Tag: instability

The following podcast from the BBC Radio 4’s series, A Point of View is by John Gray, emeritus professor of European thought at the LSE and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. In the podcast, he considers whether Marx, the great 19th century thinker, was right to predict the demise of capitalism.

Marx’s picture of the end of capitalism and the stages of society that would succeed it have been dismissed by most academics and commentators as quite false. Marx predicted that as capitalist economies became increasingly unstable and unequal, so workers would rise up in revolution. What would follow would be a socialist state in which the means of production would be collectively owned and output and distribution would be planned. As socialist economies became wealthier and life was perceived to be fairer, so the need for state control would diminish. Eventually the state would wither away and the ultimate stage of communism would be reached, where there would sufficient resources to reward everyone according to their needs.

Two of the key criticisms of Marx’s analysis are: (a) capitalism was overthrown in only a few countries and (b) in the countries that did adopt central planning, such as the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, the state did not wither away; instead, they reverted to capitalism.

But whilst Marx’s analysis of a post-capitalist world may have been flawed, his analysis of the weaknesses and tensions of capitalism have been prophetically correct in many regards. As John Gray says:

It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

Listen to the podcast and try to assess whether we are witnessing a 21st century version of Marx’s 19th century vision.

A Point of View: The revolution of capitalism (article) BBC Radio 4, John Gray (4/9/11)
A Point of View: The revolution of capitalism (podcast) BBC Radio 4, John Gray (4/9/11) (see alternatively)
Has Western capitalism failed? BBC News (23/9/11)


  1. Why, according to Marx, do capitalist societies contain the seeds of their own destruction? What role would the middle classes play in this?
  2. Why does capitalism transform everything it touches?
  3. Explain what is meant by ‘creative destruction’.
  4. How would Marxists respond to the criticisms of their analysis that the middle classes have got proportionately bigger and that, with the advent of the minimum wage, even the poorest workers are protected?
  5. To what extent has the experience of the developed world since the banking crisis of 2007/8 lent weight to the Marxist analysis?
  6. John Gray says that “Today there is no haven of security.” What does he mean by this and is there an answer within capitalism?
  7. And here’s a hard question to finish with: if capitalism does contain the seeds of its own destruction, what will succeed it? Will it be something other than capitalism and, if so, what? Or will it be a new variety of capitalism and, if so, what will it look like?

The following articles look at a recently published book by George Akerlof of the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert Shiller of Yale. They examine the role of what Keynes called ‘animal spirits’ and is the title of the book.

The motivation to make economic decisions (to buy, to sell, to invest, etc) may not be ‘rational’ in the sense of carefully weighing up marginal costs and marginal benefits. Rather it can be one of over-optimism in good times or over-pessimism in bad times. Just as individuals have ‘mood swings’, so there can be collective mood swings too. After all, confidence, or lack of it, is contagious. This motivation that drives people to action is what is meant by animal spirits.

But are animal spirits a blessing to be nurtured or a curse to be reined in? Should governments seek to constrain them?

An economic bestiary The Economist (26/3/09)
Good Government and Animal Spirits Wall Street Journal (23/4/09)
Irrational Exuberance New York Times (17/4/09)
Animal Spirits: A Q&A With George Akerlof Freakonomics: New York Times blog (30/4/09)


  1. Describe what is meant by ‘animal spirits’ and their effects on human behaviour.
  2. Why may animal spirits make economies less stable?
  3. How may animal spirits help to explain exchange rate overshooting?
  4. Discuss whether governments should seek to constrain animal spirits and make people more ‘rational’? Also consider what methods governments could/should use to do this?

During his lifetime Galbraith warned extensively of the problems likely to be associated with financial excesses, and if alive today would almost certainly allow himself a ‘told you so’ moment. He was a lifelong liberal who argued that capitalism was inherently a fragile and unstable system. So what relevance does his work have to the current financial crash?

Galbraith saw this coming Guardian (15/10/08)
In praise of …The Great Crash 1929 Guardian (15/10/08)


1. Write a short paragraph summarising Galbraith’s life and work.
2. Assess the extent to which his arguments in relation to the fragility of the financial system are still relevant today.
3. Galbraith commented that all stockmarket bubbles exhibit seemingly imaginative, currently lucrative, and eventually disastrous innovation in financial structures“. Discuss the extent to which this kind of innovation (e.g. derivatives and sub-prime mortgages) may have been responsible for the current financial crisis.