January 23, 2010


Capitalist Chameleon: THE RELENTLESS REVOLUTION: A History of Capitalism By Joyce Appleby (STEPHEN MIHM, 1/24/10, NY Times Book Review)

What is the nature of capitalism? For Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born economist whose writings have acquired a special relevance in the past year or two, this most modern of economic systems “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” Capitalism, Schumpeter proclaimed, cannot stand still; it is a system driven by waves of entrepreneurial innovation, or what he memorably described as a “perennial gale of creative destruction.” [...]

In viewing capitalism as an extension of a culture unique to a particular time and place, Appleby is understandably contemptuous of those who posit, in the spirit of Adam Smith, that capitalism was a natural outgrowth of human nature. She is equally scornful of those who believe that its emergence was in any way inevitable or inexorable.

Appleby believes that intimations of capitalism’s rise first surfaced in the Netherlands, where an otherwise unremarkable country with few resources of its own managed to catapult itself to wealth and prominence in the space of a century. While Appleby lingers on the Dutch — and even manages to make things like the herring trade sound interesting — her principal subject is Britain, which she considers the true cradle of capitalism.

Her focus on Britain has little to do with William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and other symbols of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, Appleby sees in mundane changes in agriculture the beginnings of later, more dramatic, developments. In 16th-century Europe, she observes, about 80 percent of the population was engaged in agriculture — roughly the same proportion as at the time of the Roman Empire. By 1800, the British farming population had dropped by more than half, thanks to innovations that produced a new, commercial agriculture, like crop rotation and the private enclosure of public lands. These efficiencies created a huge pool of surplus labor, setting the stage for the more visible British capitalism in the coming centuries.

It is to Appleby’s credit that she spends time on a subject like this, which is too often slighted in popular histories. In a similar spirit, she captures how a new generation of now forgotten economic writers active long before Adam Smith built a case “that the elements in any economy were negotiable and fluid, the exact opposite of the stasis so long desired.” This was a revolution of the mind, not machines, and it ushered in profound changes in how people viewed everything from usury to joint stock companies. As she bluntly concludes, “there can be no capitalism . . . without a culture of capitalism.”

The success of capitalism is just a function of survival of the fittest organizing principle, which is why you have to love the loathing that so many Brights have for it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2010 7:15 AM
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