Are We There Yet?


Review of Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx, by Francesco Boldizzoni

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020


It is a familiar experience for parents and a cultural cliché for everyone else. At the beginning of a long journey, and having barely turned the corner of one’s own street, the children are already wanting to know: “Are we there yet?”; their sense of intense anticipation destroying what little comprehension they may otherwise have of the complexities of time’s unfolding. 

Something of the same pattern—figuratively speaking—emerges from Francesco Boldizzoni’s critical survey of the last two hundred, or so, years of social forecasting. The irritatingly recursive question is now: “Is capitalism dead yet?” And lots of famous names are shown mistaking the contingent historical process for a mapped-out route, and embarrassingly convinced that their own preferred alternative to capitalism is just coming into view.

For anyone still eagerly anticipating the end of capitalism, Boldizzoni has some good news and some bad news. The good news is that capitalism, like all other products of history, will eventually end or transform into something new. The bad news is that “none of us will live long enough to see this novel system,” and that “we cannot place too much hope in the idea that it will be a better one” (15). In the figurative parallel, the adults pull the vehicle over to tell the prematurely excited children, “Well, actually, none of us will ever get to our destination, and even those future generations who do are probably not going to like what they see.” Tough love, indeed.

Foretelling the End of Capitalism falls squarely within the genre of wide-ranging, fast-paced, emphatically big picture, accounts of intellectual history. The focus is on high culture—thick books of political thought and social theory predicting the end of capitalism (whether or not the authors themselves welcomed that result)—produced in the heartlands of capitalist society. 

“Capitalism” is, of course, a comparatively new-fangled word, the noun form emerging in the mid-nineteenth century. It can refer to either a form of economic activity or a socioeconomic system. The former is the older phenomenon, but it is the latter that Boldizzoni is interested in. So understood, capitalism is also a recent and “a fairly culture-specific” phenomenon, emerging first in nineteenth-century Britain (273). It consists in a minority controlling the means of production, market mechanisms which “allocate resources and factors of production,” and a bourgeois culture promoting the “acquisition of wealth for personal purposes” (245). 

Four threads in the book are singled out for discussion here: Boldizzoni’s historical survey of theorists forecasting the end of capitalism; his understanding of why this social forecasting typically fails; his explanation of why capitalism proves so resilient; and, finally, his account of where progressive hopes might be better placed—better, that is, than in prematurely anticipating the end of capitalism.

Holding these diverse threads together, and adding greatly to the interest of the book, is the intellectual perspective from which it is written, which I will call “social democratic realism.” Past progressive achievements and future progressive hopes are identified with social democracy in the European sense. Social democratic arguments draw not on controversial claims about human nature, nor on deterministic theories of history, but rather on immanent critique based on the clash between “formal equality” and “substantive inequality” (275). Social democracy strives to extend the principles of freedom and equality from the political sphere to the organization of economic and social life. The “realist” qualifier is offered to convey the author’s downbeat sense of the alternatives, perhaps already visible in the bad news about the end of capitalism.

Contemporary discussion of the character, and likely fate, of capitalism can appear dominated by the stark alternatives of quietism and extravagance. On one side sits the imaginative silencing of “capitalist realism”; that is, the overwhelming fact that so many of our contemporaries can more easily imagine the end of the world than they can imagine socioeconomic alternatives to capitalism (150). On the other sits the imaginative excess of those who, in seeing beyond the capitalist present, appear to have abandoned feasibility and accessibility considerations entirely; imagining perhaps that “fully automated luxury communism” is a mouse click away. In such a context, we might welcome those occupying the extensive middle ground between “business as usual” and “the land of Cockaigne” to the conversation (151). 

