The End of Economic Progress

John Stuart Mill critiques capitalism.

By Francesco Boldizzoni

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Factories Bordering the River, by Paul Maitland, c. 1886. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Compared to Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill was a more benevolent critic of capitalism. For him, the private-enterprise economy was responsible for producing horrible inequalities, but such inequalities had not been less severe in earlier times. Moreover, it had generated the extraordinary wealth of which Victorian society (or, at least, its more privileged sections) could benefit. Capitalism had serious problems but also the potential to create welfare. It deserved another chance. It could, and should, be properly reformed, so that the distributive distortions that affected it would be minimized. In this way, the entire society would be able to reap its fruits.

Although not a revolutionary, Mill was a sensitive man. His reformism was born out of this internal conflict. It was not without its hesitations and contradictions, but it was nonetheless authentic. Indeed, if Mill acknowledged the merits of capitalism, he made no bones about the fact that, as it was, the system was unacceptable. As he wrote in 1852 and repeated in the later editions of Principles of Political Economy, “If…the choice were to be made between Communism with all its chances, and the present state of society with all its sufferings and injustices; if the institution of private property necessarily carried with it as a consequence, that the produce of labor should be apportioned as we now see it, almost in an inverse ratio to the labor…if this or Communism were the alternative, all the difficulties, great or small, of Communism would be but as dust in the balance.” Yet he was quick to add: “But to make the comparison applicable, we must compare Communism at its best, with the regime of individual property, not as it is, but as it might be made.”

The chapter from which these quotes are drawn, “Of Property,” is well-known as one of Mill’s most tormented writings. From its first edition in 1848 to the seventh in 1871, it went through countless rounds of revision and rewriting. The most notable change in tone (although without substantial implications) occurred in the third edition in 1852. The change was partly due, as Mill himself would explain in his Autobiography, to a deeper study of the issue, and partly to the new political mood that was emerging in the wake of the French events of 1848. He now expected his readership to be “more open to the reception of novelties in opinion.” Until then, he had been dismissive about “communism.” He deemed it to be impracticable in a modern society, as it would suppress the incentives that drive people to produce and to care about the quality of what they produce. Communism also appeared to him undesirable. It would make the rich poorer without making the poor richer and, in the long term, would lead to a downward leveling of moral qualities.

From 1852 onward, on the other hand, he made it clear that his skepticism was not caused by an absolute distrust in the possibilities of such a system. He rejected the most common preconceptions about it. It was not true, he maintained, that communism would encourage laziness and opportunism. Nor would securing the subsistence of each family necessarily lead to irresponsible reproductive behavior and unchecked population growth. Even the difficult problem of how to distribute the workload between the members of society, seeing that both jobs and skills were different and not easily comparable, could be overcome by “human intelligence, guided by a sense of justice.” The decisive argument for turning down communism in favor of a reformed capitalism was moral in nature and had to do with the preservation of human liberty. “After the means of subsistence are assured,” Mill observed, the desire for liberty “increases instead of diminishing in intensity.” It was impossible to know a priori “how far the preservation of this characteristic would be found compatible with the Communistic organization of society.”

But what did communism mean to Mill? He was somewhat vague on this point. The distinction between “communism” and “socialism” seems to lie in how far they go in the pursuit of equality by means of wealth redistribution. He described as socialists those who accepted some inequality as long as it did not result from chance but from meritocracy, or because it was the price that had to be paid for the pursuit of a greater good. Between radical alternatives and the path of moderation, Mill clearly preferred the latter. He noted, again after 1852, how “the word Socialism…is now, on the Continent, employed in a larger sense” not to suggest “the entire abolition of private property” but rather the possession of the means of production by communities and associations.

Mill concluded that it was best to keep capitalism and improve it. After all, he argued, “the principle of private property has never yet had a fair trial in any country.” The present distribution of ownership was the result of “conquest and violence” perpetrated many centuries before—a thesis surprisingly close to Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation. But another property regime was possible, one not based on force or privilege but on individual merits and industriousness. Embracing it would put an end to the growth of inequality.


When Mill published his Principles, around the middle of the nineteenth century, he felt that an age of unprecedented material progress, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution, had reached its zenith. This progress left serious distributional problems open, but it was nevertheless undeniable. Wealth had increased, population had grown, techniques had advanced. Mill, moreover, had an unfaltering faith in the capacity of the human spirit to improve itself, a faith he shared with his contemporary and correspondent Auguste Comte, although their philosophical views diverged in many other respects.

John Stuart Mill, by Sir Leslie Ward, 1873. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Even so, Mill was far from thinking that the growth of wealth could last forever. In this sense, he appears to be less modern than many others who came after him and extolled a future of ever greater prosperity, namely, the prophets of self-sustained economic growth. Or perhaps he was more modern than they were, since these certainties have been regularly challenged over the past fifty years. In fact, Mill continued to maintain that economic progress was fated to end in a “stationary state of capital and wealth.” It would not be a matter of regress or decline, just a gradual slowdown of growth, as we would call it today, until wealth reached an upper limit. This limit, however, would be compatible with reasonably high living standards, much higher than those experienced before industrialization.

At the peak of the Victorian era, it seemed to be out of the question that living standards might regress to preindustrial levels. Population and resources had found a new equilibrium in a country that was wealthier and more populous than ever before. Yet this very country was troubled by the coexistence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty; by the destruction of nature, sacrificed on the altar of mechanized production; and by the degradation of human life. Dickens’ “children of man,” Ignorance and Want, roamed the streets of British slums. They were everywhere. Mill conceded that industrial growth “may be a necessary stage in the progress of civilization,” so that every nation might have to go through it. But he believed that in Britain, at least, this stage was coming to a close. The advent of the “stationary state” could perhaps be delayed, but it could not be avoided. Hence he wondered: “When the progress ceases, in what condition are we to expect that it will leave mankind?” Nor did he pose this question in the abstract. In other words, he did not treat the exhaustion of material progress as a technical problem but instead as one closely related to the fate of capitalism.

Mill explained that the stationary state was not to be dreaded but welcomed with a certain relief: “I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.”

The stationary state would represent “a very considerable improvement” on the present state of affairs. An advanced economy, Mill thought, cannot expand beyond its physical limits. But it does not need to grow further, because it is already able to produce enough wealth to satisfy the needs of the entire society. For this to happen, however, two conditions must be met. The first is that men and women learn how to procreate responsibly to ensure a balance between total population and wealth (here Mill was anticipating something that, by the mid-twentieth century, would indeed occur almost everywhere in the West). The second and more important condition is that wealth should be redistributed—not at random, though, but based on a justice criterion: everyone must be given the same chances in life. Here, again, we come across equality of opportunity. Wherever both conditions were fulfilled, “society would exhibit these leading features: a well-paid and affluent body of laborers; no enormous fortunes, except what were earned and accumulated during a single lifetime; but a much larger body of persons than at present not only exempt from the coarser toils but with sufficient leisure, both physical and mental, from mechanical details, to cultivate freely the graces of life.”

The issue comes full circle, but Mill’s hopes went beyond that. The situation to which the stationary state might hopefully lead was for him “that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.” This also implies that he had a change in the sphere of values in mind. In fact, Mill saw the “struggle for riches” of Victorian society as nothing but the continuation of the more primitive “struggle of war” by other means. It was a little step forward but one still encumbered by a barbaric heritage. The process of psychological change that was to parallel the achievement of economic maturity was not meant as a mere process of adaptation to better material conditions but as the product of an autonomous, albeit concurrent, moral advancement. Progress was thus understood by Mill to be the progressive attainment of the “best state for human nature.”

Mill knew that the stationary state was not necessarily going to materialize anytime soon. Even a fully developed economy such as that of Britain still had some margin for further expansion. Yet he wished the nation to be wise enough to take a step back before being forced to do so. In this respect, he emphasized the other impending danger faced by Victorian society—the ecological threat. He saw no reason why greater population density should be desired at the expense of the natural environment. He also believed that environmental degradation was having a negative impact on human psychology. “It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species,” he noted. “A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal.” To elevate their thinking, humans need moments of quiet contemplation of “natural beauty and grandeur.” And he went on with a warning that, for once, sounds truly prophetic in hindsight: “Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation…every flowery waste or natural pasture plowed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow.”


Excerpt adapted from Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures Since Karl Marx by Francesco Boldizzoni, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.