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The death and rebirth of ‘postcapitalist society’

Like most other post-prefix terms, the idea of ‘post-capitalist society’ originally appeared in a range of different guises, from the social-democratic vision of Anthony Crosland (1951, 1956) to the decidedly non-socialist expectations of Peter Drucker (1994). Yet Crosland’s attempt to outline a programmatic theory for the UK’s post-war Labour Party set the keynote of this ideological trend, within which George Lichtheim’s ‘post-bourgeois’ and Daniel Bell’s ‘post-industrial’ ideas also more or less fit. That trend lost steam with the global economic turbulence of the 1970s and the ‘neoliberal’ ascendancy that followed, which asserted that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism. From about 2005, however, and especially after the 2007–08 crisis, a new ‘post-capitalist’ discourse has re-emerged. This version appears more radically left wing than that of post-World War II social democrats such as Crosland. If the first version suggested that mid-twentieth-century society was no longer distinctly capitalist because it was already morphing into something else (some kind of statist ‘social market’ regime), the latest version clearly identifies and assails contemporary capitalism, seeking to surpass it in a new and different socialized order yet to come. The two different meanings highlight the ambiguity of post-concepts, which can suggest either a successor phenomenon built on (or growing out of) something given and familiar, or a strikingly new phenomenon that breaks decisively from a prior order of things.


Among post-constructions, the notion of ‘postcapitalist’ society may be unusual – first, because the way of looking at mid-twentieth-century social reality it implied was more widespread than the number of its explicit uses would suggest, and second, because the idea clearly died away by the end of the twentieth century only to be reborn in the second decade of the twenty-first. The term ‘postcapitalist society’ had been used by a few European writers in the 1950s (particularly Anthony Crosland in Britain and Ralf Dahrendorf in Germany) and at best very rarely, or sceptically, in the United States. Nonetheless, the general mode of thought I call ‘the postcapitalist vision’ held sway among significant US social theorists and political observers for a few decades after World War II, whether they said so or not.1 That sway persisted, paradoxically, precisely in the age that we have come retrospectively to call ‘the golden age of capitalism’, 1945–75, the ‘Glorious Thirty’ years of boom. It was after the ‘golden age’ that this post-construction faded from view, especially as the end of the Cold War ushered in a triumphalist spirit regarding capitalism itself to be permanent and unalterable. The post-construction’s second birth since around 2010 has recapitulated some features of mid-twentieth-century postcapitalist discourse while also significantly altering its tenor.

This much should be obvious about a ‘post-prefix’ term: it can never be understood apart from the name of the existent phenomenon it presumes to have surpassed, and a good deal of the fascination with and perplexity aroused by post-constructions stems from the uncertain definition of the root term itself. A great part of what makes ‘postmodern’ so elusive a concept lies in the vague and varied meanings of ‘the modern’. So it goes with ‘capitalism’, whose origins and history of usages pose a preliminary puzzle.

Mainstream observers of social and economic affairs in the industrializing West did not always easily embrace the term ‘capitalism’, and even dissenters were slow to embrace it. In nineteenth-century America, early workers’ protests decried the depredations of lordly ‘capitalists’ but did not necessarily define the existing order of things by the noun ‘capitalism’. Marx himself, though he described the mechanisms of ‘capitalistic accumulation’, preferred the term ‘bourgeois society’ to ‘capitalism’. Nevertheless, once the practices of the capitalist became generalized as ‘capitalism’, the negative connotations suggested by these protest traditions made the term anathema to those who defended the status quo and considered the economic and social norms of the day merely the product of social evolution, the outcome of progress, or better yet, the revelation of natural ‘principles of political economy’. In 1883, William Graham Sumner sneered at those who ‘have been found to denounce and deride the modern system – what they call the capitalist system’. The scholarly eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911, lacked an entry on ‘capitalism’, and devoted less space to defining the economic category of ‘capital’ (considered a universal, i.e., the savings or reserve fund that all human societies relied upon) than it did to the variety of ‘capitals’ that topped architectural columns.2

The term gained wider acceptance in the social sciences in turn-of-the-century work by the ‘younger’ German historical economists-cum-sociologists, Werner Sombart and Max Weber, and then by the 1920s in French-language historiography (work by Henri Pirenne and followers) as well as Anglo-American social thought. By 1930, marking the distance travelled since the eleventh Britannica, volume III of the New York-based Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences featured a thirteen-page double-columned essay on capitalism by Sombart himself.3 Of course, only when ‘capitalism’ seemed in this fashion to designate a real phenomenon was it possible for some social theorists to imagine its supersession in a ‘postcapitalist’ (NB: not ‘socialist’) order.

