Tim Rogan: What’s Wrong with the Critique of Capitalism Now

RoganWhat’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. In The Moral Economists, Tim Rogan reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation. Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century. Read on to learn more about these moral economists and their critiques of capitalism.

You begin by asking, ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ Shouldn’t we start by acknowledging capitalism’s great benefits?

Yes, absolutely. This was a plan for the reform of capitalism, not a prayer for its collapse or a pitch for its overthrow. These moral economists sought in some sense to save capitalism from certain of its enthusiasts—that has always been the project of the socialist tradition out of which these writers emerged. But our question about capitalism—as about every aspect of our social system, every means by which we reconcile individual preferences to arrive at collective decisions—should always be ‘What’s wrong with this?;’ ‘How can we improve this?;’ ‘What could we do better?’ And precisely how we ask those questions, the terms in which we conduct those debates, matters. My argument in this book is that our way of asking the question ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ has become too narrow, too focused on material inequality, insufficiently interested in some of the deeper problems of liberty and solidarity which the statistics recording disparities of wealth and income conceal.

Was this critique of capitalism also a critique of economics, and if so what do these critics add to the usual complaints against economics—about unrealistic assumptions, otherworldly models, indifference to historical developments such as financial crises, etc?

Yes, the moral economists were critical of economics. But although their criticisms might sound like variations on the familiar charge that economists make unreal assumptions about the capacities and proclivities of individual human beings, the moral economists’ challenge to mainstream economics was different. The most influential innovators in economics since the Second World War have been behavioral scientists pointing out that our capacity to make utilitarian calculations is not as high as economists once took it to be. Part of what the success of this series of innovations is that the ideal of reducing every decision to a calculation of utility retains its allure, even as we come to realize how fallible our real-time calculations are. Behavioral economists have found our capacity to think like rational utilitarian agents wanting. But when did the capacity to think like a rational utilitarian agent become the measure of our humanity? This is the question moral economists have been asking since the 1920s. Initiated by historians determined to open up means of thinking outside economic orthodoxy, since joined by mathematically-trained economists concerned to get a more realistic handle on the relationship between individual values and social choice, the moral economists’ enterprise promises a far more profound reconstitution of political economy than behavioral economics has ever contemplated.

Doesn’t the profile of these writers—dead, male, English, or Anglophile, writing about a variety of capitalism long since superseded—limit their contemporary relevance?

No. Their main concern was to discover and render articulate forms of social solidarity which the dominant economic discourse concealed. They found these on the outskirts of ‘Red Vienna’, on railroads under construction in post-war Yugoslavia, but most of all in the north of England. They believed that these inarticulate solidarities were what really held the country together—the secret ingredients of the English constitution. Though they belonged to a tradition of social thought in Britain that was skeptical towards Empire and supportive of the push for self-determination in India and elsewhere, they raised the prospect that the same dynamics had developed in countries to which British institutions had been exported—explaining the relative cohesion of Indian and Ghanaian democracies, for instance. More broadly E. P. Thompson in particular argued that factoring these incipient solidarities into constitutional thinking generated a more nuanced understanding of the rule of law than nineteenth-century liberalism entailed: in Thompson’s hand the rule of law became a more tensile creed, more capable of accommodating the personal particularities of the law’s subjects, more adept at mitigating the rigors of rational system to effect justice in specific cases. The profiles of the late-twentieth century commentators who continue the critical tradition Tawney, Polanyi and Thompson developed—especially Amartya Sen—underscore that tradition’s wider relevance.

Aren’t these writers simply nostalgists wishing we could return to a simpler way of life?

No. Tawney especially is often seen as remembering a time of social cohesion before the Reformation and before the advent of international trade and wishing for its return. This perception misunderstands his purpose.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism draws sharp contrasts between two distinct iterations of European society – the late medieval and the modern. But this was a means of dramatizing a disparity between different societies developing in contemporary England—the society he encountered working at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, where social atomization left people demoralized beyond relief, on the one hand; the society he encountered when he moved to Manchester to teach in provincial towns in Lancashire and Staffordshire, where life under capitalism was different, where the displacement of older solidarities was offset by the generation of new forms of cohesion, where many people were poor but where the social fabric was still intact.

