SUMMER READING SALE! Get 40% off all titles plus free shipping with discount code SUMMER21-FM at checkout
Penn Press logo
American Capitalism

"American Capitalism is an important contribution to our understanding of postwar American thought and culture. It will force historians to revise their pantheon of important thinkers for the period."—George Cotkin, author of Existential America

American Capitalism
Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century

Edited by Nelson Lichtenstein

2006 | 392 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $26.50
American History / Public Policy / Economics
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Theory and Capitalist Reality in the American Century

1 The Postcapitalist Vision in Twentieth-Century American Social Thought
—Howard Brick
2 To Moscow and Back: American Social Scientists and the Concept of Convergence
—David C. Engerman

3 Clark Kerr: From the Industrial to the Knowledge Economy
—Paddy Riley
4 John Kenneth Galbraith: Liberalism and the Politics of Cultural Critique
—Kevin Mattson
5 The Prophet of Post-Fordism: Peter Drucker and the Legitimation of the Corporation
—Nils Gilman

6 C. Wright Mills and American Social Science
—Daniel Geary
7 C. L. R. James and the Theory of State Capitalism
—Christopher Phelps
8 Oliver C. Cox and the Roots of World Systems Theory
—Christopher A. McAuley
9 Feminism, Women's History, and American Social Thought at Midcentury
—Daniel Horowitz

10 The Road Less Traveled: Reconsidering the Political Writings of Friedrich von Hayek
—Juliet Williams
11 The Politics of Rich and Rich: Postwar Investigations of Foundations and the Rise of the Philanthropic Right
—Alice O'Connor
12 American Counterrevolutionary: Lemuel Ricketts Boulware and General Electric, 1950-1960
—Kimberly Phillips-Fein
13 Godless Capitalism: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Movement
—Jennifer Burns


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Social Theory and Capitalist Reality in the American Century
Nelson Lichtenstein

At the opening of the twenty-first century, the power and pervasiveness of American capitalism and of the equation that links open markets to democratic institutions has become a large part of the common wisdom. Words like reform and liberalization now denote the process whereby a global market in labor, capital, and ideas replaces the regulatory regimes, either authoritarian or social democratic, that were erected during and after the Great Depression. In 1960, when Daniel Bell famously announced an "end of ideology in the West," he was noting that the debate about the viability of capitalism, which had consumed intellectuals and social theorists for two generations, had been transformed into a calculation that subordinated the market to a purposeful, yet well-constrained set of social and political compromises.

But thirty years later, when Francis Fukuyama coined his now (in)famous catchphrase, "the end of history," he spoke for an ideologically self-confident set of policy intellectuals who saw the capitalist market itself as culturally and politically determinative. "Liberal democracy combined with open market economics has become the only model a state can follow," wrote Fukuyama in the months just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was another way of arguing for what Margaret Thatcher had also asserted, when her efforts to deregulate business and dismantle the welfare state ran into Labour Party resistance, "There is no alternative."

The events of September 11, 2001, have done little to alter such self-confidence. "The sort of people who work in financial markets are not merely symbols but also practitioners of liberty," wrote Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine shortly after the attack. "They do not suffer constraints on their private ambitions, and they work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint. . . . It tells you something about the worldview of the terrorists that they crashed half their arsenal into the World Trade Center. They believed that the bond traders are as critical as the U.S. generals and the politicians to extending liberty's influence in the world. They may be right. And that should make you feel proud."

The essays in this collection, most of which were talks first delivered at a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara in March 2003, have all been written when such sentiments are commonplace, if not triumphant. Most reject this overweening self-confidence, but all take as a starting point the cognizance that we live in a world in which a capitalist market in labor, land, goods, and ideas has become so normalized and naturalized that it almost vanishes from our consciousness, both lay and academic. The U.S. model of global capitalism has proven supremely attractive because its gravitational pull is now almost entirely unimpeded by the weight of any other competing entity. Not only did the Soviet Union collapse during the early 1990s, but so too did competition, both economic and ideological, from a Japan-centered Pacific Rim. From a model-building perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union had been discounted long before its dramatic political demise. For almost half a century few critics of American capitalism had looked east of the Elbe for inspiration or advice. Still the demise of this empire, and the increasing marketization of the Chinese economy that preceded it, seemed to demonstrate that any organization of society that substituted economic planning for a market mechanism was bound to lead to a disaster of the first order. Indeed, the elimination of this world-historic rival devalued the ideological role played by those Keynesian, social-democratic programs and compacts that in the early Cold War years had been a vital component of the claim that in the world of actually existing capitalism the sharp elbows had been tucked and the market forces tamed. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites thus made possible the celebration of a globalized capitalism with nary a backward glance, especially when all this was accompanied by the eclipse of organized labor in the Atlantic world, the corrosive impact of America's uniquely bitter racial divide on social and economic policy, and the cunning élan with which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher mobilized elements of the working class on behalf of laissez-faire principles.

