Capitalism, Free Enterprise And Progress: Partners Or Adversaries?

By Darian Worden. The Industrial Revolution is typically regarded as a story of capitalism, free enterprise, and progress in technology and living standards. This paper attempts to disentangle the threads of capitalism, free enterprise, and progress, in the context of the Industrial Revolution, with a focus on Britain and the United States. It aims to bring some historical perspectives into the current discourse.

This paper will explore the nature of progress, the controversy of living standards, the coercion that existed at the birth of the industrial revolution, and potential alternative points of departure for historical progress. What is the relation between capitalism, free enterprise, and progress? Who benefited from them? Was the specific form that industrialism took the most beneficial of plausible alternatives?

Capitalism, free enterprise, and technological and social progress need to be unbundled from the package idea of the Industrial Revolution. A rough definition of capitalism for this purpose would be:

a social system typified by 1) the control of workplaces by owners who are not laborers in the firm, 2) the direction of work to profit these owners, and 3) social hierarchies produced by these economic relations. Free enterprise could be defined as: a state of affairs in which goods and services are produced and exchanged according to consensual agreements between producers and traders. Technological and social progress means: The improvement of general living conditions and the advance of technology.

Of course all of these definitions are themselves at least somewhat contentious. Capitalism has a number of definitions, and some would contend that the mere accumulation of capital implies or even necessitates a certain social relationship. Free enterprise is also problematic. It suggests either “relatively free enterprise,” some kind of gradation, or an abstraction that is useful as a model but not fully achievable. And determining whether specific examples of activity do or do not constitute free enterprise can also be tricky. The relationship between technological progress and social progress is not always so clear, as will be shown below. But the concepts are sufficiently clear for a useful study.


The Enlightenment was a historical movement well suited to foster a culture of innovation. Enlightenment principles can be characterized by a belief in reason, and an emphasis on human capability and earthly dignity. These principles combined with the printing press and the fracturing of religious and political authority accelerated the progress of science and ethics in Western Europe.


It is of prime importance to examine the political context in which a socio-economic system operates. If the market functions on “higgling and bargaining” and coercion exerts significant pressure on the “higgiling and bargaining,” then is the term “free market” really appropriate? And how free is enterprise in such a market?

British industrialization took place at a time in which the rulers of Europe were terrified of the French Revolution, an event whose proclamation of liberty, equality, and fraternity resonated widely among individuals who labored under the old order. Because access to land and resources was distributed according to political privilege and not occupancy and use, the masters of the productive process were able to prevent industrial and agricultural labor from living autonomous and prosperous lives.

E.P. Thompson, in his classic text The Making of the English Working Class, characterizes the years 1760 to 1820 as “years of wholesale enclosure, in which, in village after village, common rights are lost, and the landless and – in the south – pauperized labourer is left to support the tenant-farmer, the landowner, and the tithes of the Church.” Enclosure of the commons severely restricted opportunities for personal autonomy, creating a more controllable workforce. This phenomenon was not unrecognized at the time. An article in Commercial and Agrictultural Magazine in the year 1800 cautioned against distributing too much land to the laborer because,

When a labourer becomes possessed of more land than he and his family can cultivate in the evenings… the farmer can no longer depend on him for constant work…

Possessing the means of subsistence could “transform the labourer into a petty farmer; from the most beneficial to the most useless of all the applications of industry.” Though this primarily concerns agricultural, not industrial workers, the principle remains that potential employees who are well off will likely demand more compensation for their labor than those who have few other options.

The worker’s options were further restricted by legal inequities. At a time when combination acts targeted trade unions and reform organizations, large manufactures colluded with each other to cut off the power of exit from the workers‟ bargaining chips.

Such a state of affairs did not pass without resistance. Reform societies sprung up to agitate for more liberty for commoners. Jacobins and other radicals circulated subversive literature, including the works of Thomas Paine. An influential book was Volney’s Ruins of Empire, excerpts of which were circulated as a Jacobin tract during the 1790s. Ruins contains a segment dividing society among two classes of people. The majority of people “by useful labours contribute to the support and maintenance of society.”

