The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity, Equality and Liberty
In case you haven’t noticed, capitalism is making a comeback. After World War II, it seemed that socialism might sweep the globe. It was certainly in the saddle in the two most populous countries, China and India, as well as in ascendancy in other countries that make up the Third World. But as the century wanes, socialism’s appeal is fading--for want, more than anything else, of acceptable models. Wherever one looks today, capitalism appears to be gaining the upper hand.
It’s fitting then that we should now have Peter L. Berger’s artful, interesting analysis of the culture of capitalism. “The Capitalist Revolution” will become, I believe, a manifesto for people who uphold the superiority of capitalism over socialism, although Berger, a sociologist, does not present it as such. He offers his book as an attempt to construct a theory of capitalism as it has affected society. He does so by concentrating on linkages: the relationship of capitalism and socialism to democracy, economic development, individual liberty, equality.
Along the way, he propounds, based on the evidence he brings to bear, his 50 propositions, among them: “Industrial capitalism has generated the greatest productive power in human history” (No. 1); “Capitalist development is more likely than socialist development to improve the material standard of life of people in the contemporary Third World, including the poorest groups” (No. 27); “The East Asia evidence falsifies the thesis that a high degree of state intervention in the economy is incompatible with successful capitalist development” (No. 34).
Berger is careful not to present these propositions as his principles, nor does he impute to them any moral superiority. He insists they are working hypotheses, and he invites others to produce evidence to validate or disprove them. In other words, Berger is saying, “Here’s how it is, as far as I can see. If you think differently, prove it.” It smacks a little of someone framing a question in such a manner that the answer is inevitable--i.e., “Capitalism is really better than socialism for engendering democracy and individual liberty, however, if you don’t value those attributes, then it may not be for you”--but Berger’s argument is nevertheless compelling, and it will be difficult for socialists to refute.
One reason for its power is Berger’s commanding grasp of the social forces underlying modern history. He is at home in the world of ideas, and he is a pleasure to read because he writes cogently and with a dry sense of humor. He will bring a smile to your face even as you confront such issues as the relationship of capitalism to modernity (technological advances aren’t the exclusive province of capitalism), religion (Max Weber said capitalism flowed from Protestantism, but it seems to have taken root in the non-Protestant climes of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan) and traditionalism (capitalism tends to tear down institutions like the family in its promotion of individual autonomy).
Berger is also clever enough to point out in his penultimate chapter the difficulty that anyone has in creating a manifesto for capitalism. Socialism, he says, has spiritual power, going back to “the communitarian tradition of Western Christianity.” The socialists are believers, and it makes no difference that experience doesn’t validate that belief--like true believers, they keep shifting the location of the promised land. “If the Soviet Union could no longer be held up as the locale of realized socialist ideals, then it had to be China; if not China, then Cuba or Vietnam or Mozambique or Nicaragua, and so on.”
In contrast, Berger explains, “Capitalism is and always has been mythically deprived.” He suggests that the reason for this is that capitalism “is an economic system and nothing else”; it just works, there’s no poetry to it. So Berger’s final proposition asserts that capitalism is simply incapable of generating myths that inspire adherents. And he adds: “This hypothesis would be falsified on the day when poets sing the praises of Dow Jones and when large numbers of people are ready to risk their lives in defense of the Fortune 500.”