JULY 22, 2020
FROM THE MOMENT that industrial capitalism came to dominate the Western world at the dawn of the 19th century, critics have begun theorizing about its demise. We’re familiar with the predictions of Karl Marx, but less so his relative contemporary John Stuart Mill, the great humanist philosopher who was concerned with the ability for economies to survive in the long run.
Dueling theories of capitalist apocalypse like these continued for the next 200 years, changing as the world changed. From John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter to Daniel Bell and Herbert Marcuse, theorists respond to their worlds with competing predictions about what exactly the economic future would look like.
Forecasting the end of capitalism has proven almost as durable an intellectual exercise as capitalism itself. But why is that? Professor Francesco Boldizzoni, in his new book, Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx (Harvard University Press), catalogs these theories and diagnoses their failures. The book is a thorough history that explores this trend, attempts to explain where these ideas came from, and then explains, as he writes, “how capitalism survives.” Where did prophecies — like Keynes’s prediction in 1930 that we would be so affluent that we would no longer need to work — go wrong?
Boldizzoni’s book grabbed my attention, because as an economics journalist, I’ve always found the now-common use of the phrase “late capitalism” to be optimistic. Saying it was “late” seemed to suggest that our political and economic arrangement was bound to topple any day, on its own accord, simply because it was getting on in years. “Late capitalism,” of course, refers to specific tenets of Marx’s theory, and Foretelling the End of Capitalism illuminates the intellectual history that supports ideas, like that of “late capitalism,” and examines how capitalism might be transcended, if it’s to be transcended at all. I spoke with Boldizzoni over email.
ROBIN KAISER-SCHATZLEIN: How did you come to write this book? You write that “the Great Recession marked the grand return of prophecy.” Did that play a role?
FRANCESCO BOLDIZZONI: Indeed, I was impressed by the gloomy forecasts that followed the global financial crisis, but even more so by the fact that people no longer took capitalism for granted. In my life, this was something new. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when we were still enjoying the fruits of postwar social peace and prosperity. In fact, that stability was already broken, but it took time to realize this.
The ’90s were also the decade in which the left gave up its mission to change capitalism. It slavishly aligned itself with the neoliberal centrism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Those who dissented from this line sought refuge in sterile utopian fantasies. So when the Great Recession awakened progressives from their torpor, they found themselves unprepared. This book also stems from the need to remind them where they came from.
How is forecasting different from traditional prophecy?
Unlike traditional prophecy, of which one can find good examples in the Book of Revelation and medieval astrology, social forecasting relies exclusively on the observation of reality. It is based on the idea that there are regularities in human behavior, or principles governing historical development, from which projections into the future can be derived. It is no coincidence that this intellectual activity first emerged during the Enlightenment, an era of great faith in the power of reason and equally great confidence in progress. A confidence, we must say, that often proved to be misplaced.
Karl Marx seemed to admire the creativity of capitalism but sees capitalism differently. Can you explain how his vision of capitalism’s demise differs from John Stuart Mill’s?
Marx was certainly fascinated by capitalism, and nobody has understood it better than he did. Sometimes reading Capital one feels like listening to a clockmaker talking with wonder about a huge astronomical clock he has just examined. However, Marx didn’t reduce the functioning of capitalism to a matter of mechanics. He was able to contextualize capitalism in history, as he did with the systems that preceded it. The problem is that he had too much faith in his particular interpretation of history, whereby technological change in the long run generates social change. Today we know, or should know, that things are more complicated.
Mill was a more practical spirit than Marx, and he never gave in to predictions about the inevitable demise of capitalism. Mill just thought that capitalism had excessively high human and environmental costs, not sustainable for too long. Moreover, he firmly believed in mankind’s ability to rise morally. This progress of civilization, he hoped, would change capitalism radically before it was too late. In comparing Mill to Marx, we must not forget that Mill had a different social background. Like his father, he was an official of the East India Company. Although critical of Victorian society, and a man of extraordinary intellectual honesty, he was still part of the British establishment.
Your history consists of not just theorists from the left, but right-wing intellectuals who also worried about the fall of capitalism. Can you talk about the contrast between John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter — or possibly Daniel Bell and Herbert Marcuse — where their ideas had similar or divergent origins?
Prophets of doom generally share strong feelings about capitalism, be they negative or positive. What is specific to the political beliefs of each intellectual is the moral driver behind their forecasts, which ultimately boils down to either desire or fear. Beyond this, both those who wished for the death of capitalism and those who feared it interpreted the same signals as omens of irreversible crisis. They also made the same forecasting mistakes.
