History of capitalism

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Max Weber's model of capitalist development

The history of capitalism has diverse and much debated roots, but fully-fledged capitalism is generally thought to have emerged in north-west Europe, especially in the Low Countries (mainly present-day Flanders and Netherlands) and Britain, in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries. Over the following centuries, capital has been accumulated by a variety of different methods, in a variety of scales, and associated with a great deal of variation in the concentration of economic power and wealth, and capitalism has gradually become the dominant economic system throughout the world.[1] Much of the history of the past five hundred years is, therefore, concerned with the development of capitalism in its various forms.

Varieties of capitalism[edit]

It is an ongoing debate within the fields of economics and sociology as to what the past, current, and future stages of capitalism consist of. While ongoing disagreement about exact stages exists, many economists have posited the following general states. These states are not mutually exclusive and do not represent a fixed order of historical change, but do represent a broadly chronological trend.

  • Agrarian capitalism, sometimes known as market feudalism. This was a transitional form between feudalism and capitalism, whereby market relations replaced some but not all of feudal relations in a society.
  • Mercantilism, where national governments sought to maintain positive balances of trade and acquire gold bullion.
  • Industrial Capitalism, characterized by its use of heavy machinery and a much more pronounced division of labor.
  • Monopoly Capitalism, marked by the rise of monopolies and trusts dominating industry, as well as other aspects of society. Often used to describe the economy of the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • Colonialism, where governments sought to colonize other areas to improve access to markets and raw materials, and improve the standing of nationally based capitalist firms. Predominant in the 1890s, notably as a response to the economic crises of the 1890s.
  • Welfare Capitalism, where mixed economies predominated and governments sought to provide a safety net to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism. The heyday of welfare capitalism (in advanced economies) is widely seen to be from 1945–1973, as major social safety nets were put in place in most advanced capitalist economies.[2]
  • Mass Production, post-World War Two, saw the rising hegemony of major corporations, and a focus on mass production, mass consumption, and (ideally) mass employment. This stage sees the rise of advertising as a way to promote mass consumption, and often sees significant economic planning taking place within firms.[3]
  • State Capitalism, where the state intervened to prevent economic instability, including partially or fully nationalizing certain industries. Some economists also include the economies of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in this category.[4]
  • Corporatism, where government, business, and labor collude to make major national decisions; notable for being an economic model of fascism; can overlap with, but is still significantly different from state capitalism.
  • Financialization, or financial capitalism, where financial parts of the economy (like the finance, insurance, or real estate sectors) predominate in an economy. Profit becomes more derived from ownership of an asset, credit, rents, and earning interest, rather than actual productive processes.[5][6]


The processes by which capitalism came about, evolved, and spread, are the subject of extensive research and debate among historians. Debates sometimes circle around how capitalism is defined, but a significant body of work has been able to bring substantive historical data to bear on key questions.[7] Key parameters of debate include: how far capitalism is a natural human behaviour and how far it arises from specific historical circumstances; whether its origins lie in towns and trade or in rural property relations; the role of class conflict; the role of the state; how far it is a distinctively European innovation; its relationship with European imperialism; whether technological change is a driver or merely an epiphenomenon of capitalism; and whether or not it is the most beneficial way to organise human societies.[8]

The historiography of capitalism can be divided into two broad schools. One is associated with economic liberalism, with the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith as a foundational figure, and one with Marxism, drawing particular inspiration from the nineteenth-century economist Karl Marx. Liberals tend to view capitalism as an expression of natural human behaviours which have been in evidence for millennia, and the most beneficial way of promoting human wellbeing. They tend to see capitalism as originating in trade and commerce, and freeing people to exercise their entrepreneurial natures. Marxists tend to view capitalism as a historically unusual system of relationships between classes, which could be replaced by other economic systems which would serve human wellbeing better. They tend to see capitalism as originating in more powerful people taking control of the means of production, and compelling others to sell their labour as a commodity.[8] For these reasons, much of the work on the history of capitalism has been broadly Marxist.

Origins of capitalism[edit]

A 400-year history of global financial capitalism
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (or Beurs van Hendrick de Keyser in Dutch), a powerhouse of Dutch capitalism in the 1600s. The birth of the world's first formally listed public company (the Dutch East India Company) and first formal stock exchange (the Amsterdam Stock Exchange), in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, helped usher in a new era of stock market capitalism or financial capitalism in general,[9][10] as a milestone in the history of modern capitalism.[11][12][13]
The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), one of the foremost symbols of American capitalism, in the early 21st century.

The origins of capitalism have been much debated (and depend partly on what you think the defining features of capitalism are). The traditional account, originating in classical eighteenth-century liberal economic thought and still often articulated, is the 'commercialization model'. This sees capitalism originating in trade. Since evidence for trade is found even in palaeolithic culture, it can be seen as natural to human societies. In this reading, capitalism emerged from earlier trade once merchants had acquired sufficient wealth (referred to as 'primitive capital') to begin investing in increasingly productive technology. This account tends to see capitalism as a natural continuation of trade, arising when people's natural entrepreneurialism was freed from the constraints of feudalism, partly by urbanization.[14] Thus it traces capitalism to early forms of merchant capitalism practiced in Western Europe during the Middle Ages.[15] It began to develop into its modern form during the Early Modern period in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe, especially the Netherlands (Dutch Republic)[16][17][18][19][20][21] and England: traders in Amsterdam and London created the first chartered joint-stock companies driving up commerce and trade, and the first stock exchanges and banking and insurance institutions were established.[22][23][24][25][26] Foundational thinkers for this approach include Adam Smith, Max Weber, Fernand Braudel, Henri Pirenne, and Paul Sweezy.

