In the book Does Capitalism Have a Future?, Emmanuel Wallerstein argues that capitalism cannot be saved because capitalism requires the endless pursuit of profits, and the world system is at a stage where there is no room for another wave of exploiting people who are largely outside the system, which capitalism, in its modern form (from about the late 15th century), requires.

The ur-rule of capitalist behaviour, per Wallerstein, is that one must pursue ever-higher profits. If one doesn’t, they’re out of the game. (You and I, dear reader, are not in the game and never were, unless some billionaire or CEO is reading this.)

If you don’t pursue endless profit, you fall behind those who do, and they buy you out, or you go bankrupt, or even you become a small or medium business and have no real power. To have power in capitalism, one must be ever striving for the apex. It’s a red-queen’s race, as in “Alice in Wonderland.”

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Now, the next thing is that capitalists actually don’t like workers who fully depend on them for survival: they want workers who have other supports; generally some sort of subsistence or government support. Traditionally this would be workers in hinterland regions (in Europe or Britain to start) who still had some land or animals and took the work only to get some extra money.

Other arrangements did exist: You could pay them less than they really needed to survive (the early British proletariat, as can be seen from accounts at the time), or, in the modern world, you can be Walmart and instruct your workers how to get food stamps, welfare, and medicaid, as you pay them less than they need to survive.

Various other companies, including Amazon, who rely on similar supports and school, which is a form of babysitting, can be seen this way as well; workers who have to care for their own children 24/7 can’t work. Extended families, in countries which still have them, do the same thing — grandparents or other relatives care for the children while the parents work.

Each wave of capitalism has gone out to places where there were still people with extended families and means of subsistence, and brought them into capitalism. At first it was cheap, then wages rose as workers became proletariatized and wanted their wages to cover their actual expenses.

Getting government to step in and subsidize workers is a poor substitute, which can’t work in the longer run, because the workers still have to be supported. Even if a specific company is dodging all its taxes, someone is paying, and if that someone is the workers, well, that strategy is only viable while there is wealth to steal from the poor and middle class, because – obviously — taking wealth from the rich defeats the point.

The last wave, to Wallerstein, was this last wave: There are no countries of significance not in the capitalist system, and there is no significant group of people with extra-subsistence to bring into the system to support cheap labor.

Without this, the current form of capitalism is doomed. Profits can only be increased by impoverishing societies as a whole, which destroys the wealth customers need to buy goods.

Though Wallerstein doesn’t emphasize it, there’s also the issue of simple depletion of minerals and of climate change. There are plenty of hydrocarbons in the world, but using them is destroying subsistence, food production in general, and drawing down water, and so on. We are running out of other materials, almost exactly as “The Limits To Growth” report predicted five decades ago.

The reason people like Bezos and Musk are obsessed with space and automation if that if space mining, colonization, and automation are the only viable solutions can the resource constraints and the expansion constraint be broken. It’s the only way that this style of capitalism continue, possibly nearly forever, by expansion to new worlds, the asteroid belt and so on.

Unfortunately, with our current technology, space colonization is a no-go. We can’t even create a biosphere (a closed environment) capable of supporting anything more complex than mold slimes. We can’t deal with the radiation in space. Mars colonization without terraforming will be very limited; it’s a more hostile environment than Antarctica, which we haven’t been able to colonize either.

So, assuming you agree with Wallerstein’s model of modern capitalism, at least in its broad strokes, there’s no way for capitalism to survive.

If it is near the end, what you’ll see is a structural crisis with wide fluctuation. Change to a new equilibrium generally happens with snaps to the new equilibrium, then snaps back. At first, the snaps to the new equilibrium are brief — over time, they become longer and eventually there are no snaps back.

This is also likely to be the case for climate change, the question is where the new equilibrium will be, which is not as easy a question as some people think, because while earth has had high carbon in the past, conditions then were quite different. One example is that atmospheric pressure 2.7 billion years ago was half what it is today.

In any case, whatever the new equilibrium will be is unclear, both socially and environmentally, and how the social equilibrium sets will work is also dependent on where the climate stabilizes.

So at this point, we can say, if we find Wallerstein persuasive, that the modern form of capitalism, which has run progressively larger parts of the world for about five centuries, is on its last legs. What we can’t say is what will replace it.

The goal of those of us who see what is happening is to create ideas; ideologies, which will be available when change becomes so imperative that people are desperate, and reaching for new options. If we don’t, the worst people will dominate with their worst ideologies, and the new system could be even worse in many ways.