When Was Capitalism Progressive?

In a Facebook discussion, my friend Vicka Corey asked if I thought capitalism had value at one time, which I think is an excellent question. When I said yes, she asked when and how I thought it changed, another excellent and important question. I’m copying my answer here with some minor edits because it might generate some interesting discussion. Here it is:


Huge question. It was progressive when it came into the world, although, from it’s birth it covered itself in blood. But in spite of that, it got rid of the kings and aristocrats, and in this country it ended slavery. It increased the productivity of labor to the point where there is no longer any reason for hunger, homelessness, untreated disease. It brought socialized production to a high art, although in doing so it increased the contradiction between socialized production and private ownership.

The US, from its inception as a nation, epitomized capitalism’s contradictory nature probably more than anywhere else. A huge creative spurt in productivity of labor (the “American system of manufacture”), and profound cruelty toward its own working class. Tremendous strides toward equality–and chattel slavery. A growth of freedom that inspired the oppressed throughout the world–and genocide of its native population combined with the most hypocritical warmongering ever seen (cf The Mexican-American War, and The Spanish-American War for early examples).

When did it change? One thing capitalism has always required is expansion. A company (with a few weird exceptions that end up proving the rule) that does not expand is dying. As capitalism is built on the nation-state, that means the expansion of nation-states, which means any society at a lower technological level is to be plundered and exploited by the more advanced countries.

World War I, 1914, marked the point where every less advanced country was “owned” by one of the imperialist nations: Germany, England, France, the US,* From there, the only way to expand was at the expense of another great power (of course, the helpless victims in the conquered countries counted for nothing.) So I would say it was at that point that capitalism had reached the end of its ability to advance mankind; any further continuance would require body counts in the millions and massive destruction of infrastructure just to provide it another breathing space.

* Add Belgium on a small scale, and Russia sorta kinda counted; it was both imperialist and a potential victim of imperialism, because of its massive size and weirdly contradictory development of technology, advanced in some ways, but deeply backward in others (including military technique).

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18 thoughts on “When Was Capitalism Progressive?”

  1. When I think of how capitalism changed things, I think of this:

    “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” —a farmer in CBS’s ‘Harvest of Shame’

  2. Marx and Engels famously discussed the progressive aspects of Capitalism in the Communist Manifesto. Their point was that Capitalism’s progressive aspects had dissolved and had instead become autocratic.

  3. It’s an interesting and good question. I think there is some confusion between capitalism and greed. Regardless of the economic/power base, greed has always been a problem as the only way for the greedy to get what they want is to take it from others. Capitalism is a tool for the greedy. But then so are all the other forms of economy and governments.

    It is possible to have capitalism without constant expansion and imperialism. Again, that is based on greed, pure and simple. To blame it on capitalism is giving the greedy a free pass on their ruthless greed. I suppose you can say capitalism provides an excuse to be greedy, and that has certainly been done these days, when business schools say that the only purpose of a business is to maximize profits. i.e., ‘greed is good’ as Reagan announced.

    I make the distinction because if one thinks eliminating capitalism will eliminate greed (and the problems it causes), one will be disappointed. New greedy monsters and power brokers will arise from the ashes. Eliminating greed would be a better goal.

  4. It sounds, David, as if you believe greed emerges from On High, or is somehow inherent in humanity. Is this a matter of faith? Because there certainly is no evidence for it. On the other hand, the need for capitalism to expand, and imperialism, have a great deal of evidence. We have, of course, seen it in every business, and every capitalist country if we want empirical proof. Theoretical proof can be found starting with Marx’s analysis in Capital, and then with Lenin’s *Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism*.

    Greed is an idea. All ideas, correct or incorrect, good or bad, have their roots in material conditions. To assign material conditions to “bad ideas” as the root cause is to exactly reverse the relationship.

  5. I suppose that depends upon the definition of greed–or at least, upon the underlying motivation it’s an expression of. If you look at greed as simply the desire to possess/consume more than is strictly necessary for one’s survival, that would seem to have a reasonable basis in biology, no?

    Any dog I’ve ever encountered would eat to the point of immobility, given the chance. Many of them will share access to food with other dogs, but a significant percentage will snarl or even attack if another dog (or human, for that matter) so much as gets too close to “their” food. Heck, I’ve owned dogs that would rather overeat to the point of vomiting than share a single crumb with anyone else. Been bitten, even.

