How will Capitalism End? The Orville, Eduard Bernstein, and What is to be Done

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When Star Trek’s Federation is brought up as an example of how “actual” socialism might work, as I did in Star Trek into Socialism, frequently one is met with the objection that it only works in Star Trek because they’ve solved the problem of scarcity. Replicators can produce whatever they want whenever they want, and so there’s essentially infinite resources to keep everyone fed and happy. Of course, in Star Trek into Socialism, I talked about the problem with this line of thinking, though that didn’t stop people who apparently couldn’t be bothered to watch it from popping up in the comments section to helpfully explain it to me.

A similar point to the one I made, though, actually makes an appearance in popular culture in an unexpected place: not in Star Trek but in Seth MacFarlane’s ostensible parody-turned-pastiche of it, The Orville.

While modern Star Trek has to a greater or lesser extent embraced the darker, grittier aesthetic of ‘peak TV’ (with even the comedy Lower Decks seeing characters behave in amoral ways that would’ve seemed alien to th Star Trek of old), The Orville seems bent on reaching self-consciously back to the Trek of the 1990s, with its unrelenting optimism about the future and the uncomplicated basic decency of the core characters. And while NuTrek sometimes seems practically embarrassed of the idealistic post-scarcity premise of Next Generation-era Trek, The Orville has wholeheartedly embraced it in a way that in the 2020s seems refreshing, even if the show can otherwise be almost gleefully uneven and derivative.

The third season finale of The Orville, “Future Unknown”, sees someone from a world something like 21st century Earth (though we’ll come back to the way it’s not) escaping to the Orville and begging to be allowed to stay. While The Next Generation always couched its future economy in terms like “we eliminated poverty”, First Officer Kelly Grayson here straight up explains that in The Orville’s Union of Planets, nobody has to have a job, people just do the things that they love. This refugee from our present then proceeds to steal the show’s equivalent of a replicator in order to bring it back to her world so that the people there can enjoy what the Union have. And when caught, Grayson explains to her precisely why you can’t simply give people a cure for scarcity and expect their world to turn into an egalitarian utopia. They’d tried it before, in the early days of the union.

When they got to Gendel Three, they found a divided world, bristling with nuclear weapons, continents sliced up by national borders. So they landed. They revealed themselves, their technology, everything. They figured it was the right thing to do, that maybe they could help this planet skip over the nasty growing pains that all worlds seem to have to go through. But they couldn’t control the spread.

Nation-states fought each other, wars broke out everywhere, because they all wanted to use the advancements for personal gain and for political dominance. They wiped themselves out in five years. Nine Billion People. Gone.

In Star Trek into Socialism, I put this a bit more prosaically,

Capitalist billionaires riding around in big dick rockets want you to think that they’re the ticket to a Star Trek future, that they’re going to invent it for us. But the truth is that we could create the means to end scarcity tomorrow, we could just have Star Trek replicators come out of a lab somewhere, and those same billionaires would make sure we artificially limited and metered their output so that they could extract profits from it. They’re not creating the future, they’re standing in its way.

The point being that the technology to end scarcity by itself is not going to cure poverty and want without massive social and political changes to go along with it. After all, we already have enough food to feed everyone, and there are far more houses than homeless people. Poverty, inequality, and the suffering that goes with them are choices we make as a society. And either you’re okay with living in a world where people sleep under bridges and children go without food or you’re not. And if your reaction to that fact is to say that poverty is a choice they make as individuals and they just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or something, then you’re just proving my point: that we as a society are okay with some percentage of people falling by the wayside as long as we can tell ourselves that they “deserve” it.

This problem that Grayson points out, of how exactly to get from a divided, capitalist world to a cooperative one based on maximizing human welfare rather profit is called in socialist theory the “transition problem”. Or, to use a phrase long associated with socialism, “what is to be done?” In this piece I’m not going to be talking about why we want to move away from capitalism, or even what a post-capitalist society might look like (and why it’s not Soviet-style Leninism), because I already did that in Star Trek into Socialism. Here I’m going to set my sites squarely on something I think I got short shrift in that episode, the question of how. And strangely, part of the answer can inadvertently be explained by the “savage” world the girl escapes from in “Future Unknown”.

But to understand that we’re first going to have to take a bit of a dive into how we got here and why earlier predictions about the end of capitalism failed. (I know I said last episode I’d do some shorter stuff. Forgive me, I couldn’t help myself. Take a breath, like, subscribe, contribute to my Patreon for early access and exclusive author’s notes, okay, here we go.)

When socialist thought first emerged in the early 19th century, there were a number of different ideas about how capitalism would end and how socialism might function. (And here I’m using “socialism” in its broadest sense to include all anti-capitalist movements, though we’ll talk more about terms later.) By the late 19th century, the most popular model became that of Karl Marx. As much as Marx cautioned against creating “recipes for cook shops of the future”, and thus was characteristically vague on details, the basic idea went like this: Capitalism’s various contradictions cause inevitable cycles of boom and crash which as capitalism developed would only get worse as wealth accumulated at the top and im poverished everyone else. Ultimately, the working people, miserable and exploited but increasingly organized, would find things so intolerable they would rise up and seize the means of production for themselves and, because capitalism is a global, interconnected system, this would happen on an international scale. The workers could then dismantle the class system entirely and reorganize society along democratic, egalitarian, and co-operative lines, ultimately reaching a point where everyone would receive what they needed and contribute what they’re able. Government itself would shrivel and lose its political character to the point where it could hardly be said to be a government at all, transformed into a ‘management of things, not people’. (This is the irony with how so many today associate communism with a large government controlling everything; in Marx’s vision of communism, the government practically ceases to exist.)

Frequently, Marxists have thought the moment of this reckoning was nigh. Marx and Engles’ Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 was rushed out to coincide with revolutions then sweeping across Europe. Those revolutions were primarily powered by the bourgeoisie, which is to say the capitalist, business-owning class, burgeoning with wealth following the First Industrial Revolution and seeking to sweep away the remnants of feudal, aristocratic power that still dominated much of Europe. But these bourgeoisie were joined by the proletariats (the workers), who saw hope in the bourgeois promises of equal representation and economic freedom. In the Manifesto, Marx advises working people to “fight with the Bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way” and predicted “bourgeois Germany will be but a prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. But after securing a few concessions from the aristocrats, the bourgeois turned against the proletarian rebellions and aided in putting them down. The only thing, it turned out, the bourgeois capitalists hated more than the aristocrats who had the power they wanted was the workers who wanted to share that power. And so, instead of communism, what followed 1848 was a wave of anti-socialist reaction and shoring up of conservatism and tradition.

In 1871, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, workers took control of Paris and set up what became known as the Paris Commune, ruling the city via democratically elected committees. The Paris Commune was violently put down by the French army two months later, but in it Marx saw an example of what his communist transition might look like. In 1872, Marxist leader August Bebel confidently predicted that capitalism would collapse in 20 years, and as if to convince everyone he was right, in 1873 the “Long Depression” s et in, the greatest economic crisis in the world up until that point, increasing participation in socialism around the world. In 1890, following the election of a record number of socialists to the principle German legislative body, the Reichstag, Friedrich Engels predicted that by 1900 most of the military would vote socialist, leading to the possibility of a “quick and relatively bloodless takeover by the proletariat”.

