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The Left’s Failure to Envision a World Without Capitalism

Bernie Sanders' speech on democratic socialism underscored the limits of a growing movement's imagination.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

There is a common saying on the left, usually attributed to the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” The late writer Mark Fisher once described this as “capitalist realism,” or the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”

This sense has prevailed since the collapse of communism three decades ago, which led to a triumphalism throughout the capitalist world right up until the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global recession, which triggered different anti-capitalist movements. But in the ten years since then, a true political and economic alternative has yet to materialize. Though many now believe that capitalism should end, this doesn’t make it any more likely—not even if Senator Bernie Sanders becomes president.

The Vermont senator made that clear with a speech on Wednesday whose very title proves the limits of his revolution: “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy.” He did not denounce capitalism itself, but “unfettered capitalism” specifically, and even used “socialism” as a sort of epithet.

“Let us never forget the unbelievable hypocrisy of Wall Street, the high priests of unfettered capitalism,” he said. “In 2008, after their greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior created the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression—with millions of Americans losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their life savings—Wall Street’s religious adherence to unfettered capitalism suddenly came to an end. Overnight, Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history.”

Sanders’ hesitance to go any further may come as a disappointment to many on the far left today, but it’s not surprising given recent history. One of the first major signs of a socialist resurgence was the outbreak of Occupy Wall Street back in 2011. Though decentralized and leaderless, it was perhaps the biggest anti-capitalist movement since “the end of history” was declared 20 years earlier. While the movement spread globally and the “occupations” lasted for months, it didn’t produce any coherent vision of what was to replace capitalism. At the time, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek commented that the Occupy movement recalled Herman Melville’s famous short story about the law clerk Bartleby: “The message of Occupy Wall Street is ‘I would prefer not to play the existing [capitalist] game.’... Beyond this they don’t have an answer.”

A few years after Occupy, Thomas Piketty published his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which became one of the best-selling academic works of all time and prompted an international debate about inequality. Though centrist and right-wing critics labeled Piketty a “modern Marx,” the French economist was hardly calling for an end to capitalism or promoting some grand theory of capital. With an impressive slew of data, Piketty confirmed what those on the left had long known: that extreme inequality and the concentration of wealth is a natural outcome of capitalism. Unlike Marx, however, Piketty didn’t even attempt to imagine a radical alternative to the system of capitalism. (His prescription was ultimately a global wealth tax, which manages to be both underwhelming and unrealistic.)

A year after Capital was published in English, Sanders launched his 2016 presidential run, which became another important display of the growing anti-capitalist mood that had spread since the financial crisis. Sanders openly identified as a “democratic socialist”—a radical gesture in itself—and provided an alternative to the “progressive neoliberalism” that had come to dominate the Democratic Party since the nineties. (I borrow this term from Nancy Fraser to describe an alliance between emancipatory movements such as feminism and anti-racism with “neoliberal forces aiming to financialize the capitalist economy,” who, according to Fraser, use the “charisma of their progressive allies to spread a veneer of emancipation over their own regressive project of massive upward redistribution.”)

Though Sanders reintroduced class politics to the debate and inspired a generation of young people to embrace the socialist label, he was ultimately offering an upgraded version of New Deal liberalism rather than a true socialist alternative to capitalism. The fact that his most “radical” policy—public universal healthcare—has been the status quo in European countries like the United Kingdom since the mid-twentieth century was telling enough. As many commentators noted at the time, Sanders was less a democratic socialist in the tradition of Eugene Debs than he was a social democrat in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt.

Sanders is now embracing that comparison. His speech on Wednesday was an effective love letter to FDR (with no mention of Debs). He called for the Democratic Party to take up the “unfinished business of the New Deal,” and proposed a twenty-first-century version of the FDR’s “economic bill of rights.” Though the senator continues to call himself a democratic socialist, his vague definition of socialism is still closer to the social democracy that FDR ushered in. According to Sanders, democratic socialism is the belief that “economic rights are human rights,” which means the right to a living wage, quality healthcare, education, affordable housing, and a secure retirement; it means “requiring and achieving political and economic freedom in every community in this country,” he said. These are all worthy and important goals, but only right-wing critics would honestly call this socialism.

In the three years since Sanders lost his primary bid, more and more Americans share his view, loosely speaking. According to a survey released by Axios just this week, four in ten respondents would prefer to live in a socialist country over a capitalist one, and 55 percent of women between 18 and 54 reject capitalism. That would seem to work in Sanders’s favor, but the size of the primary field has not. He does not have a sole establishment candidate to contrast himself with, and moreover, many of his competitors have embraced much of his agenda—albeit without the confrontational class-politics that defined his first campaign.

Sanders is still the only candidate who is remotely anti-capitalist, and the only candidate who calls himself a socialist. But his policies aren’t quite as unique as they were in 2016. Though no doubt “radical” in the American setting, Sanders’ economic agenda would be considered center-left in the rest of the developed world, and in practical terms there’s not much separating him from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has insisted that she is “capitalist to [her] bones.”

There’s a degree of nostalgia for mid-twentieth century social democracy among today’s leading leftists, who long for the days when income taxes were high, unions were strong, and reformist policies found a middle ground between the extremes of “socialism” and “capitalism.” Commonly referred to as the “golden age” of capitalism, the postwar era saw a reduction in inequality, growth in wages and living standards, and increased social mobility. This was all made possible—in part—by the policies implemented by New Dealers in America and Social Democrats in Western Europe.

There is a real problem with trying to emulate the social democratic policies of the twentieth century today, however, and it’s not clear whether the middle-of-the-road approach is still viable in the twenty-first century. We live in a far more globalized world than we did 75 years ago. Capital is more flexible and mobile than ever before and the rapid economic growth experienced during the postwar era is unlikely to be repeated, which makes national welfare states harder to sustain. In Capital, Piketty provided ample evidence that the trends during the mid-twentieth century were historically anomalous, and that today’s extreme inequality is a return to the norm.

“A concentration of circumstances (wartime destruction, progressive tax policies made possible by the shocks of 1914-1945, and exceptional growth during the three decades following the end of World War II),” he wrote, “created a historically unprecedented situation which lasted for nearly a century. All signs are, however, that it is about to end.” He added, “Broadly speaking, it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed.”

Social democratic policies were originally designed to “save capitalism from itself.” Like Marx, John Maynard Keynes recognized the inherent instability of capitalism, but unlike the German revolutionary, he believed the system’s contradictions could be limited and its tensions mediated through state intervention—in other words, that the system was reformable. When Keynes was alive, it was still possible to imagine the end of capitalism (indeed, it was impossible not to), and the British economist devoted his life’s work to preserving the system. Today, even if you aren’t “capitalist to your bones” and believe that capitalism is “irredeemable,” as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the end of capitalism (or at least a viable alternative replacing it). It’s even difficult to imagine a return to the capitalism of the mid-twentieth century.

Sanders is an anti-capitalist at heart—otherwise he wouldn’t call himself a socialist—but we continue to live in an age where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (and with climate change and other ecological disasters threatening humanity, it doesn’t take H. G. Wells to imagine the end of the world these days). The question for today’s left seems to be whether the ultimate goal is to reform or to replace capitalism—and if the latter is indeed the goal, then what will a post-capitalist world actually look like? If Sanders wants to set himself apart from a candidate like Warren, he can start by giving these questions serious thought, and go beyond a simple critique of what he calls “unfettered capitalism.”