Ways of Seeing Capitalism

Recent historians of capitalism–but not only them–have been remarkably reluctant to define capitalism. The resistance to commitment is understandable, but I’ve long felt we should at least be allowed to talk about what the possible answers might be. After all, what becomes of the study of capitalism (and the politics of overcoming it) if we decide the concept has no fixed meaning, historical origin, or explanatory power? Here are some starting points, a catalog to which I hope to add continuously–suggestions for additions are very much welcome.  (NB: the quotations here are necessarily wrenched from context; think of this as a gallery of ways one might define capitalism more than as a definitive record of what specific people concluded.) 

Louis Blanc, 1850: “This sophism consists of perpetually confusing the usefulness of capital with what I shall call capitalism, in other words the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1851: “Economic and social regime in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who make it work through their labour.”

Albion W. Small, c. 1899: “By capitalism I mean the tacit, fundamental assumption of every modern commercial nature that the supreme aim of human life, to which all other aims must bend, is, first, to pay dividends on existing capital, and second, to increase the sum of capital.”

Werner Sombart, 1902: “By capitalism we mean a particular economic system, recognizable as an organization of trade, consisting invariably of two collaborating sections of population, the owners of the means of production, who also manage them, and property-less workers, bound to the markets which they serve; which displays the two dominant principles of wealth, creation and economic rationalism.”

John Maynard Keynes, 1926: “There is nothing in them which is seriously incompatible with what seems to me to be the essential characteristic of capitalism, namely the dependence upon an intense appeal to the moneymaking and money-loving instincts of individuals as the main motive force of the economic machine.”

Joseph Schumpeter, 1939: “We have to define that word which good economists always try to avoid: capitalism is that form of private property economy in which innovations are carried out by means of borrowed money.”

Columbia Encyclopedia, quoted by Rendig Fels, 1950: “The economic system characterized chiefly by the relatively few, who by their ownership of capital, control most of the production, distribution and credit.”

C.A.R. Crosland, 1952: “‘For our purpose it is sufficient to call it an advanced and industrialized society in which the greater part of economic activity is undertaken by privately-owned units, acting without interference by the state, and under the incentive of private profit.”

Robert Heilbroner, 1985: “A stratified society in which the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”

Adam Przeworski, 1991: “Bycapitalism’ I mean any economic system in which (1) the optimal division of labor is so advanced that most people produce for the needs of others, (2) the means of production and the capacity to work are owned privately, and (3) there are markets in both.”

William H. Sewell, Jr, 1992: “Unlike most Marxians, I see the core schemas not as those defining the wage-labor relationship but as those governing the conversion of use value into exchange value. The core procedure of capitalism–the conversion of use value into exchange value or the commodification of things–is exceptionally transposable.”

John E. Roemer, 1995: “capitalist economies” are those “where ownership of resources and firms is private, and economic activity is market-directed”

Ellen Meiksins Wood, 2002: “Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labour-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. This is true not only of workers, who must sell their labour-power for a wage, but also of capitalists, who depend on the market to buy their inputs, including labour-power, and to sell their output for profit.”

David Grewal, 2008: “an economic system in which labor is a freely alienable commodity while capital is privately owned and scarce”

Christine Desan, 2014: “‘Capitalism’ has as many definitions as commentators; I use it as a label that marks the moment when English society institutionalized the orientation towards self-interest as the animating force—the pump—that would produce the country’s money. That occurred literally when the English invented a new repertoire of material value, a particular kind of currency. Money, long charged to its users, now issued as a resource underwritten by public funds and endorsed for expansion by banks operating for profit.”

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, 2015: “For the reasons given above, capitalism is defined here as a system of production with the following six characteristics:

1. A legal system supporting widespread individual rights and liberties to own, buy, and sell private property
2. Widespread commodity exchange and markets involving money
3. Widespread private ownership of the means of production by firms producing goods or services for sale in the pursuit of profit
4. Much of the production organized separately and apart from the home and family
5. Widespread wage labor and employment contracts
6. A developed financial system with banking institutions, the widespread use of credit with property as collateral, and the selling of debt.”
Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue, 2018: “Capitalism is defined as an economic system in which a country’s trade, industry, and profits are controlled by private companies, instead of by the people whose time and labor powers those companies.”


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