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Capitalism Alone Against Itself: Liberal Democratic versus Political Capitalism

Summary:
I finished Branko Milanovic's thought provoking Capitalism Alone this summer. But I haven't had much time to write on the blog, as you might have noticed. This is certainly not a review, and I would definitely suggest that you go and buy the book as soon as you can and read it. It is a serious discussion of the future of capitalism, that word that, as Heilbroner often reminded us, was at the center of the discipline, but seldom discussed openly by economists. He cited, if memory doesn't fail me that it didn't appear in Mankiw's Principles textbook, at least back then in the 1990s, when it was published. I always note that Allan Meltzer wrote a little book titled Why Capitalism? were he makes no explicit effort in defining it, even though a definition can be gleaned from it.*The definition

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Capitalism Alone Against Itself: Liberal Democratic versus Political Capitalism

I finished Branko Milanovic's thought provoking Capitalism Alone this summer. But I haven't had much time to write on the blog, as you might have noticed. This is certainly not a review, and I would definitely suggest that you go and buy the book as soon as you can and read it. It is a serious discussion of the future of capitalism, that word that, as Heilbroner often reminded us, was at the center of the discipline, but seldom discussed openly by economists. He cited, if memory doesn't fail me that it didn't appear in Mankiw's Principles textbook, at least back then in the 1990s, when it was published. I always note that Allan Meltzer wrote a little book titled Why Capitalism? were he makes no explicit effort in defining it, even though a definition can be gleaned from it.*

The definition most economists use leans more on Max Weber than Karl Marx, or the materialist tradition of the surplus approach upon which he built on. Branko is a pluralistic economist, well read and influenced by several authors, not all of them conventional. The discussion of the definition of capitalism is complex, and he separates, in its modern version two archetypes of capitalism, that are in a mortal battle for global hegemonic power, namely: Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism, represented by the West, and particularly by the United States (perhaps more credibly now after the election), and Political Capitalism, represented by the rise of the rest, with China at the head.

When assessing whether China is capitalistic Branko does use the conventional Weberian definition (p. 87), but that seems to be a pragmatic approach to provide the basis for his argument that China (and Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore too, p. 91) does conform to the Weberian notion of political capitalism, a term used by Weber to discuss ancient forms of capitalism. But there is a concern with how elites maintain control by non coercive forces in Liberal Capitalism, and about the need to create an indigenous capitalist class in Political Capitalism. Both point out to alternative issue of class conflict, of course, and how surplus is extracted from workers, and points to an alternative view of capitalism. There is, in somewhat Marxist tradition a preoccupation with the role of the bourgeoisie, and an nod to Wallerstein that suggested that there are no capitalists without state support, something I would like to have seen more in the book (p. 116).

In fact, the secondary role of the state, to some extent, the absence of a more thorough discussion of the developmental state in the case of the Chinese experience, is one of the problems with the book. Another would be an emphasis with issues of corruption, which seem to me to be of secondary importance, even if the problem might have increased with financial deregulation, and the rise of tax havens. The emphasis of the book is on the changes associated to the increasing mobility of labor and capital and the problems it poses for both systems. Branko thinks that the welfare state is vulnerable with free labor mobility (p.156), undermining the democratic process in liberal capitalism, and that capital mobility, which he sees more through the lens of Global Value Chains, rather than portfolio flows, and that would lead to higher growth in poorer countries, reducing the need for labor mobility. The book also debunks a few myths, like the notion that robots are coming for your job, or the idea that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would be a panacea for the economic problems caused by globalization and technological change.

* Invariably it is based on notions of the profit motive (some form of rationalization) as required by markets, and private property, or Weber (plus North, if you prefer). For an alternative discussion see this old post on a view based on the surplus approach, including a critique of the Weberian naturalization of capitalism as something that existed in the past and that explains the golden ages of antiquity.

Matias Vernengo
Econ Prof at @BucknellU Co-editor of ROKE & Co-Editor in Chief of the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

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