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The Sense of an Ending

Three recent books combine theoretical sophistication and historical method in ways that enable us to rethink majority rule and thus re-imagine the future of democracy. And the most searching of the three calls into question whether that future is compatible with capitalism as we have come to know it.

NEW YORK – The great bourgeois revolutionaries who invented modernity, from John Milton to James Madison to Abraham Lincoln, didn’t know they were laying the foundations of capitalism. To be sure, they understood that a money economy – a social system animated by the impending commodification of everything, even labor power – was laying waste to inherited, mostly parochial hierarchies, redefining liberty and making the idea of equality a live option. But they would be appalled by a global civilization in which the market is the measure of all things, where everyone finally has a price and each must buy the right not to die. No one would be more horrified than Adam Smith, the philosopher-king of the Scottish Enlightenment and the first court poet of bourgeois society.

The leading intellectuals of our time, by contrast, know that capitalism as most of us have experienced it is now in its death throes, and that what comes after strongly resembles the mode of production most people call socialism. They know such things because Karl Marx – like Hegel an admirer of Smith – taught them how to understand modernity as that stage of civilization in which commerce would make constant change, transition itself, an everyday fact of life: “All that is solid melts into air,” as the Communist Manifesto put it. Just as capitalism superseded feudalism, so capitalism would somehow, some day, give way to something else, because neither its spirit nor its social content reflected fixed properties of human nature.

Meanwhile, because the avowed Marxists, at least firebrands like Lenin and Mao, have taught today’s leading intellectuals that the transition from capitalism to socialism would require a revolution, they have learned to fear what seems, especially now, to be an impending if not inevitable future. Their consequent silence on the subject explains why it’s easier for the rest of us to imagine the end of the world than to plan on, and prepare for, the end of capitalism.