In search of an answer, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism takes us on a far-ranging exploration to the unconscious levels of the human psyche and the roots of domination and submission; to the organization of primitive society and the origins of wealth; to the sources of profit and the conception of a "regime" of capital; to the interplay of relatively slow-changing institutions and the powerful force of the accumulation of wealth. By the end of this tour we have grappled not only with ideas of Adam Smith and Karl Marx but with Freud and modern anthropologists as well. And we are far closer to understanding capitalism in our time, its possibilities and limits.
The title signals the intent of economist Heilbroner (New School for Social Research) to address the elusive issue of what capitalism is rather than what might become of it. His wide-ranging but disciplined inquiry yields a wealth of engrossing if occasionally oblique insights for non-specialists as well as scholars. At the outset, the author focuses on pre-capitalist societies (e.g., ancient Egypt, the Mayan empire, et al.) to make the point that their surplus, or wealth, was largely an end in itself, not a means for gathering additional wealth. While capital must ultimately assume physical form, he observes, it can be grasped only as a social process. In tracking the emergence of captialism as a stratified society in which the very human drive to accumulate wealth confers prestige as well as power, Heilbroner cites Adam Smith, Marx - and Veblen. Invariably, he concludes, surplus moves toward the top of any society, and profit ("the life blood of capitalism") reflects essentially political relationships. Capitalism is not wholly self-ordering; markets are limited in what they can accomplish, the author points out. State intervention is required to deal with, for example, defense contracting. He is nonetheless bemused by the evident ability of capitalists to obscure the "loss-absorbing, momentum-imparting" contributions of the public sector. Along similar lines, Heilbroner wonders at the capacity of a system based on "class domination and mass acquiescence" to deflect ideological critiques, typically in the direction of government, despite the development of disruptive new technologies underwritten by capitalists. Heilbroner's thoughtful appreciation raises at least as many questions as it answers about capitalism as practiced (and examined) in Western industrial powers. On balance, then, an intriguing introduction to the resilient regime's nature and logic. (Kirkus Reviews)