A Brief History Of The Next 30 Years

Via Notes From Disgracedland’s Bjarne Knausgaard 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Capitalism is disintegrating, but it is not giving way to a better alternative, it is collapsing under its own weight[1]. In the last 40 years, economic progress has been financed largely by social deficits. At the end, we found ourselves trapped in the stalemate of status quo because we agreed to let the market set prices and all other values. Things and services were sold for less than it cost to make them. The actual costs were externalized, their burden not bore by the profit centers, but by the state and increasingly more by the citizens.  However, these are actual costs somebody had to pay. So, at the end, things could not add up. Everyone was running some kind of deficit, and the game had to come to an end. Occasional hiccups during the transfer of those deficits from one side to the other were interpreted as market failures. But, in reality, there were actually no market failures per se; the market itself is the failure[2]. Eventually, this had to be recognized, and we have now come to the point where this realization can no longer be ignored: Capitalism no longer works for capitalists.

From the current standpoint, future looks anything but unambiguous. No decision has been made about the direction the future is taking. This moment of history represents what Alexander Herzen had identified as the Pregnant Widow: The old system has given way and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Does the future bring a normal infant or a Rosemarie’s baby?

We are approaching the final stages of unwind of the 500 years of history. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, we had a glimpse of the future — the three main candidates represented three distinct economic, political and social paths: Status quo (Clinton), regressive populism (Trump), and emancipatory transformation (Sanders). In the past, we had rarely had an opportunity to see such radically different visions getting such a large-scale representation and response — elections had always been about two “infinitesimally” different interpretations of a single path.

The preview of the three paths into the future might very well be a prelude to the most radical and, at the same time, the most significant transformation of capitalism after the industrial revolution. It is an announcement of the socioeconomic blowback, the arrival of times where social deficits will have to be reconciled and managed. The three paths should be seen as the three attraction centers which will define the dynamics of socio-economic developments in the next decades[3]: Democratic fascism, Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”, and Neo Feudalism. The figure shows the three futures in the context of social and political changes after 1968.


Democratic fascism

A semi-inclusive, cast-like division into two strata: Top 20% with highly egalitarian distribution & 80% of totally disarmed working “precariat”. The key is the balance in size (in the past, similar projects failed because the top was too small).

Legitimation: The dogma of progress & neo-liberal ideology.

Alliances: Military force, Think tanks, Semi-progressive corporate conglomerates, Educational institutions.

Means: Pseudo-progressive politics, Immigration policy, Advanced media and technology, Control of food and water, military technology. To the western mind this mode is the most palatable alternative for the existing system. Favored by Neo liberals.

Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”

Inclusive, achievable through political sophistication and technology; requires accepting certain real limitations in consumption expenditures. Does not mean merely a socialization of poverty. Needs to reconcile with adverse effects of progress, e.g. creation of wealth causes destruction of value.

Legitimation: Evidence that short-termism leads to undesirable long-term outcomes

Alliances: Think tanks, Influential individuals, Technological and networking wealth, New industrial sector based on the commons.

Means: Progressive emancipatory politics, Technological and political innovations and networking. Favored by Western intellectuals (and Hipsters).

Neo Feudalism

An exclusive, highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties (an equilibrated form of the current “times of trouble”). Consolidation of fractionalized structures into bigger entities with highly vertical structure, e.g. multinational corporations, global crime syndicates…, but without endless capital accumulation as the mainspring.

Legitimation: return to a belief in natural hierarchies.

Alliances: Right wing militias, religious and other fringe elements.

Means: Paramilitary Force, Populism, Regressive non-emancipatory politics, Drugs, Authoritarian propaganda. A glimpse of this mode is seen in post socialist oligarchic systems (China, Russia, Myanmar, Mexico). Favored by Western right wing political organizations.

We are nowhere near the new equilibrium; the developments of the last decade present just an announcement of a lengthy transformation process ahead of us, expected to take the center stage in the next 30-40 years.

