Posts Tagged ‘history’

wage share-growth

We’ve been hearing this since the recovery from the Second Great Depression began: it’s going to be a Golden Age for workers!

The idea is that the decades of wage stagnation are finally over, as the United States enters a new period of labor shortage and workers will be able to recoup what they’ve lost.

The latest to try to tell this story is Eduardo Porter:

the wage picture is looking decidedly brighter. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, the average hourly pay of production and nonsupervisory workers tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — those who toil at a cash register or on a shop floor — was 10 percent below its 1973 peak after accounting for inflation. Since then, wages have regained virtually all of that ground. Median wages for all full-time workers are rising at a pace last achieved in the dot-com boom at the end of the Clinton administration.

And with employers adding more than two million jobs a year, some economists suspect that American workers — after being pummeled by a furious mix of globalization and automation, strangled by monetary policy that has restrained economic activity in the name of low inflation, and slapped around by government hostility toward unions and labor regulations — may finally be in for a break.

The problem is that wages are still growing at a historically slow pace (the green line in the chart above), which means the wage share (the blue line in the chart) is still very low. The only sign that things might be getting better for workers is that the current wage share is slightly above the low recorded in 2013—but, at 43 percent, it remains far below its high of 51.5 percent in 1970.

That’s an awful lot of ground to make up.

productivity-wage share

The situation for American workers is even worse when we compare labor productivity and the wage share. Since 1970, labor productivity (the real output per hour workers in the nonfarm business sector, the red line in the chart above) has more than doubled, while the wage share (the blue line) has fallen precipitously.

We’re a long way from any kind of Golden Age for workers.

But, in the end, that’s not what Porter is particularly interested in. He’s more concerned about what he considers to be a labor shortage caused by a shrinking labor force.

So, what does Porter recommend to, in his words, “protect economic growth and to give American workers a shot at a new golden age of employment”? More immigration, more international trade, cuts in disability insurance, and limiting increases in the minimum wage.

Someone’s going to have to explain to me how that set of policies is going to reverse the declines of recent decades and usher in a Golden Age for American workers.

Henry_P._Moore_American_-_Slaves_of_General_Thomas_F._Drayton_-_Google_Art_Project  5c79dba28c324a9794507ced2a6987c95c392552

As I tell my students, nothing gets a mainstream economist frothing at the mouth quite like mentioning Karl Polanyi.

Or at least it used to, when mainstream economists actually knew who Polanyi was and grasped—however dismissively—what he wrote about the history of capitalism.

To his credit, Eric Hilt (pdf) appears to know something about the author of The Great Transformation and how his work influenced the new history of capitalism. And his review of ten recent books, including Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, is not as dismissive as those of other mainstream economists, such as Alan L. Olmstead.

Much of the research of economic historians focuses on questions originating in economic theory, which tend to be quite narrow. In contrast, these book present expansive narratives and explore questions that may not be amenable to the analytical tools of economists. The authors’ critical perspectives also distinguish their work from that of economic historians and make it relevant to the concerns of many popular readers. The historians of capitalism rightly remind us that economic growth and development can have human costs not captured in average incomes; that our economic history includes no small measure of cruelty, coercion, and expropriation, rather than free exchanges occurring in the context of secure property rights; and that the economic system we have today is not a natural condition, but the outcome of policy choices that could have been made differently.

Hilt is, I think, correct: the new history of capitalism does represent a reminder to—and thus an indictment of—contemporary mainstream economics, precisely because it includes an analysis of the “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” of the emergence and development of capitalism and the idea that contemporary capitalism is “not a natural condition.”

Generations of economics students won’t have seen or heard either of those propositions. Indeed, what little history has been presented to them emphasizes exactly the opposite: that capitalism emerged both smoothly—without conflict, through voluntary decisions and the spread of markets—and naturally—in a manner that corresponds to human nature.

But then, as if he can’t help himself, Hilt chooses the side of mainstream economists against the new historians of capitalism—because they haven’t demonstrated the appropriate respect. On Hilt’s reading, Baptist, Beckert, and the others haven’t respected capitalism, either historically (because of the role of slavery and its coercive institutions in the history of capitalism) or today (especially after the crash of 2007-08 and the misery it has visited on tens of millions of ordinary citizens, in the United States and around the world). And they don’t respect the “rigor” and “sophisticated analyses” of mainstream economic history, which they “have failed to engage.”

