It sometimes seems impossible to imagine life without capitalism.
We’re led to believe that the system has always been like this, and that it always will be.
Prominent evolutionary psychologists project today’s society back into the Stone Age past, while popular culture can portray the future as fundamentally unchanged.
It can feel like capitalism is part of an eternal, unchanging human nature.
In every society, those in power always try to make it seem like their way is the only way.
But in reality human history is a story of constant, tumultuous change. Social orders that seemed eternal have been overthrown by masses hungry for change—or else have decayed into famine, civil war and collapse.
Once, people argued that life without the rule of kings would be impossible. But around the world many kings were toppled long ago.
The Great Pyramids were erected as testament to the eternal power of the Pharaohs.
That power has long since turned to dust. But is capitalism different?
German revolutionary Karl Marx showed that every era in society sowed the seeds of its own destruction and overthrow.
So under feudalism kings and nobles may have seemed all powerful. But in the background their system created the class of merchants, bankers and petty industrialists who were eventually inspired to overthrow them.
It was this conflict that gave birth to capitalism.
A struggle between classes can end in different ways. The ruling class can be overthrown by those they oppress and exploit. Today that would mean a successful revolution of workers rising up against capitalism.
But it can also end in what Marx called “the mutual destruction of the contending classes”. Ruling classes that stand in the way of progress can cling to power to the point of dragging the whole of society down with them.
The Mayan empire in Central America and the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia are among many examples of this.
It is easy to imagine the horror that that would mean today.
Capitalism is already poisoning the oceans, drying out the soils and heating up the atmosphere. Left to its own devices it will bring ecological catastrophe.
And if it took the Second World War to pull capitalism out of the Great Depression in the 1930s, what will it take in the modern world, with a capitalism far advanced of that period?
Human society has changed enormously, even since capitalism first began to take shape.
There are more people employed in wage labour in Britain alone today than there were in the whole world at the time Marx was writing.
The scale and scope of human industry would have been unimaginable a few generations ago.
Like other social orders before it, capitalism has also created what Marx called “its own gravedigger”
—a class of people with an interest in overthrowing it.
Capitalists cannot exist without workers to exploit.
These workers are responsible for generating all the wealth in society, and often find themselves concentrated together in large workplaces and cities. But while bosses need workers, workers don’t need bosses.
Meanwhile a turbulent economic cycle has consistently created crises.
This culminated once in the Great Depression, which capitalism could only overcome through the violence and destruction of a world war.
Since then the cycle has started again. But now capitalism is much bigger and more concentrated in corporations that are “too big to fail”.
There is nothing to guarantee that the current crisis will be the last one. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that capitalists can buy themselves out of crisis, “so long as they make the workers pay”.
That’s why bosses are on the offensive around the world today.
We cannot predict what the future will look like. But history does not end with capitalism. The question is whether it leads to workers’ revolution or violent collapse.
As the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it, the choice is between “socialism or barbarism”.