Predicting the future: a risky business

‘March of history’ and the question of agency

Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, Craig Calhoun Does capitalism have a future? Oxford University Press, 2013, pp192, £14.99

As its title suggests, Does capitalism have a future? is an attempt on the part of five prominent sociologists to discuss the prospects for the system of capital, and the likelihood of its replacement by a new social order. The co-authors write from a varied range of theoretical perspectives and, as would be expected, arrive at different conclusions as to what they believe may be to come.

Three problems

In the first chapter - ‘Structural crisis, or why capitalists may no longer find capitalism rewarding’ - Immanuel Wallerstein gives his prediction as to what the future may hold for humanity. Wallerstein has certainly been heavily influenced by (and has had an influence on) Marxist thought, although he seems slightly reluctant to fully identify himself with the Marxist movement.1 He is well known for developing the ‘world system theory’ as a framework of analysis. According to this, the modern, capitalist global system, which he argues originated in 16th century Europe and North America,2 is a “world economy” characterised by a global division of labour and multiple politico-cultural units brought together in an inter-state system headed by a hegemon state. Wallerstein contends that the present world system will in the coming decades undergo a transition into a qualitatively different one. He is not saying that this will necessarily be socialism, as Marxists understand it, or even necessarily a more democratic or egalitarian form of social organisation.

For Wallerstein the defining characteristic of capitalism is that production is aimed at the “endless accumulation of capital - the accumulation of capital in order to accumulate more capital” with existing political structures necessarily facilitating this drive (p10). It is this drive towards endless accumulation that is unique to the capitalist world system, according to Wallerstein - commodity production and wage-labour have occurred in pre-capitalist societies (although they were obviously not as prevalent). It is this system, we are told, that will reach its limits in the next century and be succeeded by a new mode of production.

Three main problems for capital are identified. The cost to the capitalist class globally of the managers and middle stratum (particularly the former) is increasing and taking its toll on profits, whilst deruralisation is shrinking the pool of “potential low-wage workers” (p23). With ecological crisis looming, capitalists will find it harder and harder to externalise costs of production, such as waste and resource renewal, thanks to state regulation. Furthermore, the history of capitalism has seen an increase in government taxation that can only increase if problems of ecology, as well as infrastructure, education and welfare, are to be addressed. Increased personnel costs, the decreasing ability of capital to externalise costs, and the social necessity of increased taxation will squeeze capital to breaking point.

Ultimately, Wallerstein contends, governments will find themselves without the means to “reform the capitalist system, such that it can renew its ability to pursue effectively the endless accumulation of capital” (p32). The rise of the ‘Brics’ and decline of US hegemony - rather than revitalising capitalism, as liberals currently suggest - will simply lead to an increasing number of capitals vying for surplus value and a more multipolar world order characterised in the short term by protectionism.

So how does he envisage the post-capitalist world system to come? Here we are told there is, broadly speaking, a struggle between two camps, themselves split: that of the ‘spirit of Davos’ and that of the ‘spirit of Porto Alegre’. The triumph of the former would lead to a successor system characterised by hierarchy and surplus extraction, while the victory of the latter would produce a relatively democratic and egalitarian system (possibly still characterised by class divisions). The camp of Davos is split between hard reactionaries in favour of austerity and repression, on the one hand, and proponents of green capital, diversity and meritocracy, on the other. For its part, the camp of Porto Alegre is conceived as being split, not principally between reformists and revolutionaries, but between ‘horizontalists’ and ‘vertical’ organisations seeking to win political power. The outcome is not determined and “we have at best a 50-50 chance of getting the world system we prefer” (p35).

Missing agent

Randall Collins also predicts a terminal crisis of capitalism, which he argues will be brought about by a massive technological displacement of labour in the next 50 years. Collins calls his approach a “stripped-down Marxism” (p38), focusing on the long-term trend towards the technological displacement of labour under the capitalist mode of production.