The influence of the recent crisis and the Great Recession in these works. . .creates something of a pitfall for their analysis. Just as poor historical analogies can distort our understanding of the present, modern analogies can produce fallacious or unsound is misapplied. Although financial development often leads to volatility, and although venality and corruption among financiers seems to be as close to a historical constant as one can find, not all finance is harmful. The financial sector performs of vitally important function. . .

Ignoring the economic history literature has led historians of capitalism to make assertions that have been refuted conclusively and to get important elements of their arguments wrong.

In the end, what Hilt can’t seem to abide in the new history of capitalism are two things: first, that historically violence played an important role in the emergence and development of capitalism—rather than, as mainstream economists would have it, that the brutal institutions of slavery and government imposition of market forces are fundamentally incompatible with capitalism; and second, that methodologically the new historians fail to articulate and test “counterfactual” statements.

The fact is, mainstream economists always seek to minimize the role of violence and force in the emergence and development of capitalism and to resort to problematic causal inferences in an attempt to isolate the effects of economic, cultural, political and natural forces within a complex, evolving social totality.

So, no, capitalism didn’t need to resort to “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” over the course of its history. But it did—and those conditions that are often hidden underneath the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” have stamped both its origins and the way it continues to operate today.

Or, as Polanyi (pdf) himself wrote,

the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends.



Special mention

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The election and administration of Donald Trump have focused attention on the many symbols of racism and white supremacy that still exist across the United States. They’re a national disgrace. Fortunately, we’re also witnessing renewed efforts to dethrone Confederate monuments and other such symbols as part of a long-overdue campaign to rethink Americans’ history as a nation.

In economics, the problem is not monuments but the discipline itself. It’s the most disgraceful discipline in the academy. Therefore, we should dethrone ourselves.


In the United States, thanks to the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, we know there are over 700 monuments and statues to the Confederacy, as well as scores of public schools, counties and cities, and military bases named for Confederate leaders and icons.


We also know those symbols do not represent any kind of shared heritage but, instead, conceal the real history of the Confederate States of America and the seven decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression that followed the Reconstruction era. In fact, most of them were dedicated not immediately after the Civil War, but during two key periods in U.S. history:

The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists. These two periods also coincided with the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the Civil War.

The problem, of course, is those statues have stayed up for so long because, like so many other features of our everyday landscape, they became so familiar that Americans hardly even noticed they were there.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a majority of Americans (62 percent) believe statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain. However, a similar majority (55 percent) said they disapproved of the Trump’s response to the deadly violence that occurred at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. As a result, I expect Americans will be engaged in a new conversation about their history—especially the most disgraceful episodes of slavery, white supremacy, and racism—and what those symbols represent today.

The discipline of economics has a similar problem—not of statues but of sexism and hostility to women. It’s been so much a feature of our everyday academic landscape that economists hardly even noticed it was there.

They didn’t notice until reports surfaced—in the New York Times and the Washington Post—concerning Alice Wu’s senior thesis in economics at the University of California-Berkeley. Wu analyzed over a million posts on the anonymous online message board, Economics Job Market Rumors, to analyze how economists talk about women in the profession.

According to Wu,

Gender stereotyping can take a subtle or implicit form that makes it difficult to measure and analyze in economics. In addition, people tend not to reveal their true beliefs about gender if they care about political and social correctness in public. The anonymity on the Economics Job Market Rumors forum, however, removes such barriers, and thus provides a natural setting to study the existence and extent of gender stereotyping in this academic community online.

And the results of her analysis? The 30 words most associated with women were (in order, from top to bottom): hotter, lesbian, bb (Internet terminology for “baby”), sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, crush, beautiful, secretary, dump, shopping, date, nonprofit, intentions, sexy, dated, and prostitute.

In contrast, the terms most associated with men included mathematician, pricing, adviser, textbook, motivated, Wharton, goals, Nobel, and philosopher. Indeed, the only derogatory terms in the list were bully and homo.

