Does Capitalism Have a Future?

Coming decades will deliver surprising shocks and huge challenges. Some of them will look new and some quite old. Many will bring unprecedented political dilemmas and difficult choices. This may well begin to happen soon and will certainly shape the adult lives of those who are young at present. But that, we contend, is not necessarily or only bad. Opportunities to do things differently from the past generations will also be arising in the decades ahead…. At bottom, most troubling is that with the end of the Cold War almost three decades ago it has become unfashionable–even embarrassing–to discuss possible world futures and especially the prospects of capitalism. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 1)

[S]omething big looms on the horizon: a structural crisis much bigger than the recent Great Recession, which might in retrospect seem only a prologue to a period of deeper troubles and transformations…. Over the next three or four decades capitalists of the world, overcrowding the global markets and hard pressed on all sides by the social and ecological costs of doing business, may find it simply impossible to make their usual investment decisions. In the last five centuries capitalism has been the cosmopolitan and explicitly hierarchical world-market economy where the elite operators, favorably located at its geographical core, were in a position to reap large and reasonably secure profits. But, Wallerstein argues, this historical situation, however dynamic, will ultimately reach its systemic limitations, as do all historical systems. In this hypothesis, capitalism would end in the frustration of capitalists themselves. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 1-2)

Randall Collins focuses on a more specific mechanism challenging the future of capitalism: the political and social repercussions of as many as two-thirds of the educated middle classes, both in the West and globally, becoming structurally unemployed because their jobs are displaced by new information technology. Economic commentators recently discovered the downsizing of the middle class, but they tend to leave the matter with a vague call for policy solutions. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 2)

(….) Craig Calhoun argues to the contrary that a reformed capitalism might be saved. Calhoun elaborates on the point, recognized by all of us, that capitalism is not merely a market economy, but a political economy. Its institutional framework is shaped by a political choice. Structural contradictions may be inherent in the operation of complex markets but it is in the realms of politics that they may be remedied, or left to go unchecked to destruction. Put differently either a sufficiently enlightened faction of capitalists will face their systemic costs and responsibilities, or they will continue to behave as careless free riders, which they have been able to do since the waning of liberal/left challenges a generation ago. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 2)

(….) Michael Mann favors a social democratic solution for the problems of capitalism, but he also highlights even deeper problems that arise from the multicausal sources of power. Besides capitalism, these include politics, military geopolitics, ideology, and multiplicity of world regions. Such complexity, in Mann’s view, renders the future of capitalism unpredictable. The overriding threat, which is entirely predictable, is the ecological crisis that will grow throughout the twenty-first century. This could likely spill over into struggles over water and food, and result in pollution and massive population migrations, thus raising the prospect of totalitarian reactions and even warfare using nuclear weapons. Mann connects this to the central concern of this book: the future of capitalism. In Mann’s analysis, the crisis of climate change is so hard to stop because it derives from all of today’s dominant institutions gone global—capitalism as unbridled pursuit of profit, autonomous nation-states insisting on their sovereignty, and individual consumer rights legitimating both modern states and markets. Solving the ecological crisis thus will have to involve a major change in the institutional conditions of today’s life. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3)

All these are structural projections akin to “stress tests” in civil engineering or, as we have all now heard, in banking. None of us bases our prognoses of capitalism in terms of condemnation or praise. We have our own moral and political convictions. But as historical sociologists, we recognize that the fortunes of human societies, at least in the last ten thousand years beyond the elementary level of hunter-gatherer bands, have not turned on how much good or evil they produced. Our debate is not whether capitalism is better or worse than any hitherto existing society. The question is: Does it have a future? (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3)

This question echoes an old prediction. The expectation of capitalism’s collapse was central to the official ideology of the Soviet Union that itself collapsed. Yet does this fact ensure the prospects of capitalism? Georgi Derluguian shows the actual place of the Soviet experiment in the larger picture of world geopolitics, which in the end caused its self-destruction. He also explains how China avoided the collapse of communism while becoming the latest miracle of capitalist growth. Communism was not a viable alternative to capitalism. Yet the way in which the Soviet bloc suddenly ended after 1989 in broad mobilizations from below and blinding panic among the elites may suggest something important about the political future of capitalism. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3-4)

(….) We find hope against doom exactly in the degree to which our future is politically underdetermined. Systemic crisis loosens and shatters the structural constraints that are themselves the inheritance of past dilemmas and the institutional decisions of prior generations. Business as usual becomes untenable and divergent pathways emerge at such historical junctures. Capitalism, along with its creative destruction of older technologies and forms of production, has also been a source of inequality and environmental degradation. Deep capitalist crisis may be an opportunity to reorganize the planetary affairs of humanity in a way that promotes more social justice and a more livable planet. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 4)

Our big contention is that historical systems can have more or less destructive ways of going extinct while morphing into something else. The history of human societies has passed through bursts of revolution, moments of expansive development, and painfully long periods of stagnation or even involution. However unwanted by anybody, the latter remains among the possible outcomes of global crisis in the future. The political and economic structures of present-day capitalism could simply lose their dynamism in the face of rising costs and social pressures. Structurally, this could lead to the world’s fragmentation into defensive, internally oppressive, and xenophobic blocs. Some might see it as the clash of civilizations, others as the realization of an Orwellian “1984” anti-utopia enforced by the newest technologies of electronic surveillance. Ways of reestablishing social order in the midst of extreme conflict might include those reminiscent of fascism, but also the possibility of a much broader democracy. It is what we wanted to stress above all in this book. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 4-5)

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