Can the world survive capitalism?

Salimullah Khan | Published: 00:05, Jun 07,2018 | Updated: 12:39, Jun 07,2018


Karl Marx — Wikimedia Commons (left), Fernand Braudel —

Stars were born, grew, and died.
And the galaxy was taking the shape of a flower
the way it looks on a starry night.
Our flesh and our bones come from other stars
and perhaps from other galaxies,
we are universal,
and after death we will help to form other stars
and other galaxies.
We come from the stars, and to them we shall return.
—Ernesto Cardenal (Cardenal 2009: 240)

CAN capitalism survive? The French historian Fernand Braudel once, towards the end of his life, asked this rather simple question. He answered, of course, in the affirmative but he did not forget to redefine capitalism as something like socialism with a market face. I owe my title today to Braudel’s question. All I had to think of is to invert his subject into my object: can we, ie, the workers’ world or mankind if you like, survive Capitalism as we know it all the way?
When Fernand Braudel’s long awaited work in three volumes, Civilisation matérielle, Economie et Capitalisme, XVe–XVIIIe Siècles (Paris: Armand Colin, 1979) finally came out it was celebrated by leading historians in Europe and the Americas as the first standard work in the ‘history of economies’ ever since Inama-Sternegg initiated the concept of ‘economic history’ almost a hundred years ago. (Makkai 1983: 435)
In his preface to the third volume, namely Le Temps du Monde, Braudel claimed that what he had drafted was in effect a history of the world, though only from the vantage point of ‘the economy’. ‘So the economic history of the world,’ as he puts it, ‘is the entire history of the world, but seen from a certain vantage point — that of the economy.’ (Braudel 1984: 19)
In an attempt to preempt not unlikely charges of ‘economism’, that sin of all sins, our economic historian also invokes the spectre of Marx: ‘One cannot with impunity give precedence to the series of phenomena known as “economic”,’ he writes. ‘However carefully one seeks to control them, to keep them in order and above all to look beyond them,’ Braudel asks in a rhetorical flourish, ‘can one ever avoid an insidious form of “economism” and the problem of historical materialism?’ (Braudel 1984: 19)
Fernand Braudel’s rhetoric does me the favour of choosing my point of departure in this note. I readily admit that I for one could hardly avoid thinking of Marx while leafing through the pages of the Frenchman’s masterpiece. The historian conducts himself as a peasant rebel would maneuvre according to certain manuals of guerilla warfare. His is a case of a war of attrition contra Marx, now hidden and now open depending on the terrain. Concerns of space dissuade me to treat myself with more than one episode in here.