In my experience, that’s a pretty accurate description of how women and men are unequally seen, treated, and talked about in economics—and that’s been true for much of the history of the discipline.*

But, of course, that’s not the only reason economics is the most bankrupt, disgraceful discipline in the entire academy. It has long shunned and punished economists who endeavor to use theories and methods that fall outside mainstream economics—denying jobs, research funding, publication outlets, and honorifics to their “colleagues” who have the temerity to teach and do research utilizing other discourses and paradigms, from Marxism to feminism. 

Even the attempt to convince economists to adopt a code of ethics—like those in many other disciplines, from anthropology to medicine—was treated with disdain.

Sure, there’s a Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. And, in the United States, both a Council of Economic Advisers and a National Economic Council—but no White House Council of Social Advisers.

Economics may have national and international prominence. But it’s time we give up the hand-wringing and admit there is no standard of decency or intelligence (with the possible exception of mathematics) that economists don’t fail on.

We are, in short, a collective disgrace. That’s why we should dethrone ourselves.


*A history that includes Joan Robinson, who should have won the Nobel Prize in Economics but didn’t (because, of course, she was a non-neoclassical, female economist) and can’t (because she’s dead).


Yesterday, in a comment on my “Culture Beyond Capitalism,” which was reposted on the Real-World Economics Review blog, “Econoclast” requested I post the entry on “Capitalism” I wrote for Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

Here, then, is the text of the pre-publication version of that entry.


David F. Ruccio

While the capitalist system is generally celebrated by mainstream economists, American cultural studies scholars will search in vain through their writings for actual discussions of the term “capitalism.” Instead, neoclassical and Keynesian economists refer to the “market economy” (in which individuals and private firms make decisions in decentralized markets) or just “the economy” (defined by scarce means and unlimited desires, the correct balancing of which is said to characterize all societies) (Stiglitz and Walsh 2002; Bhagwati 2003; Krugman and Wells 2004; Samuelson and Nordhaus 2004).

In contrast, discussions of the term capitalism have long occupied a central position in the vocabulary of Marxian economic theory. References to capitalism in American studies and cultural studies draw, implicitly or explicitly, on the Marxian critique of political economy: a critique of capitalism as an economic and social system, and a critique of mainstream economic theory. Karl Marx and latter-day Marxists criticize capitalism because it is based on exploitation, in the sense that capitalists appropriate and decide how to distribute the surplus labor performed by the direct producers, and because it periodically enters into crisis, imposing tremendous costs on the majority of people. They also criticize the work of mainstream economists for celebrating the existence of capitalism and for treating capitalist institutions and behaviors as corresponding to human nature (Mandel 1976; Resnick and Wolff 1987; Harvey 1989).

Much of this scholarship draws on Marx and Frederick Engels’s critique of political economy in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and the three volumes of Capital (1867, 1884, 1894). In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels compare capitalism to other forms of economic and social organization such as feudalism and slavery. What they have in common is that all are based on class exploitation, defined as one group (feudal lords, slaveowners, and capitalists) appropriating the surplus labor of another (serfs, slaves, and wage-laborers). At the same time, capitalism exhibits a distinct dynamic. For the first time in history, it “established the world market,” making it possible for the capitalist class to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere” and giving “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country” (1848, 486, 487). It leads to radical and continuous changes throughout the economy and society, since, as Marx famously put it, “all that is solid melts into air” (487).

If the goal of the Manifesto was to challenge the prevailing belief that capitalism had eliminated classes and class struggles, the point of Capital was to analyze the specific conditions and consequences of the class dimensions of a society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. Capitalism presumes that the products of labor have become commodities, in the sense that the goods and services human beings produce have both a use-value (they satisfy some social need) and an exchange-value (they can be exchanged for other commodities or money). The existence of commodity exchange, in turn, presupposes a culture congruent with the “fetishism of commodities”: a culture whereby individuals come to believe and act such that they have the freedom to buy and sell commodities; that the commodities they exchange are equal in value and that the commodity owners meet one another as equals in the marketplace; that individuals have well-defined property rights in the commodities they sell and purchase; and that they are able to calculate the ability of external objects to satisfy their needs and desires. The existence of commodity exchange is not based on the essential and universal human rationality assumed within mainstream economics from Adam Smith to the present. Nor can the cultures and identities of commodity-exchanging individuals be derived solely from economic activities and institutions. Rather, commodity exchange both presumes and constitutes particular subjectivities – forms of rationality and calculation – on the part of economic agents (Amariglio and Callari 1993).

