Review: Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept, edited by Jurgen Kocka and Marcel van der Linden

The 2008 stock market bubble gave impetus to an already growing interest in the history of capitalism.  An interest long overdue–according to some scholars.  Economic history did not fare well in the cultural turn of the 1980s and 1990s.  Myriad nuances of power relationships undermined Marxist’s traditional materialist determinism.  Scholars such as Michele Foucault reimagined power as a dynamic symbiotic loop between subjectivities and external discourses about those subjectivities, thereby undermining the more traditional dichotomy between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.  Growth of the white color managerial class further complicated this dichotomy.  From where does power emanate?  Power the subject of culture studies and class (in America–U.S.) slipped away.

Although Francis Fukuyama announced the triumph of Liberalism in “the End of History,” teleological grand narratives had become unpopular.  During the same time, the temporal walls of historical research became confined, according to Jo Guild and David Armitage, the scope of history rarely extended past the life span of an average person, creating what they call short-sightedness.  This left the long span of economic development by the wayside.

Over the past few decades, however, scholars are approaching economic history, but they are doing it in a new way.  Partly inspired by New Institutional Economics, scholars such as Sheryllyne Haggerty, in ‘Merely for Money’? Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750-1815 (2012), and others are reconceptualizing the role of cultural belief, race, and gender in the development of economics.  As Susan Buck-Morss has argued, the professional specification of departments kept liberal arts and the social sciences at arm’s length from economics.  During the neoliberal era (beginning in the 1970s) economic historians became more quantitative and mimicked methodologies found in economic departments, but during the cultural turn of the 1980s and 1990s, cliometric economic history fell out of favor.  Today scholars are broadening their scope to include social and cultural relationships economic institutions.

Jurgen Kocka and Marcel van der Linden have recently edited a collection of writings, Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept.  They begin by defining capitalism and how the contributors use the term in their writings.  Capitalism includes writings by Youssef Cassis; Andrea Kolmosy, Victoria de Grazia, Immanuel Wallerstein, Sven Beckert, and others. Topics span from financial crisis, labor relations, business history, modernity, the new history of capitalism, and others.

n the introduction, Kocka, provides a historiography/ etymology of the term capitalism, while also offering the definition used throughout the book.  He claims that although “capital” and “capitalist” appeared before the nineteenth century, “capitalism” did not emerge “before the second half of the nineteenth century.”[1]  Some of the earlier uses of “capitalism,” defined it as “appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others,” 1850 Louis Blanc.  According to Kocka, although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used “capital” and “capitalism” ubiquitously, they only used “capitalism” marginally.  It was not until 1902 when Werner Sombart published Der Monderne Kapitalismus, that the German speaking world began used “capitalism” regularly.  In England, “capitalism” came much earlier, the concept was in use by 1855 and continued to grow thereafter.[2]

The primary attributes of “capitalism” featured:  “individual property rights,” factors of production, such as land, labor, and capital; competition; market commodification; rational laws of the market; social stratification; and other similar attributes.  Kocka makes a point to suggest that the main characteristic for writers writing about capitalism is that they considered “capitalism” relationally in regards to time and other economic systems. that distinguished modernity from feudalism or the Ancien Regime.  “Capitalism” was the rational, progressive stage in the Enlightenment Project and essential to modernity, but it also acquired its meaning through its relation to non-“capitalist” systems such as socialism.  Kocka, here, is trying to convey that contemporaries saw capitalism as a break from the past; a system founded on rational laws similar to a science.  But his statement that “capitalism has always been a concept of difference” is not only uninformative, but boarders on being a tautology–after all are not the meaning of all words contingent on relations and difference?

Capitalism went through several stages of popularity and meaning for policy makers and the public.  For instance, during the Cold War capitalism became synonymous with freedom.  From WWII to the 1970s is often considered the Gold Years of American capitalism, this is largely because of Keynesian economics, which Kocka fails to mention.  Industrial jobs and pay kept pace with inflation and it appeared that capitalism could provide abundance and enrich the masses, but this was after the depression, this was a mixed capitalism with regulation and government interference.  Policy makers believed that long scale economic plans implemented by the government and work programs could enrich the people and the American (U.S.) nation.  But in the 1970s, stagflation struck a blow to Keynesian economics and neoliberalism rose from the ashes.  Neoliberalism, also supply side economics, promoted austerity programs and gave preference to manufacturers instead of consumers.  The Gold Years were over, but “capitalism: was still seen as the barer of freedom of democracy.  Globalization, however showed a different side.  As capital was allowed to flow overseas, so did high paying jobs and American often found themselves in debt.  In third world nations, capitalism did not bring democracy or freedom–especially under Pinochet–and later austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund on “developing” countries.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism grew without restraint.  According to Kocka, it had a positive or simply neutral effect on policy makers and the public—at least until the Great Recession of 2008.  The housing bubble, coupled with comments by Alan Greenspan, and the International Monetary Fund second guessing their faith in free markets, the general public looked at capitalism in a new light.  This new—critical—light “contributed to a rising scholarly interest.”[3]

His refined definition of “capitalism” come in three parts and is as follows:

  1. “First, in capitalism, it is essential that individual and collective actors dispose of right which enable them to make economic decision in a relatively autonomous and decentralized way.”[4]
  2. “Second, in capitalism, the coordination of the different economic actors takes lace primarily through markets and prices, through competition and commodification of resources and products is central, including the contractual (“free”) labor for wages and salaries.  This is where the tension between classes is built into the definition of capitalism as a potentiality.”
  3. “Third, capital, is central for this type of economy.  This entails the investment of savings and returns in the present with the perspective of higher gains in the future, the importance of profit as a major yardstick of success, and accumulation with the perspective of innovation and growth.  Accepting uncertainty and risk is implied, as well as the notion of profitability and its systematic control over time.  The time factor–a certain relation between life in the present and expectations as to the future–is important.”[5]

He reminds readers that this is an ideal type.  His definition of “capitalism,” in other words, is a broad generalization, “which can be used even though one knows that historical reality is never fully identical with it.”  “Capitalism is not only an economic phenomenon, but certain legal elements, social elements, and cultural elements are integral.”  This is where the new history of capitalism differs from the traditional quantitative models common to cliometrics.  He comments that “capitalism” can help us understand connections between the micro and macro-economic processes, while hopefully bringing together economic historians with other historians whose paths diverged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kocka makes sever last remarks about the “capitalism” and the contributions to the text.  Several of his comments are worth our attention.  First, studies of “capitalism” have focused on the “unstable character of economic processes” and the “tensions and contradictions inside the economic and social worlds that account for instability.”  It is worth noting the Americans proselytize a dichotomous narrative of stability–for the home, for their children, and family–while at the same time the economic seeks expansion and cheap labor, thereby undermining the very fabric of stability itself.  Secondly, the inherent “contradictions” in capitalism should not be seen as just that i.e. “contradictions,” but instead part of the whole of capitalism as historian Seth Rockman comments in “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.”  For instance, Rockman states “the so-called ‘contradictions of capitalism in the early Republic are better understood as constitutive elements of American economic development.”[6]

Kocka ends the introduction with a series of questions, which the contributors explore.  “Does business and labor history appear in new light if pursued with the concepts given above?  Is there a re-emergence of the concept in the specific fields? Should there be such a re-emergence?  … Should the concept be modified, and if so, how in order to increase its usefulness in different areas?”


[1] Kocka, Jürgen, and Marcel van der Linden. Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept. 2016, 1.

[2] Ibid., 1-2.

[3] Kocka seems to ignore the wealth and breadth of anti-capitalist literature and movements dating as far back as pre-capitalist exploitation.  I’ve added details Kocka left out in his overview of the different “stages” or epochs of “capitalism.”  Ibid. 3-4

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 7.



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