What's the Matter with Capitalism?

Michael J. Thompson


The Demise of the Critique of Capitalism


apitalism’s effects on society, culture, individuality, politics are vast and all-encompassing.  It is impossible to explore all of its dynamics in a single essay, but there is above all a salient reality that we can glimpse through any critical analysis of capitalism in modern life, especially in America.  That is the realization that capitalism erects a set of institutions and a culture that is inherently anathema to democracy—or at least any conception of democracy that is worth discussing or of which we would want to be a part.  Questioning capitalism has been made obsolete.  The supposed “end of history” had come with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism.  To call capitalism into question evokes a sense of irrelevance; a kind of anachronistic feel clings to the anti-capitalist slogans and diatribes one reads in typically left-wing discourse.  But the critique of capitalism cannot, and should not, be relegated to such simplistic and narrow grounds.  It may, in fact, be better to expose capitalism to the political values that informed America’s democratic republican experiment.  When we do this, we find that American political thought has been, more often than not, hostile to the effects of capitalism and to the very nature of capitalism itself. Specifically the way that capitalism began to weave webs of economic relation characterized by dependence and servitude, construct social and economic hierarchies that were reminiscent of the aristocracy of Europe, and pervert popular government toward the interests of the few at the expense of the entire political community. 

The critique of capitalism has been overshadowed today by a large-scale acceptance of modern forms of economic life.  Theories for this abound, but there is little question that it has much to do with the overtaking by economics and market ideas of political life.  The political scientist C. B. MacPherson was correct when he noted that “The central concern has become the market value of things.  Economic relations between people have in effect been reduced to relations between things: the underlying economic relations of dependence and control between people have dropped out of sight.”1  Capitalism—especially the kind of unbridled capitalism that has been flourishing over the past 25 years in America—has led to ballooning inequality, the return of social hierarchy and privilege, a new culture of consumption, and the debasement of political life.  But how this happens is a complex story, and it begins with the passive acceptance of capitalism as a way of life which has seeped into the depths of how we think and feel.  The waning of the critical mind toward capitalism therefore has, I think, dire consequences for democratic political life and it begins with the workplace itself.

The Culture of Working Life

“If we live amorally for a good part of the day,” asked Emile Durkheim, “how can we keep the springs of morality from going slack on us?”  The majority of an average person’s daily life is spent in the workplace, an institution that encourages, more often than not, individual self-interest, competition, and consists of, more often than not, outright banality. As a central institution in modern society, it is centered on a passive acceptance of authority and economic dependence—all of which have concrete social and political consequences outside of the workplace.  “It is therefore extremely important,” continues Durkheim, “that economic life should be regulated, should have its moral standards raised . . . that individuals should cease to live thus within a moral vacuum where the life-blood drains away even from individual morality.”2 

The expansion of inequality, the dumbing down of cultural life which cultivates an increasingly narrow sense of self and society, and the demise of critical attitudes toward economic life—all of these things spring, I think, from a more central source: the culture of working life itself. What has been called the “new capitalism” has created a situation wherein the industrial working class of the past has been divided into two separate spheres: on the one hand, a bureaucratically-minded organizational life of office work on the one hand, and the low-wage, low-skilled service sector on the other.  Both of these are essential to look at in detail, but each have different effects.

Aldous Huxley was quite prescient in his novel, Brave New World—set in a place and time that, in contrast to Orwell’s 1984, saw repression and conformity not forced from above, but entered into willingly from every level of society.  Commenting on the demise of the individual in modern life, he points out in his long essay—published much later than the novel, in 1958—Brave New World Revisited that “in order to fit into these organizations, individuals have had to deindividualize themselves, have had to deny their native diversity and conform to a standard pattern, have had to do their best to become automata.”3  For Huxley, this was the result of “over-organization,” or the massive institutionalization of society.  Modern work-life, for most American citizens, resembles this situation.  But things can, perhaps, be seen in a much worse light.  At the essence of what has been called the “new capitalism” is not only mere conformity, the dissolution of individuality—masked, as I pointed out above, through the apparition of commodification and market choice—but, more importantly, subordination itself. Individuals are more subordinate to authority; they work longer hours within total institutions that are essentially anti-democratic in nature; and this has had the consequence of ingraining with them feelings and attitudes of the acceptance of hierarchy, of inequality, of even a desire to subordinate himself to figures of authority.  It must be asked what the prospects of democratic attitudes, life, politics are under such a culture of working life.