They were “labourers, artisans, tradesmen, and every profession useful to society,” and they were exploited by “a petty group, a valueless fraction,” who were “none but priests, courtiers, public accountants, commanders of troops, in short, the civil, military, or religious agents of government.”

The state resorted to all sorts of measures to suppress radical threats to the established order. E.P. Thompson describes legal decrees breaking up reform societies, police spies, executions, and paying of mobs to terrorize reformers. Despite the repression, they continued to hold widespread public support and were admired at their trials.

Industrialization emerged from a context of coercion and social conflict.

The Standard of Living Controversy

Although industrialization resulted in a tremendous increase in aggregate wealth, the benefits did not immediately reach those on the bottom of the social hierarchy. Technological improvement should lead to widespread improvements in the quality of life. However, the social structure of capitalism impeded the general improvement in living conditions.

Evidence of unequal benefits is seen in Robert Fogel‟s study, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. In his examination of statistics of height, mortality, and nutrition, he concludes that the great advances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “brought only modest and uneven improvements in the health, nutritional status, and longevity of the lower classes before 1890.” An example of his findings is that:

Data on life expectancy in Great Britain reveal that although the life expectancy of the lower classes remained constant or declined in some localities during much of the nineteenth century, the life expectancy of the upper classes rose quite sharply. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the nineteenth century, the gap in life expectancy between the upper and lower classes increased by about 10 years.

Clearly the benefits of industrialization did not reach all the English people equally. As shown by examining the extensive political conflict and regime of coercion, such inequality was not a given, but a consequence of choice.

The influence of increased population density and migration on disease could be noted to explain the lack of longevity increase. But this is just another way of saying that the living conditions of the poor tended to be dangerous and unsanitary. The elimination of laboring in rural commons as a viable option meant that more people would be exposed to these conditions with less ability to improve them.

By the start of the twentieth century, longevity began to increase. By this time labor movements, increased social consciousness and valuation of production over command, a gradual accumulation of capital in lower classes, returns on previous investments in health and medicine, mutual aid organizations (including friendly societies), and accessible technological improvements allowed the benefits of industrialization to reach the lower classes to a greater extent.

It is also necessary to consider the subjective nature of living standards. Even if the factory worker could afford to consume more calories and work fewer hours than his ancestors who were agricultural workers, he might prefer working in the fresh air without foremen and stopwatches. However, the onslaught of the land monopoly and the brutal suppression of working class combination made this a less viable option.

While industrialization eventually raised living standards, it took many years for the benefits to reach those who were forced to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Capitalism Versus Free Exchange

Capitalism as a social relation can be characterized as a parasite on free exchange and scientific progress as they emerged from under the domination of state and church, a cause of distorting technological change to serve the ends of economic and political domination, and an obstacle that prevented the benefits of production from reaching everyone as evenly as they would in a comparatively undistorted free market.

John Thelwall, a prominent English Jacobin, denounced laws against the association of workers, as well as the “land monopoly,” enclosures, and “accumulation of capital,” declaring that “a small quantity of labour would be sufficient to supply necessaries and comforts, if property was well distributed.” He envisioned a society based on independent manufacturers, smallholders, and small traders, in which there existed protections for laborers.7 (It would be interesting to examine the extent to which combination acts prevented the rise of co-operative business organization as an egalitarian method of scaling up independent artisan enterprises to better compete with capitalist industry.)

Because coercion left workers with few means of subsistence besides hiring out their labor for long hours, they were unable to compete against the privileged. The closing of opportunities to labor worked to the advantage of the capitalist. In order to reclaim the ability to engage in some measure of free enterprise themselves, workers had to limit the control of capitalists; in other words they had to stifle the advance of capitalism. Because investments in new technology were made by the wealthy, research and implementation of new technology largely responded to the demands of the wealthy and prioritized profitability for owners over improved labor conditions.