    If this is the case, and the desire for “mine!” can be labelled a survival trait with evolutionary advantages, I would think that “greed,” in terms of abstracts or non-survival assets (money, cooler stuff, etc) would simply be expressions of that underlying trait in the same way that many violent behaviors can be seen as expressions of the underlying biological urge to compete for mating access.

    So I guess another way of putting it is that it’s not that greed is inherent in humanity, it’s that it’s inherent in animals as a whole. Especially in those of the omnivorous and carnivorous varieties.

    Even setting aside survival necessities, every infant/toddler I’ve ever known has had to be taught to share. How, then, is this not instinctive behavior? Sure, there’s conscious selfish behavior, but I’ve honestly never encountered the idea that greed has to be learned.

  6. Reasonable speculation, but we do have some data from surviving hunter-gatherer tribes and even some anthropological evidence of earlier ones, and it is pretty clear that greed is a very recent occurrence in the human experience. Say, 8-10,000 years out of (depending on how you define the origins of humanity) 250,000. You might want to read The People of the Forrest, for example. Also another amazing book about a South American tribe written by a linguist, but I can’t remember the name right now. The tribe is the Peahi, or something like that.

  7. the book is “don’t sleep, there are snakes”, the people are the pirahã, and the author is daniel everett.

  8. “World War I, 1914, marked the point where every less advanced country was “owned” by one of the imperialist nations: Germany, England, France, the US,”

    The experience of Japan here: not being “owned”, what it had to do to not be “owned”, and it’s trajectory in 1914 is directly applicable to your point.

  9. Steve B: My knowledge of Japan’s development (politically, militarily, industrially) starts in the mid 30s (and is pretty sketchy even there). So what you say sounds reasonable, although I can’t say from own knowledge.

    Timothy Clarke: I’d say yes.

  10. Babies inherently share. They want to put food in your mouth, give you a toy, etc. Then they learn greed or perhaps selfishness and you have to reset back to sharing. You don’t teach sharing, you teach empathy.

  11. You cannot eliminate greed. But there is something you can do: you can make greed non-conductive to survival, by for example punishing any manifestation of greed, or creating a society where greed cannot achieve much.

    The problem is that for both, or anything similar, you need to be able to apply violence. And once people get hold of the reins of violence, they tend to like it. Greed may be dangerous, but compared to the rush you get from power…

  12. Ideally, a transition from Capitalism to Socialism would be smoothly continuous and gradual. As products and services move from scarce to non-scarce, they should move from capitalist modes of production to non-capitalist modes of production. This would include both goods and services.

    Unfortunately, what we see is that capitalists hold on to their means of production in order to benefit themselves without regard to the effects upon society. Scarcity is artificially created in order to maintain their status quo.

    This results in sudden shifts–rather like quakes at faultlines.

  13. Do you support hurricanes? Well, it doesn’t really matter one way or another. When the conditions are correct, hurricanes develop whether you support them or not.

    This seems very much like the question of “Do you support violent revolution?” Again, any given person’s support or non-support are not relevant. When the proper conditions hold, they will occur. What this implies is that the people who most support violent revolutions are those who put the conditions in place for their occurrence. If you crush people enough, eventually they will crush you back.

  14. There’s a decent amount of evidence that capitalism also has a sequence or curve tied to its own life stages (I’d call it a cycle, but I don’t think it repeats without massive disruption and a reaction that moves away from capitalism to some other system).

    Capitalism is beneficial when it’s about individual purchase decisions, which lets consumers make individual decisions about the goods and service they want to consume. It’s “progressive” (in terms of leading society forward) when low barriers to entry make it easier for new solutions or competitors to get started and increase innovation.

    Over time, compounding returns and multi-generational transfers of wealth result in centralized control of capital, and those with that control start erecting barriers to entry to prevent competition and start demanding greater returns. This allows those who control that wealth to demand higher returns for passively allowing others to access that capital. This translates to both lower compensation for workers and higher weighted average costs of capital (i.e. lower net returns) for entrepreneurs.

    In effect, capitalism eats itself as rich families and megabanks put politicians on their payroll and start privatizing profits while socializing losses.

    What we have today (at least in the US) is late stage “capitalism,” which is why we see stagnating wages, government subsidies and bailouts, and widespread consolidation of capital markets.

    Here’s a fun chart:

  15. Show me a capitalist who claims to believe in free markets and I’ll show you a hypocrite.

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