The past several years have witnessed the spectacular unraveling of capitalism, or so it has appeared.
Venerated investment banks have vanished overnight, titans of industry have permanently shuttered their doors, and rich nations have lurched perilously close to default. The ideology of the free market, once seemingly unassailable, lies in tatters. While the death knell of capitalism may not yet be tolling, the crisis is undoubtedly of a different order of magnitude than anything seen in decades.
Crises can be openings: moments when the stanchions are kicked out from under the status quo, when the pieties of the recent past fall away and a revitalized sense of collective power takes shape. But crises aren’t always – or only – opportunities for radicals, mechanically ushering legions of the downtrodden to the barricades. In times of crisis the far right often harnesses the insecurities of the precarious, as well as the monied, in the service of xenophobia and austerity. Paradoxically, crises of capitalism are opportunities for capital. Notwithstanding any frontal challenges to the old order, those capitalists who survive the shakeout and destruction of competitors can find fertile ground for a new round of expansion. Such demolition and regeneration are often aided by force of arms: contrary to the pacifist slogan, war is the answer, razing old capital and clearing the way for the new. Even the crisis of nature is fortuitous for capital, spawning green commodities and product lines as coral reefs, rainforests, freshwater lakes and rivers perish, and myriad species disappear forever. Capitalism begets crisis and then crisis begets opportunities for profit. And so it goes. Or so it has gone.
For better or worse – often for worse – the left has a long history of diagnosing the death throes of capitalism and the final conflict heralding radical change. As the old witticism has it, Marxists have predicted ten out of the last two economic crises, a perpetual chronicle of a crisis foretold. Yet in the midst of what arguably is the fourth global crisis of the capitalist system, radicals – whether in North America or South Korea – find themselves adrift and tentative. We should be thankful for the departure of the old mechanistic view of the world, at least from most quarters. But what has taken its place? Anxiety about day-to-day survival has deepened the abiding anti-utopianism of our age. An enduring fatalism about the possibility of radical social transformation, the scar tissue of dashed hopes and sanguinary defeats, has us firmly in its grip. With the exception of a few pockets of militancy (and at times adventurism) the idea of organizing for a postcapitalist future commonly seems delusional: one thinks here of the now oft-quoted saying that it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Another crisis, one of both vision and organization, is painfully in evidence.
It doesn’t have to be so. We are living through an era of considerable flux. Ideas alone won’t solve the crisis of the left, and revolutions cannot be summoned by fervent wishes. But ideas matter, as the often-tragic history of the left has proved. They are born out of action and shape the deeds of the future. They help us understand the world we unwittingly have helped to construct, grasp the many vulnerabilities of the current order and devise avenues for fracture and revolt.