Capitalism’s detractors may have grudgingly accepted its staying power, but they are still working on remedies for what ails it.
by Francesco Boldizzoni (Harvard University Press, 336 pp., $35)
A new book by Italian historian Francesco Boldizzoni, titled Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx, addresses two subjects: the nature of capitalism and the perils of scholarly forecasting. They are linked by the many forecasts from leading thinkers that have focused precisely on the future of capitalism. The most famous of these prognostications came from the pen of Karl Marx, whose spirit looms over this volume.
Many of Marx’s central forecasts, especially the immiseration of the working class and the proletariat’s overthrow of the bourgeoisie, have proven wildly incorrect. Although Boldizzoni candidly acknowledges these errors, they do not keep him from defending the continuing relevance of Marx’s thought. Early in the book, Boldizzoni claims, “In part at least, Marx has been vindicated. Are not we talking today about the crisis of the middle class, the vanishing middle class, and so on? One may not trust Marx as a prophet, but, if we are to understand capitalism, it is hard to get rid of him.” It is puzzling that Boldizzoni thinks our contemporary worries about the fortunes of the middle class—which, in fact, though it is shrinking slightly in rich countries, has grown rapidly worldwide—somehow vindicate Marx. Instead, the continuing predominance of middle-class voters and middle-class values represents a triumph of the bourgeoisie.
Boldizzoni approaches these questions primarily as matters of intellectual history, but says his book is also aimed at general readers, especially those “driven by a strong commitment to social justice.” In four chapters, after a brief introduction, Boldizzoni sketches an intellectual history of capitalism and its critics from the mid-1800s until the present.
He begins with the period from the Victorian era through the First World War, concentrating on Marx and John Stuart Mill and concluding with a discussion of Max Weber. Next, Boldizzoni analyzes the interwar era, highlighting the theories of John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter but also examining the splits within Marxism after the rise of Soviet communism and the experience of fascism. A third chapter examines the “golden years” of capitalism in the decades after the Second World War, with a focus on authors like John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Bell, as well as the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas. Finally, the book’s longest historical chapter, devoted to the current post-Soviet era, takes Francis Fukuyama as its emblematic thinker but also treats the ideas of Peter Drucker and various contemporary, mostly left-wing critics of capitalism.
After this historical account, Boldizzoni concludes with a pair of more general assessments. His penultimate chapter, which he calls an “autopsy on prophecies,” tries to explain why so many forecasters got it wrong; then a concluding chapter, titled “How Capitalism Survives,” draws lessons from the many failed predictions of the system’s impending demise.
Nailing Jello to the Wall
The term “capitalism,” Boldizzoni notes, was never used by Adam Smith, who referred instead to the “system of natural liberty.” (“Capitalist,” meaning an owner of capital, is somewhat older.) “Capitalism” was introduced in the mid-1800s by the French socialists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis Blanc; it was coined by capitalism’s critics, not its advocates.
Despite the book’s central focus on capitalism, Boldizzoni is surprisingly reticent about defining it. He has much more to say about what capitalism is not than what it is. Not only was the concept “alien” to Adam Smith, but Hegel and the Hegelians “had no concept of capitalism.” Moreover, capitalism is different from a market economy: The presence of markets does not make a system capitalist.
In his concluding chapter, Boldizzoni endorses Robert Heilbroner’s definition: “Capitalism is an economic order marked by private ownership of the means of production vested in a minority class called ‘capitalists,’ and by a market system that determines the incomes and distributes the outputs arising from its productive activity.” Capitalism is also a “social order characterized by a ‘bourgeois’ culture” in which “the drive for wealth” is central.
It is a reasonable definition, but Boldizzoni does not seem to draw upon it when, in the same chapter, he identifies the contemporary countries that are capitalist. He denies that China practices capitalism and doubts that countries like Russia, India, Brazil, and Iran—which “embody the characteristics of statist developmentalism”—can properly be called capitalist. Capitalism, he says, is the “product of a particular family of cultures, the Western family”; efforts to transplant it elsewhere have instead substantially transformed it.
Boldizzoni’s idea of the geographic limitations of contemporary capitalism make him an outlier. In his 2019 book, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World, former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic contends that today capitalism prevails almost everywhere. The “entire globe,” says Milanovic, “now operates according to the same economic principles—production organized for profit using legally free wage labor and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralized coordination.” In his view, the world economy no longer should be understood as divided between capitalist and non-capitalist systems; instead, the critical faultline between today’s economic systems is the one separating the liberal capitalism predominant in the West from the authoritarian (or “political”) capitalism exemplified by China and other countries pursuing a state-led model.
This picture of the world as an intra-capitalist rivalry seems much more plausible than the picture painted by Boldizzoni. Milanovic’s analysis also has the virtue of highlighting the extraordinary economic success of Asian capitalism—a subject that Boldizzoni’s book barely mentions. There is no entry for “Asia” in Boldizzoni’s index.