Collins’ central argument is that “the process of technological displacement of labour, driven to a sufficient extreme, will generate the long-term and quite possibly terminal crisis of capitalism, all by itself and without the other processes in Marxian and neo-Marxian theory” (p37). Supposedly this process will lead to such high levels of unemployment on a global level that the capitalist social order would buckle under the political pressures that would be unleashed. In particular Collins sees the displacement of “middle class” admin and service workers by information technology as a big problem for capitalism, since it is such sectors that have absorbed those displaced by mechanisation.

‘Escape routes’ for capitalism in the face of technological displacement that are no longer viable are identified. The now closed escapes include mass education, which has employed large numbers of staff and in which credential inflation has absorbed massive amounts of surplus labour. Higher education is facing a serious crisis of funding in the west - major struggles have taken place over this issue and the current Anglo-American tuition fees approach has led to a situation where US student debt reached almost 10% of GDP in 2011 (p55).

Government investment and employment has been used in the past to address unemployment, but Collins argues that fiscal austerity and the effects of technological displacement in the public sector itself make this option less viable than before. He does not rule out the development of new industries on the basis of new technologies, but argues - correctly in my view - that there is absolutely no guarantee of this preventing the rise of structural unemployment.

So what exactly will follow the unprecedented levels of unemployment to come? Collins acknowledges that the “radicalism of a movement is not correlated with the degree of immiseration” (p58), so socialist revolution is not the inevitable result: ideological factors have a role to play. However, he predicts that a state crisis may lead to the replacement of capitalism by a social order that reduces inequality by roughly half (as he claims ‘state socialism’ achieved in the 20th century). He argues that this would not be the end of history, but may lead to a cycle of revolution and capitalist restoration.

Despite the fact that both co-authors emphasise at the end of their analyses the ability of agents to shape structure, Collins and Wallerstein seem particularly economistic in their approach. The strength and coherence of contending social forces is certainly given less attention than it deserves, considering where we are headed. Where these thinkers depart most radically from Marxism (as I understand it) is in their refusal to name the international working class as the structurally determined emancipatory agent (due to its relation to the means of production); an agent capable of replacing capitalism with a democratic social order, in which the forces of production are set in motion in order to fulfil human need.

A ‘viable’ capitalism?

Michael Mann rejects the approach of studying societies as if they are systems. Instead they are “multiple, overlapping networks of interaction, of which four networks - ideological, economic, military and political power relations - are the most important” (p72). These networks supposedly have their “own distinctive causal chains” (p96), but also overlap and interact (somehow).

The examples of the great recession and great depression are used to attempt to prove that, because people have and act on ideas, no crisis is strictly economic or a consequence of the economic system as such, but is a consequence of actors’ choices and other structures. We are also told that these crises were not global, since the effects were not identical across the world (is this not due to a global division of labour and the fact that productive processes are not spread in a uniform manner?).

So what does Mann foresee? He argues that US hegemony will end and that the Republicans may well deepen its crisis through destroying consumer demand. This will help lead to a multipolar world. He essentially takes a developmentalist position in respect to the west and the ‘rest’, whereby the latter will follow the road of the former, with class ‘compromise’ leading to a greater degree of welfarism and the gradual levelling of global living standards. Unemployment, we are told, is a western rather than global problem and increased productivity and consumer demand in developing countries will see that it remains as such.

Mann argues that new needs may well develop to sustain low growth and hold unemployment back at around 10%-15% (p91). For him it is not capitalism (provided external threats are kept at bay), but revolutionary socialism, for whom “the end really is nigh” (p92). The external threats to the ‘fairer’ capitalism which shall emerge are: nuclear war (possibly caused by ‘rogue’ or non-state actors) and global warming. Mann holds out hope that climate change may be staved off by green industries, but argues that “market-regulating suprastate collectivism” will probably be required, and is pessimistic as to the likelihood of this being achieved before “tangible” (read: devastating) effects are felt in high-emitting countries (p95).

Unlike Mann, Craig Calhoun argues that reactionary political forces are endangering the ability of the state to enable the reproduction of the conditions of capitalist production and are producing destabilising levels of inequality. However, like Mann, he also sees the main threats to the capitalist system as geopolitical and environmental ones. Calhoun warns of the potentially destructive consequences of resource competition over water, energy resources, minerals and arable land. Such conflicts would only be exacerbated by the ecological crisis facing the system. Furthermore, with the decline of US hegemony, the possibility of upholding the ‘rules of the game’ of global capitalism may become more uncertain. A multipolar world with dwindling resources may well be a more unstable one.

