The existence of a world system does not preclude tensions, even wars, among “center” countries, just as national systems often suffer severe conflicts among factions of the nation, all of whom benefit from the surplus. The systemic unity of capitalism, on a national or a global scale, is not perceived within, but only from without. This mystifying aspect of capitalism was first noticed by Adam Smith, who used the term the Invisible Hand to describe the coordination of individuals, unbeknownst to themselves. The equivalent of the Invisible Hand imposes a system of accumulation on a world scale over the appearance of international capitalist rivalry and discord.
This is of course not a complete list of the characteristics of capitalism. My purpose, as I have stated, is only to project a vision that can be contrasted with that of supply-side economics. Of course some characteristics overlap, but it must be plain that a point-by-point comparison would be irrelevant. They are simply two different views of the world. To my mind, the essential difference between them is the absence of a historical dimension in the supply-sider’s view. To this criticism it will no doubt be retorted that they see history, but not my history.
Two important conclusions follow from these opposing visions. Even if we cannot establish which is true and which a shadow, it should be useful to make these conclusions explicit.
First, the role of government is entirely different in the two visions. I have already suggested that government is regarded from the supply side as an encroaching force, an intruder into the private sphere, a weight on the system. Its necessity is not denied, but its virtues are held to be minimal.
In the radical view this demarcation becomes ambiguous. The designation “private” refers to functions that are directly connected with the generation of surplus, whereas “public” refers to functions indirectly connected with it. Both public and private functions, however, are seen as actively supporting the process itself.
From this viewpoint, the fact that there is often conflict, even bitter conflict, between those who directly work with the surplus-generating process and those who work at a remove from it is not surprising: the Roman imperium fought bitterly against senatorial privileges to maintain the empire; monarchs warred against barons in order to preserve an aristocratic social order; Parliament acted against the immediate interests of English factory owners to secure the future of the capitalist system; Roosevelt curbed the prerogatives of bankers and industrialists to ward off a feared social revolution. Governing elements within all social systems must often curb the activities of particular privileged groups within that system.
Second, supply-side economics sees the capitalist order as tending “naturally”—that is, in the absence of the artificial impediments and distortions introduced by government—toward equilibrium and harmony. By equilibrium I mean they see no obstacles in the way of more or less steady growth, with reasonably smooth microadjustments, and well-limited departures from full employment. If there are such impediments, supply-siders attribute them to government intervention into the flux of the market process. By harmony I mean that supply-siders see the successful achievement of economic growth bringing social morale and political stability. In a word, they see no economic or social contradictions in the system, in the sense of dysfunctions brought about by the success—not the failure—of capitalist processes.
The opposing, radical, view sees things upside down. The system tends naturally toward economic disequilibrium and toward social and political tension. Economic strains or crises are the unavoidable, “natural” consequences of matters I have already mentioned, namely the difficulties of pursuing the accumulation process without constantly overreaching it.2
The radical view also sees change militating against harmony. In politics it sees an intrinsic conflict between the “horizontal” tendencies of a democratic and egalitarian view and the “vertical” tendencies of a hierarchical and inegalitarian structure. In social life it sees strains that result from the continuous restructuring of daily life as the side effect of economic “growth.” Indeed, in place of the conventional assumption of a tendency toward stability and harmony, the radical view asks how it is possible to maintain social continuity in the face of continuous economic fluctuation, social insecurity, and political strain. The answer is essentially by the use of government as a sustaining and restraining force.
To turn to more strictly economic matters: supply-side economics puts forward two policy prescriptions. First, it advocates a substantial reduction in marginal tax rates, in order to create a burst of response. A response of what? The supply-siders are convinced that more hours will be worked, that less effort will be diverted into the underground economy, that more risks will be taken. In a word, we will produce more, giving rise to more employment, and ultimately to a diminution of inflationary pressure.
Here everything hinges on the crucial matter of how individuals or firms respond to tax cuts. The fact of the matter is that we do not know very much about this problem. Worse, it is possible to construct two quite opposing, but equally convincing predictions. The supply-siders see individuals using their tax bonanzas, such as the Kemp-Roth proposed reduction of taxes by 10 percent a year for three years, to add to their savings, or as a spur to more effort because more income will be kept. Skeptics see an entirely different picture. They see families reacting to a tax bonanza the way they react to all income increases: they will spend about 95 percent of it. They also see an increase in their after-tax incomes permitting a lot of people to give up moonlighting, overtime, or other distasteful tasks to which high taxes have driven them. Thus the skeptics see the impact of supply-side policies as boosting inflation far more than production. I number myself among the skeptics.