The demoralized East End was the product of laissez faire capitalism—of the attempt to organize society on the basis that each individual was self-sufficient, profit-minded, unaffected by other human sentiments. The political crisis into which Britain was pitched in the late Edwardian period underlined how untenable this settlement was: without a sense of what more than the appetite for wealth motivated people, there could be no ‘background of mutual understanding’ against which to resolve disputes. At the same time the answer was not simply stronger government, a bigger state. The latent solidarities Tawney discovered in the north of England carried new possibilities: the facility of market exchange and the security of an effective state could be supplemented by informal solidarities making everyday life more human than the impersonal mechanisms of market and government allowed.

Polanyi and Thompson brought their historical settings forward into the nineteenth century, making their writings feel more contemporary. But they were both engaged in much the same exercise as Tawney—using history to dramatize disparities between different possibilities developing within contemporary society. They too had come into contact with forms of solidarity indicating that there was more than calculations of utility and the logic of state power at work in fostering social order.  Polanyi and then especially Thompson advanced their common project significantly when he found a new terminology with which to describe these incipient solidarities. Tawney had talked of ‘tradition’ and ‘convention’ and ‘custom,’ and Polanyi had followed Tawney in this—refusing to associate himself with Ferdinand Tonnies concept of Gemeinschaft and Henry Maine’s system of ‘status’ when pressed to, but offering no cogent concept through which to reckon with these forms of solidarity himself. Thompson’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ made the kinds of solidarities upon which they had all focused more compelling.

Does subscribing to a moral critique of capitalism mean buying into one of the prescriptive belief systems out of which that critique materialized? Do you need to believe in God or Karl Marx in order to advance a moral critique of capitalism without embarrassment?

No. Part of the reason that this critique of capitalism went out of commission was because the belief systems which underpinned it—which, more specifically, provided the conceptions of what a person is which falsified reductive concepts of ‘economic man’—went into decline. Neither Tawney nor Thompson was able to adapt to the attenuation of Christian belief and Marxian conviction respectively from which their iterations of the critique had drawn strength. Polanyi’s case was different: he was able to move beyond both God and Marx, envisaging a basis upon which a moral critique of capitalism could be sustained without relying on either belief system. That basis was furnished by the writings of Adam Smith, which adumbrated an account of political economy which never doubted but that economic transactions are embedded in moral worlds.

This was a very different understanding of Adam Smith’s significance to that with which most people to whom that name means something now have been inculcated. But it is an account of Adam Smith’s significance which grows increasingly recognizable to us now—thanks to the work of Donald Winch, Emma Rothschild and Istvan Hont, among others, facilitated by the end of Cold War hostilities and the renewal of interest in alternatives to state- or market-based principles of social order.

In other words there are ways of re-integrating economics into the wider moral matrices of human society without reverting to a Christian or Marxian belief system. There is nothing extreme or zealous about insisting that the moral significance of economic transactions be recognized. What was zealous and extreme was the determination to divorce economics from broader moral considerations. This moral critique of capitalism represented a recognition that the time for such extremity and zeal had passed. As the critique fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s, some of that zeal returned, and the last two decades now look to have been a period of especially pronounced ‘economism.’ The relevance of these writings now, then, is that they help us to put the last two decades and the last two centuries in perspective, revealing just how risky the experiment has been, urging us to settle back in now to a more sustainable pattern of economic thought.

You find that this moral critique of capitalism fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Bernie Sanders declared in April 2016 that instituting a ‘truly moral economy’ is ‘no longer beyond us.’ Was he right?

Yes and no. Sanders’ made this declaration at the Vatican, contemplating the great papal encyclicals of Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus. The discrepancies between what Sanders said and what Popes Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II before him said about capitalism is instructive. The encyclicals have always focussed on the ignominy of approaching a person as a bundle of economic appetites, on the apostasy of abstracting everything else that makes us human out of our economic thinking. Sanders sought to accede to that tradition of social thought—a tradition long since expanded to encompass perspectives at variance with Catholic theology, to include accounts of what a person is which originate outside the Christian tradition. But Sanders’s speech issued no challenge to the reduction of persons to economic actors. In designating material inequality the ‘great issue of our time,’ Sanders reinforced that reductive tendency: the implication is that all we care about is the satisfaction of our material needs, as if redistribution alone would solve all our problems.

The suggestion in Sanders speech was that his specific stance in the utilitarian debate over how best to organise the economy has now taken on moral force. There is an ‘individualist’ position which favors free enterprise and tolerates inequality as incidental to the enlargement of aggregate utility, and there is a ‘collectivist’ stance which enlists the state to limit freedom to ensure that inequality does not grow too wide, seeing inequality as inimical to the maximizing of aggregate utility. The ‘collectivists’ are claiming the moral high ground. But all they are really proposing is a different means to the agreed end of maximizing overall prosperity. The basis for their ‘moral’ claims seems to be that they have more people on their side—a development which would make Nietzsche smile, and should give all of us pause. There are similar overtones to the rallying of progressive forces around Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The kind of ‘moral economy’ Sanders had in mind—a big government geared towards maximizing utility—is not what these moral economists would have regarded as a ‘truly moral economy’. The kinds of checks upon economic license they had in mind were more spontaneous and informal—emanating out of everyday interactions, materializing as strictures against certain kinds of commercial practice in common law, inarticulate notions of what is done and what is not done, general conceptions of fairness, broad-based vigilance against excess of power. This kind of moral economy has never been beyond us. The solidarities out of which it arises were never eradicated, and are constantly regenerating.

Tim Rogan is a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he teaches history. He is the author of The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism.

Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake on Capitalism without Capital

Early in the twenty-first century, a quiet revolution occurred. For the first time, the major developed economies began to invest more in intangible assets, like design, branding, R&D, and software, than in tangible assets, like machinery, buildings, and computers. For all sorts of businesses, from tech firms and pharma companies to coffee shops and gyms, the ability to deploy assets that one can neither see nor touch is increasingly the main source of long-term success. But this is not just a familiar story of the so-called new economy. Capitalism without Capital shows that the growing importance of intangible assets has also played a role in some of the big economic changes of the last decade.

What do you mean when you say we live in an age of Capitalism without Capital?

Our book is based on one big fact about the economy: that the nature of the investment that businesses do has fundamentally changed. Once businesses invested mainly in things you could touch or feel like buildings, machinery, and vehicles. But more and more investment now goes into things you can’t touch or feel: things like research and development, design, organizational development—“intangible’ investments. Today, in developed countries, businesses invest more each year intangible assets than in tangibles. But they’re often measured poorly or not at all in company accounts or national accounts. So there is still a lot of capital about, but it has done a sort of vanishing act, both physically and from the records that businesses and governments keep.

What difference does the rise of intangible investments make?

The rise of intangible investment matters because intangible assets tend to behave differently from tangible ones—they have different economic properties. In the book we call these properties the 4S’s—scalability, sunkenness, synergies, and spillovers. Intangibles can be used again and again, they’re hard to sell if a business fails, they’re especially good when you combine them, and the benefits of intangible investment often end up accruing to businesses other than the ones that make them. We argue that this change helps explain all sorts of important concerns people have about today’s economy, from why inequality has risen so much, to why productivity growth seems to have slowed down.

So is this another book about tech companies?

It’s much bigger than that. It’s true that some of the biggest tech companies have lots of very valuable intangibles, and few tangibles. Google’s search algorithms, software, and prodigious stores of data are intangibles; Apple’s design, brand, and supply chains are intangibles; Uber’s networks of drivers and users are intangible assets. Each of these intangibles is worth billions of dollars. But intangibles are everywhere. Even brick and mortar businesses like supermarkets or gyms rely on more and more intangible assets, such as software, codified operating procedures, or brands. And the rise of intangibles is a very long-term story: research by economists like Carol Corrado suggests that intangibles investment has been steadily growing since the early twentieth century, long before the first semiconductors, let alone the Internet.

Who will do well from this new intangible economy?

The intangible economy seems to be creating winners and losers. From a business point of view, we know that around the world, there’s a growing gap between the leading businesses in any given industry and the rest. We think this leader-laggard gap is partly caused by intangibles. Because intangibles are scalable and have synergies with one another, companies that have valuable intangibles will do better and better (and have more incentives to invest in more), while small and low performing companies won’t, and will lag ever further behind.

There is a personal dimension to this too. People who are good at combining ideas, and who are open to new ideas, will do better in an economy where there are lots of synergies between different assets. This will be a boon for educated, open-minded people, people with political, legal, and social connections, and for people who live in cities (where ideas tend to combine easily with one another). But others risk being left further behind.

Does this help explain the big political changes in recent years?

Yes—after the EU referendum in the UK and the 2016 presidential election in the US, a lot of pundits were asking why so many so-called “left behind” communities people voted for Brexit or Donald Trump. Some people thought they did so for cultural reasons, others argued the reasons were mainly economic. But we would argue that an intangible economy, these two reasons are linked: more connected, cosmopolitan places tend to do better economically in an intangible economy, while left-behind places suffer from an alienation that is both economic and cultural.