The next 30 years

2016: Baby has six toes

The enthusiastic support enjoyed so far by the non-centrist parties in the developed world outline the unconscious desire for destruction of the system that has imprisoned almost everyone. More than anything, populist victories reflect a defeat of the centrist politics, a departure from what has been looking more and more like the path of democratic fascism. Trump’s victory pointed out the lines of fracture in the centrist narrative and capitalized on its symbolic insolvency. About 17% of those who voted for Donald Trump believe that he is not qualified to perform the duty of the President of the United States. It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent expression of unconditional discontent with status quo than this. Trump’s movement is de-facto a rise of the neo- feudal America. The core of its platform represents the unbundling of the neoliberalism and rebranding it as an anti-global movement. It sees the future as highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties with highly vertical structure.

By no means does this represent the end of the transformation. It is just the beginning of a troubling unwind. Pregnant widow is only in the second trimester of her complicated pregnancy.

Beyond 2016: Times of Trouble

In the next 2-3 decades, social disorder could take new dimension as demographic transformations continue to weaken state structures further. This could be expressed through two different modes. Either the discontent of ethnically excluded spreads to absorb and articulate the sentiments of other exclusions or, alternatively, discontent of the permanently excluded provokes a reaction of the redundant natives and trigger their uprising and backlash. Civil warfare, initially misdiagnosed as increase in crime, would escalate[4].

The scramble for protection (which has already begun) assumes a new form as the states cannot provide it due to lack of funding and legitimation. The state’s monopoly on violence is breached and reorganized through the expansion of private protection armies and police structure. This process had already been accomplished in the post-socialist countries about 25 years ago and is likely to serve as a blueprint for a similar transformation in the western world.

Western democratic states where these transformations take place will gradually converge towards failed states. Contours of this program are already inscribed in the Trump’s cabinet nominations. Combined with the other side-effects of globalization and the underlying social fragmentation, these developments will lead to further criminalization of societies and polarization of distribution with escalation of corruption and dismantling of the institutions of the democratic state as a natural consequence, implying further instabilities. Organized crime will blossom and reinforce its legitimacy, while developed countries will converge closer towards criminal oligarchies or other authoritarian structures.

The fourth future: A lullaby for Rosemary’s baby

Symbolically dead (from an overdose of itself) while still very much physically alive, unable to either transform by replacing itself with something else or adapt and restore itself to equilibrium, capitalism is exiting the historical scene. However, before it disappears, capitalism will continue to inhabit the world of undead. It will remain inscribed into the system in the guise of a wound which makes the social subject undead, depriving it of the capacity to die — only when this wound is healed, can the capitalist society die in peace and transform itself into something else.

As an economic system, capitalism (at this point) is showing an advanced decline in capacity to underwrite a stable society. What follows after such a disintegration of a system is a prolonged period of social entropy and disorder. For a significant length of time, a society would slip into less than a society – a society-lite — until it may or may not recover and again become a society in the full meaning of the term[5].

Out of all possible paths, this is the most radical outcome, one that is without a historical precedent and one we seem to be least prepared for. It corresponds to what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Interregnum, disintegration of society as such, a perpetual anotherhood – pregnancy without childbirth — a trajectory where the times of trouble continue indefinitely.

Neoliberal narrative which identifies the absence of structure as an ultimate expression of freedom will find new legs in the post-social phase. This is the phase of undead capitalism, the times when the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016

[2] Kim Stanley Robinson, in An American Utopia (S. Zizek ed.), Verso 2016

[3] I. Wallerstine, Historical Capitalism, Verso 2011

[4] I. Wallerstine, ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016


6 thoughts on “A Brief History Of The Next 30 Years

  1. What a cheerful way to end the weekend. If I live to be 105, I may see us emerging into a nasty brave new age.
    OTOH, there is no mention of the altered timing likely to be caused by nuclear weapons in the hands of unhinged sociopaths, theocratic states, despots backed by combinations of criminals and religious throwback nationalism, and/or random primitive states that figured out how to make some, regardless of whether they have capable guidance and re-entry systems.