Alternative Points of Departure for the Course of History

While it is difficult to make convincing counterfactual arguments, it is useful to discuss other possible courses of history in order to undermine arguments of historical necessity and demonstrate the relevance of the historical experience to current critiques of capitalist society.

The suppression of anti-scientific superstition and the enhancement of individual sovereignty could have provided incentives to labor freely for a better world. The technology and production methods produced by a free society would have been produced in a cultural atmosphere of comparative solidarity and an economic atmosphere of comparative egalitarianism. Instead of serfdom, starvation, and dark satanic mills, the worker could have produced in a freer workplace and lived in a freer society. A more equal rise in living standards combined with the more widespread investment in resources could have brought environmental concerns to prominence earlier.

Commercial customs involving pre-industrial craftsmen reveal a preference for fairness and quality. E.P. Thompson describes how wages were regulated by local custom. The social prestige of the worker or notions of fair prices, just wages, or standards of craftsmanship influenced prices. Profit and value was not measured only in monetary units. However, this state of affairs should not be idealized: Custom and guild associations created social hierarchies and cartelization by artisans, entrenching the privilege of some workers and limiting the mobility of others.

But customs in pre-industrial society are valuable as alternative points of departure, as the basis for a direction of improvement, instead of an inconvenience to be replaced with more brutal hierarchy. The rise of capitalism didn‟t destroy a free market, but it prevented one from emerging.

Political revolutions suppressed or recuperated by authoritarian elements in Europe and the United States during the period of industrialization failed to firmly establish the liberty that could have resulted in a more egalitarian technological flourishing. While libertarian and egalitarian ideas were developing during the period of industrialization, various elites managed to keep control of society and continue its operation along hierarchical and authoritarian lines.

An emphasis on liberty, equality, and fraternity, which was popular in radicalism of the period, would have been beneficial to the commons had they been allowed to take root. In her article “Reformulating the Commons,” Elinor Ostrom lists a series of factors that increase the likelihood of successful self-governing of commons by their users. Among these are trust and reciprocity among appropriators, and autonomy from external authorities. The prevalence of radical ideology could have increased trust and decreased enforcement costs, thus increasing the feasibility of self-governing commons with a minimal amount of hierarchy. Agriculture could then have been under stable control by laborers, benefitting food production, increasing the options for laborers, and enhancing the ability of workers to accumulate capital. But as it happened, the commons were stolen, laborers were left with little land, and the authoritarian political structure of the day would have regarded cooperative associations with suspicion at the very least.

Applicability to Modern Times

A disentangling of the threads of capitalism, free enterprise, and technological and social progress enables one to better separate good and ill in history. A lot of the evil that people endured for the goods delivered by technology was not necessary to suffer. This opens questions about industrialization in the abstract, as well as the direction of technology. Another area that could be examined is the improvement of agricultural techniques in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the extent to which monopoly prevented its gains from reaching most people.

Finding alternative points of departure in the voluntary associations and common customs of history can lead to an improved ability to find alternative points of departure in today’s associations and customs that can lead to a future of greater freedom.

Prosperity and progress did not require privilege. A sacrifice in living standards accompanied a sacrifice in freedom, and standards and freedom rose as the power of the master classes was upset and the benefits of technological progress were made more accessible.


  1. Carson, Kevin. Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. Charleston, South Carolina: BookSurge Publishing, 2007)
  2. Fogel, Robert. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  3. Long, Roderick. “Medical Insurance That Worked – Until Government ‘Fixed’ It.” Formulations, Winter 1993.
  4. Ostrom, Elinor. “Reformulating the Commons.”
  5. Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

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Can We Really Blame Sociopaths?

By David Swanson. I’ve been hearing increasingly from multiple quarters that the root of our problems is psychopaths and sociopaths and other loosely defined but definitely different beings from ourselves.  Rob Kall has produced a quite interesting series of articles and interviews on the subject.