The demise of a Japanese-centered "Pacific Century" has been equally dramatic and perhaps even more significant in advancing the idea that there no longer exists any alternative to a distinctively American version of global markets and capitalist social mores. Japan has been the world's second largest economy for more than thirty years, and in the 1970s and 1980s the entire East Asian model for advanced capitalism, with its quasi-planning from the top, its innovative and seemingly cooperative labor relations, and its technological prowess, represented the real challenge, and alternative pathway, for an American capitalism that was growing frustrated with a Keynesianism that seemed increasingly ineffectual. But the collapse of Japan's real estate, banking, and technology bubble in 1990 inaugurated more than a decade of stagnation and crisis for America's great economic rival. Despite the manipulation of every fiscal and monetary lever at its command, the Tokyo planning ministries and the highly politicized Japanese banks, which had once been given such credit for shaping the entire economic miracle, have found their recovery efforts repeatedly frustrated.

The United States has had its own share of corporate bankruptcies and stock market gyrations, but today few take such economic shocks as an indication that capitalism is in danger of a fundamental transformation. In the wake of the scandal bankruptcies of Enron and Comcast there was much finger pointing from the business press and from Democratic critics of "crony capitalism," but most thought that only a beefed up regulatory apparatus was necessary to resolve the problem. Bush administration officials congratulated themselves for doing little to avert the disaster, asserting that the disappearance of Enron et al. actually vindicated the free market. Bush's first treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, not a loyalist when it came to the Iraq war or the administration's tax policies, nevertheless saw the bankruptcy of the nation's sixth largest corporation as more of a vindication than an indictment of contemporary capitalism. "Companies come and go," he said. "Part of the genius of capitalism is people get to make good decisions or bad decisions and they get to pay the consequences. . . . That's the way the system works."

But seeing the way the system works has always been as much a product of the intellect as it has been of testable reality. This book is therefore as much a study of imaginative social thought as it is of political economy. By this we mean the ways key writers and intellectuals, from across the political and aesthetic landscape, have historicized, conceptualized, and projected the trajectory of the social system that we commonly denote as capitalism, certainly as it manifests itself in the West, and specifically within the United States. With few exceptions, the individuals who are the subjects of these essays—Talcott Parsons, Clark Kerr, C. Wright Mills, Peter Drucker, Friedrich von Hayek, C. L. R. James, to name just a sample—did not think of themselves as economists or even as traditional social scientists. They shared few ideological or political ideas in common, but they were all historically minded enough to see that the economic system in which they lived was an evolving, changeable construct with a future that promised to be very different from its past. This historicized sensibility, so alien to the triumphalism and stasis of our own time, is the subject that this essay collection seeks to recapture. Such a reassessment will demonstrate that the capitalist present has been surprisingly different from that projected for it in the past; indeed, it may well stand at considerable variance from the many possible futures that lie before us.

There have been three moments during which American intellectuals have most forcefully engaged themselves in a debate over the essential character and possible futures for American capitalism. In the long generation that extended from the railroad strikes of 1877 until the First World War, the United States became an industrial juggernaut, with all the class strife and economic inequality that was characteristic of big cities, huge mills, and transcontinental markets. This was the era in which the word "capitalism" was first deployed to describe a system in which market, profit, social structure, and ideology were inexorably linked. Marx had never actually used the word, preferring "capitalist mode of production" or "capitalist accumulation" in its stead, but a later generation of Germans, including Werner Sombart and Max Weber, put forward the idea that capitalism was not just an economic mechanism for the creation and distribution of land, labor, and capital but a social and cultural system that shaped every aspect of human existence.

Such a broadly defined usage was welcomed in the United States, especially among reformers and radicals who sought to resolve "the social question," sometimes called the "the labor question," in those late nineteenth-century years when an understanding of the economy and its social consequences seemed so essential. To use the word capitalism in this context implied that the contemporary world was an impermanent state of affairs, historically delimited and possibly ready for a transmutation into something else. But until the turn of the twentieth century neither the critics nor the defenders of American capitalism could see much possibility for an evolutionary transformation of the status quo. The orthodox economists of that era were largely ahistorical proponents of a market whose future looked very like the recent past. In rejoinder, writers like Henry George, Edward Bellamy, or Henry Demarest Lloyd, as well as those who advocated a more scientific brand of socialism, searched for the economic or legislative lever that would precipitate a social crisis and resultant ethical redemption, thus ushering in a commonwealth whose operative principles were at Manichean odds with that of the present order. Although most of these reformers saw the centralizing, monopolizing tendencies apparent in fin de siècle capitalism as indicative of a future dystopia, their understanding of the early twentieth-century economy was that of a largely static system whose reform would require its absolute negation. After the turn of the twentieth century, Progressive reformers put forth a far more incremental and successful reform agenda, but as a system of both power and production, they too held out little hope that capitalist social structures could evolve from within. The state might well play a forceful and effective role, but even in its best incarnation it functioned as a diligent policeman who curbed capital's baser instincts without fundamentally reconstituting the nature of capitalist enterprise itself.

