Monday 19 June 2023

How does capitalism end?

 We know the answer Marx gave:

  1. capital becomes concentrated in the hands of a small number of people;
  2. advances in technology, and the drive for profit, leads capitalists to shove ever more of the proletariat into unfulfilling jobs or outright unemployment, and consequently "immiserated";
  3. at the same time, advances in technology lead to extraordinary surpluses of material produce;
  4. at a certain point (the "extraordinary surpluses" play a very big role in determining the timing), the global proletariat spontaneously and universally intuits that any change whatsoever in political structures would leave them better off ("things can only get better", © N.Kinnock 1992), and this popular mood indeed results in a "revolutionary" end to the (capitalist) political edifice.
Several aspects of this don't meet basic plausibility tests - in particular, why the resulting new political "settlement" would be at all, err, comfortable for anyone, i.e. whether the universal proletarian intuition is in fact correct - but as a sci-fi narrative it stacks up as well as most. 

Well, here's another answer to the 'end of capitalism' question, and it claims rather better scientific credentials than poor old Marx, limited as he was to what he gathered from 1848 Germany, Engels' take on England, and what he could find in the Reading Room at the BM.   They both do claim to have made something scientific out of history.  And, like Marx's version, this narrative reckons to have taken into account various earlier "revolutions" or upheavals - except it claims a vastly greater database.  My precis:
  1. some sort of seismic upheaval (think Black Death / massive technological breakthrough) results in a "money-pump" effect: a heretofore middling sector of the community that has been outside the ruling elite suddenly gets very rich, and/or very "qualified" (e.g. they can now all read, or all get university degrees) ;
  2. said nouveau riche are now "credentialled" to join the ruling elite - at least, that's how they see it.  But the existing elite doesn't consider there are any vacancies, thank you very much.  So there's "overproduction of elite", an Elite Surplus;
  3. the ES, a capable and confident bunch, are pretty pissed off about their being kept away from what they see as their entitlement to get hands on the levers of power, so they work to seize them by Other Means;
  4. for this purpose they naturally light upon two strategies, potentially complementary: (a) take over an existing political party; (b) enlist (by way of cannon fodder) the immiserated lower classes, of which there will always be plenty in almost any regime, though their degree of restiveness will clearly vary from time to time;
  5. this may sometimes result in a fairly painless transfer of power, but on other occasions will result in something much bloodier. 

Where does this come from?  It's an erudite bloke of Russian extraction called Peter Turchin, who's peddling a new book.  A good interview here, by the redoubtable Aaron Bastani.  

Worth pondering.  I recall discussions we've had here following the 2011 riots, along the lines of: the stroppy British mob has no political leadership - but wait for an officer-class to emerge from the ranks of disaffected, over-educated graduates who can't find the kind of work or wealth they feel they are entitled to.  The Turchin thesis seems to fit this nicely - rather better than Marx's, anyhow.  

Personally, I can take Turchin's as a compelling narrative approach to all manner of historical upheavals, with some genuine explanatory value: BUT without definitive predictive capability.  The difference is, unlike Marx, this guy doesn't seem to be claiming any - which speaks well for him.  (Even better, he's also a big fan of constructive competition.)  Marx, along with most economic forecasters, is all too easily ridiculed for his forecasting failure.  The real reason for laughing at Marx, however, is his claim to have come up with a new Science.

What do the rest of the capitalists here think?  Does Turchin define our imminent demise?  



Anonymous said...

Our imminent demise may come a lot sooner, parhaps at the close of Air Defender 23? It all depends on how much Washington is prepared to escalate.

I can't credit how the US keeps on pushing Russia for a reaction. Do they know something about Russian nuclear capability that we don't, or are they doubling down in a (vain IMHO) attempt to finish Russia before starting on China?

Anomalous Cowshed said...

As presented, how does Turchin's sequence actually end up in the "death of capitalism", exactly?

Anonymous said...

AC - he hopes we transition to a thoroughgoing social democracy. He fears it might be civil war (USA)

Caeser Hēméra said...

I'll have to have a look at the video at some point.

In terms of the near future, we've been somewhat spared by, even if an Officer class appeared, the recruiting pool being full of egotistical and vain hair splitters incapable of organising a sugar rush in a sweet factory.

Glue themselves to a street? Not a problem. Start a riot? They'd be too busy waiting for Amazon to deliver their custom tee with a pithy riot quote printed on it, or Hairy Frank to finish off his R!0t app for them to sideload.

Far more likely that the SV brain trust will go too far - it's pretty clear they want 'smart' cities, with something to akin to local Big Brothers, in order to automate everything they can, along with a modern version of corporate scrip in order to lock people in their virtual economies.

