Thursday, February 22, 2007

Will capitalism destroy itself?

Although you wouldn’t know it from right-wing commentators capitalism now has no serious challenge in the world from alternative systems. It is true there are a handful of non-capitalist economies here and there around the world and it is true there are a number of variations of how capitalism is practiced but there is no alternative system challenging capitalism.

Does this mean capitalism is solidly established for the future? No. Capitalism still faces many of the same challenges it did before the widespread abandonment of Marxism. There are the internal contradictions of capitalism -- e.g., on the one hand capitalism values savings and the long-term accumulation of wealth but on the other hand needs consumerism and unrestrained spending to survive, there is the issue inequality, there is the issue of the depletion of the world’s limited natural resources, and there is the issue of poisoning the environment with pollution. This is not to say the latter three examples of the above did not or do not exist as problems under alternative economic systems but that capitalism specifically resists public control to mitigate these problems. It holds an almost religious faith that the invisible hand will guide us safely through these difficulties.

Timothy Garton Ash has an assessment in today’s Guardian:
What is the elephant in all our rooms? It is the global triumph of capitalism. Democracy is fiercely disputed. Freedom is under threat even in old-established democracies such as Britain. Western supremacy is on the skids. But everyone does capitalism. Americans and Europeans do it. Indians do it. Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes do it. Even Chinese communists do it. And now the members of Israel's oldest kibbutz, that last best hope of egalitarian socialism, have voted to introduce variable salaries based on individual performance. Karl Marx would be turning in his grave. Or perhaps not, since some of his writings eerily foreshadowed our era of globalised capitalism. His prescription failed but his description was prescient.

What are the big ideological alternatives being proposed today? Hugo Chávez's "21st century socialism" still looks like a local or at most a regional phenomenon, best practised in oil-rich states. Islamism, sometimes billed as democratic capitalism's great competitor in a new ideological struggle, does not offer an alternative economic system (aside from the peculiarities of Islamic finance) and anyway does not appeal beyond the Muslim umma. Most anti-globalists, altermondialistes and, indeed, green activists, are much better at pointing out the failings of global capitalism than they are at suggesting systemic alternatives. "Capitalism should be replaced by something nicer," read a placard at a May Day demonstration in London a few years back.

Of course there's a problem of definition here. Is what Russian or Chinese state-owned companies do really capitalism? Isn't private ownership the essence of capitalism? One of America's leading academic experts on capitalism, Edmund Phelps of Columbia University, has an even more restrictive definition. For him, what we have in much of continental Europe, with multiple stakeholders, is not capitalism but corporatism. Capitalism, he says, is "an economic system in which private capital is relatively free to innovate and invest without permission from the state, green lights from communities and regions, from workers, and other so-called social partners". In which case most of the world is not capitalist. I find this much too restrictive. Surely what we have across Europe are multiple varieties of capitalism, from more liberal market economies like Britain and Ireland to more coordinated stakeholder economies like Germany and Austria.

In Russia and China, there's a spectrum from state to private ownership. Other considerations than maximising profit play a large part in the decision-making of state-controlled companies, but they too operate as players in national and international markets and increasingly they also speak the language of global capitalism. At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, I heard Gazprom's Alexander Medvedev defend the company's record by saying that it is one of the world's top five in market capitalisation and constantly looking for value for its shareholders - who happen to include the Russian state. At the very least, this suggests a hegemony of the discourse of global capitalism. China's "Leninist capitalism" is a very big borderline case, but the crab-like movement of its companies towards what we would recognise as more rather than less capitalist behaviour is far clearer than any movement of its state towards democracy.

Does this lack of any clear ideological alternative mean that capitalism is secure for years to come? Far from it. With the unprecedented triumph of globalised capitalism over the last two decades come new threats to its own future. They are not precisely the famous "contradictions" that Marx identified, but they may be even bigger. For a start, the history of capitalism over the last hundred years hardly supports the view that it is an automatically self-correcting system. As George Soros (who should know) points out, global markets are now more than ever constantly out of equilibrium - and teetering on the edge of a larger disequilibrium. Again and again, it has needed the visible hands of political, fiscal and legal correction to complement the invisible hand of the market. The bigger it gets, the harder it can fall.

Then there is inequality. One feature of globalised capitalism seems to be that it rewards its high performers disproportionately, not just in the City of London but also in Shanghai, Moscow and Mumbai. What will be the political effects of having a small group of super-rich people in countries where the majority are still super-poor? In more developed economies, such as Britain and America, a reasonably well-off middle-class with a slowly improving personal standard of living may be less bothered by a small group of the super-rich - whose antics also provide them with a regular diet of tabloid-style entertainment. But if a lot of middle-class people begin to feel they are personally losing out to the same process of globalisation that is making those few fund managers stinking rich, while at the same time outsourcing their own middle-class jobs to India, then you may have a backlash. Watch Lou Dobbs on CNN for a taste of the populist and protectionist rhetoric to come.

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six-and-a-half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich north. In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - and change the earth's climate as a result. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today. However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - and they will be very ingenious - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

Marx thought capitalism would have a problem finding consumers for the goods that improving techniques of production enabled it to churn out. Instead, it has become expert in a new branch of manufacturing: the manufacture of desires. The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but that it makes them want what it has to give. It's that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale. But are we prepared to abandon it? We may be happy to insulate our lofts, recycle our newspapers and cycle to work, but are we ready to settle for less so others can have more? Am I? Are you?


Anonymous said...

Great blog!

I think one of the key factors to understanding why capitalism has not faltered yet is Marx's axiom in his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy wherein he writes that:

"No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed"

The productive forces under capitalism will surely become fully developed just as surely as the productive forces of feudalism and slave societies before became fully developed and then, at once, became anathema to further development.

To me, the real question is merely: How much higher must the heights of capitalism reach before it crumbles under its own weight? Sadly, I fear that there is significant expansive potential still left untapped in the capitalist epoch.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I just added you to my blogroll.