Even more, as the middle class is incorporated into a new culture of hierarchy and subordination, they are increasingly receiving the benefits of middle class life from what is becoming a permanent coolie labor force.  The “necessity” and even tolerance of illegal immigration—specifically from Central America—has arisen due to the consumptive benefits of middle class.  How many placed in modern economic life are supported by illegal immigrant labor: from roofers, to landscapers, to cooks in restaurants—all of them provide the same service: cheap labor which allows the middle class more affordable access to those goods and services and, of course, larger profit margins per worker for contractors and mid-range businesses.  Americans are unwilling to face the extent to which their lifestyles are in fact dependent on this form of low-skilled servitude and the permanent underclass that is slowly being erected—one which will become legally sanctioned under any kind of “guest worker program”—will be, in one way or the other, justified and accepted by most Americans in years to come.

But even more than the structural realities, there is a sense of resignation, on both fronts, which confronts workers under contemporary capitalism.  As Richard Sennett, in his recent book The Culture of the New Capitalism, has found, “A stereotype holds that Americans are aggressive competitors in business.  Beneath this stereotype lies a different, more passive mentality.  Americans of the middling sort I’ve interviewed in the past decade have tended to accept structural change with resignation, as though the loss of security at work and in schools run like businesses are inevitable: you can do little about such basic shifts, even if they hurt you.”4  The growing apathy toward the economic institutions to which they belong, the increasing penetration of the culture of subordination among working life, and the growing acceptance of relations of servitude and dependence lead, I think, to an overall erosion of democratic life.  And it is this which, I think, is the most alarming consequence of an unfettered capitalism: the very destruction of democracy itself.  

The Decline and Fall of Democratic Life

But summing the effects of capitalism that I have laid out above is not enough to communicate the deeper problematic of capitalism and its relation to broader political and social life.  The most important dimension of the impact of capitalism has been what I will call here the erosion of democratic life, or, perhaps, a democratic sensibility.  If the history of resisting capitalism on political grounds was premised on the notion that, under capitalism, social relations between people would degrade into relations of servitude rather than that of relations of free citizens, then it is a history that needs to be revised.  But when I say this, I am not pointing my thoughts toward European radical traditions and the bulwark of Marxism (although one could in fact do that).  Modern readers may find it deeply ironic in fact that some of the most robust political critiques of capitalism actually spring from America itself—not the socialistic or communistic movements of the early twentieth-century or the movements of the 1960s, but from the time when capitalism was first emerging in American economic life. 

The early nineteenth-century saw the emergence of a robust critical account of capitalist economic relations. What these critics saw was the incongruence between the emerging relations of market capitalism and the supposed promises of America’s “republican civilization.” What they saw was that the new forms of economic life that were emerging were creating relations of dependence and servitude that would, in time, erode America’s democratic republic. What was central to their concern was the erosion of democratic life, the emergence of inequality, and the demolition of public life in favor of private interests. This has been a concern of western political thought since the days of classical Greece, and the concern for republicanism was always premised on the notion that political power should be in balance and not fall into the hands of the minority who would, in time, exploit the public for their own ends.

This concern gave an insurgent flavor to western political ideas, from Aristotle through Machiavelli, Locke, Kant, Jefferson, and Marx—and early nineteenth-century social critics saw the emerging capitalism for what it was. Reflecting on the emergence of wealthy industrialists and their newly found political power, John Vethake noted in the New York Evening Post in 1835 that “relatively considered, it is now precisely as if all things were in a state of nature; the strong tyrannize over the weak; live, as it were, in a continual victory, and glut themselves on incessant plunder.”5 Theodore Sedgwick, writing in the same year in his book What Is a Monopoly? was resolute in his analysis: “It must necessarily follow, to every person whose mind is cast in that republican mold, the die of which is not yet, thanks God, broken, that the principle of corporate grants is wholly adverse to the genius of our institutions; that it originates in that arrogant and interfering temper on the part of the Government which seeks to meddle with, direct, and control private exertions. . . Every corporate grant is directly in the teeth of the doctrine of equal rights, for it gives to one set of men the exercise of privileges which the main body can never enjoy.”6

This revulsion of the new economic life—it was not known yet as capitalism per se, that term would need to wait another 60 years—which these thinkers unleashed was not hard for most Americans to see around them.  Unlike today, a vibrant public sphere made critical ideas more current, and writers like Theophilus Fisk, addressing workers in Boston in 1835, would write that “the history of the producers of wealth, of the industrious classes, is that of a continued warfare of honesty against fraud, weakness against power, justice against oppression.”7  There was no mistaking the consequences of emerging wealth, but also of the wage system itself.  American critics were among the first and most consistently vocal critics of what they referred to as “wage servitude.”  The reason was simple: it violated the most basic tenets of republican government because individuals were forced into relations of dependence and control by others; the return of aristocracy, of feudal social relations were seen as on the horizon. Wage labor was not simply an economic relation, it was seen at the time as a relation of social power, and in this sense, it needed to be resisted, and true freedom retained. “You must abolish the system or accept its consequences,” wrote Orestes Brownson about the wage system in 1848 in his essay “The Laboring Masses.” “No man can serve both God and Mammon. If you will serve the devil, you must look to the devil for your wages; we know no other way.”8

These writers and critics were not on the fringe of American society, they were not radical quacks.  They were also hardly few in number.  Beginning in about 1825, writers such as William Gouge, Langton Byllseby, John Pickering, David Henshaw, Stephen Simpson, Gilbert Vale, William Leggett, and Thomas Skidmore—there were many others, all similarly forgotten today—began to take up a critique of the emerging economic hierarchy being created by a nascent capitalism.  They were the voice of the republican ideas that gave birth to the original project of American political life: to live under conditions of freedom and to promote the association of free citizens.  Of course, this was a doctrine which would have to undergo much reworking before black slaves, women, and other immigrant groups would be included, but there is no denying that the fervor they expressed against economic life and its effects on American democracy would slowly be drowned out by the conformity and conservative rhetoric (and reality) of the present.  The republican political argument was clear from the beginning: individuals cannot be live in a condition of true freedom if they are enmeshed in socio-economic relations which deprive them of their autonomy, force them into relations of dependence, and reduce them as near as possible to conditions of servitude to others. Contemporary American capitalism—I will not go into other forms of capitalism around the globe—does just this, although it is something quite beneath the political consciousness of most Americans. 

But how else to explain the erosion of secular associational life—what Robert Putnam has fancifully called “social capital”—or the growing political apathy of citizens?  What of the banality and puerile nature of popular culture, the commodification of everyday life, the dumbing down of political discourse, and the irrationality of the public sphere which has been subjected to privatization and market forces. American democratic life—democratic life in general—is anathema to unbridled capitalism. Resistance to it first requires that we see democracy as more than voting and political representation, but as a form of life that embraces all elements of social life and social relations. Capitalism, with its emphasis on consumption, self-interest, the hegemony of the logic of the market as the coordinating logic of modern life, the ethic of privatization and its disintegrating influence on the public sphere, is quickly eroding the foundations of democratic life.

Confronting capitalism requires, among other things, the reconstitution of the radicalism that inspired early American anti-capitalist sentiment. It was able to respond to the anti-democratic tendencies arising from the new institutions of wage labor and the agglomeration of wealth and property in the hands of the few. It is a tradition which also needs to be linked with the concerns of social democratic and labor movements in Europe in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries and the impulses that drove them; and it requires, above all, constructing a vision of political life that is in stark contrast with the present: one that emphasizes an anti-authoritarian ethos and the renewal of a sense of public purpose. It then requires the translation of these concerns into the political discourse of everyday life as well as into something programmatic within social movements. Only in this way can anti-capitalism move from its current status of immaturity to one that can reclaim a truly democratic impulse. And if the French philosopher Michel Foucault was right in claiming that “society must be defended,” there should be no illusion about the moral and political necessity in reconstituting a robust critical discourse against the corrosive effects of modern capitalism.     


1 C. B. MacPherson, The Rise and Fall of Economic Justice and Other Essays p. 102 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

2 Emile Durkheim, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals p. 12 (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1958).

3 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited p. 25 (New York: Perennial Library, 1965).

4 Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism pp. 9-10 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

5 Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, Joseph Blau (ed.) p. 213 (Cambridge: Hackett Publishers, 2003).

[6 Ibid. p. 222.

7 Theophilus Fisk, “Capital against Labor: An Address Delivered at Julien Hall before the Mechanics of Boston on Wednesday Evening, May 20, 1835,” New York Evening Post, August 6, 1835, p. 2.

8 Orestes Brownson, “The Laboring Masses,” p. 52 in Alvan Ryan, (ed.) The Brownson Reader (New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1955).


Michael J. Thompson is the founder and editor of Logos and assistant professor of political science at William Paterson University. His next book, Confronting the New Conservatism: The New Right in America is forthcoming from NYU Press.