The Political Economy of John Kenneth Galbraith: A Guide for Beginners

28 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2023

Date Written: March 8, 2023


In the third-quarter of the twentieth century John Kenneth Galbraith was probably the best-known economist in the world. He gloried in taking the road less travelled, challenging the conventional wisdom, the doctrines and myths, which sustain the social order. But criticism was never enough for Galbraith. He created an alternative analysis, an unconventional wisdom, of how capitalism works: the general theory of advanced development. It emerged over the course of four of Galbraith’s key books: American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), The New Industrial State (1967) and Economics and the Public Purpose (1974). It’s an audacious economic, political and social theory in the eclectic tradition of North American Institutionalism, which gives a new twist to the insights of Edward Chamberlain, Joan Robinson and John Maynard Keynes. Disappointingly, mainstream economics has ignored it; no trace is to be found in modern economics textbooks.

The essay has five objectives. To provide a comprehensive explanation of the general theory of advanced development; to explain how corporate capitalism, faced with the twin threats of either depression or persistent inflation, evolved; to outline the social and political implications of this economic system; to set-out Galbraith’s innovative agenda of reform; and to provide a provisional assessment of his contribution to political economy.

Keywords: John Kenneth Galbraith, American capitalism, corporate capitalism, the general theory of advanced development, technostructure, bureaucratic symbiosis

Suggested Citation

Sheehan, Brendan, The Political Economy of John Kenneth Galbraith: A Guide for Beginners (March 8, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

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