You mentioned that the rise of intangible investment might help explain why productivity growth is slowing. Why is that?

Many economists and policymakers worry about so-called secular stagnation: the puzzling fact that productivity growth and investment seems to have slowed down, even though interest rates are low and corporate profits are high, especially since 2009. We think the growing importance of intangibles can help explain this in a few ways.

  • There is certainly some under-measurement of investment going on—but as it happens this explains only a small part of the puzzle.
  • The rate of growth of intangible investment has slowed a bit since 2009. This seems to explain part of the slow-down in growth (and also helps explain why the slowdown has been manly concentrated in total factor productivity)
  • The gap between leading firms (with lots of intangibles) and laggard firms (with few) may have created a scenario where a few firms are investing in a lot of intangibles (think Google and Facebook) but for most others, it’s not worth it, since their more powerful competitors are likely to get the spillover benefits.

Does the intangible economy have consequences for investors?

Yes! Company accounts generally don’t record intangibles (except, haphazardly, as “goodwill” after an acquisition). This means that, as intangible assets become more important, corporate balance sheets tell investors less and less about the true value of a company. Much of what equity analysts spend their days doing is, in practice, trying to value intangibles.

And there’s lots of value to be had here: research suggests that equity markets undervalue intangibles like organizational development, and encourage public companies to underinvest in intangibles like R&D. But informed investors can take advantage of this—which can benefit both their own returns and the performance of the economy.

Jonathan, you’re an academic, and Stian, you are a policymaker. How did you come to write this book together?

We started working together in 2009 on the Nesta Innovation Index, which applied some of the techniques that Jonathan had worked on to measure intangibles to build an innovation measurement for the UK. The more we thought about, the clearer it became that intangibles helped explain all sorts of things. Ryan Avent from the Economist asked us to write a piece for their blog about one of these puzzles, and we enjoyed doing that so much we thought we would try writing a book. One of the most fun parts of writing the book was being able to combine the insights from academic economic research on intangibles and innovation with practical insights from innovation policy.

CapitalismJonathan Haskel is professor of economics at Imperial College Business School. Stian Westlake is a senior fellow at Nesta, the UK’s national foundation for innovation. Haskel and Westlake are cowinners of the 2017 Indigo Prize.

John Tutino: Mexico, Mexicans, and the Challenge of Global Capitalism

This piece has been published in collaboration with the History News Network. 

TutinoMexico and Mexicans are in the news these days. The Trump administration demands a wall to keep Mexicans out of “America,” insisting that undocumented immigrants cause unemployment, low wages, and worse north of the border. It presses a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming to defend U.S. workers from the pernicious impacts of a deal said to favor Mexico and its people. Meanwhile U.S. businesses (from autos to agriculture) work to keep the gains they have made in decades of profitable cross-border production and marketing. Their lobbying highlights the profits they make employing Mexicans who earn little (at home and in the U.S.), and by their efforts subsidize U.S. businesses and consumers.

The integration of Mexico and the U.S., their workers and markets, is pivotal to U.S. power, yet problematic to many U.S. voters who feel prejudiced in a world of globalizing capitalism and buy into stereotypes that proclaim invasive Mexicans the cause of so many problems. Analysts of diverse views, including many scholars, often imagine that this all began in the 1990s with NAFTA. A historical survey, however, shows that the integration of North America’s economies began with the U.S. taking rich lands from Texas to California by war in the 1840s, driving the border south to its current location. U.S. capitalists led a westward expansion and turned south to rule railroads, mining, petroleum, and more in Mexico before 1910—while Mexican migrants went north to build railroads, harvest crops, and supply cities in lands once Mexican. The revolution that followed in part reacted to U.S. economic power; its disruptions sent more Mexicans north to work. While Mexico struggled toward national development in the 1920s, displaced families still moved north. When depression stalled the U.S. economy in the 1930s, Mexicans (including many born U.S. citizens) were expelled south. When World War II stimulated both North American economies, the nations contracted to draw Mexican men north to work as braceros. Mexico’s “miracle” growth after 1950 relied on U.S. models, capital, and labor-saving technology—and never created enough work to curtail migrant flows. The Mexican oil boom of the 1970s tapped U.S. funds, aiming to bring down OPEC oil prices to favor U.S. hegemony in a Cold-War world. By the 1980s the U.S. gained cheaper oil, helping re-start its economy. In the same decade, falling oil prices set off a debt fueled depression in Mexico that drove more people north. NAFTA, another Mexican collapse, and soaring migration followed in the 1990s. The history of life and work across the U.S.-Mexican border is long and complex. Through twists and turns it shaped modern Mexico while drawing profits, produce, and Mexicans to the U.S.