I want to offer some words of caution if not respectful dissent.  I don’t think the “because chickenhawks” dissent found, for example, in John Horgan’s “The End of War” is sufficient.  That is to say, just because a politician doesn’t want to do the killing himself or herself doesn’t mean the decision to order killing in war, or in prison, or through poverty and lack of healthcare, or through climate change, isn’t heartless and calculating.  Psychopaths could be running our world from behind desks.

But are they?

When I look at national politicians in the United States — presidents and Congress members — I can’t identify any meaningful place to draw a line such that sociopaths would be on one side and healthy people on the other.  They all bow, to one degree or another, to corrupt influences.  They all make bad compromises.  There are differences in both policy positions and personal manners, but the differences are slight and spread along a continuum.  They all fund the largest killing machine in history.  The Progressive Caucus budget proposes slight increases in military spending, already at 57% of the discretionary budget.  Some support wars on “humanitarian” and others on genocidal grounds, but the wars look the same from the receiving end either way.

The slightly better Congress members come from slightly better districts, have taken slightly less money, and begin with slightly more enlightened ideologies.  Or at least that’s true much of the time on many issues.  Often, however, what makes the difference is personal experience.  Senator Diane Feinstein supports warrantless spying on everyone else, but objects when it’s turned against her.  Six years ago, Congressman Mike McNulty said he was voting against war funding because his brother had been killed in Vietnam.  Weren’t four million people killed there? Didn’t many of them have brothers and sisters and other loved ones?  Shouldn’t we oppose mass murder even if nobody in our immediate family has died from mass murder?  In Washington, no one is ashamed to explain their positions by their personal experiences; on the contrary, such rationales are deemed highly admirable — and not just among a certain group who stand apart as the sociopaths.

The spectrum of morality in our elected officials ranges from those who often indicate their concern and their desire to help if their own careers won’t suffer in any way, to those who take tentative stands for peace or justice if their own family is impacted, to those who talk a good line and always act against it, and all the way over to those who don’t even put up a pretense.  But all of this is within a culture where we routinely discuss the supposed need to “humanize” humans.  That is to say, we teach each other that foreigners are made more human when we see their photos and learn their names and stories and the stories of their loved ones in some trivial detail — as if we are supposed to imagine that people don’t have names or quirks or loved ones until we get a specific account of those things.

When it was revealed that a bunch of TV news guest experts on war were actually getting their talking points from the Pentagon, there was no way to watch the videos and distinguish the corrupt pundits from the truly independent ones.  They all talked the same.  The mercenary fraudsters fit right in.  It’s the same with any sociopaths in Congress.  They may be there, but how could one possibly spot the difference?

Kall raises the question of why people enjoy watching shows about sociopaths such as “House of Cards,” and speculates that people admire sociopaths’ ability to stay calm in crises, to express confidence, to project charisma, and to dominate and manipulate others.  That’s probably right.  And such shows spread sociopathy by example.  But there’s also the function such shows serve of explaining (accurately or not) why our government is so bad.  There’s also the joy of hoping against hope that Vice President Underwood will land in prison where so many of his real-life colleagues belong.  But watch the real-life “journalists” playing themselves on fictional TV interviews in these shows. They clearly don’t imagine themselves as having any value that can be lost by such charades.  Watch the advertisements for which many TV shows are filler, and you’ll see politicians routinely describing their opponents as behaving sociopathically.

Some experts believe sociopaths make the best CEOs of large corporations.  Everybody else recognizes that the CEOs of large corporations are given incentives to behave immorally, regardless of whether it impacts them emotionally in a typical manner or not.  Also encouraged to behave immorally are presidents and Congress members.

Well-designed governments encourage good behavior and bar against the potential for evil.  They treat 100% — not 2% or 10% or 80% — of elected officials as potential psychopaths.  Elections are made open and verifiable.  Bribery is forbidden.  Powers are checked and balanced.  Abuses are exposed and punished.  Secrecy is curtailed and openness required.  War powers are placed in a legislature or the public, or war abolished.  Standing armies are disbanded.  Profiteering and other conflicts of interest are avoided.  Adversarial journalism is encouraged.  Our government, in contrast, treats every elected official as a saint capable of overcoming all kinds of bribery and pressure to misbehave, while our culture encourages them and the rest of us to be anything but.

