A discussion responding to the Capitalism Studies Manifesto and Zaretsky’s “How Capitalism Will End” —

One of my frustrations as the editor of Public Seminar is knowing that there have been interesting responses to our posts, but people are reluctant to publish them on the site itself. We are trying to figure out how to make it easier and more inviting to respond so that this is overcome. But as it happens today I can address the problem more directly. When I linked to Will Milberg and Julia Ott’s Capitalism Studies Manifesto on my Facebook page, a discussion followed about capitalism that relates both to Milberg and Ott’s post and to Eli Zaretsky’s “How Capitalism Will End,” published earlier in the week. I am reproducing the discussion here and adding two more cents.

By way of introduction: I made a long term vocation of studying and working with the opposition to previously existing socialism, in the Soviet bloc and beyond. I was a participant observer of the Democratic Opposition in Central Europe and Solidarność. I think I learned that socialism as a system existing anywhere in the world has been a failure, even as I am still committed to socialist ideals, concerning equality, social justice and a fully developed democracy. The idea that a change in the mode of production will magically address enduring social problems seems to me to be not only naïve but mistaken. Thus, I find the Capitalism Studies Manifesto especially appealing in that it suggests an understanding of capitalisms (in the plural), illuminating possibilities that a blanket critique of capitalism and the blanket celebration obfuscate.

Here the Facebook discussion unedited, starting with my introduction of the Manifesto:

Jeff: A new center of critical study is developing at The New School for Social Research. As someone who believes that there is no systemic alternative to capitalism, I am especially intrigued by the combination of realism and critique in this manifesto. “We apprehend capitalism as both a system fundamentally grounded in violence and the most effective engine for bettering the material condition of mankind ever known.”

George: Looks like Jeffery is in the same company as Thatcher’s there is no alternative, except Jeffery throws in the term ‘systematic’. Tell this to the number of people who are trying to create alternatives. At least they are trying and not throwing down the glove. And one time it was only a dream that man could fly. If Jeffery is right, imagination is dead, and we are screwed.

Jeff: I throw in the word “systemic” because I believe there are different capitalisms, and therefore understand the project is to tame capitalism and to fight for common goods: social justice, freedom, equality, group. individual dignity, etc., directly, not believing that they can only be realized by overthrowing the economy, replacing it with something completely different. Perhaps someday there will be such a thing, but the experience with socialism of the 20th century suggests it is not something we should count on in the near future. My colleague, Eli Zaretsky thinks otherwise, as do you, but I won’t compare you or him to one or another socialist dictator, as you compared me to Thatcher.

Eli: How could there not be a systemic alternative to capitalism? DO you really think that capitalism is some sort of millennial arrival that has solved the problems of economic life for all time? Is it not a particular historical solution to the economic problem? Why rule out alternatives.

Jeff: Sure sometime somewhere there very well be an alternative [I should have written systemic alternative]. But I don’t think there are any signs indicating that it is coming soon, contrary to your argument on PS. I will continue this discussion on the PS Commons.

Eli: I never said soon. I simply don’t know when.

Brian: It sounds like you are all interested in alternatives. To me understanding the alternatives within the system is not only realistic but intellectually strategic – it means critiquing received understandings of that purportedly unitary “system” (in the vein of Marx’s critique of political economy). I would emphasize your commonalities rather than differences.

George: This is a good discussion and should continue in some form. By the way Jeffery looks very good in a wig and does a great Thatcher imitation that Glen Close copied.

Eli: Sometimes it is necessary to establish distance from an object in order to be able to conceptualize it. This is elaborated in Arnheim’s Visual Thinking and is a subject in much art and art criticism. I believe this is the case with capitalism.

* * *

I add, inviting Eli, Brian, George and any one else to add their thoughts: I don’t know when Feudalism became Capitalism. Certainly the people living their lives at the time didn’t see the change when it came. No one fought on the barricades for Capitalism. We can make observations from a distance and see things that people living their lives and acting politically can’t see. I agree, Eli. So maybe some day capitalism will end. In the meanwhile we live in a variety of different modern economies which allow for more or less productivity, more or less social justice. Those concerned with social justice need to fight for it in the details.

Beware of politics guide by observations from the balcony (I am thinking of chapter 3 of Arendt’s The Human Condition), while people must act politically. Being against capitalism misinforms. One should work against injustice. Knowing that feminist ideals are linked with and undermined by economic arrangements doesn’t mean that defeating capitalism is the answer to gender injustice. Knowing that racism is also so linked, doesn’t mean that comes socialism the problems of race will be eradicated.

And by the way George, it wasn’t Glenn Close but my very favorite actress Meryl Streep who played Thatcher. I am flattered you compare her to me. Only if I were as good a social critic as she is an actress.

And by the way Brian, yes, we are all seeking alternatives, but as Francois Furet observed the radical critique of Nazism was Communism, and the most radical critique of Communism was Nazism. And these weren’t attractive alternatives, to say the least.