However, the 'commercialization model' has been questioned, with a leading competitor being the 'agrarian model'. This notes that traditional mercantilism focused on moving goods from markets where they were cheap to markets where they were expensive rather than investing in production, and that many cultures (including the early modern Dutch Republic) saw urbanisation, and merchants amassing great wealth, without capitalist production emerging.[27][28] The 'agrarian model' instead argues that capitalism arose from unique circumstances in English agrarianism.

The agrarian argument developed particularly through Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation (1944), Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), and Robert Brenner's research in the 1970s, the discussion of which is known as the Brenner Debate. In the wake of the Norman Conquest, the English state was unusually centralised. This gave aristocrats relatively limited powers to extract wealth directly from their feudal underlings through political means (not least the threat of violence). England's centralisation also meant that an unusual number of English farmers were not peasants (with their own land and thus direct access to subsistence) but tenants (renting their land). These circumstances produced a market in leases. Landlords, lacking other ways to extract wealth, were incentivised to rent to those tenants who could pay the most, while tenants, lacking security of tenure, were incentivised to farm as productively as possible to be able to win leases in a competitive market. This led to a cascade of effects whereby successful tenant farmers became agrarian capitalists; unsuccessful ones became wage-labourers, required to sell their labour in order to live; and landlords promoted the privatisation and renting out of common land, not least through the enclosures. In this reading, 'it was not merchants or manufacturers who drove the process that propelled the early development of capitalism. The transformation of social property relations was firmly rooted in the countryside, and the transformation of England's trade and industry was result more than cause of England's transition to capitalism'.[29]

The present article includes both perspectives.

Twenty-first-century developments[edit]

The twenty-first century has seen renewed interest in the history of capitalism, and "History of Capitalism" has become a field in its own right, with courses in history departments. In the 2000s, Harvard University founded the Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism; Cornell University established the History of Capitalism Initiative;[30] and Columbia University Press launched a monograph series entitled Studies in the History of U.S. Capitialism.[31] This field includes topics such as insurance, banking and regulation, the political dimension, and the impact on the middle classes, the poor and women and minorities.[32][33] These initiatives incorporate formerly neglected questions of race, gender, and sexuality into the history of capitalism. They have grown in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the associated Great Recession.

Agrarian capitalism[edit]

The 'crisis of the fourteenth century'[edit]

Map of a medieval manor. Notice the large commons area and the division of land into small strips. The mustard-colored areas are part of the demesne, the hatched areas part of the glebe.
William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 01923

According to some[which?] historians, the modern capitalist system has its origin in the "crisis of the fourteenth century", a conflict between the land-owning aristocracy and the agricultural producers, or serfs. Manorial arrangements inhibited the development of capitalism in a number of ways. Serfs had obligations to produce for lords and therefore had no interest in technological innovation; they also had no interest in cooperating with one another since they produced to sustain their own families. The lords who owned the land[citation needed] relied on force to guarantee that they were provided with sufficient food. Because lords were not producing to sell on the market, there was no competitive pressure for them to innovate. Finally, because lords expanded their power and wealth through military means, they spent their wealth on military equipment or on conspicuous consumption that helped foster alliances with other lords; they had no incentive to invest in developing new productive technologies.[34]

The demographic crisis of the fourteenth century upset this arrangement. This crisis had several causes: agricultural productivity reached its technological limitations and stopped growing, bad weather led to the Great Famine of 1315–1317, and the Black Death of 1348–1350 led to a population crash. These factors led to a decline in agricultural production. In response, feudal lords sought to expand agricultural production by expanding their domains through warfare; they therefore demanded more tribute from their serfs to pay for military expenses. In England, many serfs rebelled. Some moved to towns, some purchased land, and some entered into favorable contracts to rent lands from lords who needed to repopulate their estates.[35]

The collapse of the manorial system in England enlarged the class of tenant farmers with more freedom to market their goods and thus more incentive to invest in new technologies. Lords who did not want to rely on renters could buy out or evict tenant farmers, but then had to hire free labor to work their estates, giving them an incentive to invest in two very different kinds of commodity owners: those who had money, the means of production, and subsistence, who were eager to valorize the sum of value they had appropriated by buying the labor power of others[citation needed]; and the free workers, who sold their own labor power and, therefore, labor. The free workers were "free workers" in the double sense that they neither formed part of the means of production nor did they own the means of production that transformed land and even money into what we now call "capital".[36] Marx labeled this period the "pre-history of capitalism".[37]

In effect, feudalism began to lay some of the foundations necessary for the development of mercantilism, a precursor of capitalism. Feudalism was mostly confined to Europe[citation needed] and lasted from the medieval period through the sixteenth century. Feudal manors were almost entirely self-sufficient, and therefore limited the role of the market. This stifled any incipient tendency towards capitalism. However, the relatively sudden emergence of new technologies and discoveries, particularly in agriculture[38] and exploration, facilitated the growth of capitalism. The most important development at the end of feudalism[citation needed] was the emergence of what Robert Degan calls "the dichotomy between wage earners and capitalist merchants".[39] The competitive nature meant there are always winners and losers, and this became clear as feudalism evolved into mercantilism, an economic system characterized by the private or corporate ownership of capital goods, investments determined by private decisions, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods determined mainly by competition in a free market.[citation needed]


Decaying hedges mark the lines of the straight field boundaries created by a Parliamentary Act of Enclosure.

