In my recent piece Das Kapital, I talked about how it is useful to see capitalism as an epistemology rather than merely a socio-economic system. In this light, capitalism can be seen as a structure of values centered on markets and money, which leaves altruistic, long-term, and (non-quantifiable) sentimental values to the side. In terms of (at least European) history, the emergence of capitalism from an economic perspective is reasonably easy to trace. On the other hand, what’s not so clear is articulating why it is different from what came before. After all, greed isn’t exactly a recent development as a human motivation, nor is commercial activity a new practice.
What was new is the attitude about such things and the way in which those who practice trade/commerce/entrepreneurship/finance have been regarded by their fellows.
The gist of Hirschman’s argument is that in the aftermath of the religious wars which raged across Europe in the 16-18C, shifting human mentality away from the profound and disruptive religious passions towards the (seemingly) ordered, measurable “interests” in a prosperous life here in earth. Thus, (what we have come to call) capitalism was seen as an improvement, as a path forward out of the thicket of contending religious beliefs. It was cleaner, more rational, and much less deadly.
This is an “intellectual history” sort of framing. A more “cultural history” perspective would emphasize the declining authority of Christianity, riven by the Reformation, in which a host of Protestant sects challenged the incumbent Catholic church and whose ongoing debates (and wars) sapped the attention and energy of most of Europe’s principal political, religious, and intellectual elites into a closed competitive environment. Those seeking a way out, inspired by the “scientific revolution,” had to craft a way of looking at the world without the lens of religion. Turning people’s attention towards money seemed like a good way to go; even if that meant pushing aside traditional Christian disparagement of wealth (“It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”) and condemnation of usury.
All this, as a matter of historical analysis is, of course, without moral judgment. We historians try to describe what happened at a particular time and place without importing the values of the present day or the awareness of what happened after.
The 18C writers that Hirschman talked about didn’t spend much time addressing the risks/downsides of their suggestion. It’s not likely that they foresaw the extent of their triumph: the relegation of religion to a contained sideline in human affairs, the globalization of their impact, and the all-consuming “passions” that the pursuit of their “interests” ultimately engendered. Regardless of what they foresaw, it’s certainly not fair to blame them for what we have done with their suggestion that people think a bit differently (no more than it’s fair to blame Marx for Lenin or Stalin or Jesus for the Crusades). Indeed, it’s a rare idea or philosophy that, valid and useful in its own right, can’t easily be taken to excess.
Now that “capitalism” has had a good run of two or three centuries, it would be surprising if it hasn’t gone a bit “off the rails.” We’ve learned a great deal about its limits and abuses. The world has changed (partially as a result of the dominant capitalistic outlook). And, to a considerable extent, the elevation of (average) human living conditions is so far beyond what anyone in the 18C likely imagined, that we should consider values and perspectives that have been left on the wayside in the meantime. I have spent no little time taking about the real costs of treating the planet as a “free” resource from which we can take valuable stuff “off-book.” Similarly, this past summer, I talked about the dramatic disparities in wealth both within countries and globally. There are legions of thinkers who have decried modern capitalism for its damage to “human” values, whether in terms of aesthetics, religion/morality, or social cohesion/personal psychology.
In our current febrile environment, it’s hard to imagine a serious, intentional, and meaningful discussion along these lines, but I can’t think of a better time to try. As we try to conceive of what’s next, we need to remember how deeply immersed we are in this outlook; so much so that we are, likely as not, going to create a new epistemology that eventually will have its own problems. Let’s not pretend to too much wisdom or make simplistic claims of panaceas; but merely try to do it better next time.