Can global capitalism endure?

Can global capitalism endure?  William Robinson tries to answer this question in his book entitled with the same question. Robinson is professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In a fast-moving account, Robinson covers a lot of ground in offering the reader a vision of the global capitalist crisis and the accompanying international conflagration.  

It flows like an essay rather than a stodgy full-length book.  As Robinson says, “my aim is to present a “big picture” snapshot in a shorter work and from the vantage point of global capitalism theory that takes into account some elements of global capitalism that have come further into focus in recent years, especially the ever-deeper financialization and digitalization of the global economy and society.” 

As such, the book offers no original research and relies on the work of others.  Fair enough, as Robinson’s objective is to convince the reader that the “survival of global capitalism beyond the present crisis requires a substantial restructuring involving a measure of transnational regulation of the global economy and a redistribution of wealth downward. Even at that, though, a new period of economic reactivation and prosperity will not bring to an end the threat to our survival. For that, we must do away with a system whose drive to accumulate capital puts it at war with the mass of humanity and with nature. Only an ecosocialism can ultimately lift us from the threat.”

Robinson bases his theory on the nature of crises in capitalism on Marx’s law of profitability, but with his own attempt to reconcile that law with alternative theories.  “Marxist political economists have debated whether overaccumulation and attendant crises are caused by a fall in profitability or by overproduction and underconsumption. I am not convinced that these two approaches must be incompatible so long as we start the analysis in the circuit of production.”

Robinson agrees that capitalist crises have their origin in over-accumulation or the overproduction of capital. And that this overaccumulation originates in the circuit of capitalist production, ultimately in the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.  And the evidence for this is strong.  “While figures for the rate of profit tend to vary depending on who is doing the reporting and through what methodology, one report after another has confirmed the long-term secular decline in profitability, notwithstanding short-term fluctuations, and along with it, the steady decline since 1970 in the growth of the net stock of capital (a proxy for productive investment) in the rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Robinson agrees with me (see my book, The Long Depression) that crises in capitalism are both cyclical and secular, or ‘structural’.  “In the history of capitalism there have been periodic crises of two types, cyclical and structural. Cyclical crises, sometimes called the business cycle, occur about once a decade and show up as recessions. There were recessions in the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and at the turn of the twenty-first century. World capitalism has experienced over the past two centuries several episodes of structural crisis, or what I call restructuring crises, so-called because the resolution of such crises requires a major restructuring of the system.” Here Robinson sympathises (as I do) with ‘long wave’ theory, namely that capitalist growth tends to take place in long waves beyond cyclical crises. 

For Robinson, the most important structural change in capitalism in the last half of the 20th century was globalization and rise of the multi-nationals.  And in “this age of global capitalism the world economy is now inextricably integrated and functions as a single unit in real time.”  But that trend came to an end in the 21st century and capitalism is now in a period of stagnation.  “Wild financial speculation and escalating government, corporate, and consumer debt drove growth in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, but these are temporary and unsustainable solutions to long-term stagnation.”

Robinson argues that the accumulation of fictitious capital gave the appearance of recovery in the years following the Great Recession. But it only offset the crisis temporarily , while in the long run it exacerbated the underlying problem: “the key point with regard to the crisis is that the massive appropriations of value through the global financial system can only be sustained through the continued expansion of fictitious capital, resulting in a further aggravation of the underlying conditions of the crisis.”

Robinson makes the correct point, that “so gaping is the chasm between fictitious capital and the real economy that financial valorization appears as independent of real valorization. This independence, of course, is an illusion. The entire financial edifice rests on the exploitation of labor in the “real” economy. If the system came crashing down, the crisis would dwarf all earlier ones, with the lives of billions of people hanging in the balance. The unprecedented injection of fiat money into the financial system may result in a new kind of stagflation, in which runaway inflation is induced by such astronomical levels of liquidity even as acute inequality and low rates of profit prolong stagnation.”

Capitalism can only endure if it can find some new structural change.  This Robinson sees coming possibly from “digital restructuring and through reforms that some among the global elite are advocating in the face of mass pressures from below”.  That could unleash a new round of productive expansion that attenuates the crisis for a while.   So capitalism could manage to “catch its breath again” through digitally-driven productive expansion that becomes strong enough to restore sustained economic growth and launch a new long boom.