However, soon after Engels’ death in 1895, one of his closest friends and proteges began to publicly express doubts. Eduard Bernstein, a one time bank clerk and son of a train driver, had ascended to become the editor of one of the German socialist movements chief periodicals, The Social Democrat (Der Sozialdemokrat). (Here I should note that these terms—socialist, communist, social democrat—were all used more-or-less interchangeably at this point.) However, Bernstein had gradually come to believe that two specific predictions Marx had made didn’t seem to be born out by contemporary data. First, Marx had predicted that the working class would grow progressively poorer as business owners depressed wages to maximize profits, and second, that wealth would concentrate in ever fewer hands, the bourgeois class getting smaller while the proletariat grew. This not only would cause instability by the sheer immiseration of the poor—increasing their likelihood of revolt—but because it created a situation where ever-fewer people had any sort of buying power, capitalism would kneecap its own ability to grow or sustain itself, making the whole edifice prone to ever greater crisis. Indeed, many Marxists at this point, like Bebel, had come to believe that the revolution would happen following an inevitable crisis so complete that capitalism couldn’t possibly recover, an utter collapse of the capitalist system that increasingly took on an eschatological character.

But by the 1890s, this didn’t seem to be happening. Instead, in the advanced capitalist countries of Germany, Britain, France, and the United States, the number of business owners, landlords, and shareholders (the bourgeoisie) had steadily grown, and with them had also overall grown the average wages of the working class. Meanwhile, particularly in Bernstein’s (and Marx and Engels’) native Germany, the widening of suffrage and political participation had resulted in massive, unexpected gains in representation for socialist parties in democratic institutions. And that increased participation had yielded massively increased rights and benefits for the unpropertied class of people. This process had started as early as 1802, when Britain had passed the first of what became known as ‘Factory Acts’ that regulated working conditions in factories, the first of their kind, beginning with restricting the hours children could work to ten, and ensuring that they worked in clean, properly ventilated conditions, and not sleep more than two to a bed. In 1833, they banned child labor by children younger than nine. (Remember the next time someone complains about regulation, that it took regulation to get the six-year-olds out of coal mines.) Karl Marx himself had dubbed the Factory Acts “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed ignominiously, ludicrously, before the political economy of the working class” and while qualified and imperfect (and not always properly enforced), the Factory Acts were the first proof that within the boundaries of liberal democracy, without war or overt violence, the working people might wrest concessions from the ruling class. Where in previous centuries, there had been effectively no way to nonviolently press for positive change from below—serfs did not have any kind of voice or advocacy in the feudal system, for example—the capitalist era had come with democratic reforms. Violent action, meanwhile, had only to this point lead to reactionary backlash, as in 1848.

And so Bernstein reasoned, since capitalism didn’t appear to be heading towards collapse, the solution was to stop viewing everything in terms of some future revolution and instead focus on the progressive, incremental reforms that could meaningfully benefit the working class in the here and now. This way they could create, as they had a been creating already, a mixed socialist and capitalist economy that could evolve into a more egalitarian one over time. And rather than being un-Marxist or anti-Marxist, Bernstein claimed, if Marxism was meant to be scientific as Marx had always sought, like any science it should be willing to update itself based on new evidence, otherwise it would merely be dogma. And so his ideas became known as ‘Marxist Revisionism’, and went off like a bomb in the midst of the then-Marxist-dominated socialist movement of the time.

Debates roiled socialist meetings, and major leaders like Rosa Luxemberg and Bernstein’s formerly close friend Karl Kautsky wrote pamphlets and books of their own to denounce his ideas. Capitalism may have found ways to temporarily adapt to changing conditions, they argued, but that had done nothing to alter the underlying instability on which it was based. Ultimately, inevitably, the workers would have to seize control.

It’s important to note that the ruling class had not taken the rise of socialists and advance of socialist power in Germany easily. Conservative German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had banned socialist parties and publications in the country in 1878, and exiled many socialist leaders including Bernstein himself, who made his way to England where both Marx and Engels already lived. (In a line that should sound familiar, Bismarck pronounced these socialists “un-German”, not believing in core German values (like loyalty to the emperor) and therefore traitors in all but name.) But, while their parties were officially banned, socialists could still run for office unaffiliated, and so continued to have power in the Reichstag, while their publications were regularly smuggled into Germany.

Bismarck’s second line of attack against socialism was more surprising. This authoritarian arch-conservative so hostile to liberal ideals and the notion of basic rights that he’d once remarked that “the only effective weapons against democrats are soldiers”, almost single-handedly invented the welfare state.

Over a series of reforms from 1883 to 1889, Bismark introduced the world’s first nationally funded health insurance, accident insurance, old age, and disability insurance. Bismarck himself referred to the program as “state socialism”, remarking in 1881, “call it socialism or whatever you like, it’s all the same to me.” The purpose of all this was to weaken support for socialist politicians and socialist parties by alleviating some of the problems they complained about without having to change the underlying system.

And so these policies were controversial not just among capitalists, who saw it as the government interfering with private markets, but also (surprisingly to a modern audience) among the actual socialists.

Led by Engels (Marx having passed away in 1883), Marxists complained that the problem with the new welfare state was that it gave power over workers health and well being to Bismark’s government. (Again, this is ironic given socialism’s modern reputation of being ‘when the government does stuff’.) Things like health care or unemployment insurance should, rightly, be under the control not of the government but by trade unions or other workers groups that could be trusted to act in their best interest. To quote Bernstein in The Social Democrat at the time, “the so-called social reform is being used as a tactical maneuver to divert the workers from the correct path.” And so while the conservatives proudly called their legislation ‘socialism’, the actual socialists denied it was anything of the kind.

Bismarck’s reforms, though, actually did nothing to dampen socialism’s popularity. The number of socialists in the Reichstag continued to grow. All Bismarck had proven was that if socialists advocate hard enough, the ruling class will actually improve conditions for working people in response.

In 1890, a new German emperor finally dismissed Bismarck and repealed his anti-socialist laws. The primary socialist party, formerly the Social Democratic Workers Party, reconstituted itself simply as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD). In 1901 Bernstein was finally allowed to return to Germany and soon was elected to the Reichstag himself.

But Germany and the Social Democratic Party itself were rapidly changing. Where the bourgeoisie had formerly been the middle layer between the proletariats and the aristocrats in the decades after 1848 the bourgeoisie and aristocratic classes had essentially merged into a new ruling class. In their place, a new middle layer had come into existence, as Bernstein noted in 1905: “Between the bourgeoisie proper and the working class are a great intermediary strata or classes whose interests incline partly towards one camp and partly towards the other.” This strata included “the army of officials of all kinds, holders of so-called free professions, and the mass of retailers, petty managers, and smallholders as well as intellectuals whose high society status belies their often meagre income levels.”

