“The technique of warfare and the structure of armies being what they were, the individual decision and driving power of the leading man—even his actual presence on a showy horse—were essential elements in the strategical and tactical situations. Napoleon’s presence was, and had to be, actually felt on his battlefields. This is no longer so,” explains economist Joseph Schumpeter in “Can Capitalism Survive?” This military analogy summarizes a historical trend that Karl Marx and Max Weber each attempted to describe at length. If capitalism will come to an end, argues Schumpeter, it will go in a long-drawn-out whimper, not a revolution.
For most of human history, you could feel someone’s authority by being in their presence. Their authority was a result of their individual character and charisma. In other cases, individuals inherited their authority through hereditary lines. We usually did what our fathers did; if your father smelted iron, you were a Smith; if your father ruled others, you were a King. Most people never challenged this latter authority—it was the common-sense order. When the rare revolution occurred, it was from individuals with great character changing things by force and violence. This is how the economy evolves, by “creative destruction”, according to Schumpeter.
Creating new products and production processes is difficult, he explains, “first, because they lie outside of the routine tasks which everybody understands and, secondly, because the environment resists in many ways that vary, according to social conditions, from simple refusal either to finance or to buy a new thing, to physical attack on the man who tries to produce it.” The charismatic leader or, in this case, the entrepreneur is a rare genius who must overcome resistance from those who can’t see his vision, and destroy the old to create new markets and ways of life.
These revolutions become less frequent because economic progress tends to become depersonalized and automatized. Old innovations become routinized. They’re reduced to a formula. The routinization begins at the base of the economy and works its way up, making society more rigid and predictable. First, the work of the laborers is automated, then the middle classes, and finally the innovative spirit of the entrepreneurs is the last to be reduced to a routine. “Rationalized and specialized office work will eventually blot out personality, the calculable result, the ‘vision.’ The leading man no longer has the opportunity to fling himself into the fray. He is becoming just another office worker—and one who is not always difficult to replace.”
In the long arc of history, the authority of people dominating other people is usurped by the authority of reason and formula.