However, Robinson counters, that any such expansion will run up against the problems that an increase in the organic composition of capital presents for the system, namely the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, a contraction of aggregate demand, and the amassing of profits that cannot be profitably reinvested.  “But before such a time that a crisis of value would bring the system down, it is certainly possible that restructuring will unleash a new wave of expansion.” Robinson makes the pertinent point that “the breakdown of the political organization of world capitalism is not the cause but the consequence of contradictions internal to a globally integrated system of capital accumulation.”

But a new boom to happen, the state would have to intervene to build new “political structures to resolve the crisis, stabilize a new global power bloc, and reconstruct capitalist hegemony, given the disjuncture between a globalizing economy and a nation-state-based system of political authority.”  And that seems unlikely, given the break-up of the US hegemony and the rise of a multi-polar world. 

Robinson’s pessimism about the ability of capitalism to find a way out is compounded by the ecological crisis, which “makes it very questionable that capitalism can continue to reproduce itself as a global system.”  Never before have crisis and collapse involved such matters as human-induced climate emergencies and mass extinction.

As Robinson sums it up: “the literary critic and philosopher, Frederic Jameson, once observed that: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” But if we do not imagine the end of capitalism—and act on that imagination—we may well be facing the end of the world. Our survival requires that we wage a battle for political power; to wrest power from the multi-nationals and their political, bureaucratic and military agents before it is too late.”

22 thoughts on “Can global capitalism endure?

  1. I’m glad you both got to the “second contradiction of capitalism”, the ecological crisis of finite limits to material expansion. The two contradictions have to be understood together. Looks like a valuable book.

  2. The answer to to the question of the title is certain: no.

    “Global capitalism” here I understand as capital as the hegemonic mode of production. It is probable that capital will still exist somehow, somewhere, well after socialism is hegemonic. Just to give a concrete example: feudalism still existed well into the mid-20th Century in the kingdom of Tibet, until the Communist Party of China brought it to an end. The fall of Tibet is considered the end of the last remnants of feudalism, Feudalism’s Trebizond.

    Capitalism, as we already know here, will ultimately fall because it has an entropy, which manifests itself at the material level in the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall. There’s no need to delve into that.

    I think socialism will rise from the periphery of the capitalist civilization, i.e. the “Global South”. As it expands, capitalism will resist in the First World, i.e. the West. The last remnants of capitalism will probably lie somewhere in the USA and/or Western Europe, some 350-1000 years from now. By the year 3.000 CE, I would not be surprised if some very impoverished, very backwards pockets of capitalism still exist in Europe and North America in a socialist world. Somewhere in the USA or Western Europe – that’s my bet on where capitalism’s Trebizond will be in the Third Millennium.

    Yes, that would mean a “reverse Marx”, but it is important to highlight that Marx’s infamous prediction was not part of his scientific works (i.e. his formally established theory), but just his personal opinion given in some letter. Marx’s theory have always taken capitalism as a worldwide system par excellence, therefore socialism could be ignited, in theory, in any part of the world where the industrial proletariat has a “critical mass” (emphasis on the “critical mass”: Marx never stated that the industrial proletariat should necessarily have to be the absolute majority of humanity, let alone that it would use this majority to install socialism through an electoral process).


    As for the “a new period of economic reactivation and prosperity” problem, here Mr. Robinson can only be making a reference to the Kondratiev Cycle, which is the only cycle that has the capacity to make capitalism “feel young again”.

    As I mentioned before in a previous post, the only technology that has such potential is nuclear fusion energy. The problem is fusion is still at least 80 years away in the most optimist scenario, and that even if it comes to fruition, the socialist world (China) will also have it, because of ITER and the fact that the Chinese are as advanced if not more advanced than the American in this field or research.

    That’s the importance of a concrete socialist alternative on a geopolitical scale: it neutralizes the effectiveness of Kondratiev Cycles to rejuvenate capitalism. The same way the existence of the USSR neutralized nuclear fission in capitalism, so will China with nuclear fusion.

    But even if a socialist alternative didn’t exist, Marx’s Law is still valid, as Kondratiev Cycles, albeit a major countervailing factor, does not eliminate the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall. Capitalism would fall anyway.

    1. Absolutely brilliant, vk- I completely agree and have personally come to similar conclusions myself.

      If we, as historical materialists, take a look at the history of previous transformations, the most significant through-line is that these transitions don’t happen all of a sudden or all at once (e.g. Feudalism was replaced by Capitalism over the course of centuries, not decades).

      And yet, as far as I can see, the vast majority of analyses looking at transitions away from Capitalism tend to think of that transition as something that will happen in the space of a few decades (if that!). It’s quite a bizarre phenomenon. I actually can’t think of a single author that takes sufficiently seriously the potential for a protracted, uneven transition to socialism (although that might just be my ignorance speaking).

      For my own part, I can imagine a similar ‘afterlife of capitalism’ in the West but picture it being related to the US military-industrial complex in some way. The immense build-up of raw power in the US war machine and its associated contractors and hangers on isn’t something I can imagine going away all its own for at least a few centuries or more.

      Many thanks for review Michael- sounds like a very timely book!

      1. Greetings, comrade Pasionaria:) Chris Wright is the single author that for some years now has been writing about such necessarily longer-term approach to socialist revolution:
        If we take historical materialism seriously, any such revolution can only take place in a very long term. Do we have time, though, before we hit the ecological crisis and/or nuclear armaggedon that are brewing?

    2. Someone who considers himself a Marxist has to use historical examples of the end of other production systems to understand the logic of their decline.
      The end of feudalism occurs when the creation of absolute and national monarchies reaches the maximum point in which the feud reaches the dimensions of countries. The Sun King, Louis XIV, is the ultimate expression of a feudal society that already brought pre-capitalism to its core, Louis XIV dies in his splendor in 1715 and already at that time an industrial bourgeoisie was beginning to establish itself.
      In 1776 Turgot extinguishes all craft guilds ending the medieval organization of work, as is typical of the French, until capitalism is introduced by decree.
      If we are going to consider the extinction of later forms of feudalism as in Tibet, we have to consider how there is still primitive communism in the Amazon in the 21st century!

      1. Feudalism reached its peak 2200 years ago, the Qin dynasty that was founded by Qin Shi Huang. Since then, no feudal system has reached such a level of tyranny as it.

  3. Thanks for the overview, Michael.

    Robinson is very endebted to Sweezy and Barran – a tradition that dominated Marxist political economy for deades (arguably still does) and which people such as yourself have sought to re-establish a more authentic position where the tendency for the rate of orofit to fall has a more central role.

    In the light of this, your review seems to be very charitable. Has Robinson shifted his stance, or are you just feeling charitable and christmassy?

  4. Capitalism will still exist, maybe it will last another 500 or 1000 years. However it will have to accept sharing the earth with socialism. Because of capitalism’s tendency to maximize profits, it will need an outsider to do unprofitable work. The Soviet Union of the 20th century was to perform that function. The capitalist countries did not realize and let the Soviet Union turn right that led to its collapse, and the current crisis of profits is a consequence of that history. If capitalism is to survive in the 21st century, it will have to accept the creation of a new Soviet Union. Of all the regions on earth today, the most favorable place for socialism to appear a second time is still the area with the arctic climate. Only such places would require socialism to sustain industrial production. That is what Marx called the “most advanced countries” and Lenin called the “weakest link”. “The Chain Is No Stronger Than Its Weakest Link”. In other words, if capitalism wants to survive, it will have to remove its weakest link. The weakest link is where nature is the harshest, and in order for people to survive there, they need the most advanced technologies.

      1. Capitalism is not a zombie. It won’t wait to die doing nothing. But the important thing is that the world is always composed of two types of people. There ‘s a kind of people who think that their life is for themselves. There’s another kind of people who are aware that their life is just a gear of nature. Social consciousness is created by social existence. It shows that on earth, different natural conditions give rise to different ecosystems, leading to different social existences and different social consciousness. The fact that a person is a worker and he has the consciousness of the proletariat do not always go together. Where natural conditions favor capitalism, the worker also has a capitalist consciousness. Where natural conditions favor socialism, capitalists also have the mindset of the proletariat. Due to the current crisis of capitalism, it will have to abandon places where nature does not favor it. This is just as the Roman Empire had to give up Rome to keep its eastern part.

  5. “For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account. Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.” ( Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN – Speech at the Banquet of the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association St. Paul, Minnesota May 14, 1957) -> “Global conventional crude oil production peaked in 2008 at 69.5 mb/d and has since fallen by around 2.5 mb/d.” Page 45 of the World Energy Outlook 2018 by the International Energy Agency. -> “Listen, and understand! That Terminator (oil depletion) is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you (industrial society, capitalist, socialist, whatever) are dead!”

  6. I was not going to comment, but a few ideas have been raised in the comment section to this article. Marx and Engels were clear that the global revolutionary period could extend for decades, but that is the least important consideration, what is the most important is the ideological struggle and who wins that struggle – the fight over hearts and minds. It has two strands, firstly to convince workers that OBJECTIVELY capitalism has become barren and SUBJECTIVELY that they can and must make a revolution and build a new future. Why is the ideological struggle so decisive. Well in the case of the capitalists they became conscious of the need for revolution by reading their books of account, which showed how the feudalists were bleeding their profits and inhibiting their investments. In short capitalism as a mode of production grew in the womb of the feudal society. In the case of workers where no new mode of production is emerging, socialism has to grow in the brain of the worker as an idea based on reading the book of material history.

    Once the genie is out of the bottle it can never be put back by repression, or what is the same thing, the widespread acceptance of the need for revolution. Which is why a site like Michael’s is so important to us bottle openers.

    1. I was not going to answer either, but the title of the article, the collapse of Capitalism, is close enough to my study and research and, on the other hand, in your comment I have found (unfortunately that has not happened in the rest of the comments). and said with respect) the sufficient level of knowledge on the question of the socialist revolution to answer it. Just a few lines.
      In accordance with your analysis in general and, especially, with the necessary work of the “bottle openers” (M. Roberts, you and the rest of the Marxist intellectuals) to disseminate quality socialist and scientific knowledge. But I will make a criticism that I consider leads to an important step forward in the analysis of the revolution in my point of view. You say ”a new mode of production is not emerging in the workers” and ”socialism has to grow in the worker’s brain”. So I ask you, what has happened in the brains of the working classes so that in 1917 in Russia (and on other dates and countries) those brains knew with all certainty that they had to make a revolution and yet, in the year 2022 those brains seem to be far from making a revolution? Does it only seem so to me or do you also see an advance and a regression in those brains? An advance and a regression in his knowledge. The advance and retreat is observed in the knowledge of the working class and is observed and quantified with precision in a multitude of economic factors (my specialty). Economic factors that have advanced up to the 1980s and have receded since then. The list of factors that “move” up and down is infinite just by going into the details: GDP, real wages, inequality, etc. and, as a star dependent variable, the movement of the State, its growth and decrease. The State, that new economic subject exponentially amplified by the socialist revolutions. That movement of factors has happened everywhere and everywhere. That is, it is a scientific phenomenon with a scientific explanation. On the brains of the workers and with a graphic example: if you transferred the Russian workers and their political leaders (Lenin, etc.) to present-day Russia (or to any other country) in two minutes they would be promoting and building a revolution. What has happened then in the brains of the working class and, above all, in the economic factors, in the economic structure, which are the ones that modify their knowledge? It’s been a cycle, comrade Brian. A revolutionary or class struggle cycle. Class struggle cycle that explains and demonstrates that the socialist mode of production has already emerged. It already emerged in 1917-Russia, it expanded in 1949-China, it is ongoing, it is in a phase of decline and it is close, around 2,040, to a new revolutionary impulse that will lead it to dominate over a terminal capitalism. Yes, it is true, it does it just as Capitalism did in Feudalism and grows and recedes within it until it is extinguished. There are cycles, and they do so in many areas of the subject, but that is another topic, and I have talked a lot about revolutionary cycles in this magnificent blog by M. Roberts. And I hope one day, if the work allows me, to make a proper scientific publication.

  7. “Capitalism can only endure if it can find some new structural change. … However, Robinson counters, that any such expansion will run up against the problems that an increase in the organic composition of capital presents for the system, namely the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, a contraction of aggregate demand, and the amassing of profits that cannot be profitably reinvested.

    The undeniable tendency of the rate of the profit to fall explains crashes and depressions. They, with all the suffering they bring to working people, are inevitable in a capitalist economy.

    However, Robinson runs into a typical logical dead end when he tries to reason himself and his readers to the end of capitalism per this undeniable tendency (TRPF). The TRPF has been in play for about 200 years. And so has the destruction of capital values and a resumption of capitalist development, only to start the cycle all over again.

    The TRPF explains what it explains, but it does not explain the terminal phase of capitalism. The U.S. has entered that phase. The relative mass prosperity that U.S. capitalism provided – when compelled by class struggle – is no longer possible. This is proved by new research guided by Marx’s hypothesis that the relations of production at a certain point become an impassable barrier for the forces of production (which include human working talents).

  8. Capitalism can endure until it’s overthrown; neither viruses, FROP, war, or environmental disaster will bring about it’s end. The question was answered long ago– socialism or barbarism.