The Mexican Heartland takes a long view to explore how communities around Mexico City sustained, shaped, and at times challenged capitalism from its sixteenth century origins to our globalizing times. From the 1550s they fed an economy that sent silver, then the world’s primary money, to fuel trades that linked China, South Asia, Europe, and Africa—before British America began. By the eighteenth century, Mexico City was the richest place in the Americas, financing mines and global trade, sustained by people living in landed communities and laboring at commercial estates. It’s merchant-financiers and landed oligarchs were the richest men in the Americas while the coastal colonies of British America drew small profits sending tobacco to Europe and food to Caribbean plantations (the other American engines of early capitalism).

Then, imperial wars mixed with revolutionary risings to bring a world of change: North American merchants and slave holders escaped British rule after 1776, founding the United States; slaves in Saint Domingue took arms, claimed freedom, destroyed sugar plantations, and ended French rule, making Haiti by 1804; insurgents north of Mexico City took down silver capitalism and Spain’s empire after 1810, founding Mexico in 1821. Amid those conflicts, Britain forged a new industrial world while the U.S. began a rise to continental hegemony, taking lands from native peoples and Mexico to expand cotton and slavery, gain gold and silver, and settle European migrants. Meanwhile, Mexicans struggled to make a nation in a reduced territory while searching for a new economy.

The Mexican Heartland explores how families built lives within capitalism before and after the U.S. rose to power. They sought the best they could get from economies made and remade to profit the few. Grounded in landed communities sanctioned by Spain’s empire, they provided produce and labor to carry silver capitalism. When nineteenth-century liberals denied community land rights, villagers pushed back in long struggles. When land became scarce as new machines curtailed work and income, they joined Zapata in revolution after 1910. They gained land, rebuilt communities, and carried a national development project. Then after 1950, medical capitalism delivered antibiotics that fueled a population explosion while “green revolution” agriculture profited by expanding harvests while making work and income scarce. People without land or work thronged to burgeoning cities and across the border into the U.S., searching for new ways to survive, sustain families, and re-create communities.

Now, Mexicans’ continuing search for sustainable lives and sustaining communities is proclaimed an assault on U.S. power and prosperity. Such claims distract us from the myriad ways that Mexicans feed the profits of global corporations, the prosperity of the U.S. economy, and the comforts of many consumers. Mexicans’ efforts to sustain families and communities have long benefitted capitalism, even as they periodically challenged capitalists and their political allies to keep promises of shared prosperity. Yet many in the U.S. blame Mexico and Mexicans for the insecurities, inequities, and scarce opportunities that mark too many lives under urbanizing global capitalism.

Can a wall can solve problems of dependence and insecurity pervasive on both sides of the border? Or would it lock in inequities and turn neighboring nations proclaiming shared democratic values into ever more coercive police states? Can we dream that those who proclaim the liberating good of democratic capitalism may allow people across North America to pursue secure sustenance, build sustaining communities, and moderate soaring inequities? Such questions define our times and will shape our future. The historic struggles of Mexican communities illuminate the challenges we face—and reveal the power of people who persevere.

John Tutino is professor of history and international affairs and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University. His books include The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 and From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940.

Zoltan Acs on “Why Philanthropy Matters”

…For wealth to invigorate the capitalist system it needs to be “kept in rotation” like the planets around the sun, and for this task American philanthropy is very well suited. Examining the dynamics of American-style capitalism since the eighteenth century, philanthropy achieves three critical outcomes. It deals with the question of what to do with wealth–keep it, tax it, or give it away. It complements government in creating public goods. And, by focusing on education, science, and medicine, philanthropy has a positive effect on economic growth and productivity. Individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Oprah Winfrey have used their wealth to establish institutions and promote knowledge, and philanthropy has given an edge to American-style capitalism by promoting vital forces–like university research–necessary for technological innovation, economic equality, and economic security.

Philanthropy is therefore an invisible, underappreciated force for progress in American-style capitalism–the secret ingredient that fails to get mentioned in economic accounts of capitalism…

Source: “Why Philanthropy Matters” at History News Network


Zoltan Acs has a great article on the themes of his forthcoming book Why Philanthropy Matters over at History News Network.


Why Philanthropy Matters
How the Wealthy Give, and What It Means for Our Economic Well-Being
Zoltan J. Acs