Joyce Appleby


On her book The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

Cover Interview of January 05, 2010

In a nutshell

The Relentless Revolution begins with the puzzle of why it took so long for capitalism to emerge.  Defining capitalism as a cultural system based on a particular economy, I show that capitalism was never just an economic system.  Its focus on enhancing production through private initiatives impinged on every facet of life and was itself affected by every institution that shaped its participants.

Capitalism created new cultural forms, stimulated new tastes, and introduced a whole new vocabulary for discussing the impact of private enterprise on the welfare of the society as a whole.  In time, traditional ways of acting and thinking lost their controlling power.

Neither inevitable nor predictable, capitalism began with a few innovations.  In 17th century England, new ways to produce food made possible reducing the number of men and women required to feed the society.  Capital too was released for investments in things like the steam engines that were revolutionizing mining and manufacturing.  The new science promoted an unending succession of technological advances.  Over the next century the percentage of population devoted to farming dropped from around 80% to 40%.  This was a first in world history.

Once capitalism’s amazing power to generate wealth was detected, most countries, at least in the West, wanted part of the action.  In the 18th century, it was relatively easy for other countries to copy English innovations.  The United States and Germany overtook England by the end of the 19th century.

Following the trajectory of capitalist expansion, The Relentless Revolution shows why capitalism is a cultural system.  Where commerce could live within the interstices of society with its customary mores and aristocratic habits, the capitalist system forced widespread social and political change because its momentum involved more and more of society’s population.  For this reason, there are in today’s world many variants of capitalist culture as different nations align economic restructuring with the basic qualities of their people.