THOUGH Fernand Braudel rightly claims that he has confined his studies only to ‘the early modern period,’ or within the bounds of the 15th-18th centuries, Braudel the man cannot resist a temptation of prowling into the future of capitalism, ie, the world as we know it today. In an afterword to the third volume, dated 30 October, 1979, Braudel felt impelled to write: ‘And while western capitalism is undoubtedly going through a period of uncertainty and crisis, I do not believe that it is on the point of collapse.’
‘It no longer, admittedly, excites the admiration which Marx himself could not help feeling for it;’ he added, ‘nor is it viewed, as it once was by Max Weber or Werner Sombart, as the culminating stage of a long development. But that does not mean that any system which might replace it in some relatively smooth evolution might not turn out to be strikingly similar.’ (Braudel 1984: 626; also Braudel 1980: 112)
Braudel defends his conjecture on the basis of a rather curious reading of history. He admits he does not have ‘the impression that capitalism is likely to collapse of its own accord, in some form of ‘endogenous determination’; for any collapse to take place, in his view, ‘there would have to be some external impact of great violence; and a credible alternative would have to be available.’
He would not run short of illustrations to pluck out from the annals of the twentieth century: ‘Wherever socialism has triumphed in the world, it has been as the result of some external pressure and in circumstances of extreme violence — whether the Russian revolution of 1917, the setting up of socialist states in East Europe after the Second World war, the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the triumph of the Cuban guerillas in 1959, or the liberation of Vietnam in 1975. And all these movements were founded on absolute confidence in the socialist future which may be less forthcoming today.’ (Braudel 1984: 626)
Braudel, therefore, predicts, against all odds, that ‘capitalism as a system has every chance of surviving.’ He also thinks that the beast might even emerge strengthened from the trial, i.e. economically if not ideologically, he underscores. What permits this optimism? Beginning with pre-industrial Europe, Braudel thinks, economic crises have always been playing a rather constructive, regenerative role. Crises are the instruments through which capital leads itself to more and more centralized and concentrated forms of existence.
Crises — by which he means merely economic crises — are, in other words, quite functional to the structure of capital: ‘they tended,’ in our historian’s own words, ‘to eliminate the small firm (small that is in capitalist terms), the fragile undertaking created in times of economic euphoria, or the old-fashioned business — that is to say they reduced competition rather than increasing it and usually ended with the bulk of economic activities concentrated in a few hands. In this respect, nothing has changed.’ (Braudel 1984: 626-27)
At both national and international levels, he insists, there has indeed been a ‘new deal’ but it has benefitted the strongest and he would agree without a fuss with Herbert Mercuse’s argument that ‘crises are essential to the development of capitalism; inflation and unemployment etc. nowadays encourage the centralization and concentration of capitalism.’ Braudel notes in silent approval that this indicates rather ‘the beginning of a new phase of development but it is by no means the final crisis of capitalism.’ (Braudel 1984: 627)
Breakdowns occur but in the fact of inevitable adjustments some activities get reduced or even eliminated altogether. ‘Centralization and concentration [of capital]’, says Braudel, ‘are indeed the silent demolition and construction workers of our social and economic architecture.’ But new avenues of profit also open up at the same time for the benefit of the survivors. Major crises, Braudel would remind us, also provoke new deals in international relations. Here too the weak tend to get weaker and the strong stronger, although world hegemony may change hands and geographical location. (Braudel 1984: 627)
Despite all the changes ever since the fourteenth century, the Braudelian capitalist world economy has always been comprised of a centre, an intermediate zone with less power and a periphery with only sparse if any capital relations. Between circa 1380–1500, Venice provided the core; hegemony then passed successively to Antwerp (1500–1560), Genoa (1560–1600), Amsterdam (1600–1800), London (1800–1929), and finally to New York. However, despite everything, structural relations of dominance and dependence remained invariant, according to Braudel. (Howard 1985: 471)
At the decline of the twentieth century Braudel would stress two sets of developments in the main. ‘The American economy,’ as on the one hand he observes, ‘has shifted towards the south and west’ (‘a contributory factor to the decline of New York’, adds Braudel). This has been noted as part of a longer term trend by some, to such an extent that some has spoken of ‘a shift of the world’s center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with new economic axis running between the United States and Japan.’ (Braudel 1984: 627)
In addition, there took place a split in the unity of that good old Third World, ‘with the new wealth of the oil-producing countries and the accentuated poverty and distress of the other less developed countries.’ Another interesting fact for the present history of the world, from this point of view, is the ‘industrialization (effected largely from outside by western nations and in particular by the multinational companies) of backward countries which were until recently confined to the role of exporters of raw materials.’ (Braudel 1984: 627)
In the Braudelian world of today, the old colonial possessions may not be a cornucopia any longer but they make no dystopia either. Given right policies they do work right for the capital that exploits them: ‘In short, capitalism has to rethink its policies in those large areas of the world which the western world-economy had for so long dominated — exploitable areas with low living standards, like Latin America, Africa now in theory liberated, or India. Despite much touted economic ‘development’ (a thinly disguised metaphor replacing the old white man’s burden or ‘civilizing mission’), some more or less impressive attainments, the good old Third World happens still to be the true homeland of widespread poverty. In spite of all the progress made in the field of agriculture and food production India, for example, did not reach the stage ‘when the mass of Indian villagers will be the buyers of manufactured objects ‘made in India’, underlines Braudel. A specter is haunting the European historian, the specter of population. Circa 1979, India alone faces a situation where, Braudel worries, ‘the population is still increasing at the rate of 13 million a year.’ (Braudel 1984: 627-28)

