How Will Capitalism End?

End Notes

The long history of forecasting capitalism’s demise.

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Did I ever tell you about my idea for a TV show? I envision it as a kind of alternate-history thriller—think Watchmen meets The Man in the High Castle meets The Plot Against America. The premise: The Bolsheviks’ wildest hopes were fulfilled, and their seizure of power in Russia was indeed followed by worldwide socialist revolutions. Yet these uprisings didn’t happen as expected, for the revolutionaries were not left-wing militants but the political

and business elites of the old regime. The 19th century economic order was overthrown not by mass movements or vanguardist parties but by the modern corporation and the administrative state. Season 1 ends with the big reveal: It was our timeline all along! Capitalism really did end after World War I, and we’ve been living under covert collectivism ever since.

OK, so it might not be a masterpiece. Still, if Netflix doesn’t bite, I just might pitch it to Dinesh D’Souza—for versions of this story have already found a wide audience on the American right. You know the basics: a socialist onslaught all but extinguishing the free market; a class of managers and bureaucrats controlling government and big business alike; an intellectual sphere pervaded by cultural Marxism. Start filming now, and we can bang out a pilot in time to capitalize on the presidency of “Red Joe” Biden.

What today looks like a conspiratorial right-wing story once had a wider appeal. For much of the 20th century, the notion that Western societies were becoming noncapitalist—or had already done so—was commonplace among left-liberals as well as conservatives. Karl Marx had already depicted joint-stock companies as the “transitional forms” heralding “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within capitalist production itself.” Variants of the theme could be found in everyone from the New Dealers Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means to the Trotskyist turned conservative James Burnham (currently back in vogue among the more highbrow strands of MAGA). The separation of ownership and control in the modern corporation was only the most prominent of the mechanisms by which it seemed that capitalism was rendering itself obsolete.

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to sneer at such predictions, whether issued in an optimistic left-wing or an apocalyptic right-wing vein. These days, discussions of the subject instead tend to invoke Fredric Jameson’s adage that it’s become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But is that really so surprising? After all, it’s intuitively clear what sorts of things might signify the end of the world (climate change, asteroids, zombies). Yet the end of capitalism is doubly ambiguous, for uncertainty about how capitalism might end reflects a deeper uncertainty about what exactly capitalism is. It’s sometimes suggested that this uncertainty is not accidental, that abstraction and opacity are central characteristics of the system, which if true would make the common injunction to “smash capitalism” less than self-evident: Is capitalism even the sort of thing that could be smashed, like a vase or a VCR? If it isn’t, should we expect its demise to come by self-destruction, stagnation, or mutation? Should we expect it to come at all? As Francesco Boldizzoni’s lively and wide-ranging book Foretelling the End of Capitalism makes clear, attempts to answer these questions are as old as the concept of capitalism itself, and they’ve led to remarkably varied conclusions.

Foretelling the End of Capitalism moves briskly across a century and a half of intellectual history, from Marx and John Stuart Mill in the mid-19th century (when the term “capitalism” entered the lexicon) to the aftermath of the 2008 crash. The intervening cast of thinkers is large, if almost entirely European and American: Max Weber and Rosa Luxemburg in the beginning of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter in the middle, Daniel Bell and Francis Fukuyama more recently, along with dozens of others. Boldizzoni’s subtitle, Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx, indicates his generally low opinion of their collective efforts, and the last part of the book ventures a general account of how they went wrong.

Boldizzoni divides the prophecies he examines into a few basic categories. The most prominent is “implosion,” the suggestion that capitalism will collapse due to its own economic contradictions. Much of the Marxist tradition falls into this category (although, of course, not all Marxists have imagined that capitalism will inevitability implode), and Boldizzoni draws out a few distinct Marxist theories of economic crisis: overaccumulation, underconsumption, disproportionality.

A second vision of capitalist collapse is “cultural involution,” framed around the system’s cultural or political contradictions rather than its strictly economic ones. This notion is more common on the right and in the center than on the left; a classic instance is Schumpeter’s claim that “the capitalist order not only rests on props made of extra-capitalist material but also derives its energy from extra-capitalist patterns of behavior which at the same time it is bound to destroy.” (Although Boldizzoni restricts himself to the past two centuries, such accounts often echo much older narratives of virtuous austerity undone by luxury and decadence.)

Other genres of prophecy dispense with the notion of a final dramatic collapse altogether. Boldizzoni suggests that “exhaustion” theories, which imagine capitalism petering out with a whimper instead of a bang, form their own distinct category. Although there are pessimistic versions of the theory—perhaps Larry Summers’s recent revival of the concept of “secular stagnation” qualifies—Boldizzoni’s chief exemplars were more hopeful. Mill and Keynes both invoked the postcapitalist future in warmer English pastoral tones, looking forward to a world in which the imperatives of accumulation and growth come to a halt and abundance produces a general subordination of economic values to human ones.

Boldizzoni’s final category is “convergence,” the view that capitalism will gradually evolve to become indistinguishable from socialism. If Marx already hinted at this view, developed forms of it can be found throughout the 20th century: Berle and Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932) provided an upbeat version, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) a despairing one. (Here Boldizzoni’s book might have benefited from some engagement with the major study of this theme, Howard Brick’s Transcending Capitalism, from 2006.) A notable early formulation came from the German sociologist Werner Sombart, who coined the term “late capitalism” soon after World War I (in reference to what we now consider the “classic” capitalism of the mid-20th century). But at the same time he suggested that it ultimately made little difference whether an economy was nominally late capitalist or socialist. “The difference between a stabilized and regulated capitalism and a mechanized and streamlined socialism is not very large,” Sombart wrote, for “in both cases the entire economy rests on the basis of depersonalization.”

Surveying this wide range of theories, Boldizzoni’s verdict is simple: Their forecasts “never came true.” Capitalism has not ended, and although we can assume that, like all historical phenomena, it will eventually give way to something else, there’s no reason to think that its end will come soon or that it will be replaced by something better. The failure of all these prophecies, he insists, reflects a set of recurrent errors. Capitalism’s obituary writers rest their arguments on an assumption of human progress; they indulge in a utopian hope of discovering the laws of social evolution; and above all, they fall prey to an “underestimation of culture as a social force.” Capitalism stems from the specifically hierarchical and individualistic nature of Western cultures, and these underlying traits are likely to persist well into the future. In light of these considerations, Boldizzoni writes, “we would do better to focus on the present and improve life under capitalism.” He suggests that doing so would involve a renewed push for social democracy within the bounds of the nation-state.

Boldizzoni’s treatment of the individual thinkers he surveys is generally deft, but his broader arguments about their collective failures are far too sweeping. For one thing, as Alyssa Battistoni argued in Boston Review, blanket invocations of “culture” almost certainly can’t bear the weight that Boldizzoni places on them. To treat culture as an independent variable shaping capitalism is to neglect how the two are intertwined, as well as how capitalist imperatives make themselves felt on all actors, regardless of cultural background. Likewise, the two specific cultural traits that he treats as the distinctively Western building blocks of capitalism—hierarchy and individualism—raise more questions than they answer. Isn’t hierarchy an important feature of many different societies, not just Western ones? And couldn’t individualism be more an effect of capitalism than a cause of it?

Even more perplexing is the assertion that “most non-Western countries,” and specifically the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), “cannot be characterized as capitalist”—a striking claim that never receives the elaboration necessary to justify it. Certainly, it reflects Boldizzoni’s tendency to conceive of capitalism in terms of a set of discrete national economies rather than as an inherently interlinked global system. Perhaps it also stems from his general culturalist orientation: His definition of capitalism requires not just a particular economic structure but also “a bourgeois culture,” which he apparently takes to be coterminous with Western culture. Regardless, this claim about the specifically Western nature of capitalism might make us wonder about his insistence on its durability. If all these different economic models qualify as noncapitalist (and there are large variations even with the BRICs), then isn’t a noncapitalist future not just plausible but possibly imminent?

More broadly, Boldizzoni’s dismissal of the theorists he examines seems unwarranted. Not all of them flatly predicted that capitalism would end anytime soon, and many of them (from the Frankfurt School to Fukuyama) were more fascinated by capitalism’s persistence than its instability. And what’s the standard by which we judge a successful or unsuccessful prophecy, anyway? Many of them invite the response (perhaps apocryphal) that Zhou Enlai is purported to have given Richard Nixon when asked about the consequences of the French Revolution: It’s too soon to tell. Similarly, what would have constituted a correct forecast in, say, 1920? Perhaps a perfect forecast would precisely track the subsequent history: cataclysmic depression and war, then decades of unprecedented prosperity, then stagnation and recurrent crisis, then… whatever we have to look forward to now. But if pressed to give an overall verdict, would we say that the optimists or the pessimists were closer to the truth?

Boldizzoni’s real gripe is less with the details of this or that forecast than with the very enterprise of social forecasting. Mere prediction is unobjectionable and unavoidable, and he offers his own “conjectures about the near future of capitalism.” Yet he argues that the kind of forecasting he examines is something stronger and more troubling: a post-Enlightenment enterprise, at once rationalist and utopian, based on a belief in progress and its overall comprehensibility throughout history. Can we really attribute this mindset to all of the figures surveyed in the book, many of whom hardly come across as naive rationalists? And can the line between unobjectionable prediction and hubristic forecasting really be drawn this neatly? Boldizzoni wants us to focus on comprehending capitalism’s present and to stop speculating about its future. But there’s reason to doubt that we can adequately accomplish the first task without indulging in a bit of the second.

Here it’s worth dwelling briefly on the concept of capitalism itself. Boldizzoni’s book shares its basic framing with many treatments that would disagree sharply with his political conclusions: There is a system known as capitalism, we more or less understand what it is, and the question is whether and how it might end. This framing reflects the fact that nearly all of his thinkers made explicit reference to something they called capitalism, however differently they might have understood it, obviating the need to justify the use of the term. But why did they find it necessary to talk about capitalism at all? Why invoke the broader concept, as opposed to the various discrete phenomena that it encompasses—money, markets, wage labor, and so on? The main work that it performs, for them and still for us, lies in the claim to describe something that is both systematic and historical: an overall system that has a logic transcending these individual phenomena, and one that isn’t an eternal fact of human society but exists only in particular historical circumstances.

Admittedly, not all work on capitalism keeps these aspects in the foreground. Recent years, for instance, have brought an upsurge of scholarship in the history of capitalism, a field that has often been reticent about defining its central term. Such a lack of definition allows us to trace instances of “capitalism” (as represented by markets, coinage, trade networks, or whatever) in ancient Mesopotamia or medieval Europe, with the ironic result that capitalism ceases to look like a historically specific formation at all. Yet by this logic, there’s little reason to hold on to the term; we could simply follow mainstream economics and talk about the specific phenomena that interest us without relating them to some larger master concept.

Talk of capitalism only makes sense if it refers to some sort of historical order standing in contrast to noncapitalism—one with a beginning and (presumably) an end. Where to draw those lines might be highly contested, but the usefulness of the concept presumes some lines of this sort. And this suggests that we can’t simply bracket off capitalism’s present from its past and future, as Boldizzoni wants us to do. For the concept to be meaningful, it has to imply some kind of historical dynamic, so that any attempt to describe what capitalism is today will also imply some account of where it came from and where it’s going.

Understanding capitalism’s past involves many of the same difficulties as predicting its future. By beginning his story in 19th century Britain, already a canonically capitalist society, Boldizzoni can mostly avoid the question of origins. Yet his theme, the problem of capitalism’s end, mirrors the problem of its emergence—a debate that predates the term “capitalism” itself, going back at least to the 18th century Scottish historians of commercial society. A traditional view, available in both liberal and Marxist flavors, holds that capitalism emerged in early modern Europe from the previous social order, feudalism, in conjunction with the political process by which the bourgeoisie supplanted the old nobility. Today this story looks a great deal less tidy. Historians of medieval Europe are increasingly disinclined to see the preceding order as a single coherent feudal system, much as historians of modern Europe have cast doubt on the notion that the old regime was decisively routed by a set of bourgeois revolutions.

Such untidiness doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to discuss the emergence of capitalism; anyone who believes that capitalism didn’t always exist but does now must also believe that it emerged somehow, somewhere. But the whole problem does at least look messier. Where and when we locate capitalism’s origin will depend on what we take to be its decisive characteristics, and any origin story is likely to be protracted and uneven. Should we infer from this that capitalism’s demise might be equally murky and anticlimactic?

It’s true, as the leftist journal Endnotes recently argued, that the concept of an ending can be simpler than that of an origin. Describing how a given animal comes into being might require a deep knowledge of embryology and evolutionary biology, but it’s much easier to say when and how it dies. Thus we could recognize the end of capitalism without making any particular claims about how it began or about the origins of what comes after. Yet the analogy between an organism and a social order has its limits. Run over a squirrel, and you end up with a dead squirrel, not a post-squirrel. The end of capitalism, by contrast—at least so long as it doesn’t coincide with the end of the world—would by definition mark the arrival of a postcapitalist order, and we’re still left with the problem of specifying the line between the two. This involves deciding which elements of the current order must vanish for capitalism to end and which could remain under postcapitalism—that is, which elements are essentially capitalist and which are not.

The problem is already apparent in Marx. Commodity production and exchange are not the creations of capitalism, as he noted in Capital, Volume I, but instead “form the historic presuppositions under which capital arises.” Commodities, money, markets, and property have been present in “many economic formations of society, with the most diverse historical characteristics,” and in that sense they are not uniquely capitalist. What distinguishes capitalism from earlier formations, he insisted, is its particular configuration of these institutions. Only under capitalism is economic life “dominated in its length and breadth by exchange-value,” so that the products of labor are universally treated as commodities and workers are universally forced to sell their labor power as a commodity.

Marx’s arguments might seem to imply that where these conditions no longer hold—where, for instance, the necessity of wage labor has been eliminated—a postcapitalist society might still maintain some forms of money, markets, property, and commodity exchange, just as precapitalist societies did. Yet Marx never gave much credence to this possibility. While he sketched transitional forms between capitalism and communism, he imagined the process culminating in an order in which all of these institutions vanish, along with exchange value itself. Although their mere existence isn’t sufficient to show that capitalism has begun, in other words, their abolition is necessary to show that capitalism has truly ended. But it’s not clear that this conclusion follows inevitably from Marx’s understanding of capitalism itself.

In general, criteria for determining the onset of capitalism don’t always provide sure guidance for identifying its end. For instance, one suggestive way of conceiving capitalism is in terms of “market dependence,” the extent to which participation in markets becomes mandatory for survival. Historically, its meaning is intuitive: Peasants who engaged in occasional market exchange but could live without doing so were not yet market-dependent, whereas those who could no longer provide their own subsistence and had to exchange in order to survive had become subject to capitalist imperatives. But what might this criterion imply for the future, if we assume that postcapitalism won’t involve a return to economic self-sufficiency?

Imagine, for instance, a universal basic income program generous enough to ensure a reasonably comfortable standard of living. This guarantee of subsistence would remove the most important form of market dependence: You would no longer need to earn money to survive. On the other hand, the rest of the division of labor and the infrastructure of market exchange would remain in place. Upon cashing your UBI check each month, you would still go as before to buy your essentials at the local supermarket chain, which in turn would still pay wages to its employees (higher wages now, due to the UBI floor) and dividends to its shareholders. Would this still be capitalism?

These questions might be worth considering in an era where avowed anti-capitalist currents of various stripes have flooded back onto the scene. The most widespread of these currents, after all, are often forms of market socialism, preserving much more of what came before—money, markets, personal property, the democratic state—than most earlier anti-capitalists would countenance. This isn’t necessarily a problem for their advocates, and we should be wary of demanding too much specificity about an inherently uncertain future. Yet well-worn skepticism about considering “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (in Marx’s phrase) can risk reinforcing an untenable separation between capitalism’s future and its present. We can’t insist that capitalism must be replaced while remaining purely agnostic about what comes after, for the very claim already implies some sense of what would count as a genuine replacement.

Likewise, the wide range of programs currently gathered under the banner of anti-capitalism suggests that the usual framing of the end-of-capitalism debate is misleading. We aren’t just predicting whether capitalism will survive or not but also figuring out what it would mean either way. At the very least, anti-capitalists should be prepared to answer the question of how we would recognize the end of capitalism if it arrived.

Capitalism has always been a contested concept, and it has sometimes served to mystify as well as demystify. Does that mean we should give up on it altogether? The right has historically had a hostile relationship to the term, and only gradually did public intellectuals like Milton Friedman and Irving Kristol make it safe for capitalists to embrace “capitalism.” (That the project was never fully successful is suggested by incidents like the Texas Board of Education’s mandate that textbooks replace “capitalism” with “the free-enterprise system.”) Yet skepticism about the concept has footholds on the left as well. In Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion (2018), the sociologist Fred L. Block argues that whatever its original critical purchase, the concept today serves to bolster market fundamentalism rather than undercut it, since it implies that the system is a seamless whole and that any attempt at partial change will be ineffective or counterproductive.

There’s something to be said for that argument, but I wonder if the concept has really lost all of its critical force—surely there’s a reason that capitalists prefer to talk of free enterprise rather than capitalism. Perhaps the concept, with its central claim to describe a systematic and historical phenomenon, is inherently double-edged. It can blunt concrete analysis by suggesting that everything we might dislike is a necessary feature of the system, which is more likely to lead to political quietism than wholesale rejection. But it can equally remind us of the historical nature of our economic arrangements: that they aren’t necessary implications of human freedom or material scarcity but a particular response to problems that other societies have dealt with very differently. Such historical awareness remains vital to any attempt to change them.

A different kind of skepticism came from one of the 20th century’s most prominent anti-capitalists. By the time he looked back on the history of his own lifetime in The Age of Extremes (1994), Eric Hobsbawm was prepared to allow that “the simple dichotomy ‘capitalist’/’socialist’ is political rather than analytical.” The dichotomy reflected the perspective of labor movements whose idea of socialism “was, in practice, little more than the concept of the present society (‘capitalism’) turned inside out,” followed by the political bifurcation of the world during the Cold War. “Instead of classifying the economic systems of, say, the U.S.A., South Korea, Austria, Hong Kong, West Germany and Mexico under the same heading of ‘capitalism,’” he concluded, “it would be perfectly possible to classify them under several.”

We could read this as a renunciation of Hobsbawm’s old cause. But he doesn’t say that the capitalist/socialist dichotomy is useless; he says that it’s “political rather than analytical.” In other words, there’s no objective set of categories to tell us where one ends and the other begins, for any categorization is already implicated in concrete political struggles, and its precise content will change according to their contours. This doesn’t mean that we must renounce aspirations of ending capitalism. But it does mean that the bare aspiration of doing so still leaves us with a final question: What exactly do we want to end?

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