The end of capitalism as we know it

Long before the word globalisation entered the language of the media in the Eighties, a group of scholars had been insisting on a holistic treatment of politics, economics and history. The class, the nation, the state or the economy—each of these was too narrow, the wrong unit of analysis, they insisted. It all had to be looked at as part of a world system, extensive and interlinked.

Immanuel Wallerstein has taken Marxism as the base for his theoretical superstructure. He began his career by studying the political economy of West African states in the early Sixties, meeting Frantz Fanon along the way and writing a defence of the heterodox theorist in the face of scepticism from traditional leftists.

By 1974 Wallerstein published the first of a trilogy, titled The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. He has since added two more volumes to the series which, with scores of further books, make for an intimidating oeuvre.

A professor of sociology at a string of universities, including Binghamton and Yale, Wallerstein, not quite retired, delivered two speeches at Wits and the University of Johannesburg recently, outlining the past and present of capitalism and predicting a dire future for humans all over the globe. Born in New York City 79 years ago, his air of authority drew deference from local luminaries, with prominent academics and activists posing serious questions to a scholar who has been exploring his field since the early Fifties. Wallerstein was president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998 and, until 2005, head of the Paris-based Fernand Braudel Centre for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations, a school that from its inception looked at la longue durée, against the short-termism of much social science.

Wallerstein sees the period from 1945 to 1970 as having gone through the largest economic expansion in history. He says we are still enmeshed in the downturn that followed and we are unlikely to emerge until an entirely new form of social organisation takes the place of capitalism, a process likely to take 50 or so more years.

Capitalist cycles recur because two factors underpin the system: a ­process of monopolisation, which facilitates super-profits, and a hegemonic process that secures the conditions for monopolisation. But both of these are cyclical and under certain conditions they fall apart: the entry of new producers brings more competition and breaks up the monopoly, while, more slowly, world orders dissolve when other superpowers emerge.

Wallerstein says the world was profoundly transformed by the events of 1968. Revolts in major cities of the world as well as in more peripheral locations were all connected, a series of apparently local happenings all produced by a major structural shift in world capitalism between 1966 and 1970. One of the first signs of this came in 1967 when the dollar underwent a crisis from which it has never quite emerged.

Wallerstein presents several theses with regard to 1968: that it was a revolution against US hegemony; that the “more passionate” protests were directed against the “old left”. The counterculture, he avers, was a product of revolutionary euphoria, secondary to the main event, its high point being Woodstock. It had a long history, 200 years to be precise, and, believe it or not, even in post-1917 Russia free love was to be had.

May 1968 in Paris was the scene of the most brazen confrontation between the old and the new left, the authority of the former effectively dissolved. Communist parties and national liberation movements lost their pre-eminence. The assumptions of 150 years of radical thought were overthrown: the central one being that capturing the state could be the basis for the transformation of society. In the developing world it was Mexico that experienced some of the most intense protests, a country where the oldest national liberation movement had been in power since its revolution in 1910.

For Wallerstein, everything works in cycles; hegemonies also alternate. Modern capitalism has had only three hegemonic powers: the United Provinces established their world order in the mid-17th ­century, the United Kingdom in mid-19th ­century and the United States in the mid-20th century. And for a decade now the professor has been saying that US hegemony is on the way out. Once secured as top dog, the ­hegemonic state “is able to set the rules by which the interstate system operates”.

Today, he says, capitalism has reached a stage so depleted that not even capitalists defend the system. Costs of every factor of production have risen so steeply, amid a period in which all the traditional methods of replenishing the system have been exhausted, that capital will one day cease to yield returns.

His argument is complex. Three major costs are incurred in production: personnel, material inputs and taxation. Each of these has become more expensive. When unskilled labour becomes too expensive, capital relocates. But there are fewer and fewer places to which to relocate. When relocation takes place, it is, initially, a win-win situation for both capital and labour. But labour soon realises that it is being exploited and agitates for higher wages.

Inputs have become more expensive also. When costs rise, the problem for the capitalist is to find ways of not paying the bill. If factories produced waste, this was a cost passed on to the state. But environmental imperatives see states demand that capital bears the costs of “collateral damage”.

State taxes and private taxes have gone up. Businesses have to pay their local mafiosi and corrupt officials continue to extract their pounds of flesh, the weight of which increases as the cost of living pushes up. And governments have to bear the costs of increasing demands for education, health and pensions.

Turning to possible alternatives to capitalism, Wallerstein says the current depression will “continue now for quite some time and go quite deep”. Governments will print money and seek to avert uprisings of workers and middle classes whose pensions evaporate.

We are headed for gridlock. Ever wilder fluctuations will make short-term predictions impossible. And when equilibrium is so remote, small events are likely to have a greater effect on the whole than they would under equilibrium.

So interventions by activists are more likely today to give birth to the new than during periods of stability. Wallerstein contrasts two camps of reformers, the harbingers of the new system: those who want something new, more egalitarian and less hierarchical and those who want to salvage the system. But each of these camps is itself divided in two, so the conflict is fourfold.

In the ruling Davos camp there are those who want a return to an inegalitarian, hierarchical system, like Dick Cheney, opposed by meritocrats who want to secure the road to privilege using persuasion and a minimum of force, promising a multicultural, green utopia.

The resisters, the Porto Alegre camp, are divided into egalitarians and vanguardists, the latter believing that some see more clearly than others and arguing for a merely formal egalitarianism. So the battle between the two camps rages as the battle within each camp continues.

Wallerstein says it is impossible to set out specific proposals for a kinder world, but he “does not sniff” at more traditional forms of struggles. Winning elections is still important, as is securing judicial rights and survival plans. But these will not bring us closer to a new systemic alternative.

The construction of decommodified modes of production would go some way towards developing real alternatives to our problems. And he prescribes endless intellectual and moral debate, sharpening of our senses and struggle against all forms of inequality, especially those of gender, class and race. This is the hardest, he says, for we are all guilty of these sins.

And, he says, run as if from the plague from any conviction that history is on your side, a sentiment he sees as the greatest instigator of inequality and injustice. His conclusion: we have a 50-50 chance of creating a better system, odds that aren’t half bad.

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