The title of the most famous book published in the 19th century is in fact a misnomer. Das Kapital should really be Die Industrie. It is true that in Volume One, Chapter 1, Karl Marx begins with a discussion of money as having originated not as capital but simply as a means of exchange. Money, he says, becomes capital only when it is made a standard of exchange—a definition that does not, of course, imply an industrial economy. Yet virtually the whole of Das Kapital analyses the political economy of industrial capitalism, a subject the title fails to indicate. Nobody thinks that Marx, not having been an idiot, understood that capitalism and industrialism are one and the same thing: Otherwise, he could not have predicted the collapse of capitalism and the victory of the proletariat without foretelling as well a return to an agrarian or a pastoral world. Similarly, no one has ever been sufficiently ignorant consciously to conflate these institutions. Yet, unconsciously or perhaps only carelessly, the thing is done all the time. I vividly recall the riots at Columbia University in 1968, when the campus was festooned with colorful banners demanding an end to capitalism—and imperialism, and racism. Not a word was said (or spray-painted) about the industrial system that had made the families of most of these students rich, or at any rate well to do, and eminently comfortable in respect of their creature comforts. And yet anyone who cares to look will easily see that the blame for the evils against which reformers have railed for the past two centuries ought properly to fall on industrialism, not simple capitalism.
The Columbia rebels who denounced capitalism also demanded democracy—“participatory democracy”—in the same breath. Along with the rest of the modern world for the last century and a half at least, Students for a Democratic Society and their allies shared a careless, actually thoughtless, kind of thinking whose gist is expressed by the phrase liberal democratic capitalism, which for modern people has the same mesmeric ring that “fascist capitalist imperialism” had for those long-ago revolutionaries at Columbia. Liberal democratic capitalism may seem a comprehensive enough phrase. In fact, it lacks a third necessary adjective, and that is industrial. The insertion is an important one, as democracy and industrialism are really oppositional terms. There was indeed a time, lasting perhaps half a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution, when industrial capitalism and bourgeois democracy appeared to be working in harness together to create an enlightened liberal society in which wealth was efficiently created and more equally distributed. Yet before the end of that 50-year period, signs of a basic conflict between the two had become clear to those alert enough to read them, which includes Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In the decades following the publication of Das Kapital (1867), the fundamental and essential antipathy between democratic self-government and industrialism became increasingly apparent, as the institutions upon which the industrial economy rests and those which support democratic self-government diverged, to the great benefit of the first and the huge detriment of the second.
From the Marxist perspective, the ideal economy should be that of the ancient, pre-capitalist world, in which the use of money was not rationalized for the purpose of employing money to breed more money, but simply for the satisfaction of more or less immediate wants. What is more, the men of antiquity had little interest in technological development for the beauty of the thing: Here, as with the profit motive, they preferred existing inventions to distracting novelties. Mediterranean pre-capitalism agreed, of course, with severe economic and social inequalities, yet it did not preclude an early form of democracy in classical Greece, and republicanism in classical Rome. (The fact that it also produced what was perhaps the most gloriously civilized civilization in the history of the world, owing in part to its determination to keep economic values and activities in their place, though not to the point here, must be noted anyway.)
The civilization of medieval Europe, however much it differed from the classical type, was equally pre-capitalist, though shaped by more formal philosophical and theological principles. The question of when and how capitalism got started in Europe is one of the more vexed questions in history, beginning at least with the writings of Max Weber and Werner Sombart. According to Amintore Fanfani, the weakening of Catholic belief gave “the spirit of capitalism” (natural human acquisitiveness in its modern manifestation) the opportunity to assert itself as early as the beginning of the second millennium a.d., as it took advantage of a relaxed social opprobrium with regard to the quest for greater profits unimpaired by notions of just price and fair competition imposed by the guild economy operating in agreement with the economic teachings of the Church. Capitalist opportunity increased, Fanfani says, at the beginning of the Renaissance. This was centuries before the Protestant Reformation, credited by Weber and other historians with making the world safe for capitalism.
The Distributists in England, early in the 20th century, and the Agrarians in America proposed an economic system based on small independent units, a more equal distribution of property, and economic independence acquired by the self-sufficiency of families reestablished upon the land. Their program was something like a return to the pre-capitalist economy of the guilds, shaped and guided by Christian ethics. Hilaire Belloc conceded that, in the circumstances of the 20th century, the realization of the Distributist plan was a virtual impossibility. That was honest of him. The hard question that Belloc did not address was why the passing of the medieval system should have occurred in the first place. Fanfani’s explanation was essentially circular: The manifestation of the capitalist spirit in scattered individuals progressively weakened European society’s resolve to adhere to ecclesiastical ethics, while unscrupulous capitalist practices on behalf of limitless profits compelled more scrupulous merchants to imitate these or go to the wall. But surely the matter goes deeper than that. Granting that medieval Europe was a Christian civilization, we may not conclude from this that all, or even the majority of, Europeans were better than nominal Christians; that their belief was more than lip service, hypocrisy, compulsion, or all three—as is the case with every other society, whatever its professed religion, before and since. The medieval world came apart and took new form because Christian society, Christian government, Christian economy are impossible on a scale much greater than that of the homogeneous and disciplined Christian community of the first century a.d. In short, Christian society, on a large scale, is simply too good for a fallen world. Because Christian economics is an expression of supernatural values, it slowly evaporated in the heat of the natural appetitive values encouraged by the capitalist temptation. In retrospect, from the perspective of the 21st century, early capitalism—say, from the Renaissance until the industrial age—was, in secular terms, a humane and beneficent thing, a fact the Distributists failed to appreciate. It harmonized with both the revolt against political absolutism and the spirit of bourgeois democracy. It is odd that Chesterton, who admitted to a sympathy for revolutionaries, should have overlooked the relationship of capitalism with the equalitarianism of which he approved.
After 1800, all this changed. Once capitalism merged with and became industrialism, it ceased to be a beneficial force for human progress; instead, it became a progressively destructive one. Preindustrial commercial capitalism—the capitalism of the Hanseatic League, the Dutch East India Company, and its British counterpart—never provoked the hatred and loathing that Blake’s dark satanic mills did, nor is it plausible to imagine Marx devoting an indictment in three volumes against it. The background and the subject of Das Kapital was industrial capitalism; so too the work of Belloc, Chesterton, Penty, and Father McNabb, and the writings of virtually every anticapitalist in Karl Marx’s time, and since.
Capitalism was determined from the beginning first to infuse society with capitalist values, next to tame government, and finally to capture it. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had largely accomplished all these aims, as the final dethronement, first of the restored Bourbons, then of the Napoleons, in France demonstrated. Capitalism was the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie was the government. After about the middle of that century, however, power began to move again—this time in the other direction. By merging with industrialism, capitalism overreached itself. This happened because people rapidly recognized that industrialism was so huge a force that it required a countervailing force to stand against it and control it, and that force could only be government.
From that time until the middle of the 20th century, politics in the Western world has been a struggle between two titans, industrial capitalism and the behemoth state, as each battles to gain supremacy over the other. But since the Great Depression and World War II, the nature of that struggle has changed as both sides, realizing that final victory is not only impossible but undesirable as well, decided not simply to join forces but to fuse them into a vast interlocking corporate state, recognizably neither a capitalist nor a political entity but a single though complexly differentiated Power whose public and private elements are indistinguishable from each other, and which is inherently undemocratic, and indeed tyrannical. The Promethean urge to what Jouvenel called “Power” explains much of this, but there is an equally important element at work as well. It has to do with what economists call “externalities,” meaning the unintended effects produced by industrial activity for which industry accepts no responsibility and which must therefore be addressed by the government. Because governmental efficiency declines in proportion to the scope of its activity, the inevitable result is the generation of still more “externalities” and with them greater power granted to the government to rectify “problems” it can only go through the motions of “solving.” In this way, the industrial-governmental complex—the corporate bureaucratic state—grows apace in the midst of rapidly advancing social and environmental chaos, crowding out and smothering democratic institutions in the process.
The true enemy of democracy was never capitalism; it has always been industrialism, for all the material benefits it has created, the most naturally, socially, and politically destructive and dehumanizing institution yet devised by the human race.