CapitalismEssaysThe Left

On the Heilbroner Center’s Manifesto

Explanation and Critique

In our opinion, the document drafted by Julia Ott and Will Milberg for the new Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies should be the beginning of a debate among NSSR faculty about the Center’s mission rather than a final manifesto. There are many claims in the document with which we wholeheartedly agree: the pressing necessity to return to discussing and analyzing large structures, long processes, and big questions; the idea that capitalism must be a central object of study and concern; the interpretation of capitalism as a social process; the identification of various power relations as critical determinants of economic outcomes; and the acknowledgment that economic theories operate as political ideologies. Further, we agree with Ott and Milberg that capitalism “should not be assumed.” However, we think that it should not be only “explained,” as the present document suggests, but also, by the same token, criticized. Critique, indeed, is a constitutive part of the explanation of social phenomena and processes, and explaining capitalism without criticizing it does amount to assuming it.

It seems to us that the document’s assumption of capitalism becomes clear, for example, in its concluding normative political proposal. It reads:

The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies aims to develop theoretical and analytic tools that can help us to envision and to instantiate different and better capitalisms — local and global — for the future. A more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable form of capitalism must begin with incisive and interdisciplinary social inquiry, without which policy change cannot be successful.

While we do not object in principle to reforms that could improve the living conditions of millions, we cannot but wonder whether envisioning a more human and generous capitalism as the only logical alternative to the current situation should be assumed as the Center’s mission. On the contrary, we think that a wider range of critical stances should be incorporated into the Center’s mission-statement, allowing room, among other things, to stances that positively reject the capitalist assumption. Moreover, the New School for Social Research should not, in our opinion, run the risk of turning the Center into another think tank for policy building within the capitalist horizon.

In spite of the vast array of literature on alternative economic models, the research questions enumerated in the document do not invite comprehensive study of the systemic alternatives to capitalism. None of the questions listed addresses the closely related ecological crisis or the pressing contradiction between capitalist accumulation and the planet’s ecological preservation. None of the questions listed mentions the connection between capitalism and war, colonial and neo-colonial expansion, or the ongoing expropriation of people from their land and from the commons. In other words, we don’t think that the document’s abstract recognition that capitalism is “violent” does enough to take a critical stance towards its dangers. Finally, none of the questions on the list mentions racialization, forced migration, and gender inequality. We believe that explaining the relations between capitalism and such forms of expropriation, displacement, ecological destruction, war, and inequality is necessary. Are these relations constitutive of capitalism or merely contingent? In other words, is there such a thing as what the document describes as “humane” capitalism, or is “generous, egalitarian” capitalism a contradiction in terms? We believe that the task of the New School’s Center for Capitalism Studies should be explicitly addressing these as open questions.

As already said, the critique of capitalism should be constitutive to its explanation, starting from the presupposition that capitalism is not only a social process, but also a social relation. In other words, capitalism is not a machine: it is the product of our own activity and practices, organized through specific social relations. To be sure, we are confident that such views as expressed above will be welcome as part of the repertoire of the Heilbroner Center. This is only continuous with the democratic and critical culture that has characterized the New School from its very beginnings. But this is not enough. If the Center for Capitalism Studies aspires to promote a pluralistic path of inquiry, to explain and criticize capitalism without assuming it, radical critiques of capitalism should be included as part of the Center’s mission — not just tolerated as an exception to it. We hope that a debate on different explanation methods and critiques will open up, and that a final manifesto will answer to these concerns.

Also for you:

Cinzia Arruzza

  • I find this critique to be interesting, provocative and problematic. Yes, thinking about alternatives to capitalism may be an important intellectual project. but there should be full awareness that the statement that there is a “vast array of literature on alternative economic
    models” is a long way from any evidence that any of these models is possible or desirable. Models perhaps, practices not so much.