The new-found respectability of ‘capitalism’ in academic circles (though not, for the most part, among economists, who still had little use for it) did not have a great effect on common usage. To be sure, a few business publications used the term in the 1920s, and some exponents of the business-community Right employed it in the 1940s and 1950s, but alternative phrases such as ‘free enterprise’ still held pre-eminence for much of the twentieth century.4 Joseph Schumpeter and John Kenneth Galbraith felt comfortable with the term, but ‘capitalism’ in the vernacular retained its hint of animosity. Viewed from the Left, avoidance of the term thus always appeared to be an exercise in euphemism, as if it were necessary to deny that the going system bore the exploitative and inegalitarian marks many people had learned to associate with capitalism. Thus, when Forbes magazine began advertising itself in the 1970s as ‘Capitalist Tool’, it did so to poke fun at the revived leftist rhetoric of the 1960s while assuming a brash, unapologetic demeanour. Forbes set a new tone: by the 1990s the system’s defenders showed no embarrassment in using the name.5

Here was the paradox: although generally avoided by defenders in the late nineteenth century because it was deemed unnecessary (or obnoxious) to give a distinctive name to something that right-minded people considered simply the natural condition of the economic world – for if it were acknowledged as something historical, as having arisen in time, it could pass away in time as well – by the 1990s it was possible both to name the capitalist phenomenon and claim its permanence at the same time. Moreover, the now-ubiquitous habit (on both Right and Left) of judging contemporary society ‘capitalist’ meant that by this time the postcapitalist vision, which had judged the present to be a drawn-out transition beyond simple capitalist norms, had for all intents and purposes vacated the scene. I date the end of its first run in Western social thought to the 1970s.

Discerning the postcapitalist vision

The keynote for the current I see in the mid twentieth century came from Western Europe in the 1950s, though as we will see its origins can be traced back roughly to the era of World War I. In post-World War II Britain, Anthony Crosland, intellectual leader of the Labour Party’s ‘new right’, described the emergence of ‘postcapitalist society’, confident that a new ‘statist’ order – decidedly not a ‘socialist’ order yet – had displaced ‘capitalism’. Given partial nationalizations and a substantial measure of social provision, Crosland saw an end to ‘the absolute autonomy of economic life’. Furthermore, he wrote, ‘the dominant emphasis ceases to be on the rights of property, private initiative, competition, and the profit motive; and is transferred to the duties of the state, social and economic security, and the virtues of cooperative action’. ‘Postcapitalist society’ was also adopted by the German liberal Ralf Dahrendorf, for whom the separation of ownership and control in the corporation as well as the proliferation of public bureaucracies meant that ‘capital – and thereby capitalism – has dissolved and given way, in the economic sphere, to a plurality of partly agreed, partly competing, and partly simply different groups’.6

In Western Europe, the demands and the promise of reconstruction fostered hope for a new world dawning, as the political left gained new-found strength from the defeat of Europe’s far right and the accompanying embarrassment of its conservatives. I aim to demonstrate that a ‘postcapitalist’ reformist current appeared in American no less than European thought and that even those less bold than Crosland and Dahrendorf in naming a new order can reasonably be included among its adherents or proponents. In fact, both Crosland and Dahrendorf called upon some prominent figures of American social thought in making their arguments, and they regarded the trends they cited as marks of America’s future too. For their part, American liberals at war’s end were also conscious of witnessing some kind of epochal renewal, as they looked across the Atlantic at left-leaning political developments and as they contemplated the near future in a society coming to terms with a raft of recent (New Deal) welfare-state legislation and a central state seemingly empowered by the demands of war mobilization. Arthur Schlesinger wrote in 1949, ‘Britain has already submitted itself to social democracy … and the United States will very likely advance in that direction through a series of New Deals.’7

Amidst such expectations, we can recognize in American intellectual life a particular way of looking at contemporary Western societies and their logic of development – a postcapitalist vision – that held some sway among intellectuals mainly in the left-liberal orbit, though it cannot be said to dominate either academic life or popular consciousness. It advanced one or more of the following, related arguments: that these societies were no longer adequately understood as ‘capitalist’, were witnessing the steady decline in the social salience of capitalist institutions, or had moved beyond the characteristic structures and processes of capitalism. Those who made the last (boldest) claim – that Western society had passed a boundary beyond capitalism or was about to – cited various markers of change: the appearance of new institutional forms for organizing enterprise that were not entirely ‘private’; the rise of the regulatory state that increasingly limited the sway of market mechanisms and ultimately deprived them of the power to determine social affairs; the role played in motivating social change by noneconomic forces such as the scientific estate, organized knowledge or egalitarian values of civic inclusion, participation and social provision; the apparently collectivizing impact of advanced technology; and perhaps the waning of economics as the privileged sphere of social action and analytical understanding.

