How Capitalism Survives: Social Theory and Structural Change

by Francesco Boldizzoni*

For as long as neoliberalism – the face that capitalism has assumed since the 1980s – has been showing signs of aging, there has been a tendency to view every crisis as a harbinger of impending epochal change. This is true even for crises that do not originate in the economy or finance, as shown by current debates about the world after Covid-19. The interesting fact is that the sense of doom that surrounds these critical events fuels not only the hope of overcoming the disastrous social model that has dominated these last decades, but capitalism as such, which is hastily defined as “unsustainable” for the inequalities it undeniably produces, the racial injustice it perpetuates, the harm it does to the environment, and so on.
Sometimes, these great expectations are fed by utopian theories that treat capitalism as if it were merely an ideology. Ideologies, as we know, are beliefs spread by the ruling classes to justify their privileges. If capitalism is an ideology, it will be enough to demystify it; once the deception is unveiled, people will see the light, is the reasoning of Thomas Piketty. More often, expectations grow in the wake of fantasies of radical change that are harbored independent of any social theory. In this theoretical vacuum, anything becomes possible: human agency is thought to be all powerful. Capitalism can be overthrown, activists tell us. You just have to want it and persuade other people to want it. In any case, as soon as each crisis is over, these hopeful people are faced with the inertia of history that invariably frustrates their desires. This problem prompted me to write Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx. The book seeks to explain the persistence of capitalism in the Western world by building a more rigorous theory of its dynamics.
To understand how capitalism is still around, despite all the troubles it has caused, I perform two related operations. The first is to examine the unfulfilled forecasts of its death that have followed one another since the mid-nineteenth century. Contrary to a widespread perception, these did not emerge from left-wing intellectual circles only but from conservative ones too. It is, of course, important to contextualize social forecasting historically, but also to identify its errors. Using this information, I then get to the second step, which is to outline a theory of capitalism. The theory I am going after should clarify what capitalism is made of, what forces have kept it alive, and possibly give us some clue as to where it is or isn’t headed.
We can classify forecasts into four types based on the causal chain they assume. First, there are the implosion theories typical of orthodox Marxism, according to which capitalism would implode because of its economic contradictions. A second group includes the exhaustion theories of the likes of John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes. For these thinkers, capital accumulation would stop at some point due to environmental limits, saturation of material needs, moral or civilizational progress. Next come the theories of convergence that were particularly in vogue in the interwar period and the following years of the “end of ideology.” These stressed how technological development and the trend toward state planning were making capitalism and socialism increasingly resemble each other. Finally, mention should be made of the cultural involution theories associated with Joseph Schumpeter, Daniel Bell, and to some extent Jürgen Habermas. These pointed to the self-defeating character of bourgeois society, emphasizing how capitalism, by breeding its parasites and critics, was undermining its own values while even the political superstructure erected to save the system from itself was prey to disintegrative tendencies.
Equally varied is the repertoire of forecasting mistakes. They range from cognitive distortions, or biases in thinking due to well-known limitations of human cognition, to more fundamental theoretical flaws that reflect a misapprehension of the relationships between social realms or involve the use of inappropriate explanatory models. However, there is a factor that seems to have operated at a deeper level and this is the irrational faith in progress that has characterized much of modern social science. In fact, many forecasters shared two attitudes that were both legacies of the Enlightenment: an unshakable belief that the future would bring good things and an equally strong confidence in the capacity of reason to detect laws of historical development. Such laws would enable one to anticipate not only what was or wasn’t reasonable to expect from the future but actually how the future would look like.
If the flaws that plague capitalism have not proved decisive for its demise, then should we conclude that its persistence is due to its virtues? The typical explanation of mainstream economics is that capitalism is sustained by its supposed efficiency, thanks to which it also tends to prevail over other systems. I don’t buy this “efficiency view” either. My thesis is that the reasons why capitalism persists have nothing to do with the quality of its fabric but are to be found in the social structure in which it is embedded and that two elements, combined, are involved in its reproduction: hierarchy and individualism.
All complex societies are to some extent hierarchical, but capitalist society has inherited from the feudal society out of which it grew 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. Yet, the true element of novelty that accompanied the rise of capitalism, and the one that distinguishes it most, 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, this market logic and the underlying profit motive have become increasingly generalized, even extending to sensitive spheres of human life such as work and health care.

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 the particular form taken by modernization in this part of the world. 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, however, not all Western societies are hierarchical and individualistic to the same degree, which explains the existence of more or less tolerable varieties of capitalism.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not think that capitalism will go on forever. All social systems in human history have had a beginning and, after undergoing a slow yet relentless evolution, they are eventually turned into something else. There is no reason to believe that capitalism will be an exception. But it won’t die because of any internal contradictions nor just because we want it to. Moreover, if we try to imagine what kind of system could evolve from capitalism in a few centuries, we might not like it either. As Ralf Dahrendorf once observed, the oppressed of one epoch have never become the rulers of the next. Elites have always been superseded by competing elites. That’s why, I think, achieving greater social justice under capitalism should be the highest priority for progressives.

As I mentioned at the outset, I wrote this book with an eye for those who dream about big system change. History shows how difficult it is to achieve even small, incremental changes. While it is always good to aim high, one must put their best energies into battles that can be won. Ending neoliberalism, which is only forty years old after all, looks like a more reasonable bet.
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* Francesco Boldizzoni is Professor of Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the author of Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx (Harvard University Press, 2020). His previous publications include The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History (Princeton University Press, 2011) and Means and Ends: The Idea of Capital in the West, 1500-1970 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). (Emphases added by the editor)

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One comment

  1. Eduard Bernstein came to the point that he was combatted as a revisionist while other socialists simply had no plan for the day after. So today we can focus on developing Keimforms which would be assimilated by capitalism and transform it.

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