Precisely Why Modern Capitalism Really Is a ‘Different Animal’

its uniquely insidious trait — and the corruption that ensues

Stephen Yearwood
6 min readJun 9, 2024
Photo by fabio Spano on Unsplash

According to scientists, we human beings have existed for around 200,000 to 300,000 years. Modern capitalism has existed for less than two hundred years. In that time it has come to threaten the very existence of humanity.

That is surely not to say that human beings were all perfect angels before the advent of Modern capitalism. Still, it has affected humanity in a way that transcends anything that came before it — at least since the formation of civilization itself.*

I contend that capitalism has existed since early times in the history of civilization. The definition of it that I prefer is ‘mass production of goods/services for sales in geographically extended markets’. That is surely the most neutral definition possible. It is the case that “mass production” and “geographically extended” are relative terms. Still, for any time and place in human history those terms can be (more or less rigorously) defined. There can be trade over vast distances that involves small-scale production, but by the nature of things ‘mass production’ implies a desire to garner sales beyond the local area where that process takes place, an output beyond that which the local market(s) can absorb.

Prior to Modern capitalism, mass production was based on land. Farming was the first instance of capitalist production (using our definition of the term). It was followed by timbering and mining. Those remained the bases of mass production from the start of civilization until, really, the middle of the 1800’s, when Modern capitalism had become firmly entrenched in this world.

The purpose of capitalism has always been to increase the wealth of the capitalist, the owner(/controller) of the ‘means of production’. The purpose of wealth has always been to enhance social power, the ability to effect choices. [Warren J. Samuels all but defined “social power” as the ability to effect choices, i.e., choose among perceived options and take action to bring that choice to fruition (in his contribution to Perspectives of Property, a compilation of scholarly essays, Gene Wunderlich and W. L. Gibson, eds.: 1972)].

Choices can be purely personal, as in — for wealthy people — ‘conspicuous consumption’. It is possible, though, for choices to extend to broader spheres. People with great wealth tend to want to influence society in ways that will be to their benefit. It is a simple historical fact that from day one of civilization there has been a symbiotic, reflexive relationship between wealth and political power. There is nothing unique in Modern capitalism as far as that goes.

Before Modern capitalism came into existence, though, there was a direct, inherent limit on economic power: it was based on land, and land is limited. Locally, that might make no difference. The powerful have dwarfed the power of those who comprised the ‘masses’. Every now and then the oppressed have rebelled against the powerful who have ruled their lives, but they have seldom defeated, even temporarily, their oppressors.

Still, social power was limited by land. That was the reason for wars of conquest: more land meant more power. There was always more land out there, and somewhere over the horizon a threat to the power of any ruler could be accumulating. Moreover, within the local area there were always people with enough land that, if they united, could topple whoever sat at the pinnacle of power. So land and its distribution determined the outline of the relationships of social power.

Modern capitalism changed that. With it, money became more important than land as a source of power. At the same time, stock shares, an invention integral to Modern capitalism, became the most important form of wealth.

Here’s the thing: unlike land, there is no inherent limit on money or shares of stocks. Both are limited by economic considerations — but only that: no inherent limit exists for either of them. No inherent limit on money/wealth means no inherent limit on social power — and no such limit on how much economic power can be available to be brought to bear for political power.

It gets worse.

Power does, indeed, corrupt. All power does, not just political power.

Power corrupts people’s souls, their ability to tell right from wrong. It transmutes itself into being the reason for existence. Not merely its existence, but its ever-expanding increase becomes the purpose of life. Thereby, it distinguishes the ‘worthy’ from the ‘unworthy’, people the powerful must respect and people they may choose to respect — or not.

People can have great wealth and be decent human beings — as long as no real threat to their wealth exists. Should a choice ever arise, however, between their wealth and being humane, i.e., respecting other people, i.e., recognizing other people as fellow human beings and taking them into account, people with wealth cannot bring themselves to part with it for the sake of other people: they cannot choose acting humanely if doing that will result in losing all — or even just ‘too much’ — of their wealth.

The people who are simultaneously the beneficiaries and the benefactors of Modern capitalism as an unlimited source of social power are so unwilling they are actually unable to comprehend that continuing with it will destroy, not only every good thing humanity has ever accomplished, but definitely civilization and possibly human life itself. The worst among them seek to forestall any possible challenge to that bottomless font of power by manipulating intellectually weak, credulous souls who crave to the point of insanity any connection to ‘real’ power, however distant, faint, or tenuous. Even the best among them, who acknowledge that a cataclysm is looming and that action should be taken to avoid that most terrible fate, cannot bring themselves, given their exalted place in a social system centered on Modern capitalism, to abandon either that system or their place in it. That overweening attachment to a system of ever-increasing power in the full knowledge of its ever-more-apparent, ever-more-widespread destructiveness is the ultimate corruption that Modern capitalism’s uniquely insidious trait has brought upon our world, this pale blue pearl of Creation.

*I am fond of pointing out that scientists and Creationists are in agreement as to the age of civilization: the latter, using the Bible, date the time from the appearance of Adam and Eve to the present at around 6,000 years or so and the last we are told in the Bible about their son, Cain (yes, that Cain), is that he “built the world’s first city,” so that (more or less) accords with what scientists say is the age of civilization (the existence of cities). [For the record I am a creationist, but not a Creationist: I believe there is a Creator of this Universe, but I accept the scientific explanation of its unfolding.]


Fortunately, Modern capitalism can be constrained without destroying capitalism (as defined above) — which, as none other than Karl Marx noted, is necessary for ‘the masses’ to have enough of even the basic necessities of life in the context of civilization. Constraining it begins with mutual respect in effecting choices as the ethic to govern the governance of society (an ethic which involves no belief(s)). That leads to an economy with a democratically distributed income. That income would be a guaranteed minimum income — that a person could actually live on — which (for those who desire more in the way of income equality) could be expanded to become the pay for every employee of any business or government (with or without differences in — in-kind — benefits accruing to different positions). Either way, there are limits in this alternative paradigm on the creation of money and the accumulation wealth — but without imposing any arbitrary limit on income or wealth (for people or businesses). In any event, that economy would be market-based, meaning that as much as possible consistent with the ethic of mutual respect in effecting choices markets would determine prices and the allocation of capital in society (with the public goods/services provided by government as matters to be decided in the — democratic — political process).

if curious: for more about mutual respect in effecting choices for governing the governance of society: “Can’t Get Any Simpler;” for more about the economic paradigm: “A Most Beneficial Economic Change” (each a “2 min read” here in Medium with links to more articles on each topic, none of any of it behind the paywall)



Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice