by Jake Johnson
October 21, 2016
In 1946, George Orwell pondered the fragility of the capitalist order.
Reviewing the work of the influential theorist James Burnham, Orwell presaged several concepts that would later form the groundwork for his best-known novel, 1984.
In his book The Managerial Revolution, Burnham envisioned, as Orwell put it, "a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production."
"The real question," Orwell adds, "is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy."
While Orwell was wary of Burnham's worldview and of his more specific predictions, he agreed that the relationship between capitalism and democracy has always been, and always will be, a precarious one.
"For quite fifty years past," Orwell noted, "the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy."
Pointing to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few and acknowledging "the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state," Orwell was far from optimistic about the future — but he was quite certain that the economic status quo would eventually give way.
Recent events, and the material circumstances of much of the world's population, have prompted serious examinations of the same questions Orwell was considering seven decades ago. And though it appears as if rumors of capitalism's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.
Widespread discontent over stagnant incomes and the uneven prosperity broughtabout by neoliberal globalization has, in 2016, come to a head in striking fashion; Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have many questioning previously sacred assumptions.