Many agree that we should reform our government, but is something else needed to handle the threat of sociopaths, in public and private life alike? Kall wants sociopaths to be identified and prevented from doing damage.  He wants them treated as alleged sex offenders are, despite the horrible failings of that approach and the much greater difficulty in identifying who is and who is not a sociopath.  Kall goes further, suggesting sterilization.  He writes that he would have happily shot and killed Nazis; and in the next breath lists billionaire Americans he considers parasites — later reassuring us that he doesn’t want to kill them.

The identification process is not clear cut.  Sociopathy seems to be something of a matter of degree, with some small degree reaching all of us.  We allowed our government to destroy Iraq, killing some million people and making millions more refugees, and we talk about that war in terms of how many Americans were killed and how many dollars it cost, as if Iraq doesn’t matter at all.  Or we talk about the military investment that will generate more wars as if it were a jobs program.  That behavior looks like sociopathy to others.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is the quintessential non-sociopath on Capitol Hill, the one member who voted against launching the past dozen years of wars.  But I was once in a room with her and other progressive members of Congress, relatively early in the Bush-Cheney rampage, proposing that impeachment be begun. Congresswoman Maxine Waters proposed opening an effort to impeach Vice President Cheney.  Excitement gripped us.  For an instant a few of us could imagine Congress pushing back against the lawlessness that has rolled on unimpeded to this day. And then Congresswoman Lee spoke up and said nobody had better do anything without getting approval from John Conyers.  And that was that.  Not sociopathy. But not pure principled morality either.

Studying the phenomenon of extreme cases at the other end of the spectrum from Rep. Lee is certainly desirable.  What makes John McCain or Hillary Clinton tick?  How could Dick Cheney contemplate ordering Americans to attack each other in the Straight of Hormuz in order to blame it on Iran and start a war?  How could George W. Bush laugh off his lies about Iraq and claim it didn’t matter?  How could he proudly declare he would waterboard people again if given the chance?  How could Barack Obama go to Copenhagen and intentionally and maliciously block any serious agreement to confront climate change?  How could he pretend to know that Gadaffi was going to slaughter Benghazians or that Assad used chemical weapons, when evidence has emerged that he couldn’t possibly have known any such things?

But if there have always been sociopaths everywhere, why are some societies doing more evil than others?  Has the 95% of humanity that is currently investing dramatically less in war than the United States, identified and controlled its sociopaths? Or have they, rather, created less evil paths to power and influence? If a sociopath wants power and influence, why not give him or her a system in which good behavior is rewarded? In 1928 Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, who cared not a damn for peace, worked night and day for the peace treaty known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact because he saw rewards in that direction and told his wife he might get himself a Nobel Peace Prize. Had power lain in the direction of war-making, that’s the direction Kellogg would have headed. If sociopaths make great propagandists, why not train better critical thinkers to see through the lies? Mentally healthy or not, our Congress members are holding off on bombing Syria or Iran because we’ve rejected the idea that doing so would improve things.

There is a danger, I think, in focusing on sociopaths’ existence as the problem, of developing a cure as bad as the disease.  Identifying a group of people to be targeted for discrimination, eugenics, imprisonment, or death seems like the habit of a culture that is itself more of a problem than are the genes of a small minority within it likely to be.  What kind of a culture would produce such an idea?  A sick one, I believe.

I agree with Kall that billionaires can be identified and their billions re-claimed.  Excellent proposal!  But not every immoral decider is a billionaire.  Nor do I find it likely that every politician who promotes some evil practice can be diagnosed as a sociopath or psychopath.  Wouldn’t it be easier to identify evil politicians by their evil deeds?  What would be gained by identifying them instead as the sort of people likely to do something evil, and giving that category of people a scientific name?  If an elected official fails to protect the environment, fails to advance peace and justice, fails to deal honestly and fairly with the people, he or she should be held accountable.  If recognizing that such a person’s emotions may not be functioning like ours helps us to reach them with our demands, terrific.  But if it prevents us from reaching their emotions in a way that we might have, and from communicating our views more widely in the process, then it’s hurting the cause of justice.