The long generation that stretched from the end of World War I until the height of the Cold War constitutes a second era in the modern history of the capitalist idea in America. This was truly an "Age of Reform," to use and extend the phrase coined by Richard Hofstadter more than half a century ago. This was an epoch in which a new cohort of reformist intellectuals and policy makers came to appreciate the power of social mores, organizational structures, and political initiatives over and above that of the market, the entrepreneur, and the corporation. During five decades of growth in the size and legitimacy of the American state, in which the specter of militarism, Stalinism, and fascism hovered just offstage, it is not surprising that Atlantic intellectuals, both left and right, thought of capitalism as an inadequate phrase for a political economy that was highly politicized and increasingly corporatist. It was in these years, Howard Brick reminds us, that capitalism, the word, fell out of favor, to be replaced by a set of circumlocutions, some quite defensive in character, such as "free enterprise," "industrial society," "machine age," and "private sector."

It is useful to divide this age of reform into two phases. The first is that of the Progressive-New Deal impulse, in which reformist officials and their brains trusts saw the transformation of American capitalism as a political, ideological project linked to popular enthusiasms and conscious planning initiatives. The locomotive of history seemed to be running particularly fast during the Great War, when even Theodore Roosevelt thought "socialized government action . . . absolutely necessary for individual protection and general well-being under the conditions of modern industrialism."

In a second phase, running from the end of World War II until the early 1970s, intellectuals also thought the capitalist system might transmute itself into something quite beyond markets and property. But among the postwar liberals, and even many of the radicals, who forecast the shift to a postindustrial order beyond ideology and class conflict, this shift in history's tectonic plates was less a product of conscious political action, and certainly not social mobilization, than it was a function of capitalism's own malleability, its capacity for incremental calibration at the hands of an expertise that commanded administrative will. President John Kennedy captured this ethos even better than Daniel Bell when he told a 1962 Yale audience that the economic problems facing contemporary society were "technical issues, complicated problems" not subject to the great enthusiasms of yesteryear.

In both phases, liberal intellectuals, from Walter Lippman and Adolph Berle to John Kenneth Galbraith and Clark Kerr came to believe that the market really had been subordinated, either to a warfare/welfare state or to an organizational revolution that put growth-oriented managerial bureaucracies at the heart of economic decision-making. This wishful accommodation between a generation of intellectuals and the essential features of Western capitalism did not make people like Talcott Parsons, Daniel Bell, or even Peter Drucker pro-capitalist ideologues. Rather, they came to see the hard substance of postwar capitalism as simply of far less consequence or danger than in earlier decades. When it came to a structural understanding of the political economy, most theorists worried far more about a claustrophobic bureaucratism than an uncontrolled market capitalism. Thus in the 1950s, many on the left were consumed in a furious debate over, and condemnation of, the "mass culture" that seemed such a rotten fruit of the economic success generated by postwar corporate capitalism. For John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Goodman, Vance Packard, and Dwight Macdonald, organization, expertise, and status anxiety trumped markets, profits, and social conflict.

Because many intellectuals and opinion makers saw the iron cage of Weber as a more informative guide to society's postwar pathologies than the class antagonisms of even a much reformed Marx, they helped prepare the ideological ground for the social and cultural insurgencies of the 1960s. Indeed, in the 1940s and 1950s a deradicalization of social theory, a shift away from an economic or class analysis, made possible and palatable the dramatic reinsertion of race and gender issues into the mainstream political and social agenda. Gunnar Myrdal's liberal idealist construction of the American racial dilemma effectively marginalized the Marxism of men like Oliver Cox, C. L. R. James, and W. E. B. DuBois, thus preparing the way for the patriotic, rights-conscious universalism so effectively championed by Martin Luther King and his civil rights generation. Likewise, Betty Friedan played a decisive role in legitimizing modern feminism, but only after this former left-wing labor journalist had thoroughly psychologized "the woman question" and isolated it from a larger, long-standing critique of work, sex, and family in market society.

If this midcentury eclipse of the market in mid-twentieth-century social theory generated creative new ways to think about culture and identity, it made liberals and the left poorly prepared for the turbulence that characterized the world economy in the 1970s and after. Capitalism may have faded from sight after 1950 during what Eric Hobsbawm has identified as the "Golden Age of Capitalism." But it was still capitalism, with all its surprises and instabilities. Thus in the last third of the twentieth century we encounter a third moment when our ideas about the trajectory that American capitalism might follow were significantly transformed. The idea that American society was fundamentally capitalist was rehabilitated on both the right and left. As Howard Brick points out in his essay, the year 1965 might serve as a starting point. That was the moment when Forbes magazine, perhaps feeling the first winds of the conservative revival that would soon give Hayek and Friedman the Nobel Prize, launched an advertising campaign that asserted that Forbes was indeed a "capitalist tool." Likewise, those inspired by the New Left sought a more systematic analysis of the meaning and character of the system in which they struggled. Growing impatient with incremental reformism and pluralist social science, SDS leader Rennie Davis told a 1965 antiwar rally that in order to understand the ills that beset America, we must "name the system" that had produced Vietnam, racial inequality, and the nuclear arms race.

So when stagflation and stagnant living standards arrived in the 1970s, both the left and the right were ready to once again think of their society as a fundamentally capitalist order. For a time academic Marxism energized the study of labor and legal history, corporate governance, social stratification, and the economics of global capitalism. But the real ideological winners were found on the right. Not only did they have their free-market advocates within the academy, especially in economics, political science, and within the highly influential law schools, but the right generated a popular political constituency that celebrated entrepreneurship, devalued government regulation, and linked the idea of an unfettered capitalism to maintenance of democratic rights and the health of civil society. Triumphal proponents of twenty-first-century capitalism have argued that as the international flow of labor, capital, and information becomes more efficient, the capitalist marketplace has finally become a universal phenomenon, generating a single pathway to wealth and democracy. Exhibit A in this globalization of what had once been an Atlantic-centered world is China, which seems on track to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy.