6 thoughts on “Capitalism Never Ends?

  1. Good point, the differences among the alternatives matter. It just seemed to me that the critical implications of your stance were perhaps being obscured by the negative emphasis on there being “no alternative” to the system. It struck me that yours is indeed a search for alternatives within the system, and I see now that this is the orientation of the new Heilbroner Center. I think this may actually be a more radical orientation to the problem of capitalism than it seems. Marx theorized capitalism in a new way, not so much what lay beyond it.

    1. I agree on the radical question. Understanding that there is no single alternative to capitalism and no single capitalist system (apart from an analytic construct) does not preclude radical critique. As far as working within THE system or not, I am afraid I don’t know what this means, though I do know people mean something by using these words, and that it has consequences. My fear, from the point of view of critique, in means distorted judgment about what is possible, and what is desirable.

  2. I could never could distinguish between Glen Close
    and Meryl Streep, just as I could not distinguish between capitalism and state controlled socialism, just change of “owners” but still production for profit with surplus going to a few, even though Marx was basically saying capital and money rules and basically control human life. God is dead; long live capital. Does it matter who owns if this is the case? I gather that state planning was suppose to result in production for human needs, but who and what determined the needs and how. Then there was the question of price. The aversion to state capitalism, which is what ‘socialism’ was, is now resulting in some looking at worker control production, but as proponents admit this has its limits. They are operating within a capitalist framework and one that is global.
    Like other businesses, they must compete. However, who knows that will evolve.

    Marx was brilliant in mapping out the logic or “motion” of capitalism, but did not seem to deal much with prescriptions other than tie it into contradictions and the dialectic. In the final analysis he was still a child of the Enlightenment or Age of reasons and working with the language of his time, the Hegelian dialectic, which result in an optimistic and almost mechanistic view of sorts. But so much for the
    withering away of the state and capitalism. In fact,the state rescued capitalism by plugging some of the holes in the dike and then there was Gramsci’s insights. It seems Marxian thought it still grappling with a theory of the state, other than correctly seeing it essential to capitalism, along with the military. The smart capitalist know the importance of the state, and eventually controlled it so it also would not get these uppity ideas about common and public good.

    There is another aspect to Marx’s vision of capitalism that is not explicit. Another way to look at the new world where
    capital and money rule is to see a world where humankind is served from nature and dominates it through analytical reason ( rationalization and technical reason). We are good at making things. Isn’t this a will to power. Marx seems to believe the capitalist ethos brings about this severance and commodification of human life ( alienation), but was Nietzsche more on target. If so, are we stuck with this?

    As far as the end of capitalism, it better end or we are screwed. Aside from production being driven by competition and accumulation , resulting in all sources of calamities including the commodification of human life, it brings out the worst in human nature,- deceit, lying, aggression, control and manipulation, etc. . In fact, one could
    see it redefines intelligence by these traits and turns them into virtues.
    Since it is global, and expansionist by nature it also fosters military
    aggression for markets and resource. But will it end?

    Tend to believe it is going through a transition, but what it will morph into who knows, as it is dependent on human action and political power. Must admit the odds favor the owners. They are very
    entrenched and basically control the government and the military. Marx may be right in the final analysis with regards to capitalism longevity in it present form. Capitalism is not delivering the goods anymore, at least in this country. ( China is another question, and we seem to consistently misinterpret what they are doing.). For what it is worth ( and probably nothing), I tend to see capitalism morphing into a form of Fascism. We can actually see some this occurring now, no. But this believe is based on a pessimistic view of human nature and human life. As one dude responded to Nietzsche’s claim that God is
    Dead, “ if so, man is next.” I like drama.

  3. The classical positivist Marxists of the Second International essentially believed, based on their understanding of the labor theory of value, that while the advent of socialism might be retarded or accelerated by human agency, it was, nevertheless, ultimately inevitable. A few socialist theoreticians in that period argued that while capitalism was doomed, the outcome might not necessarily be an advance in human culture, socialism. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, postulated the idea of “socialism or barbarism,” that without the conscious intervention of the working class, capitalism could not continue on ad infinitum, but rather society would degenerate back into a pre-civilized state of barbarism. Daniel DeLeon also argued that while capitalism could not go on forever, the outcome, without the conscious intervention of the working class, would not necessarily be a higher form of human civilization, socialism. Rather, he postulated the notion of “industrial feudalism” wherein, as with feudalism and ancient society, the law of value would no longer be operative as the extraction of surplus value would have become absolute, basically eradicating the possibility of consumer markets in any meaningful sense. To my admittedly limited understanding Lenin was perhaps the first person to postulate the possible unending character of capitalism when he argued that “no system falls until somebody drops it.” It does seem to me that we may be headed toward an oppressive system that is no longer, in any meaningful sense, capitalism, in the sense of being able to understand its workings in terms of markets and a specifically capitalist ruling class.

Leave a Reply