Magazine article The American Conservative

Capitalism's Balance

Magazine article The American Conservative

Capitalism's Balance

Article excerpt

No man of the 19th century breathed the spirit of Old Europe as deeply as the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt. He invented the Renaissance-in the sense that his 1860 book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, gave the period its name and general definition. In his own time, Burckhardt watched the industrial revolution and spread of democracy with an acute awareness of what was being lost, as well as insight into the dangers that lay ahead. He wrote in 1890, "One day odious capitalism from above and the hungry urge from below will crash into one another like two expresses on the same line." A year earlier, he had warned of the "terrible simplifiers" who would flourish in the world to come. Europe's history in the half-century following his death in 1897 amply attests to his prescience.

The United States has been lucky by comparison. Those same 50 years took us through the Great Depression and into two World Wars, but class revolution and military dictatorship remained foreign to our shores. America set out on the path to industrial capitalism and mass democracy much earlier than Europe, and America succeeded-not without great effort-at creating a middle class that would moderate the extremes of above and below.

Historical perspective on this achievement-and how things could have turned out very differently, as indeed they did in the Old World-is something Americans can ill afford to lose as we take stock of our situation today. Since the Great Recession, progressives and conservatives alike have begun to look more critically at capitalism. On the left, this has translated into movements like Occupy Wall Street and the rapturous reception of books like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. …

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