    I, further, see little evidence that there is a systemic alternative to the modern economy, aka capitalism, and a lot of evidence that capitalism comes in a variety of different forms, some much more desirable than others. Totalized critiques of capitalism may blind us from real alternatives to neo-liberalism, as do unqualified celebrations of the free market. Totalized critiques also may lead us to too quickly and too directly explain problems of race, gender, ecology and war as manifestations of capitalism.

    • grungewort

      (from a grad student at the nssr who finds the Arruzza/Boehm piece extremely valuable)

      Prof. Goldfarb, you confuse a few issues here. Evidence that an alternative economic models is desirable is as easy as pointing to it not being exploitative. Whether such a model is “possible” hangs on whether you’re as defeated, pessimistic, and historically blind as you seems to be. After seemingly conflating evidence of desirability with evidence of possibility, you shift emphasis to other possibilities and deny them as such. There have, however, been such a tremendous diversity in the social organization of need-fulfillment throughout history such that your inability to see possible alternatives is truly shocking. Capitalism, in whatever form you think it today, is relatively new on the scene, and a result of human interaction. Of course change is possible, even large-scale social-organizational and ultimately economic-systemic change is possible – we’ve seen it happen. In the end, new social practices are possible if we, collectively, can find a way to make them possible.

      Then there’s an aversion to total-critique, but no explanation at all. How does critique of capital as a social totality blind us to “real alternatives to neo-liberalism”? “Neo-liberalism” is usually taken to refer to the total organization of current capitalism, so your thought here is opaque if not contradictory.

      Finally, the authors are careful to avoid the too-quick-and-direct explanation you’re worried about. Regarding specified social ills, they ask for “connections” an account of specific “dangers” and an explanation of “relations” to capitalism. You conflate total critique with an absolute, levelled reduction to the economic, but this is far from the authors’ intent.

      • I am a professor at NSSR and I, like “grungewort,” find the Arruzza/Boehm piece valuable, even as I see problems in it. I am sorry that I shock, but deny that I am blind, defeated or pessimistic. Is this really the most democratic way to characterize someone with whom you disagree?

        I just don’t think that the way fundamental change will happen is through the transformation of the mode of production, into something radically different. My long and intimate experience with the socialism of the 20th century teaches me this, and makes me doubt the analytic value of social totality as a concept and concerned about the political dangers of such analysis. Rather I think the progressive way to go is by focusing on minimizing exploitation, and addressing a whole range of social, cultural and political problems directly. And I think that Ken Wark has a very important point to make about the transformation of exploitation in his last post by the way.

        That said I am committed to free open public debate and exploration, my first political and intellectual commitment, and find the unfolding discussion about capitalism and capitalism studies here to be a very fruitful one.

        • Chiara Bottici

          should we not add to this debate the observation that capitalism is an historical formation that appeared at a certain point in time and there is no reason to assume a priori that it will not disappear? it seems to me that to do justice to the motto “another world is possible” one should always begin with the observation that “another world is what we are going to get anyway”

          • Julia

            we sure are, Chiara! I need to make some time to get over to Wark’s posting to say more about that …

          • Julia

            And I mean “get over” in the sense of “spending time with it.”

          • I, like, Julia, also agree, Chiara. When I say I see no viable systemic alternative to capitalism, I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t other ways of doing things in the past, or that there cannot be others in the future. I have my doubts, though, about the relationship between theory and practice, about the desirable way of willing a transformation of a total alternative. I am not convinced that our imagination politically empowered will yield something better. I also am concerned that such action cannot be democratically realized. This is complicated. I think we ought to organize a public discussion about it, which we can record and post. I also think we should examine this in a sustained way. Perhaps in a course on democracy studies.