An important ideological trope accompanying this forecast is the argument that democratic institutions are bound to flourish in a market society composed of numerous nodes of autonomous economic and institutional power. This perspective is sometimes linked to a kind of technocratic utopianism in which the spread of information technology enhances the market power of individuals and niche producers in a fashion very much at odds with the oligarchic structures that dominated the managerial imagination forty or fifty years ago. Thus by the last years of the twentieth century, both the left and the right could "name the system." Today, when the World Trade Organization or a similar transnational institution meets in Seattle, Sydney, or at some other highly contested venue, both the ministers inside the hall and the demonstrators in the streets know that the subject of their ire, admiration, and debate is pretty much the same world capitalist order.

This book contains thirteen essays that discuss how a number of American intellectuals have thought about the trajectory that capitalism in this country might well follow. These essays do not constitute a history of twentieth-century capitalism in the United States, although the contributors to this collection are well aware of the ebb, flow, and reconfiguration of the American political economy. Rather their variegated perspectives will serve an illuminating purpose if they historicize how we have thought about twentieth-century capitalism, therefore also problematizing the contemporary ideas and sentiments that sustain the sense of inevitabiity that so often characterizes twenty-first-century discussions of global market capitalism.

The opening essays discuss a central theme that runs through many of the contributions: why and how the idea of capitalism became eclipsed by sociological or political constructs encompassing the idea of a "postindustrial" or even "postcapitalist" society. We usually think of such ideas as a product of Cold War tensions, and as David Engerman demonstrates, studies of Soviet industrialization did indeed owe much to federal funding of social science research in the years after 1947. However, Howard Brick uncovers a richer provenance for such views. He traces the roots of what he calls the "postcapitalist vision" back to the intellectual and political crisis that followed World War I, when men like Walter Lippmann were convinced that "a silent revolution is in progress." As Brick points out intellectuals in the post-World War I era questioned both the centrality of capitalism and the distinctiveness of that system. Unlike so many nineteenth-century theorists, from Marx to Sumner, they came to distinguish between the economic order and the social/cultural organization of society. This "shift away from economics," most notable and influential in the work of Talcott Parsons, gave intellectuals, including men like Franz Boas, David Riesman, and Daniel Bell the space to think about culture, psychology, and race. Although liberals and former socialists were most adept at making such prognostications, this sense that capitalism was in the midst of an evolutionary and perhaps conflict-free transformation was also common to conservative icons, including Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich von Hayek, although they mourned rather than celebrated this effortless shift to a world of postbourgeois power and values.

The onset of the Cold War initially advanced the idea of a postcapitalist vision. At a time when the CIA supported the non-Communist left in Europe, when the Marshall Plan subsidized the growth of the welfare state and the nationalization of key industries, it was easy for many intellectuals, not only those on the left, to believe that capitalism was but a transitory structure of culture, power, and distribution. They saw industrialism and modernity as far more enduring and fundamental, characteristic of societies to the east as well as the west of the Elbe.

As David Engerman makes clear, the idea that the social structures in the Soviet Union and the United States were moving toward a sociological convergence was initially a Western conceit, but the idea eventually turned some social scientists against the Cold War's deepening polarities. If the Soviet Union and the United States were headed in the same direction, then why all the fuss? As a founder of Harvard's influential Russian Research Center, Talcott Parsons, the most important sociologist in the postwar United States, came to believe that the process of industrial modernity within the Soviet Union would eventually transform an authoritarian society into one of "democracy, pluralism, and rationalism." Just as Parsons came to think that Marxism had little leverage in the West as an ideology, so too did he believe that in the Soviet Union aspirations for a revolutionary transformation would be replaced by economic instrumentalism and scientific pragmatism, a posture not all that different from the ideas that guided the mixed economies of the United States and Western Europe.

Indeed, the idea of transnational convergence—along some axis involving mass consumption, industrial complexity, and social pluralism—became a hallmark of post-World War II liberalism. But as Engerman shows us, the same Parsonsian architecture that might forecast convergence along liberal democratic lines, could also take on a darker coloration if the bureaucratization, manipulation, and authoritarian corporatism associated with industrialism would transform the capitalist West into something not all that different from the Stalinist East. This was the "nightmare" vision of the convergence forecast by C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and Alvin Gouldner.

The replacement of the idea of capitalism by an ideologically neutered "industrialism" had a profound impact on American liberalism and on the way in which social problems were defined and tackled during that era—between 1930 and 1980—when liberalism represented the dominant political and intellectual discourse in the United States. This is made abundantly clear in the essays covering three key figures: the prolific, high profile economist and public intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith, the labor economist and educator Clark Kerr, and the management theorist Peter Drucker, whose conservatism accommodated an understanding of capitalist industrialism that liberals might well endorse themselves. All shared in the postcapitalist vision identified by Howard Brick and they all believed in an optimistic, Whiggish variant of the convergence hypothesis that Parsons his Harvard-MIT colleagues advanced.

