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A History of Capitalism

by Joyce Appleby

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06894-8
Publisher: Norton

For the general reader, a survey of the origins and growth of capitalism.

As the most tumultuous economic year in decades winds down, those predicting—or hoping for—capitalism’s demise would do well to consult eminent historian Appleby (A Restless Past: History and the American Public, 2005, etc.). As her readable, almost conversational history demonstrates, capitalism, throughout nearly 400 years, has shown a remarkable resilience and capacity for constant adaptation and reinvention. However, writes the author, there was nothing destined or inevitable about its emergence. Adam Smith notwithstanding, there exists no natural human disposition to produce, sell or buy. Rather, capitalism was a historical development arising because of unprecedented convergence in 17th-century England of agricultural improvements, global exploration and scientific discoveries. These advances enabled entrepreneurs to throw off centuries of custom and to transform society in ways that favored the imperatives and strategies of private investment and later empowered them to shape political and social institutions to their demands. Appleby sustains this emphasis on capitalism as a cultural, not merely economic system, charting the imitations of “the English miracle,” first in the Netherlands and then in Germany and America. By the end of the 19th century, she writes, capitalism had demonstrated its capacity to assure unparalleled abundance, but also revealed its wastefulness, rapaciousness and heedlessness about long-term consequences for people and the environment. As the narrative turns to the 20th century, Appleby rushes to cover the effects and implications of two world wars, the Great Depression, the labor movement, scientific management, the technological revolution and the expansion of capitalism in a variety of diverse social contexts, including most recently in India and China. Whether masterfully discussing the significance of agricultural progress that made capitalism possible, or touching lightly on the impact of Amazon and e-mail, Appleby offers consistently illuminating commentary.

A useful introduction to a vast, complex topic.