Boldizzoni is more interesting and more persuasive when he turns to the history of scholarly forecasting. In chapter five, “Wanderings of the Predictive Mind,” he traces the path of foretelling the future from the Marquis de Condorcet to Marx, including along the way some shrewd reflections on the relationship between forecasting and utopias. He notes that Plato’s best regime in The Republic was not intended as a blueprint to be realized in practice, unlike the schemes concocted by Gracchus Babeuf during the French Revolution or by the utopian socialists criticized by Marx. (The brief discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by contrast, either is garbled or reflects a drastic misunderstanding of Rousseau’s writings.)
In the same chapter, Boldizzoni perceptively analyzes the utopian element in Marx’s thought:
Marx’s utopia is not a content utopia but a methodological utopia: it lies in the very search for a law of social evolution. The desire to see capitalism collapse, and to see communism take its place, led him to overlook the multiple directions in which each of the processes he described was susceptible to development.
Predictions, Aspirations, Realities
But what lessons does this catalogue of failed predictions teach us about the fate of capitalism? Though Boldizzoni’s review of capitalism’s doomsayers emphasizes how often they have been mistaken, he argues that this past record of failed predictions “by no means implies that capitalism will go on forever.” He offers opponents of capitalism both “good news and bad news:” The former is that capitalism will “indeed end sooner or later.” It is a “historically bound formation” like the socioeconomic systems that preceded it. The bad news is that it is “unlikely to be replaced by a better system.”
The conclusions Boldizzoni offers in his final chapter are complex and nuanced—but circuitous and hedged. He begins by contending that the two forces keeping capitalism alive are hierarchy and individualism. The former refers to the age-old inequalities of power that have divided masters and slaves, lords and serfs, and capitalists and workers. In contrast, individualism, which relies on contract as the “medium of social interaction,” is a newer phenomenon, but by now it has sunk deep roots in the West. Boldizzoni says these two forces have so far enabled capitalism to thrive—but what does this tell us about the future?
As for hierarchy, Boldizzoni argues that it is too deeply ingrained in human social structures to be uprooted. The trend toward individualism may be less irreversible, thus offering a “glimmer of hope” to radical egalitarians. But in light of the centuries-long advance of individualism, there is not much ground for believing that it can be rolled back. The social values and norms holding capitalist societies together are likely to change only gradually.
“Culture” in the broadest sense, he says, is the key factor in understanding the path of social change. This insight leads Boldizzoni to a very un-Marxist assertion: “The flaw inherent in historical materialist approaches to social forecasting lies . . . in their failure to acknowledge human culture as an autonomous force and to appreciate the role of cultural inertia.” The implication for those who would like to transcend capitalism is not encouraging. They must face the fact that, even if political instability continues to grow, “the end of capitalism is not imminent.”
Boldizzoni urges them to focus instead on the effort to “improve life under capitalism.” Thus, he titles the final subsection of his book not a call to revolution but “A Call to Action.” The point of theorizing remains changing the world, not just interpreting it. Boldizzoni’s call to action, however, turns out to be a plea for moderate reform that takes advantage of the “bourgeois liberties” that capitalist societies provide. The final words of his text are a paean to social democracy. Though he recognizes its current weakened condition, he concludes, “We must not resign ourselves to its crisis but fight for its renewal. The road is narrow, the outcome uncertain. But do we have alternatives?”
Reading this lively and learned—and confusing and sometimes confused—book strengthens the impression that the Left has reached an intellectual dead end, and perhaps a political dead end as well. If Boldizzoni is any guide, the Left has ceased to expect or even favor a revolution. Yet, despite the widespread recognition that Marxism has been discredited by history, Marxist categories and ways of thinking maintain their hold and inhibit fresh thinking. Some like Boldizzoni, chastened by the stubborn resilience of capitalism and the dashed hopes for radical change, have become partisans of gradual reform: Nostalgia for social democracy seems to be rising among intellectuals even as popular support for social-democratic parties continues to shrink.
Yet, this intellectual malaise is not confined to the Left but stretches across the political spectrum. Not just Marxism but liberal democracy itself has always been oriented to the future. Technological advance and economic growth hold out hopes for a new and brighter era ahead, and this hope underpins democratic political and civic activity. If confidence in progress is shattered, where does that leave us?
In a brilliant 1997 essay on “Democracy and Utopia,” which Boldizzoni would have profited from reading, the historian François Furet explored the wider intellectual ripples radiating from the collapse of communism. “The democratic individual,” he wrote, “finds himself poised before a closed future, incapable of defining even vaguely the horizon of a different society from the one in which we live, since this horizon has become almost impossible to conceive.” Furet may well have identified the gravest problem that confronts us.
Marc F. Plattner, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the founding co-editor emeritus of the Journal of Democracy and a distinguished nonresident fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. He is author of Democracy Without Borders? Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy (2008).
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