It’s not as if we can’t recognize the sociopaths coming.  Molly Ivins warned us about Bush.  He lost his election. Twice.  Many of us warned about Obama.  Twice.  But Bush wasn’t born destined to engage in extraordinary renditions.  Obama wasn’t born destined to drone-kill children on Tuesdays.  Our entire system moves in that direction.  Bush and Obama should be prosecuted and imprisoned, along with many of their colleagues — as a step toward fixing the system.  But their bodies shouldn’t be studied for clues about whom to sterilize.  Only a political culture already itself sterilized would think that was the solution.

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Future of love and sex: monogamy no longer the default, say experts

By Dick Pelletier. There’s a pervasive notion that monogamous relationships are the end-all-be-all – the default pact in human couplings that keep the fabric of society from being torn apart. But growing numbers of scientists believe monogamy is not our biological default; and may not even represent the best road to happiness.

Nearly all mammalian species demonstrate sexual promiscuity. Even mate-for-life prairie voles, the animal kingdom’s poster child of monogamous relationships produce pups from different fathers twenty percent of the time. Moreover, say historians, for humans, promiscuous behavior is not new at all.

    Anthropologists have uncovered clues to how our Paleolithic ancestors lived. Before the advent of agriculture, humans faced a short, brutal lifespan. Some survived to age 50, but most died young or at birth with average life expectancy in the 30-to-40 range.

With such a short lifespan, ancestral children were likely to experiment with sex by age six. Most couples lived in temporary relationships, and being unfaithful was common for these cave dwellers.

When our forbears found themselves in an unhappy situation, they simply walked away and found another cave. Scientists believe that hunter-gatherers had sex mostly for fun, not just to reproduce.

Rutgers University researcher Helen Fisher has written five books on the future of human sex, love, and relationships, and she believes that marriage has changed more in the last 100 years than the previous 10,000, and it could change more in the next 20 years than it did in the past 100!

David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots predicts that as robots become more sophisticated, growing numbers of adventurous humans will enter into intimate relationships with these intelligent ‘bots.

A robot partner would be the perfect mate, never showing boredom or being inattentive, Levy says. You will always be the focus and centerpiece of their existence and you never need worry about their being unfaithful or going astray, because loyalty and being faithful will be embedded into their programming.

Our concept of infidelity is also changing. Some married couples agree that it’s OK to have brief sexual encounters when they travel separately; others sustain long-term adulterous relationships with their spouse’ approval. Moreover, recent studies have shown that relationships like these with less pressure on ‘being faithful’ are more stress-free for both participants, leading to happier lives.

Internet dating wields its impact on relationships too. Matching people with great partners is getting so efficient, and the process so enjoyable, that marriage itself may one day become obsolete.

As we wind through the 21st Century, new relationships will challenge many of our traditions and social policies. Houston futurist Sandy Burchsted, who recently spoke at a World Future Society conference, believes that in the future, most people will marry at least four times and experience extramarital affairs with little public censure. Marriage will be considered an evolutionary process, not a one-time-only event.

It may be time to rethink monogamy, especially given the way that the world has politicized the concept of marriage. As prairie voles aren’t “pure as the driven snow,” there is also no biological evidence to suggest that human beings are naturally monogamous. We may be culturally and socially encouraged to be faithful, but it is unclear how much that sway really has over our biology.

Some believe a monogamous relationship is the best way to achieve happiness; but many experts say not so fast. Researchers found that non-monogamous relationships reported higher levels of satisfaction and intimacy, and less jealousy than experienced by monogamous pairings.

Today, we live in a sea of technologies that reshape our lives. To bond is human and drives to fall in love are embedded in our nature. With new sex and romance aids, such as Viagra and estrogen replacement, and science providing us with longer healthier lifespans, we have the opportunity to create a more fulfilling partnership than at any other time in history. Welcome to the future!


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