Virtually everyone everywhere-economists, politicians, pundits – agrees that the world has been in some kind of economic trouble since at least 2008. And virtually everyone seems to believe that in the next few years the world will somehow „recover” from these difficulties. After all, upturns always occur after downturns. The remedies recommended vary considerably, but the idea that the system shall continue in its essential features is a deeply rooted faith.
But it is wrong. All systems have lives. When their processes move too far from equilibrium, they fluctuate chaotically and bifurcate. Our existing system, what I call a capitalist world-economy, has been in existence for some 500 years and has for at least a century encompassed the entire globe. It has functioned remarkably well. But like all systems, it has moved steadily further and further from equilibrium. For a while now, it has moved too far from equilibrium, such that it is today in structural crisis.
The problem is that the basic costs of all production have risen remarkably. There are the personnel expenses of all kinds – for unskilled workers, for cadres, for top-level management. There are the costs incurred as producers pass on the costs of their production to the rest of us – for detoxification, for renewal of resources, for infrastructure. And the democratization of the world has led to demands for more and more education, more and more health provisions, and more and more guarantees of lifetime income. To meet these demands, there has been a significant increase in taxation of all kinds. Together, these costs have risen beyond the point that permits serious capital accumulation. Why not then simply raise prices? Because there are limits beyond which one cannot push their level. It is called the elasticity of demand. The result is a growing profit squeeze, which is reaching a point where the game is not worth the candle.
What we are witnessing as a result is chaotic fluctuations of all kinds – economic, political, sociocultural. These fluctuations cannot easily be controlled by public policy. The result is ever greater uncertainty about all kinds of short-term decision-making, as well as frantic realignments of every variety. Doubt feeds on itself as we search for ways out of the menacing uncertainty posed by terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation.
The only sure thing is that the present system cannot continue. The fundamental political struggle is over what kind of system will replace capitalism, not whether it should survive. The choice is between a new system that replicates some of the present system’s essential features of hierarchy and polarization and one that is relatively democratic and egalitarian.
The extraordinary expansion of the world-economy in the postwar years (more or less 1945 to 1970) has been followed by a long period of economic stagnation in which the basic source of gain has been rank speculation sustained by successive indebtednesses. The latest financial crisis didn’t bring down this system; it merely exposed it as hollow. Our recent „difficulties” are merely the next-to-last bubble in a process of boom and bust the world-system has been undergoing since around 1970. The last bubble will be state indebtednesses, including in the so-called emerging economies, leading to bankruptcies.
Most people do not recognize – or refuse to recognize – these realities. It is wrenching to accept that the historical system in which we are living is in structural crisis and will not survive.
Meanwhile, the system proceeds by its accepted rules. We meet at G-20 sessions and seek a futile consensus. We speculate on the markets. We „develop” our economies in whatever way we can. All this activity simply accentuates the structural crisis. The real action, the struggle over what new system will be created, is elsewhere.
Immanuel Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University.