Capitalism’s Undoing

I’m interested in thinking about capitalism. It has shaped our world so profoundly, and it provokes strong feelings. Libertarians love it. Socialists claim to hate it, but in practice they often just mean that they wish the state would be a more prominent actor within an otherwise identical market.

Marxists claim that capitalism is not a permanent state of affairs, but so much of their argumentation is impenetrably jargon-laden that it can be hard to enter into conversation with their thinking.

For my part, I concede to the libertarians that capitalism is a powerful force in the world, and that it has brought about many great goods that we would not otherwise have had.

However, my sympathies lie more closely aligned with the socialists, emphasizing the many evils capitalism brings into the world, even though my political views could only be called socialist by extravagantly broadening the definition of that term.

Yet, discussion of the moral status of capitalism can be a discussion for another day. Today I want to think, with the Marxists, about the claim that something will come after our current capitalistic situation.

You don’t need to be a dialectical materialist to think this is an interesting claim, and I believe it is worthwhile to see if there’s a way to affirm the same prediction that the Marxists make (that is, that capitalism will be superseded) without seeking to be faithful to the Marxist line of reasoning.

It seems undeniable to me that, although it is impossible to make any political predictions with absolute certainty, capitalism cannot be a permanent state of affairs.

For one thing, I do not see there being any particular contingent political or economic arrangement that can reasonably be proclaimed permanent, even if there are Hegelians and Neo-Hegelians who try very arduously to do just that. (And I think they make fascinating, compelling arguments! But nothing that can come close to convincing me on this point.)

Even if there were some state of human affairs that could become permanent, it is ludicrous to think that something as dynamic and violently unpredictable as capitalism could be it.

Let me give two more specific examples.

In my experience, when you speak to your average free market warriors, defenders of capitalism’s honour, their hatred for socialism is only matched by their ability to forgive capitalism all its historical drawbacks and failures, and in a great many cases this is done by trying to distinguish very sharply between real capitalism and crony capitalism.

“Crony capitalism” is a phrase which, to the libertarian, is approximately equivalent to “ego te absolvo.” It lets capitalism off of every hook.

To me, this is like saying that gluttony is not a bad thing but obesity is. If crony capitalism is the predictable and almost unavoidable outcome of capitalism left to its own devices, then how does that protect capitalism from blame?

Apparently the libertarian thinks that businesses should have an overriding desire to increase profits, but should altruistically fail to cozy up to the government with precisely that aim, when the opportunity exists.

Or that politicians should put the accumulation of wealth on a pedestal, for the nation and its citizens, but should be above reproach when they encounter chances to enrich themselves, or their families, or their campaign’s finances.

In the competitive world of capitalism, the people and corporations that forgo such opportunities will lose out to their less scrupulous competitors. You can put into place whatever systems you like to try to counteract it, but those systems will all be run by corruptible human beings, and will themselves last only so long.

The person who embraces capitalism cannot, if consistent, reject crony capitalism. If crony capitalism is a corruption of capitalism, then capitalism is self-corrupting.

But let’s take a rosier view. Suppose that we can somehow outrun the corruption, and capitalism keeps doing what capitalism does. Technology gets better and better, work gets more and more streamlined, until before you know it, everything that had previously been done by human workers can be handled easily by computers and robotic machinery. This is a foreseeable outcome, brought about through the very effectiveness of capitalism that its defenders love to boast. What then?

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-meaning, hard-headed libertarian. He was talking about how much he hated socialism and communism and most of all, Marx and Marxism. When we got around to taking about what he loved so much about capitalism, he described a world like the one I just spoke of, where capitalism has brought about a situation in which work had become obsolete, so that everyone could basically spend their time as they liked — hunting in the morning, we might say, and fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism in the evening.

When I told him that Marx too thought that capitalism was an important step on the way to the classless, utopian society, he thought this was very funny and he counted it as a sort of triumph.

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “You see? Even Marx himself can’t deny how great capitalism is!”

I believe he still considers himself to have scored quite a strong point against those risible Marxists.

Capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, perhaps even more obviously than did those previous social arrangements which have nonetheless passed away.

The goal should not be the preservation of capitalism. The goal should be a just and flourishing society, and one which might be able to weather the progression into whatever it is that might come next.

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