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Transcending

Capitalism

VISIONS OF A NEW SOCIETY IN MODERN AMERICAN THOUGHT

Howard Brick

CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS

ithaca and london

In memory of

Julius H. Brick

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1 Capitalism and Its Future on the Eve of World War I

2 The American Theory of Organized Capitalism

3 The Interwar Critique of Competitive Individualism

4 Talcott Parsons and the Evanescence of Capitalism

5 The Displacement of Economy in an Age of Plenty

6 The Heyday of Dynamic Sociology

7 The Great Reversal

Conclusion

Notes

Acknowledgments

This book has been in progress so long that my thanks would be long-winded indeed if I was able to remember all who assisted me over many years. Thanks begin with a graduate school colleague, Karl Pohrt; my teacher Alan M. Wald; and the cordial subject of my first book, Daniel Bell, whose work, and letters to me, always kept me thinking. I am indebted too to the memory of John O. King III, who first told me I should read Talcott Parsons and try to figure out what to make of him historically.

Work on this project began with a summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities, obtained with the support of the College at the University of Chicago, and a year as Andrew Mellow Faculty Fellow in History of American Civilization at Harvard University. Academic leave was provided by the University of Oregon, in the form of a term’s fellowship at the university’s Humanities Center, and by Washington University in St. Louis. The Warren Center for Studies in American History provided a stimulating milieu for research, conversation, and writing. I have also benefited from a number of excellent research assistants: Christopher Phelps, Mike Boles, Jenny Slosar, Michael Brick, Rachel Davis, and Ethan Arpi. Archivists provided indispensable help at the Pusey Library, Harvard University; Yale University archives; Library of Congress manuscript collections; the Tamiment Library, New York University; and the University of Chicago.

Along the way, I was lucky to receive comments, advice, and encouragement from Fred Block, Jeffrey Alexander, Bernard Barber, Richard Swedberg, Eileen Boris, Linda Nicholson, David Ciepley, Julian Bourg, Miriam and Benton Johnson, Donald Levine, Susan Henking, Meg Jacobs, Victor Lidz, James Mohr, Judith Stein, Eli Zaretsky, Thomas Bender, Robert K. Merton, Lewis Coser, Casey N. Blake, and Michael McGerr. Daniel Borus, Alan Wald, Nelson Lichtenstein, Lewis Perry, Dorothy Ross, Jeffrey Sklansky, J. T. Isaacs, Joseph Fracchia, Daniel Geary, Christopher Phelps, and Larry Schneider read the entire draft of the book and patiently advised me on sharpening the argument and presentation. As I culled the recommendations made by friends and formal reviewers of this book’s manuscript, I gained a renewed sense of why authors always profess their responsibility and absolve their advisers. So much wise advice, and never enough time or talent to make the most of it! My choice of what pieces of it I could follow, and my decisions on how to follow it, inevitably made the final product mine, warts and all, no matter how much I owe to those who corrected errors, warned me of oversights, and urged on me signal reformulations of ideas.

Portions of chapter 6 appeared previously in my book Age of Contradiction, copyright 1998 by Twayne Publishers, and reprinted here by permission of The Gale Group. Portions of the introduction and conclusion appeared previously in different versions in American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Anonymous reviewers for American Quarterly and Journal of American History of articles that were early versions of some material here—and editors Gary Kulik, David Thelen and David Nord—played an important part in pushing me to new ideas and revisions of old ones. Editors Peter Agree and Alison Kalett at Cornell University Press nursed this project along, over a distended period of time, with confidence, indulgence, and good humor. I deeply appreciate John Raymond’s copyediting and pointed recommendations for revision. I also benefited from excellent editorial advice by Karen Hwa of Cornell University Press.

