Needing change, changing needs

Hands cupping plants
How might a post-capitalist society evolve to meet the needs of humans and the natural world?


We need a whole world of change. But how do we even begin to make that change? What will a changed world look like? A dialectical systems analysis can begin to guide us towards some answers. 

Individual human beings have needs that are met through social interaction and interdependence. The need of the individual is met only by becoming the need of the group, the institution, and of society.

The only needs that can exist are those that can be met. If an absolute need is not met, the individual dies, the society collapses. Therefore the needs of the individual are dependent on, are defined by, the needs that can be met by the society of that individual. The possibilities open to the individual are limited or prescribed by the society in which they live.

Growth of capital

Today, almost all individuals in the world live within the capitalist economic system, either within the exploiting ‘centres’, or the appropriated ‘margins’. Needs are limited to those that are or can be met by capitalism. 

There are absolute human needs which capitalism does has to satisfy. There is the need for sustenance, for shelter, and for at least limited social interaction. There are areas where these needs are not met - where capitalism as scorched the earth and the population - but this cannot be the norm.

However, there is a contradiction between human needs and capitalist needs. Capital has reached a maturity where its needs exhaust, suffocate and surround the needs of the very humans who create and activate it.

The primary need of capital is to valourise capital. The single investor only proffers money when that same money will return, with interest. The investment is in human labour and natural resources, and therefore the human performing the labour must produce more in value than they themselves retain in wages (or there would be no profit, or interest).

In aggregate, this means capital has to grow, and has to accumulate. The growth of capital is in direct conflict with human needs, given the intensity of exploitation and appropriation. 

Labour relations

The need of the investor to gain profit or interest necessitates their position in the relations of capital as exploiters. If the need is not met, the investor will lose their money and their position and role as an exploiter, pressing them down into the position of exploited.

The exploited have no capital to invest; and indeed no money to feed themselves or their families. In order to meet the basic, necessary human needs they are compelled into the marketplace to sell their labour; to create more value than they earn in wages, and to reproduce the capitalist system in which they remain entrapped.

The exploiter chases the opportunities that have the highest returns on investment, irrespective of the experience of the exploited. Those who work are forced to work harder, longer. Labour appears and is repulsive.

There is a contradiction between the needs of the individual and the needs of the system. Those who work witness the exploiters in their development and satisfaction of higher needs: the need for free time, for new experiences, for time with family. These needs evolve and develop.

We need to be free the moment we see others are free, and that therefore we have the potential to be free.

Ecological crisis

Capital seeks out and exhausts all opportunities for profit, intensified by competition. We enter an economy suffering from a crisis of overproduction. For those with money, all conceivable material needs are met, even where earning money crowds out the human need for leisure and free time.

The creative industries - film, television - tantalise with images of human beings replete in the satisfaction of their needs. Advertising identifies needs, and through the ransacking of our cultural industries, convinces us their products will meet these needs. The products that truly meet needs sell well, those that don’t sell even more well.

Even while ensnared in capitalism, we develop vital needs, those needs that become necessary to us but that cannot be satisfied by capital and its institutions. Prime among them is the need for leisure time, the need for individuation, the need to be free.

Ecological crisis - climate change, biodiversity loss, soil erosion - require that we develop a new economic system that reduces (to zero) the rapid exploitation and ruination of the natural environment. This need is utterly at odds with capitalism.

But the evolution to a post capitalist society will not come through a reduction in our ability to meet human needs (or indeed a reduction in the number of humans), but instead through an increased ability to identify and meet human needs. We can only protect that natural environment through improving the lives of those who will deliver on this project.

New economy

This is a cause of celebration, rather than abdication. The project of developing a society that shares the purpose of meeting human needs is one and the same as the project to save and enhance the natural environment, not least because a primary human need is to feel and to be a part of and not apart from the natural environment.

From the vantage point of capitalism we can see the contours of a post-capitalist society, and this vision has further definition through the use of dialectical systems thinking. This thinking posits that history is an iterative process, that a society evolves through daily change rather than simply rebooting with an entirely new operating system.

We can begin to sketch the first two major iterations of a post-capitalist economy, where the needs of human beings rather than the needs of capitalist accumulation are paramount.

The new economy will be radically different. The purpose will have changed, and the objects and the methods will in due course change to meet this purpose.

Some aspects, some individuals and institutions, will change more radically than others, and the complexity of the change will render the scene chaotic. We can time the tides, we cannot predict the waves.

Defining production

A society based on human need presumes conscious planning and production. Those humans engaged in the economy will have to identify though some method which needs are necessary, which are artificial, and where along that spectrum the collective efforts of society should be engaged.

The participants in the future economy will need to decide whether we need nuclear power, whether we need to visit other planets. Will we need to cure all disease, everywhere at all times, whatever the resources this demands. They will need to balance the need for major infrastructure with the need for idleness and leisure.

This future economy will compel its participants to seek not lower or reduced levels of production, but higher. The material needs advanced and prioritised by capitalism can be satisfied, saturated. But in any case they will begin to recede into the background. Few will decide to spend time in a mouth wash factory, rather than collecting pebbles on the beach with their daughter.

The core of the discussion would be the separation of the category of necessity and the category of freedom. It will be nature - our own nature, our natural needs - that will define the category of necessity. We will produce food, keep ourselves warm, satisfy our need for contact with others. Human needs will move well beyond material goods, or the status they infer, because this satisfaction is always a proxy.

