What advantages do the writers of the turn of the 20th century offer? The main difference and prime advantage, I think, lies in their holistic approach to economic and political analysis. It was holistic in the sense that they discussed the structural features of capitalism: social relations between capital owners and wage workers, distribution of national income between capital and labor, formation of the social elite. In contrast, today’s discussion was until recently dominated by attempts to apply small fixes and to keep questions about the systemic structure off the table.
The recent narrower approach is, at least in economics, a product of two developments. The first, dating to the 1950s or so, involves a systematic disregard for the differences in people’s positions in the process of production: their agency, power, and material inequality. Gradually, the discussion of classes, so salient in early economics, disappeared, and all individuals were considered simply as “economic agents” maximizing their utility under the conditions of given endowments.
The second trend, exacerbating the first, was the triumphalism that spread after the end of communism. Social scientists came to believe that the fundamental problem of how a human society should be organized was solved: liberal democracy politically and capitalism economically. Scholars embraced the idea that the structural edifice of society was immutable, and that only small homeopathic fixes were needed to solve the outstanding problems.
Many people — though still too few — are awakening to the fact that the problems of rich Western democracies, and to a lesser extent of emerging market economies, are fundamental. This is why it is useful to go back to the old masters, who had no doubts that the problems they faced were profound, even if many of them proposed solutions that made some of these problems worse. Fortunately, we can now sift through the proposed solutions and discard the mistakes.