Is authenticity incompatible with capitalism?

Koen Smets
4 min readFeb 14, 2021

In a recent blogpost, economist Brank Milanovic riffs on a theme from the end of his book, Capitalism, Alone. Capitalism facilitates (and arguably even requires) the progressive commercialization of activities and relationships that, before, happened as part of general social interaction, e.g., within or between families, and between friends.

In this post, he focuses specifically on the arts. The advantage of capitalism, Branko says, is that you can only make a profit if you satisfy someone else’s need: this aligns, as if by an invisible hand, the profit goal of a producer with the personal needs of their customer. This is fine and dandy when it concerns reproducible goods like shoes: someone who correctly predicts the need for shoes will make money, and a lot of shoe-wearers happy with exactly the shoes they want. But it is not so fine when it concerns the production of art: an inherent, essential quality of art is its uniqueness, its individualism, and its authenticity. An artist who correctly predicts the public’s preference in literature, films or paintings will, just like the successful cobbler, become wealthy, but there will be no authenticity in her art.

He contrasts the films made by Steven Spielberg, various possible endings of which were tested with different audiences to establish the most popular ones with Franz Kafka’s diaries and Karl Marx’s 1848 manuscripts which were never intended for publication. The latter are, undoubtedly, authentic; the former, well, few would contest that the approach is lacking in authenticity.

In a capitalist system, artists try to maximize their income by trading their authenticity for popularity. Branko concedes that this is not entirely new, and that artists have long been making commissioned works to please the rich and powerful. But that was “artisanal” commercialization on a small scale compared to right now, when literary agents tell authors what to write, and thus instrumentally stifle their authenticity. Hence, he concludes, the mechanism whereby capitalism ensures an optimum provision of shoes fails to do the same where artistic endeavour is concerned.

There are plenty of examples of art of debatable authenticity, which can be explained by the profit motive and the processes by which profit can be maximized. However, I…

Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius