By Branko Milanovic
Capitalism, Alone is a provocative account of capitalism’s rise to global dominance and, as different models of capitalism vie for world leadership, a look into what the future may hold.
We are all capitalists now. For the first time in human history, the globe is dominated by one economic system. In Capitalism, Alone, leading economist Branko Milanovic explains the reasons for this decisive historical shift since the days of feudalism and, later, communism. Surveying the varieties of capitalism, he asks: What are the prospects for a fairer world now that capitalism is the only game in town? His conclusions are sobering, but not fatalistic. Capitalism gets much wrong, but also much right—and it is not going anywhere. Our task is to improve it.
Milanovic argues that capitalism has triumphed because it works. It delivers prosperity and gratifies human desires for autonomy. But it comes with a moral price, pushing us to treat material success as the ultimate goal. And it offers no guarantee of stability. In the West, liberal capitalism creaks under the strains of inequality and capitalist excess. That model now fights for hearts and minds with political capitalism, exemplified by China, which many claim is more efficient, but which is more vulnerable to corruption and, when growth is slow, social unrest. As for the economic problems of the Global South, Milanovic offers a creative, if controversial, plan for large-scale migration. Looking to the future, he dismisses prophets who proclaim some single outcome to be inevitable, whether worldwide prosperity or robot-driven mass unemployment. Capitalism is a risky system. But it is a human system. Our choices, and how clearly we see them, will determine how it serves us.
Amitrajeet A. Batabyal on ResearchGate wrote:
"Thirty years on from the collapse of communism in Europe, the Western market system is the only viable game in town, and yet it’s beset by a host of economic, social and political challenges. This is perfect fodder for deep analysis and intellectual creativity. Alas, that’s not we get from economist Branko Milanovic. Instead, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World is a stunted recitation of the political and economic crises afflicting Western capitalism, an unpersuasive account of China’s economic model as a potential alternative and an implausibly dystopian vision of global capitalism’s future."
Glyn Davis on Inside Story wrote:
"Capitalism, Alone is in general a fine piece of work. It contains an excellent retrospective and prospective account of capitalism that provides a lot of food for thought. As such, I recommend this book to all readers who would like to learn more about, inter alia, the likelihood of achieving a more equitable world given that capitalism is the only game in town."
David Madland on New York Journal of Books wrote:
"Having defined capitalism early in the book as 'production organised for profit using legally free wage labour and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralised coordination,' Milanovic dissects three critical variants of this now-global system. The first is liberal meritocratic capitalism, which is at least nominally the preferred system of the West. [...] Milanovic, joining with Thomas Piketty, Daniel Markovits and other recent critics of meritocracy, believes its claim that talent determines outcomes runs up against three countervailing forces: inherited wealth, the education system’s role in segmenting the labour market, and the increasing prevalence of homogamy — the rich marrying the rich. [...] Wealth is concentrated in different ways in the second of Milanovic’s three forms of capitalism. This is political capitalism, principally the successor to communism, and achieves its highest form in contemporary China. [...] Finally, Milanovic turns to a third form of capitalism. This is not a system like Western liberal democracy or Chinese capitalism, but rather the emergence of global mobility for labour and capital, and it poses political challenges for all states. [...] Capitalism, Alone closes with a final consideration of its core question: is capitalism to be understand as a collection of private vices that happen to produce public benefits or, following Marx, as a historical moment that privileges greed but is not intrinsic to human nature? [...] Branko Milanovic has been praised widely for his work on globalisation and capitalism. His reasoning is clear and well expressed, even if Capitalism, Alone reads in places like a first draft of a larger, abandoned work. Milanovic writes as a good teacher, telling us what is coming, sharing the content, and then reminding us what we just learned. He takes the reader on diverting side journeys into the history of communism, the implausibility of a universal basic income, and even a brief summary from first principles of the past development and possible trajectories of Western liberal capitalism. The effect can be both exhilarating and overwhelming — so much content, often presently briefly before the narrative moves onto new fields. Here is much that is familiar but presented in new ways, a distinctive voice walking through a landscape pointing out salient features and offering a sometimes startling commentary on why the scenery is exactly as we see it. Capitalism, Alone is a book to scribble questions all over, and then read again."
Roberto Iacono on LSE Review of Books wrote:
"Capitalism Alone is at its best highlighting the challenges and contradictions of each type of capitalism and is also quite interesting when discussing implications for the future. While the book does not make clear predictions about which system will succeed, it does offer some potential outcomes. Millanovic argues that it is possible that liberal capitalism, with its potential for elite capture, will evolve into political capitalism—a future that few, except perhaps the conquering elite, would wish for. Milanovic hopes the future ultimately leads to a 'people’s capitalism' or an 'egalitarian capitalism' — offshoots of meritocratic capitalism, with tax policies that favor the middle class, robust public education, greater capital ownership, and 'citizenship light' for migrant workers. While some discussions of policy solutions are thoughtful—particularly the idea of citizenship light as a way to preserve national social safety nets—the book is at its weakest when discussing policies and politics. [...] The book also has a few uneven sections with digressions into obscure Marxists debates. Still, this book is an interesting and important read about the state of capitalism today and the directions it may take in the future. Milanovic’s history of focusing on economic data—rather than simplistic theory—and his healthy skepticism of meritocratic capitalism ensure that Capitalism, Alone will inform and provoke readers."