The idea that capitalism was obsolescent filtered through post-war intellectual culture in various ways. Writing in an American magazine in 1953 on the alpine sanitorium, the Berghof, depicted in his 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann cast ‘capitalism’ – in fullest health identified with an old bourgeois way of life – as a fading order:

Such institutions as the Berghof were a typical pre-war [World War I] phenomenon. They were only possible in a capitalistic economy that was still functioning well and normally. Only under such a system was it possible for patients to remain there year after year at the family’s expense. The Magic Mountain became the swan song of that form of existence.8

Americans, too, thought ‘capitalism’ no longer adequate for understanding the forms modern society was taking at mid-century – that a ‘normal’ capitalism, as Mann put it, no longer existed. The leading sociologist of the day, Talcott Parsons had begun his career in the 1920s fascinated by Sombart’s and Weber’s work on the nature of capitalism, and he declared that understanding ‘capitalism as a social system’ was the key to building a modern social science – precisely because that concept rightly construed modern society as an integrated order of institutions, beyond the level of individual, rational choice posited by the old-fashioned social theory of Anglo-American economics. Yet, by the early 1940s, Parsons had concluded that ‘the capitalism/socialism dichotomy’ no longer applied, for American society was not simply capitalist, and in certain profound ways – bound to grow in significance as time went on – had already surpassed the norms of capitalism.9

Immediately, it is clear that such ‘postcapitalist’ views dealt both with conceptual issues (whether the concept of ‘capitalism’ was defined precisely enough to be analytically useful) and with empirical judgements of contemporary social change. These two dimensions could hardly be disengaged. Definitions had always been problematic and never resolved into a clear consensus. From the start, observers had debated whether capitalism was defined primarily by the norms of ‘economic individualism’ (self-interest in the pursuit of wealth, freed of limiting, communal norms); by the social and geographic expansion of market exchange; by a policy of laissez-faire (essentially autonomous markets) or by the monopolistic practices of great financiers (‘capitalists’); by the perpetual accumulation of private wealth in the form of capital, based on the generalization of wage labour; or by an attitude toward accumulation and an associated behavioural disposition (Geist, spirit, or ‘ethic’, as Weber and Sombart proposed). Uncertainty over how to apply the term only grew as post-war writers perceived one or another of these defining traits to be altered or undermined by reforms of the mid twentieth century: a boost in state intervention that either manipulated the market through fiscal (Keynesian) means or limited its operations in certain respects by regulation; changes in the meaning of private property as capital ownership apparently moved its base from individuals and families to corporate organization; and reorganization of occupational groups, such as the rise of professional and technical ranks that fit easily into neither bourgeois nor proletarian (wage-labour) classifications.

Given such intertwined theoretical and empirical concerns, one mode of argument addressed the scope of the concept, capitalism: if it were agreed that capitalism defined an economic system, did it make sense to name a whole society ‘capitalist’, or did such a designation prejudge (and perhaps misjudge) the relative weight of different elements – besides the economic sphere, the political, cultural, familial and psychological aspects that make up a complex social order? Empirical observers wondered whether the mechanisms of capitalism – let us say, accumulation of profit in private hands by means of competitive enterprise acting in an open market – any longer dominated social life as they once had. In this mode of the postcapitalist vision, then, doubts about the analytical adequacy of the concept specifically questioned the centrality of capitalism in contemporary society.

The new mood in social analysis also entailed questions about the distinctiveness of capitalism. Writers at mid-century might show some hesitation in using the term ‘capitalism’ as if they were perplexed about the proper terms of social criticism in the contemporary world. William J. Goode of Columbia University, who defined himself as a ‘critical sociologist’ influenced by the example of radical iconoclast C. Wright Mills, referred in passing to ‘the capitalist use (for the modern scene, read “industrial use”) of machinery’ – as if the limited case of capitalism no longer sufficed as a target of social polemic.10 Goode did not fully explain his substitution, which might have implied either that the ‘modern scene’ had somehow surpassed capitalism, or simply that the modern scene included communist or social-democratic regimes whose industrial machinery bore much the same consequences as the capitalist use of it did. If, however, capitalist societies seemed less distinctive to some observers ready to widen the target of their criticism, capitalism appeared to some others as more indistinct, blurred both by ‘mixed’ systems or by prospects for ‘convergence’ of capitalist and anticapitalist orders on some new, third term. The idea of a ‘mixed economy’ often meant more than a homeopathic dose of government regulation in a private market economy, but rather an admixture of features that created something new: even the hard-nosed realist of French sociology, Raymond Aron, wrote in 1954, with reference to the post-war order encompassing regulation, state enterprises and limited planning, that ‘socialism has ceased in the West to be a myth because it has become a part of reality’.11