This was the emergence of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich would in 1977 label “the Professional Managerial Class”, a new layer of educated professionals and bureaucrats who were technically proletarian because they made their primary income through wage labor but on the whole secured a higher salary and social status than industrial workers and as a result often had a condescending, paternal attitude towards them and a greater fondness for maintaining the status quo. (In Bernstein’s time many of these professionals were actually petty bourgeois “free professionals”, but increasingly as the 20th century went on, professionals like doctors and lawyers increasingly found themselves working for wages rather than themselves.)

And, with the SPD having grown to the point where it could pay its party functionaries at a level to attract educated professionals, it began to see them take over. And these new ‘socialist’ functionaries grasped onto Bernstein’s revisionism as a cover for making ‘practical’ moves that might play into popular capitalist or conservative rhetoric, such as embracing nationalism or colonialism.

Indeed, the conservatives and capitalists saw in nationalism a survival strategy against the growing power of the internationalist socialists, and used it to paint them as unpatriotic and traitorous, and increasingly resorting to conspiracies portraying socialism as a Jewish plot to undermine country and society. (This despite the fact that most of the SPD’s leadership were not Jewish, eg. August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, Friedrich Ebert, etc.). Thus the SPD’s embrace of nationalism and move towards the center helped play into the hands of their enemies.

Still, SPD membership expanded along with the trade unions it supported. The SPD received the most votes in every German federal election from 1890 to 1912, but never had a majority of seats in the Reichstag thanks to an undemocratic electoral system that favored rural votes over urban ones (something that should sound familiar to Americans today). And by 1912, the SPD had grown to a truly remarkable organization, including thousands of employees, 90 daily papers, schools, women’s organizations, libraries, reading societies, leisure organizations, and representatives embedded in most of the major unions in the country, forming in many ways a kind of “state-within-a-state” of Germany. The true revisionists could see this apparatus as evidence of a socialist society growing peacefully within a capitalist one, while the revolutionaries could dream of it forming the organizational core of the government to follow the revolution. Indeed, at the time the SPD was by far the largest and most powerful socialist organization in the world, and despite its slide towards compromise and revisionism it was believed by many that the global revolution would begin in Germany.

Ironically, the SPD leadership’s new direction often put these ‘revisionists’ at odds with Bernstein himself, who recoiled at them subordinating worker power and socialist aims in the name of supposed ‘practicality’. For example, as the trade unions gained more recognition and acceptance as part of industrial manufacture, the issue came up as to whether it was acceptable to use mass strike—that is the kind of strikes that extend to a national level and can paralyze an economy—to secure worker’s aims. The new, practical SPD leaders were willing to make this concession to the ruling class in favor of more moderate reforms, especially as capitalist and government leaders railed against the mass strike as horrifying and unpatriotic. Bernstein, meanwhile, joined the Orthodox Marxists in praising the mass strike as one of the most useful tools workers had to win major concessions against intolerable conditions. Thus Bernstein found himself increasingly isolated within his own party, rejected by both traditional Marxists as well as the ‘practical’ bureaucrats who had no use for his idealism.

The confluence of rising economic power and nationalist sentiment finally broke on the shores of the First World War, and when it did it tore the SPD in two. The SPD leadership joined the rest of the political establishment in a wave of patriotic fervor, supporting the war effort that the Kaiser promised would be over before autumn 1914. Bernstein, however, as with the mass strike issue, found himself in agreement with the more traditional Marxists who saw the war as an imperialist effort that sacrificed the lives of the poor for the aims of the ruling class. Ultimately, this caused Bernstein and the other anti-war socialists quit the party entirely and form their own Independent Social Democratic Party (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or USPD).

Four years later, with the war effort in tatters, the same mass public who’d so enthusiastically embraced it at the beginning flooded the streets demanding an end. Joined by masses of defecting military regiments, this protest turned into a full-on revolt. The emperor abdicated, and the chancellor handed the reigns of the country to the leader of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. Against all expectations, the socialists were suddenly and with relatively little bloodshed in charge of Germany. Ebert declared the country a republic. At around the same time on the other side of Berlin, USPD leader Karl Liebknecht declared the country a socialist republic. The seeds of a showdown between two different visions of the future had been planted.

We should pause for a moment here to talk about council democracy as a form of government. Inspired largely by the Paris Commune of 1871, the concept is relatively simple—a government formed by a series of successively larger, democratically elected workers’ councils. A steelworker might vote for a representative to a local steelworkers council, which would in turn elect delegates to a regional council, which would in turn elect delegates to a national council. (There’s different ways to organize this, and ways to account for people who aren’t workers, but this is the general idea.) And workers councils could also be formed before a revolution that gave them power, as a kind of cross between a union and a political action group, and ultimately aid the process of transition. With the councils in control of businesses and the people in control of the councils, one would have a socialist, democratic government in which the workers directly controlled the means of production.

Workers councils had begun to be formed in earnest in Russia after the failed revolution of 1905, and when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government 1917, it was council democracy they were ostensibly creating, putting the Russian word for council in the name of their new state: ‘soviet’. Of course, in the face of civil war and revolt from other leftist political parties, Lenin had suspended the ‘democratic’ part of the system along with freedom of speech, transforming his ‘council democracy’ into just another form of state capitalism.

The German socialists criticized Lenin for this betrayal of principles. Rosa Luxemberg and Eduard Bernstein were fierce ideological opponents, but both of them repeatedly framed socialism and democracy as being coextensive; as Luxemberg put it, “there is no socialism without democracy, there is no democracy without socialism”.

The German socialists now saw themselves in a position to do council democracy properly. In the wake of the German revolution, workers councils had sprouted up all over the country, and it seemed inevitable with the socialists in charge of the government that they would simply become the government. Indeed, this had already happened in the German province of Bavaria as well as Hungary. And socialists believed that Germany’s socialist revolution would not only help secure the new Soviet Union’s survival, but be the key event in setting off the global Marxist revolution that would finally end the era of capitalism. And if it failed, as Lenin put it in 1918, “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.”

However, unlike his predecessor in the leadership of the SPD, Bebel, Friedrich Ebert was a consummate professional bureaucrat and no revolutionary. He saw in the Russian Revolution a cautionary tale, and saw in Liebknecht a potential Lenin who might sweep away democracy and civil rights in one rebellious stroke and plunge the country into a civil war as ruinous as the one then engulfing the former Russian Empire. If anything, the capitalist class in Germany was far more wealthy and powerful than those in still-quasi-feudal Russia, and their wartime enemies were already bearing down on them and would like nothing better then an excuse to overthrow the government by force and put whoever they pleased in charge. And so Ebert, the leader of the world’s largest socialist party, said he hated the idea of socialist revolution “like he hated sin”.

But revolutionaries were filling the streets, and when Ebert ordered military units to return to Berlin and disarm revolutionary paramilitaries, the units refused and simply dispersed. In order to secure control of the situation, he formed a “Council of People’s Deputies” to govern the country and invited the USPD to join it in a junior partnership. However, after Ebert repeatedly used the council to put down socialist revolts around the country, much of the USPD quit the council. (Bernstein himself stayed on in the sinecure post of Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, and fruitlessly begged the USPD members to stay, have solidarity, and trust the democratic process.)

