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What we talk about when we talk about capitalism

For more than a century, capitalism has been the dominant planetary system for supplying people with, quite literally, their daily bread. It transformed our cultures and knit us together in a global network of buying and selling. But how do we understand it? How do we make sense of it? What do we talk about when we talk about capitalism?

Recently we did a study to track talk of capitalism over two hundred years and in three major newspapers in Britain, America, and the Netherlands. (The Dutch make a natural choice as co-originators of capitalism in Europe.) The idea has — at least historically — been linked to democracy: free markets and free speech; consumers and voters; the choices one makes in the shop, and the choices one makes at the ballot box. And so we’ll track them both together.

The answers are surprising. It is events, not philosophies, that drive the words into our daily lives. Talk of capitalism peaks at times of economic crisis. Talk of democracy peaks at times of war. More ominously yet, while the three nations began the twentieth century with distinct ways of linking the concepts together, they enter the twenty-first in the grip of an American-style neoliberal consensus: today we separate discussion of capitalism and democracy in ways never seen before.

Figure One shows the raw data: the rates at which the word “capitalism” appears in the Guardian, the New York Times, and the (liberal) Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

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Figure 1: the fraction of articles in the Guardian, the New York Times, and NRC Handelsblad, mentioning the word ‘capitalism’ at least once. Image by Simon DeDeo. Used with permission.

Capitalism, and talk about capitalism, is everywhere today. So it is surprising to see how little we talked about it at first. The British get there first: it is the Guardian, then the Manchester Guardian, covering the cotton factories and the strife between worker and owner. Yet by 1850 — and under new management — Yet by 1850, and under new management, the Brits are as sound asleep as the Americans and Dutch. The Dutch appear to join in the conversation as well, but they, too, lose interest, showing only the slightest flicker of recognition, beginning perhaps in 1893, the year of Europe’s first general strike.

For all three nations, that long sleep ends in the Russian revolution of 1917. The event leaves a spike in all three archives, beginning a rise that continues today. At least four crises leave similar marks — the market crash of 1929, the end of World War II, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the global financial crisis of 2008. Like a ratchet with a slippery pawl, movement upwards is not uniform. Newspapers forget. But the forgetting is imperfect, and by 2017, capitalism (and its cognates) occur at rates ten times higher than a century before.

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Figure 2: the fraction of articles mentioning the word ‘democracy’ at least once. Image by Simon DeDeo. Used with permission.

As with capitalism, talk of democracy comes in bursts. Particularly in the Times, the pattern is clear: when the newspapers use the word, it’s usually around a war. The American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the 2003 invasion of Iraq: if you’re reading the paper and see the word a little too much, it often means that somebody, somewhere, is reaching for a gun. The fall of the Berlin Wall is perhaps an exception to this rule.

It’s hard not to reach for a cynical explanation of the association of democracy and war: in an era of mass mobilization, elites tell the public they’ll be dying for a system that belongs to them. Given that, the signs today are ominous indeed. Since the election of Donald Trump, talk of democracy in all three newspapers is at its highest level since the beginning of World War II.

Figure three counts the times the words capitalism and democracy appear in the same newspaper article. And compares this to the number of times they would hypothetically appear in the same article if they were used independently.

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Figure 3: The marriage of “capitalism” and “democracy”: the frequency of the two words appearing in the same article, divided by how often this would occur by chance. Image by Simon DeDeo. Used with permission.

Now differences between nations are clear. For the Dutch, capitalism begins as an essentially political concept; it appears with “democracy” at rates almost a hundred times higher than chance. For the Americans, by contrast, the two are close to independent: how you get your bread, and how you get your president, are distinct. Linkages are made during the Depression of the 1930s, when the Times talks about a “present emergency” and philanthropists and college professors fret, but are forgotten with the rise of FDR.

The Guardian, of course, splits the difference between the European and American world-view. Yet by 1979, there is not much difference left to split: Dutch and British have converged on the American model. No paper ever treated the concepts as truly independent. But the days when capitalism and democracy were reliably linked are over by the end of the Cold War. In the year of Brexit and Trump, the New York Times separated discussions about the two in a way not seen since the roaring twenties. NRC and the Guardian were not far behind.

The sins of one seem to encourage the sins of the other — populism and economic corruption, coastal elitism and perceptible inequality. If it is time to talk about the two worlds together again, as we did in the 1930s, that moment has yet to arrive. If today’s readers of the Times, the Guardian, and NRC see their respective institutions safely into the twenty-second century, and our descendants make a similar plot, which way will these curves have gone?

As one man wrote in 1848: “all that is solid melts into air.” That man was Karl Marx, who at the very least understood that the need for bread, and the need for political dignity, could not be as easily separated as we do today.

I thank Wendy Carlin and Sam Bowles at the CORE Econ project, and Alex Ware of the Guardian Tech Team, for helpful conversations during the course of this work.

Featured image credit: architecture buildings city by pexels. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Anon

    The Guardian was first published on 5th May, 1821. Your charts appear to show it having articles before 1800.

  2. Martine Frampton

    “For more than a century” is a bit of an understatement!

  3. Simon DeDeo

    Hi Anon — you are correct; our Guardian line includes the Observer (which began in 1791). The two papers traveled together, politically, and eventually merged; today the Observer survives as a name of the Sunday edition. The history of all these papers is utterly fascinating (in particular the early history of the Guardian), but sadly not something I could address in my 900 word limit.

  4. Dean

    Interesting article. Graeber in his book Debt the first 5000 years came to the conclusion that all the great religions and religious leaders throughout history were born at times when capitalism, money, private property etc were at their peaks.

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