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Capitalism used to promise a better future. Can it still do that?

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Capitalism is intrinsically futuristic. The ideas that underpin market economies – growth, accumulation, investment – express an unspoken assumption, that tomorrow will be different, and probably better, than today. The question that murmurs through markets is not “What is good?” or “What is fair”, but: “What’s new?”

This future orientation is one of the most striking hallmarks of modernity. Pre-capitalist societies looked to the past – to founding myths, old religions and ancestral lines. Capitalist societies look to the future – to new inventions, broader horizons and greater abundance. “Oh, the places you’ll go!” is an urtext of market capitalism.

Change is of course a mixed blessing. Opportunity and uncertainty go together. Critics of capitalism sometimes point out that it creates an uncertain future. Economic growth requires change and disruption – Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, which can impose some immediate social costs. This is true in the details – nobody knows where market dynamics will lead us. Nobody predicted Facebook and Twitter. But it’s false for the overall picture. If the economy grows, as a result of market capitalism, we can predict with confidence that the future will be better than the present.

Capitalism has kept this promise quite well over the broad span of history. Compared to earlier periods in history, the material conditions of life have improved dramatically since the birth of capitalism. For the 500 years up to around 1700, economic output per person was flat. In other words, the median person in 1700 was no better off, economically speaking, than the median person in 1200. Work by the team at The World in Data, led by Max Roser, makes the point visually – and dramatically.

The idea of economic improvement is now so culturally embedded that even half a decade of no progress sends alarm bells ringing, let alone half a millennium.

“The past is another country”, is the opening of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” Hartley’s is a deeply modern though now uncontroversial sentiment. In previous eras, the past was almost exactly the same country, at least in economic terms, where they did things pretty much the same as now. In a feudal or agricultural economy, things today were likely to be quite similar to things a century ago, as well as to things a century later.

But once the capitalism engine revved up, the future entered our collective imagination. Novels began to be set there. “Science fiction” was born. More practically, economic forecasting became an industry in its own right. What will the US economy be like in 2020, or 2050? How big? Growing how fast? What jobs will it contain? How many? A great deal of time and money is spent, both by governments and companies, trying to answer these questions, as well as they can (which is, inevitably, not very well).

For 99% of human history, a belief that life is going to get better – on earth, not just in heaven – would have been considered eccentric. Maybe my children would have more than me; maybe not. Either way, the condition of the future was unlikely to have much to do with human activities. This is why pre-capitalist societies tended to be deeply religious; a good harvest was in the hands of weather systems, which in turn meant it was in the hands of the Gods.

Marx accused religion of being the opium of the masses, distracting them from capitalist exploitation. But capitalism has steadily undermined religion by reliably promising that the future will in fact be materially better, and not because of divine intervention but because of the manmade market.

The greatest promise of capitalism is that each generation will rise, on the........

© The Guardian