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin had renamed the Bolsheviks the ‘Communist Party’, reviving a semi-dormant word that evoked the Manifesto of 1848. Following suit, these disaffected USPD members formed their own firmly revolutionary Communist Party of Germany. And in January of 1919, the Communists broke out in open revolt against Ebert’s council.

Unfortunately, unlike the Bolsheviks, who’d been an illegal organization devoted to violent revolution for almost their whole existence, the German Social Democrats had been long integrated into the political establishment and were not at all prepared to coordinate a military operation against their own government. While the revolutionaries managed to take over parts of Berlin, they then spent about four days basically milling about while their leadership frantically debated the next course of action.

Ebert, meanwhile, had learned his lesson about trusting the regular German military. Instead (and while Bernstein characteristically pleaded with him to meet with the revolutionaries and find a peaceful solution), Ebert and his crew turned to the proto-fascist mercenary company the Freikorps, who reveled in brutally putting down the rebellion and smashing as many socialists as they could. They followed this up by hunting down the hiding places of Karl Liebknecht (who’d helped plan the revolt) and Rosa Luxemburg (who’d had nothing to do with it, but was the other most well-known Communist leader) and extrajudicially beat and murder them.

Ebert then put Berlin under a martial law administered by the Freikorps, sweeping any remaining revolutionaries off the streets*.* In the months that followed, Ebert’s government would crush the socialist governments of Bavaria and the city of Bremen, violently shut down down the nascent Workers’ Executive Council and most of the other workers’ councils, and massacre strikers and revolutionary military units, with around 3,000 summary executions being carried out in March of 1919 alone. The socialist revolution had been thoroughly broken, and in its place Germany had the Weimar Republic, led for the moment by a Social Democratic party that had gutted much of its own base and organizations as well as its most passionate and inspiring leaders and aligned itself firmly with the conservatives and bourgeoisie in the name of order and stability and preserving as much as possible the structure, apparatus, and ruling class of the German Empire.

There’s a myth that Hitler was democratically elected. In fact, in his efforts to both shore up his own power and maintain continuity, Ebert had given the German presidency (his position) many of the unilateral powers previously enjoyed by the Emperor, including the ability to appoint whomever he wanted as chancellor. In 1933, the Nazis were a minority party in the Reichstag, but when then president, conservative Paul von Hindenburg, failed to form a coalition government, he decided to make Hitler (who’d never even held elected to office) the chancellor thinking he’d be easy to manipulate and help keep the socialists in check given their resurgence in popularity in the face of the Great Depression. Instead, Hitler used arson at the Reichstag building as an excuse to jail many of his political opponents, and then filled the Reichstag with armed blackshirts and forced the representatives to grant him dictatorial powers he insisted he needed to fight the communist threat. Further, Hitler might have been stopped back in 1923 when he attempted to overthrow the government in Munich. However, Ebert’s SPD had done nothing to change the judiciary, which was populated almost to a man with reactionary monarchists who resented the republic and sympathized with the Nazis, allowing Nazis who murdered communists to go free while the reverse would get death or hard labor. And so Hitler only served nine months in prison when convicted of literal treason, and no measures were taken to prevent him from holding public office afterwards.

In other words, in addition to drastically weakening the SPD and leftist groups that might have resisted the Nazis, Ebert’s desire to maintain as much of the status quo as possible directly created the conditions that allowed the Nazis to take power.

Bernstein himself had returned the Reichstag following the resumption of elections. But he complained bitterly that no one listened to him anymore and spent the Weimar period politically isolated and ignored, writing socialist history books and giving ever more impassioned and futile speeches about the dangers of both Stalinist bolshevism and the rising threat of the Nazis. He died three weeks before Hitler took power, banned the SPD, arrested and/or executed its leaders, and set about committing genocide against his whole ethnic group.

Leftists love raking over counterfactuals about what would have happened if the Communists had actually succeeded in taking over Germany in 1919. Leibknicht and Luxemberg were not the proponents of centralization and vanguardism that Lenin was and fierce critics of his abolition of democracy, so they might’ve avoided Lenin’s authoritarian trap. At the same time, during the Russian Civil War, Britain, France, and the US invaded Russia to assist the White Army and the Communist victory in that war defied all expectations at the time. There’s no reason to think that the allies wouldn’t also invade a Red Germany and whether they could pull off the same unlikely win that the Bolsheviks did is anyone’s guess. In any case, it seems unlikely that Red Germany would’ve set off the cascade of revolutions the Communists imagined, with Marxism embracing the world. The British, French, and US governments weren’t weak in the way that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or the Ottoman Empire were at the end of the War, and it’s hard to imagine workers uprisings finding success there even if financed by Germany and the Soviet Union. As Lenin put it, to have a revolution you first have to have a ‘revolutionary situation’. If Germany, with the largest and most organized socialists in the world couldn’t manage a Marxist revolution at a moment of governmental collapse, how could it happen in the rest of the developed world?

[A correction here: It’s true that when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government (which in turn had overthrown the Tsar a few months earlier), the allied powers of the US, Britain, and France joined the White Army’s effort and invaded Russia.However, their goal was actually less to overthrow the Bolsheviks per se (though Winston Churchill, then merely a Conservative MP, in particular was chomping at the bit for it), but to put people back in power that would get the Russians back into the War, since the Bolsheviks had pulled out. Once the war was actually over, the Allies withdrew their forces because their reason for being there was gone. Thus, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the Germans had become Communist, as long as they’d still surrendered to the Allies, they could’ve stayed in power. Now, there certainly were other challenges they’d have faced—Bernstein, for example, was firm in his belief that council democracy was unworkable in Germany—but Communism going the distance there is not nearly so unlikely as I supposed.]

In the end the revolutionary efforts of the German Communists and the revolutionary councils only amounted to an excuse for a reactionary crackdown, much as they had in 1848. And after the German Communist revolution failed, the Soviet Union worked to make every Communist revolution that came after take a distinctly Leninist/Stalinist form, often (such as during the Spanish Civil War) actively destroying non-Stalinist revolutionary socialist movements.

When the SPD reemerged after the Second World War, far weaker and with most of its institutions shattered, they were not only led by the same breed of professional bureaucrats but caught up in a Cold War that found their country literally divided in half. They ultimately removed all mention of Marxism and the abolition of capitalism from their platform in 1959. And this trend followed with much of the ‘Social Democratic’ Parties of Europe. Thus “Social Democracy” came to mean a center-left position where capitalism is preserved with a strong safety net, unions, and similar reforms to counteract its worst effects. “Democratic Socialism”, meanwhile, came to be associated with Bernstein-style gradual dismantling of capitalism through peaceful, democratic means (with those means often overlapping with ‘social democracy’), and “Communism” with revolutionary Marxism, or at least the psuedo-Marxism crafted by Stalin. And today across the world, even in modern so-called ‘Communist’ states like China, most countries resemble some sort of mixed economy where capitalist enterprises share duties with government-owned ones and cooperatives coupled with welfare states funded by progressive taxation.

And as the 20th century wore on, much as Bernstein had predicted, working class wages and living conditions steadily improved, at least for a while. And the size of the professional-managerial class exploded, as ever more of the working class gained higher educations, spurred on in the US by the GI Bill, resulting in a five-fold increase in college graduates between 1946 and 1950. The social democratic status quo (known in America as “liberalism”, which can be confusing for people from countries where “liberalism” describes something closer to libertarianism) became the core of the Professional-Managerial Class ideology.