The first of these four central threads consists of a sweeping intellectual history, involving both a survey and a typology. The historical survey involves both overarching patterns and thumbnail accounts of individual (mainly male, white, European) thinkers. Boldizzoni reveals both an overall pattern (“a trend”) and a recurring pattern (“a cycle”). The overall trend involves “increasing caution” when forecasting the end of capitalism (199). Even intellectuals—eventually and in the round—learn a little from the cumulative experience of capitalism’s resilience. The cycle cuts across that trend, and involves the “periodic relapse into catastrophism” together with an associated “rekindling of revolutionary hopes” (199). These “relapses” may correspond to economic downturns, although Boldizonni wisely notes that political events complicate such (reductive) generalizations.

It is perhaps inevitable that the details in this kind of sweeping historical survey will not please everyone. It is hard to sustain a narrative, make progress, and preserve accuracy. As we move closer to the present, and closer to Boldizzoni’s own sympathies, the accounts of authors and texts perhaps become more illuminating and engaging. For instance, the serial references to Karl Marx are often tired and contestable, whilst the brief discussion of Claus Offe is lively and illuminating. 

Alongside this survey, Boldizzoni offers an engaging typology of ways in which capitalism is forecast to end. Four models are identified, each complexly implicated in the historical narrative (for example, the first is a recurring temptation, the third an interwar fashion; and so on). 

First, theories of implosion claim that capitalism “will” or “could” implode as a result of its “economic contradictions” (200). The idea that capitalism will end abruptly and inevitably—usually surrounded by violence and revolution—is conventionally and contestably associated with Marx. For Boldizzoni, the “prophecy” that capitalism will collapse is “somewhat underdetermined,” and Marx searches around for a satisfactory rationale (44). In his mature version, capitalist breakdown results less from formulaic conjectures about the falling rate of profit, than a broader underconsumptionist theory of crisis. Capitalist overproduction provides the “fuse that could really blow up the system” (46).

Second, theories of exhaustion claim that capitalism will die of “natural causes,” gradually and peacefully pass away, having fulfilled its mission to bring prosperity. Capital accumulation comes to a standstill as a result of “environmental limits, saturation of material needs, or moral or civilizational promise” (200). John Stuart Mill provides an interesting example, arguing that a slowdown of growth might be welcome as well as inevitable in Principles of Political Economy (1848). The desirable form of the “stationary state” requires responsible procreation and egalitarian social arrangements (redistributing wealth, reducing coarser forms of toil, restricting intergenerational transfers, and more). Mill greets this result as one in which “while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward”.

Third, theories of convergence claim that capitalism and socialism would just come “to increasingly resemble each other” (200). James Burnham provides a distinctive example in The Managerial Revolution (1941), written between his “divorce” from American Trotskyism and his subsequent embrace of conservatism; at a time—crucially according to George Orwell—when he was convinced of German victory in Europe. Burnham maintains that the key social divide is no longer between capitalists and proletarians, but between those who control production (increasingly managers and bureaucrats) and those who do not. Struck by certain similarities between the (post-New Deal) United States, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Union, Burnham predicts that capitalism and socialism will be replaced by a new model of “bureaucratic collectivism” or “managerial society.” 

Fourth, and finally, theories of cultural involution claim that capitalism will wither away as a result of “superstructural” (cultural or political) contradictions, rather than economic ones. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell maintains that individualism in capitalist societies was originally associated with thrift, hard work, and other values that reinforced the economic foundations of capitalism. However, economic and cultural spheres can “drift apart,” and individualism is now expressed in the rejection of bourgeois norms (in drug culture and deviant art) and the embrace of consumerist excess (129). For Bell, this modern “hedonism” is both a product of, and a threat to, the economic system; simply put, the “Protestant ethic” is increasingly killed off by an emerging culture of instant gratification (201). 

The next pair of threads offer mutually-reinforcing explanations of why these forecasts fail. To risk caricature: they focus, respectively, on the stupidity of forecasters, and the cleverness of capitalism. 

