Capitalism Always Buries Its Undertakers

In 2017, the Museum of Capitalism opened its doors in Oakland, California. According to its website, it is a place “dedicated to educating this generation and future generations about the history, philosophy, and legacy of capitalism… and preserving material evidence, art, and artefacts of capitalism.” Its works are the product of collaborations between writers, artists, economists, historians, and “non-specialists from all walks of life, including those with direct experience of capitalism.”

This might seem like an absurd endeavor, but the Museum of Capitalism is deadly serious, and part of the return of prognostications about capitalism’s future — on the page, on the screen, and in the street—in the decade since the financial crisis. According to the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, this is a telling trend. “You can tell that a capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism,” he wrote in Why Marx Was Right. “It indicates that the system has ceased to be as natural as the air we breathe, and can be seen instead as the historically rather recent phenomenon that it is. … As a bout of dengue fever makes you newly aware of your body, so a new form of social life can be perceived for what it is when it begins to break down.”

The problem with Eagleton’s theory, however, is that people have been talking about capitalism—and predicting its downfall—ever since the word was coined in the 19th century. And yet here we still are, toiling under so-called capitalist oppression more than 150 years later. As Francesco Boldizzoni details in Foretelling the End Of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx, reports of capitalism’s demise have, time and again, been greatly exaggerated.

A Professor of Political Science at the University of Helsinki and self-described social democrat, Boldizzoni is frustrated by the tendency of many of those to his left (and some to his right) to speculate about the collapse of the existing political and economic order rather than focus on the incremental gains in the here and now. “It is better to leave the future to astrologers,” he writes in the introduction before launching into a whistle-stop tour of the titular misadventures.

According to Boldizzoni, these misadventures fall into four categories: theories of implosion, exhaustion, convergence, and cultural involution.

Foretelling the End of Capitalism is a useful tour d’horizon for those interested in how generations of thinkers have thought about capitalism.

Implosion theories are the most conventionally Marxist. Marx himself was the first to argue that the system’s downfall lay in its own contradictions: a falling rate of profit would mean the capitalists must work the proletariat harder and harder, the accumulation of capital would bring with it the “accumulation of misery.” Eventually the class-conscious proletariat would rebel against this exploitation, precipitating a moment when “the knell of private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” When Marx’s prediction of a class consciousness and rebellion failed to materialize, Marxism splintered: some sought to accelerate the process themselves, others tweaked the theory, tinkering with the intellectual machine constructed by their hero without coming any closer to successfully predicting capitalism’s future.

Advocates of more benign exhaustion theories posit that capitalism will “die of natural causes.” Writing in 1929, John Maynard Keynes predicted another century of capitalism, speculating that by around 2030 our material needs would be satisfied, eradicating the need for the accumulation of capital. The “economic problem” solved, we would be free to enjoy ourselves in a greed-free society. For Keynes, jokes Boldizzoni, that “essentially meant spending afternoons in the company of Virginia Woolf and attending ballet performances.” With ten years to go, Keynes’s predicted life of leisure still seems a long way off.

Convergence theories were in vogue in the 1930s, when “the idea that fascism, the New Deal, and Soviet dirigisme were driven by some obscure force of progress to increasingly resemble one another swirled around in the heads of many, whatever their political orientation.” Later, with the world divided between Western capitalism and Eastern central planning, this seemed like “a dream,” but the notion that socialism and capitalism increasingly resembled one another did not die with the start of the Cold War. James Burnham, whose flight from Trotskyism to conservatism did not cause him to give up on predicting capitalism’s future, argued that both capitalism and socialism would give way to a managerial society in which the important societal divide would not be between the capitalists and the proletariat, but between managers and the rest. On the post-war center-left, John Kenneth Galbraith made a similar argument, foreseeing an inevitable convergence made possible by technological change that would make central planning more efficient and mean a peaceful end to hostilities between two increasingly similar economic blocs.

According to the cultural involution camp, capitalism’s weakness lies not in its internal economic tensions, as Marx argued, but in its political and cultural contradictions. As with the convergence theories, this school of thought has attracted thinkers from across the political spectrum. On the left are Frankfurt school members like Herbert Marcuse, whose One Dimensional Man argued that capitalism created “false needs” and that this consumerism enabled a kind of totalitarianism. On the right, Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism’s successes enabled the creation of a large and culturally powerful but underpaid and disgruntled intellectual class. They would ally with a similarly resentful bureaucrat class to spread ideas and enact polices that became “a serious impediment” to the smooth running of the “capitalist engine.”

Foretelling the End of Capitalism is a useful tour d’horizon for those interested in how generations of thinkers have thought about capitalism. However, there is frustratingly little from Boldizzoni on what he and these thinkers actually mean when they say “capitalism.” Some 250 pages in, he ventures his own three-part definition: private ownership of the means of production “accompanied by the exclusion of a part of society—generally a majority from its exercise,” the freedom of those “deprived of ownership” to “enter into contractual agreements to sell their labor power,” and production “oriented towards exchange and profit” rather than “the satisfaction of needs.” It is a limited and revealingly partial way of viewing the economic status quo.

Boldizzoni’s argument would be more engaging if he entertained the possibility that, rather than capitalism’s future being baked in, it will be decided by a series of pivotal political decisions in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, it is not the only time that Boldizzoni’s hostility to capitalism gets in the way of a clear-eyed understanding of the system he and his intellectual predecessors are describing. Boldizzoni takes capitalism’s wickedness as read, calling it a “diabolical machine” without ever explaining why. Boldizzoni dismisses Hernando de Soto, Paul Collier, and Deidre McCloskey—a brilliant trio who disagree on a great deal—as “apologists for capitalism” for daring to suggest that it might have made the world a better place or that capitalist oppression may not be the only cause of the world’s problems. When Boldizzoni does concede that capitalism “has shown it could raise [middle class] standards of living,” it is only to explain its “seductive power.”

Boldizzoni sees predicting capitalism’s downfall as “more often a distraction from the difficulties of the present than an activity useful in improving the human condition.” But the question of whether and when capitalism will collapse also obscures less black-and-white and arguably more interesting questions about how our political and economic system has changed over the last 150 years: the democratization of ownership, the expansion of the welfare state, the rise of a managerial class (as predicted by Burnham), and a burgeoning and hostile intellectual class (as predicted by Schumpeter). Nor does Boldizzoni spend nearly enough time considering the rise of China’s accommodation of capitalism within a system of genocidal authoritarianism. Where does this hellish kind of convergence fit in the story of capitalism?

Most mystifying of all is Boldizzoni’s indulgence in exactly the kind of prophesying he warns against. “The historicity of capitalism is the very proof of its mortality,” he writes. “Like all the products of history, one day capitalism will end, or rather slowly turn into a new system, and this will happen when the conditions that determined its origins two centuries ago have completely changed” but “none of us will live long enough to see this novel system.” It is one thing to argue that there is nothing inevitable about capitalism’s continued survival. It is quite another to argue that it is only a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the whole thing comes tumbling down.

Why does Boldizzoni fall into his own trap? Perhaps because he cannot bring himself to contemplate never-ending capitalism. To do so would be to acknowledge the system’s strengths not just as a historically specific set of economic arrangements which lasted longer than many predicted, but as a desirable engine of prosperity. More generally, uncertainty over capitalism’s fate undermines the historical determinism that inflects most of Foretelling the End of Capitalism. Boldizzoni’s argument would be more engaging if he entertained the possibility that, rather than capitalism’s future being baked in, it will be decided by a series of pivotal political decisions in the coming decades. Such an open-ended future leaves less room for theorizing, but it gets closer to the messy truth than any of his prognosticators.