    • “Unhinged theocrats”, etc. that you mentioned, are implicit in the times of trouble period. Their presence defines the global tensions of the next 25 years to which the global North will have to adjust. When seen at high resolution, they can be grouped into three categories with metaphorical names:

      1) “Khomeini option”
      Radical alterity — total collective refusal to play by the rules of the world system. A challenge to neo-liberal ideology, e.g. North Korea, Iran, …

      2) “Saddam Hussein option”
      Creation of large heavily militarized states with intent of engaging in actual warfare with the North, e.g. Iraq, Pakistan, North Africa,…

      3) “Boat people option”
      “Third World within” in the core zones of the capitalist world economy. Tipping the scales of demographic balance: e.g. Mexicans in the US, former colonies in UK, North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, Islamic immigration in Scandinavia…

      We are already seeing, especially in the last year, to what extent these factors have been influencing the politics in the developed world.


  2. Absurd. “Capitalism” is not the culprit for inept central bank monetary destruction, nor for (ultimately and inevitably fatal) negligent Congressional overspending. You’d be more on the mark blaming “Democracy” – where people vote to receive money that doesn’t exist, and create 3rd rails of entitlement; voting itself has created the entitlement death spiral. It’s shocking to admit, but in that vein, there’s a simple conclusion … Democracy begets Socialism.

    Bottom line, Socialism/Communism failed in Eastern Europe/Asia and now they’re gone; Eastern Europe and Asia condemned festering lazy unincentivized squalor in favor of capitalistic prosperity. Yet Socialism/Communism is what the voters are currently demanding in Western Europe and North America. And they just might succeed. There’s your next 30 years, Amigo. I mean Berniego.


    • I see. So socialism will destroy us all, even though the United States is the most successful (to this point) capitalist society in the history of the world? Socialism truly is the baba yaga of the conservative intellectual caste, isn’t it? If you listen closely enough to this argument, it sounds just like the old socialist lament that ‘it’s a viable system, it just hasn’t been done right.’ As long as the fault lies somewhere else, we can wake up tomorrow and go about our work.

      I was actually thinking this weekend about David Brooks, the conservative commentator. He did an interview on some show this weekend and I can’t even remember what program it was, but he said something that I thought was enlightening. He basically capitulated, saying that his brand of conservatism is dead within the republican party in the US. I agree with him. The intellectual conservative is dead. It’s been replaced with a rank of reactionaries who can’t tell the difference between what they feel and reality.

      I don’t mean to be harsh, that’s just the way I see this being presented. Without reflection on our own flaws, we’re doomed to repeat history.

      That may be the same as saying that we’re doomed. Good luck out there.


  3. I have been wading through Streeck’s book for several months now, and I was glad to see — when I got to the end of the post — that he was cited.

    Although I don’t necessarily agree with @Freedom, I do believe that it might not be capitalism that is in danger, but social democracy. Of course, that all gets down to how, exactly, one defines capitalism.

    All else aside, these will be interesting times ahead. In addition to this issue, there is global warming, sea level rise, diminishing supplies of fresh water, the coming AI wave and its effect on employment, blockchain technologies, and a host of other disruptive forces afoot. I am basically going to stop working at the end of this year and spend the bulk of my energies figuring out how to navigate the shoal waters ahead.


  4. I would propose there is a 5th option. That Progressive Socialist Capitalism can still reignite the engine of growth and is more realistic than the Decentralized Utopia which just sounds like tech companies just become the fascist rulers in the end. Capitalism has been dying because the bent towards Neo-Liberalism has trumped any and all sense. The fire may be down to embers but it is far from cold. The short sighted nature of deregulated capitalism with highly mobile capital and highly immobile labor with sights on short term profits and stock price rather than value creation isn’t without remedy. Nor are the issues of regulatory capture of the government agencies by the very entities they are meant to regulate, terrible tax policies and campaign finance issues without solutions.

    As far as I can see it the biggest hurdle is that the political will for the necessary surgeries to save capitalism is going to be hard to put together for 20+ years while the Boomer generation retains such a large portion of the population. It may be decades of undead capitalism followed by a rapid enlightenment as the younger generations build political will and upon the death of the Boomers rapidly take power. Maybe that’s too hopeful but I don’t see any alternative that isn’t essentially a death sentence for the human species. Neither Democratic Fascism nor Neo-Feudalism are going to efficiently allocate resources and our civilization is too complex to survive that.


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