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Is capitalism terminally ill?

On June 15 the Toronto Star broke news that the NDP was planning to drop the term "socialism" from its party's platform. This was a mere formality of what had been in existence for decades: the party hasn't been "socialist" in any shape or form for a very long time.

On the very same day, new data emerged from the Certified General Accountants Association reporting record levels of household debt for Canadians -- a total of $1.5 trillion, which means if the debt was spread evenly among all Canadians, a family of two would owe an estimated $176,461, including mortgage costs.

Also, on this same day, the Harper government moved to end the strike of Air Canada's 3,800 predominately female ticket agents by introducing back-to-work legislation. The workers, who are CAW members, are fighting efforts by Air Canada to gut their pension plan.

What do these portents add up to?

On one hand, the forces that might replace capitalism with some form of socialism appear to have thrown in the towel at the exact time capitalism is failing working people miserably. Meanwhile, capital is in the driver's seat, clearly with the upper hand, able to force workers to give over more and more concessions.

But a deeper question is this: Is capitalism in terminal decline? Does it have cancer and is its demise inevitable?

On the face of it, that seems like an absurd suggestion. After all, for capitalists, things couldn't be better. Corporate profits and executive pay are going gangbusters. There are few if any impediments for the business sector to getting whatever it wants, whether it's free trade deals, a free hand to bust unions, gut workplace and environmental laws, and pressure governments to do their bidding, whether it's bailing them out and never holding them to account.

Meanwhile, the twin bogeymen of "socialism" and "communism" that instilled such fear in the capitalist classes during the 20th century are dead. No one is threatening capital's private control over the economic levers from that quarter.

So how can one suggest that capitalism is terminally ill? Especially since people have been predicting its demise since Adam Smith's day.

I am not suggesting it's going anywhere anytime soon.

What I am saying is that evidence is mounting that capitalism as an economic system is failing the vast majority of people. It is failing to provide working people with jobs, a decent standard of living, security and stability. The Great Recession grinds on with job growth either anemic or even falling, wages are declining, personal and government debts are climbing, food and gasoline prices are soaring, and the income gap continues to worsen. With the exception of a handful of countries, Europe is an economic disaster zone, the U.S. economy is flailing, and Japan's economy is in deep trouble. The middle classes and unionized working classes are going the way of the dodo. And governments are about to make matters worse by imposing austerity measures and lay off millions of public servants around the world.

So where is this bound to end?

Indicators are that this will lead to chaos. The Arab Spring might be caused by people throwing off the yoke of dictatorships, but the uprisings are being driven by economic factors too. The Arab world has far too many young, unemployed people facing bleak economic prospects. In Europe, in countries like Greece, Spain and the U.K., unemployed youths have taken to the streets, and anarchist groups are seeing an uptick in popularity. Mexico, which has descended to the status of a failed state, is riven by drug war violence that has the failures of the legitimate economy to provide good jobs to Mexican workers at its root. Chinese migrant workers are increasingly clashing with police over their plight.

Even if the forces of socialism fail to re-emerge, capitalism is facing a period of unrelenting instability. As larger portions of the world's population are driven into penury, you will see greater social unrest, more violence, more social problems, more despair. And that's entirely because too many desperate people, unable to make ends meet, unable to find jobs, will turn to increasingly desperate measures -- either via protests and acts of rebellion, or entering the underground economy of organized crime -- in order to seek alternatives to the current order.

In the past, when capitalists have faced rebellion, they have either embraced fascistic parties or measures to launch crackdowns, or they have made concessions -- allowed wages to rise and workers to garner more rights. But in an era of globalization and free trade, the ability of capital to give workers higher wages is limited. And cracking down on dissent and becoming more authoritarian, has its limits too, as Syria and Egypt and Libya demonstrate.

Capitalism might not be overthrown, but it might be facing a period where its very foundations are eaten away because it continues to exclude too many people from the opportunities they want and deserve.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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