitalism meant sweet nothing unless I could answer her pressing question: “What’s the alternative? And precisely how would things – like money, companies and housing – work?”

The second, and most unlikely, influence was Paschal Donohoe, currently Ireland’s finance minister and President of the Eurogroup. A political opponent who thought little of me as a finance minister (a mutual assessment), he was kind enough to write a generous review of an earlier book in which I exposed my daughter to a brief history of capitalism. [4] However, while Donohoe liked my account of capitalism – a major shock given our vast political differences – he thought that the book’s ending, in which I tried to sketch some features of a postcapitalist society, was ‘…most disappointing’. In particular, he wrote:

‘A call to democratise the supply of money is baffling in its brevity. An exhortation for the creation of an “authentic democracy” and the collective ownership of technology and the means of production sits very poorly alongside his appreciation of entrepreneurship and individual initiative.’

He was right, I thought. So I decided to write Another Now. The time had come to stop hiding behind throwaway lines regarding postcapitalism, that begged more questions than they answered, and fully to flesh out my alternative to financialised capitalism. An added incentive was that it was also an opportunity to explain, to friends and foes, why I feel the need to call myself a libertarian Marxist.

In a bid to incorporate into my socialist blueprint different, often clashing, perspectives I decided to conjure up three complex characters whose dialogues would narrate the story – each representing different parts of my thinking: a Marxist-feminist, a libertarian ex-banker and a maverick technologist. Their disagreements regarding “our” capitalism provide the background against which my socialist blueprint is projected – and assessed.

Our bleak ‘20s

Capitalism took off in earnest when electromagnetism met share markets at the end of the 19th century. Their coupling gave rise to networked megafirms, like Edison, that produced everything from power stations to the lightbulb. To finance the huge undertaking, and the massive trade in their shares, the need arose for megabanks. By the early 1920s financialised capitalism roared, before the whole juggernaut crashed in 1929.

Our ‘20s began with another coupling that seems also to be propelling history at dizzying velocity: the one between the enormous bubble with which states have been refloating the financial sector since 2008 and… Covid-19. Concrete evidence is not hard to spot. On 12th August 2020, the day the news broke that the British economy had suffered its greatest slump ever, the London Stock Exchange jumped by more than 2%. Nothing comparable has ever occurred. Financial capitalism seems finally to have decoupled from the underlying capitalist economy triggering a variety of postcapitalism, though most certainly not the one socialists had envisioned.

Another Now begins in the late 1970s, as Margaret Thatcher was moving into 10 Downing Street. It then straddles the 2008 and 2020 crises before reaching its conclusion in 2036. Inevitably, there comes a moment in the story, on a Sunday evening in November 2025 to be precise, when my characters try to make sense of their circumstances by looking back to the events of 2020. The first thing they note is how drastically the lockdown changed people’s perception of politics.

Before 2020, politics seemed almost like a game, with the parties resembling teams who had good or bad days on the pitch, scoring or conceding points that propelled them up or down a league table which, at season’s end, determined who got the ultimate prize: the opportunity to form a government – without of course really being in power. But then, from one day to the next, the general feeling that politics was a game and politicians never really in control gave way to the realisation that governments everywhere possessed immense powers. With the arrival of the virus came the twenty-four-hour curfew, the closure of the local pub, the ban on walking through the park, the suspension of sport, the emptying of theatres, the silencing of music venues. All notions of a minimal state mindful of its limits and eager to cede power to individuals went out of the window.

Many salivated at this show of raw state power. Even free-marketeers, who had spent their lives shouting down any suggestion of even the most modest boost in public spending, demanded the sort of state control of the economy not seen since Leonid Brezhnev was running the Kremlin. Across the world, the state funded private firms’ wage bills, renationalised utilities and took shares in airlines, car makers, even banks. From the first week of lockdown, the pandemic stripped away the veneer of politics to reveal the boorish reality underneath: that some people have the power to tell the rest what to do.

The massive government interventions misled naïve leftists into the daydream that revived state power would prove a force for good. They forgot what Lenin had once said: Politics is about who does what to whom. They allowed themselves to hope that something good might transpire if the same elites, which had hitherto condemned so many to untold indignities, were handed over immeasurable power. At the heart of their confusion there lay their unintentional capitulation to Thatcher’s propaganda.

Thatcherism was never about a small, minimalist state. Thatcher understood that an authoritarian state was essential to support markets controlled by corporations and banks. Why should her heirs and successors, from both major parties, hesitate for a moment in 2008 or in 2020 to unleash massive government intervention to preserve that power? The confusion of state power with people power caused leftists to fantasise that the revival of communitarian sentiments during the lockdown would beget a renaissance of the commons. And they forgot the essential lesson of the 1930s: economic depression is a breeding ground for political monsters.