The postcapitalist vision was not a socialist one, though its genealogy owed something to styles of socialist thought typically known as ‘revisionist’ in the early twentieth century, associated with the ‘evolutionary’ perspectives of the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein. The kind of gradualism signalled by Bernstein’s notion of capitalism ‘growing over into’ socialism – opposed to the expectation of a critical revolutionary break between the old order and new – lent to the postcapitalist vision its characteristic understanding of change: that the present marked a transitional moment where no clear divisions or boundaries were marked. This notion of a very porous boundary may make this post-construction different from others that emphasize the notion of a decisive shift beyond an old category. The conception of change signalled by the postcapitalist vision had been suggested earlier in the twentieth century by the grand old man of French social democracy, Jean Jaurès: moderns, he wrote, would experience the advent of socialism as navigators ‘crossed the line of a hemisphere – not that they have been able to see as they crossed it a cord stretched over the ocean warning them of their passage, but that little by little they have been led into a new hemisphere by the progress of their ship’.12 Latter-day socialists might still hold forth such a vision. A visiting Polish lecturer told American students in 1960 that ‘socialism is not a system based on opposition to capitalism and separated from capitalism by a clear line of distinction, but a method of steady improvement and progress in a democratic, industrial nation’, something to grow out of Western welfare states in time. Most postcapitalist theorists, less certain of naming the result, nonetheless borrowed this developmental imagination: gradual changes in degree could usher in world-shifting transformations barely sensed until they had come to pass. Social change was persistent, perpetually reinventing society, tending to elude old labels and old practices.

Yet, precisely because of the subtle and elusive character of change, what I call the postcapitalist vision was also characterized by a great deal of ambivalence and uncertainty, a characteristic hesitancy that resulted at times in apparent self-contradiction. Even the boldest advocate of an explicit ‘postcapitalist’ interpretation, Anthony Crosland, seemed on occasion to undercut his own claims: as the British Labourite reviewed the tasks of socialist politics in the 1950s, he noted that ‘since [the 1930s], alas, the mischievous enemy [capitalism] has retreated, and gone into disguise as well’.13 Was it part of ‘postcapitalist’ theory to assert that capitalism had both surrendered to a successor regime – some kind of state-directed quasi-social economy – and yet still held the stage in a ‘disguised’ form? It was as if contemporary social structure, for the postcapitalist theorist, was a kind of shape-shifter, appearing at one moment as an updated form of modern capitalism and at another as a new-fangled order where private property, markets, business cycles, bourgeois prestige, class inequality and the like had lost their determinant force in social relations. Here, at least, there appears linkage with another, somewhat later post-construction: self-conscious proponents of ‘postmodernism’ would erect a principle of ‘uncertainty, an insecurity, a doubt’ at the heart of that sensibility.14 Indeed, liberal social analysts at mid-century had already adopted a posture of measured scepticism about even their own definitions of the going system and its future. Nonetheless, for most advocates of the postcapitalist vision – imagining a future difficult to name except in relation to what it moved beyond – their scepticism or modesty regarding the name of the emergent order was linked to a remarkable progressive confidence in some sort of evolution toward a ‘social economy’ or a society that had moved past the unalloyed supremacy of markets and private wealth.

The postcapitalist vision, then, was a rather capacious mode of discourse. A fair number of American scholars and intellectuals from the 1940s to the 1960s were prepared to believe that American society had moved, was moving, or would soon move beyond the boundaries of capitalism as such. Some others, who were reluctant to make such a strong claim, would still affirm that they were witnessing the steady reduction in the salience of such distinctively capitalist institutions as the private corporation, a diminution in the scope of market processes (and the expansion of a social sphere of public goods, collective resources, and welfare provision), and hence a decline in the centrality or privileged status of economics. Even those social and political critics who saw the new shape of post-war society and politics as a matter more threatening than promising – those who perceived a new, centralized state having ominous powers of war-making and social control – were inclined to credit some kind of recent sea-change in the structure of social life, a move beyond old capitalist standards of market autonomy and class conflict to the highly organized order of a politically managed economy. For them, the new stage of social development called for a new kind of opposition no longer wedded to an old left-wing critique of capitalism. By no means do I propose the postcapitalist vision as the main current or the sum total of American social thought in this period. It was largely limited to left-liberal intellectuals and some of their more radical critics. Yet this vision constituted one of the prevalent moods among post-war Western intellectuals. A sense that something dramatic about contemporary social structure had changed in recent years typically trumped alternative and more traditional left-wing arguments that the lineaments of bourgeois society had survived intact the constant alterations of modernity and the stresses of twentieth-century wars and depressions. As a matter of positioning, advocates of a postcapitalist vision certainly set themselves off from orthodox Marxists and communists.

A rough notion of genealogy provides the best way to conceive the long linkages constituting the postcapitalist vision over the broad middle of the twentieth century – beginning already in fact by the end of the century’s first quarter. Constructed in retrospect in terms of descent, the postcapitalist vision appears as the sum of a limited set of themes, motifs, terms, expectations and arguments handed down in time from one intellectual cohort to another – at each step replicated, deployed in new ways, or reshuffled, recast and supplemented by new additions. This set included characteristic notions regarding the changing nature of economic organization and of property, ‘silent revolutions’ transforming the old order, the cultural malady of competitive individualism and the expanding scope of social solidarity, the decay of ruling classes, the emergence of new forces of productivity and new motives to economic dynamism, the perpetual reinvention of modernity, a break with economistic standards of public policy and of conceiving social order, the declining imperatives of scarcity, and the coming centrality of social rights in the definition of citizenship.

Such arguments appeared in the early work of Walter Lippmann, who wrote in 1914 that the separation of ownership from management in the great corporation meant that ‘most of the rights of property [have] already disappeared’ and the time was ‘sure to come when the government will be operating the basic industries’.15 Meanwhile, Lippmann’s superior at the New Republic Herbert Croly forecast ‘the day … when citizens can forget the economic aspects of life’ as society moved beyond ‘a fear economy’.16 The institutional economist Rexford Tugwell, who promoted the virtues of ‘planning’ industrial development in order to avoid gross social disruptions and uphold standards of human welfare, regarded such terms as ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ as nothing more than reifications of theoretical notions that mistook the actual fluidity of social reality. Anthropologists and psychologists in the 1930s saw the capitalist, competitive individualist drive toward ‘success’ as pathological, so that the post-war observer David Riesman could welcome what he perceived as the ongoing demise of the ‘inner-directed’ man and the rise of non-pecuniary motivations and more collaborative work styles. Very much part of this perception of a mid-century value shift was Talcott Parsons’ view that the real locus of social analysis in the future had to focus on phenomena that political economy per se couldn’t understand: namely, the phenomena of socialization whereby cultural norms became ‘internalized’ to shape the personality for social roles. In the late 1940s, as he led the reorganization of Harvard’s social sciences in the creation of a new interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations – combining sociology, cultural anthropology and social psychology – he celebrated what he called the coming ‘shift of emphasis away from economics’ both in the priority of the disciplines and in the nature of social reality.17

A broad sense of passing a boundary infected observers in other quarters as well. In The Church and Contemporary Change (1950), Methodist bishop G. Bromley Oxnam wrote that the present generation was witnessing ‘a new beginning … as significant as was the passage from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism’.18 More modestly but still suggestively, political scientists Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom in 1953 argued that Western societies now featured plural forms of property and enterprise – from the private corporation to the regulated utility, the public authority under tripartite governing boards, cooperatives, national health services, and so forth, all ‘attest[ing] the inventiveness of our times’ and dooming the relevance of old ‘isms’ such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’.19

Within this general field of social thought, particular arguments or phrases echoed each other uncannily all the way from roughly 1914 through the 1950s and 1960s. Along the way, events variously quickened or chastened the reformist spirit of the times, and visions of a new order came forth boldly or modestly, depending on circumstances. Indeed, a telling shift occurred almost exactly at the mid-century point in close association with the onset of the Cold War, which played a complex, even paradoxical role in shaping the postcapitalist vision. Emerging as it did from late-Progressive and interwar reformist currents, that vision did not originate in a euphemistic defence of American life against Soviet broadsides or against radical critics at home whose critique of capitalism was deemed subversive under the lowering cloud of McCarthyism – though its arguments were not infrequently deployed for such ends. There was an elective affinity between the postcapitalist vision and pro-Western Cold War polemics, facilitated by the fact that the reformist heritage that gave rise to it had always been non-revolutionary and largely anti-communist. The remarkable feature of that time was not that the Cold War fostered postcapitalist thought, but rather that the Cold War’s conservative imperatives left much room at all for a reformist view that looked forward to a major transformation, however smoothly it glided across Jaurès’s hemispheric line, in the social and economic ways of bourgeois order. The onset of the Cold War no doubt dampened and modulated the grandest hopes of reform that flourished in Europe and the United States right at the end of the war against fascism. As a result, the vision of postcapitalist reform grew more subdued, even fugitive. Yet it survived to flourish again in the 1960s.

In many ways, the closely aligned notion of ‘postindustrial society’ marked the culmination of the mid-century postcapitalist vision. At its inception in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the core of postindustrialism lay in the notion that economic dynamics as traditionally understood – namely the primacy of market exchange and economic calculation in terms of efficient allocation – were giving way to new principles of organization as social development came to depend more on ‘social goods’, notably science and higher education. Postindustrial advocates tended to assume that since productivity gains now relied on scientific knowledge and scientifically trained workers, public funding of research and education became the central motive force of economic development, calling forth a more socialized order. Daniel Bell, who long insisted that postindustrial society did not mean ‘postcapitalist’ society, nonetheless claimed that the university as a public resource would replace the corporation as the central institution of postindustrial society.20 This order was to be government-centred, future-oriented and dependent on planning the cultivation of knowledge and expertise in terms of social needs rather than (solely) old economic norms of efficiency.