None of this would have helped, however, without the constant support and love of Debra Schwartz and the wonderful company of my children, Michael and Jessye, who have all tried to keep me attuned to the practical life. With them, I am most fortunate indeed.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my father, Julius H. Brick, who grew up in the interwar years and through the Second World War, coming out of the Popular Front to remain a left liberal for the rest of his life as well as an engineer who knew the romance of what man can build. A man of peace, integrity, and love, he left to me a memory representing the best of what the midcentury spirit stood for.

introduction

To Name a New Society in the Making

What’s in a name, when it comes to judging the nature or character of a society, or determining the type of society it is? Such concerns count for more in modern social theory—and modern politics—than practical people might think. Perhaps we could dispense with debates over type names—over what feudal society or modern society really means—and move on to address concrete problems of real, always particular societies as they exist and change at definite times. Surely some names or classification schemes are less illuminating than others, and the invention of new labels for the contemporary human condition (from the technetronic age to the floodlit society) can turn into a parlor game, or the characteristic pastime of what one American writer several decades ago called the self-conscious society. Still, almost any attempt at systematic social analysis depends on terms of comparison and contrast that require some kind of classification, and any effort to address the peculiarities of a special case will call for differentiating criteria that mark one society off from another. That is, the venture will depend to some extent on type. At times, such questions go far beyond the realm of punditry or the academy and seem to carry some urgent political weight. At a memorable antiwar demonstration in 1965, a young radical leader, Paul Potter, asked his audience, What kind of system is it that fosters U.S. military escalation in Vietnam, Southern segregation, new forms of bureaucratic domination in everyday life, and a soulless materialism? We must name that system, he concluded. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it, and change it. In this sense, naming can be a contentious claim, and it may involve much more than a denotative convenience (assuring that speakers know they refer to the same, or different, things). Names imply an analysis or evaluation of things; they condition how we act toward, or what we expect from, a given state of affairs; and they carry with them a history of such ideas and sentiments. In social affairs, naming the system may be a scientific matter of defining the form and the dynamics of a society—but it is also likely to consist of fighting words.¹

In this book I examine some of the lively discussions throughout the twentieth century regarding the appropriate name for the kind of highly developed industrial or postindustrial societies that flourished in North America and Western Europe during that time. I examine writers, scholars, political advisers, journalists, and activists ranging from Thorstein Veblen and his followers to the American New Left and beyond, including social scientists with a popular audience, such as Margaret Mead and Daniel Bell, and those best known for arcane theory, such as Talcott Parsons and Kenneth Arrow, aspiring power brokers like the New Dealer Adolf Berle, an outsider-turned-insider like psychoanalyst Karen Horney, and, in the aftermath of the main story, a Democratic Party strategist amid liberal decline, Robert Reich. I focus on the emergence and persistence of what I call the postcapitalist vision, a way of looking at contemporary Western societies and their logic of development that advanced one or more of the following arguments: these societies could not be understood, adequately or fully, as capitalist; they had assumed a new form, no longer limited to the characteristic structures and processes of capitalism; the social salience of capitalist institutions was steadily declining, including the determining force of market processes, the authority or potency of business wealth, or even the efficacy of economics as the best way to understand, or act on, social affairs. The boldest form of this vision asserted that Western society had passed or was about to pass a boundary, taking it beyond capitalism to a profoundly different order—one hard to define but likely to be more organized, more social, more service oriented, and probably more egalitarian than a market society founded on accumulated private property.

Not all of the writers or approaches I discuss here went that far. Only a few explicitly used the term postcapitalist society, and others sought to dissociate themselves from so definite a diagnosis. Still, I propose that under the rubric of the postcapitalist vision we can class varied arguments of the mid-twentieth century suggesting that something new and immanent in contemporary social development escaped the category of capitalism. The fact that the definition of capitalism was so contested, applied so variously by both its proponents and its enemies, only made the judgment of its obsolescence that much more complicated and debatable. Nonetheless, my aim here is to demonstrate that this kind of vision underlay or infiltrated a broad range of mid-twentieth-century social thought, and that it persisted over several decades, across the divide we customarily see between the 1930s and the 1960s, to constitute a recognizable stream of thinking tied to left-liberal visions of reform. In so doing, my argument will challenge the consciousness of our own day, which doubts that modern life can persist for long apart from capitalist standards and assumes too readily that modern social thought, especially since World War II, led inevitably toward the mood of capitalist triumphalism marking the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The twentieth century was shaped by the problem of the color line, as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, but it was also preoccupied with the problem of capitalism.² The term capitalism had barely come into widespread use before the beginning of the twentieth century, and it flourished from the 1910s onward—precisely as socialist and communist movements, wars, and depressions cast some doubt on the survival of the social order it described. At midcentury, following the paroxysms that afflicted the developed world in the 1930s and 1940s, it was unclear whether the capitalist order had weathered the test to prevail in the postwar world, or whether it had endured those challenges only by mutating into something else, indeed a new order, no matter how hard it was to define. For another quarter century many observers believed that such mutations continued to recast Western society into some new, unheralded form, inspiring both liberal confidence in the existing order (for the sake of what it was becoming) and radical hopes for great changes to come that would yet transform that order utterly. After three quarters of the twentieth century had passed, however, the ambiguity that had prevailed for decades over how to define the socioeconomic character of modern society gave way to a greater consensus that capitalism in fact governed the age. Radical critics who had long doubted liberal confidence in the evanescence of capitalism might agree with the defenders of capitalism that this conclusion marked a victory for clarity and realism, though the critics could hardly rejoice in the sense, deeply ingrained by the century’s last decade, that capitalism not only governed the age but also fixed the future.

It is the thesis of this book that the turmoil beginning in the 1910s set off the germination of a postcapitalist vision that persisted through a long period of ambiguity in social analysis following World War II. Hence the broad middle of the twentieth century—from the 1910s through the early 1970s—shows a measure of continuity in the imagination of social and political observers and theorists quite at odds with the view that thoughtways changed utterly in the wake of totalitarianism, war, the atomic bomb, and the onset of the cold war. Taken together, these torturous events marked a breach in modern experience, but they also provided a medium that funneled interwar conceptions of the twentieth century’s new order (however tempered or altered by the traumatic years) into the postwar sensibility.

The years from the 1920s through the 1960s were knitted together in liberal and radical thought by a conviction that a new age in social organization, for good or ill, had just dawned or was in the offing. For some observers, this sensibility helped explain some of the dread features of modern disasters, but for the most part it sponsored an optimistic view: even the catastrophe of the 1930s and 1940s, once past, was understood to clear the way for the promise of the new. To grasp its tenor, we should understand the postcapitalist vision as rooted in a discrete phase of modern social theory and as being shaped largely by a distinct political current. If we have become familiar with the notion of a classical period of modern social theory identified with Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, and more or less commonly devoted to understanding the rise of capitalism, we might identify a postclassical modern social theory that built on the work of those writers and others to grasp the rise of what came to be called the welfare state.³ That is, much of twentieth-century social thought, at least until the last few decades, sought to understand the ways, apparently quite different from laissez-faire industrial capitalism, in which political and economic realms were integrated and the question of social justice assumed some legitimacy as a paramount goal of social organization and political will. A postcapitalist construal of those trends stemmed largely, at least in the United States, from a fusion of liberal and social-democratic dispositions—a new social liberalism—that dwelled on the left side of mainstream reform politics and held sway in intellectual circles concerned with the shape of things to come in society and politics, until it was marginalized by the right turn in American politics of the 1970s and 1980s. If I succeed in demonstrating the congruence of these forces—postclassical modern social theory, the postcapitalist vision, and social-liberal politics—it will suggest a new way of periodizing the history of twentieth-century social thought.

Discerning the Postcapitalist Vision

Postcapitalist society was the name proposed by a handful of writers in the 1950s as they tried to define the postwar social order of reconstructed Europe—particularly Anthony Crosland, intellectual leader of the British Labour Party’s new right, and the liberal German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf. Although I am borrowing their term, I propose that the postcapitalist vision embraces a wider group, American as well as European, that were active over a period of time stretching well beyond the moment of Crosland and Dahrendorf in the 1950s, rooted several decades beforehand and reaching forward another twenty years. When he adopted the term after five years of Labour Party government in Britain, Crosland meant to identify a new statist order that had displaced capitalism. Given partial nationalizations and a substantial measure of social provision, Crosland saw an end to the absolute autonomy of economic life. Furthermore, he wrote, the dominant emphasis ceases to be on the rights of property, private initiative, competition, and the profit motive; and is transferred to the duties of the state, social and economic security, and the virtues of cooperative action.⁴ Such claims provide something of a touchstone for the current of thought at issue here. Still, I include in the postcapitalist vision a considerable range of ideas that provided some perspective on, and prognosis of, the development of modern society, a view that assumed the obsolescence of the concept of capitalism or forecast the transmutation of capitalist reality into a new social economy (beyond the strict centrality of free markets and capital accumulation) or even into a posteconomic society.

We now live in a time that, once again, takes capitalism for granted as the way of the modern world. We typically look back at the mid-twentieth century, particularly the period from the 1940s through the 1960s, as a golden age of capitalism in which war-sparked growth resurrected the repute of private enterprise and (with the crucial assistance of the cold war crusade against Soviet Communism and the domestic red scare) crushed all pretenders to collectivist futures.⁵ Yet a quite contrary notion—a sense that capitalism, as a concept and in reality, was growing obsolete—filtered through academic and public discourse after World War II. Writing in an American magazine in 1953 on the alpine sanatorium, the Berghof, depicted in his novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann cast capitalism—in fullest health identified with an old bourgeois way of life—as a fading order:

Such institutions as the Berghof were a typical pre-war [World War I] phenomenon. They were only possible in a capitalistic economy that was still functioning well and normally. Only under such a system was it possible for patients to remain there year after year at the family’s expense. The Magic Mountain became the swan song of that form of existence.

American writers too thought that a normal capitalism no longer existed. The leading sociologist Talcott Parsons began his career in the 1920s fascinated by Werner Sombart’s and Max Weber’s work on the nature of capitalism and declared that understanding capitalism as a social system was the key to building a modern social science. Yet by the early 1940s, Parsons had concluded that the capitalism/socialism dichotomy no longer applied, for U.S. society was not simply capitalist, and that it had, in ways bound only to grow in significance, already begun to go beyond the norms of capitalism.

Reasons for doubting the relevance of capitalism to the contemporary social order varied. Longstanding debates about which traits most essentially defined capitalism—economic individualism; the expansion of market exchange; the concentration of wealth in large commercial, financial, and corporate firms; laissez-faire policy; capital accumulation based on the generalization of wage labor; or an ethic of work, saving, and private investment—struck some observers as fruitless and too weighted with political bias.⁷ In any case, if it were agreed that capitalism defined an economic system, did it make sense to name a whole society capitalist, disregarding the relative weight of different elements—besides the economic sphere, the political, cultural, familial, and psychological aspects—that make up a complex social order? Observers wondered whether the competitive, profit-driven, market mechanisms of capitalism any longer dominated social life as they once had, thus questioning the centrality of capitalism in contemporary society. Others questioned the distinctiveness of capitalism. The cold war coexistence of market and command economies, alike devoted to mass production, suggested to some observers and social critics that a generic industrial society, rather than capitalism in particular, had become the most salient object for analysis in the modern era.⁸

At the same time, and in a somewhat different sense, influential writers thought that the capitalist form of contemporary Western society had itself grown indistinct, blurred both by the advent of mixed systems in the West and by the possibility of a worldwide convergence of capitalist and non-capitalist orders. Having emerged in the 1930s and 1940s among social democrats eager to combine elements of market and plan, the idea of a mixed economy initially meant more than small, prophylactic doses of government regulation in a private-property economy. The term suggested something more like an admixture of distinct economic principles and institutions that created something new. Thus even the hard-nosed realist of French sociology, Raymond Aron, wrote in 1954, with reference to the postwar order encompassing regulation, state enterprises, and limited planning, that socialism has ceased in the West to be a myth because it has become a part of reality. As a vision of convergence, on the other hand, a New York sinologist discussing U.S. relations with East Asia in 1964 foresaw an integrated world coming, marked by new world forces—post-Marxian and postcapitalist—twenty-first century, not nineteenth. George Lichtheim called Western Europe postbourgeois, a society marked by a persistent tension between social and market values, with the former gradually getting the upper hand. These various ways of doubting the applicability of capitalism in contemporary social analysis were complemented by those who continued to use the term but nonetheless saw it as a passing order: in The Limits of American Capitalism (1966), liberal economist Robert Heilbroner claimed that its growth capacity had diminished and new socioeconomic forces pressed beyond its bounds. Earlier, Heilbroner’s well-known survey of modern economic thought, The Worldly Philosophers (1953), had ended with a chapter optimistically entitled Beyond the Economic Revolution, suggesting an upcoming time when market calculations of price-based efficiency, as the key to allocating scarce social resources, would lose its lock on modern life.

The postcapitalist vision did not quite fit the most familiar models of social and political diagnosis. It did not reflect a procapitalist euphemistic impulse, that is, the tendency among defenders of private property and industry, strongest in the late nineteenth century, to reject the term capitalism as an invention of left-wing critics who refused to acknowledge the market system as a permanent achievement of modern life. The writers examined here who leaned toward postcapitalist views in the mid-twentieth century emerged after the concept of capitalism had achieved some legitimacy in academic social thought, and they came of age schooled in various styles of criticizing that system. They dispensed with capitalism not because they viewed socioeconomic relations as given, fixed, and universal (hence undeserving of a name that implied historical transience), but because they saw those relations profoundly in flux. Even the name capitalism, they thought, rendered the indefinite character of present social relations too sharply, rigidly, and statically. On the other hand, the postcapitalist vision was not a socialist one, either: doubt about the significance of capitalism usually carried skepticism about the meaning of its customary opposite, socialism. There was a good deal of modesty, uncertainty, or hesitation in judging the outcome of present developments, hence the utility of the prefix post-, which typically signals a degree of reticence in prediction.¹⁰ Yet, the postcapitalist vision did share with the most gradualist of socialist reformers a particular understanding of change: that the present marked a transitional moment where no clear divisions or boundaries were marked. French social democrat Jean Jaurès had vividly captured this conception of change: moderns, he wrote, would experience the advent of socialism as navigators crossed the line of a hemisphere—not that they have been able to see as they crossed it a cord stretched over the ocean warning them of their passage, but that little by little they have been led into a new hemisphere by the progress of their ship. For postcapitalist theorists, similarly, gradual changes in degree could usher in world-shifting transformations barely sensed until they had come to pass. Contemporary society perpetually reinvented itself, eluding old labels and practices.¹¹

The postcapitalist vision also possessed a good deal of political lability. So far, in this description, it has figured as a reformist current that welcomed transitional developments for the promise they held of a greater social democracy. A more critical or pessimistic counterpoint emerged as well, imagining a new order of politically regulated markets as an unheralded but oppressive, even totalitarian, regime. Speculation since the early 1940s about a managerial revolution (James Burnham), administered society (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno), and the like emerged alongside postwar social-democratic aspirations, and while the pessimistic current countered the hopes of liberal postcapitalist theorists, it shared the assumption that society had passed a watershed that rendered old definitions of capitalism obsolete. In this respect, many of the arguments between liberals and radicals that first appeared at midcentury and broke out into the open during the 1960s were less decisive than they appeared. The American New Left of young radical intellectuals might be considered part of the postcapitalist vision rather than standing outside it. No one evoked the sense of unsettled social analysis for a coming new age better than Paul Potter did at the 1965 antiwar rally, for when he called on his colleagues to name the system, he had no ready label to propose. Later, he remarked on the obsolescence of the most familiar candidate, since capitalism was for me and my generation an inadequate description of the evils of America.¹² In this respect, although New Leftists harshly criticized the faith postcapitalist liberals had in the promise of the existing order, they shared the sense of inhabiting a profoundly new stage of social evolution. They dwelled, it seemed, in the aftermath of a recent sea change that brought them beyond old capitalist standards of market autonomy and class conflict to a highly organized order requiring a new opposition.

The postcapitalist vision was one of the prevalent, and most influential, moods among postwar Western intellectuals. Not included among its adherents were most economists, some unconventional analysts in fields such comparative sociology and economic anthropology, who still emphasized market forces and private property in modern affairs, and Marxist writers, generally conscious of being on the defensive, who sustained the critique of Western society as capitalist. The postcapitalist vision was primarily the province of left-liberal intellectuals and some of their more radical critics, but these circles dominated the newer fields of the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, and social psychology), which were rather closely tied to popular discourse. (David Riesman’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 suggested the new public repute of such academic writers.)¹³ As it seeped into a broad milieu of public discourse, social theory of this stamp exercised a subtle influence on how reformers framed their aspirations.¹⁴ Not only did this mode of thought deem conservative faith in private enterprise profoundly out of touch with the currents of change marking the modern world, it also trumped more traditional left-wing arguments that the lineaments of bourgeois society had (so far) survived intact the constant alterations of modernity and the stresses of twentieth-century wars and depressions.

Rethinking Twentieth-Century American Social Thought

The prominence of this discourse in postwar American intellectual life prompts a new look at the social history of ideas in the twentieth century. The greatest concentrated effort in the historiography of intellectual life in modern America has focused on the decades surrounding the beginning of the twentieth century and on the nature of Progressivism and social reform, the emergence of pragmatism, and the foundation of the social sciences.¹⁵ It is still customary to bring such studies to a close at the convenient break point of 1920. Although some studies of Progressive Era trends continue beyond that date and other work addresses a variety of episodes or circles among intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century, the history of American thought after the heyday of Progressive reform has lacked an integrative theme—unless it is one of declension. Historians have found it too easy to suggest that developments after the early twentieth-century age of reform manifest primarily a loss of intellectual vitality. Moreover, the abrupt crises that punctuated the twentieth century facilitate a historiography focused on breaks—World War I, the onset of the Depression, World War II, the cold war, and the advent of the Sixties—rather than on long-running themes or frameworks.

