Depending on who you ask, capitalism is either more dominant than ever — or dying, if not dead.
In 2014, a Museum of Capitalism opened for the first time, as if to commemorate a dying form of life. “The museum began just as capitalism ended,” declared the wall text for the most recent iteration of the travelling museum, at The New School in New York in fall 2019: “slowly, almost imperceptibly, in small moments spread unevenly across space and time.”
But if one were to judge by the avalanche of new books on capitalism, the rumors of its death have been exaggerated. A Columbia University Press book series attempts to place capitalism “squarely back at the center of the American experience.” Yet equally common is talk of crisis, which is often thought of as a conflict or long-term incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. Ink spilled on the putative crisis of capitalism has even provoked its own critique, with other scholars questioning how the narrative of crisis creates opportunities for political actors to “capitalize” on it.
Still other scholars argue that the political economy is in the midst of an epochal change and perhaps now contains features that make a large part of it distinct from capitalism. This is the argument of McKenzie Wark in her book Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?.
I bring all of these different vantage points about capitalism together to underscore what is perhaps an unresolvable explanatory conundrum that almost invariably results from the resurgence of a big concept in the popular imagination: the relation of its definition to its presence or absence in historical time and space.
Whether one thinks capitalism is alive, dead, or dying; flourishing or ending in historical time; a background operation or an all-encompassing machine in a global organization of production has much to do with the importance one places on particular developments going on in the world today, and on how narrow or expansive a definition of capitalism one embraces.
There are those who hold that capitalism is the only system of production that currently exists — everywhere. One finds this view underlying Thomas Piketty’s work, but even more explicitly in the work of others. Branko Milanovic, in Capitalism, Alone, argues that in both the West and the East, two different kinds of capitalism are competing with each other. The rise of Asia, led by China, is the result of the triumph of “state-led political, or authoritarian, capitalism,” which emerged alongside the information and communications technology revolution. And in the West, a “liberal meritocratic capitalism,” which developed originally out of the Industrial Revolution centuries before.
Both Piketty and Milanovic have always been focused chiefly on the issue of inequality, which both agree is exacerbated when the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of growth. (Assuming returns on capital are reinvested, and that capitalists are already relatively richer than wage-earners.) Milanovic’s recent book centers on explaining the relative rise of productivity in Asia in the late twentieth century and corresponding fall in global (but not national) inequality along with it. He posits at the outset of the book that this development has to do with “the fact that the entire globe now operates according to the same economic principles — production organized for profit using legally free wage labor and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralized coordination.”
A liberal meritocratic version of capitalism combines this mode of production with a liberal political system based on the rule of law. In order to regulate capitalism and insure optimal economic stability and growth, both liberal and political regimes also require a large administrative state, staffed by professional civil servants.
Milanovic doesn’t explicitly define “capital,” but he uses the concept frequently to refer to wealth. At other times, he identifies capital by referring to the “means of production (capital, land)” — including in his definition both capital and land. Piketty defines it, I think it’s fair to say, expansively, as all “non-human assets,” or what he says is the same — the inequality with which he is most concerned — wealth.
That capitalism is the sole remaining system of organizing production is by now, after the fall of the former Soviet Union, a commonplace view. Scholars in what has been called the New Histories of Capitalism school widely agree that what makes historical study of capitalism important today is our inability to understand contemporary capitalism without delving into its origins and development, with special attention to the epistemological, cultural, and political contexts of its eventual global triumph.
This motivates the construction of new histories, in which the businesspeople of the past often accumulated “cultural and political capital” to serve their interests, and shoppers and traders were often fundamental to the processes of capital accumulation. The scholars are focused on “actually existing capitalism,” where the effect of reorienting our shared understanding is in part to “restore the centrality of violence” to its history while “problematizing both liberal and Marxist understandings.”
Slavery is one institution that warrants significant historical attention. Slavery, as historian Sven Beckert argues in his book, Empire Of Cotton, was “essential” to the growth of American capitalism, and casts a long shadow over its late nineteenth- and twentieth-century development. Other historians, such as Jonathan Levy, Mary Poovey, and Julia Ott, recast late nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates about risk, insurance, and investment as historical precursors, with a view towards their relevance for debates within capitalism today.
The edited volume of many of these scholars’ work addresses the problem of a historical definition of capitalism explicitly, arguing that “[t]he contest over definitions for capitalism critically informs the project of understanding it,” and each definition implies what sets it apart from other historical political economic orders. Yet while much of the historical work being done in the New Histories community of scholars is rigorous, illuminating, and benefits from a plurality of definitions of capitalism, one can also note that collectively it follows from the assumption that what exists today is little else besides capitalism in one or many of its different varieties.
At the same time, however, other observers strenuously argue that “neoliberal” capitalism is in crisis. In two books each published in 2015 and 2016, Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streeck converge on a view that neoliberal capitalism is in the throes of dying. For Mason, it is information technology that undermines the market’s ability to form prices correctly — its “pricing mechanism.” For Wolfgang Streeck, it is primarily the expansion of debt (“financialization”) and neoliberal-style deregulation that presses the commodification of nature, labor, and money to limits that will destroy capitalism (much as Marx predicted, though for different reasons).