The increased rate of production will very likely not result in an increase in production in the absolute. Instead, it will result in a rapid and defining reduction in the time and resources spent in production. Today, right now, just seven workers in Britain can produce a million potato waffles in a single day.

Fully automated

A decision for the participants within the future economy will be how much time they dedicate to production to make things of higher quality at a lower cost to the environment.

They will choose whether not only to create zero emissions and zero waste production processes but whether to invest time and resources into improving and enhancing nature, by whatever measure can be devised.

Indeed, a future economy will be fully automated. We already have machines that can make machines. We also have ‘machine learning’, and are on the cusp of an era of ‘artificial intelligence’. The possibility - and therefore following, the desire and the need - for free time is already expanding beyond the ability of capitalism to contain it.

Automation means that humans can and will likely occupy their time as instigator, designer and regulator of natural processes. Indeed, humans will themselves fall away as the primary force in mechanical or industrial production having created, discovered or understood the forces inherent in nature. We can step back in awe as nature itself recovers from the tyranny of capitalist production.

This iteration of a new society will retain some of the conditions of today. It seems likely that people will still have their contributions counted, and the amount they draw from the general stock will relate to these contributions.

Negotiating needs

Those living in the earliest stages of a post capitalist society are likely to be concerned with fairness, and to see this best realised by counting and comparing hours worked, and benefits gained. Those who work harder (longer, or more intensively) may expect to get a little more.

However, those who work will be the primary decision makers tasked with understanding human need, calculating what needs to be produced to meet these needs, and how this production should be organised and distributed.

This process should immediately see a fundamental reduction of the impact of human production on the natural world, not least because there is a fundamental and absolute human need to sustain that environment.

A further dividend will come from avoiding the madness of the capitalist market system: major corporations will no longer compete against each other in increasing unnecessary needs and simultaneously engaging in a race to the bottom in terms of cheap - and therefore almost always more harmful - production methods.

The needs met through production will also fundamentally change. People will discuss consciously and collectively what needs to be produced. The absolute needs of food, warmth, medicines will naturally come first, but the exact line between necessary and unnecessary needs will be understood to be socially contingent and also negotiable.

Coming together

People will no longer work because of the compulsion and coerciveness of the wage labour system. They will not be driven to starvation or abject poverty if they refuse to do harmful, painful and environmentally harmful work.

Another motive would have to take its place. In the earlier iterations of this new society the desire to work will derive from the human as a social animal. Pleasure will be gained from taking an active and positive role in meeting the social and individual needs of themselves, their families and their communities.

Work itself will become a source of pride and pleasure as useless industries (legal, fashion, politics, road building) will be abandoned across the board.

People will also experience a social duty to work. This can take a positive form in being celebrated, but may also manifest in other ways. It may become socially unacceptable for those who are able to contribute to be seen not to. Those people may find themselves excluded from events or moments in the social calendar designed to celebrate the wealth created by those who contribute.

Even at the earliest stages of a post-capitalist, needs-centered society, there will be enormous benefits in terms of wellbeing and increased productivity, to be gained from the simple fact that society will be organised through people coming together to work for the common good (where the common can be extended beyond the human) rather in competition, alienated from each other and from nature.

Social systems

The second stage, or later iterations, of a post-capitalist society will witness even greater benefits. This will be the society defined by the fact that all production is based on human needs, where the needs of each individual is met irrespective of any contribution they may make in terms of work.

This society will be made possible because of increases in productivity, rather than production, where the abundance and faculty of nature is at last experienced in human societies.

The ability of human beings to meet their own needs, individually and as a social animal, will be fully realised, and the need for any kind of rationing (including that based on wages or salary, or money even) will simply fall away.

In this society there will be no distinction between work and play. Today, even childcare has been commodified, professionalised, alienated and removed from the everyday activities of being alive. Playing with a child should always be a source of joy, rather than a stressful and degrading job. This is true of all human activity, where feeding, taking care of, building, making, writing should be - and should always have been - vital pleasures rather than paid work.

This future society will be made possible by the collective efforts of human beings, who will come together through different forums on a global, regional, local stage in order to make conscious decisions. This will likely evolve into an integrated social plan, where social systems are designed to work as an aspect of natural systems (respecting rather than ignoring seasons, the capacity of nature to recover).

Mutual dependence 

But life in this society will not be characterised by constant committee meetings, or centralised political bodies, or blueprints for massive factories. Each human being will contain within her the ‘interests’ of the human species, and of nature, en totum.

Society will be the mediation of humans and nature, where each is dependent on and beneficial to the other.

In this society the needs of the whole society can be understood and can be met. In the same moment the individual is given the most freedom, the most free time, possible to explore her own interests, her own curiosity, her own abilities to make and fashion and feel.

These are the contours of a society based on meeting human needs. This is the society we need if we are going to escape climate breakdown and ecological collapse.

These claims are specific and, for some, seductive. But is this utopian delusion? Simple wishful thinking.

In the rest of this series I will be looking at dialectics and systems theories as methods for identifying and understanding human needs, how these manifest for individuals, groups and societies and finally how a better understanding of these needs can help us as activists both imagine and begin to build a future society with the purpose of meeting human needs.

This Author 

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague. 

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOCseries.

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