  9. Yes but the objective interacts with the subjective. Capitalism will be overthrown in the worst of times not the best. Antonio Stalinism has played a huge counter-revolutionary role since the mid twenties. Its final gift was the collapse of the USSR which granted Capitalism the ideological advantage.

    1. ”Stalinism has played a huge counter-revolutionary role since the mid twenties. Its final gift was the collapse of the USSR ” No, it was the gift of the anti-Stalinists.From the the 1980’s onwards Soviet mass media was dominated by attacks on Stalinism. Please check it out!

      1. I would rearrange the sequence, or the order of connection here. The counterrevolutionary role played by and after the dissolution of the “Comintern,” in (partial list) Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, Egypt, Vietnam 1937 and again in 1945, Chile, Italy, resulted in the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

        You can blame as much of this as you want on imperialism or capitalism, but what after all do you expect the bourgeoisie to do? They, after all, didn’t get to be the ruling class by subordinating or obscuring their class interests with so-called popular fronts, “self-determination,” etc.

    2. The key to decipher the USSR is this: it was, from the very beginning, the Bolshevik’s plan B, a consolation prize after the world revolution failed in Germany two times (1918-19 and 1923).

      After 1923, there was some last desperate – and completely delusional – attempt to ignite something in the UK during the miners’ strike of 1926 (more due to Zinoviev’s political struggle against a rising Stalin than due to a concrete analysis of the situation), but it obviously didn’t happen.

      With the German rapprochement with the imperialist powers in late 1926 (the Spirit of Locarno), every faint hope of a world revolution in definitely must have died in the Bolshevik Party, and they finally sobered up and retrenched itself into a nationalist type struggle for self-preservation (thanks to access to the diplomatic channels because they controlled the State they already knew, since 1926, that WWII would happen and that they were the main target).

      Stalin was the mere leadership of Socialism in One Country. By the time revolution was condemned in Germany in 1923, his ascension was already written in the stars. There is no evidence he did anything extraordinary to rise and consolidate power after Lenin’s death: he just supported the right strategy in the right place, the right time. He’s textbook “the occasion makes the man”.

      With the rise of Socialism in One Country, it is evident an international revolution was dead. What could be done after that was done. The Bolsheviks are the only party in History that built a superpower (and did so in just 29 years) and still underachieved. Such status of a baby born of sorrow explains why the USSR is so hated by both the far-left (which accuses it of killing international revolution) and the modern-day Russian conservatism (which, through the mouth of Putin himself, accuses the Bolsheviks of “doing social experiments with the Russian people”).

      1. “An international” – I don’t think so. It is evident that the whole world made revolution together. The Russian, German, Ottoman Empires collapsed. A revolutionary wave occurred all over the world. An international revolution is not necessarily a purely socialist one. Because there was a gap in the level of production forces of different countries, every country had an appropriate revolutionary approach. A socialist revolution can only take place where both necessary and sufficient conditions are satisfied. The necessary conditions are that the production of that country must have industrialized to a certain extent and that it has a need to continue to maintain an industrial society. The sufficient condition is that the masses of the proletariat must have a sufficient level of awareness both in theory and practice to conduct the revolution themselves without relying on other classes or groups. If the level of the masses is not enough, there must be at least one capable vanguard party. In places where the above conditions are not met, the revolution cannot succeed. Importantly, the function of a revolution is to reorganize the mode of production, which is often the creation of new relations of production or the modification of existing relations of production in order to remove the obstacles that prevent the productive forces from continuing develop.

        The case of the Soviet Union was not a failure but an objective necessity. The Soviet vanguard party was incompetent. They should have focused on raising the awareness level of the masses after the revolution, so that the proletariat could manage society by themselves instead of having to rely on the bureaucracy. They did not, instead they were absorbed in the unequal race against capitalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union is for the Russian proletariat as well as the world proletariat to get the right awareness. The mission of the communists in the coming decades is to make this happen more and more positively and sustainably.

  10. One last piece of information, only telegraphed, about the revolutionary cycles. The revolutionary cycles, of advance and retreat of the revolutions and their economic, social and political effects, have also happened in Capitalism and it is a high probability, but data that is more difficult to obtain is missing, which has also happened in the rest of the previous ones. modes of production. The most famous reversal of Capitalism is that of the European Restoration, with an extreme revival of terminal Feudalism. Period of the Restoration led by the powers of the Holy Alliance and which runs from the defeat of the Napoleonic Regime (1815) to the European Liberal Revolutions of 1848.

  11. wtf does “unprecedented injection of fiat money into the financial system” mean? what was being injected previously?

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