Occasionally I find that things such as "incentives" in a capitalist economy are as if they would be directed to a certain outcome or certain outcomes. E.g. that profit incentives matter only in so far the firm or the individual finds profit motivating and the incentives vanish when they cannot be motivated by profit any more. Also this can perhaps be seen so that the firm innovates or produces only so much until their profit motive is satisfied and halts after that.

If we then think of this kind of fulfilling the profit motive in a societal scale, then does capitalism have an end? Is there some goal that its pushing forward to, given that it stresses these incentives?

Alternatively, if there are no incentives, it can be claimed that "progress" is halted. Which implies that "progress" is meaningful (because halting it is not wanted)? What then does this progress progress to? Why is it meaningful?

  • 3
    Progress is a very complicated issue. The "locus classicus" for the moral view about capitalism is Adam Smith. You can compare with a contemporary point of view: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013). Jun 12 '16 at 10:25
  • 3
    Concepts do not have a telos (end, goal, purpose), but persons have. But generally speaking, in classical theory homo oeconomicus seeks maximisation of utility and markets are mechanisms establishing perfect (welfare-maximising) allocation of production factors. Presupposing a bunch of totally unrealistic assumptions, of course. The goal therefore is maximising the utility of economical agents, both now (allocation, market) and in the long run (innovation, demographical and technological development.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 12 '16 at 10:49
  • Nick Land might be an interesting resource, who argues that capitalism and artificial general intelligence share a teleological identity
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 12 '16 at 12:39
  • @Joseph Weismann. I've only glanced at Land and his work looked like, sorry, a puerile mess. Is there a good text in which he lays out the thesis you mention? Nov 2 '20 at 16:34

Short answer: no.

Long answer: 'Capitalism' isn't a static concept, it's a term made up to describe an aspect of many economic implementations around the world today. Those economic implementations vary wildly.

Historically, capitalism can't have an end goal because it's origin doesn't point to any single actor or body. Rather, I'd describe it as the manifestation of human nature on a mass scale. When human beings organise themselves they tend toward socially-democratic nation-states. This hasn't happened with conscious intent, it's just happened, and we've labelled it with the term 'capitalism'.

And so while it can be comforting to imagine that international politics is organised and intentional, this is actually not the case. Rather, it's like a couple billion apes who are capable of using complex language bouncing around and trying to produce enough food for everyone under geographic and resource limitations that are mostly beyond our control.


One thing I'll add, though, is that in a sense 'capitalism' works toward the end of improving people's quality of life in the short term, but rather I'd describe it as people wanting to improve their quality of life being capitalistic. Capitalism as an economic model is the effect, our natural tendency to capitalize is the cause.

  • 2
    "When human beings organise themselves they tend toward socially-democratic nation-states." I would argue this is nonfactual. This might be a common contemporary trend, though that is also debatable. I would definitely say that the quote is far too strong.
    – PV22
    Jun 13 '16 at 22:07
  • You're likely right. I'd say it's a contemporary trend but likely an amber in time that will change in the coming millennia. The statement should be generalized a bit more. Jun 14 '16 at 14:40
  • You can't just equate socially-democratic and capitalist. The UK was key to developing joint-stock companies and regulated stock markets, under an autocratic monarchy. China is widely considered to have a type of capitalism, while have a socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics autocracy. You appear to be confusing 'using money' with capitalism. How did colonial capitalism "improve people's quality of life", who had the wrong skin colour? You could say something like trade tends to benefit both partners in a reasonably power-balanced interaction, but if not eg Flint Michigan, great harms happen
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 2 '20 at 16:24
  • I don't think I did equate socially-democratic and capitalist Nov 7 '20 at 2:20

A Libertarian may say that Capitalism's end goal is to provide personal economic growth through production and sale in the market. This in turn provides a wealth of goods from which all the masses can acquire from the market.

However, to a Marxist, Capitalism also has a conflict induced purpose focused on allowing Capitalists to maintain power and control in society. This is not necessarily true, however is historically true to a significant degree.

If we say that the first phase of modern Capitalism emerged with the onset of the industrial age. That is, up until this time, production was directly related to labor, and therefore labor was a relatively fixed term. Thus, as industrial production outpaced human capabilities, labor then became an abstraction separate from the physical production of a product. To produce at this new rate, one had to first invest in the machinery - termed "the Means of Production". This initial investment linked access to capital, which is unevenly distributed in society, to Capitalism. Those people who controlled the Means of Production were termed Capitalists or "the Bourgeoise"

Marx argues that, separate from the Bourgeoise, there is a second class that forms - "The Proletariat". It is comprised of the people who offer their labor in the market place in exchange for receive an income.

Marx's argument continues to describe how the two groups are structured at odds with each other, but that is not necessary material for this question, unless you agree with his position, and include maintaining class division as another end goal of Capitalism as institutionalized by the Bourgeoisie.


According to Marx, who remains one of the most astute and comprehensive critics of Capitalism, it is a system of social organization that has only the abstract quantitative "goal" of the self-accumulation of "value," which is measured by, though not the same as, money.

He used the simple formula M-C-M' to describe the process of money becoming Capital becoming more money, etc. There is no "end" goal, or eschatology, simply the eternal repetition of this process. The process, to capitalist apologists, continually elevates production and the general living standard. Such progress is then measured by a rising stock market and GDP.

This is all very well, except for the internal contradictions that Marx and others have analyzed. And as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, this means there is no "common good" to provide political, social, or moral orientation. There is only self-interest on a mass scale and a continual division and accumulation property, which is presumably transformed, "as if by an invisible hand" into the greater good.

Moreover, the division of "surplus value" is highly unequal between owners of capital (major shareholders) and owners of labor (employees), and this inequality will only increase, causing social stresses. Without going into detail, Marx also diagnosed other necessary ills such as overproduction, waves of unemployment, and periodic collapse, such as the Great Depression.

Today, we would also add the social-environmental effects of the various "externalities" of capitalist production, from plastic waste and carbon exhaust to global migrations, altered landscapes, and capitalist interventions into national political systems.

So, Capitalism does not have an "end goal" in a Christian or Hegelian sense, but it does have a telos, one that is simply its own abstract accumulation. This may have many benefits, especially for individual owners of capital. But, as many have pointed out, it is a powerful global system that has no necessary correlation to human goals, whether individual or social.

Capitalism is, of course, enmeshed with other systems that may constrain or be destroyed by it. But as abstract self-accumulation it is entirely indifferent to whether its profits come from brilliant new technologies and medicines or from utter destruction, war, and disease. We can even see this plainly in the frequent disconnect between the stock market and the news, whether "good" or "bad." Capital has its purposes, but they are only coincidentally human.

  • 1
    Asset-stripping and disaster capitalists being cases in point. Good answer.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 2 '20 at 16:28
  • Right you are, that gets closer to Marx's M-M,' skipping the productive bit altogether! Nov 2 '20 at 16:37
  • Isn't that rent-seeking capitalists, like landlords, who don't meaningfully ever put capital at risk?
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 2 '20 at 16:51
  • 1
    I have always associated M-M' with financialization, credit creation, or "coupon clipping," which might include asset stripping or debt loading onto firms. I'm really not sure about landed property. I don't think Marx really dealt with urban rents only agricultural. But, honestly, I'm not sure. Nov 2 '20 at 17:23

While not a goal per se (as rationalized by the other respondents), I'd argue that unbridled (i.e. without external controls or regulatory strictures) capitalism will ultimately devolve into fascism where, through mergers, acquisitions, anticompetitive behaviors, etc., a single entity would become the sole source for all products and services, and government would operate as its marketing arm.


To be clear, while I do understand that capitalism is an economic principle rather than a form of government, my supposition is based upon observations of recent U.S. history which suggest that the U.S. form of representative democracy is swiftly being replaced by a plutocracy.

And as power is concentrated into fewer and fewer entities, without the checks provided by governmental regulation, the logical result of this process would be a single commercial entity that has completely captured the means of production and through its total control over the market, supplanted a plutocracy shared among a few entities with a single source of power and control, a fascist "uber-corporation".

"Capitalism degenerates into fascism when the precarious ally with the powerful to dominate the powerless. - Umair Harque (Why) Capitalism Degenerates Into Fascism

Of particular interest to me (and from which I partially reached my supposition) is Thomas Piketty's 2013 book Le Capital au XXIe siècle (the 2014 English translation of which is titled "Capital in the Twenty-First Century") which has garnered much interest and commentary:

"That is why Piketty has made such a huge impact: He has starkly and convincingly outlined the stakes for future generations. Either we'll have a new birth of reformed capitalism, with his preferred progressive wealth tax and other institutions, or we'll have wealth concentration on such a colossal scale that it will threaten the democratic order." - Ryan Cooper Why everyone is talking about Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

"At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame. ... Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to." - Paul Krugman Why We’re in a New Gilded Age

"Will the world of 2050 or 2100,” Piketty asks, “be owned by traders, top managers, and the superrich, or will it belong to the oil producing countries or the Bank of China?” Actually, the answer doesn’t much matter. Whatever the exact makeup of this global plutocracy, democratic capitalism will be replaced by something more like Putin’s or Xi’s cronyist authoritarianism — unless populist progressive forces can implement a global wealth tax ASAP. And if that can’t happen right away, 80 percent top income-tax rates would be a solid first step. - James Pethokoukis The New Marxism

And Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page's Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens:

"If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened."

And finally, this alarming quote from a scion of the "new economy" which seems to invoke the spectre of fascism:

"The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism." - Peter Thiel The Education of a Libertarian

  • Although I agree with your answer, if you have any references that take similar views this would support your answer and give readers places to go for more information that you have selected for them. Welcome! Apr 16 '19 at 17:34
  • Hmm, yes but will the Company become more, or less, democratic as it grows? - Welcome to Philosophy SE!
    – christo183
    Apr 17 '19 at 6:47
  • @christo183 You assume that "the Company" embraces a shared democratic model of management, which I contend is antithetical to its primary goal: to maximize returns for its shareholders. The current trend of stock buybacks would seem to indicate a diminishment of shareholder power and control and further, most companies of any size are now predominantly owned by large investment collectives like mutual funds, which must provide realizable returns to their investors. Gone are the days where long-term growth supported by corporate investments into its workforce, R&D, etc. is a corporate goal. Apr 19 '19 at 16:05
  • I agree with all that. But there is a difference between political power and power derived from capital: In order to exercise capital power, capital must be expended. That means there is an inherent negative feedback loop enforcing an either power or capital growth doctrine. Now this is overly simplistic, but it does suggest there is a case to be made for corporations having to become more democratic as they grow.
    – christo183
    Apr 20 '19 at 5:09
  • The rise of private armies, I mean security contractors, could be indicative of corporations gearing towards circumventing the negative feedback loop... But even then, soldiers need salaries. And generals' loyalties can change. In the economic sphere the balance of power (not capital) is fairly robust. While there is 500 which fortune to speak of, there is hope for democracy. And while democracy has life, for better or worse, capitalism has hope.
    – christo183
    Apr 20 '19 at 5:30

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