In both the Manifesto and Capital, capitalism refers to a system in which capitalists are able to produce commodities that will, at least in principle, yield them a profit. The source of the profit is the value created by the laborers who have been forced (historically, through a process Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation,” and, socially, through capitalist institutions and cultures [1867, 871–940]) to exercise the specifically capitalist “freedom” to sell their ability to labor as a commodity. Under the assumption that all commodities (including labor power) are exchanged at their values, a surplus-value arises based on the ability of capitalists to appropriate the surplus labor performed by the wage-laborers and to realize that extra labor by selling the commodities that are produced. Struggles consequently arise over the “rate of exploitation” (the ratio of surplus-value to the value of labor power labor) and over the subsequent distributions of surplus-value (to managers, state officials, and other capitalists, who receive portions of the surplus). The keyword “capitalism” thus designates not just an economic structure, but also the conflicts, contradictions, and subjectivities inherent in that structure. Both the initial emergence and the subsequent reproduction of capitalism, if and when they occur, often lead to social dislocations and acute crises; they are also conditioned by the most varied cultures and social identities.

In the case of the United States, the last two centuries have witnessed the widening and deepening of capitalism, both domestically and internationally. Initially a market for foreign (especially British) capitalist commodities, the original thirteen colonies oversaw the establishment and growth of domestic capitalist enterprises, which sought both raw materials and markets for final goods within expanding geographical boundaries and across a heterogeneous class landscape. One result was that noncapitalist – communal, independent, slave, and feudal — producers were eventually undermined or displaced, thereby causing waves of rural peoples – men, women, and children of diverse racial and ethnic origins – to migrate to existing and newly established cities and to sell their labor power to industrial capitalists. The opening up of new domestic markets (through the determined efforts of retail merchants, advertisers, and banks), capitalist competition (which drove down the unit costs of production), and government programs (to establish a national currency and regulate trusts and working conditions) spurred further capitalist growth. The continued development of capitalist manufacturing provoked vast international migrations of laborers: initially, from Africa and Western Europe; later, and continuing to this day, from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa (Dowd 1977; Duboff 1989; Amott and Matthaei 1996).

The movement of capital that accompanied the expansion of markets and the search for cheaper raw materials transformed regions outside the industrialized Northeast, including the relocation of textile mills to the South, the creation of foundries and automobile factories in the Midwest, the development of the oil industry in the Southwest, and the flourishing of capitalist agriculture and the movie industry on the West Coast. Capital was also exported to other countries to take advantage of lower wage levels and other cost advantages, thereby introducing economic and social dislocations similar to those that had occurred inside the United States. In both cases, governments, business groups, and social movements (such as trade unions, civil rights organizations, and political parties) struggled over the economic and social conditions and consequences of the new industrial capitalist investments – the boom and bust cycles of domestic economic growth; large-scale movements of populations; the formation of new social identities; and imperial interventions. The uneven development of capitalism at home and abroad has left its mark on the culture of the United States (Kaplan and Pease 1993; Jacobson 2000).

Recently, as during the Great Depression of the 1930s and many other times throughout its history, U.S. capitalism recently entered into an economic and cultural crisis. The conditions leading up to the current crisis have put new issues on the agenda of American and cultural studies – the exponential growth of inequality (Collins et al. 2008), the role of economists in creating the crisis (Grossberg 2010), the increasing importance of the financial sector (Martin 2010), the continued racialization of the housing market through subprime lending practices (Lipsitz 2011), and the heightened role of communication technologies and culture in processes of capital accumulation (Fuchs et al. 2010). The severity of the crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of neoliberalism and of capitalism itself (Clarke 2010).

In the analysis of this nexus of capitalism and U.S. culture, we face three major challenges that in turn open up new paths of investigation for American and cultural studies. The first concerns globalization. It is often assumed that the internationalization of the U.S. economy and society is a radically new phenomenon, something that burst on the scene in the 1980s. However, when measured in terms of movements of people (migration), goods and services (imports and exports), and money (capital inflows and outflows), the globalization of capitalism achieved, beginning in the 1980s, levels that are quite similar to those experienced almost a century earlier (Ruccio 2003). Because of these similarities and others (particularly the rise in the rate of exploitation and, with it, the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth), it is a mistake to describe contemporary developments as unprecedented (Phillips 2002). This is not to say that the forms of capitalist development during the two periods are the same. One of the challenges for students of American culture is to register these differences—such as the outsourcing of jobs, the growth of Wal-Mart, the spread of financial markets, the conduct of wars to protect petroleum supplies, the emergence of new media and communication technologies—without losing sight of the past.

The second challenge is to avoid treating capitalism as a purely economic system, separate from culture. The influence of capitalism on the culture industry— including the rise of a capitalist film industry and the export of U.S. culture (Miller et al. 2001; Wayne 2003)—has been widely studied and debated. What is less clear is that the capitalist economy is “saturated” by cultural meanings and identities. From this perspective, each moment of capitalism, from the existence of commodity exchange to the export of capital, is simultaneously economic and cultural. The point is not to substitute cultural studies for political economy, but to recognize—and analyze, concretely and historically—the cultural conditions of capitalism. Money, commodities, labor power, surplus-value, profits: all of these economic forms require the performance of specific, historically and socially constructed, meanings and identities. It is also important to understand the role of economic thought in influencing the development of U.S. capitalism and U.S. culture generally. These topics remain open, though a fruitful place to begin is by understanding the role that “languages of class” play in creating new class identities (Gibson-Graham et al. 2001), the complex interplay of capitalist and noncapitalist economic imaginaries (Watkins 1998), and the need to rethink the economy and economic knowledge (Grossberg 2010a).

The third potential stumbling block is the treatment of capitalism as an all-encompassing, unitary system that has colonized every social arena and region of the globe. While capitalism certainly represents a powerful project for making and remaking the world, deploying the concept of capitalism as a complete mapping of the economic and social landscape has the effect of obscuring noncapitalist forms of economic organization and cultural sense-making. “Capitalocentrism” (akin to the role played by “phallocentrism” and “logocentrism” with respect to gender and language) hides from view the diverse ways in which people in the United States and elsewhere participate in individual and collective noncapitalist economies— including barter, communal production, gift-making, and solidarity—that fall outside the practices and presumed logic of capitalism (Gibson-Graham 1996; Ruccio and Gibson-Graham 2001). On this view, U.S. culture is heterogeneous and contradictory with respect to different class structures. It contains elements that foster and reproduce capitalism and, at the same time, its noncapitalist others.


Amariglio, J. and A. Callari. 1993. “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism.” In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. E. Apter and W. Pietz, 186-216. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Amott, Teresa and Julie Matthaei. 1996. Race, Gender and Work: A Multi- Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Rev. ed. Boston: South End Press.

Bhagwati, Jagdish. 2003. Free Trade Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Clarke, J. “After Neo-Liberalism.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 375-94.

Collins, J.; M. di Leonardis; and B. Williams, eds. 2008. New Landscapes of Inequality. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research Press.

Dowd, Douglas Fitzgerald. 1977. The Twisted Dream: Capitalist Development in the United States since 1776. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop Publishers.

Duboff, Richard B. 1989. Accumulation and Power: An Economic History of the United States. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Fuchs, C.; M. Schafranek; D. Hakken; and M. Breen. 2010. Special issue on “Capitalist crisis, communication & culture.” tripleC (cognition, communication, co-operation): Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 8 (2): 193-309.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Gibson-Graham, J. K.; Stephen Resnick; and Richard Wolff, eds. 2000. Class and Its Others. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1998. “Cultural Studies vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 613-24. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

 Grossberg, L. 2010a. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2010b. “Standing on a Bridge: Rescuing Economies From Economists.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34 (4): 316-36.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2000. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang.

Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. 2004. Microeconomics. New York: Worth Publishers.

Lipsitz, G. 2011. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mandel, Ernest. 1976. Late Capitalism. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books.