As mentioned, generally speaking the PMC are technically proletarian and not the people who own the bulk of capital. But because of their education and professionalism, they often come to think of themselves as a technocratic elite who know better than the grubby, ignorant masses. At the same time, while they’re often put in positions of power in executive suites and the government, and are usually the ones creating the media and crafting educational programs, they regularly come into conflict with the people who actually own the businesses and therefore run the economy. In America, this manifests for example in billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch spending fortunes to convince poor white people that the PMC Democrats in the cities are ‘rich elites’ who want to take their stuff and give it to poor minorities, substituting class war for culture war in order to secure the tax cuts and lack of regulation they know are massively unpopular. And so the Republican party becomes this curious marriage between actually wealthy capitalists, petty bourgeois small business owners and landlords, and a segment of poor whites trained up on resentment and traditionalism, who pit themselves against PMC Democrats, minorities, and everyone else. But of course, the PMC aren’t interested in fundamentally changing a system that’s treated them well, and so give in to Ebert’s impulse to change as little as possible in the name of ‘practicality’ and ‘stability’, becoming the party of ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ even while everything else is changing all around them. And so an actually-conservative bureaucratic establishment gets painted as “left wing” by reactionaries posing as conservatives. And this besides the fact that given the current state of campaign finance and economic orthodoxy, Democrats inevitably find themselves with their own capitalist masters to report to.

The right wing’s accusations of the PMC Democrats representing “educated urban elites” resonates because there’s truth in it, even though billionaires and actually-rich people overwhelmingly support Republicans, and even though the majority of Democrats are not in the PMC. And often the response from PMC Democrats themselves is, well, why wouldn’t you want to do what educated people say?

(I’ll note here for full transparency that I should very much be counted among the PMC myself, and further I grew up in a comfortable household with PMC parents.)

A common understanding amongst the PMC is that poor whites as a mass vote against their own interests because they’re uneducated and easily swayed by disinformation, propaganda, culture war bullshit, and racism—the thesis of the book What’s the Matter with Kansas (2004) by Thomas Frank. This may be true for some, but in reality the majority of poor whites vote for Democrats. The public is not actually quite so foolish as we’re often lead to believe, despite article after article by hand-wringing, PMC journalists about why some random trucker or whatever is in the tank for Trump. The Republicans and their policies are actually wildly unpopular, which is why they’re so invested in voter suppression, gerrymandering, preserving undemocratic institutions like the electoral college, as well as in promoting a cynicism about our institutions as if nothing better is possible (a cynicism that perhaps backfired in the creation of candidate Trump, who’s popularity rides on the perhaps-true belief that nothing can really change in America without someone taking a sledgehammer to the whole system, even if his particular sledgehammer is made of nothing but grift). And yet you’ll still hear Democrats occasionally complain about ‘too much democracy’ or agreeing with radical Republicans that we need a ‘national divorce’ to get the Red States out of our hair, condemning those same states to continued undemocratic rule. Democrats are not running on fixing American Democracy (or, more accurately, creating it in the first place) or the ongoing threat to it from the right, and a big part of the reason why is that Democratic politicians think, as one Democratic strategist condescendingly put it, “most Americans can’t even spell democracy.”

In an episode of The Orville called “Majority Rule” (right, yes, we are actually talking about The Orville), the crew travels to a planet much like contemporary Earth except that things are run by ‘absolute democracy’. What this means in context is that everything from policy to criminal justice to facts themselves are juried by public vote, compared in the episode itself to the TV singing contest American Idol, in an elaborate metaphor for Cancel Culture and social media.

An away team goes to the planet to investigate the fate of two anthropologists who’ve disappeared. As with a lot of early Orville episodes, there seems to be a gap between the presumed Star Trek: The Next Generation-type competence of the crew and their actual behavior. The away team, despite ostensibly being under cover, makes basically no effort to understand the culture before going down, leading to an incident where one of them dry humps a statue unaware that this will get him downvoted and forced to make an “apology tour” where, if he can’t sufficiently win back public favor, he’ll get this world’s equivalent of a lobotomy.

(Contrast this, for example, to actual Next Generation stories where the crew made extensive efforts to hide themselves or understand what they were getting into before going incognito on an alien planet, for example “First Contact” (the episode, not the film) or Star Trek: Insurrection. It would be different if The Orville crew were supposed to be idiots who are terrible at their job, like the officers in Wellington Paranormal for example, or if they were like Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies who always succeeds in the end despite the fact that he’s an incompetent buffoon. But The Orville’s characters are often simultaneously supposed to be supremely competent overachievers and bumbling everymen/everywomen.)

At the climax of “Majority Rule”, the crew confronts one of the people of the society and tries to explain why ‘absolute democracy’ is bad, saying condescendingly, “A voice should be earned, not given away,” and dismissing the will of the people as the will of the “mob”. There’s even a cringe-worthy dig at ‘identity politics’, where another character is at risk of downvoting because she’s wearing a hat associated with a particular culture, which someone from that culture finds offensive.

The crew frees the imprisoned crewmember at the last moment by flooding the world’s network with deepfakes and social media hacking to create false narratives around his life. The message here, intentional or not, is that manipulating public opinion with misinformation is good as long as it’s the right people doing it for the right reasons. The problem is that the dumb public is so easily swayed, not that a few people have so much power over our media by virtue of their wealth.

It’s not hard to see how someone, particularly someone with a certain sort of position of privilege, might look around and decide this story is a good idea. MacFarlane said he got the idea after reading the book So You Have Been Publicly Shamed, which talks about people whose lives were ruined over things like posting something stupid to Twitter. And the narrative around the election of 2016 and the role of social media in it blames Trump at least in part on the ‘post truth’ bubble in which many people seem to have found themselves, as they’re swallowed down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

But of course, while it’s true that many people were taken in by billionaire and oligarch-funded disinformation and conspiracies around Trump, most people weren’t. Just as with the myth that the Nazis were elected democratically, Trump became president not because of democracy but because of anti-democratic flaws in the system. And while it’s true that public shaming can be a problem, so-called “Cancel Culture” also delivered criminals like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to justice after the actual justice system and social norms failed for decades, actually creating meaningful social change. But this complexity is completely lost in the blunt critique of “Majority Rule”.

This episode, in other words, exposes The Orville’s simple disdain for the ability of ordinary people to make good decisions and its preference for an educated elite of highly skilled individuals, like (ostensibly) the crew of the The Orville, a misanthropic, cynical, and condescending view of the public at large as stupid, cruel, and sheep-like at the heart of the PMC worldview. In Star Trek into Socialism I talked about how while the Federation is portrayed as a representative democracy, we spend almost all our time in the strictly hierarchical Star Fleet. And this hierarchy is portrayed as intensely meritocratic, with authority and responsibility bestowed based on experience and proven ability.

This, not democracy, is the actual PMC fantasy.