England in the 16th century was already a centralized state, in which much of the feudal order of Medieval Europe had been swept away. This centralization was strengthened by a good system of roads and a disproportionately large capital city, London.[40] The capital acted as a central market hub for the entire country, creating a large internal market for goods, in contrast to the fragmented feudal holdings that prevailed in most parts of the Continent. The economic foundations of the agricultural system were also beginning to diverge substantially; the manorial system had broken down by this time, and land began to be concentrated in the hands of fewer landlords with increasingly large estates. The system put pressure on both the landlords and the tenants to increase agricultural productivity to create profit; the weakened coercive power of the aristocracy to extract peasant surpluses encouraged them to try out better methods, and the tenants also had an incentive to improve their methods, in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive labour market. Land rents had moved away from the previous stagnant system of custom and feudal obligation, and were becoming directly subject to economic market forces.

An important aspect of this process of change was the enclosure[41] of the common land previously held in the open field system where peasants had traditional rights, such as mowing meadows for hay and grazing livestock. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be land for commons. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and to relatively small parts of the lowlands.

Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England. For example: "In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost".[42] "Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery".[43]

Other scholars[44] argue that the better-off members of the European peasantry encouraged and participated actively in enclosure, seeking to end the perpetual poverty of subsistence farming. "We should be careful not to ascribe to [enclosure] developments that were the consequence of a much broader and more complex process of historical change."[45] "[T]he impact of eighteenth and nineteenth century enclosure has been grossly exaggerated...."[46]

Merchant capitalism and mercantilism[edit]


A painting of a French seaport from 1638, at the height of mercantilism.

The earliest recorded activity of long-distance profit-seeking merchants can be traced back to the Old Assyrian merchants active in the 2nd millennium BCE.[47] The Roman Empire developed more advanced forms of commerce, and similarly widespread networks existed in Islamic nations, but capitalism took shape in Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, while trade has existed since early in human history, it was not capitalism.[48]

An early emergence of commerce occurred on monastic estates in Italy and France and in the independent city republics of Italy during the late Middle Ages. Innovations in banking, insurance, accountancy, and various production and commercial practices linked closely to a 'spirit' of frugality, reinvestment, and city life, promoted attitudes which sociologists have tended to associate only with northern Europe, Protestantism and a much later age. The city republics maintained their political independence from Empire and Church, traded with North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and introduced Eastern practices. They were also considerably different from the absolutist monarchies of Spain and France, and were strongly attached to civic liberty.[49][50][51]


Modern capitalism, however, only fully emerged in the early modern period between the 16th and 18th centuries, with the establishment of mercantilism or merchant capitalism.[52][53]

Early evidence for mercantilistic practices appears in early modern Venice, Genoa, and Pisa over the Mediterranean trade in bullion. The region of mercantilism's real birth, however, was the Atlantic Ocean.[54]

Sir Josiah Child, an influential proponent of mercantilism. Painting attributed to John Riley.

England began a large-scale and integrative approach to mercantilism during the Elizabethan Era. An early statement on national balance of trade appeared in Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, 1549: "We must always take heed that we buy no more from strangers than we sell them, for so should we impoverish ourselves and enrich them."[55] The period featured various but often disjointed efforts by the court of Queen Elizabeth to develop a naval and merchant fleet capable of challenging the Spanish stranglehold on trade and of expanding the growth of bullion at home. Queen Elizabeth promoted the Trade and Navigation Acts in Parliament and issued orders to her navy for the protection and promotion of English shipping.

These efforts organized national resources sufficiently in the defense of England against the far larger and more powerful Spanish Empire, and in turn paved the foundation for establishing a global empire in the 19th century.[citation needed] The authors noted most for establishing the English mercantilist system include Gerard de Malynes and Thomas Mun, who first articulated the Elizabethan System. The latter's England's Treasure by Forraign Trade, or the Balance of our Forraign Trade is The Rule of Our Treasure gave a systematic and coherent explanation of the concept of balance of trade. It was written in the 1620s and published in 1664.[56] Mercantile doctrines were further developed by Josiah Child. Numerous French authors helped to cement French policy around mercantilism in the 17th century. French mercantilism was best articulated by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (in office, 1665–1683), although his policies were greatly liberalised under Napoleon.