And what about the stimulus to production that firms will experience, as taxes are rolled back and onerous regulations repealed? In all likelihood there will be some response: the crucial question is how much. Again two views are plausible. One of them, exemplified by George Gilder’s stress on the creative efforts of individual entrepreneurs, sees a great burst of small business formation, not only creating jobs but providing the innovative zest needed to restore economic vitality. The other, more skeptical view looks to the great corporations that dominate so much of economic life and asks whether tax reductions or milder regulation will suffice to turn the automobile industry around, to reinvigorate the steel industry, to strengthen the transportation system, to solve the energy problem, and the like. Once again, I number myself among the skeptics.
Second, supply-siders want to roll back government, not merely to get it off our backs, but also because government is perceived as essentially a wasteful, not a productive, use of resources. This last is a very interesting contention. I would be the last to deny the presence of government waste: the MX missile system, the space shuttle, the tax subsidies to various upper-income groups, not to mention the petty cadging and occasional grand larceny among welfare clients. However, I want to call attention to a curious aspect of the question of waste. It is that there is no waste in the private sector. This is the case because all “wasteful” activities are eliminated by the market, like the famous Edsel. On the other hand, whatever survives the test of the market is not waste. The five giant buildings that will be erected between 53rd and 57th streets along Madison Avenue are not waste, whatever chaos they create, unless they cannot be rented. The $100,000 Rolls Royce is not waste, assuming that it sells. There is no waste in the production of anything that sells, because the very act of purchase provides the justification for whatever resources have been used.
Clearly there are entirely different criteria for waste in the public and private domains. Suppose that the scrutiny usually directed at government were brought to bear on private output, and that each act of private production had to justify itself by the noneconomic criteria we apply to public output. Would we not find a great deal of waste in the private sphere? And suppose that the government limited its production to those things it could sell—pocket-sized missiles and saleable services of all kinds. Would not all waste disappear from the public sphere? This leads one to think about the meaning of the “waste” perceived from the supply side.
It leads one also to reflect on the ideological element within supply-side thinking. To be sure, all social orders have ideologies, and none could exist without them. Therefore societies never think of their prevailing views as being “ideological,” but rather as expressing self-evident or natural truths. As Immanuel Wallerstein has acutely remarked, during most periods of history there is effectively only one class that is conscious of itself, and this dominant class sincerely expresses its own views as representing those of the entire society. Thus the senators of Rome, the lords of the manor, the monarchs of France and England, and the members of the Soviet elite all speak with unself-conscious assurance in the name of their societies. None feels itself to be a “privileged” class or thinks its views to be other than universal.
The upper class in capitalism also speaks with a universal voice—as witness the degree to which it speaks for the working man. Nonetheless, the view of the upper class under capitalism is more clouded than under other dispensations. This is the consequence of the rise of democratic, egalitarian, and even revolutionary ideas at the same time as, and indeed as part of, the bourgeois struggle for ascendancy. These ideas remain to haunt the bourgeois serenity of spirit: as Schumpeter wrote, “…capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own.”
As a result, bourgeois ideology at its most refined assumes a defensive position unlike that of any other social order. It recognizes the stormy historic origins of capitalism, the arbitrary foundations of its property rights, the short-comings of its philosophy. Against these deficiencies it ranges the very great achievements of its economic system and the unparalleled political and intellectual accomplishments of bourgeois culture. Here we find the defense of capitalism offered by Schumpeter, Weber, and in a manner of speaking even by Marx himself. Among modern-day expositors of this sophisticated view I would place S.M. Lipset, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and others.
There is, however, another view of ideology—one that marshalls arguments that cannot withstand the examination of history, philosophy, or social science in general. Here, for example, we find the most vulgar materialist reductionism, in which capitalism is presented as embodying a primordial and unchanging “economic man.” For instance, Jude Wanniski writes in The Way the World Works, “In mother and father…the child has a diversified portfolio,” a point of view that pervades his book. Such a materialist crudity, which puts to shame the most blatant “economism” of the left, would be treated with the scorn it deserves if it were adduced as a defense of, say, the Marxian view of history. Yet it is treated with respect, even by so sophisticated a critic as Irving Kristol. Or George Gilder tells us in Wealth and Poverty that love and altruism are the true essence of capitalism (they used to be trotted out as the soul of monarchy), and this equally strange statement—which recalls the analysis of Bruce Barton, who wrote in the 1920s that Jesus was the most successful businessman who ever lived—is also treated as a “serious” pronouncement.3
The question to be pondered is why supply-side economics has attracted the worst ideology, and why it has dulled the sensibilities of the best ideologists. I am ashamed to say the one convincing reason that occurs to me: supply-side economics has as its immediate objective the improvement of the conditions of the rich. What bonanzas will result from the lowering of the high marginal rate on property income and on the reduction of the capital gains tax! I too rub my hands at the prospect. To be sure, like all policies, the ultimate objective of supply-side economics is the improvement of the condition of everyone. Just the same, I do not think supply-side economics would adduce quite the same fervor, or quite the same dulling of critical sensibilities, if its immediate aim were the improvement of the poor and its ultimate aim the bettering of the rich. Self-interest has extraordinary powers of persuasion.
Two further matters must also be considered. One is morality. The supply-siders are high on morality. They deplore the fallen moral state of the nation. And they are right. It is badly fallen and the consequences are potentially graver even than a prolonged recession.
There are many reasons for the decline in the levels of public behavior. I wish to point out only one. It is the displacement of traditional values by commercial ones. A Gresham’s law seems to operate as effectively in the world of moral values as in that of economic values; and the bad currency here strikes me as the steady insinuation of advertising mush into the vocabulary and communication of our society. “Have a nice day” and “We’re Am-mer-ican Airlines, doing what we do best!” are more than trivial irritants. They are instances of a process that empties communication of its content, that substitutes reflex for creative spontaneity, that destroys credence in the written or spoken word.
If I were asked to name the deadliest subversive force within capitalism—the single greatest source of its waning morality—I should without hesitation name advertising. How else should one identify a force that debases language, drains thought, and undoes dignity? If the barrage of advertising, unchanged in its tone and texture, were devoted to some other purpose—say the exaltation of the public sector—it would be recognized in a moment for the corrosive element that it is. But as the voice of the private sector it escapes this startled notice. I mention it only to point out that a deep source of moral decay for capitalism arises from its own doings, not from that of its governing institutions.
Second, I want to say something about the relation of capitalism to freedom. There are many kinds of freedom, some more easily espoused by capitalism than others. But I do not think there is any doubt that bourgeois society—the social order that has created the capitalist system—has gone further than any other, including that of the ancient Greeks, in establishing and tolerating political, social, and intellectual liberty. From my point of view, and I daresay that of the readers of this review, that is its chief glory.
I have always felt that there was a powerful argument to be made for the mutual support among various freedoms, including the very important support offered to political or social liberties by economic freedom. When we look to the Gulag we appreciate how precious is the property of the working class in owning its own labor power, which it is entitled to withhold from arbitrary seizure. So I am far from blind to the virtues of bourgeois property concepts, which have been the intellectual support of capitalism.
What must be pointed out, however, is that political and intellectual freedom, the freedoms that are most immediately in jeopardy in bourgeois societies, have seldom been actively supported by the “private,” i.e., the business, institutions of the capitalist order. Intellectual and political freedoms are only indirectly connected with the institution of wage labor on which the capitalist economic system rests. Indeed, to the elements of the upper class immediately engaged in production, these liberties are likely to seem inimical to the stability of the capitalist order, the province of trouble-makers and agitators. These freedoms, it must be recognized, have for the most part been the concern of those political, cultural, and professional elites who oversee, not those who themselves directly carry on, the capitalist process of accumulation. That is something to think about for those who wish to tilt the balance of power in the direction of the agents, not the guides, of the economic process.
What is likely to happen over the next decade? Nothing. I say so from a profound skepticism about the efficacy of supply-side stimuli. But from a more history-laden point of view, I mean something different by “nothing.” I mean that the slow, almost invisible trends of the past will continue to have their way, not because these trends have a life of their own but because they express the inner motions, the self-created dynamic of the system. I will mention only two of these trends:
State-owned or state-dependent organizations will emerge as the leading agents of accumulation. We are all familiar with the slow drift in the texture of the representative firm, from a single-product, single-plant, single-family enterprise to a multi-product, multi-plant, multi-national managerial bureaucracy. This has been the consequence of the continuing division of labor and of technologies of control which have brought concentration and centralization in virtually every field of human endeavor.
This trend now seems likely to move to a new level of organizational size and strength by combining the capital-mobilizing and competition-buffering abilities of the state with the independence and drive of private management. Most capitalist nations today have public-private firms in airlines or airframes, in steel, automobiles, chemicals, and the like.
Many of these public-private firms have been formed to prevent private bankruptcies. That in no way weakens my argument. But the Japanese present a more interesting case. Japan is evidently now preparing to enter the semi-conductor industry on a public-private basis with one or two huge firms. That industry today is still dominated by the United States, where numerous businesses compete vigorously for market shares. The result, as Lester Thurow has written, is that in the US the market is likely to eliminate the losers, and the Japanese will thereafter eliminate the winners.
Whether or not the Japanese “model” of public-private coordination can be exported, I would think that statist enterprise of some sort is very likely to be the form in which the accumulation of capital is carried on in the coming years.
As part of this statist movement, I would also expect to see the emergence of an ever more explicit reliance on national planning. This will assume two forms. One will be macro-planning for adequate employment, probably through government work programs, for acceptable price behavior through a network of controls and mandatory incomes policies, and for international buffers through protectionism. The other form of planning will be micro-planning aimed at channeling labor and capital into socially advantageous uses and at coping with disruptive problems such as energy, urban decay, etc.
It may be objected that planning does not “work,” that we are now in retreat from it—a retreat led by supply-side economics. That depends on what one means by “work.” As I see it, no organizational system can smoothly combine the explosive technology, restless polity, and deadening work experience of contemporary industrial society. This is as true for self-styled socialist societies as for capitalist ones. Hence I do not expect state capitalism to “work” particularly well, but I expect it to survive and to continue the function that is the driving force of capitalism—the accumulation of capital by means of wage labor.
It is possible, of course, that ideological opposition may reverse this two-century-long trend toward centralization. Social orders sometimes refuse to adopt changes which, to outsiders, would preserve their regimes: one thinks of the refusal of the Roman senators to undertake land reform, or of the opposition of the French aristocracy to tax reform. To identify historical trends is not to deny social orders the right to commit suicide.
These considerations lead inescapably to the question of how long capitalism is likely to survive. I would think for quite a long while. No one can project an “indefinite” life span for capitalism. It is by its nature dynamic, and is constantly changing. Today it is pressing against the absorptive limits of the environment and thereby threatening the pace and scope of accumulation. Its moral cement, as I have remarked, is dissolving in its commercial ethic. It faces the contradictions of its antagonistic policy and economy, and the Laocoön-like struggles of its accumulation mechanics. Its broad movement today seems toward a bureaucratic statist regime. After that, who can tell?
Nonetheless, I do not see any immediate “end” of capitalism. Much of the world remains to be penetrated by its formidable mode of labor organization, its seductive technology, its intellectual brilliance. However decadent at its center, capitalism is today without a serious rival as an economic system, dangerous though the Soviet Union may be as a military rival.
This expectation of continued life seems all the more likely because, as I have just said, there is really nothing yet visible beyond capitalism. As an imaginable institutional arrangement, socialism has become a word almost without content. If it means the nationalization of industry or private-public planning, it can be seen—at least, so I suggest—as the extension of capitalism. As a deindustrialization of society it holds forth the specter of a catastrophic decline in living standards. As a vast extension of worker participation, it suffers from a complete lack of any economic and political institutions—or conception of such institutions—within which workers’ autonomy could be expressed. In the underdeveloped world it is all too likely that socialist revolutions will usher in narrow, inefficient, and xenophobic regimes.
Hence there is little enthusiasm for socialism today, always excepting the burning desire of oppressed peoples or abused workers to throw off cruel or simply sclerotic regimes. After that, the realities of the industrial process, the impatient expectations of the masses, the contagion of Western ideas and goods must somehow be accommodated. The next stage of economic history, whatever its label, will not be a pleasant one. That supply-side economics, the darling and fad of conservative thought, imagines itself to be the vehicle of this next stage strikes me as an extraordinary fantasy. It is to confuse a small eddy, located in a few board rooms and academic centers, with the Gulf Stream of history.
This is a matter that cannot be argued here. It rests on the long history of the theory of instability whose roots are to be found in Marx.↩
Gilder's romantic vision of capitalists is the counterpart of the rosy visions of the proletariat entertained by the left. Perhaps each side can better assess its opponents than its allies.↩
This is a matter that cannot be argued here. It rests on the long history of the theory of instability whose roots are to be found in Marx.↩
Gilder’s romantic vision of capitalists is the counterpart of the rosy visions of the proletariat entertained by the left. Perhaps each side can better assess its opponents than its allies.↩