The second of the book’s central threads concerns the failings of social forecasters. Boldizzoni identifies three characteristics helping to explain the inaccuracy of forecasts. First, there are “cognitive distortions proper,” involving “mental traps” that lead forecasters to “misperceive reality” (201). These traps include: “overgeneralization” (drawing broader conclusions than the empirical evidence sustains); “magnification” (overestimating the likeliness of a particular evolution); and “black-and-white thinking” (understanding issues in terms of polar opposites). Second, there are “theoretical flaws,” involving forecasters’ over-reliance on mechanistic or evolutionary analogies (typically conflating analogy with explanation). Third, and perhaps less obviously, there is “faith in progress.” We might well wonder whether this is a failing. Even Boldizzoni allows that historically speaking “we cannot help but see that some progress has been made” (275). Perhaps the failing is not to insist there can be progress, but to assume that it is the inevitable and irreversible result of enlightenment and reason. However, in that case, we might wonder whether all of Boldizzoni’s targets really fail to appreciate that social advances are “made day by day, and what is gained can easily be lost” (274-5).

Boldizzoni also offers an extensive, and somewhat puzzling, account of the relationship between social forecasts and utopias. These two share some characteristics; for instance, both involve “imagining alternatives” to the present, and “these imagined worlds are seldom realized” (207). However, he insists that “social forecasting and utopia are two different things” (207). Crucially they embody “two alternative, rather than complementary, ways of imagining social change, which is reflected in their general non-coexistence in time” (223). 

Both the definitional and historical claims here look uncertain. The truth of the definitional suggestion that utopias lack the idea of progress is not obvious. As the known world grew to cover the globe, utopian authors typically moved “no place” from a geographical location (somewhere in the New World perhaps) to a temporal one (the future). In the case of constructive utopias, which seek to predict or bring about the “good place,” this move embodies an idea of progress, and many modern variants engage explicitly with the resulting issues of transition. 

The historical suggestion that utopias do not coexist with social forecasting also looks contestable. We are told that during the century-long heyday of social forecasting, utopian theorizing went missing, only reappearing tentatively in the 1960s (with Herbert Marcuse), and more emphatically after the collapse of Soviet Union. Yet there is considerable utopian theorizing in the intervening period, and the rejection of counterexamples is unconvincing. For instance, we are told that Looking Backward (1888) and News From Nowhere (1890) don’t really count as utopias: that they are “only pale evocations of the utopian genre;” that they cannot be read “as forms of political theorization” (223); and that they reflect the wider “retreat of utopia into the domain of literature” (58). There are many issues here, but a less confident author might have been moved to reconsider their own understanding of utopia if they found that it excluded William Morris and Edward Bellamy from the genre. 

The third of the book’s central threads concerns the remarkable resilience of capitalism. Boldizzoni dismisses standard explanations of what “sustains and feeds” capitalism (232). Economists are mistaken in appealing to “efficiency,” which, he insists, is “not the reason for the persistence of capitalism” (259). And critical theorists are mistaken in appealing to “estrangement,” since the claim that capitalism exerts a seductive power “over the minds of its subjects” is more of a descriptive than explanatory one (259). His preferred explanation is that capitalism has been “kept alive” by the powerful forces of hierarchy and individualism (232). More precisely, Boldizzoni maintains that “the existence of a highly hierarchical social structure” and an individualistic orientation on the part of, at least, the “apical section” of society, form necessary but not sufficient conditions for the stable and sustained functioning of capitalism (245). 

The role of hierarchy and individualism are said to confirm the importance of culture.  Boldizzoni is right to reject any suggestion that these factors are either recent or easily reversed, but his understanding of culture can look rather static. Capitalism is identified as “a fairly culture-specific” socioeconomic system, whose “adaptability to non-Western environments has proven to be only partial” (273). The more that social structures and culture embody and promote hierarchy and individualism, the more that capitalism is likely to thrive, and, correspondingly, the less likely that socialism will gain any foothold. Historically, we are told that socialism was only established in societies which “lacked an individualist social pattern” (like Russia), and that socialism-friendly varieties of capitalism only took off in societies “with a flat or only mildly hierarchical social structure” (like Norway) (260). 