Clark Kerr is best known as the University of California educator who confronted a successful student insurgency in the fall of 1964. Kerr's conception of the corporate multiversity seemed oppressive and claustrophobic to Berkeley students, who fought for freedom of speech, supported civil rights, and sought a larger, more authentic degree of personal autonomy within the highly organized social structures that seemed so characteristic of education, work, and even play. Kerr's obtuseness in that crisis, argues Paddy Riley, can only be understood if one takes into account his own theory of postwar industrialism. Kerr's World War II experience as a young arbitrator-mediator convinced him, and the cohort of labor economists who would prove so influential in the postwar years, that neither Marxist theory nor market-oriented economics could explain the practical, fashion by which self-interested institutions—labor, management, the government—fought to manipulate and reshape the political economy.

Instead, Kerr shifted his gaze from the world of industrial conflict that he had sought to mediate in the 1940s to a world of knowledge-based institutions and interests that he saw in the 1950s as key to the system of "pluralistic industrialism" that was replacing the class polarities that had been characteristic of early twentieth-century capitalism. Not unexpectedly, Kerr believed that knowledge was the key to social progress, and like so many social theorists of the mid-twentieth century, he believed that societal convergence was taking place at home as well as abroad. For Kerr, the trajectory all industrial societies were bound to follow put nations in the third world and the Soviet bloc on the same path as the capitalist West. But in similar fashion, Kerr believed that the imperatives privileging knowledge and skillful management were also driving all the organizational components at the core of an advanced industrial society like the United States. Thus a kind of efficacious convergence was taking place between the modern business corporation and the research university. "The elites all wear grey flannel suits," quipped Kerr. Instead of conflict at the picket line or the ballot box, "The battles (in the new knowledge society) will be in the corridors instead of the streets, and memos will flow instead of blood."

If Clark Kerr's sunny expectations were shaken by the rise of an impatient New Left, not all liberals in the 1950s and 1960s shared the Californian's Whiggish determinism. Like Kerr, John Kenneth Galbraith believed that history was moving in his direction, but as Kevin Mattson makes clear, he remained an engaged intellectual who disdained the complacency that had crept into the outlook of men like Kerr and the administrative liberals of his generation.

Galbraith's intellectual pedigree descended from Thorsen Veblen as well as Adolph Berle and Gardner Means, whose landmark 1932 book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, offered New Dealers so much analytical firepower. From the former Galbraith took his faith in what he would call the "educational and scientific estate," and from the latter his argument, on display most clearly in the New Industrial State (1967), that in the modern corporation ownership had been effectively divorced from control, making the shareholders marginal to the trajectory of modern American capitalism. Like Parsons and Kerr, Galbraith was a pluralist, but he never allowed the complacent determinism of his social scientific contemporaries to color his politics. Mattson is entirely right to emphasize that Galbraith remained a combative, activist liberal even during the 1950s when the Harvard economist was most confident that a New Dealish, ideologically consensual politics had become hegemonic across a fair slice of the policy spectrum. This was because Galbraith, true to the spirit of Veblen and his austere Scotch-Irish forbearers, remained skeptical of economic growth per se and the privatized consumerism that by the late 1950s had come to seem both aesthetically repellant and socially dysfunctional. In shifting a critique of American capitalism to those grounds, Galbraith shared much with the cultural and ecological New Left, but the very success of this brand of post-scarcity liberalism left American liberals unprepared for the renewed arguments over market fundamentalism that the right would advance when in the 1970s it became clear that American capitalism was not on automatic pilot.

Peter Drucker, the foremost management theorist of the last half of the twentieth century, shared an intellectual companionship with liberals like Kerr and Galbraith because, like them, Drucker believed that capitalism had transformed itself into a system that successfully subordinated both market and property to the technocracy and bureaucracy engendered by industrial society. As Nils Gilman argues with much insight, Drucker's great task was the legitimization of the corporation in an era when capitalist enterprise seemed responsible for the twin catastrophes of the 1930s, the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of Central European fascism. Drucker saw that the Nazis attracted mass support because they provided an alternative to the mechanistic, economic conception of man characteristic of classical liberalism.

Thinking along lines that paralleled those of Kerr, Galbraith, and Parsons, Drucker also threw out the market, marginalized the engine of profit, and defined industrialism as an organic system of mutual obligations. But unlike the self-conscious liberals, Drucker put his politicized reconceptualization of Western capitalism at the service of the modern corporation, which he thought of as a kind of constitutional regime that, in the best of hands and circumstances, might stand athwart the atomizing, existentially harsh modernity that was the hallmark of twentieth-century economic life. He was a man of the right, concludes Gilman, who understood "that conservatives had to develop a democratic theory of industrial organization if they wanted to save capitalism from existential implosion." In 1940s America, Drucker therefore endorsed collective bargaining, high wages, and the welfare state.

Left-wing intellectuals were not absent from the mid-twentieth-century debate about the character and trajectory of capitalism. They were more self-conscious in their critique, and gave to their analysis a moral, as well as a sociological, incisiveness, but in many respects they shared important points of commonality with the mainstream liberals. During the 1950s C. Wright Mills may well have been the nation's foremost social critic, and in the decades since his untimely death in 1962 Mills's reputation as a radical analyst of the American social structure has made a steady advance.