Meanwhile, Columbia University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, in a 1968 book dedicated to his radical students in New York and Berkeley, described what he called an ‘active society’, reforming itself in order to approximate more closely its most cherished ideals of equality, liberty and belonging. Such ongoing processes grew from the prevalence of self-conscious individuals with flexible ego boundaries who were open to change and fellowship (another echo of the interwar social-psychological critique of competitive individualism), and from the growing capacities of centralized government to control resource use and social development. According to Etzioni, particularistic economic interests were bound to play ever less of a role in governance, and the trend of the future moved toward declining inequalities of wealth and income as bounds of inclusion in social citizenship widened.21

It is perhaps ironic that the theory of postindustrial society – replete with its connotations of an increasingly social economy – reached its widest audience in the 1970s, just as the postcapitalist vision was entering a precipitous decline. Bell’s major work, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society appeared in 1973, followed three years later by The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Critics at the time asked (sometimes jeeringly) why ‘capitalism’ now came back into focus as an object of analysis. Bell protested that the second book represented no shift, no surrender of his postindustrial theory, since the two publications were really companion volumes, both drawn from a common manuscript drafted in 1969. I have argued elsewhere that the moods of the two books indeed fit as part of a whole, though profoundly ambivalent, perspective on modernity.

Yet Bell’s decision to dwell a bit on the concept of ‘capitalism’ at this time said a great deal. In the spirit of the reformist age of the post-war years, Bell still regarded capitalism as a decadent system, though its lingering standards and consequences (viz., an acquisitive consumer ethos that eroded obligations to the commonweal) might prove to be the spoiler obstructing or aborting the hoped-for postindustrial transition.22 In this sense, recognition of the limits or inhibitions of profound social-structural change spelled trouble in the field of postcapitalist vision. The deepening of economic crisis in the 1970s helped accelerate the waning of that vision, not so much because the postcapitalist vision depended on growth but because the most severe recession since World War II made crystal clear how recalcitrant the economic realm remained and how mistaken Crosland and others had been in asserting its autonomy had ended. The tendency of Talcott Parsons’ ‘new social sciences’ to trumpet their ascendancy and promote a noneconomic concept of civil society was embattled by a revival of political economy, a reassertion that matters of property, wealth, and exchange, economic development, inequality, and the uses of power, stood close to the centre of social structure. This revival appeared both on the Left, in the renewal of academic Marxism, and on the Right in the return of new varieties of Smithian market ideology. Needless to say, the shift back, away from the post-war liberal noneconomic concept of society, was accompanied by a rapid decline in confidence that Western society had already entered a transitional phase of development leading beyond capitalism. In the wake of the 1970s crisis, commencing a policy shift toward deregulation, privatization and open market practices, it became increasingly commonplace and unobjectionable to recognize Western society as capitalist indeed. And by the 1990s, with the ‘end of the Cold War’, liberal and conservative prophets both claimed that this order was interminably fixed in place.

The new postcapitalism

A few years before the 2008 financial collapse, I wrote: ‘The present peculiar conjunction of naming [capitalism] and claiming permanence [for it] may pass … as the triumphalist post-cold war mood of the booming 1990s fades from memory, as more familiar patterns of conflicting interests return, and as capitalist development continues to incite speculation about the course of change.’23 That is to say, ‘postcapitalist’ visions could very well revive. Indeed now in the past ten years, this ‘post-’ term has re-emerged in a flurry of new publications with titles such as Does Capitalism Have a Future?, How Will Capitalism End?, and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. The Nation magazine devoted a special issue in 2017 to the theme of getting ‘out from under capitalism’.24 Among all these, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future gained a good deal of attention as an engaging, forceful argument that another world is not only possible but indeed in the offing.25

