American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century

American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century

American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century

American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the legitimacy of American capitalism seems unchallenged. The link between open markets, economic growth, and democratic success has become common wisdom, not only among policy makers but for many intellectuals as well. In this instance, however, the past has hardly been prologue to contemporary confidence in the free market. American Capitalism presents thirteen thought-provoking essays that explain how a variety of individuals, many prominent intellectuals but others partisans in the combative world of business and policy, engaged with anxieties about the seismic economic changes in postwar America and, in the process, reconfigured the early twentieth-century ideology that put critique of economic power and privilege at its center.

The essays consider a broad spectrum of figures--from C. L. R. James and John Kenneth Galbraith to Peter Drucker and Ayn Rand--and topics ranging from theories of Cold War "convergence" to the rise of the philanthropic Right. They examine how the shift away from political economy at midcentury paved the way for the 1960s and the "culture wars" that followed. Contributors interrogate what was lost and gained when intellectuals moved their focus from political economy to cultural criticism. The volume thereby offers a blueprint for a dramatic reevaluation of how we should think about the trajectory of American intellectual history in twentieth-century United States.


At the opening of the twenty-first century, the power and pervasiveness of American capitalism and of the equation that links open markets to democratic institutions has become a large part of the common wisdom. Words like reform and liberalization now denote the process whereby a global market in labor, capital, and ideas replaces the regulatory regimes, either authoritarian or social democratic, that were erected during and after the Great Depression. in 1960, when Daniel Bell famously announced an “end of ideology in the West,” he was noting that the debate about the viability of capitalism, which had consumed intellectuals and social theorists for two generations, had been transformed into a calculation that subordinated the market to a purposeful, yet well-constrained set of social and political compromises.

But thirty years later, when Francis Fukuyama coined his now (in) famous catchphrase, “the end of history,” he spoke for an ideologically self-confident set of policy intellectuals who saw the capitalist market itself as culturally and politically determinative. “Liberal democracy combined with open market economics has become the only model a state can follow,” wrote Fukuyama in the months just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was another way of arguing for what Margaret Thatcher had also asserted, when her efforts to deregulate business and dismantle the welfare state ran into Labour Party resistance, “There is no alternative.”

The events of September 11, 2001, have done little to alter such selfconfidence. “The sort of people who work in financial markets are not merely symbols but also practitioners of liberty,” wrote Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine shortly after the attack. “They do not suffer constraints on their private ambitions, and they work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint.… It tells you something about the worldview of the terrorists that they crashed half their arsenal into the World Trade Center. They believed that the bond traders are as critical as the U.S. generals and the politicians to extending liberty’s influence in the world. They may be right. and that should make you feel proud.”

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.