In 2020, the virus came for the British prime minister, the Prince of Wales, even Hollywood’s nicest star. But they survived. It was the poorer and the browner people that the Grim Reaper actually claimed. Why? Their poverty had been caused by their disempowerment. It aged them faster. And it made them more vulnerable to disease. Meanwhile, big business, always reliant on the state to impose and enforce the monopolies on which it thrives, boosted its privileged position in our societies’ pecking order.

When the state acquired new powers in response to the coronavirus, any chance of empowering the chronically disempowered disappeared. The Amazons of this world flourished, naturally.

Demonstrators gather outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ $80m New York City penthouse, to protest the retailer’s treatment of workers during the pandemic, in August.

Demonstrators gather outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ $80m New York City penthouse, to protest the retailer’s treatment of workers during the pandemic, in August. Photograph: John Marshall Mantel/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Airlines took a while to return to the skies, true, but money immediately resumed its speed-of-light travels across the planet. Once production lines were restored and global trade resumed, the lethal emissions that had temporarily subsided returned to choke the atmosphere, just as they had before. In all countries, on all continents, it was the weak who suffered most, as they always must.

The hellish cycle of mutual reinforcement between inequality and economic stagnation, so familiar in the aftermath of 2008, returned with a vengeance in the early 2020s. Instead of international cooperation, borders went up and the shutters came down. Nationalist leaders offered demoralised citizens a simple trade: authoritarian powers in return for protection from lethal viruses – and scheming dissidents.

If cathedrals were the Middle Ages’ architectural legacy, our ‘20s will be remembered by the electrified fences and the flocks of drones buzzing in their shadow. Finance and nationalism, already on the rise before 2020, were the clear winners. The great strength of the new fascists was that, unlike their forerunners a century ago, they don’t need to wear brown shirts or even enter government to gain power. The panicking establishment parties – the neoliberals and social democrats – have been falling over themselves to do their job for them through the power of big tech.

Ever since we began living our lives in fear of infection human rights had become an unaffordable luxury. By popular consensus, to stop new outbreaks governments tracked our every move with fancy apps and fashionable bracelets. To stop new outbreaks governments tracked our every move with fancy apps and fashionable bracelets. Systems designed to monitor coughs now also monitored laughs. They made earlier organisations specialising in surveillance and “behaviour modification”, like the infamous KGB and Cambridge Analytica, seem positively neolithic.

What was the moment when humanity lost the plot? Was it 1991? 2008? Or did we still have a chance in 2020? Like epiphanies, the fork-in-the-road theory of history is a convenient lie. Yes, 2008 was a crisis whose wasting paved the way for the bigots and the financiers to prevail after 2020. But the truth is we face a fork-in-the-road every day of our lives. Every single day we fail to take advantage of opportunities to change the course of history. And how do we console ourselves? We look into the past, pick out one “pivotal” moment and try to lessen our guilt by saying: “That was the moment we missed!” It’s time to reject this self-motivated illusion. We miss pivotal moments every day, every hour, every instant.

Glimpses of Another Now

Imagine that our generation had not missed every pivotal moment history presented us with. For example, suppose we had seized the 2008 moment to stage a peaceful high-tech revolution that led to a postcapitalist economic democracy. What would it be like?

To be desirable, it would feature markets for goods and services since the alternative – a Soviet-type rationing system that vests arbitrary power in the ugliest of bureaucrats – is too dreary for words. But to be crisis-proof, there is one market that market socialism cannot afford to feature: The labour market. Why? Because, once labour time has a rental price, the market mechanism inexorably pushes it down while commodifying every aspect of work (and, in the Age of Facebook, of our leisure even). The greater the system’s success in doing this, the less the exchange value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the average profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next systemic crisis.

Can an advanced economy function without labour markets? Of course it can. Consider the principle of one-employee-one-share-one-vote underpinning a system that, in Another Now, is known as corpo-syndicalism. Amending corporate law so as to turn every employee into an equal (though not equally remunerated) partner is as unimaginably radical today as universal suffrage used to be in the 19th Century. Indeed, its effect on the future economy promises to be more radical than the effect of granting all adults a vote was a century ago.

In Another Now, Central Banks provide every adult with a free bank account into which a fixed stipend (called universal basic dividend) is credited monthly. As everyone uses their central bank account to make domestic payments, most of the money minted by the central bank is transferred within its ledger. Additionally, the central bank grants all new-borns a trust fund, to be used when they grow up.

In Another Now persons receive two types of income: The dividends credited into their central bank account and earnings from working in a corpo-syndicalist company. Neither are taxed, as there are no income or sales taxes (VAT). Instead, two types of taxes fund the government: A 5% tax on the raw revenues of the corpo-syndicalist firms. And proceeds from leasing land (which belongs in its entirety to the community) for private, time-limited, use.

When it comes to international trade and payments, Another Now features an innovative global financial system that continually transfers wealth to the Global South, while also preventing imbalances from causing strife and crises. All trade and all money movements between different monetary jurisdictions (e.g. the UK and the Eurozone or the United States) are denominated in a new digital accounting unit, called the Kosmos. If the Kosmos value of a country’s imports exceed its exports, it is charged a levy in proportion to the trade deficit. But, equally, if a country’s exports exceed its imports, it is also charged the same levy. Another levy is charged to a country’s Kosmos account whenever too much money moves too quickly out of, or into, the country – a surge levy of sorts that taxes the speculative money movements which do such damage to developing countries. All these levies end up, in Another Now, as direct green investments in the Global South.

While the new international system is impressive, it is the granting of a single non-tradeable share to each employee-partner that holds the key to Another Now’s economy. Turning shares into something resembling the student card students receive upon enrolment, or the single non-transferrable vote that citizens get once they reach a certain age, the single non-tradeable share changes everything. By granting employee-partners the right to vote in the corporation’s general assemblies, an idea proposed by the early anarcho-syndicalists, the distinction between wages and profits is terminated and democracy, at last, enters the workplace – with the new digital collaborative tools standing by to remove all inefficiencies that would otherwise hamper the prospects of a democratically-run corpo-syndicalist firm.

From a firm’s senior engineers and key strategic thinkers to its secretaries and janitors, everyone receives a basic wage plus a bonus that is decided collectively: Once a year, each employee is given one hundred merit points to distribute among her colleagues in proportion to her assessment of their contribution to the firm. Each receives a share of the total bonuses (a sum that has been chosen earlier) equal to the percentage of the total merit points her colleagues gave her. E.g. if three per cent of a firm’s overall merit points are awarded to, say, Harriet, Harriet collects three per cent of the firm’s total bonus fund.

Once this principle is embraced, a market-socialist blueprint almost writes itself: Since the one-employee-one-vote rule favours smaller decision-making units, corpo-syndicalism causes conglomerates voluntarily to break up into smaller companies, thus reviving market competition. Even more strikingly, share markets vanish completely since shares, like ID and library cards, are now non-tradeable. Once share markets have disappeared, the need for gargantuan debt to fund mergers and acquisitions evaporates – along with commercial finance. And given that the Central Bank provides everyone with a free bank account, private banking shrinks into utter insignificance.


Some of the thornier issues I had to address in writing Another Now, to ensure its consistency with a fully democratised society, included: democratic checks and balances on corporations and elected bodies; the fear that powerful people will manipulate elections even under market socialism; the stubborn refusal of patriarchy to die; gender and sexual politics; land use, housing and real estate; the funding of the Green Transition; borders and migration; a Bill of Digital Rights; etc.

Writing Another Now as a manual on how to construct the best possible socialism would have been unbearable. It would have forced me to pretend that I have taken sides in arguments that remain unresolved in my head – often in my heart. I, therefore, owe an immense debt of gratitude to Iris, Eva and Costa – my characters whose feisty personalities yielded debates from which I feel I learned a great deal. Above all else, they allowed me seriously to ponder the hardest of questions: Once we have settled on a feasible socialism that blasts Thatcher’s TINA out of the water, what must we do, and how far are we willing to go, to bring it about?


[1] This is Karl Marx’s own expression in his 1874 critique of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchism. Writing like a liberal, he admonished “barracks communism” and its promise of: “…common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption – in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority.”

[2] When John Maynard Keynes tried to envision an agreeable future, he was wide off the mark. Assuming that productivity gains would bring about the “euthanasia of the rentier”, Keynes expected that, without any political revolution, a leisure-based, chore-free society would evolve surreptitiously out of capitalism.

[3] Marx’s own reason for offering no socialist blueprint was smart: It is beyond the capacities of middle-class intellectuals working in the British Library reading room or chatting in their posh living rooms. Capitalism unwittingly produces a class of people – the proletariat – who, in pursuing their collective interests, will create socialism as they go along – Marx thought. Today, we know, both from the Soviet and the Western European experience with social democracy, that this was wishful thinking: A bottom-up socialist blueprint has simply not transpired, anywhere.

[4] He referred to my Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A brief history of capitalism, as “[a] stimulating and elegant perspective on market economies. It is accessible but not simplistic.” The Irish Times, 4th November 2017.

• Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis is published by Bodley Head. 

• For the shortened version of this article as it appeared in The Guardian’s web-page click here

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