Future of Capitalism? A Feast for the Far-Sighted

Future of CapitalismDoes Capitalism Have a Future? By Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun (Oxford University Press 2013)

Five of the leading macro-historical sociologists here collaborate, each presenting his own perspective on the title question, with a final chapter that analyzes where they concur, where they differ, and what very large imponderables remain.  For people of the Left who are not troubled by altitude sickness, this is a fascinating and provocative read.

Wallerstein goes first with “Structural Crisis, or Why Capitalists May No Longer Find Capitalism Rewarding.”  He argues that the Modern World-System that he has spent his career analyzing, may finally be reaching a point where the sort of shifts of the core that have happened in the past (Spain to the Netherlands, to England, to the United States) will no longer suffice to keep capitalism working.  Over recent decades, the costs of doing business (such as paying for environmental damage) have been going up, and escape hatches, such as moving manufacturing plants to low-wage, low-regulation areas, are closing.  He also attributes great geocultural significance to what he calls ‘the world-revolution of 1968, which, he says, ended the dominance of “centralist liberalism” in the core, calling authority in general into question and leaving a massive dissensus at the cultural level.  The capitalist system is now so far out of equilibrium that it cannot regain its balance.  Capitalists themselves will likely lead the way to a new system, significantly different from what we have had in recent decades.  But aside from the possible end of liberal democracy as an adjunct of capitalism, how would such a new world-system not be a further evolution of capitalism, if it will be the capitalists who lead the transition?

Randall Collins (“The End of Middle Class Work: No More Escapes”) focuses on a much more specific problem: how global capitalism is driving the accelerating extinction of comfortable middle-class jobs.  Whereas past episodes of capitalist development have done away with ever more manual labor, replacing it with automation, the middle class has grown.  That is no longer the case, as wealth and income are steadily more concentrated at the very top, the middle class is increasingly squeezed, and chronic unemployment and sub-poverty jobs are the fate of the former working class.  Thus, capitalism’s inherent tendency to replace humans with technology is now becoming a fatal structural weakness.  The result may be a swing to central state planning, but that too has well-known weaknesses.  The future, he thinks may hold a series of swings from market capitalism to state planning, and back.  “We are most certainly not looking at the emancipation of humanity, either way, but at a realistic oscillation between the horns of a socioeconomic dilemma” (67).  For those of us who are critics of both capitalism and central state planning, this is a most unsatisfying prediction.

Michael Mann (The End May be Nigh, But for Whom?”) highlights the complexity of a world in which domestic and international politics, ideology, and regional diversity make it difficult to predict the future of capitalism.  Most particularly, he focuses on the ecological crisis that will certainly get worse as the century goes on.  The crisis of global warming derives from all our dominant institutions (capitalism as unbridled pursuit of profit, sovereign nation-states, and individual consumer rights in both economy and polity).  Mann is  skeptical about whether the will and capacity to confront this challenge will be found it time.  Capitalism will go down with the ship—and us.

Craig Calhoun (“What Threatens Capitalism Now?”) also cites climate change as a major threat to capitalism, and is even more reluctant than Mann to make firm predictions.  He thinks it possible that capitalism in its present form will simply decline in relative importance, partially superseded by smaller scale alternative modes of organization such as nonprofits, cooperatives, and social movements.  But he sees little sign to date that such alternatives have reached the point of seriously challenging global capitalism.  He also sees little sign that capitalists and their state partners will have the will and imagination to confront climate change in time.  Calhoun, in the end, comes out about where Mann does.

The fifth contribution, by Georgi Derluguian, looks at the Soviet Union in light of predictions by both Wallerstein and Collins, as early as the 1970s, that the USSR would not survive.  The communist revolutions in Russia and China emerged not from the ideas of Karl Marx or from the general historical and cultural traditions of those countries, but from specific historical conjunctures.  If anything, the Russian Revolution owed more to the French Jacobins than to Marx.  The Soviets in turn provided inspiration to many Third World and anticolonial movements.  In the end, the sclerotic Soviet apparatus could not contain the forces let loose by Perestroika and Glasnost, while the Chinese regime successfully adapted by means of economic liberalization coupled with continued single party rule.  Derluguian doesn’t think the Russian and Chinese experience have much to do with divining the fate of capitalism.

john peelerSo, capitalism faces a rocky future, but even Wallerstein, who thinks the final crisis of capitalism is at hand, thinks it will be capitalists themselves who will enforce a fundamental restructuring.  None of the authors imagines a global revolution leading to some form of socialism.  If anything is to destroy capitalism, it will be the global ecological crisis brought on by the modern industrial society that is capitalism’s most characteristic feature.

Having flown at high altitude through this book, we are coming in for a rough landing.

John Peeler


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    In its concluding sentence, Peeler’s article does a wonderful thing for those who like to put abstract fuzzy terminologies together in a package: the sentence relates three oft-used terms: ‘capitalism’, ‘modern industrial society’ and ‘global ecological crisis’. That concluding sentence is a triply abstract way of reminding us of the practical bottom-line: that the current human global lifeway – ‘economy’ or ‘society’ – is materially unsustainable. Everything else in the article is mainly just terminological fuzz and bibliographical asides.

    In particular, ‘capitalism’ is not only an abstract term but a very fuzzy one. For most LA Progressive readers the term predictably is an epithet – just as for most WSJ readers the term likely serves as a mark (somewhat old-fashioned perhaps) of approval. But the term now tells us nothing. It’s become even more vague in social and economic content than is ‘the Bermuda Triangle’ as a defined geographic entity. Depending on who is talking (and where and when), the term refers to enterprise, profit-taking, capital accumulation, expansion, resource exploitation, or whatever – and can refer to either reasonable or pathological versions of any of these concepts. Contrary to Peeler’s claims in regard Craig Calhoun, none of these activities implies a scale or an organization which need differ with any of the noted ‘alternatives’ such as ‘non-profits, cooperatives, and social movements’. Except in dogmatic minds, capitalism per se is not the opposite of socialism; on the contrary, a socialist regime can employ ‘state capitalism’. Peeler concludes that the destruction of ‘capitalism’ will require the destruction of its ‘most characteristic feature’, namely ‘modern industrial society’. In other words, destruction of one vague abstraction will require the destruction of another only slightly less vague abstraction. Such destruction will, according to Peeler, owe to the ‘global ecological crisis’.

    In other words – avoiding detours into bibliography and into needless vague and even contentious abstractions – we can put it more directly: our present global lifeway is ‘in crisis’: materially unsustainable.

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