My fellow editor Paul Crider has critiqued and expanded upon a summary of the history of capitalism and what we mean when we use the term “capitalism” today, which appeared in the pages of Teen Vogue. While Paul’s piece is exemplary for its use of system-level analysis, I think it is far too kind to the source material he’s responding to. When a publication whose very name invokes marketing segmentation offers an explainer of “capitalism” full of traditional critical language on the matter, that language has clearly become commoditized to a point beyond parody. I would like to suggest it’s time we kill off the language of “capitalism” altogether; we would be better off looking elsewhere in order to explain phenomena such as 19th century European imperialism.
Systems and events
The language of “capitalism” is tied up in systems-level analysis. Even though it began its life as part of a historicist narrative, Marx, like a good Hegelian, used that narrative to describe how one abstract, holistic system – “feudalism” – gave way to another. Marxist narrative, therefore, is a tool for identifying the conditions under which an abstract, holistic system emerges, so that one may apply the same systemic analysis to Germany as to France, and even to Russia – if Russia meets the correct conditions.
The language of “capitalism” grew beyond Marx’s specific texts quite quickly; classical Marxism’s core texts included not only Engels’ works like The Dialectic of Nature, but also specific commentaries on those texts. Over time, and especially with the death of the Soviet Union, this language became far more flexible, but it also lost its direction. Unmoored from the regimentation of the classical Marxist framework, critical use of this language became more responsive to particular events but more banal in its insights.
Appropriation of this language by the critics of Marxism has not gone much better. When theoretical economists speak of “capitalism” they are referencing a static, axiomatic system that is quite difficult to situate in actual history or even in particular institutions. Economic historians and those doing the empirical work are better off, but even here it isn’t clear what is gained by employing the specific language of “capitalism”. “Growth” and “trade” and “commerce” and “markets” often do the trick just fine, alongside more detailed discussions of particular institutional arrangements.
In the study of human society, system-level analysis works best when you employ a plurality of models – even patently incorrect or (as they all are) incomplete ones – and apply them selectively to generate piecemeal insights of concrete historical phenomena. There is no place for a Theory of Everything in the sciences of man. So long as the language of “capitalism” draws us into stale old games, with predictable moves employing precisely some Theory of Everything or other, it is an impediment to understanding rather than an aid.
In what follows, I will employ the language from Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, in particular the language of what she refers to as the Great Enrichment. While systems have a place in this language, it centers primarily on an event which changed the character of many systems in the world, over time. The systems themselves cannot explain the event.
Imperialism and the Great Enrichment
As McCloskey put it in a summary of her argument:
Earlier prosperities had intermittently increased real income per head by double or even triple, 100 or 200 percent or so, only for it to fall back to the miserable $3 a day typical of humans since the caves. But the Great Enrichment increased real income per head, in the face of a rise in the number of heads, by a factor of seven — by anything from 2,500 to 5,000 percent. The average American now earns $130 each day; in the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, citizens earn from $80 to $110. The magnitude of the improvement stuns.
What is more, as she argues persuasively in Bourgeois Dignity, this event cannot be explained by the formal aspects of any of the systems in the countries the Enrichment began in. The level of property rights protections, the volume of trade, the access to natural resources at home or from conquered territories, slaves and the slave trade; none of it was special to the time or place that the Enrichment burst out of. These things had all existed, often to a greater degree, in other times and places throughout history. If we place our faith in system-level analysis, the question is not why Holland and England ushered in the Great Enrichment; the question is why didn’t China do so a thousand years prior?
What of the supposed natural connection between “capitalism” and colonialism or imperialism? I will not deny that there is a connection between the Great Enrichment and European imperialism, but it is of an utterly different character than the connection described by Marxists. The idea that imperialism was a natural part of the internal “logic of capitalism” was made famous by J. A. Hobson and translated into the language of Marxism by Vladimir Lenin, and continues to be influential among leftist theorists and historians today. Against this, I will argue that the connection is entirely contingent. If the spread of the Great Enrichment had been wider or simply different, if the specific advances in technology and medicine had occurred with different timing, 19th century imperialism may have been far less dramatic than it in fact was. Unlike the old “logic of capitalism” arguments, in other words, I will argue that it was a matter of circumstances rather than logical necessity.
