Review: Foretelling the End of Capitalism

Occupy Wall Street participants stage a march down Broadway
Occupy Wall Street participants stage a march down Broadway / Getty Images

"Big structural change" is back in vogue. The 2010s saw the return of the left’s boldest claim: that history’s wheel would finally turn and capitalism would at long last end. From the fervor surrounding Occupy Wall Street emerged a flurry of books arguing capitalism had exhausted itself (like David Wallerstein’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism) or rewriting basic economic principles (like Thomas Piketty’s much-publicized Capital in the Twenty-First Century). Not since the 19th century have expectations of broad and rapid change been so popular.

But now, at the opening of a new decade, the disappointment that met the previous century’s predictions of "big structural change" is already creeping in, at least in the United States. Bernie Sanders’s "political revolution" fell flat, legislative attempts to take advantage of the coronavirus for progressive ends have come off as pork-barrel politics, and amid a health crisis Americans hope not for socialized medicine but for the return of the economic stability of the late 2010s.

While activists soldier on, progressive academics brace themselves for another long period of disappointment. Francesco Boldizzoni, a political economist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has written Foretelling the End of Capitalism to throw cold water on left-wing hopes. Himself a social democrat rather than an all-out Marxist, Boldizzoni was already disinclined to expect revolution. Nevertheless, his book’s pessimism, as well as its blind spots, may anticipate where the left is headed.

Foretelling is half history, half social commentary. It speeds through 150 years of "social forecasting"—the practice of predicting future social trends and systems—summarizing dozens of economists and social critics from Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill to Wallerstein and Slavoj Zizek. It turns out that even on the left, forecasts of capitalism’s immediate demise have been rare. Apart from the last decade, they were most in vogue in the early days of the social sciences. Nineteenth-century social scientists, Marx among them, took to heart the idea that there exist scientific laws of human affairs, akin to the law of gravity, such that a careful student of society could not only describe but predict social motion.

On this basis, Marx extrapolated his dicta about capitalism’s "overproduction" and "the tendency of the profit rate to fall" to predict a breaking point at which the system’s internal contradictions destroy it. Mill, meanwhile, anticipated that economic and moral progress would reach a "stationary state of capital and wealth" at which resource limits make further growth impossible but everyone’s material needs are met and humanity transcends the "struggle for riches." Nineteenth-century predictions about the end of capitalism tended to fall along those two lines: It would implode due to internal contradictions, or reach an immovable limit and then transform.

But capitalism just wouldn’t die. Every time it seemed to reach a limit—market saturation, resource limits, etc.—it found ways to adapt and continue expanding. And leftists’ attempts to speed its demise started looking futile, or worse. By the 1910s, Marxist intellectuals were having difficulty winning over the working classes in Western Europe and the United States; by the late 1930s, they couldn’t ignore Stalin’s bloodthirst. Western Marxists, not so much mugged by reality as stood up by history, adopted a new vision of the future. Instead of revolution, they began to aim for a "controlled capitalism" in which humane experts would use political tools to organize economic life in a rational way—a project that required the help of universities, media, and of course the state. After the Second World War, this "social democratic" vision was associated with the theory of "convergence": that socialism and capitalism would unite in a single system defined by the welfare state. It has remained influential—it’s why Bernie always makes sure to qualify "socialist" with "democratic" and "revolution" with "political." And though social democracy isn’t quite a theory of "the end of capitalism," Boldizzoni gives it pride of place in his narrative.

Yet while it was successful in building welfare programs across Europe and in the United States, even this tamer version of the left met with disappointment. Boldizzoni can’t quite admit it. He blames the post-1970 retreat of social democracy on "opportunistic politicians" (Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, presumably) and deflects accusations of government inefficiency with cursory anecdotes. Readers shouldn’t let him get off so easily. The political and fiscal problems that have accompanied redistributionism in Europe are too numerous. Generous welfare states in Scandinavia face uncomfortable questions about immigration, the government-funded French health care system has to shut down rural hospitals and underpay nurses, and so on.

Boldizzoni dismisses these fiscal and political problems to defend social democracy on the level of culture and values. The commentary sections of Foretelling chide Marxists’ insensitivity to the importance of culture. Boldizzoni argues that capitalism is more deeply rooted in Western cultural values—"individualism" and "hierarchy"—than foretellers of its demise understand. The myth that society operates according to ironclad scientific laws has kept them consistently blind to the cultural reasons for capitalism’s longevity. The best we can do is to redirect preexisting property, production, and capital through a redistributionist state—"the only system that recognized the needs of human beings, freed them from dependence on the benevolence of others, and guaranteed them dignity."

But this aspect of "organized capitalism" has drawn equally devastating criticism from left and right. The idea of an ideologically driven few organizing every aspect of society—not to mention placing in their hands responsibility for human needs, freedom, and dignity—sounded particularly unappealing to leftist Frankfurt School thinkers uprooted by the Nazis. They argued that social democrats, by enlisting noneconomic institutions in their quest for an "administered society," only succeeded in extending a repressive technical rationality into those noneconomic parts of life.

There’s another approach Boldizzoni acknowledges but does not address. He calls it "cultural involution" and identifies it with Joseph Schumpeter and Daniel Bell, but one can also find it in the work of Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, and countless other modern conservatives. Kristol summarizes it in a 1970 essay: Capitalism promises people wealth, freedom, and virtue, but "the third promise, of a virtuous life and a just society, was subverted by the dynamics of capitalism itself, as it strove to fulfill the other two—affluence and liberty." Immoderate pursuit of wealth and consumption undermines the cultural foundations of capitalism: virtuous people and just institutions.

Boldizzoni mistakenly classifies this view as an instance of forecasting—its proponents have tended to argue that "the cultural contradictions of capitalism" were already present in their own time. But these thinkers differ from the others in Foretelling in a more important respect. They did not expect human needs, freedom, and dignity to be addressed by total "systems" but by organic networks of civil society, family ties, and religion. A single bureaucracy taking the place of the social ecosystem (consider the 2012 Obama campaign’s "Life of Julia") only reinforces individual atomization and establishes a stark hierarchy between administrators and the administered.

While left-wing foretellers of the end of capitalism see their hopes again disappointed, new groups of conservative legislators have taken up the "cultural involution" thesis. Whether in the name of the "common good" or "American nationhood," they advocate for limits on "individualism" and "hierarchy," not to uproot capitalism but to preserve its foundations. They would, in Edmund Burke's words, "preserve consistency by varying [their] means to secure the unity of [their] end." Although by no means representative of all conservatives, their social vision is far more nuanced than that of Boldizzoni and today's left. Social democracy has lost sight of what makes us social.