First published in spring 2020.
It’s fashionable to explain today’s world through two prisms: modern politics and modern economics—or the modern state and capitalism. Even the words sound slightly intimidating. So instead of defining them from a dictionary, I would like to give a historical account of how these pillars of the modern world evolved.
The modern state is a creature of the so-called early-modern period. This followed the Renaissance or rebirth of ancient ideas in a flurry of intellectual activity and political turmoil. It also coincided with incipient schisms within Catholic Christendom which decayed into violent religious conflicts in the sixteenth century. States fought each other with steel weapons, wooden ships, and early guns and canons. The brutality of modern warfare suggested to some that politics couldn’t be moral. Political realists Machiavelli and Hobbes suggested that the state’s duty was not to advance a moral code but rather to pursue political goals like reputation or bare survival.
As states continued to wage wars against one another, they started to innovate. Britain sent peasants from the countryside into cities to work as wage labourers to a new investor class, later named the capitalist class. After this allowed Britain to industrialise, other countries mimicked British capitalism to increase state power. In the nineteenth century, the market began to ‘disembed’, as Karl Polanyi put it, from the society which gave it life: the logics of economics and politics drifted apart. As trade intensified, capitalism developed through the division between politics and economics.
Today, capitalism dominates the modern state in the US and Europe, while China still puts state politics before capitalist economics. Whether the modern state or capitalism rule, there is a common story underlying modern variety: a marriage between the modern state and capitalism. The modern state arose from the separation between politics and morality that war created. Capitalism arose from the separation between politics and economics that trade created. So long as that marriage (based, paradoxically, on mutual separations) continues to last, I think we will continue to be modern people.
Which will end first? Just as the universe is likelier to vaporise long after the Earth does, the modern state, being older than capitalism, is likelier to have a longer life ahead of it than capitalism does (assuming these systems have different life spans). A more precise reason is that capitalism is more dynamic than the modern state is and is therefore likelier to burn up in a self-made crisis sooner. Just as a wild life is more mortal than a stable life, capitalism is likely to end before the modern state does. Capitalism may be a faster-burning star than the modern state is.
To be specific, the separation between politics and economics is much more unstable than the separation between politics and morals, since war unifies the state around a common goal while trade separates the state into fragile classes. The modern state, a creature of modern warfare, may be a stabler social formation than capitalism, divided between trading classes, is likely to be. Perhaps the time will come to let go of modern economics before we have to let go of modern politics — although ultimately, so the saying goes, everything ends.
2 thoughts on “Everything ends: Explaining the modern world”
Max Weber began his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by a story:when touring the middle east he asked a store-holder why he shut up shop early rather than staying open and making more money accordingly. The man replied that he did not need any more money, and so would go home. I have a feeling that as the ‘capitalist’ (how hard to define!) countries lose, or never really had, any sort of Protestamt ethic (though the Americans have kept the Protestant view of philanthropy more than the rest of us, but we have all lost the Protestant attitude to debt) so they will bring their capitalism to an end through debt, not through Marx’s et al’s workers’ revolution. I’m with Orwell’s 1984: ‘if there is any hope, it lies with the proles’, which it becomes increasingly obvious in the book that it means no hope at all. The roots of capitalism lie in human nature (the Chinese realise this more than we do) so will it ever change?
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Thank you very much for this insightful review — you know how much I am indebted to your teaching over the years. I guess my question is: why not both? Perhaps debt and transformative change are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin — cause, and effect. Which transformative change is upon us is up for debate — but I think change is coming, right to the beating heart of capitalism, whether we like it or not. I still think everything ends — and begins again, and perhaps that’s the key insight you’re referring to. There were many economies like the modern one in the past, and there may be in the future. But *this* economy will not last forever. Our world will end, and another will begin. Maybe that’s what Hegel and Marx missed in the seemingly futile search for an ‘end of history’.