Most immediately striking in this new crop is precisely the common attempt to reawaken a future-orientation deemed oppositional to that sensibility we might identify with Margaret Thatcher and with Francis Fukuyama of 1992: ‘there is no alternative’ to the culminating ‘end of history’ identified with free-market capitalism.26 These new works are generally on the Left – and compared to the mid-century vision, more radically so. That is to say, this ‘new’ postcapitalism is more self-consciously oppositional to the existing social conditions. Although Paul Mason and James Livingston (in No More Work), as in the older vision, describe trends that are immanent and emergent, occurring all around us in the present, the new postcapitalism makes clearer that the envisioned future will be, in some fashion, profoundly at odds with inherited capitalist norms.27 This postcapitalist vision, then, is more decidedly anticapitalist: rather than the coming postcapitalist order understood as an evolutionary product of the uncertainly ‘capitalist’ character of today, it is in some fashion about the ‘supplanting of capitalism’.28 By and large, these works are more willing than were the mid-century social liberals to tap a Marxian critique of capitalism. Still, the designation ‘postcapitalist’, much like in the mid-century tradition, connotes some measure of uncertainty regarding the character of what comes ‘after’ – or at least its use suggests that these authors typically find older definitions of ‘socialism’ unhelpful in describing the future they anticipate. Clearly, they all have dispensed with any notion of a clear teleology of the sort typically tied to a ‘vulgar’ Marxist ‘determinism’. Peter Frase, in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, employs ‘postcapitalist’ primarily in the sense of anything that might come after the ‘end of capitalism,’ marking out several alternative futures of various desirable or injurious outcomes.29 For others, ‘postcapitalist’ implies more definitely some kind of egalitarian, quasi-collectivized order that can be imagined as a break from, and passage beyond, the class-differentiated market model of privatized exchange and profit accumulation. The preference for ‘postcapitalist’ thus signals some combination of these two postulates: the coming order will not replicate anything like the centralized, command-economy of the Soviet (or other early socialist ‘planning’) model, and the anticipated future entails a rather prolonged process of change, experimentation and institution-building not really conceivable as insurrectionary revolution or new state-building.

For more detail on this new postcapitalist vision, compared with the old, let us turn to look at Paul Mason’s in particular. Hidden in today’s information technology and ‘networked’ knowledge, Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production surpassing the price system of bourgeois markets, a transition made absolutely imperative in our time by the coming, combined threats of climate disaster, aging populations and the gargantuan growth-killing overhang of debt the world over. The great crisis of 2007–08 and its enduring effects have not only demonstrated the failure of the ‘neoliberal’ project of the 1980s and 1990s (that is, the construction of an unbridled free-trade, low-wage and financialized order) but also provided a hint of further trends eating away at the old mechanisms of market society. Neoliberalism, that is, proved unable to build a viable growth engine on the basis of our time’s new technology (‘info-tech’), for the networked, digital world cannot be assimilated to the cost-accounting methods and value-added processes of capitalism. Digitized, networked knowledge is so shareable and enduring that its ‘marginal cost’ tends toward zero.30 The value of goods and services built by digital means thus steadily declines – despite the attempts of new monopolists (Apple, etc.) to prop them up by enforcing intellectual property rights. The motor of capital accumulation peters out.

The neoliberal employers’ offensive was successful, however, in rendering the working class and the old labour movement almost entirely atomized, having no prospects of assuming a vanguard role in social change. But no worry: the productive force of info-tech itself already bears within it the incubus and proponents of a new order. Not only does info-tech’s potential for skyrocketing productivity and cost reductions make available an abundance of ‘free stuff’, but the behavioural models of shared knowledge, collaborative creativity, and casual attitudes that ‘blur’ the boundaries of work and leisure point the way forward. The ‘networked’ generation of the young who are accustomed to mobile connectivity, Mason writes, expects lots of ‘free stuff’ (why should cost-free file-sharing of pop music be prohibited?) and they act productively for the sake of the work without pay (viz., the power of Wikipedia’s contributors, or the computer geeks who make modular improvements to ‘open source’ software). New models of ‘peer-to-peer’ exchanges and services outside the marketplace, cooperative workshops, and the collective provisioning that emerged in popular insurgent movements like the urban assemblies that protested neoliberalism from Greece to Spain to Turkey (and more modestly in Occupy Wall Street in the United States) early in the 2010s. These forces will goad government and business to make way, as we embark on the postcapitalist ‘project’, for a long, gradual shift to a new mode that will increasingly displace the marketplace, private productive property, and compulsive profit-making.

Mason’s history of capitalist development as well as his crisis-oriented analysis offers a sharp contrast to the confident, gradual evolutionism of the old postcapitalism. Yet much of his argument is also all too familiar. His claims regarding the immanent transformative effect of info-tech echo not only Walter Lippmann’s 1914 claim that ‘a silent revolution is in progress’ as corporate combination ‘is sucking the life out of private property’ but also the original ‘postindustrial’ claim that a shift away from market absolutes stemmed from the inevitably public good of knowledge. Moreover, the debate over ‘automation’ (the term coined in the early 1950s to refer to computer-controlled continuous-flow production processes capable of displacing great amounts of living labour) arose in the early 1960s to make many of the same arguments that Mason and other ‘end-of-work’ theorists offer today: the prospect of mass redundancy meant either a social disaster of mounting, permanent unemployment (and coercive means of controlling a superfluous underclass) or, more promisingly, the radical reduction of the work week and a break between work and wage accomplished by a publicly provided basic income.