    • Charles Snyder

      Professor Goldfarb, This is a heavy-handed use of ‘evidence’ to monitor the bounds of “diverse inquiry” (the Manifesto’s phrasing) *before* the inquiry of the Center has even begun. It seems fairly uncontroversial to generalize the Center’s Manifesto as in part an inquiry into what ought to count as ‘evidence’ about capitalism’s woes or virtues. If the “evidence” you have in mind is as demonstrative as it seems to you already, the aim of the Center would be less pressing. Let’s also be aware that arguments of the slippery slope form (e.g., “Totalized critiques may lead …” or “… may blind …”) often express more fear than rationality, because so-called ‘evidence’ of the possible or desirable is not so readily demonstrative. I second the call by Profs. Arruzza/Boehm for a final manifesto which invites fearless critique without presumption.

      • I also support the Arruzza/Boehm call for “fearless critique without presumption,” along with open discussion. I wasn’t using evidence to monitor the bounds of discussion, but joining the debate. My judgment that there is not systemic alternative is not the final position on the matter but part of the debate. I draw upon my observations of previously existing socialism, and my conviction that critique should point to the possible, even if not the probable. Thus I believe it is important to note the different forms of capitalism, with some being much more desirable than others. That said, I expect and welcome alternative positions, and as far as socialism goes, I would love to be convinced that I am wrong.

    • J. Crisostomo de Souza

      That’s a very good point (from the perspective of my life long, activist, political, intelectual experience)

  • Guest

    You confuse a few issues here. Evidence that an alternative economic models is desirable is as easy as pointing to it not being exploitative. Whether such a model “is possible” hangs on whether you’re as defeated, pessimistic, and historically blind as you seems to be. After seemingly conflating evidence of desirability with evidence of possibility, you shift emphasis to other possibilities and deny them as such. There have, however, been such a tremendous diversity in the social organization of need-fulfillment throughout history that your inability to see possible alternatives is truly shocking. Capitalism, in whatever form you think it today, is relatively new on the scene, and a result of human interaction. Of course change is possible, even large-scale social-organizational and ultimately economic-systemic change is possible. In the end, new social practices are possible if we, collectively, can find a way to make them possible.

    Then there’s an aversion to total-critique, but no explanation at all. How does critique of capital as a social totality blind us to “real alternatives to neo-liberalism”? “Neo-liberalism” is usually taken to refer to the total organization of current capitalism, so the thought here is opaque if not contradictory. Finally, the authors are careful to avoid the too-quick-and-direct explanation you’re worried about. Regarding specified social ills, they ask for “connections” an account of specific “dangers” and an explanation of “relations” to capitalism. You conflate total critique with an absolute, levelled reduction to the economic, but this is far from the authors’ intent.

  • zev f.

    I came to less expansive, yet identical conclusions in my comment on the “manifesto” page. I would now like to briefly offer a different approach.

    We ought take the silent symphony of the Center’s inception seriously and radicalize further: reforming the Heilbroner Apparatus is like reforming Capitalism. Real critique and real resistance are possible from within. But not like this— it’s too institutional. The New School has other (less monied) machinery available and perhaps we should turn our attention there. When and where?

    • Julia

      Zev, if only we were monied …

      • Julia

        Not that I don’t support un-monied action! Just wanted to be clear that we don’t have our hands caught in any tills.

        • zev f.

          Then leave room for everyone at the party! I would copy paper and get coffee. And post comments on message boards if required. Without a wage would be ok.

          Thank you for that response. That is excellent, but I think that should be made clear in the manifesto! Non virtual public meeting would be cool. If my thoughts are not shared / should be shared elsewhere / uninformed about the Center, my bad.

  • David McKnight

    I’ve just been reading Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto and the surrounding debate at PS and I‘d like to offer some comments from Australia. (I teach at the University of New South Wales in Sydney).

    I think so many on the Left still don’t understand (or emotionally reject) the implications of the failure of the model of radical socialism which has been tried in many countries, starting with Russia in 1917. Like so many others, I believed for a long while that this failure was due to the circumstances of the experiment — but there’s enough
    evidence to conclude that societies without some form of market
    system and some form of private property will inevitably result in forms
    of political dictatorship.

