Is authenticity incompatible with capitalism?

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 think Branko too easily blames this on capitalism, and he is too pessimistic regarding the fate of authenticity under capitalism.

A perfectly authentic artist would be driven solely by intrinsic motivation, undistracted by income. But such perfection does not exist, and has probably never existed. Artists, even those lucky enough not to have to worry about an income, still crave the appreciation of their audience. The duo that has, for nearly sixty years, been the artistic engine of the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are unlikely to be solely, or even primarily driven by a profit motive (their estimated net worth is, respectively, $360 million and $500 million). Being revered by an audience is no less an instance of extrinsic motivation than the royalties from music sales or the revenue of a concert tour.

There is, of course, an uneasy tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but that is not restricted to artists, by the way. Depending on what we do, where, for whom and so on, we are motivated by more or less of one, and correspondingly less or more of the other. If we invite people for a dinner party, the decisions we make regarding the meal we cook will be in part guided by intrinsic motivation (a proxy for authenticity) — perhaps we are cooking a recipe from our grandmother, or an authentic (!) version of a dish from our native country. But we will also have extrinsic, material motives: we will want to limit the budget for ingredients and the time we are prepared to spend in the kitchen, and we will also want to please, perhaps even impress, our guests. The dinner party is, like most of what we do, a compromise between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, between being authentic and being practical.

Capitalism does, of course, make it easier for prospective artists lacking in intrinsic motivation to compensate for this deficit with by the extrinsic motivation of income (or indeed fame): they produce content with low authenticity but high popular appeal. It may even tempt some more authentic artists to trade a little more of their authenticity for money or glory. But commercial opportunities do not have to mean the demise of authenticity to the extent Branko appears to imply in his post.

In fact, along with amplifying the lure of lucre and thus eroding authenticity, capitalism has, at the same time, given artists an opportunity to increase extrinsic compensation without needing to compromise their authenticity. Technology has made it easier and cheaper for artists both to produce high quality content and to reach much larger audiences. Someone making authentic, but obscure music in their bedroom or garage can now reach people across the globe. Perhaps it is not coincidence that the late David Bowie, who can hardly be accused of a lack of authenticity throughout his career, took advantage of capitalism by securitizing his back catalogue to provide him with the independence to continue to make the music he liked, rather than what managers and executives dictated.

Occasionally, Branko Milanovic takes up the defence of capitalism against anti-capitalist attacks. This is not because he is a capitalist groupie: he is well aware of its flaws, but also of its advantages in addressing economic inequality. He is a pragmatist who realizes — as he argues in his book — that capitalism is here to stay, if only because it follows from human nature. It gives me a peculiar kind of pleasure to join Branko in defending capitalism in the same way, in response to what I think is a not entirely justified criticism… even if it is by Branko himself.

Originally published at on February 14, 2021.

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

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