Economist Joseph Schumpeter famously asked, “Can capitalism survive?”
His next sentence: “No, I do not think it can.”
This was back in 1942, and socialism was in the ascendancy. It feels somewhat similar in 2021, given the economic policies of the Biden administration, and the money-printing activities of the Federal Reserve, the ECB and Central Banks worldwide.
Yet the problem Schumpeter identified was not one of economics, but one of people. He thought that capitalism depends on broad popular support, but saw that it would breed its own enemies, and that its beneficiaries would fail miserably in defending the system that brought them wealth and comfort.
The most visible enemies of capitalism, in Schumpeter’s analysis, are intellectuals. Although he was an intellectual himself – employed as a university professor – he took an extremely dim view of the intellectual class. Intellectuals are a nuisance for capitalism. In Schumpeter’s phraseology, they lack the “firsthand knowledge” that only “actual experience” can bring, and so they are envious onlookers, purveyors of uninformed criticism.
The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.… All those who are unemployed or unsatisfactorily employed or unsatisfactorily unemployable drift into the vocations in which standards are least definite or in which aptitudes and acquirements of a different order count. They swell the host of intellectuals … whose numbers increase disproportionately. They enter it in a thoroughly discontented frame of mind. Discontent breeds resentment. And it often rationalizes itself into … social criticism … [and] moral disapproval of the capitalist order.Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph A Schumpeter
Capitalism creates sufficient wealth for the economy to support positions for intellectuals who do not produce, merely comment, and, as a result, the system comes under attack from those whose very occupations are made possible by the efforts of the entrepreneurs and capitalists who drive the economy in a ceaseless process of innovation, improvement and wealth creation.
But Schumpeter’s analysis goes beyond the commonplace observation that intellectuals are anti-capitalist. His argument is more complex: that capitalism’s success undermines the social institutions that protect it, creating “conditions in which it will not be able to live”.
Capitalism operates not primarily for the wealthy, but in the interests of the average person. Capitalism shortens their workweek, delivers leisure, excellent affordable and fashionable clothing, appliances of every kind, entertainment and education. This progress, in Schumpeter’s analysis, is the work of a minority: creative entrepreneurs who convert scientific discovery into items of pleasurable experience and valued benefits for customers. Capitalism enlists these entrepreneurial individuals of unusual talent and energy.
But these bold spirits become submerged. As capitalist corporations become bigger due to their success, they add layers of salaried employees – the “organization men” of capitalism – and the spirit of capitalism withers because these employees do not have the entrepreneurial spirit of founders and owners. These are the individuals who benefit from the system but fail to defend it from the intellectuals’ attack. These are the middle managers and bureaucrats within firms, accountants, engineers, systems wizards, marketing analysts, media manipulators, laboratory, technicians and associated technical experts who are paid and rewarded directly with the fruits of capitalism, yet don’t think sufficiently deeply about the system to develop an appreciation for the benefits it provides them.
The self-destruction is built-in to capitalism in Schumpeter’s view. The system depends on general popular approval, which you’d think it would receive, given that capitalism improves the life of everyone who participates. However, there is a transitional element to the progress that capitalism brings, and it’s one with a detrimental effect. As the large corporations grow, they hire more and more administrators, drawing from a pool of individuals who, in the past, would have been entrepreneurial proprietors of smaller capitalist enterprises, what today we disparagingly call small business. Capitalism is, in this way, making progress that is self-destructive. Capitalism declines into administrative routine.
The perfectly bureaucratized giant industrial unit not only ousts the small or medium-sized firm and “expropriates” its owners, but in the end, it also ousts the entrepreneur and “expropriates” the bourgeoisie as a class which in the process stands to lose not only its income, but also what is infinitely more important, its function.Ibid
And what about the leaders of the large corporations who perpetrate this “expropriation”? They come to believe that, in the era of big government, the best way to protect their interests is cronyism, a sort of business-controlled socialism in which the profits of the big companies are preserved, while the risks are socialized via legislative and regulatory “protections” enacted by the state.
A New Entrepreneurial Resurgence.
Schumpeter’s pessimism can be quite persuasive as one observes the decline of capitalism today into bureaucratic corporations integrated with an even more bureaucratic welfare state that promotes dependency over initiative, creativity and hard work.
But his analysis is too one-directional and does not accommodate feedback loops. The corporate administrators and technocrats will become unfulfilled, bored and alienated. They will not accept that all they can expect is the wage that is paid to them for their labor hours. They will observe that the entrepreneur can obtain market rewards from many other sources, including capital from investors or loans from banks, and eventually returns on equity and on creativity. Entrepreneurship also opens up new streams of psychic and life rewards, from a sense of achievement to purpose and meaning, and the comradeship of working in highly motivated entrepreneurial teams. Life is better for entrepreneurs.
Capitalism has recently made new advances that reverse the trends that Schumpeter observed – what he called “automatizing progress”, i.e. taking the vibrantly creative entrepreneur out of the process of economic progress and substituting routinized work methods. Now, new forms of productive capital enable more individuals to choose the entrepreneurial route, by harnessing the tools of the internet, including open source and low cost software, networking systems to organize decentralized innovation, and newly capable ecosystems such as IoT. Entrepreneurs can become designers of new consumer experiences and of new markets. They can innovate by connecting things rather than building or inventing them. They can connect devices and sensors and software and data streams to personalize experiences for customers. It does not require the resources of a giant corporation, and it often does not even require a lot of financial capital (and, when it does, there are a myriad of new sources).
Today, it is far easier to seize the emotionally fulfilling high ground of entrepreneurship, and to reject the stultifying bureaucracy of corporate process and routine and hierarchy. People can substitute the joy of creativity and initiative for the alienation and insecurity of the cubicle and the spirit-draining scheduled meeting on Microsoft Teams.
A new generation of entrepreneurs and their firms is arising and will defy the decay of the capitalist spirit that Schumpeter anticipated.