In the interwar period, both Schumpeter and Keynes witnessed the decline of liberal capitalism and its transformation into a system characterized by strong state intervention and planning. This change clearly bothered Schumpeter, who had a boundless admiration for bourgeois individualism. Keynes, on the contrary, hated the values of Victorian society with which he had grown up and dreamed of a world free of the idols of “avarice, usury, and precaution.”
As you just said, we find this double interpretation of the same reality also with Bell and Marcuse. In this case, it was the counterculture of the 1960s that aroused opposing feelings. Bell was fond of the traditional values of American society. In the thrifty habits of the old Puritan bourgeoisie, he saw the manifestation of a profound morality, now totally compromised by the decadent mores of hippies and wife-swappers. For Marcuse, on the contrary, these represented signs that society was finally rebelling against the collective enslavement capitalism had produced. Capitalism, he thought, had repressed the “true needs” of human beings by turning them into compulsive, alienated, and unhappy consumers.
John Stuart Mill was a humanist and predicted that capitalism will reach a limit, that it will reach a stationary state. This type of analysis seems to recur in Keynes and even today as some see us confronting a low-growth world. Is there something about capitalism that invites and frustrates the idea of limits? (I am also thinking about the strain of environment-as-limit that begins in the Victorian Era and continues today.)
Yes, that of the environmental or moral limits of capitalism is a recurring idea. I’m sorry to say that so far it hasn’t proved very realistic. One variant of this idea is that the exhaustion of the margins for continued economic growth will end up depriving capitalism of its fuel. The other is that when a society becomes rich, let’s say beyond a certain critical threshold, its values will change and the thirst for further accumulation of wealth will be quenched.
But approaching the limit of how much resources can be converted into capital could instead prelude to a phase in which distributional conflict escalates. Looking at the spectacular increase in inequality over the past 40 years, it is easy to relate this trend to the slowdown of growth in developed countries. In other words, since the wealth pie has stopped rising, profit receivers have become more aggressive toward wage earners, not to mention those who can no longer even count on a regular wage. On the other hand, as long as gross inequalities persist, why should wealth lose importance?
The lesson we can learn from the disappointment of such expectations is that capitalism is a social system. Its reproduction certainly depends also on physical circumstances, but not in a decisive way.
You say that capitalism has been kept alive by a combination of hierarchy and individualism, the former ancient and the latter novel. How do these concepts interact and what are some examples of each?
All complex societies are to some extent hierarchical, but capitalist society has inherited from the feudal society on which it was built some highly asymmetrical power relations. The same dependence created by need that used to bind serfs to their lords now binds food delivery riders to their billionaire exploiters. Capitalism replaced old hierarchies with new hierarchies. It brought about a new category, namely, class, that is still very central to our societies. While social distinctions in the old world reflected status at birth, in the new world they are based on the ability to accumulate money. In this sense, capital led to a reconfiguration of social stratification.
The element of novelty that accompanied the rise of capitalism is individualism. People today feel motivated by their preferences, needs, and rights, rather than by the norms and duties that come from belonging to a community. They have relationships mediated by contracts and mainly resort to the market to meet their needs. Over time, the market logic has become increasingly generalized, extending to sensitive spheres of human life, such as work and health care. Just think that in the United States even blood plasma is mostly bought and sold on the market and only for safety concerns this no longer applies to whole blood!
These hierarchical social structures and individualistic values have taken shape over many centuries and can’t suddenly disappear. If hierarchy has been with us for almost all time, individualism is intertwined with Western modernization. In a way, it was the price to pay to be free from oppressive forms of social control and able to make decisions for oneself. Fortunately, not all Western societies are hierarchical and individualistic to the same degree, which explains the existence of more or less tolerable varieties of capitalism.
You write that forecasting “inevitably touches upon public confidence in the established order.” I imagine a lack of confidence leads to other things as well, like real demands for change. How does forecasting interact with active revolution and reform? How does forecasting obstruct or enhance change?
Social forecasting presupposes a vision of history as a product of human actions. Forecasters may disagree as to whether these actions are controllable, but once the myth that destiny is predetermined by divine will or natural order is dispelled, it is difficult to accept that things should remain as they are. Things can and must change.
The tension between a passive waiting for historical change to take its course and revolution is especially strong in the Marxist tradition. Marx used to say, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” They make it “under circumstances […] given and transmitted from the past.” He was right, but the very awareness of how brutal the past of humankind was should have made him less optimistic about the future.
However, without forecasting, with all its mistakes, we wouldn’t even have been prompted to reform capitalism. The history of the democratic left — or social democracy, as we say in Europe — and its attempt to bring a little social justice to this world is the story of a slow and painful coming to terms with the constraints of the past. The reformist perspective requires the definitive overcoming of utopia, from which forecasting was only able to break half-free.