Everything ends: Explaining the modern world

The modern world looks increasingly mired in crisis. Why? It’s fashionable to explain today’s world through two prisms: modern politics and modern economics—or the modern state and capitalism. Even the words sound slightly intimidating. So instead of defining them from a dictionary, I would like to begin with a historical account of how these pillars of the modern world evolved.

Niccolò Machiavelli, an early theorist of modern politics.

The modern state is a creature of the so-called early-modern period. This followed the Renaissance or rebirth of ancient ideas in a flurry of intellectual activity and political turmoil. It also coincided with incipient schisms within Catholic Christendom which decayed into violent religious conflicts in the sixteenth century. States fought each other with steel weapons, wooden ships, and early guns and cannons. The brutality of modern warfare suggested to some that politics couldn’t be moral. Political realists Machiavelli and Hobbes suggested that the state’s duty was not to advance a moral code but rather to pursue political goals like reputation or bare survival.

As states continued to wage wars against one another, they started to innovate. Britain sent peasants from the countryside into cities to work as wage labourers to a new investor class, later named the capitalist class. After this allowed Britain to industrialise, other countries mimicked British capitalism to increase state power. In the nineteenth century, the market began to ‘disembed’, as Karl Polanyi put it, from the society which gave it life: the logics of economics and politics drifted apart. As trade intensified, capitalism developed through the division between politics and economics.

Today, capitalism dominates the modern state in the US and Europe, while China still puts state politics before capitalist economics. Whether the modern state or capitalism rule, there is a common story underlying modern variety: a marriage between the modern state and capitalism. The modern state arose from the separation between politics and morality that war created. Capitalism arose from the separation between politics and economics that trade created. So long as that marriage (founded, paradoxically, on separation) continues to last, I think we will continue to be modern people.

Which will end first? Just as the universe is likelier to vaporise long after the Earth does, the modern state, being older than capitalism, is likelier to have a longer life ahead of it than capitalism does (assuming these systems have different life spans). A more precise reason is that capitalism is more dynamic than the modern state and is therefore likelier to burn up in a self-made crisis sooner. The pursuit of profit in capitalism is a more relentless endeavour than the pursuit of power in the modern state is. While the modern state can sleep, capitalism never sleeps. But when the modern state awakes, it over-awes all. Indeed, the modern state has had to step in to ‘bail’ capitalism out of its increasingly frequent debt crises, both in 2008 (a crisis of financial debt, followed by a sovereign-debt crisis in the eurozone) and 2020 (a general crisis of ecological, financial, corporate, and sovereign debt). If the modern state can save capitalism, presumably it can end it, too.

Capitalism, put simply, is less stable than the modern state, and is therefore subject to more rapid decay. Capitalism may therefore be a faster-burning star than the modern state. The separation between politics and economics seems much more unstable than the separation between politics and morals, since war unifies the state around a common goal while trade separates the state into fragile classes. The modern state, a creature of modern warfare, may be a stabler social formation than trade-made capitalism. Perhaps the time will come to let go of modern economics before we have to let go of modern politics — although ultimately, so the saying goes, everything ends.

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