A blog post

Alternative capitalisms

Posted on the 19 October, 2019 at 1:46 pm Written by in Books

A new capitalism analysis?

Yes, new capitalism analyses do appear. Although fairly rarely, maybe. It is not just the old stuff on how capitalism is bad – or good. Not just the old black and white treatment.

Two fairly recent examples include Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level (2010), and Thomas Pikketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014). Both works created a lot of scientific debate. Instead of condemning or praising capitalism in general terms, these pioneer studies went into the empirical terrain – what actually happens, in capitalist economy, viewed from our own time.

Both books have the merit of a clear empirical hypothesis, and a theory updated around that central fact. In the case of The Spirit Level, the central empirical fact or pattern is the build-up of psychological and health costs related to capitalism, or at least, some very hardline or competetive forms of capitalism. In essence, there are good psychological and health reasons to avoid too much or too hard capitalism. The fallouts and dysfunctions are bad not just for those who fall out of the system, but for the system also, including the upper class.

Pikketty’s argument is more detail-focused. He goes into one highly significant “detail”, the percent of the total product value taken out by the owners of the production process. He finds a clear historical tendency – the share given to owners is rising, and the rise is notable in the period from the 1980s-today.  From the conclusion:

“A market economy left to itself … contains powerful forces of divergence …… the principal destabilizing force has to do with the fact that the private rate of return on capital, r, can be significantly higher for long periods of time than the rate of growth of income and output, g. The inequality r > g implies that the wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages. (…)  The entrepeneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labor ( p 571).

There are different ways to interpret this, but there seems to be little doubt that the new findings give a fairly historically correct picture.  Pikketty’s “facts” are even more broadly acknowledged than those of Wilson and Pickett.

None of these works highlight gender discrimination as such, although it is mentioned in The Spirit Level.

Gender equality is assumed to be a fairly peripheral factor, which is a mistake, in my judgement of the state of the research, including my own studies.

Instead, the main discrimination factor is social class or status – rather than gender, ethnicity, or sexuality.

The empirical message seems strong, but I would like it to be tested for control variables like gender equality.

The main message of Wilkinson and Pickett, and of Piketty, is that more social class divides will create more problems. Although starting from different disciplines and problem formulations, the two projects converge in their analysis – which is significant, I think.

Beyond these empirically oriented works, I have a lot of “imaginative” books on capitalism, in the bookshelf by my desk. Like; “How will capitalism end” by Wolfgang Streeck. Hardt and Negri: “Empire”, and books on the follow up debate. In my bookshelf, Steven Lukes: Power: A  Radical View, sits besides Judith Butler: Undoing Gender. Eric Anderson’s Inclusive Masculinity is not far away.

Why? The subject is cross-disciplinary. What is called capitalism in one book may be called masculinity in another.




Piketty, David 2014: Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts

Wilkinson, Richard; Pickett, Kate 2010: The spirit level. Why greater equality makes societies stronger. Bloomsbury Press, New York