Let me offer a simple model to explain the rise of many empires throughout history, right back into antiquity: one community makes a sudden breakthrough that puts them far ahead of their neighbors. This could be in military technology, such as the invention of the trebuchet or the longbow, or it could be in military organization, such as the phalanx or the Romans’ sophisticated logistical support for their armies. Whatever the case, with these advantages in hand, the military in question quickly conquers all of their neighbors.
That’s the model, in a nutshell: militarily advantageous breakthroughs lead to regional aggression more or less in proportion to how far ahead of everyone else those breakthroughs put them.
Applying the model to 19th century imperialism would go like this: the Great Enrichment fed imperialism the way that improvements in the phalanx formation fed Macedonian expansion. The European nations found themselves with more resources at their disposal than any nation in history; national income accounting, including GDP itself, were developed primarily to get a sense of the resources available for war-making. Moreover, the Great Enrichment itself was driven by tinkering and innovating on an unprecedentedly broad scale; some of this tinkering and innovation had direct military implications – as Hilaire Belloc captured with his chilling lines “Whatever happens, we have got/The maxim gun, and they have not.”
The specifics of European imperialism bring its contingency in. The “germs” in the title of Jared Diamond’s famous book refer to the way in which local epidemiological conditions favored the Europeans in their American colonialism, but limited their penetration into Africa for centuries. Put plainly, they brought diseases which killed locals but found none which killed themselves in America, but in Africa the situation was reversed. It wasn’t until advances in military technology gave Europeans so overwhelming an advantage on the battlefield that they were able to overcome this natural advantage the African people had in their own lands.
Neither the “breakthrough” model of conquest I am offering, nor Diamond’s epidemiological model have anything to do with the old talk of imperialism as an extension of “the logic of capitalism.” The British and the French were not driven by system-level demands for export markets any more than Alexander the Great was. Had advances in military technology proceeded at a slower pace than innovation in general, it’s possible the conquest of Africa and the resulting human toll would not have occurred at all – and yet the Great Enrichment would’ve continued on without it.
What are we to take from this? If you take pride in your country in America, the UK, France, or Germany, it’s your duty to face the bloodstains that taint the flag without looking away. This is as true for imperialism as it is for slavery and the slave trade. This is the case even though, per McCloskey, these countries are not meaningfully more wealthy because of either imperialism or slavery. There can be little doubt, of course, that America only exists because of colonialism; as an American-born child of a Cuban immigrant, I wouldn’t even exist without European colonialism, never mind whether I would be as personally wealthy as I am now. But the Great Enrichment was fueled by widespread innovation, not by imperial resource extraction, nor by slave labor. There was no special, system-level logic that determined the relationship between this event and the historical injustices that were tragically enabled by it.
This doesn’t change either the fact or the legacy of these historical injustices. I am not downplaying the seriousness or magnitude of that fact or legacy. What I deny is the necessary link to the Great Enrichment, except in the specific contingent sense I described above.
A final word on the language of “capitalism” and its role in the Marxism of the 20th century is in order. Unlike the event I’ve been referring to as the Great Enrichment, there is a direct connection between Marxist language and Marxist mass atrocities. This language was used in its regimented, theoretically-grounded form by people like Lenin and Stalin and Mao who imposed the greatest despotisms in history and were rightly given the name “totalitarian.” The classical Marxists were swept aside, so that Marxism around the world for many decades meant alignment with the USSR Communist Party line. It is a cliché to trot out the list of western intellectuals who stood up for the show trials and the purges and other strongman tactics perpetrated by Stalin, and it is a cliché because it was common. The connection is direct: the participation by most Marxists in history in, at minimum, expanding the global influence of brutal totalitarian regimes, is quite clear. How much we can blame Marx himself for all of this is a more open question; I’m inclined to think conservatives and libertarians go too far in making him personally responsible, though Marx’s contemporary Bakunin was quite capable of seeing how Marx’s system could go down that path. But certainly we cannot say, with the recent passing of Marx’s 200th birthday, that his legacy has been anything worthy of admiration.
Conservatives today are too quick to trot out the spectre of communism’s rotting corpse, and too slow to take ownership of the injustices at home. But the memory of those dead regimes’ victims is nevertheless worth preserving, and the legacy of those regimes is with us today no less than the legacy of imperialism and slavery.