Carl H.A. Dassbach Department of Social Sciences
Michigan Technological University
Houghton, MI 49931
Department of Social Sciences
This paper maintains that Schumpeter's theory of the Kondratieff Cycle or long wave has been plagued by two misinterpretations, 1.) the clustering of innovations resulting from new technological discoveries is the cause of long waves and 2.) the theory is unable to explain why innovations cluster at certain times. These misinterpretations, it is argued, have persisted largely because of the centrality of Kuznets' review of Business Cycles in explicating Schumpeter's theory. To demonstrate the source of these misinterpretations and present an accurate view of Schumpeter's theory, this paper contrasts and compares Schumpeter and Kuznets' respective interpretations of long waves and their requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena. The final section examines Schumpeter's contribution to these misinterpretations.
Schumpeter's theory of the Kondratieff cycle is one of the best known and yet, most misunderstood explanations of long waves. The generally accepted interpretation of Schumpeter's theory is that long waves are caused by the clustering of innovations. As such, his work has become the basis for a general explanation of long waves known as "innovation theory" and given rise to a literature and debates on the relationship between long waves, invention and innovation. The standard criticism of Schumpeter's theory is that it is unable to explain why innovations cluster every 45 to 60 years (Delbeke 1981, 248; van Duijn 1977, 550; Kuznets 1953a, 111-114; Mandel 1978, 137). I will argue that clustering of innovations per se is not the cause of long waves according to Schumpeter. Instead, long waves are due to the consequences of this clustering. Hence, it is possible for innovations to cluster, often identified in the literature as a period of a intense patenting activity, without initiating a new long wave. This distinction between clustering and consequences may appear to be a trivial but, it has, as will be shown, importantimplications for periodizing successive long waves and identifying their cause.
I will also show that the standard criticism of Schumpeter's theory namely, that it is unable to account for the clustering of innovations, is wrong. Two factors have contributed to the persistence of this misinterpretations. One was Kuznets' 1940 review of Business Cycles which first claims that Schumpeter fails to provide an explanation (Kuznets 1953a). The second was Schumpeter's reluctance in Business Cycles to explain what he believed caused the clustering of innovations. Instead, he chose to postulate it as a hypothesis "made to fit the facts" (Schumpeter 1935,6). Nonetheless, an explanation is suggested in Business Cycles and explicit in his earlier works. Kuznets fails to uncover this explanation because he evaluates Schumpeter's theory in terms of his (Kuznets') requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena. As a result, Kuznets' criticism that Schumpeter does not explain why innovations cluster is not a criticism of Schumpeter but really a reflection of Kuznets' faulty understanding of Schumpeter. Because Kuznets' review has guided most subsequent interpretations of Schumpeter, this review has been central in disseminating this faulty understanding and the erroneous criticism. 1
This paper will first review Schumpeter's explanation of longs wave to emphasize crucial, yet neglected, aspects of this theory. It will then demonstrate how in his review of Business Cycles, Kuznets obscures Schumpeter's explanation for the clustering of innovations. Next, the causes for the clustering of innovation, according to Schumpeter, and not Kuznets' reading of Schumpeter, will be discussed. In the final section, the reasons for Schumpeter's reluctance to clearly and explicitly explain the cause of this clustering will be discussed.
Schumpeter conceptualizes long waves as disturbances in the equilibrium of an economic system, the exhaustion of these disturbances, and an eventual return to equilibrium. It is this repeated return to a state of equilibrium, and not the repeatability of the wave form, which gives long waves their cyclical character. Schumpeter designates this equilibrium state as "the circular flow of economic life" or the "stationary flow" (Schumpeter 1961, Chap.1). This state refers to a condition comparable to simple reproduction and characterized by an absence of any change or development. But Schumpeter is also explicit that this "stationary flow" is only a theoretical norm, not a real state of affairs: it serves as a reference point from which to define phenomena such as overproduction, excess capacity, and unemployment.
These terms, as commonly used, do not carryany precise meaning at all, and the fact that they do not explains the inconclusiveness of much argument that goes under these headings. As soon as we find such precise meanings for them and to fit them for the task of identifying definite states of an economic organism, the necessity of falling back on equilibrium relations becomes apparent (Schumpeter 1964, 42).
In actuality, economic systems never achieve equilibrium. At best, they move into what Schumpeter calls "neighborhoods of equilibrium...in which the system approaches a state which would, if reached, fulfill equilibrium conditions" (Schumpeter 1964, 45).
All economic systems have a fundamental tendency towards equilibrium and automatically move toward these neighborhoods after the disruptions caused by factors of change have exhausted themselves. For his theory of long waves, the most important characteristic of these neighborhoods of equilibrium is that economic conditions are relatively stable and this permits what he calls "tolerably reliable calculations" about the future. As a result, the risks associated with engaging in new activities are at their lowest (Schumpeter 1961, 214).
In his general model, Schumpeter suggests that all cycles depart from these neighborhoods of equilibrium. When he introduces the notion of several simultaneous cycles, he relaxes the assumption that the shorter cycles begin from equilibrium in the strict sense of the term - "the sweep of the longer waves provides the neighborhood of equilibrium for the waves of the next lowest order." In other words, neighborhoods of equilibrium, in the strict sense, are only associated with long waves when "all cycles pass their normals" (Schumpeter 1964, 148).
Economic development is the result of three types of factors: external factors such as demand by government for new weapons; factors of growth or gradual changes in economic life which are accomplished through day-to-day activities and adjustments and, most importantly, "the outstanding fact in the economic history of capitalist society," innovation (Schumpeter 1964, 61). For Schumpeter, innovation is the chief force in what he calls "economic evolution." Economic evolution is however discontinuous and takes the form of long waves because of a discontinuity in the introduction of major innovations into the economic system.
While the importance of innovation in Schumpeter's thought is well known, less attention has been paid to what Schumpeter meant by innovation. On close analysis, it appears that Schumpeter's concept of innovation is both `broader' and `narrower' than is generally assumed by what are considered his most direct disciples, Neo-Schumpeterians or innovation theorists (Mensch 1979, van Duijn 1977, Freeman 197, Mandel 1978, 1980, 1981, Kleinknecht 1981). Schumpeter's concept is broader because, unlike innovation theorists, he does not restrict the concept of innovation to the patenting or commercialization of new inventions. In addition to these activities, Schumpeter includes other activities such as "new combinations" in organization, commerce, and the market, e.g., the opening of new markets, the discovery of new sources of raw material and supplies, and improved handling and transport of materials and goods, as well as the creation of new business organizations such as department stores, cartels and monopolies. (Schumpeter 1961, 66; 1964, 59).
Schumpeter's concept of innovation is `narrower' because he stresses that innovation per se, i.e., simply as new ideas or new combinations, is not a force in economic development. Rather the true force in economic development is the consequences of these innovation: 1. ) the construction of new plants and the rebuilding of old plants "requiring, non-negligible time and outlay," 2) new firms which are founded for the purpose of capitalizing on specific innovations, and (3) the rise to leadership of new men (Schumpeter 1964, 68-71). These consequences make innovations a force in economic evolution and innovations which do not produce these consequences, which do not, in other words, produce other changes in the "stationary flow" would not and could not be a force in the economic development of a society.2 Economic evolution begins when an entrepreneur of exceptional ability - "the conductor"- introduces, in the above sense, an innovation. This enables the individual to make monopolistic profits and stimulates the borrowing of capital in order to increase the investment. The activity of the first entrepreneur also smoothes the path for other entrepreneurs to introduce innovations in associated or related fields. This "swarming of entrepreneurs" is financed through credit creation, which Schumpeter calls, "the monetary complement of innovation." Credit permits these firms to `bid away' factors of production from older non-innovating firms. This produces a rise in prices and a general economic expansion which characterizes the first phase of Schumpeter's four phase model, Prosperity.
Prosperity peaks, i.e., reaches its upper turning point, for several reasons. Unable to compete with successful new firms, older non-innovating firms and unsuccessful new firms suffer losses. New investments are halted because the economy is disrupted and it becomes impossible to make reliable calculations about the future. The possibilities offered by the current cluster of innovations are exhausted. Interest rates rise. The subsequent downturn is the second phase of the cycle - Recession. The decline of Recession continues however, past equilibrium in a secondary wave which Schumpeter attributes to "errors, excess of optimism and pessimism. ... Reckless, fraudulent and otherwise unsuccessful enterprises created in the optimism of expansion cannot stand the test administered by Recession" (Schumpeter 1964, 122). They are liquidated. These liquidations, in turn, undermine the debt structure which begins to "crumble" and this causes a "panic." Deposits shrink and credit tightens even further. Firms which would have been able to withstand the contraction had it not resulted in panic are liquidated in what Schumpeter calls `abnormal' liquidations and among other enterprises there is "a shrinkage of operations that reduces them, quite erratically, below their equilibrium levels" (Schumpeter 1964, 125).
For Schumpeter, these abnormal liquidations and the `excess' shrinkage of enterprises mark the third phase of the cycle - Depression. Depression continues until all unsuccessful and excess investments are liquidated. Once this point is reached (and it is by no means automatic), a movement towards a new "neighborhood of equilibrium" is initiated. This movement is the fourth phase of the cycle - Revival.
Schumpeter emphasizes that every cycle is "a historical individual and not merely an arbitrary unit created by the observer"(Schumpeter 1964, 131). Hence, the periodization of long waves can only be from the neighborhood of equilibrium preceding Prosperity to the neighborhood of equilibrium following Revival. This is an important clue to Schumpeter's understanding of causality and stands in marked contrast to innovation theorists who search for the `causes' of the next prosperity in the unsettled times of depression.
For Schumpeter, long waves are formally similar but differ substantially in their result. Each long wave is a break with the past and the economic system which emerges in the Revival phase is qualitatively different from the economic system of the Prosperity phase of the same cycle. In other words, long waves are not merely passing distortions or `imperfections' in the economic system. Instead, the innovations which propel each long wave produce real qualitative changes in the economic system.
[The] historic and irreversible changes in the way of doing things we call "innovation" and we define: innovations are changes in production functions which cannot be decomposed into infinitesimal steps. Add as many mail coaches as you please, you can never get a railroad by so doing...The kind of wave-like movement, which we call the business cycle, is incident to industrial change and would be impossible in an economic world displaying nothing except unchanging repetition of the productive and consumptive process (Schumpeter 1935, 4)
Schumpeter therefore identifies three specific long waves and their corresponding innovations: the Industrial Revolution Kondratieff, 1787 to 1842, (cotton, textiles, iron, and steam power); the Bourgeois Kondratieff, 1842 to 1897, (railroads); and the Neo-Mercantilist Kondratieff, 1897 to ?, (electrification, motorization, and chemical industries).
In this review, Kuznets raises a "disturbing doubt" about Schumpeter's theory of the long wave, namely, it does not explain what causes the clustering of innovations (Kuznets 1953a, 111). Kuznets poses this question in terms of Schumpeter's agents of innovation, entrepreneurs. Why, Kuznets asks, do entrepreneurs act in a discontinuous rather then a continuous fashion?
Given the infinite supply of possible innovations ...why need entrepreneurial genius defer the next pioneering step until his preceding one has been so imitated and expanded that the upsetting of equilibrium stops even him in his tracks?...Why should we not conceive these applications of high entrepreneurial ability, whether represented by one man or several, as flowing in a continuous stream, a stream magnified in a constant proportion by the efforts of the imitators? (Kuznets 1953a, 111)
Kuznets proposes three possible answers to this question: (1) the existence of "cycles in the supply of entrepreneurial activity"; (2) "by definition, an innovation so disturbs existing economic relations that its introduction on a significant scale will necessarily prevent any other innovation from being successful as long as the process of readjustment has not taken place"; and (3) "[d]iscontinuity ... in the rate of innovations rests essentially upon discontinuity or bunching in the supply of possible new combinations, particularly of technological inventions" (Kuznets 1953a, 112). He rejects the first two as being "unacceptable as a significant interpretation or extension of Professor Schumpeter's position." The third, he claims, may have some plausibility but Kuznets feels that it is unable to account for the clustering of significant innovations. As a result, Kuznets comes to the conclusion that Schumpeter fails to explain why innovations cluster at certain times.
This `failure' to explain why innovations cluster has become the most enduring criticism of Schumpeter's theory of long waves. Part of the reason for the endurance of this criticism is the fact that Schumpeter did not make his explanation explicit in Business Cycles, but the main reason is that Kuznets' review has guided nearly every subsequent interpretation of Schumpeter's theory of the long wave.3 Guided by Kuznets, most subsequent interpretations of Schumpeter have failed to notice that Kuznets' criticism is not criticism of Schumpeter but a criticism of Kuznets' understanding of Schumpeter. Rather then grapple with Schumpeter's problematic, i.e., his requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena, Kuznets evaluates and criticizes Schumpeter's work in terms of his (Kuznets') `problematic'. The result is that Kuznets is unable to find an explanation for the clustering of innovations, not because it is absent in Schumpeter but because it lies outside of Kuznets' problematic.
Consider the following statement by Kuznets:
The task of economic theory is to develop a generalized description of the basic processes of current economic life, to establish general relations among the different factors in the present economic system. These generalizations are to be the tool which should, in combination with some specific data, explain the appearance and general characteristics of economic phenomena... (Kuznets 1953b, 3).
Given this understanding of the task of economic analysis, we can reconstruct Kuznets' interpretation of Schumpeter's theory as follows. Innovation, a factor of economic life, occurs in clusters which are somehow related to another factor, entrepreneurs. The result is cycles, another factor. What is their interrelation? Kuznets then examines various interrelations between these factors which might explain the clustering of innovations, finds none to be satisfactory and concludes that Schumpeter has failed to account for the clustering of innovations. In other words, Kuznets construes his inability to find what he believes to be an adequate explanation for the clustering of innovations in Schumpeter's theory as Schumpeter's failure to specify what causes this clustering. Even far more consequential then this misunderstanding is the fact that it has become, to all intents and purposes, both the standard interpretation and the standard criticism of Schumpeter's theory of the long wave.
Unlike Kuznets, whose primary stress was on economic factors, Schumpeter, like Max Weber, stressed actors and their conduct.4 In his first major work, the Theory of Economic Development, Schumpeter wrote:
Social facts are the result of human conduct, economic facts result from economic conduct and the latter may be defined as conduct directed towards the acquisition of goods ... through production and exchange. The field of economic facts is first of all delimited by economic conduct (Schumpeter 1961, 3-4, emphasis added).
Schumpeter's emphasis on actors and conduct, as opposed to economic facts, has several important, yet unexplored, ramifications for his theory of long waves.
First and foremost, innovation, for Schumpeter, is not an "economic facts" but rather, a type of conduct. This explains the earlier observations about both the `breadth' and `narrowness' of Schumpeter's concept of innovation. Its breadth is due to the fact that, as a type of conduct, innovation can take many forms. Innovation is not merely the commercial exploitation of new inventions and technology but rather the conduct, i.e., the forms of activity and the modalities of action, which makes this possible. Moreover, because innovation is first and foremost a conduct and therefore not necessarily tied to any specific context or field of action (such as that defined by technology and new inventions), this conduct can occur in almost all arenas of social life. Its `narrowness' is due to the fact innovation can only have an impact on an economic system if it engenders other, related forms of conduct such as the construction or modernization of new plants, or the founding of new firms.
For Schumpeter, and unlike Kuznets, an adequate explanation of economic phenomena is not simply explaining one economic fact, namely the conduct of innovation, as the result of other economic factors. Instead, an adequate explanation consists
in finding a definite causal relation between two phenomena ... if the one which plays the causal role is non-economic. If, on the other hand, the causal factor is economic in nature, we must continue our explanatory effort until we ground on the "non economic" bottom. Always we are concerned with describing the general form of causal links that connect the economic with the non-economic (Schumpeter 1961, 5, emphasis added).
Already it is apparent that for Schumpeter long waves can not, in the strict sense, be caused by the clustering of innovation - the clustering of innovation, an economic fact, does not represent the ""non-economic" bottom." The clustering of innovations, (actually, the clustering of innovative conduct) explains the dynamics of the cycle and its duration, but to explain this clustering it is necessary to move even further "backwards" into the non-economic. Hence, the `mere' clustering of innovations is not, in terms of Schumpeter's requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena, the cause of the long wave.
For Schumpeter, causality must be sought at level of motives. Motives are the residual factor and an adequate explanation of the causes of economic phenomena must link economic conduct to motives (Schumpeter 1961, 10). Thus, for Schumpeter, the real cause of long waves lies at the level of what motivates the entrepreneur to undertake his or her special and unique form of conduct, innovation. Although entrepreneurs possesses an ability to effect this conduct and this ability is continuously present, the conduct occurs discontinuously. Entrepreneurs are not, in other words, always `galvanized' to innovate. Thus, to explain what causes a clustering of innovations it is necessary to explain what galvanizes entrepreneur to his/her sui generis form of conduct. These factors can be accounted but the actual individual subjective meanings underlying the innovative activity of individual entrepreneurs, can not. In other words, entrepreneurs may innovate for reasons of love, hate, greed, etc but these remain unknown. At most, links can be established between factors which spark or galvanize the entrepreneur and the consequences of this motivation, i.e., innovative conduct. The actual motives are the "non-economic" bottom and once the analysis has reached this level, causality has, for Schumpeter, been explained.
According to Schumpeter, entrepreneurs are galvanized into action under the following conditions:  the existence of new possibilities more advantageous from the private standpoint - a necessary condition;  limited access to these possibilities because of personal qualifications and external circumstances, and  an economic situation which allows tolerably reliable calculations (Schumpeter 1961, 214). To the above, a further condition may be added to account for the swarming of entrepreneurs - (4) the smoothing of the way by the first entrepreneur.
But why cycles? Assuming that 1 and 2 are relatively constant, i.e., there is a constant stream of new ideas and restrictions on access due to factors such as class, etc. are always present, and 4 is a consequence of the activity of the first entrepreneur - "the conductor", it is 3 - an economic situation which allows tolerably reliable calculations - which is discontinuous. The discontinuity of this condition explains why entrepreneurs are only ready, at certain times, to introduce innovations.
Perhaps the only prior interpretation of Schumpeter to correctly acknowledge this point was Lange. As he observes without elaboration, the discontinuity in the introduction of innovations "is a consequence of the changing risk of failure" (Lange 1941,192). In other words, entrepreneurs are only motivated to undertake major new endeavors when they believe that risks are at their lowest. According to Schumpeter, risks are at their lowest only during a specific period - the neighborhood of equilibrium following Revival. Prior to this, economic life was too unsettled, first by the previous cluster of major innovations and later, by the secondary wave which sweeps the economy from recession to depression. In Business Cycles Schumpeter is, in fact, explicit on this point - "[t]he reason why he [the entrepreneur] did not do so [innovate] before is in the disturbances which we assume to have preceded the equilibrium from which we start' (Schumpeter 1964, 106). This is also why Schumpeter emphasizes that long waves must be conceived as extending from the neighborhood of equilibrium preceding prosperity to the neighborhood of equilibrium after revival. Major innovations which initiate a new expansion are introduced during the neighborhood of equilibrium following Revival because conditions are, in a certain sense, ideal. It is only in this neighborhood of equilibrium that economic conditions are stable and therefore lend themselves to making tolerably reliable calculations about the future. As a consequence, uncertainties and hence risks are at their lowest. Further, since the Kondratieff upswing provides the neighborhood of equilibrium for the lesser cycle, conditions during this period would also look especially promising and major innovations could also be introduced or expanded upon.
By explaining what motivates the entrepreneur to a certain form of conduct, Schumpeter has, in terms of his own requirements, provided an adequate explanation for the causes of the long wave. The actual motives underlying the behavior of specific entrepreneurs can however, never be explained. "Economic conduct" Schumpeter writes in Business Cycles "may have any motive' (Schumpeter 1964, 10). But, as he writes in the Theory of Economic Development (Schumpeter 1961, 5):
[O]ur problem is solved if the one which plays the causal role is non-economic. We have accomplished what we, as economists, are capable of in the case in question and must give place to other disciplines.
From this perspective, Schumpeter has not failed to explain why innovations cluster, his interpreters and critics have failed to understand his problematic and his requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena. This has resulted, on the one hand, in the persisting misinterpretation that Schumpeter saw the clustering of innovations as the cause of long waves and, on the other, in the belief that Schumpeter is unable to account for this clustering. Both are incorrect.
Although Kuznets' review was a key factor in disseminating these misinterpretations, Schumpeter and his critics during the early part of the century also share some responsibility. Schumpeter's responsibility lies in his reluctance in Business Cycles to make his requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena explicit. The methodological directives discussed above are from his much earlier (1911) work, the Theory of Economic Development. There is nothing similar in Business Cycles. Schumpeter's earlier critics share some of the responsibility since their repeated, and in Schumpeter's view, incorrect criticism of his earlier work (along the same lines as Kuznets' critique of Business Cycles) led Schumpeter to suppress discussing his requirements for an adequate explanation.
Schumpeter's 1935 article entitled "The Analysis of Economic Change" is extremely interesting in this respect. From its date, tone, and content, Schumpeter is anticipating Business Cycles. He lays out the general principles of Business Cycles and concludes with a "Research Program". More importantly, Schumpeter implicitly reaffirms the methodological directives of the Theory of Economic Development and thus the constancy of these principles in Business Cycles. There is also clear indication that Schumpeter was felt he had been misunderstood in the past and wished to avoid further misinterpretations. Therefore, he would not carry his arguments to "full persuasion". Instead, he preferred to posit the clustering of innovations as a postulate or hypothesis.
After explaining the clustering of innovations as the result of one factor "that suggests itself immediately" - the action of the first entrepreneur, Schumpeter writes:
But to carry full persuasion it would be necessary to go much deeper into this phenomena, the roots of which stretch far beyond the economic field...However, as it has been, the unfortunate experience of the present writer that even a very elaborate exposition has failed, at times, to convey to critics the picture that he desiredto convey, heprefers the reader to consider the clustering of innovations as a postulate or hypothesis made to fit the facts in the same way as hypotheses are made in physics, irrespective of what might be adduced for or against their objective truth. . . (Schumpeter 1935, 6, emphasis added)
From this quote it is evident that already in 1935 Schumpeter had decided against including an explicit discussion of either his requirements for an adequate explanation of economic phenomena or the cause of long waves in Business Cycles. This, he hoped, would avoid the misinterpretations that had plagued his work in the past. Unfortunately, this would not be the case. Instead, this omission would become an important source for a second enduring misinterpretation of his work - Kuznets' 1940 review of Business Cycle. Here, Kuznets advanced both the principal (mis)interpretations of Schumpeter's theory, namely, that the clustering of innovations is the cause of long waves and the main criticism (based on this misinterpretation), that Schumpeter is unable to adequately account for this clustering. This review was only one of many reviews of the book but, for some reason, it has been central in guiding most subsequent readings of Schumpeter. As a consequence, most later commentators on Schumpeter's theory of the long wave read Schumpeter through Kuznets and are thus acutely aware of a major weakness in Schumpeter's work - the absence of an adequate explanation of causality. But Schumpeter neither claims that innovations are causal (in the strict sense of the term) nor fails to provide an explanation of causality. Instead, his explanation is rooted in `economic sociology' of Weber instead of the `economics' of Marshall. For Schumpeter, an adequate explanation of causality entails "describing the general form of the causal links that connect the economic with the non-economic." His theory of long waves thus links long term periods of uneven economic growth with the motives of entrepreneurs. But for Schumpeter, the economist, and unlike Weber thesociologist,5 only the immediate motives to action could be understood. Ultimate motives were beyond the scope of economic theory.
1.This is apparent in the fact that in the discussion of long cycles or even business cycles, the names of Kuznets and Schumpeter are almost synonymous. See Eckland 1980, Fels 1964, Lange 1941, Mandel 1978, Mensch 1979, van Duijn 1977, Swedberg 1991. Back todocument
2.Despite the obviousness of this assertion, that it is not innovations per se but their consequence which cause long waves, we find innovation theorists, especially Mensch and Kleinknecht, ignoring many of the other types of innovations that Schumpeter's mentions and mechanically plotting annual rates of patenting and the initial commercialization of some invention in their endeavor to explain long waves.
3. See note 1. Back to document
4. For a detailed discussion, see Shionoya 1991. Back to document
5. Weber (1958) defines modern Capitalism as a specific form of conduct, namely, the rational pursuit of profit and links this action to certain motives. But for Weber, and unlike Schumpeter, the motives and meanings underlying this form of action can be explained. Thus, Weber, demonstrates that the `inner-worldly' rational pursuit of profit has its origin in an `other-worldly' irrational concern with salvation. Back to document
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