Capitalism’s new critics take on an economics run amok.
Thomas Piketty (Photo: Emmanuelle Marchadour)
Marxists were not the only ones convinced that revolution was imminent. A remarkable series of transformations—the corporation’s rise, an unprecedented growth in productive capacity, the knitting together of what a few people had started referring to as a world economy—were redefining social life and what it meant to be a socialist. Restraining monopolies, bolstering labor movements, nationalizing land, instituting progressive taxation, establishing a welfare state—these were no longer the province of a radical fringe. By the end of the nineteenth century, laissez-faire’s obituary had been written so often that William Harcourt, former chancellor of the Exchequer and one of Great Britain’s most influential politicians, could proclaim that “we are all socialists now.”
Harcourt’s socialism was not Marx’s; it was, for example, intended to foil a revolution, not to foment one. At a time when a profusion of competing socialisms vied with each other for prominence, many bore little resemblance to what Marx had sketched (though, with the master dead, what Marx would have preferred also became grounds for dispute). Yet Marx’s successors had at least won an intellectual victory. Talk of a more equitable society had become ubiquitous and, along the way, “capitalism” slipped into the vocabulary, too.
Many, especially on the right, balked at the term. They claimed that “capitalism” was too precise, or not precise enough, or that it put an exaggerated emphasis on the role of capitalists in a system that was larger than any one group, no matter how powerful. Others accepted the word but gave it new meaning. By 1918, one German estimate tallied more than 100 ways of defining capitalism. Even then, it was still a rarity compared with the 1930s, when the Great Depression shoved capitalism—frequently assumed to have entered its final days—into the spotlight.
By the twentieth century, capitalism often seemed less the name for a specific mode of production than a more general way of describing a modern world perpetually overturning itself. With society gripped by changes that were routinely characterized as unparalleled in history, capitalism appeared about as faithful a designation for the new order as any. Yet Marxists never relinquished their proprietary claim to the label. As one of Marx’s translators observed in 1898, “It was the Marxists who forced the discussion of the question, and it is they who are most active in keeping it up.” The German economist Werner Sombart reiterated the point a few years later when he noted, “The concept of capitalism and even more clearly the term itself may be traced primarily to the writings of socialist theoreticians. It has in fact remained one of the key concepts of socialism down to the present time.”
Doubts about capitalism’s analytic utility, however, were not confined to the right. As the historian Howard Brick has demonstrated, throughout much of the twentieth century a substantial contingent of thinkers on the left believed that capitalism was either in the process of giving way to a more advanced mode of economic organization, or that the conversion to a postcapitalist order had already taken place. This perspective enjoyed its greatest prominence in the aftermath of World War II, a period viewed today as the golden age of capitalism but that at the time was also portrayed as the dawning of postcapitalism. States endowed with new powers by wartime victories seemed like they might be on the verge of uncovering a course beyond capitalism and socialism, where the good of society would supersede the exigencies of economics. Marxists flirted with speculations along these lines, too, before the onset of the Cold War hardened previously fluid divisions. Academics continued the debate in the 1960s when proponents of convergence theory argued that both sides of the Iron Curtain had moved toward a common model where bureaucratic efficiency trumped clashing ideologies.
With the riddle of prosperity solved, many on the left assumed that the time had come to address loftier questions: eliminating poverty, expanding civil rights, protecting the environment, and more existential concerns like nurturing individuality in a bureaucratized society. No wonder radicals in the 1960s could insist that “capitalism” wasn’t large enough to capture their critique. Paul Potter, former president of Students for a Democratic Society, complained that the word summoned images of an old left mired in archaic battles from the Great Depression. For Potter, “the system” was larger than capitalism, and “rejection of the old terminology” was “part of the new hope for radical change.”
In the 1970s, visions of a society beyond capitalism or socialism melted away, along with the robust growth rates that had made them plausible. Economic questions returned with a ferocity that made the prophets of postcapitalism appear deluded about the impediments they faced, and the once-imposing schema detailed by social theorists like Talcott Parsons came to seem flabby when contrasted with the remorseless clarity offered by an ascendant economics profession and its corps of mathematicians. Capitalism, now stripped of its explicitly socialist connotations, became a staple in the rhetoric of both left and right. By the end of the decade, it was easier to deny the existence of society—as Margaret Thatcher famously would—than to challenge capitalism’s pre-eminence as a category of analysis.
Socialists might have enjoyed watching the triumph of an idea they had concocted if they had not been busy combating growing dissent within their ranks. These difficulties seemed manageable in the 1970s, when Western governments had many fires of their own to put out. Ten years later, capitalists had regained their footing, while the socialist project continued to decay. Francis Fukuyama’s advertisement for history’s denouement was still on the horizon, but the habits of thinking that would undergird his thesis had already sunk deep roots. Marxism was built upon faith in revolution, but in the West revolution seemed more implausible than ever, and in Eastern Europe the continent’s only widespread revolution had Marxism in its sights. The collapse of communist governments that began in 1989 revealed that history had readied one last twist of the knife: nothing did more to entrench the acceptance of capitalism than the demise of the movement that had invented the concept.
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Socialism and capitalism seem like natural antagonists, but their rivalry is Oedipal. To many, the relationship appears straightforward. Capitalism, they would argue, created the modern industrial working class, which supplied the socialist movement with its staunchest recruits. This story, variations of which reach back to Karl Marx, has been repeated so often that it seems intuitive. But it gets the lines of paternity backward. Capitalism did not create socialism; socialists invented capitalism.
The origins of capitalism could be dated to when someone first traded for profit, though most historians prefer a shorter time line. Even so, scholars tend to agree that something usefully described as capitalism had materialized in parts of the world by 1800, at the latest. But the idea of capitalism took longer to emerge. The word wasn’t coined until the middle of the nineteenth century, and it didn’t enter general usage until decades later.
By that point, socialists had been a familiar force in politics for almost a century. Yet socialism’s founders—figures like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier—did not intend to overthrow capitalism. Their aspirations were, if anything, grander. They planned to launch a new religion grounded in principles revealed by another recent discovery: social science. Each half of the formulation—the social and the scientific—mattered equally. For most of the nineteenth century, socialism’s chief opponent was individualism, not capitalism. According to socialism’s pioneering theorists, society was more than a collection of individuals. It was an organism, and it had a distinctive logic of its own—a singular object that could be understood, and controlled, by a singular science. Socialists claimed to have mastered this science, which entitled them to act in society’s name. One of their first tasks would be to replace Christianity, liberating humanity from antiquated prejudices that had undermined revolution in France and could jeopardize future rebellions in Europe.
Socialism, though, was only the latest attempt to grapple with a deeper problem. With the lonely exception of ancient Greece some 2,000 years prior, democracy had been a marginal concept in political debate throughout history. But it returned to life at the close of the eighteenth century, no time more prominently than when Maximilien de Robespierre announced that “the essence” of revolutionary France’s democratic experiment was “equality”—a leveling spirit that could, in theory, be extended to every sphere of collective life.
One year later, Robespierre was dead, and equality’s proselytizers were in retreat, but they would advance again. Egalitarian impulses took many forms, and some of the most fervent acolytes believed they had altered the original model enough to justify a new title for their utopia: socialism. The details of this evolution were complex, but they were captured in the career of a single pamphlet, scribbled by the radical journalist Sylvain Maréchal in the last days of the French Revolution and tucked away in his papers for decades. After finally seeing daylight in 1828, the work became one of the key texts in socialism’s founding. It was named, appropriately, Manifesto of the Equals.
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Though a descendant of rabbis, Marx never fancied himself the leader of a religion. But the prospect of a social science yoked to a political movement that promised a revolution of the oppressed? That warranted a manifesto of its own. Marx wanted to craft a vision of socialism that responded not just to the French Revolution, but also to what historians would later call the Industrial Revolution. It took time for capitalism to become the center of his critique. The Communist Manifesto doesn’t use the word at all, instead reserving its ire for “bourgeois society.” Capital assumed greater importance for Marx as he read deeper in political economy, but he preferred to speak of a “capitalist mode of production,” his label for a system in which labor power was sold like any other commodity and production for markets at a profit had become the rule. Eventually, though, capitalism would assume the place in Marxist thought that society had occupied for the early socialists. The scientific aspirations of the earlier varieties of socialism carried over, but the object of inquiry had shifted. By Marx’s death in 1883, the word had become popular enough that Wilhelm Liebknecht could eulogize Marx as the originator of the social science that “kills capitalism.”
From the beginning, the idea of capitalism was a weapon. Marxists used it to bludgeon their adversaries on the left, whom they could dismiss as utopian dreamers blind to the realities of life under capital’s rule. As Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue would declare, communists were “men of science, who do not invent societies but who will rescue them from capitalism.” But the Marxist interpretation of capitalism was also the product of a particular way of thinking. “Totality” and “dialectics” were the key words of its philosophy, and its politics concentrated on revolution. Together, they promised a complete overhaul of society. Focusing on capitalism helped guide attacks on a bourgeois status quo that might otherwise have seemed impervious to change. Visions of the cohesive socialism to come nurtured the belief that there was a fixed and antithetical entity in the present to oppose. All that socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.