Perhaps the most familiar version of the ruptured, episodic portrait of modern American intellectual history is the assumption that intellectual life after World War II showed a broad conservative drift and a collapse of social criticism, pending an unexpected renewal of dissent around 1960 that cast aside the conformist spirit of the cold war years.¹⁶ In contrast, the postcapitalist vision directs our attention to something like a long wave in intellectual life. The New Left of the 1960s shared something with many cold war liberal intellectuals—a sense of inhabiting a society whose new shape the old categories of social analysis failed to grasp. Moreover, the postwar reformers harked back to an earlier time when observers had hailed a breakthrough to a new order, that is, when U.S. intervention in World War I capped the quickening reform spirit of the late Progressive years and the war’s aftermath unleashed a worldwide labor insurgency that raised both the prospect of industrial democracy as well as questions about the perpetuity of private property in modern society. This conjuncture gave rise to influential strains of interwar social thought, such as institutional economics, anthropological culture critique, political pluralism, and a new structural-functional sociology. These strains shared reformist assumptions about the increasingly socialized form modern society was likely to take. These in turn laid the basis for future developments, since the intellectual leaders of the American academy after the 1940s were reared intellectually in the 1920s and 1930s and carried that heritage into another new era after World War II. Those figures who had clout in the liberal mainstream of postwar academic intellectual life—which ran in a channel somewhat to the left of the nation’s political mainstream—were neither mere conformists nor radical dissenters. The reformist current with which they identified was both friendly toward the present order of society and optimistic about change and social reform (which it understood to have a wider, or farther, horizon than most liberal politicians could contemplate). They defended current society because they believed it opened broad avenues of change to a more social and modern economy in the imminent future.

Underlying the postcapitalist vision in social thought was the distinctive political disposition or reform ideology that I call social liberalism. It marked the inception of something new in the long, convoluted history of liberal thought, beyond even the new liberalism historians have recognized among reformers who advocated government regulation starting in the 1880s or 1890s and that came to prominence in American Progressivism and in the British liberalism of Lloyd George.¹⁷ Before, during, and especially after the Great War, liberalism was updated with a substantial admixture of evolutionary socialist principles. This happened not only among those intellectuals who sought a fluid mediation of self and society, the individual and collective, but also in the practical, political form of adding to liberals’ embrace of humanistic individualism, gradual change, and representative institutions a new partisan commitment to workers’ rights and a pro-labor advocacy of collectivist policies in economic control and social services. This leap was undertaken largely as a result of resurgent labor power during the years around World War I and disenchantment with the limits of the old Progressivism; it identified with the project of reconstruction after World War I, connoting not only recovery but also the overdue transformation of the old order. Social liberalism in this sense, embraced in the United States by intellectual organs such as the New Republic, first, and the Nation, more tardily, marked a breach with the old Progressive antipathy to class legislation and its insistence on moralistic rebirth (individual uplift and social purification) as the key to social change.¹⁸ This new current cannot be understood adequately as corporate liberalism, a label historians and critics have commonly used to suggest that any significant trend on behalf of reform (but not radical transformation or revolution) in the twentieth century must be little more than a mask for allegiance to corporate capitalism and its aspirations to organize markets on behalf of secure profits.¹⁹