Martin, R. 2010. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 418-30.

Marx, Karl. 1867-94 (1976-81). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. 3 vols. Trans. Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach. New York: Vintage Books.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1848 (1976). “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519. New York: International Publishers.

Miller, T. et al. 2001. Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute.

Phillips, Kevin. 2002. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. New York: Broadway Books.

Resnick, S. A. and R. D. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

Ruccio, David F. 2003. “Globalization and Imperialism,” Rethinking Marxism 15 (January): 75-94.

Ruccio, David F. and J. K. Gibson-Graham. 2001. “‘After’ Development: Reimagining Economy and Class.” In Re/presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Political Economy, ed. J.-K. Gibson-Graham et al., 158-81. Durham: Duke University Press.

Samuelson, Paul A. and William D. Nordhaus. 2004. Economics. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. and Carl E. Walsh. 2002. Economics. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Watkins, Evan. 1998. Everyday Exchanges: Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wayne, Michael. 2003. “Post-Fordism, Monopoly Capitalism, and Hollywood’s Media Industrial Complex.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (1): 82-103.

Wright, Handel Kashope. 2001. “Larry Grossberg on the Status Quo of Cultural Studies: An Interview.” Cultural Values 5 (April): 133-62.




Back in April, Raumplan and Cascina Cuccagna organized an exhibit for Milan Design Week titled “Capitalism is Over.” The basic argument was that, while capitalism may have worked in the first few decades of the postwar period, during the “Golden Age” of capitalism—when “the demand for products and everyday objects rose to never before attained summits”—since the late 1970s, growth has slowed down and “following the neoliberal theories, governments promoted policies that fostered the expansion of financial profits and lower wages.” Their example was Olivetti:

The historical Olivetti attitude to resilience and innovation suffered a fairly marked setback during the crises of the Seventies, which reduced investments in the production sector and initiated the financialized economy that today is reaching its full development. The growth of profits corresponded to a loss of identity and of the centrality of production’s contents, that became increasingly interchangeable. Although since the Eighties Olivetti’s revenues and number of employees has steadily increased, it is also clear that the progressive dematerialisation of its core business doomed the company. Olivetti gradually lost its productive and innovative bent and became essentially a financial investment vehicle.

Martin Kirk makes much the same argument in a recent Guardian column, supplemented by the idea that people—especially young people—have lost faith in capitalism.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they want to travel back in time and live in the USSR. For millennials especially, the binaries of capitalism v socialism, or capitalism v communism, are hollow and old-fashioned. Far more likely is that people are realizing – either consciously or at some gut level – that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has as its single goal turning natural and human resources into capital, and do so more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment.

Because that is what capitalism is all about; that’s the sum total of the plan. We can see it embodied in the imperative to increase GDP, everywhere, at an exponential rate, even though we know that GDP, on its own, does not reduce poverty or make people happier and healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time inequality, poverty and hunger have also risen.

As I have argued before (e.g., herehere, and here) capitalism has a real growth problem. The premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has many people looking beyond capitalism.

To be clear, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we would all be better off with less or no growth. That’s certainly true for our natural environment, in terms of issues such as global warming, pollution, and so on. Fewer resources would be extracted; less energy would be needed, thus lowering the level of greenhouse gasses; and, in general, less environmental damage might be caused by our economic activities.

My argument, however, is about the predominant economic system in the world today. It is capitalism that has a slow-growth problem. And that’s because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.

It is a premise in the sense that capitalists—the capitalist class as a whole, not necessarily individual capitalists in one enterprise or another—can collect and utilize for their own purposes more surplus-value when capitalism is growing—when productivity is high, when more commodities are being produced, when the economy as a whole is growing. There’s more surplus available, even if workers’ wages are rising, and each member of the capitalist class can get their aliquot share of that growing surplus.

So, growth is a problem both for capitalism—since, in its absence, it makes it difficult to extract more surplus—and for us—since, in the drive to create more growth, we are forced to suffer through more inequality, poverty, and destruction of the social and natural environment.

It’s time then, yes, to accept the idea that capitalism deserves to be placed in the dustbin of history—and, at the same time, to begin the process of imagining and creating an alternative set of economic and social institutions.


Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.