However, as Daniel Geary makes clear, Mills was influential because he replaced the phraseology of capitalist exploitation with a set of social structures and psychological categories that were rooted much more in a Weberian than an economic analysis of power in America. Indeed, Mills was just as much a student of Max Weber as Talcott Parsons, and like the Harvard sociologist, Mills helped move mid-twentieth-century social science away from economics and toward a study of "total social structures." Of course, whereas Parsons and other liberals highlighted those Weberian arguments stressing social cohesion, Mills and the radicals who followed him emphasized the Marxisant element within Weber's social thought, pointing to the compulsive character of large-scale economic, military, and political institutions. The Mills of White Collar and The Power Elite saw American society bound together not by common values à la Parsons but by "big chains of authority." They were rational, bureaucratic, and universalistic, but for all that modernism still oppressive and claustrophobic.

Although he did fieldwork in Puerto Rico, Mills, like so many left-wing social scientists of his generation, ignored issues of race and region. Yet two of the greatest theorists of capitalist transformation were products of the Caribbean diaspora whose ideological legacy remains potent half a century after their productive apogee. Both C. L. R. James and Olivier Cox imported into their understandings of world capitalism a racial dimension sorely lacking in that of most mid-twentieth-century theorists. They put at the center of their analysis the dichotomy between the trans-Atlantic core and the agricultural, colonized periphery where divisions of wealth and labor were determined by a racially embrocated structure of power that these intellectuals did so much to put at the center of late twentieth century consciousness and then deconstruct in such a forceful, telling manner.

C. L. R. James is known for his great history of race, class, and revolution in San Domingo, which appeared in 1938 as The Black Jacobins; and in more recent decades his understanding of a rich and autonomous world of working-class sport and culture has been rediscovered by scholars involved with postcolonial theory and subaltern studies. But as Christopher Phelps shows us, James was also a participant in the debate over the trajectory of world capitalism during those mid-twentieth-century decades just before its stability became a widely accepted hypothesis. James was not an academic and he did not write for the mainstream press, so his argument that a form of "state capitalism" characterized regimes East of the Rhine was largely confined to the debates that so ardently engaged Trotskyist intellectuals in the U.S. and Europe.

But if in the 1930s and 1940s few were aware of such polemical exchanges, Phelps nevertheless demonstrates that much was at stake. The character and fate of the Bolshevik Revolution—the "Russian Question"—was never about the Soviet Union alone. As was the case with Parsons, Kerr, and Mills, studies of the USSR became part of the debate over the future of Western capitalism as well, and over the leverage of those forces that might transform it. For James and his circle, therefore, the understanding that the Soviet regime was "state capitalist" meant that it was still subject to the internal conflicts and contradictions common to all capitalist regimes. It was not an immutable totalitarianism that only a militarized West could contain and defeat. James therefore looked to those oppositional impulses that remained outside the structures of power. As Phelps shows so well, he retained an abstract faith in the potency of the traditional working class, but his lasting fame would rest upon his exploration of those seemingly apolitical, culturally resonant impulses that he first observed in the Caribbean struggle against British imperialism.

Oliver Cox was also a product of the ideologically fertile Caribbean, and he too proved to be a scholar whose work gained far more influence after his death than before. Like James, Cox understood race and caste as categories that derived far more from the imperatives of the labor market than they did from any cultural or social traditionalism. They were hardly an example of the cultural lag that liberals believed the market or the industrial bureaucracy would necessarily dissolve. Although once eclipsed by James, Oliver Cox's multivolume exploration of the division of labor and profit in the Atlantic world has become increasingly relevant to those who study global capitalism. It is not surprising that Cox had little influence when theories of developmental modernization and industrial rationality were hegemonic on the liberal left, but in the early twenty-first century Cox's racially inflected world systems schema, his critique of what we would today call globalization, offers us an analytical weapon with which a deconstruction of the Washington consensus and the World Bank's privatization agenda might begin.

Just as Cox and James began to see racial constructions as endemic to world capitalism, so too does Daniel Horowitz demonstrate that the feminist founders of U.S. women's history were all engaged in a dialogue with classical Marxism, a conversation in which the structural claims of a Friedrich Engels, an August Bebel, or even a Charlotte Perkins Gilman gave way before an explosion of scholarship that emphasized historical contingency and literary meaning. In this realm of feminist politics and scholarship, autonomous cultural, social and ideological patterns of subordination and power superseded the more structuralist hierarchies that were characteristic of a Marxist mode of analysis. Horowitz, who has made a parallel argument in his celebrated biography of Betty Friedan, here examines four feminist writers whose ideas on gender, economics, and power were shaped by Popular Front culture and Communist Party practice. In their early work, Eleanor Flexner, Carl Degler, Gerda Lerner, and Aileen Kraditor all explored the question with which a generation of scholars and activists had once grappled, "Does capitalism liberate women?"