As social liberalism marked a kind of political fusion of liberals and the moderate Left, it had a variegated character that drew within its orbit a range of political and intellectual figures. As a whole, the current assumed a more radical or a more conservative demeanor at different times, and strains within its ranks grew, by turns, more or less acute. In the wake of World War I, these left liberals often professed sympathy for the British labor movement and the Russian Revolution, yet social liberals generally had a gradualist understanding of change, an affiliation with conservative trade unionism, and an aversion to anything like revolutionary class struggle, keeping them ideologically distant from Communist or other far-left politics. For some, this distinction lost its salience in the 1930s, either due to the shift Communists made by 1935 to embrace liberals in antifascist work or to the sensibility of crisis that led some late Progressive advocates of a new order to see it in the Soviet planned economy. Nestled alongside the porous leftward border of New Deal reform in the mid-1930s, social liberalism provided a seedbed for recruits both to the Popular Front and to that left-liberal milieu that later assailed Popular Front Communism. This political milieu was fluid enough to enable actors to move in varied directions, particularly in the splits of the 1940s between Henry Wallace–style progressives and social democrats of the Americans for Democratic Action sort. Social ties, however, kept diverse liberals, radicals, and Popular Front Communists more or less in close proximity to one another, which only made the red scare after World War II more anguishing. Those who held to a nonsocialist but expansive view of economic regulation, for instance, might have friends, siblings, or professional associates who had joined the Communist milieu—affiliations that could, a few years later, land a pro-labor liberal in government service on a blacklist.²⁰

The advent of the cold war and the red scare marked a watershed in the course of this near Left, but recent historiography has recognized elements of continuity across that divide and into the postwar world. The banishment of Popular Frontists from U.S. politics and the deep cover assumed by cold war liberals like those of Americans for Democratic Action—who, privately, were willing to affirm a socialist ideal as late as 1948—meant that social liberalism virtually lost its grasp on a significant place in the political mainstream.²¹ Nonetheless, signs of persistence can be recognized in styles of cultural democracy and popular arts of working-class communities that Michael Denning has called the laboring of American culture, a long-term echo of the Popular Front beyond the 1930s. It can also be seen in programs of social unionism, in the Reutherite wing of the labor movement as well as in the work of women unionists fighting for a place in the movement, that sought to widen the range of egalitarian access to employment and economic security in ways that intruded on market processes and levied public responsibilities on business.²² A tentative revival of social liberalism beginning in the late 1950s, inspired by the civil rights movement as well as a resonant critique of affluence, dwelled in a space just to the left of the legislative programs pursued by Democratic administrations. Even as the most ambitious elements of the War on Poverty maintained strict assumptions of economic individualism (reflected in its bootstrap themes of equal opportunity and job training), the reformist aspirations of social liberalism entailed aims such as income redistribution and full employment that exceeded the reach of actual public policy.²³ The clearest manifestation of social-liberal politics in the 1960s, indicating its return and its continued marginality, lay in A. Philip Randolph’s Freedom Budget of 1966, Martin Luther King’s call for a guaranteed annual income in 1967, and King’s failed Poor People’s Campaign the next year.²⁴ Despite the disappointments of those years, however, the energies of protest and dissent, the organization of middle-class professionals around ideals of social responsibility, and a growing consciousness of deeply rooted faults in American society led organizers and ideologists to imagine that a new politics of social reform—perhaps reaching toward a program of economic democracy—would yet flourish in the 1970s.²⁵

The mixed character of social liberalism remained subject to internal stresses. The young intellectuals of the 1960s, who drew inspiration from the refreshingly disruptive protests of the black freedom struggle and from the peace activists who built the movement against the Vietnam War, had difficulty finding common cause with the old intellectuals who emerged from interwar social-liberal traditions. Hence the old social liberals were dubbed conservative, a usage that misgauged the elders’ political sentiments (for they certainly had no truck with Barry Goldwater’s or William Buckley’s right wing) but did grasp the temper of their social imagination. For the most part, social liberalism in the United States had always had a cautious disposition in the measured, gradualist pace of change it expected, the suspicion it bore toward social disruption, and the sense it maintained of societies and cultures as complex wholes that mutated over time, always slowly adapting the new to the old. As Louis Menand has shown, it is something quite like this temperament, devoted to measured adaptation, communal harmony, and organic growth in experience, that marked the original spirit of philosophic pragmatism, however much it sought to accommodate the flux of modernity, the plurality of the real, and the course of social reform. In the social sciences of the twentieth century, particularly in anthropology and in the midcentury sociology that borrowed from it, culture and society were understood as functional wholes that underwent metamorphosis, at a pace activists could only consider painfully slow, through a steady accretion of new elements and recalibration of an ordered equilibrium. Society and culture were malleable but each was also a resistant or inertial medium. Social liberalism of this sort welcomed change and disdained traditionalist resistance but showed little sympathy for anything that smacked of revolutionary ardor or urgency. Conventional postwar social liberals, such as University of California president Clark Kerr, typically feared that radicals would awaken the monster of reactionary politics; young radicals took the counsels of patience and assurances that gradual reform would achieve their own ends in time as merely an excuse for perpetuating the status quo.²⁶

