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The end of capitalism has been just around the corner for centuries

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Marx Francesco Boldizzoni

Harvard University Press, pp.336, 28.95

These days the world seems to end with staggering regularity. From the financial crisis to Brexit to Trump to a climate apocalypse to coronavirus: new eras are born faster than old ones can die. And yet, despite it all, the proletariat still haven’t bothered to rise up and overthrow capitalism. Worse still, many of them voted for an old Etonian with the middle name ‘de Pfeffel’. When will the oppressed masses learn?

Perhaps, just perhaps, such questions aren’t helpful. For the left-wing political scientist Francesco Boldizzoni, rather than banging on about class consciousness, it’s time that a new consciousness dawned on a class of intellectuals who have confidently predicted capitalism’s downfall for two centuries, only to see it adapt and thrive. When will they learn, and why are they so bad at forecasting?

Before he gets to that, Boldizzoni takes us on a 200-page tour of capitalism’s critics, from the well-worn fields of Marx, Mill and Keynes through the wilder thickets of critical theory. Much of the history smacks of Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front sketch. For it’s with weary recognition that we read about democratic socialists fighting the social democrats, or the orthodox Marxists firing on the reformed Marxists. Meanwhile, the world goes on.

Boldizzoni eventually zooms out from these myopic tussles and presents a taxonomy of ‘the prophets of doom’. He sees four overarching schools. Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, for example, subscribe to ‘theories of implosion’, where capitalism collapses under ‘the weight of its contradictions’ (although these are rarely spelled out); others, such as Mill and Keynes, favour ‘theories of exhaustion’, where capitalism dies off once it has delivered maximum prosperity (whatever that means) or hits an environmental limit. Then there are those favouring ‘convergence’, who think technological evolution will push capitalism and socialism together until they’re indistinguishable. And finally there’s the ‘cultural involution’ school, featuring the likes of Schumpeter and Bell, who worry that capitalism’s success will destroy it, with material comfort fattening the Protestant work ethic that was central to its original success.

Yet while these thinkers presume capitalism will fall for different reasons, their own thinking repeatedly falls into the same traps. First, the elephant in the room: what actually is ‘capitalism’? As Boldizzoni reminds us, it’s both an age-old human activity — individuals producing and trading — and a more recent socio-economic system, based on ‘clearly defined property rights and wage labour’.

This doubleness is a source of strength. Capitalism is not merely some theory dreamt up by academics or politicians; it is a densely woven web of human activity and impulse: a dynamic organising principle that, when systematised, allocates resources more efficiently than any other model. Unlike communism, capitalism is rooted in human behaviour — it does not require a coercive state to forge a ‘new man’ to work.

This relationship between human behaviour and societal organisation also means there is no such thing as ‘capitalism’, but rather ‘capitalisms’. Geography and culture matter. America, Norway and Japan are all capitalist economies, but the shape, quality and character of their capitalism will differ according to each society’s historical development.

Rarely is any of this recognised by those in Boldizzoni’s story. For ‘catastrophists’, capitalism is a monster. So what, exactly, is their problem with capitalism? Perhaps it’s the fact that no other economic system has delivered greater gains in national and global prosperity, health or living standards, or reduced poverty as dramatically (with one billion people lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990 alone)? This is not to pretend that capitalist models are haloed saints; just that they work better at scale than anything else humanity’s tried. The evidence is vast, and Boldizzoni barely raises (or disputes) it. No, the criticisms here are of a different nature: imprecise, stat-light and cloaked in a vague morality. Capitalism is ‘a diabolical machine’; ‘antagonistic’; a system that creates ‘false needs’. Such ‘false needs’ include ‘the need to have fun’. Even Boldizzoni himself writes of a ‘moral misery’ without ever defining it.

Reading between the lines, the moral critique draws on Christian religious arguments about the perils of distraction, hedonism and the belief that worldly things have their spiritual price. Anti-Semitism is not always far from the scene. Such arguments are ‘modernised’ by reading them through Freud (a ghostly presence throughout), or a woolly, Rousseau-inspired romanticism which misreads utopia into the past. However, really they’re cultural sentiments which thinkers rationalise in their criticism of capitalism, and lead doom-laden forecasters to what Boldizzoni calls ‘the paradox of the crystal ball’: gazing into the glass, they see an image of themselves reflected back.

Boldizzoni’s book is a warning against this, aimed primarily at the left. Capitalism is not ending any time soon. Focus on reform rather than playground revolution. For with coronavirus throttling the global economy, perhaps we are witnessing an old world dying and a new world struggling to be born. But, Boldizzoni suggests, this new world will be remarkably familiar.

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