Both The Orville and the universe of Star Trek may be post-scarcity, post-money, and post-poverty, but the fantasy you step into when you put on one of these shows or movies isn’t one of democratic cooperation but of meritocratic technocracy, of living in a world managed by the well-intentioned and hyper-competent. And in the final episode of Season 3 of The Orville, it’s this world of ‘absolute democracy’ that the person escapes from and desires so desperately to fix.

The PMC don’t want the common people participating in their government, they want them to shut up and listen to educated experts who know best what’s good for them. And it’s not that education and expertise are bad, they’re great. It’s not that the people at large aren’t often being fed garbage information by selfish actors taking advantage of their relative lack of education. Information from real experts should be made available to the public by a media answerable to the public and designed to actually serve them. But there’s an assumption that people are fundamentally stupid and don’t know what’s good for them at the heart of this analysis, a nasty cynicism embedded in much of our cultural rhetoric. This is what we’re amused by when we laugh at George Carlin’s joke, “Think about how stupid the average person is and then know that half the people are stupider than that.”

But in reality, people are smarter than they’re given credit for, even in the face capital’s constant propaganda.

To pick one telling example of how this often works, when Bill Clinton gutted the American welfare state, he justified it by pointing to opinion polling that showed overwhelming support for welfare reform. This support had been in many ways created by a huge campaign by the right including 8 years of Reagan complaining about “moochers” and non-existent ‘welfare queens’. However, the way Clinton reformed Welfare, by strictly limiting the amount of money people could receive, how long they could receive it, and implementing work requirements (with horrific results) wasn’t actually what the majority of people wanted when you actually talked to them. According to a paper by Kathleen Kost and Frank W. Munger published by the New York Law School in 1996, while people did support welfare reform, “six in ten of those polled favored better job training for the unemployed even if it meant raising taxes, while seven in ten opposed time limits on welfare as long as welfare recipients worked for their benefits. Other polls have shown that the public supports providing day care for welfare recipients and continuing benefits for adolescent mothers.”

In other words, people didn’t actually want the supposedly popular, bipartisan policy they actually got.

As I also pointed out in Star Trek into Socialism, the public today overwhelming supports left-wing policies like Medicare for All (yes, essentially the same service Germans have taken for granted since 1883), and so it’s actually the undemocratic machinery of the American Republic that’s standing in the way of progress that an actual ‘majority rule’ situation might have given us long ago.

And when folks complain to the political establishment about the structural problems standing in the way of what the people actually want, they’re just as likely to receive a shrug and wave of their hands at how impractical it all is and we’ll just have to settle. Consider, for example, when Hillary Clinton was asked if she’d support Medicare for All during her presidential campaign, her response was that it was “the right goal” but “it can’t pass”, and in fact will “never, ever come to pass”. In other words, this policy, supported by the vast majority of Americans, wasn’t worth fighting for because it wasn’t practically possible, and rather than an indictment of our system and proof it needs radical change, this is merely “the way things are”.

Of course, it’s not that the PMC are unaware of the shortcomings of wealth inequality and capital accumulation at the top. For example, The Orville contains a plot line about the Kaylons, a race of artificially intelligent androids who long ago murdered the cruel creators who used them as slave labor. The ultimate trigger for the genocide comes when the big boss decides to deal with misbehaving androids by installing a “pain” chip. In the end though, the blame is shifted to the dumb public who will go along with it, and the only person we see objec is, tellingly, a bureaucratic functionary, who has no response to the claim that the public is too dumb to care.

The traditional PMC, with their belief in educated technocracy benefiting everyone, has always had a fundamental conflict with employers who want to maximize profits at all costs. And yet as a group they fell head-over-heels for the Neoliberal order in the late 70s, turning into yuppies and Clintonesque figures who allowed themselves to be convinced that there might be something to all this ‘unleashing entrepreneurial capitalism’ and ‘finding market solutions to problems’ business.

And you’ll never guess what the results were.

On the one hand, the new Neoliberal order was great for the PMCs at the top of the pyramid. Upper management and executives were granted substantial stock options that sent their earnings into the stratosphere. If you want to know how exactly CEO pay increased from 20 times that of the average worker in 1965 to nearly 400 times in 2021, it’s because they started receiving the bulk of their earnings as stock rather than wages. Steve Jobs’ “official” salary was $1 a year, but his stock grants made him one of the richest people on Earth. But, of course, this fundamentally changes their relationship to the means of production. If they’re receiving most of their income from capital ownership rather than wages, they’re not proletarian at all anymore. They’re bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the PMC and especially in fields like media production (particularly journalism), education, research, and for people at the lower ranks of the corporate structure, things changed the other way, as capitalists hollowed out wages and pushed overworking and ‘grind culture’. And all this while the cost of a university education, which traditionally granted membership in the PMC, exploded by nearly 500% since 1985 causing graduates to be chained to ever larger debts, only to find on graduation that the well-paying jobs they were promised don’t actually exist. And as AI and outsourcing come for white collar work the way automation came for manufacturing work in decades pastthis trend looks only likely to continue.

In other words, much of the former educated elite are being pushed back into the same condition as the rest of the proletariat, disintegrating the layer of practical bureaucrats and professionals that worked so hard to keep politics from moving into radicalism. As Barbara and John Ehrenreich, who coined the term ‘Professional/Managerial Class’ in the 70s, themselves said when they returned with an update in 2013, the PMC is dying.

In 2014 economist Thomas Piketty published the aptly-named Capital in the 21st Century, which used mainstream economics techniques and research in order to show that reducing taxes and allowing more wealth to accumulate will, surprise surprise, actually result in increasing inequality, poverty, and lack of economic mobility. However, far from a Marxist inevitable slide towards calamity, Picketty reminds us that these trends can be reversed as they were in the past when Eduard Bernstein first took note of them. We don’t even have to look as far back as the great post-World War II social democratic compromise to see evidence of this. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Researchrecently showed that, while wage inequality has steadily increased over the last four decades, that increase had reversed by one quarter during the pandemic (specifically between the top 90th percentile and bottom 10th percentile of wage earners). What caused this reduction in wage inequality?

There were some aspects that weren’t directly related to economic policy. For example, so many workers getting laid off or furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic forced them to try and find something better instead of staying in the same low-paying job. Closing the borders and years of anti-immigrant policies have reduced the number of (often undocumented) migrant workers willing to work for low wages. However, the bulk of this improvement is due to the suite of spending bills passed in the first year of the pandemic, including enhanced and expanded unemployment insurance, economic impact payments, aid to states and localities, child tax credits, and temporary protection from eviction. All of these things allowed people to find better jobs, get education for better jobs, relocate for better jobs, start new small businesses, and so on. And this is just in the United States which had far fewer of these sorts of interventions than most of the developed world.

Of course, the response from the employer class has not been celebration. Instead, we get a parade of complaints that “nobody wants to work anymore” rather than businesses adjusting to the simple supply-and-demand equation and raising their wages until they can attract the workers they need. And the government has responded in turn by ending or allowing to expire all the aid programs from the pandemic, and further in many states actually relaxing child labor laws so that children can be exploited for lower wages, the latest salvo in the Right’s chipping away at the protections of the Progressive and New Deal eras (and eerily on the same battlefield in which the very first rights were won with the British Factory Acts).