Whatever their answer, the centrality of the question itself demonstrated that this cohort of feminist historians all thought that issues involving the division of labor, the relationship of property to patriarchy, and the fate of the working class were keys to understanding the history of women and the meaning of gender in the modern world. Politically, these intellectuals tended toward political liberalism and a Whiggish historiography, with the possible exception of Kraditor, who opted for a cynical neoconservatism in her latter years. As with Kerr and Galbraith, a bureaucratic industrialism became the vague societal category that replaced the polarities of power and ideology once found in their analysis of capitalist patriarchy. The cultural superstructure had emerged as autonomous while the structural imperatives of a capitalist organization of work and family faded from center stage. This ideological trajectory helped mainstream the history of women in U.S. scholarship, but in the process the feminist academy lost a certain analytical edge, or rather, issues of power, wealth, and class dropped from view in the post-1970s era, as they had for many other liberals.

But just as the left was beginning to emphasize the autonomy of a set of cultural, racial, and gender structures within modern society, the American right was beginning to rediscover the virtues of the market, and to celebrate, with little apology, the inequalities and conflicts that were the necessary fruit of a free and unfettered capitalism. Friedrich von Hayek is an essential figure in this battle of ideas: his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom has achieved canonical status as the work that gave rise to the modern conservative movement and the reemergence of laissez-faire economics. The Road to Serfdom was an energetic antisocialist, anti-welfare state polemic, but it achieved a huge resonance because it linked that critique of Anglo-American economic regulation to an attack on the fascist and Stalinist evils of that era.

As Juliet Williams demonstrates in her contribution to this volume, Hayek's reputation as a libertarian extremist is somewhat exaggerated, although this is largely a consequence of his own self-popularization among audiences attuned to such views. He actually held that the modern liberal state must exercise some regulatory power if capitalist markets and social stability were to be preserved. For example, Hayek supported Social Security during the same season, in the early 1960s, when Barry Goldwater first put its privatization on the Republican political agenda. But Hayek eclipsed the nuance and complexity of his political economy by indulging in rhetoric that misrepresented his own theorizing, such as his well-known warning that "so soon as one moves an inch in the planned direction you are necessarily launched on the slippery path which will lead you in due course over the precipice." In the end, concludes Williams, Hayek was not a closet authoritarian, but a reluctant democrat who was torn between his neoliberal philosophy and his elitist politics.

The conservative, antistate populism from which Hayek drew such acclaim was also fertile ground for a mid-twentieth-century assault upon a set of institutions that were emblematic both of the preservation of great wealth as well as the advancement of the postwar brand of economic regulation advocated by so many of the liberal intellectuals discussed in this volume. There was a double irony here, as Alice O'Connor makes clear in her discussion of the political controversy in which big philanthropies like Ford and Rockefeller found themselves embroiled in the 1950s and 1960s. On the one hand, the invention of the modern philanthropic foundation came in the era of the robber barons. Sustained by tax policy and a benign regulatory environment, these institutions allowed a class of extraordinarily rich Americans to perpetuate their influence from one generation to the next. But on the other hand, the ideological outlook adopted by the old-line foundations ran parallel to that of the Parsonian intellectuals: differences in economic power and wealth were marginal to the values and roles played by individuals in a mass society, even as a cosmopolitan elite assumed key posts in government, business, and academe.

An embittered critique of this brand of liberal philanthropy soon emerged on the right, for which the big foundations came to represent the subversion of free-market capitalism and the rise of planning, internationalism, and racial integration, all orchestrated by a cadre of intellectuals and professional bureaucrats, just the sort of people Kerr and Galbraith thought essential players in the construction of a modern, knowledge-based society. We have in this controversy the kernel of a "new class" analysis of liberalism and the welfare state, later advanced by neoconservative intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s. Wedded to an ideology of social science empiricism and consensual politics, the big foundations had few tools with which to respond to this ideological assault. Indeed, as O'Connor points out, foundations like Ford and Carnegie became increasingly timid after 1969, especially as a phalanx of overtly ideological, self-consciously conservative think tanks and foundations began to make their weight felt in the Washington policy arena. Conservative foundations like Bradley, Olin, and Scaife funded the ideas that would legitimize the Reagan-Bush ascendancy. Their work achieved an ironic victory early in the twenty-first century when the administration of George W. Bush slashed the federal estate tax, which had been premised upon the Progressive-era idea that great wealth, in purely private hands, should not descend unfettered or untaxed from one generation to the next.

To explain the popular success for this kind of raw market ideology, the careers of two influential right-wing propagandists bear close examination. Lemuel Boulware was the personnel director of General Electric in the 1940s and 1950s. Like Peter Drucker, he sought to legitimize the corporation in an age of labor, war, and government planning. But unlike Drucker, whose starting point was the catastrophic failure of liberal capitalism in Europe, Boulware was a product of that self-confident, technically advanced business civilization that was but momentarily shaken by the Great Depression in the United States. And whereas Drucker welcomed the voice of labor as a kind of junior partner, whose calibrated accommodation would itself reinforce the legitimacy of corporate hegemony, Boulware thought of labor power the way Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, thought of state planning: give an inch and you are well on the way to a collectivist dystopia.

