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)
- Why, according to Marx, do capitalist societies contain the seeds of their own destruction? What role would the middle classes play in this?
- Why does capitalism transform everything it touches?
- Explain what is meant by ‘creative destruction’.
- 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?
- To what extent has the experience of the developed world since the banking crisis of 2007/8 lent weight to the Marxist analysis?
- John Gray says that “Today there is no haven of security.” What does he mean by this and is there an answer within capitalism?
- 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?
To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the BBC World Service commissioned a survey across 27 countries to gather people’s views about capitalism and whether it is working well. The findings are striking. Only 11% felt that it is working well. “Most thought regulation and reform of the capitalist system were necessary. There were also sharp divisions around the world on whether the end of the Soviet Union was a good thing.”
The following articles look at the detailed findings of the poll and consider its implications for the functioning and reform of the world economy.
Global poll: Wide dissatisfaction with capitalism 20 years after fall of Berlin Wall BBC Press Office (9/11/09)
Free market flawed, says survey BBC News, James Robbins (9/11/09)
Wide dissatisfaction with capitalism, years after fall of Berlin Wall Dawn.com (Pakistan) (9/11/09)
Capitalism confronted with growing doubts Global Times (China) (11/11/09)
The fall of the Berlin wall – Pt 1 (video), The fall of the Berlin wall – Pt 2 (video), Al Jazeera (on YouTube), Riz Khan (9/11/09)
Column : Why Berlin was a win for all of us Financial Express (India), Lord Desai (Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics) (9/11/09)
The real lesson of 1989 is that nothing is ever settled Guardian, Seumas Milne (12/11/09)
The Wall fell and hope rose – for a while Otago Times (New Zealand), Andrew Rawnsley (10/11/09)
New name for a new economy? BBC News, Stephanomics (13/11/09)
- What are the alternatives to free-market capitalism?
- Do you agree that “however flawed free-market capitalism is, it is still the best of all systems”? Explain your answer.
- In what ways does free-market captialism fail to provide the optimum allocation and distribution of resources?
- What forms can government intervention take to influence markets?
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has built up the pace of turning Venezuela into a socialist state with sweeping reforms, including extensive nationalisation. This has always been a controversial policy (not least with the private companies which will be taken into state ownership) and threatens to create further social tension in Venezuela.
Nationalisation sweeps Venezuela BBC News Online (15/5/07)
||What are the economic implications of the creation of a ‘socialist state’?
||Many of the poorest in Venezuela do not have full access to key services such as telecoms. Assess the extent to which nationalisation will help extend the reach of these services to all groups in society.
||Discuss the arguments for and against bringing key industries into state ownership.
China, in a contentious new law, has given its people additional private property rights and protection of private assets. Many were worried that this eroded fundamental socialist principles, and it can be argued that this moves China further towards becoming a market economy.
China announces new property law BBC News Online (9/3/07)
China passes new law on property BBC News Online (16/3/07)
||Examine the implications for the Chinese economy of the new additional property rights.
||Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the new law giving additional private property rights.
||Assess the extent to which this moves China closer to being a free market economy.
The kibbutzes in Israel have always been renowned as a system where everything is evenly shared. However, with the news that Israel’s oldest Kibbutz has agreed to essentially privatise itself and start paying people according to ability, it seems that the reach of capitalism and the market system is now almost total. What alternative systems are left to organise and allocate resources? With most forms of socialist organisation more or less discredited as an efficient way of allocating resources, it seems that globalised capitalism is all that is left. However, in the article from the Guardian below Timothy Garton Ash argues that capitalism may, by its very nature destroy itself.
Global capitalism now has no serious rivals. But it could destroy itself Guardian (22/2/07)
Israel’s oldest Kibbutz votes for privatisation Guardian (20/2/07)
||Describe the changes that have taken place in the system used to allocate resources in the Degania kibbutz.
||Assess the reasons why the Degania kibbutz has decided to pay members according to ability.
||Discuss the validity of Timothy Garton Ash’s argument that global capitalism is in danger of destroying itself.