As well as affirming the importance of hierarchy and individualism, Boldizzoni makes the surprising suggestion that “forecasters have failed to take these factors into account” (233). A reader’s familiarity with Marx, say, need extend no further than the opening paragraphs of the Communist Manifest to find a discussion where capitalism is described as simplifying and not eradicating the “manifold gradation of social rank,” whilst leaving “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.” Of course, Boldizzoni might mean not that social forecasters don’t take hierarchy and individualism into account, but that they don’t take them sufficiently into account. In which case, one would want a clearer elucidation of that (“sufficient”) threshold than I could find in the text.

The fourth and final thread of the book consists in a distinctive and cautious account of where those with progressive views might find hope. In general, it seems we should avoid “long-term forecasting,” but, as already noted, Boldizzoni allows himself a few dour prognostications. Over “the next few centuries,” it is likely that the material and cultural circumstances sustaining capitalism will “have eventually ceased to exist” (266). We cannot know what socioeconomic system will replace capitalism, but “there is no reason to believe” that it will be “a better or more egalitarian” alternative. In particular, he cautions that hierarchies and individualism “are so tightly intertwined with Western history that they are likely to persist whatever the fate of capitalism” (274).

More permissible and more useful are “conjectures about the near future of capitalism” made on the basis of current trends (266). Boldizzoni’s own are geographically differentiated. Regarding the global fate of capitalism, Boldizzoni predicts that it will “shrink” (266). American hegemony will continue to decline; “rival systems” (in China and elsewhere) will continue to grow; and the “lack of cultural elements to support capitalism” outside of the “West” will become more apparent (267). Capitalism will retreat to its historical heartlands, confirming its “culture-specific” character, and raising, for this reader, unanswered questions about the precise character of those not-quite-capitalist rivals. 

Regarding the evolution of capitalism in that historical core, Boldizzoni predicts “a more or less long period of strong instability” (267). (Conjectures are made rather easier by “more or less” clauses.) Unregulated capitalisms will still generate social needs that they cannot meet; neoliberal variants will prove both unsustainable and difficult to overcome; and the search for increased security and wellbeing will be hampered by the rejection of traditional political parties and progressive failures to connect with the poor and vulnerable (267-268).

The promised progressive hope might seem in short supply. There are, of course, always those who benefit from instability and social conflict, but that is not quite the same thing. Happily, there is one certain source of light and cheer for Boldizzoni: a renewal of social democracy.  

Looking backwards, social democracy has already proved its worth. Boldizzoni insists that it was bound up with “some of the greatest human achievements” (275). Historically speaking, social democracy “was the only system that recognized the needs of human beings, freed them from dependence on the benevolence of others, and guaranteed them dignity” (276).

Looking forwards, social democracy is presented as the only serious progressive candidate. Boldizzoni allows that it faces contemporary political difficulties and serious structural obstacles. Yet, the book ends with a question—“But do we have alternatives?”—that he clearly intends to be rhetorical. 

This (figurative) claim that social democrats are the only grown-ups on the bus, however heartfelt, is not always well-supported here. It is not made more persuasive by: the sometimes dismissive treatment of competing perspectives; the absence of a detailed response to the havoc wreaked in the last forty years on traditional social democratic levers of control (taxation, public ownership, industrial policy); or the author’s apparent reluctance to swallow the “realist” medicine he recommends to others. 

Having been repeatedly told not to suppose that the future will be a continuation of the past, the reader is now offered a solution whose golden age was fifty years ago. The author insists that, in imagining social change, “we must come to terms with the limits of the possible” (274). Yet even those sympathetic to that broad injunction might think that those limits are drawn too narrowly here, and that Boldizzoni’s own social democratic vision of future possibilities remains too closely tied to the past.



Posted on 7 October 2020

DAVID LEOPOLD is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing (Cambridge University Press).