Both Mann and Calhoun contend that ecological crisis may bring down an economically viable capitalism, with the latter arguing that capitalism may have to change in order to survive (p180). But surely a system of production and distribution cannot be considered viable, if the logic of that system’s development drives it to destroy the conditions for its own existence? The ecological crisis facing humanity cannot be separated from profit-driven production. Equally it is the system of states upholding property relations on a territorial basis that produces war and has led to the creation of weapons capable of wiping out human civilisation. Class rule and conflict are inextricably linked. It is class rule that makes the use of weapons of mass destruction a possibility. The threat of a catastrophic war that could end capitalism is not one that is external to it.

Mann and Calhoun emphasise, to a greater degree than the other co-authors, the unpredictability of the future. The former puts this in terms of whether actors behave rationally or “ideologically” (p97). This is a false opposition, the real question is: In line with what ideology will actors act rationally?

Ruling class failures

Georgi Derluguian’s contribution to the book looks at Bolshevik and Stalinist state-building before examining the fall of the USSR and specifically the handling of its fall by its ruling elite. He asks what lessons can be learned from the behaviour of that elite in the state’s final years.

Derluguian accepts that the USSR was not a separate social order analogous to capitalism - its collapse cannot be compared to the possible collapse of capitalism. Nevertheless, the aim is to look at how a ruling class behaves when faced with a crisis so overpowering that there is no hope of maintaining the status quo, in order to address the danger of a non-socialist transition to post-capitalism, which could be characterised by social disintegration.

He characterises the post-Stalin USSR as a bureaucratic oligarchy and argues that, to some extent as a result of the cold war, the USSR was partially integrated into the world system. He argues the transition to a ‘normal’ capitalist state could well have been achieved in a manner that would have protected the place of Russia in the world system through pulling out of the global periphery and eastern Europe, through bilateral nuclear disarmament along with the US, and through an influx of western investment in its industries, in which the cost of labour was low. Derluguian contends that this may well have been Gorbachev’s aim.

Instead what occurred was a colossal “failure of collective action on the part of the nomenklatura” (p120) that meant Russia could not negotiate its way into reconciliation with the west from a position of strength. After the loss of the European satellite states in 1989, the Russian state fragmented along the lines of “bureaucratic turf in the industrial sectors and national republics” (ibid). The bureaucrats “squandered and cannibalised Soviet assets in a panicked rush to protect their individual oligarchic positions against both Gorbachev’s purging and the prospect of popular rebellions” (p123). The means of production were effectively taken into private hands before the privatisation legislation had been passed (p121).

Despite the crisis of the ruling class, what popular opposition to the Communist Party existed did not have the organisational capacity to overthrow it and affect the direction of events. The principal lesson Derluguian draws from these events is that “oligarchic elites … can grievously botch their transitions” and that “insurgent movements” must be able to act decisively in such situations (p123).

Does capitalism have a future? offers an interesting selection of differing, and rather sobering, perspectives on where humanity is headed. It addresses the long-term issues largely ignored in mainstream political discourse and the structural possibilities confronting us, posing important questions for political actors in our time. However, what is largely lacking in the analyses of the co-authors are suggestions as to how various agents (parties, classes, ideological ‘camps’, etc) could overcome their adversaries and act in such a way as to achieve their aims within our present context. This would obviously be a major undertaking, but it is absolutely necessary from the point of view of the left today.

If the book has a lesson for communists, it is that we cannot rely on the ‘march of history’, on the development of productive forces or on capitalist crisis to deliver humanity unto socialism. Prevailing social conditions allow for multiple outcomes and only the self-conscious agency of the working class can produce a progressive alternative to the current order. But we must get our act together, somehow, if we are to take the future into our own hands.

Callum Williamson


1. See the 2013 interview with Wallerstein: www.jwsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Williams_Interview_vol19_no2.pdf.

2. I Wallerstein World systems analysis: an introduction London 2004, p23.