Meanwhile, the Fed has responded to inflation by making efforts to actually reduce wages and increase unemployment, threatening to role back the meager gains already accomplished, even though there’s ways to fight inflation that don’t require us to hike up interest rates and punch the economy in the face.

Marx had a term for these sorts of policies and rhetoric, and its a term we should bring back to people’s lips: class war. It may not be conceived as such by the people doing it. The business owners crying about the cost of labor are just looking at their bottom lines. The trained economists at the Federal Reserve are simply acting in the Professional-Managerial tradition of technocracy, believing their education gives them the clarity of knowledge to act in the most rational fashion, even if the actual results of that supposed ‘rationality’ are increased human suffering (which they themselves admit when they say euphemistically that these policies cause “pain”). But the result is the same, the ownership class and their allies acting in the interests of the ‘economy’, which is defined not as what’s best for labor or for the people at large, but as what makes the money go ‘round.

When Republicans say that the national debt is a huge crisis and that we have to cut social programs for the poor and elderly to deal with it, and then turn around and celebrate cutting taxes on the rich which sends the deficit to the moon, what is that if not class war? When Google fires 12,000 workers months after a stock buy-back to enrich its shareholders that would have paid those employees salaries for the next 27 years, what is that if not class war?

However, as wages at the very bottom have come up, as union organizing and almost as important awareness of union organizing begins to reverse trends of union destruction of the last forty years, and pivotally as the PMC who governed the 20th century have been steadily destroyed as a class, we seem to now stand at a crossroads.

And so we finally come back to the question with which we started: how will capitalism end?

Back in the 1910s, Bernstein would draw a loopy line of hills and troughs to illustrate Marx’s prediction of successive, downward trending crises as capitalism buckled under its own contradictions.

He would then contrast that with a line illustrating what his data showed happening, hills and troughs actually getting smaller and less frequent as capitalism stabilized and gradually evolved into socialism.

Of course, Bernstein’s model did not anticipate the massive trough of the Great Depression, but afterwards the industrialized world saw a period of social democratic reforms creating exactly Bernstein’s predicted stability until the 1970s. Forty years of Neoliberal policies of tax cuts and deregulation, however, have seen forty years of the return of frequent economic troughs and with them increased inequality.

The four largest stock market crashes since the Great Depression all happened in the last forty years, with three just in the last twenty five years.

The problem both with Orthodox Marxist historical materialism and Bernstein’s materialist ‘evolutionary socialism’ is that they put far too much faith in forces outside of our control to produce some teleological end. Today, its’ not as hard to imagine as it once was that some sort of catastrophic collapse is in our future. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We find ourselves in a period of realignment on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1970s. The Neoliberal order is crumbling, replaced by a kind of economic nationalism that sees the resurgence of tariffs and other protectionist policies which go against the Neoliberal demand for free trade and open markets. John Birch-style paranoia and conspiracy has completed its takeover of the Republican party, with the result of them largely abandoning their ‘small government’, ‘low taxes’ rhetoric in favor of moral panics to dictate Christian fundamentalism and railing against vaccines and climate science. Meanwhile, the old guard of PMC Democratic leaders are on their last legs, with the new generation more likely to follow the Squad into more genuinely socialistic thinking, with young people in this country ever-more moving in their direction in the face of a cost of living crisis and lack of opportunities.

The current conservative association of socialism with government control actually gives us a useful tool. American unions are approved of by 71% of Americans. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has grown from almost nothing to 50,000 people, with openly affiliated candidates like AOC winning elections. Worker cooperatives are barely on conservative’s radar and not seen by the public as socialist at all.

And so the government could almost without friction make policies to boost cooperative businesses the way they already boost capitalist ones, as Bernie Sanders did with the WORK act which created a fund to help create cooperatives and passed through congress without much comment. We can help create cooperative associations like Spain’s Mondragón, which employs over 80,000 people. If we can’t resurrect quality public housing, we can help create cooperatively owned housing with internal rules that prevent prices from raising like Co-Op City in the Bronx, which houses over 60,000 people.

We can help create consumer co-ops like Norway’s OBOS, a housing developer owned entirely by over 500,000 homeowners whose homes they’ve built. Instead of non-profit organizations being run by wealthy boards of directors who are essentially answerable to no one but donors, we can encourage the creation of non-profits owned and managed by their own employees. Instead of sports teams which will leave for whatever new city gives them the best tax breaks, you can have a team like the Green Bay Packers which is owned by the Green Bay community with no one allowed to own more than 200,000 shares. Consumer cooperatives aren’t even hugely different from the joint-stock corporation that are the foundation of capitalist corporate structure, it’s just a matter of structuring stock ownership and distribution so that instead of a few capitalists being able to monopolize ownership, it can be more evenly distributed among the people who the company directly serves. This is actually why the joint-stock corporate structure was so exciting to Marx, it proved that the owners (the stockholders) weren’t actually necessary to run the business of a corporation, and therefore could be eliminated entirely (as in a worker coop) or replaced with the customers themselves (as in a consumer cooperative) or by the people in general (as in public ownership), or even, ultimately, perhaps allowing us to move beyond our parochial conceptions of private property entirely.

While we’re doing this we can also put the focus from merely forming unions and having them fight for rights, to putting union leaders on corporate boards of directors to give them direct influence over a company’s direction, as most countries in Europe already do to greater or lesser extents.

These things already exist in the world, we just have to make a lot more of them. We already live in a mixed economy, where publicly-owned businesses controlled (ostensibly) democratically by the people, worker and consumer coops, and other organizational structures rub shoulders with the traditional capitalist model of ownership by wealthy shareholders. Moving to a cooperative society is far less radical and unthinkable than capitalists would like you to believe it is.

And by building up cooperatives, unions, and socialist organizations, what we do is create a power base from which to operate politically, one with membership and financing to influence the government and economy the same ways the capitalist power base does today. One that can work to wrest political and economic power away from the capitalist establishment.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. Capitalism took literal centuries to displace Feudalism in a process that encompassed numerous wars and both violent and nonviolent regime changes as well as peaceful reforms, and also saw lots of reactionary backsliding before it was done. I honestly think one of the key mistakes of Marxism is to assume that the break between economic systems would be sudden, clean, and total.

Attempts to violently seize power through revolution thus far have largely lead to either reactionary backlash or authoritarian vanguardism. Bernstein made a mistake in putting so much faith in the mechanisms of liberal democracy and the bureaucracy of an organization like the SPD to always gradually move things in the right direction.

Cooperatives still represent a tiny percentage of employers, but they’re growing with around 1,000 worker cooperativesand 65,000 consumer cooperatives in the US alone and around three million cooperatives globally. And while capitalist corporations have become cooperative in the past it’s almost unheard of for things to go the other way.

Make no mistake further crises are coming and as global warming continues to accelerate these crises are liable to get progressively worse. However, previous crises have created opportunities for radical change, whether the Great Depression providing the mandate for FDR’s New Deal or the 2008 crash giving the Democrats control of the White House and Congress with a supermajority in the senate. In 2008, though, we didn’t have the kind of organizational pressure we need to accomplish more than a Neoliberal market solution to health care, the barest possible minimum of lukewarm progressive accomplishment literally cribbed from a Republican governor (that the Republican party nevertheless proceeded to paint as pure communism). What 2008 does prove though is that a big enough crisis can hand one party decisive control even when that country is already hugely polarized.