SO W HAT is the upshot? For all that goes with a new Third World, no longer so-called by the way, Braudel would think, ‘that even faced with a new Third World, capitalism will, for some time to come, be able to reorganize its means of domination or devise new ones, using yet again the formidable strength of acquired position and the weight of the past.’ He perforce takes refuge in Marx who wrote for him: ‘Tradition and previous generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living’ — and, adds Braudel, ‘not only on the minds, [but] on the very existence of the living too.’ (Braudel 1984: 628)
What Marx actually wrote in 1867 was a warning with reference to his native Germany, contrasting its backwardness in capitalist development to continental Western Europe. Marx’s admonition addressed to the German philistines in his preface to the first edition of Das Kapital, Vol I, sounds a good deal more resonant for the ruling circles of the new third world today: ‘Alongside modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!” [ie, The dead grips the living!]’ (Marx 1977: 20)
Braudel often reminded us the truth that no society in the world, at any rate no civilized society, has yet given up tradition and the use of privilege, Braudel reminds us. So why should the bourgeoisies of either peripheries or the center! He therefore concludes that not even ‘a little more equitable distribution of surpluses’ is to be expected either in domestic jurisdictions or on a world scale today: ‘A clear-sighted revolution, if such a thing is even possible — and if it were, would the paralyzing weight of circumstances allow it to remain so for long? — would find it very difficult to demolish what should be demolished, while retaining what should be retained: freedom for ordinary people, cultural independence, a market economy with no loaded dice, and a little fraternity.’
(Braudel 1984: 628)
That’s a tall order indeed and highly unlikely too under the conditions obtaining, as Braudel knows only better. He knows the problem is not so much a problem of finding an ‘economic solution’ to the evils of capitalism, ‘it is social in nature’ in his opinion. ‘If people set about looking for them, seriously and honestly,’ Braudel sets out, ‘economic solutions could be found which would extend the area of the market and would put at its disposal the economic advantages so far kept to itself by one dominant group in society.’ (Braudel 1984: 632)
‘But the problem,’ he knows, ‘does not essentially lie there; it is social in nature. Just as a country at the centre of the world-economy can hardly be expected to give up its privileges at international level, how can one hope that the dominant groups who combine capital and state power, and who are assured of international support, will agree to play the game and hand over to someone else?’ (Braudel 1984: 632)
What Marx was constrained to put in black and white on July 25, 1867 did not speak of any miracle whatsoever either, but they for sure only indicated certain signs taken for wonders. ‘Nevertheless,’ Marx wrote in great delight, ‘there is an unmistakable advance. I refer to the Blue book published within the last few weeks: ‘Correspondence with Her Majesty’s Missions Abroad, regarding Industrial Questions and Trade Unions.’ The representatives of the English Crown in foreign countries there declare in so many words that in Germany, in France, to be brief, in all the civilized states of the European Continent, a radical change of the relations of capital and labour is as evident and inevitable as in England. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Wade, vice-president of the United States, declared in public meetings that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next upon the order of the day. These are signs of the time, not to be hidden by purple mantles or black cassocks.’ (Marx 1977: 21)
‘They do not signify,’ Marx admitted, ‘that tomorrow a miracle will happen.’ They show that,’ at least from the point of view of ‘historical science’ Marx espoused all his life, ‘within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change,
and is constantly changing.’(Marx 1977: 21)
Isn’t it a little curious to see that that most unlikely source of all, The Economist, courting Karl Marx (1818–1883), even if as ‘second time, farce’ so much more than Fernand Braudel (1902–1985), for example, to allay that old mortal anxiety (or is it ennui à la Baudelaire?) of the ruling classes? What this shameless crony of a decadent capitalism gone sour, in one of its latest numbers, finds it necessary to push upfront in its pages is perhaps symptomatic of our bad new times, once again: ‘The backlash against capitalism is mounting — if more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms both of their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man—not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them.’ ([Unsigned] 2018: 72)

1. Fernand Braudel, Civilisation matérielle, Economie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe Siècles, tomes I–III (Paris: Armand Colin, 1979).
2. Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th century, Vol III (The Perspective of the World), trans. Sîan Reynolds (London: Collins, 1984).
3. Fernand Braudel, ‘Will Capitalism Survive?’ The Wilson Quarterly, Vol 4, No 2 (Spring 1980), pp
4. Ernesto Cardenal, ‘Stardust,’ Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems, trans., Jonathan Cohen et al (New York: New Directions, 2009).
5. M.C. Howard, ‘Fernand Braudel on Capitalism: A Theoretical Analysis,’ Historical Reflections/ Réflexions Historiques, Vol 12, No 3 (Fall 1985), pp 469–483.
6. Làszlò Makkai, ‘Ars Historica: On Braudel,’ Review (Binghampton, New York), vol. VI, no. 4. Spring 1983, pp. 435-453.
7. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol I, trans S Moore and E Aveling, ed. F. Engels, reprinted (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977).
8. [Unsigned], ‘Reconsidering Marx: Second time, farce,’ The Economist, Vol 427, No 9090, May 5–11, 2018, pp 71–72.

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email