Streeck proposes that we ought not predict what form of economic life might come afterwards. For Streeck, the end of capitalism would mark the end of “a modern society” like Adam Smith’s “progressive society” — one that fulfills “the Mandevillian promise of private vices turning into public virtues.” Mason, by contrast, is optimistic about the potential of information to transform capitalism — which he regards as “the market system” — into post-capitalism, or a beneficent “non-market economy.”
Still other authors, both liberal and conservative commentators such as Robert Kuttner and Joel Kotkin, respectively, argue that the responsible, democratic capitalism of the American post-war period lost its way to corporate monopolies, speculators, influential executives, and academic experts — an “elite” that took control of the legal system and turned the nation into a technocratic fiefdom run by Silicon Valley lords and New York City bankers. Capitalism here, negatively defined, is centrally about private property and a free market, as Ludwig von Mises would agree. But it has what Karl Polanyi would call social limits, such as arbitration law, a legal minimum wage, limits to those property rights, public education, various kinds of taxes, somewhat liberalized trade, a state-provisioned social safety net, and many other checks. The difference between the liberal and conservative view is mostly a matter of the ways in which government should intervene to correct for what economists call market failure.
This is not quite capitalism as Karl Marx would have described it, though he rarely used the term. On the contemporary left one finds writers who adhere to a more or less Marxist understanding of capital and bourgeois society. Jodi Dean, in more Marxist terminology than Kuttner and Kotkin use, subscribes to the view that tech platforms, banks, and communication channels are the rightful analogues to feudal watermills, extracting rents in the form of fees, and a surplus of personal, pastoral data.
McKenzie Wark, by contrast, argues that information in the late twentieth century is a qualitatively different force than both feudal watermills and the steam energy powering the machines of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, and that transformations to what Marx called the forces of production have spawned a new mode of production, operating on top of classical capitalism, with a ruling class that owns and controls information, partially distinct from capital.
Both of these views focus on technology, either in firms or as forces of production, and advance a qualitative distinction between the latest developments in the political-economy and those preceding them. In the case of the firm view, it’s held that the profits generated by a host of platforms are skimmed off as nothing but rent, as in the landlordism of Ricardo’s day. This view has to maintain a strict adherence to what counts as a “real” or “productive” activity, which only capitalist enterprise fosters.
Wark’s focus on the forces of production emphasizes the peculiar qualities of information as a means of communication or prediction distinct from machines and factories as the means of production. This view centers on the claim that relative speed and abundance of information, as well as its particular qualities, such as the ability it affords to abstract communication from transportation, make it distinct from capital as “dead labor,” as Marx understood it.
If I were to summarize the different approaches to capitalism I’ve been surveying, I’d say we can sort them all into three different basic definitions of capitalism: (1) a system of free markets (with or without limits — see Piketty, Mason); (2) a dynamic form of social relations that turns private vices into public virtues — as in Mandeville, Adam Smith, Hegel, and Streeck; and (3) a mode of production organized around the ownership of capital — as in Marx and those whose work is inspired by him, such as Milanovic and Wark. Similarly, we find various definitions of capital: wealth in all of its asset forms; wealth in metaphorical senses like cultural knowledge and political proximity; the means of production including land; and dead labor not necessarily including information.
Capitalism is free markets or limited markets if information technologies or the corporate elite threaten to undermine their particular form. Capitalism is modern society if capital undermines the conditions of human life and prosperity on earth. Capitalism is a class-based mode of production organized around the ownership of capital if you interpret Marx in the general sense, where capital is expansively defined, or in the more nuanced sense, where capital is the dead labor of industrial manufacture and the means of production distinct from information.
More than 60 years ago, C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, used as an example the concept of “capitalism” to illustrate what he thought was becoming an “arid game of Concepts” within the field of social inquiry. By defining a concept’s “hierarchy of specificity,” Mills argued, one can achieve clarification in both historical and sociological description: “Such habits of mind,” in Mills’s view, were “the keys to systematic thinking and their absence the keys to the fetishism of the Concept.” Concepts are like tools, Mills thought. To someone wielding an oversized concept of capitalism, everything looks like capitalism.
The return of the concept of capitalism signals an opportunity to connect it to the struggles of the present, and to figure out what in practice the concept means specifically. “[T]o what extent,” Mills asked, “are we entitled to assume that, by definition, the term implies assertions about the political order as well as economic institutions?” Does a broad application of the term prevent clear understanding of what is important about technological change? And, 60 years of global warming later, can we really afford to exclude in a holistic account the relation of any economy (or political economy) to its natural substrate?
All of the views I’ve surveyed — the capitalism-is-back view, the capitalism-is-history view, the utopian-crisis view, the dystopian-crisis view, the liberal and conservative not-quite-capitalism view, the left neo-feudal view, and the worse-than-capitalism view — have different conceptions of capitalism and capital. In their sheer variety, these views raise the equally important question of what, today, capitalism — as well as capital — is not. What are our alternatives?
Ben Kodres-O’Brien is a communications PhD student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.