Max B. Sawicky on Jacobin Magazine wrote:
"Capitalism, Alone by Branko Milanovic is a remarkable book, possibly the author’s most comprehensive opus so far. For economists working on inequality measurement, often accused of dealing with ‘measurement without theory’, Capitalism, Alone provides a novel paradigm within which analysis of distributional issues in different economies and social systems can be placed. The overall thesis of the book is that, for the first time in global history excluding a few country cases, capitalism (referring to production organised for profit using wage labour and mostly privately owned capital) is currently the ‘sole socio-economic system in the world’ (2). This does not entail the end of history however, since a set of typologies of capitalism are sketched by Milanovic in the book – although the author does this in a more stylised manner than usually provided in the academic literature on varieties of capitalism. In my view, the main contribution of the book lies precisely in the neat way Milanovic categorises these ideal-typical social and economic systems [...] Milanovic reaches further than other scholars working on capitalism by defining a novel phenomenon that alone encompasses several challenges that liberal meritocratic capitalism has been facing in recent decades: homoploutia (34). Namely, the rising share of the population earning both high labour and capital income (hence owning the same – homo, wealth – ploutia). Although the association of high labour and capital income at the top of the income distribution has been studied by economists before (by Tony Atkinson, among others), it is in Capitalism, Alone that this concept is embedded for the first time within a thorough analysis of the underlying socio-economic system. Why is a rising degree of homoploutia dangerous within liberal meritocratic capitalism? Because it allows economic elites to become more autonomous from the rest of society, and to overlap to a higher extent with political elites, introducing plutocratic features. If this distortion expands, the danger is that liberal meritocratic capitalism would assume the contours of the other main typology of capitalism analysed in the book: Political Capitalism. [...] The above, although it represents the central thesis, is only a fraction of the material that the reader will find in Capitalism, Alone by Milanovic as an analyst of the different types of capitalism. [...] The last part of this review focuses instead on the policymaker Milanovic. [...] Milanovic provides readers with a set of economic and social policies, among which I will highlight the two most substantial ones. First, the author proposes the introduction of tax advantages for the poor and the middle class in order to increase their endowments of financial capital with respect to the richer deciles of the income distribution. [...] Second, and possibly more controversially, Milanovic proposes the introduction of ‘Citizenship light’, giving incremental access to welfare benefits and other social and economic rights for immigrants, ending the strictly binary division between citizens and non-citizens (217). [...] Ultimately, I highly recommend Capitalism, Alone to all readers and scholars interested in challenging their understanding of the (supposed) sole socio-economic system we live in, including how Milanovic advocates to change it for the better and move towards the ideal-type People’s Capitalism outlined in the book."
"Milanovic’s method is eclectic and empirical, informed by Marxist concepts but not limited to them. A fundamental one that undergirds his analysis is the idea that relations of production are a key determinant of social relations and institutions. Unlike Marx, the book does not offer a treatment of class. There is extended discussion of income strata, and of the shares of labor and capital in the national income. But there is no consideration of class formation and rule in the Marxian sense. This isn’t meant as a criticism, just a description of Milanovic’s approach. [...] One off-putting note in Milanovic’s basic dichotomy is the 'meritocratic' dimension. That mobility is greater under 'liberal, meritocratic capitalism' than 'political capitalism' is not obvious. Of course, some of the richest in the United States came from modest origins. But China has plenty of new super-rich who could not have but come from such origins as well. At the same time, the constraints on mobility in the United States are obvious. How much do family connections in the PRC condition life chances? The case for greater meritocracy in the United States is not made in this book."
- "The Clash of Capitalisms; The Real Fight for the Global Economy’s Future" - Branco Milanovic in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020
- "Capitalism Won. Now What?Economist Branko Milanovic shares how this risky system serves us and how it doesn’t" - podcast on Slate, 17 December 2019
- "The ‘crisis of capitalism’ is not the one Europeans think it is" - Branco Milanovic in The Guardian, 27 November 2019
- "Rich Like Me: How Assortative Mating Is Driving Income Inequality" - article by Milanovic on Quilette, 18 October 2019
- "“Avoiding Plutocracy Would Require a Political Change”: Branko Milanovic on the Future of Capitalism" - interview with Milanovic on ProMarket, 4 October 2019
- "If Capitalism Is Our Future, What Will It Look Like?" - interview with Milanovic about the book on WBUR (Boston's NPR News Station), 11 September 2019
Table of Contents of Capitalism, Alone
- The Contours of the Post–Cold War World
- Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism
- Political Capitalism
- The Interaction of Capitalism and Globalization
- The Future of Global Capitalism
- Appendix A. The Place of Communism in Global History
- Appendix B. Hypercommercialization and Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”
- Appendix C. Some Methodological Issues and Definitions
About Branco Milanovic
Branko Milanovic is Visiting Presidential Professor and Core Faculty at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He was formerly Lead Economist in the World Bank’s research department. His books include Global Inequality (2016) and The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (2012).