I came across the phrase not long ago while reading Eric Cheyfitz’s book The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States. The title of the introduction—“The Limits of Capitalism’s Imagination”—struck me as not only a deeply evocative way of thinking about the times we live in but also as the core element of the questions a growing number of people are asking about the threats we face as a society and as a planet.
There is no doubt that the United States is well into our second gilded age. Just beneath the glittering surface of the extraordinary wealth accrued by the very few, the middle class in the United States is eroding and, according to economist Thomas Piketty, the level of income inequality is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” We have the highest youth poverty rate among developed nations, the highest incarceration rate in the world by far and among the highest child mortality rates. Add to this considerable inequality and instability the fact that we have no coherent plans for dealing with global climate collapse, and the consequences of the limits of capitalism’s imagination begin to stand out in stark relief.
The chasm between rhetoric and reality
The sense of urgency surrounding those limitations is profound when looked at through a generational lens. How else do we explain the fact that a 78-year-old self-described socialist beat his nearest Democratic competitor by a two-to-one margin among 18- to 44-year-old voters in Iowa and won more young New Hampshire primary voters than the rest of the field combined? Clearly change is occurring on a fundamental level. Our youngest cohort of voters is opting for a radical political departure because they have seen the future we have imagined for them, and have found it wanting.