From The Wall Street Journal:
Never judge a book by its cover. And never, probably, begin a review by quoting that line. But I think it’s appropriate here. For as I gazed at the cover of Francesco Boldizzoni’s “Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx ” and noticed the presence of the Grim Reaper, I prepared myself for a detailed discussion of the millenarianism that has characterized leftist thinking, not only since Marx but indeed long before him.
Such a study would involve an investigation into the religious or quasireligious reasons that have underpinned belief in capitalism’s impending downfall. Their origins stretch back to antiquity, stemming from a desire to overturn the existing order—whatever that might be—and replace it with a heaven on earth. Mr. Boldizzoni offers a glimpse of this: “Fantasies about . . . the second coming of Christ, and speculation about the advent of a classless society, were not different in function. In both cases, at stake were the restoration of justice and the just rewards of the deserving at the end of the turbulent process of contemporary life.”
Despite some backward glances, however, Mr. Boldizzoni’s narrative focuses mainly on the mid-19th century and later, when the rise of capitalism was quickly accompanied by the first forecasts of its replacement. Drastic social change raised questions of whether it was the right social change. As Mr. Boldizzoni demonstrates, those expecting capitalism’s eclipse went beyond the usual suspects: John Stuart Mill turns up, as does John Maynard Keynes. Both looked forward to a time when humanity would be prosperous enough to rise above grubby, sharp-elbowed capitalism, a vision that perhaps reflected their own privileged backgrounds more than anything else.
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That said, the predictions of capitalism’s extinction made in the past 200 years or so are of considerable interest. There were, for example, Depression-era writers who thought, with more than a nod to Marx, that underconsumption would bring capitalism down. Such doomsayers have (so far) been proved wrong, but their analyses can be well worth the effort Mr. Boldizzoni puts into examining them, even if some are treated with more seriousness than they deserve—out of a deference maybe to the author’s own political inclinations. On the other hand, his adherence to, roughly speaking, midcentury social democracy—an “arguably . . . mild variety of capitalism” with its strong unions, mixed economy and generous welfare state—also gives him valuable distance from his subjects.
Mr. Boldizzoni attributes the failure of predictions of capitalism’s fall to factors that range from overly crude analysis to wishful thinking to mistaken trust in “progress.” The last is usually dated back to the Enlightenment but, I’d argue, is in no small part a relic of centuries of religious thinking. Mr. Boldizzoni writes that “the entire history of social forecasting and its mistakes is intertwined with faith in progress.” His use of the word “faith” is telling—and faith is an unreliable guide to the future.
. . . .
Even soundly based arguments have underestimated the resilience of capitalism or, perhaps, capitalisms—it can take many forms, whether the laissez-faire version of the early 19th century, the more tightly regulated varieties that followed or today’s information economy, and there are plenty more to choose from. Nevertheless, rather than look to capitalism’s adaptability or effectiveness, the author prefers a more complex and not altogether convincing explanation of capitalism’s durability, one resting on the way it is maintained by the combination of a “highly hierarchical social structure” and an “individualistic orientation” of those at the top.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
PG notes that capitalism has been practiced on a small scale for centuries, sometimes even in the midst of socialist or communist societies. Neighbors have sold or swapped. Government officials in socialist societies have accepted bribes for additional services or products. Workers on state farms have set a little aside for themselves here and there.
Capitalism as a recognized system of economic organization has proven remarkably useful in most societies in which it has been tried or officially permitted.