Much easier to enforce everyone to wear a tracking device - be it a mobile phone, smart watch, health tracker - than to invent Level 5 automation. And we're seeing the beginning of this with some of Google's investment in cities.

Crime will be reported via an app - tough if your phone got nicked - with a selection of smileys to record your satisfaction at how you reported.

I reckon after a few years of that, the peasants might want heads on sticks.

Bill Quango MP said...


Russia has so far threatened all manner of terrors, up to and including, nuclear war, at least five times that I can recall.

Send Aid to Ukraine. It’s war!
Invoke sanctions .. its war!
Put ann oil price cap on our products? That’s war!
Send hand held rocket launched AA and ATGs ….it’s war…
Send nato artillery to Ukraine! That is definitely war.
Send nato tanks! That’s nuclear war. No need to even ask. That’s war with Russia!
Send storm shadows? That’s nuclear war!
Send F16s… I well, you can’t say you weren’t warned…that’s nuclear war..this time.. Russia really means it…

Each time the Russians threatens war with NATO.
Then, when NATO does whatever the Russians said would cause war, the Russians change the rhetoric to, “ Himars are shit. Send them as they are no threat”. To .. “all the Himars have been destroyed.” so it’s no longer important that we said war, but have now backed down.

If Russia felt it could fight Ukraine and the whole of NATO, I’m sure they would like to try. But, as they and you must know, they can’t even subdue the already occupied regions of the Donbas.

So how would Russia gain by attacking NATO?
What would they gain by attacking the west that would improve their situation and improve prospects for the swamp of the special military disaster they are already mired in?

I sure the USA would have liked to have nuked Iran to stop the insurgency in Iraq.
But would have been a bit of an overreaction reaction.

In recent memory airliners full of passengers have been shot down by missiles from the USA and The Russian Federation.
Not very much resulted. Certainly not declarations of war.

Anonymous said...

We may have an elite surplus, but I would question how capable they are of kicking up a fuss.
Far less capable than the generations that came out of WW2, Was the establishment of the welfare state and NHS the elite realising this and taking steps to prevent something like you described happening?)


Sobers said...

We do not have an elite surplus, we have a parasite class surplus. Too many people who think they should be paid to sit in offices (or at home) and do next to nothing and get well paid for it. And when an organism suffers the rapid growth of a parasite, it usually doesn't end well for either the organism or the parasite, ultimately. So we aren't talking about the 'death of capitalism' we are talking about the 'death of western civilised society'. The parasite surplus may seize power if they are able, but all that does is accelerate the point of societal collapse. They don't have any solutions to all the current problems, just lots of ways of making things worse. Its the Labour vs Tory argument - we all know the final destination, we'll just get there quicker with Labour.

Anonymous said...

Seems like a lot of navel gazing here who fail to see the fall of Britain is not the fall of capitalism. Get off your keyboards and travel the world to see capitalism in the raw.

While you are there sell something for Britain, we need the exports.

decnine said...

The Soviet Union was capitalist. The State was the monopoly source of capital and the monopoly recipient of the yield from the invested capital. As Tim Worstall points out (often) the State is a really incompetent capitalist (because of the absence of competition).

hovis said...

Good point Sober on parasitic vs Elite.
Not enough actual productive capacity imo.

On the Marxist points I can agree with ND they don't particularly add up, though I think we are seeing concentration of wealth and power in an ever diminishing group of people.

Is the question not how far can the population be anaesthetised to a widening Gini co-efficient. History tells us in the territory known as the United Kingdom, it was achieved and relatively easily. Though I think there is less cohesion societally, it remains easier to divide and rule. The views of the denizens of C@W are rump of what was unfortunately.

Nick Drew said...

... unfortunately what??!

I was looking forward to reading on from "rump"

Nick Drew said...

anon @ 5:52

your exporting strictures are very relevant

(I plead not guilty, BTW: my last 6 clients have all been overseas, albeit one of them was working on a project to invest in UK)

Caeser Hēméra said...

To export, we need healthy businesses, and we've a government hostile to business in practice.

At some point Sunak is going to have to let go of his "clever" ploy to boost investment by using it to offset the ramped up corp tax, as it's not working, and maybe set his sights a little higher than avoiding a recession.

At the moment it feels very much like a recession, businesses are loosening up investment, but slowly and with little enthusiasm.

I haven't seen my bit of the market like this ever, and I went through the dotcom bust and financial crash, and I'm thinking of shifting focus to the US or EU, or at least somewhere where the grass is, if not much greener, perhaps a bit more emerald.

I'm generally positive about the UK overall, but the last couple of months are making me wonder if the Tories have succeeded where Corbyn could but dream.

Less Marx, more Rotten - "Ever had the feeling you've been cheated?"

Anomalous Cowshed said...

Anon @ 1:29 on what ever day it was;

Yeah, OK, but WTF is "the death of capitalism" actually supposed to mean?

(A pretty generic question whenever I see the phrase. Decent answers are not forthcoming.)

Sobers said...

" but WTF is "the death of capitalism" actually supposed to mean"

I think in the current climate it means that a fairly large section of Western societies has decided that they want to live for free, paid for by someone else. Its hardly socialism, because IIRC life in actual socialist countries was (and still is) pretty hard work, literally. Other than a very few Party apparatchiks no one got to sit around watching Netflix and ordering stuff off Amazon, all on someone else's dime.

So I think its less a repudiation of capitalism thats going on, and more a repudiation of reality, which fits in rather well with the current zeitgeist - if I can think it, then it must and will be true. A society that has decided that people can change their biological sex if they just utter some words is not going to have any problem with concluding that everyone can just stop working and continue to be paid as if they were, and it'll all work out fine.

Wildgoose said...

I don't like the term "capitalism". It was originally a smear used by Marxists for the real term of "Free Trade" - the ability to freely exchange goods and money for mutual benefit.

Marxists implied it only benefited those with "capital".

And yet, those factories mass producing goods were doing so for the masses, not for the handful of rich individuals with the "capital" to buy them.

Yes, it was a brutal existence. That's the normal reality of Life. Work hard, or starve. And if you are unlucky, you still starve.

We are incredibly lucky to be living in a society and system that produces a surplus that allows us to indulge the fantasies of eco-warriors and other spoilt children.

But that can't last. We need grown-ups in charge. Not the current idiots who think Russia is "losing" and that it is a good idea to run a massive military exercise on Russia's borders that might as well have been named "Able Archer II".

Anonymous said...

@Sobers to me has summed it up. We've lost touch with reality or encouraged to. It starts with the politicians promising everyone, usually on Twitter, then when finding it can't be done blaming someone else. Then rinse and repeat.

Take Keyna or Estonia for example where FinTech has expanded mainly through need. It's the lack of "need" that stops capitalism since everything will be provided either by subsidy or through credit.

Or perhaps we have achieved More's Utopia but don't recognise it.

andrew said...

Bringing together the death of capitalism and the rise of ai:
I commend Bruce sterling/ accellerando and holy fire

One of the problems we have with capitalism is its loose definition.

When I think of capitalism I think of the set of rules used to allocate surplus capital (what this surplus is is up for debate) to people who want capital.
As such, as long as there is money there will be something that smells like capitalism.
So imo both marx and turchin are producing clickbait.

Stross makes brief reference to capitalism 2.0 in accellerando, basically AIs take over by virtue of being better at capital allocation and then later on rewriting the rules by which capitalism works.

Holy fire was about the impacts of biohacking and radically extending people's lifespans.
He makes reference to "old people's money" which was different to normal money - old money could buy things new money could not.

Both novels written about 2000 iirc.

Caeser Hēméra said...

@Sobers - "a fairly large section of Western societies has decided that they want to live for free, paid for by someone else"

You can blame the internet for that. Sites were originally ancillary to a main product (the early NME message board for example), and that changed, and they adopted the freemium model, only discovered that the "-mium" was rather difficult to implement when all your competitors were still doing the "free" bit.

So, as per trad press, sites turned to advertising, only on a creepier scale (data from banks, credit card companies, electoral rolls, etc. means everyone gets a shadow profile, even if they're not members, of some places) and people became comfortable being the product in exchange for the free stuff.

So we have a generation used to Free Shit in exchange for their privacy.

There is still some hope, even after all the hoo-hah over Pirate Bat, Bittorrent, etc. people are still willing to pay for content at a reasonable price point.

Case in point - Netflix cracking down on password sharing has led to a massive uptake of subscriptions, and this is at a time when people are abandoning some of their competitors.

Don Cox said...

Is "capitalist" just a term that Marx used for anyone who had more money than him ?


Sobers said...

"You can blame the internet for that"

I think you can blame covid, or the Western response to covid. Paying people handsomely to do nothing and sit at home in their pants was an incredibly stupid thing to do, not least because it set a thought running in many people's minds - 'This is nice, if they [the government] can pay us to do nothing because of covid, why can't they do it all the time?'. And politicians being what they are, sooner or later one of them will offer to do so, just to get the votes.

dearieme said...

"Where does this come from? It's an erudite bloke of Russian extraction called Peter Turchin"

Not really; Adam Smith explained it - his illustration was lawyers.