A Long View

So Marx was right all along. (To an extent.) Capitalism has an intrinsic and inevitable self-destructive tendency, which he thought – and hoped – would culminate in its ultimate replacement, via revolution, by a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and then by socialism proper. He was wrong in thinking that this would come about quickly, starting in the most highly-developed capitalist economies in the world – Britain, Germany and the USA; certainly not Russia – and through the workers’ rising in revolution against their capitalist oppressors. He was also wrong in underestimating the resilience of capitalism, temporarily at any rate, through geographical expansion (imperialism), so easing the pressures from overproduction at home; through enlightened concessions to the proletariat (welfareism), in order to rub down capitalism’s roughest edges; and by means of sheer distraction: bread and circuses, royal displays, scapegoating outsiders, ‘culture wars’, negative propaganda directed against critics of the system, and so on. Marx couldn’t be expected to anticipate that all this could delay the inevitable collapse of the system as long as it has. But he may have been right to believe that his Götterdämmerung couldn’t be put off forever.

Could present-day events be an indication of this? I don’t only mean Kwarteng’s recent ill-judged mini budget; or the Covid pandemic; or Brexit; or the war in Ukraine; or the climate crisis – although all these appear to be pretty Götterdämmerungy; but the whole way the world seems to be moving just now. It’s beginning to look like the ‘end days’, of which the religious nutters speak. Personally, I hope not. I’ve too much to lose under our present dispensation, and don’t want to be associated with nutters. And there have been doomsayers before in our history. But it’s hard to avoid the thought. Some doomsayers have been right. (Cassandra is the prime example.) And Marx might also have been – in the very long run.

Modern British history certainly gives credence to this kind of analysis. Industrial capitalism flourished mightily in Britain in the late 18th and 19th centuries, before beginning to stumble in the so-called ‘Great Depression’ of the 1870s-on. From then onwards it was only saved from Marx’s predicted collapse by means of the ‘New’ imperialism, and then its diversion – on the back of this – into the ‘finance’ mode of capitalism which is still sustaining it today. All this kept the system going, for the rich. But not for the relatively poor, to whom the benefits of the system were demonstrably not ‘trickling down’, or not sufficiently. That required another approach, or escape route: the Keynesian or social democratic one, with popular reform financed out of taxation; together with enough legerdemain and right-wing propaganda – at their most effective during the Brexit referendum – to take the losers’ eyes off the ball. That’s kept Götterdämmerung away so far.

But the breakdown – if Marx was right; again, I hope not – was always going to come. For the past fifty years or so the capitalist wolf has been straining at the leash imposed on it by social democracy and welfareism, complaining at their negative impact on growth. Capitalism has always required ‘growth’ in order merely to continue to exist – ‘expand or die’. Over those years it showed its face at various times in different forms: Selsdon Man (remember him?), the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Margaret Thatcher, the European Research Group, always some Right-wing ideologues on the Conservative Parliamentary benches; and most recently Brexit; one of whose clear – if sometimes heavily disguised – ambitions was to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution’. This tendency was for long underestimated by the Left and by the ‘middle ground’ in British politics, and indeed was often derided as merely eccentric during that relatively consensual period when both main parties adhered to ‘Butskellism’ (after the names of two of their Chancellors) as the economic and political orthodoxy of the day. But it was growing stronger but also more problematically all the while, possibly because, as an inevitable force of nature, it couldn’t be kept down for good, until today: when not only in Britain but also in the USA and other countries of the world it appears to be reaching its apogee.

Not being an economist, let alone a Marxist one, I can’t fully understand the mechanics of this process; although as a historian I can say that at least it fits the facts, and I can see some of the human and social factors that have helped it on. They include, most recently, the manipulation of the politics of Britain – and possibly of the USA – by people and interest groups some of whom were largely unaware of the greater project they were serving; often because they simply didn’t realise that they were entrapped within the values of that project – Thatcher’s ‘TINA’, ‘there is no alternative’; or because they were only interested in serving their personal ambitions. Johnson and Truss were (are) two of these, as is the Conservative party generally, with the latter’s policy-making leadership now whittled down by stages from its previously fairly broad base – remember the ‘wets’? – to a narrow neo-liberal (or ultra-capitalist) cadre. Truss and Kwarteng – both overtly prioritizing ‘growth’ over redistribution – are the most extreme ideological ‘free market’ capitalist leaders Britain has ever had; at least since the time of Gladstone. Is this a sign of desperation? Together with the incipient quasi-fascism the present government seems to be encouraging? Historically, fascism has been another familiar response to – or feature of – capitalism in extremis.

Looking back over the history of Britain over the past two hundred years, as I’ve tried to do in a couple of my most ignored books – Britannia’s Burden (1994) and now Britain’s Contested History (2022) – it is difficult to escape the idea that this – the slow and unsteady evolution of capitalism in Britain and elsewhere, from its heroic (and largely industrial) origins, to its present financial, pretty corrupt and desperate stage – is an inevitable, ‘historically determined’ one. It may even be its final one, before everything collapses – economies, polities, our over-exploited natural resources, maybe life on earth itself – in that great Götterdämmerung to come.

I still think we can be saved, with a measure of socialism, perhaps; but it will require a great struggle against the bankers, the hedge-funders, the likes of the Daily Mail, our modern Etonians (Kwarteng is one of them); and even the fates – perhaps, if Marx was essentially right.

Incidentally, didn’t George Bernard Shaw offer a Marxist reading of The Ring? I must check.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Long View

  1. I think however that one has to distinguish between capitalism, understood as a system, and particular capitalists and right-wing activists, who are operating as agents. The latter do not always act in ways that promote the interests of the former. For example, the bond markets reacted violently against Truss and Kwarteng’s incredibly stupid tax cuts, forcing them to execute a u-turn. Brexit was and continues to be manifestly destructive of capitalism in the UK, yet it triumphed anyway. A feature of the conflicts surrounding the referendum was the weakness of individual capitalists and their organisations to advance their own interests and that of the system. Political actors like Johnson and Farage – and Trump – are not mere off-shoots of the capitalist order but relatively autonomous agents, who are driven by self-interest and ideology. Would capitalism in the US benefit from the kind of civil war that Trump and the MAGA set are trying to promote? Not at all.

    Capitalism has thrived when rational politicians and bureaucrats have exercised control of the state. When irrationalists take over, the system is threatened. The repair work which is required to keep the system in order is both undone and not done. The greatest threats to capitalism now emanate from the right. Paradoxically, it is the left which is promoting policies which would save capitalism, by addressing climate change, preserving democracy and the rule of law, agitating for fair and liberal immigration policies, advocating for effective health, housing and educational systems, etc.


  2. “And there have been doomsayers before in our history. But it’s hard to avoid the thought. Some doomsayers have been right. (Cassandra is the prime example.)” We do not have to go back that far. There were strong and widespread feelings of doom in Russia prior to 1917, even in the Tsar’s ministry. Premonitions of catastrophe were numerous prior to both world wars.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s