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The Relentless Revolution: the History of Capitalism

Author: Joyce Appleby

Joyce Appleby

Dr. Joyce Appleby

W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

The jacket of her book describes her as "one of our most accomplished historians." She is a past president of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. She taught for many years at the University of California at Los Angeles and is the 2009 winner of the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Award for distinguished writing in American History.

Appleby's history of capitalism is less minutely technical than was Marx's three volume work, Das Kapital – nothing, for example, about falling profit margins. She is focused on what has happened – history – and not pushing a political agenda. Historians, she writes, do not have to take sides. She avoids the "class analysis" that Marxists profess. And she has the advantage over Marx of more than a century and a half of observation that has passed since his death.

One could not ask for writing that is more lucid and uncomplicated about what some consider a difficult subject.

Appleby describes the scarcity of agricultural societies up to the 16th century and the European divergence and the development of capitalism as a cultural system.

"Scarcity," she writes, "exercised a pervasive influence in premodern societies." There were government regulations.

Officials were always on the lookout for farmers who held their grain off the market, hoping for a rising price, or who sold part of it to brewers without permission...Each country's laws reflected the authorities' fear of famines and the riots they provoked. Every stop in the production of the wheat, barley, oats, or rice – those precious grains that composed the staff of life – came under surveillance. (p. 57)

She wrote of felonies in England prior to the rise of capitalism: "Buying up large quantities of foodstuffs and holding them off the market, waiting for a better price and then retailing them to others." (p. 57)

Trade expanded dramatically in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries with the "seaborne trade that followed the great discoveries of all-water routes to the East and West Indies." Europeans dominated this trade, giving them a boost in the direction of capitalism.

Portugal and Spain led the way, and "Portugal and Spain did not fail at what was important to them... their empires lasted longer than those of other imperial powers." But Portugal and Spain remained traditionally aristocrat-dominated societies. The Dutch and English followed Portugal and Spain in seaborne trade, and their societies changed in ways that encouraged capitalism.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writes Appleby, many European villagers were still working together in common fields – community plots. There were freehold farmers and prosperous tenants. The lives of villagers were "deeply entwined with those of their neighbors," and the stability of this way of life "had built a mighty wall of hostility to change." But alongside their participation in world trade, the Dutch and English advanced their agriculture beyond that of other European societies, and their middle class advanced in influence. Prior to this, farm surpluses went to landlords (aristocrats) in the form of rent and tithes for the church, and people were little interested in change. But now, abundant food allowed for population increases. The demand for food increased the price that could be charged for crops, and this added incentive to increase food production. Wealth was accumulated for investment in farm productivity. Feeding more people with fewer workers released people for work at other occupations and left "more money in everyone's pockets" for buying a variety of goods. Tradition was pushed aside in favor of change and a new market economy. Capitalism, writes Appleby, was a cultural phenomenon and embodied a new restlessness and change. In England, she writes, the "old agrarian order" was reformed.

She writes:

What Marx and his followers got right was the coherence of a new class of owners determined to use its influence and money to secure policies that favored its interests. (p. 79)

Appleby writes of continuing tradition in China and India. There was early marriage, near the age of puberty, and extended families living together in one household – as in southern Europe. There was population growth in England but not enough to be an economic detriment. The custom of late marriages in England and the wait to establish separate households, "acted as a population check." Appleby describes and documents population growth exacerbating "declining agricultural productivity in Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Balkans." She mentions landlords in Russia and Poland not freeing themselves up for change, tying their peasants to the land through serfdom and removing incentives to improve agricultural routines. Population growth in England was not big enough to allow wages to be bid down. "English workers got paid substantially more than elsewhere in Europe – much higher than in other parts of the world," and this created more consumers for manufactured products.

By 1700, she writes, English annual output in agriculture was at least twice that of any other European country and continued so until the 1850s. (p. 83) Politically, she writes, "England became divided between those whom the changes of the century dislodged and those who stayed put."

She describes Asia as being slower in breaking their culture – their old ways of doing things. Further on the subject of capitalism first in Europe, she writes:

Having a natural source of water [sufficient rain?], European farmers did not have to depend on irrigation, as did those in China and the Middle East. Setting up the canals, sluices, and waterwheels for irrigation was a costly business that only the government of the well off could afford. This fact probably limited the number of innovators there to officials or the rich, often the most conservative members of society because they have the greatest investment in the status quo. (p. 72)

Appleby writes that with the new freedom and extent of trade "a decisive cultural shift had clicked into place." Copying England's success was difficult because it meant a revolution in a spectrum of attitudes. The old biblical denunciations of usury and also aspirations for wealth were being discarded. In England a new respect for monetary ambitions had arisen, alongside a new respect for materialism, freedom of choice and consumerism. All this while the "aristocratic ethic that dominated European societies – indeed societies all over the globe – looked unkindly on unmannerly striving."

Appleby writes that, "Many scholars do not believe that capitalism existed until there were concentrations of capital in industrial plans with a new proletariat as the work force." She differs and writes that "capitalism began when private investments drove the economy and enterprises and their supporters acquired the power to bend political and social institutions to their demands. For England this happened by the end of the seventeenth century." (p. 118)

According to Appleby,

There can be no capitalism, as distinguished from select capitalist practices, without a culture of capitalism, and there is no culture of capitalism until the principal forms of traditional society have been challenged and overcome. (p.119)

There were two faces of 18th century capitalism. She writes that "before there were factories under roofs, there were factories in the fields." Sugar production involved investment, exploiting numerous laborers and mechanisms for hauling and grinding. Sugar lured men seeking profits, and traders bought and sold the slaves that planters invested in.

Appleby writes of common descriptions of England's industrial success: "high wages and low fuel costs, secure titles to land, agricultural improvements, low taxation, the rise of cities and its scientific culture." She asks, "Why not recognize how mutually enhancing all the elements were?" (p. 155)

Examining interconnectedness maximizes understanding and is better scholarship than fragmented, isolated and narrow visions.