In Kim Phillips-Fein's fascinating portrait of Lemuel Boulware, we see the way in which the ideas of conservatives like Hayek and Ludwig von Mises are invoked to propagate an increasingly conservative corporate agenda. Drucker was honest enough to recognize that America's giant corporations were planning regimes whose inner life was that of a paternal autocracy relentlessly seeking to subordinate the market to a larger corporate purpose. Boulware, like so many other American business conservatives, indulged himself in the useful fantasy that a corporation like General Electric was but a weak and pliant instrument of other forces: customer choice, labor market pressures, and technological innovation. Trade unionism, powerfully entrenched among the skilled workers in the key General Electric plants, seemed a particularly egregious assault upon market rationalism and management prerogative. Radicals like Mills and liberals like Galbraith were equally skillful in their evisceration of such managerial mythmaking, but Boulware was more successful in the long run, for it was his linkage of a steadfast anti-unionism with a radical ideological assault upon the New Deal that carried the day in late twentieth-century America.

That an audience of militant libertarians was ready to endorse a celebration of market capitalism became clear, as Jennifer Burns reminds us in her splendid story of Ayn Rand's rise and fall within the hothouse world of American conservatism. Rand was an amazingly influential novelist whose The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) sold in the millions. Her works of radical individualism and militant hostility to planning, unionism, and the New Deal defended capitalism as efficient, democratic, and ethically moral. A Jewish refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution, her libertarianism was nevertheless bound tightly to the atheism that was a hallmark for the rationalistic humanism of those early twentieth-century decades. She was therefore a fierce, high-profile proponent of "Godless capitalism."

Rand's posture and her popularity were a challenge to the generation of conservatives who took their lead from William F. Buckley's new National Review magazine. Seeking a fusion of capitalist markets and Christian traditions, these conservatives found themselves thwarted and embarrassed by Rand's disdain for the church, its theology, and the community of believers. Her novels had highlighted the contradictions between a dynamic, egotistical capitalism and Christian "virtue," but it was just this combination that the new conservatives thought both morally defensible and politically expedient. Most of the writers at Buckley's National Review were convinced that as an atheist, Rand missed the central truth offered by the new conservatism: that religion was the only viable foundation for victory over the collectivist madness of Stalin's terror, or even the creeping estatism that was advancing in the West. In a devastating, dismissive 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged Whittaker Chambers drove home this point, arguing that Rand's "materialism of the Right" differed little from "a materialism of the Left." Rand would command a large audience for yet another decade, but the Catholic conservatives who pioneered the modern linkage between Christian religiosity and capitalist markets had successfully marginalized Rand's secular libertarianism. The path was now clear to a revival of laissez-faire politics and growth of a religious constituency massive enough to advance those anti-welfare state policies.

Contemporary American politics seems to confirm both the triumph of the capitalist imagination and the simultaneous extent to which that ideological construct has become so completely embedded within the conventions of public discourse as to render it invisible. "The forces of the market are just that," pronounced the Chicago school economist Arnold Harberger on a Public Broadcasting Service interview show early in the current century, "they are like the wind and the tides...if you want to try to ignore them, you ignore them at your peril."

One might not think that orthodox sentiments of this sort played much of a role in the rightward lurch of American politics, including that of the 2004 election, but as Thomas Frank, Harold Meyerson, and other pathologists of Democratic Party decline have observed, liberalism's incapacity to historicize this kind of market absolutism, to offer hard-pressed voters a larger analysis, both moral and ideological, of what ails them renders even the most cautious left-of-center politicians defenseless against the culture-war attacks continuously, and creatively, generated on the right. The liberal default is not just a question of program: of a failure to push for universal health care, a substantial rise in the minimum wage, or a reform in the labor law. These proposals gain little traction, even among supporters, because they are not offered as part of a structural explanation for the state of the economy and the dynamic that drives contemporary American capitalism. Thus when Frank conducted a 2004 tour of West Virginia, a state where the primitive polarities inherent in an extractive brand of capitalism once ensured a rough kind of class politics, he found working-class cabins and trailers plastered with George Bush posters.

West Virginia residents still imagined a world in which they were confronted by a set of alien oppressors, but in the early years of the twenty-first century these were far more likely to be found among the bicoastal cosmopolitans than the mine-owning barons of old or the Wal-Mart manager down the street. Unlike the liberals, the culture warriors in the GOP have successfully imagined a social and economic universe, full of strife and tension, in which the future really is up for grabs. If libertarian-tending conservatives like Lemuel Boulware and Friedrich Hayek could not quite pull this off, William Buckley and his heirs did figure out how the right could finally wed laissez-faire markets with Christian morals in modern America. All this is highly ironic, of course, because the ideological eclipse of market capitalism, and the class politics that inevitably accompanied it, was in some small but significant part a product of liberal and left-wing efforts to move beyond ownership and exchange and into a world in which knowledge, status and culture played a much larger role in structuring consciousness, politics, and the postcapitalist future.

No collection of scholarly essays can expect to serve as a particularly effective vehicle for authors intervening in contemporary political debate. But historical consciousness remains one of the intellect's most potent subversions, which is why it is our hope that an historicized understanding of twentieth-century capitalism can unsteady a few twenty-first-century verities and provide a glimpse of a possible future that is something more than a return to the political economy of a pre New Deal era that we once thought long-buried.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved