2014-12 Capitalism and inequality re-examined
Ever since capitalism came to be recognized as a new economic system, it has had vociferous critics, of whom none was more wide-ranging than Karl Marx. Marx recognized that behind its ideological patina of freedom, capitalism, like the exploitative systems of slavery and feudalism, was a social system in which a small class extracted from the mass of producers practically all output above that necessary for bare subsistence. An elite’s ability to do so was grounded in its monopoly ownership of the means of production. However, Marx, and other critics faulted it for more than its exploitation and extreme inequality. Sharing much with romanticism, they believed that its very institutions of private property and markets corrupt society and its members. Nevertheless, Marx in particular recognized that capitalism, unlike earlier exploitative systems, was radically dynamic, producing unprecedented wealth, while transforming not only all it inherited from the past, but also its own nature so as to eventually even empower the producers. Yet his anti-private property and anti-market animus led him to believe that empowered producers would abandon these capitalist institutions. He did not imagine that the dynamism, wealth, and potential freedom that capitalism was delivering might have little chance of flourishing in the absence of these institutions. This article claims that Marx and other critics were wrong to fault capitalism’s central institutions for the injustices that accompanied them. These institutions are not the problem. Instead it is the inequality that coevolved with them and enables them to be used for exploitation.