‘IT IS EASIER to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’ So wrote the critical theorist Fredric Jameson in New Left Review in 2003, attributing the sentiment to an unnamed ‘someone’ whom posterity, with nothing else to go on, has decided to call Fredric Jameson. But its provenance aside, this bleak observation does capture something of the political mood in the two decades spanning the millennium. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and subsequent disappearance of its foundational ideas from democratic political discourse left liberal capitalism looking less like the winner in a battle between ideologies than ideology’s opposite: if not the expression of human nature itself (as many on the right were apt to claim), then at least the best that humankind could do. Francis Fukuyama came forward to say that capital-h History had reached its terminus, and everyone on the left had a good old laugh. But as Keating, Clinton, Blair and Schröder set about giving a more progressive aspect to the process of neoliberal globalisation, many socialists internalised his conclusions.
If the 2008 global financial crisis can be said to have had a positive effect (among all the calamitous ones) it is that it has upset this political fatalism. That crisis, or set of interlocking crises, functioned as a glitch in the matrix, a window through which the chaotic character of capitalism could again be glimpsed. Even in the light of the recovery (so-called), it is increasingly clear that the long-term trends are towards low growth (or ‘secular stagnation’) and rising inequality and debt. In the meantime, the spectacular rise of China has dealt a blow to the idea that capitalism and democracy necessarily advance together, while climate change science has put us on notice that the planet can only take so much ‘growth’. For some, indeed, it is now liberal capitalism, no less than communism or socialism, that seems utopian and delusional – a city built on sand, like Dubai. Contra Jameson, a number of commentators now declare the end of capitalism to be not just possible but inevitable, albeit with the rider that, at our current trajectory and rate of acceleration, the end of the world is looking pretty likely too.
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