Under mercantilism, European merchants, backed by state controls, subsidies, and monopolies, made most of their profits from the buying and selling of goods. In the words of Francis Bacon, the purpose of mercantilism was "the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufacturers; the banishing of idleness; the repressing of waste and excess by sumptuary laws; the improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulation of prices..."[57] Similar practices of economic regimentation had begun earlier in the medieval towns. However, under mercantilism, given the contemporaneous rise of absolutism, the state superseded the local guilds as the regulator of the economy.

The Anglo-Dutch Wars were fought between the English and the Dutch for control over the seas and trade routes.

Among the major tenets of mercantilist theory was bullionism, a doctrine stressing the importance of accumulating precious metals. Mercantilists argued that a state should export more goods than it imported so that foreigners would have to pay the difference in precious metals. Mercantilists asserted that only raw materials that could not be extracted at home should be imported; and promoted government subsidies, such as the granting of monopolies and protective tariffs, were necessary to encourage home production of manufactured goods.

Proponents of mercantilism emphasized state power and overseas conquest as the principal aim of economic policy. If a state could not supply its own raw materials, according to the mercantilists, it should acquire colonies from which they could be extracted. Colonies constituted not only sources of supply for raw materials but also markets for finished products. Because it was not in the interests of the state to allow competition, to help the mercantilists, colonies should be prevented from engaging in manufacturing and trading with foreign powers.

Mercantilism was a system of trade for profit, although commodities were still largely produced by non-capitalist production methods.[1] Noting the various pre-capitalist features of mercantilism, Karl Polanyi argued that "mercantilism, with all its tendency toward commercialization, never attacked the safeguards which protected [the] two basic elements of production – labor and land – from becoming the elements of commerce"; thus with mercantilism regulation was more akin to feudalism than capitalism. According to Polanyi, "not until 1834 was a competitive labor market established in England, hence industrial capitalism as a social system cannot be said to have existed before that date."[58]

Chartered trading companies[edit]

British East India Company 1801

The Muscovy Company was the first major chartered joint stock English trading company established in 1555 with a monopoly on trade between England and Muscovy. It was an offshoot of the earlier Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, founded in 1551 by Richard Chancellor, Sebastian Cabot and Sir Hugh Willoughby to locate the Northeast Passage to China to allow trade. This was the precursor to a type of business that would soon flourish in England, the Dutch Republic and elsewhere.

The British East India Company (1600) and the Dutch East India Company (1602) launched an era of large state chartered trading companies.[15][59] These companies were characterized by their monopoly on trade, granted by letters patent provided by the state. Recognized as chartered joint-stock companies by the state, these companies enjoyed power, ranging from lawmaking, military, and treaty-making privileges.[60] Characterized by its colonial and expansionary powers by states, powerful nation-states sought to accumulate precious metals, and military conflicts arose.[15] During this era, merchants, who had previously traded on their own, invested capital in the East India Companies and other colonies, seeking a return on investment.

Industrial capitalism[edit]

Gustave Doré's 19th-century engraving depicted the dirty, overcrowded slums where the industrial workers of London lived.

Mercantilism declined in Great Britain in the mid-18th century, when a new group of economic theorists, led by Adam Smith, challenged fundamental mercantilist doctrines as the belief that the amount of the world's wealth remained constant and that a state could only increase its wealth at the expense of another state. However, in more undeveloped economies, such as Prussia and Russia, with their much younger manufacturing bases, mercantilism continued to find favor after other states had turned to newer doctrines.

The mid-18th century gave rise to industrial capitalism, made possible by (1) the accumulation of vast amounts of capital under the merchant phase of capitalism and its investment in machinery, and (2) the fact that the Enclosures meant that Britain had a large population of people with no access to subsistence agriculture, who needed to buy basic commodities via the market, thus ensuing a mass consumer market.[61] Industrial capitalism, which Marx dated from the last third of the 18th century, marked the development of the factory system of manufacturing, characterized by a complex division of labor between and within work process and the routinization of work tasks; and finally established the global domination of the capitalist mode of production.[52]

During the resulting Industrial Revolution, the industrialist replaced the merchant as a dominant actor in the capitalist system and effected the decline of the traditional handicraft skills of artisans, guilds, and journeymen. Also during this period, capitalism marked the transformation of relations between the British landowning gentry and peasants, giving rise to the production of cash crops for the market rather than for subsistence on a feudal manor. The surplus generated by the rise of commercial agriculture encouraged increased mechanization of agriculture.

Industrial Revolution[edit]

The productivity gains of capitalist production began a sustained and unprecedented increase at the turn of the 19th century, in a process commonly referred to as the Industrial Revolution. Starting in about 1760 in England, there was a steady transition to new manufacturing processes in a variety of industries, including going from hand production methods to machine production, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power and the development of machine tools. It also included the change from wood and other bio-fuels to coal.

The Spinning mule, built by the inventor Samuel Crompton.

In textile manufacturing, mechanized cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about 1000, due to the application of James Hargreaves' spinning jenny, Richard Arkwright's water frame, Samuel Crompton's Spinning Mule and other inventions. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40.[62] The cotton gin increased productivity or removing seed from cotton by a factor of 50. Large gains in productivity also occurred in spinning and weaving of wool and linen, but they were not as great as in cotton.


The Rothschild family revolutionised international finance. The Frankfurt terminus of the Taunus Railway was financed by the Rothschilds and opened in 1840 as one of Germany's first railways.

The growth of Britain's industry stimulated a concomitant growth in her system of finance and credit. In the 18th century, services offered by banks increased. Clearing facilities, security investments, cheques and overdraft protections were introduced. Cheques were invented in the 17th century in England and banks settled payments by direct courier to the issuing bank. Around 1770, they began meeting in a central location, and by the 19th century a dedicated space was established, known as a bankers' clearing house. The London clearing house used a method where each bank paid cash to and then was paid cash by an inspector at the end of each day. The first overdraft facility was set up in 1728 by The Royal Bank of Scotland.

The end of the Napoleonic War and the subsequent rebound in trade, led to an expansion in the bullion reserves held by the Bank of England, from a low of under 4 million pounds in 1821 to 14 million pounds by late 1824.

Older innovations became routine parts of financial life during the 19th century. The Bank of England first issued bank notes during the 17th century, but the notes were hand written and few in number. After 1725 they were partially printed, but cashiers still had to sign each note and make them payable to a named person. In 1844, parliament passed the Bank Charter Act tying these notes to gold reserves, effectively creating the institution of central banking and monetary policy. The notes became fully printed and widely available from 1855.[citation needed]

Growing international trade increased the number of banks, especially in London. These new "merchant banks" facilitated trade growth, profiting from England's emerging dominance in seaborne shipping. Two immigrant families, Rothschild and Baring, established merchant banking firms in London in the late 18th century and came to dominate world banking in the next century. The tremendous wealth amassed by these banking firms soon attracted much attention. The poet George Gordon Byron wrote in 1823: "Who makes politics run glibber all?/ The shade of Bonaparte's noble daring?/ Jew Rothschild and his fellow-Christian, Baring."

The operation of banks also shifted. At the beginning of the century, banking was still an elite preoccupation of a handful of very wealthy families. Within a few decades, however, a new sort of banking had emerged, owned by anonymous stockholders, run by professional managers, and the recipient of the deposits of a growing body of small middle-class savers. Although this new breed of banks was new in prominence, it was not newly invented – the Quaker family Barclays, had been banking in this manner since 1690.

Free trade and globalization[edit]

At the height of the First French Empire, Napoleon sought to introduce a "continental system" that would render Europe economically autonomous, thereby emasculating British trade and commerce. It involved such stratagems as the use of beet sugar in preference to the cane sugar that had to be imported from the tropics. Although this caused businessmen in England to agitate for peace, the government was able to persevere, in part because the United Kingdom was well into the industrial revolution. The war had the opposite effect – it stimulated the growth of certain industries like pig-iron output, which was just 68,000 tons in 1788 and soared to 244,000 tons by 1806.[citation needed]

19th century Great Britain become the first global economic superpower, because of superior manufacturing technology and improved global communications such as steamships and railroads.

In 1817, David Ricardo, James Mill and Robert Torrens showed that free trade would benefit the industrially weak as well as the strong, in the famous theory of comparative advantage. In Principles of Political Economy and Taxation Ricardo advanced the doctrine still considered the most counterintuitive in economics:

When an inefficient producer sends the merchandise it produces best to a country able to produce it more efficiently, both countries benefit.

By the mid 19th century, Britain was firmly wedded to the notion of free trade and the first era of globalization began.[52] In the 1840s, the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts were repealed, ushering in a new age of free trade. In line with the teachings of the classical political economists, led by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Britain embraced liberalism, encouraging competition and the development of a market economy.

Industrialization allowed cheap production of household items using economies of scale,[citation needed] while rapid population growth created sustained demand for commodities. Globalization in this period was decisively shaped by nineteenth-century imperialism. After the First and Second Opium Wars and the completion of British conquest of India, vast populations of these regions became ready consumers of European exports. It was in this period that areas of sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific islands were incorporated into the world system. Meanwhile, the conquest of new parts of the globe, notably sub-Saharan Africa, by Europeans yielded valuable natural resources such as rubber, diamonds and coal and helped fuel trade and investment between the European imperial powers, their colonies, and the United States.[63]

The gold standard formed the financial basis of the international economy from 1870–1914.

The global financial system was mainly tied to the gold standard in this period. The United Kingdom first formally adopted this standard in 1821. Soon to follow was Canada in 1853, Newfoundland in 1865, and the United States and Germany (de jure) in 1873. New technologies, such as the telegraph, the transatlantic cable, the Radiotelephone, the steamship, and railway allowed goods and information to move around the world at an unprecedented degree.[64]

The eruption of civil war in the United States in 1861 and the blockade of its ports to international commerce meant that the main supply of cotton for the Lancashire looms was cut off. The textile industries shifted to reliance upon cotton from Africa and Asia during the course of the U.S. civil war, and this fact created pressure for an Anglo-French controlled canal through the Suez peninsula. The Suez canal opened in 1869; in the same year the Central Pacific Railroad that spanned the North American continent was completed. Capitalism and the engine of profit was making the globe a smaller place.

Twentieth century[edit]

Several major challenges to capitalism appeared in the early part of the 20th century. The Russian revolution in 1917 established the first socialist state in the world; a decade later, the Great Depression triggered increasing criticism of the existing capitalist system. One response to this crisis was a turn to fascism, an ideology which advocated state-influenced capitalism[citation needed]; whilst others rejected capitalism altogether in favor of communist or socialist ideologies.

Keynesianism and free markets[edit]

The New York stock exchange traders' floor (1963)

The economic recovery of the world's leading capitalist economies in the period following the end of the Great Depression and the Second World War—a period of unusually rapid growth by historical standards—eased discussion of capitalism's eventual decline or demise.[65] The state began to play an increasingly prominent role to moderate and regulate the capitalistic system throughout much of the world.

Keynesian economics became a widely accepted method of government regulation and countries such as the United Kingdom experimented with mixed economies in which the state owned and operated certain major industries.

The state also expanded in the US; in 1929, total government expenditures amounted to less than one-tenth of GNP; from the 1970s they amounted to around one-third.[53] Similar increases were seen in all industrialized capitalist economies, some of which, such as France, have reached even higher ratios of government expenditures to GNP than the United States.

A broad array of new analytical tools in the social sciences were developed to explain the social and economic trends of the period, including the concepts of post-industrial society and the welfare state.[52]

The long postwar boom ended in the 1970s, amid the economic crises experienced following the 1973 oil crisis.[66] The "stagflation" of the 1970s led many economic commentators and politicians to embrace market-oriented policy prescriptions inspired by the laissez-faire capitalism and classical liberalism of the 19th century, particularly under the influence of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The theoretical alternative to Keynesianism was more compatible with laissez-faire and emphasized rapid expansion of the economy. Market-oriented solutions gained increasing support in the capitalist world, especially under leadership of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s. Public and political interest began shifting away from the so-called collectivist concerns of Keynes's managed capitalism to a focus on individual choice, called "remarketized capitalism." [67] In the eyes of many economic and political commentators, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought further evidence of the superiority of market capitalism over planned economy.


Although overseas trade has been associated with the development of capitalism for over five hundred years, some thinkers argue that a number of trends associated with globalization have acted to increase the mobility of people and capital since the last quarter of the 20th century, combining to circumscribe the room to maneuver of states in choosing non-capitalist models of development. Today, these trends have bolstered the argument that capitalism should now be viewed as a truly world system (Burnham). However, other thinkers argue that globalization, even in its quantitative degree, is no greater now than during earlier periods of capitalist trade.[68]

After the abandonment of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and the strict state control of foreign exchange rates, the total value of transactions in foreign exchange was estimated to be at least twenty times greater than that of all foreign movements of goods and services (EB). The internationalization of finance, which some see as beyond the reach of state control, combined with the growing ease with which large corporations have been able to relocate their operations to low-wage states, has posed the question of the 'eclipse' of state sovereignty, arising from the growing 'globalization' of capital.[69]

While economists generally agree about the size of global income inequality[citation needed], there is a general disagreement about the recent direction of change of it.[70] In cases such as China, where income inequality is clearly growing[71] it is also evident that overall economic growth has rapidly increased with capitalist reforms.[72] The book The Improving State of the World, published by the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, argues that economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has been very strong and that factors such as adequate nutrition, life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, prevalence of child labor, education, and available free time have improved greatly. Some scholars, including Stephen Hawking and researchers for the International Monetary Fund, contend that globalization and neoliberal economic policies are not ameliorating inequality and poverty but exacerbating it, and are expanding populations of the displaced, the unemployed and the imprisoned along with accelerating the destruction of the environment and species extinction.[81] In 2017, the IMF warned that inequality within nations, in spite of global inequality falling in recent decades, has risen so sharply that it threatens economic growth and could result in further political polarization.[82]


By the beginning of the 21st century, capitalism had become the pervasive economic system worldwide. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 significantly reduced the influence of Socialism as an alternative economic system. Socialist movements continue to be influential in some parts of the world, most notably Latin-American Bolivarianism, with some having ties to more traditional anti-capitalist movements, such as Bolivarian Venezuela's ties to communist Cuba.

In many emerging markets, the influence of banking and financial capital have come to increasingly shape national developmental strategies, leading some to argue we are in a new phase of financial capitalism.[83]

State intervention in global capital markets following the financial crisis of 2007–2010 was perceived by some as signaling a crisis for free-market capitalism. Serious turmoil in the banking system and financial markets due in part to the subprime mortgage crisis reached a critical stage during September 2008, characterized by severely contracted liquidity in the global credit markets posed an existential threat to investment banks and other institutions.[84][85]


According to some,[86] the transition to the information society involves abandoning some parts of capitalism, as the "capital" required to produce and process information becomes available to the masses and difficult to control, and is closely related to the controversial issues of intellectual property. Some[86] even speculate that the development of mature nanotechnology, particularly of universal assemblers, may make capitalism obsolete, with capital ceasing to be an important factor in the economic life of humanity. Thinkers have also explored what kind of economic system might replace capitalism, such as Paul Mason.

Role of women[edit]

Women's historians have debated the impact of capitalism on the status of women.[87][88] Taking a pessimistic side, Alice Clark argued that when capitalism arrived in 17th century England, it made a negative impact on the status of women as they lost much of their economic importance. Clark argues that in 16th century England, women were engaged in many aspects of industry and agriculture. The home was a central unit of production and women played a vital role in running farms, and in some trades and landed estates. Their useful economic roles gave them a sort of equality with their husbands. However, Clark argues, as capitalism expanded in the 17th century, there was more and more division of labor with the husband taking paid labor jobs outside the home, and the wife reduced to unpaid household work. Middle-class and women were confined to an idle domestic existence, supervising servants; lower-class women were forced to take poorly paid jobs. Capitalism, therefore, had a negative effect on me powerful women.[89] In a more positive interpretation, Ivy Pinchbeck argues that capitalism created the conditions for women's emancipation.[90] Tilly and Scott have Emphasize the continuity and the status of women, finding three stages in European history. In the preindustrial era, production was mostly for home use and women produce much of the needs of the households. The second stage was the "family wage economy" of early industrialization, the entire family depended on the collective wages of its members, including husband, wife and older children. The third or modern stage is the "family consumer economy," in which the family is the site of consumption, and women are employed in large numbers in retail and clerical jobs to support rising standards of consumption.[91]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Scott (2005)
  2. ^ "A People's History of the World" Chris Harman pp. 251–397
  3. ^ "The New Industrial State" J.K. Galbraith pp. 16–35
  4. ^ "The Economics of Imperialism" Michael Barratt Brown pp. 309–30 (Chapter12)
  5. ^ "Zombie Capitalism" Chris Harman pp. 142–60
  6. ^ Marois, Thomas (2012) "Finance, Finance Capital, and Financialisation." In: Fine, Ben and Saad Filho, Alfredo, (eds.), The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  7. ^ Richard Biernacki, review of Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999), The Origin of Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 1999), in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Jul., 2000), pp. 638–39, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2654574.
  8. ^ a b Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002), The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).
  9. ^ Neal, Larry: The Rise of Financial Capitalism: International Capital Markets in the Age of Reason (Studies in Monetary and Financial History). (Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 9780521457385)
  10. ^ Goetzmann, William N.; Rouwenhorst, K. Geert: The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets. (Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0195175714))
  11. ^ Rothbard, Murray: Making Economic Sense, 2nd edition. (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006, ISBN 9781610165907), p. 426. In own words of the Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises, "A stock market is crucial to the existence of capitalism and private property. For it means that there is a functioning market in the exchange of private titles to the means of production. There can be no genuine private ownership of capital without a stock market: there can be no true socialism if such a market is allowed to exist."
  12. ^ Dore, Ronald: Stock Market Capitalism, Welfare Capitalism: Japan and Germany versus the Anglo-Saxons. (Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 280, ISBN 978-0199240616)
  13. ^ Preda, Alex: Framing Finance: The Boundaries of Markets and Modern Capitalism. (University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 328, ISBN 978-0-226-67932-7)
  14. ^ Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002), The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002.), pp. 11–21.
  15. ^ a b c Jairus Banaji (2007), "Islam, the Mediterranean and the rise of capitalism", Journal Historical Materialism 15#1 pp. 47–74, Brill Publishers.
  16. ^ Karl Marx described the Dutch Republic, in its Golden Age, as “the model capitalist nation of the seventeenth century”, which was in “the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production”. He concluded that “its [Dutch Republic's] fisheries, marine, manufactures, surpassed those of any other country. The total capital of the Republic was probably more important than that of all the rest of Europe put together.”
  17. ^ Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. (Academic Press, 1980)
  18. ^ Bornschier, Volker; Lengyel, Peter (1992). Waves, Formations and Values in the World System, p. 69. “The rise of capitalist national states (as opposed to city-states) was a European innovation, and the first of these was the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century.”
  19. ^ Brenner, Reuven (1994). Labyrinths of Prosperity: Economic Follies, Democratic Remedies, p. 60
  20. ^ De Vries, Jan; Woude, Ad van der (1997). The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815
  21. ^ Taylor, Peter J. (2002). Dutch Hegemony and Contemporary Globalization (Paper prepared for Political Economy of World-Systems Conference, Riverside, California). As Peter J. Taylor notes, “the Dutch developed a social formula, which we have come to call modern capitalism, that proved to be transferable and ultimately deadly to all other social formulations.”
  22. ^ Gordon, John Steele (1999). The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power: 1653–2000. (Scribner, ISBN 978-0684832876). John Steele Gordon notes: “The Dutch invented modern capitalism in the early seventeenth century. Although many of the basic concepts had first appeared in Italy during the Renaissance, the Dutch, especially the citizens of the city of Amsterdam, were the real innovators. They transformed banking, stock exchanges, credit, insurance, and limited-liability corporations into a coherent financial and commercial system.”
  23. ^ Gordon, Scott (1999). Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today, p. 172. As Scott Gordon notes: “In addition to its role in the history of constitutionalism, the republic was important in the early development of the essential features of modern capitalism: private property, production for sale in general markets, and the dominance of the profit motive in the behavior of producers and traders.”
  24. ^ Sayle, Murray (2001-04-05). "Japan goes Dutch". London Review of Books. 23 (7): 3–7. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 2010-06-20. While Britain's was the first economy to use fossil energy to produce goods for market, the most characteristic institutions of capitalism were not invented in Britain, but in the Low Countries. The first miracle economy was that of the Dutch Republic (1588-1795), and it, too, hit a mysterious dead end. All economic success contains the seeds of stagnation, it seems; the greater the boom, the harder it is to change course when it ends. (...) Dutch market punters pioneered short selling, option trading, debt-equity swaps, merchant banking, unit trusts and other speculative instruments, much as we now know them. With them came specialised offshoots – insurance, retirement funds and other orderly forms of investment – and the maladies of capitalism: the boom-bust cycle, the world's first asset-inflation bubble, the tulip mania of 1636-37... 
  25. ^ Mead, Walter Russell (18 April 2009). "Walter Russell Mead On Why Lula Was Right (The Debt We Owe the Dutch: Blue-Eyed Bankers Have Given Us More Than the Current Financial Crisis)". Newsweek Magazine (newsweek.com). Retrieved 1 November 2017. Walter Russell Mead: "The modern financial system grows out of a series of innovations in 17th-century Netherlands, and the Dutch were, on the whole, as Lula describes them. From the Netherlands, what the English called "Dutch finance" traveled over the English Channel, as the English borrowed Dutch ideas to build a stock market, promote global trade and establish the Bank of England, going on to build a maritime empire of commerce and sea power... The Dutch introduced version 1.0 in about 1620; the British introduced 2.0 in about 1700; the Americans upgraded to version 3.0 in 1945, and as an operating system, it works pretty well—most of the time. The 300 years of liberal, global capitalism have seen an extraordinary explosion in knowledge and human affluence." 
  26. ^ Wu, Wei Neng (26 Feb 2014). "Hub Cities — London: Why did London lose its preeminent port hub status, and how has it continued to retain its dominance in marine logistics, insurance, financing and law? (Civil Service College of Singapore)". Civil Service College Singapore (cscollege.gov.sg). Retrieved 26 Feb 2017. Wu Wei Neng (2012) notes: “17th century Amsterdam was the world's first modern financial centre — the city hall, Wisselbank, Beurs (stock exchange), Korenbeurs (commodities exchange), major insurance, brokerage and trading companies were located within a few blocks of each other, along with coffee houses which served as informal trading floors and exchanges that facilitated deal-making. Financial innovations such as maritime insurance, retirement pensions, annuities, futures and options, transnational securities listings, mutual funds and modern investment banking had their genesis in 17th and 18th century Amsterdam.” 
  27. ^ Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002), The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 11–21.
  28. ^ Chris Harman, 'The Rise of Capitalism', International Socialism Journal, 102 (Spring 2004).
  29. ^ Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002), The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002), quoting p. 129.
  30. ^ Jennifer Schuessler, "In History Departments, It's Up with Capitalism," The New York Times, April 6, 2013
  31. ^ http://cup.columbia.edu/series/hoc
  32. ^ See Jennifer Schuessler "In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism" New York Times April 6, 2013
  33. ^ Lou Galambos, "Is This a Decisive Moment for the History of Business, Economic History, and the History Of Capitalism? Essays in Economic & Business History (2014) v. 32 pp. 1–18 online
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  39. ^ Degen, Robert A. (2011-12-31). The Triumph of Capitalism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers (published 2011). p. 12. ISBN 9781412809856. Retrieved 2016-01-13. By the early 1400s, power came to be shared in an arrangement giving representation to various segments of the social order, but the dichotomy between wage earners and capitalist merchants remained. 
  40. ^ Ellen Meikisins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, 2nd edn (London: Verso, 2002), p. 99.
  41. ^ "Enclosure" is the modern spelling, while "inclosure" is an older spelling still used in the United Kingdom in legal documents and place names.
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  43. ^ A comparison of the English historical enclosures with the (much later) German 19th century Landflucht. Engels, Friedrich (1882). Die Mark. Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft. Hottingen (Zurich).  Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. Werke (1973 reprint of 196t 1st ed.). Berlin: Karl Dietz. 
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  55. ^ Now attributed to Sir Thomas Smith; quoted in Braudel (1979), p. 204.
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  57. ^ Quoted in Sir George Clark, The Seventeenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 24.
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  68. ^ Doug Henwood is an economists who has argued that the heyday of globalization was during the mid-19th century. For example, he writes in What Is Globalization Anyway?:

    Not only is the novelty of "globalization" exaggerated, so is its extent. Capital flows were freer, and foreign holdings by British investors far larger, 100 years ago than anything we see today. Images of multinational corporations shuttling raw materials and parts around the world, as if the whole globe were an assembly line, are grossly overblown, accounting for only about a tenth of U.S. trade.[1][permanent dead link]

    (See also Henwood, Doug (October 1, 2003). After the New Economy. New Press. ISBN 1-56584-770-9. )

  69. ^ For an assessment of this question, see Peter Evans, "The Eclipse of the State? Reflections on Stateness in an Era of Globalization," World Politics, 50, 1 (October 1997): 62–87.
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  71. ^ Brooks, David (2004-11-27). "Good News about Poverty". Retrieved 2008-02-26. 
  72. ^ Fengbo Zhang: Speech at "Future China Global Forum 2010": China Rising with the Reform and Open Policy.
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Further reading[edit]