There’s a saying in Latin America that the United States is the only country where socialism could actually work because it’s the only country that couldn’t be interfered with by the United States.

So here’s how capitalism ends: a series of crises in which left parties in liberal democracies are given power. Those parties could pursue policies like universal health care, a national job guarantee, or universal basic income, and they should, but the pressure must be on for them to also create cooperative ownership in the economy, things on the scale, for example, of the way the US government today guarantees basically every mortgage and allows homeowners to write off their mortgage payments on their taxes to encourage people to buy houses. We could, for example, make it easier for businesses undergoing bankruptcy protection to be taken over by their workers, guaranting loans the same we now guarantee mortgages. We could make it easier for grants and loans to be given to community land trusts, organizations owned by communities that buy up properties for the people.

These cooperatives and organizations could then take advantage of the same tools capitalist organizations do to tilt the government and media in their favor, in a snowball effect that could massively increase their prevalence and power in society and in the economy. Cooperatives and political organizations themselves could also assist in creating more cooperatives by aiding workers to buy businesses and providing loans to create new cooperatives.

A situation in which all capitalist owned businesses are replaced with cooperative ones which continue to compete in a market economy is a form of what’s called market socialism. Market socialism has its own issues, of course, but there’s no question it would be an improvement over market capitalism. And perhaps ultimately these cooperative businesses might discover they can participate with each other rather than compete, working for the public benefit rather than mere profit and making and distributing goods in a fully cooperative or participatory economy. I don’t know. It’s not really my job to create recipes for the cook shops of the future any more than it was Marx’s. But as climate change makes life progressively more miserable for the majority, the minority of wealthy capitalists are unlikely to feel much of a pinch with their wealth to insulate them. Only by expanding control of our economy democratically to the people can we hope to give the people the power they need to steer us away from the cliff. Otherwise, even if capitalism isn’t destroyed by its inherent contradictions, it might be destroyed by the collapse of our ecosystem, and I have a hard time imagining that the end result of that catastrophe would be classless communism.

One thing I do know for sure is that there is no socialism without democracy, and there is no democracy without socialism.

Hey remember at the end of the last episode when I said that I was going to make shorter more frequent episodes? Yeah, I guess I failed at that. I just couldn’t get Bernstein out of my head and kept reading and writing and rewriting until what I had took shape into this. I hope you liked it. I really am truly I promise going to try to do some more frequent, shorter episodes again. For real guys.

As always there’s a bibliography in the show notes.

Yes, there will be excerpts of deleted material on the Patreon at, which you can get access to for as little as $1 an episode, and also get exclusive author’s notes, draft excerpts, and early access to episodes. There’s also a whole thing I wanted to get into here about the role of identity politics in all this, but it was too complicated and too much of a digression from the main point, so I’ll probably talk about it there.

I’d like to thank my Patrons: Kathryn Carruthers, Gabi Ghita, Hristo Kolev, Kevin Cafferty, Ulysse Pence, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Not Invader Zim, Jason Quackenbush, Arthur Rosenfield, and Nancy S. Rosen


My primary literary sources were:

  • The Preconditions of Socialism by Eduard Bernstein, 1899, edited and translated by Henry Tudor, 1993 (originally published in English as Evolutionary Socialism)
  • Eduard Bernstein on Socialism Past and Present: Essays and Lectures on Ideology, edited and translated by Marius S. Ostrowski, 2021
  • The Quest for Evolutionary Socialism by Manfred B. Steger, 1997
  • The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism by Peter Gay, 1952
  • The German Revolution 1917-1923 by Pierre Broué, 1971 (translation 2005)
  • The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, 1848
  • Capital Vol. 1 by Karl Marx, 1867
  • Critique of the Gotha Programme by Karl Marx, 1875
  • “The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution” by Karl Marx, 1848
  • “Speech to the International Workingman’s Association” by Karl Marx, 1863
  • Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engles
  • Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels, 1877
  • Reform or Revolution? by Rosa Luxemburg
  • “The Russian Revolution” by Rosa Luxemburg, 1918
  • Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, 2014

Other sources:

  • Various episodes of The Orville and Star Trek that I’m not going to bother listing out
  • “Using Corporate Governance to Understand Socialism” by Matt Brunig, YouTube, 2023:
  • Bismarck calling his welfare state “socialism”:
  • “The Professional Managerial Class” by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, 1977:
  • “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class” by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, 2013:
  • “How Educational Differences are Widening America’s Political Rift”:
  • Billionaires overwhelmingly support Republicans:
  • 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less by Garett Jones, 2020
  • What’s the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank, 2004
  • Majority of poor whites actually vote for Democrats:
  • Complaining that America has “too much Democracy”:
  • The divide among Democrats over Democracy:
  • “The Myth of the Welfare Queen”:
  • Clinton’s welfare reform had horrific results:
  • Paper showing that what people actually wanted for welfare reform wasn’t what they actually got:
  • The majority of Americans support left-wing policies:
  • Hillary Clinton saying that Medicare for All can’t pass:, and would never pass:
  • CEOs are paid nearly 400X their average worker:
  • College costs went up 500% since 1985:
  • College graduates struggling to find jobs:
  • AI will cause job losses for white collar workers:
  • Capital by Thomas Piketty in 10 graphs:
  • Wage inequality in the US reduced by 25% during the pandemic:
  • More on the cause of the reduction in inequality and its causes:
  • The Fed’s plan to increase unemployment:
  • You can fight inflation with targeted price controls rather than raising interest rates:
  • The rich celebrate tax cuts when previously they worried about the deficit:
  • Google lays off 12,000 workers months after a stock buy-back that would have paid their salaries for the next 27 years:
  • The result of Neoliberal policies on the economy:
  • The movement from Neoliberalism to Economic Nationalism:
  • The current cost-of-living crisis:
  • 71% of Americans approve of unions:
  • The DSA has 50,000 members:
  • Bernie Sanders’ WORK act promoting co-ops:
  • Most countries in Europe have union reps on boards of directors to represent worker interests:
  • Number of co-ops in the US:
  • About consumer co-ops:
  • Capitalist corporations becoming co-ops:
  • How the US government guarantees mortgages:

2 comments on “How will Capitalism End? The Orville, Eduard Bernstein, and What is to be Done”

  1. Intifada Reply

    I think we will quickly find that this “market socialist” approach will be quickly crushed. You put too much faith in soft power and bourgeois democracy.

    • Eric Rosenfield Reply

      I mean, it’s a fair question. I would argue, however, that because market socialism is built up slowly it becomes entrenched and actually more difficult to crush. Violent revolution on the other hand is difficult, requires a revolutionary situation, and is fraught with pitfalls, authoritarianism, and mass murder, and when it fails results in large-scale reaction (as seen in the German Revolution as well as in 1848).

      If you have a third suggestion, I’d love to hear it frankly.

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