Clearly, however, no automatic mechanism of social reason came to play in the late twentieth century to meet productivity gains with scaling back labour and building new means of social provision. Despite the ‘post-industrial’ confidence that knowledge resources could not be commodified, business, legislatures and courts have managed to go rather far in that direction, even if Mason is correct that the intellectual-property regime is in the long run a losing battle against the free flow of tech knowledge. Along with Mason’s fond optimism that info-tech is by nature the incubus of a new society, he counts on the modes of ‘spontaneous’ collectivity and collaboration evident in the worldwide protests of 2010–13 (all too evanescent, in fact) as the source of social energy: ‘The 99 per cent are coming to the rescue,’ he states simply in the book’s next-to-last line. ‘Postcapitalism will set you free’, is the last.

Would that it were so. But the key elements of the old socialist and labour movements that Mason leaves behind as putatively obsolete represent precisely the kind of thing we need to think much harder about in imagining ‘transition’ – and that is, what new forces of solidarity (agents who imagine collectivity and act to realize it as an alternative to illusory, marketized individualism) and organization (a base for persistent, long-run and vision-driven agitation) can be built in our time to put his kind of ‘postcapitalist project’ into effect, in opposition to the terribly powerful forces we know are arrayed against that project. For it isn’t at all clear that the ninety-nine per cent of networked millennials ‘spontaneously’ generate those forces. The new postcapitalist speculation, which I am prepared to welcome, still needs, in addition to forecasts like Mason’s, a hard-headed new politics of social movements and new strategies of mobilization for change – some practical picture of and preparation for the struggles to come that could, under some sort of conditions, take us from here to there.


1 Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
2 William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1952), p. 56; ‘Capital’, Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edn, new form, vols 5 and 6, p. 278.
3 Werner Sombart, ‘Capitalism’, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 3 (New York: Macmillan, 1930), pp. 195–208.
4 James Warren Prothro, The Dollar Decade: Business Ideas in the 1920’s (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1954), pp. xiv–xv, 216, 219, 225, 232; Francis X. Sutton, The American Business Creed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 28, 32, 46; Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 99, 224.
5 The slogan, ‘Forbes: capitalist tool’, appeared in occasional double-page ads in the magazine (to recruit new subscribers) starting January 1967. It appeared regularly from November 1976, and by February 1980, it became a registered trademark.
6 Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: J. Cape, 1956); Crosland, ‘The Transition from Capitalism’, in R. H. S. Crossman (ed.), New Fabian Essays (New York: Praeger, 1952), p. 42; Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 261.
7 Schlesinger, quoted in Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 151–2, ellipses added.
8 Thomas Mann, ‘The Making of The Magic Mountain’, Atlantic Monthly (1953), reprinted in Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage, 1969), p. 719.
9 Talcott Parsons, ‘“Capitalism” in Recent German Literature: Sombart and Weber’, Journal of Political Economy, 36 (1928), 641–4; and ‘“Capitalism” in Recent German Literature: Sombart and Weber – Concluded’, Journal of Political Economy, 37 (1929), 31–51; Parsons, ‘On Building Social System Theory: A Personal History’, Daedalus, 99 (1970), 838, 852, 858.
10 William Josiah Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns ([New York]: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), p. 16.
11 Raymond Aron, The Century of Total War (London: Verschoyle, 1954), p. 355, quoted in Crosland, Future of Socialism, p. 63.
12 Jean Jaurès, quoted in Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 18.
13 Crosland, Future of Socialism, p. 5.
14 Judith Stacey, Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century America (New York: Basic Books, 1990), p. 17.
15 Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest (New York: M. Kennerley, 1914), pp. 36, 51, 57–8.
16 David W. Levy, Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 171, ellipsis added.
17 Brick, Transcending Capitalism, pp. 65–73, 108–14, 135–45, 172–80.
18 G. Bromley Oxnam, The Church and Contemporary Change (New York: Macmillan, 1950), quoted in Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 38, ellipsis added.
19 Robert A. Dahl and Charles Edward Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), pp. 4–5, 7, 16, 46.
20 Daniel Bell, ‘The Post-Industrial Society’, in Eli Ginsberg (ed.), Technology and Social Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), pp. 44–59.
21 Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes (London, New York: Collier-Macmillan; Free Press, 1968), pp. 198, 211, 516, 528.
22 Howard Brick, Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 199–210.
23 Brick, Transcending Capitalism, pp. 269–70, ellipsis added.
24 Immanuel Wallerstein et al., Does Capitalism Have a Future? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015); Nation 304: 16 (22/29 May 2017).
25 Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
26 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
27 James Livingston, No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
28 Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, p. 75.
29 Peter Frase, Four Futures: Visions of the World after Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2016).
30 Mason, Postcapitalism, p. 115.
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An intellectual history of post-concepts


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