The other key context fostering the postcapitalist vision and sustaining it over several decades was a change in the character of modern social theory that roughly coincided with the rise of social liberalism. Social theory moved on two fronts, driven by a new set of practical concerns in grasping the contemporary development of modern society (from the classical concern with the rise of capitalism to a postclassical focus on the rise of the welfare state) and by a redefinition, at a fairly abstract level, of what the very concept society meant. As the emerging welfare state integrated polity and economy in new ways, basic categories of social thought shifted. At its eighteenth-century origins, modern social science grasped the existence of an independent realm of society (or civil society) distinct from the state, in terms based on the kind of interactions prevailing in the market, which observers construed as (or desired to be) autonomous from government. If society was imagined as a sphere having form and function outside the will of the sovereign, it was typically grasped as being congruent with emerging market relations. The classical theorists who examined the rise of capitalism conceived economy and society as closely wedded. Yet as modes of regulation apparently drew the political and economic spheres together, the twentieth-century postclassical phase of modern theory disaggregated the meanings of economy and society. Theory moved to redefine the social realm as not only separate from the state but also autonomous from, and even increasingly determinant over, purely economic affairs.²⁷

Such conceptual transformations are hard to date precisely. Friction between economy and society was evident in the nineteenth century: radical utopians and archconservatives, and later social-Christian reformers, saw society as a force serving to modify, ameliorate, constrain, supplant, or overcome the communally destructive effects of expanding market relations. Yet major theorists concerned with late nineteenth-century industrialization such as Weber and Veblen still considered economy and society conjoined. Even social-liberal reformers who first set forth a postcapitalist vision in the United States after World War I still put economic issues at the heart of their social consciousness. A decisive distinction between these realms was yet to come. It took Talcott Parsons, a theorist in the 1920s, who like other social-liberal reformers was intent on exploring the interactive relation between economy and society, to make the stoutest arguments by the 1940s for prying them apart. The move to distinguish conceptually the sphere of society from that of the economy was evident in the maturation and self-conscious independence of fields such as sociology, anthropology, and social psychology from the methods of academic economics. These Parsons championed as the new social sciences, whose growing stature marked a shift of emphasis away from economics or the debut of a social relations concept that defined society in noneconomic terms, constituted by family, neighborhood, community solidarity, voluntary association, and nonprofit service institutions. Parsons loomed large in the institutional establishment of sociology and the allied fields of the new social sciences outside politics and economics—and was a devoted exponent of postcapitalist views; he figures prominently in this book. He is best understood as an intellectual product of those interwar reformist milieus that nurtured the emerging postcapitalist vision and as one key progenitor of a mature vision that was sustained in the post–World War II years. Granting purely social phenomena a more central and determinant place in the structure and evolution of contemporary affairs made it easier to imagine a modern society resting on noncapitalist foundations, while it also increasingly ignored the force exercised by aspects of economic life such as property, wealth, competition, patterns of accumulation, cyclical disturbances, and inequality. A gradual move beyond economics, both as an empirical description of contemporary society and as the social ethic of those observers who drew that description, became virtually a constant of the postcapitalist vision.²⁸

Placing the postcapitalist vision in the midst of an evolving context, shaped by the reformist politics of social liberalism and the theoretical shift away from economics, enables us to take a long view of twentieth-century intellectual history. We are well advised to avoid reductive explanations of the midcentury postcapitalist vision that tie it directly and solely to the political and intellectual conditions of cold war anticommunism and thus depict it simply as a euphemistic gesture intended to defend the Western status quo. Yes, the postcapitalist vision was able to find an elective affinity with cold war liberal sentiment, but the depth of its past and the breadth of its political and theoretical variants show that it cannot be judged merely as an artifact of the cold war. Rather, the long and broad view that I propound in this book is that the punctuating breaks in twentieth-century experience, each one channeling and transmuting social thought in particular ways, did not necessarily rupture a recognizable stream of left-liberal reform (or American social liberalism) that perceived modern society as a dynamic entity, changing before our eyes into a new order beyond the economic society of capitalism, in ways first descried in the late Progressive Era and still imagined in the 1970s.

The Place of Difference in Intellectual History

In arguing for a long view that