    The main implication of the historic events in 1989-91, in my view, is that we must realise that some form of ‘mixed economy’ is the only possible way of organizing a better society. Accepting this gets us to the first step, but analytically there is still a long way to go because this then raises a series of questions about the struggle for a moral, cultural, social and environmental framework in which this mixed economy functions. Part of all this is to recognize that there
    are varieties of capitalism — including some not yet tried.

    For me, the challenge is to develop the critique of corporate power and an acknowledgment of the threats posed by neo-liberal capitalism (above all for the climate) into a new manifesto which can underpin a new kind of radical movement. – David McKnight

  • Julia

    As I historian I believe that when we identify a subject (here, capitalism) for historical or social inquiry, we are engaged already
    in a form of critique. We’re saying, “hey! this isn’t natural, this didn’t just happen, someone benefited at the expense of others, someone should be held accountable.” (So far, it never seems to be an
    undifferentiated mass of ‘capitalists.’)

    I think one needs to dive into the belly of the beast and understand how it works and how it came be before one can critique capitalism or propose an alternative in a responsible fashion. Critical and normative engagement should be empirically informed, in my humble opinion. But that’s the perspective of a historian, not the perspective of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies.

    I can, however, assure you that the Center will not become just “another think tank for policy building within the capitalist horizon.” Quite to the contrary. One of the motivations behind establishing the Center was the recognition that there is too little space in the academic universe to start from first principles, to identify and to re-examine all our most fundamental assumptions about capitalism. However, we did wish to emphasize that all the new policy-oriented centers that have been established since the financial crisis suffer from the disciplinary and ethical myopia. The Heilbroner Center aims to differ in that respect.

    So of course the Heilbroner Center must consider alternatives
    to capitalism. Indeed, you’ll see this ‘alternatives question’ posed in our sampling of themes of interest included in the Center’s manifesto. In Rethinking Capitalism, the Center’s signature graduate course, we’ve spent the last two weeks critiquing capitalism with an eye to alternatives. My recent Public Seminar posting on slavery and capitalism – summarizing a lecture that I delivered in the same course – elaborated at length on manifold forms of violence (dispossession,
    forced migration, systemic rape) and racialization that gave rise to and
    sustained capitalism in its first three centuries. One manifesto can’t say everything. Even so, we can certainly revise it in light of these invaluable comments in order to make it clear that critique can be constituent of explanation.

    Even so, we should be equally cautious and skeptical about the mode of critique we apply (“what are your assumptions?” as Ayn Rand used
    to ask every new acquaintance). My work as a historian has made me highly suspicious about both of the following premises:

    1) capitalism is irredeemable*
    2) capitalism is perfectible

    As Jeff and others have already argued at length, actually-existing historical alternatives (whether communist, pre-capitalist, or non-capitalist) don’t exhibit a particularly impressive historical track
    record on peace, ecological stewardship, anti-imperialism or gender equity – especially if you consider large-scale modern social formations. We don’t have to talk about the Soviet Union. We can talk about the Comanche Empire.

    Personally, I consider it imperative to keep the ‘alternatives question’ alive because it pushes the debate about current and ideal economic
    arrangements to the left. But I speak here for myself, not the Center.

    The Heilbroner Center aims to erect a very big tent and I think the very fact that we’re having this conversation – in public no less – bodes very well for the Center’s future. We can neither improve capitalism nor replace it without sustained and wide-ranging interdisciplinary inquiry and debate. I particularly like the suggestion that we talk
    in terms of a “better economic system” and/or a “more accountable for of economic organization.”

    Thank you, colleagues!

    *Although after the unconscionable verdict against Cecily McMillan, I’m feeling a more sympathetic to this position today. And to think I marched with my six year old during Occupy to teach her about (and normalize) our freedom of assembly, our right to get mad, to get up, and to get out there and to shout about it in order to make change happen.

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