For much of the 20th century, Western experts viewed China as a pre-capitalist society. They typically equated ‘capitalism’ with industrialisation and innovation, spectacular benchmarks such as coal-powered engines, steel factories and advances in chemical and mechanical engineering. These technological breakthroughs distinguished the ‘West’ from the ‘rest’, and it was their absence in China – and much of Asia – that marked it as ‘pre-capitalist’.
There is a growing feeling, among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.
In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’