Joyce Appleby


On her book The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

Cover Interview of January 06, 2010

The wide angle

A history does more than narrate events—it also reveals the decisive moments that give shape to a life or country.  It permits consideration of turning points and alternative directions for the course of action. This is particularly the case with capitalism whose roots have been obscured.

Economists analyze capitalism with mathematical precision, but their models screen out the messiness in economic relations.  Without studying the market’s entanglement with society and culture, we have difficulty penetrating the logic of capitalism.  There is also imbedded in economic theory a notion of human beings as constantly striving to maximize their benefits in economic transactions.  This stripped down view of human nature makes universally applicable what is actually conditional and contingent.

As the 2008 meltdown in the centers of finance demonstrated, the human element in markets is much more problematic.  Risky behavior is integral to decision-making in the market.  When capitalism is approached historically instead of analytically a fuller account of its inner workings emerges.

Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, captured the dynamic in capitalism with the telling phrase “creative destruction.”  While the creative side has brought the world a succession of wonderful inventions, the destruction has torn up whole communities and ways of life, and continues to do so.  The job of monitoring, guiding, and regulating the complexities of our global economy depends on our having an inclusive picture of the economic system that lies at the base of our culture.  Public debates that either demonize or idealize capitalism frustrate sound policies.

The history of the homelands of capitalism has too often been tied up with invidious comparison with nonwestern countries.  Scholars have distinguished the “rest of the World” from the West in unflattering ways.  In part this is because the prosperity that capitalism ushered in was closely associated with the heroic story of securing political freedom and participatory government in Western Europe and the United States.  Modernity, in these accounts, has been contrasted not only with premodern Europe but with contemporary “backward” societies as well.  The notion of backwardness assumed that history was the story of progress.

The pervasiveness of human inventiveness demonstrates that no country, race, or continent has a lock on it.  The Arabs and Chinese made critical advances in sciences long before Europeans.  They also developed complicated hydraulic systems.  In sub-Saharan African craftsmen skillfully mined and made artifacts in gold, copper, tin, and iron.  Pre-Columbian Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs constructed impressive buildings without the benefit of iron or wheels.  All developed rich and complicated cultures.  What they didn’t do was focus upon innovations that would improve their productivity.  It was not superior intelligence that led to the Industrial Revolution in England, but rather the propitious linkage of technological curiosity to economic opportunities within a society that offered incentives to those who could improve production processes.

Copying capitalist practices proved a necessity for England’s European rivals.  The rest of the world took a more circuitous route to the market economy.  Changes that came gradually to England arrived abruptly for its neighbors across the Channel.  Men and women who had been a part of a settled agrarian way of life were quickly drawn into a new proletariat.  Factories became scenes of oppressive labor conditions, provoking reform movements and hostile analyses of capitalism.  In Russia, revolutionaries installed a communist regime in the early 20th century.  Instead of a market economy, communist nations instituted a command economy with government officials in charge.

Because material advantages enhanced military prowess, European nations began to invade the countries of Africa and Asia to exploit their resources and labor.  By the end of the 19th century few peoples in world remained untouched by the West’s intense application of money and workers to produce more goods.  These imperialist impositions of power provoked strong reactions, particularly after World War II when colonial subjects rebelled and formed independent countries of their own.  Throughout the 20th century, the sustained success of capitalism to generate great wealth lured a succession of nations to replace their traditional or socialist economies with private enterprise and open markets.  This globalization has brought a new round of “creative destruction.”

My own curiosity about capitalism began with a question about changing conceptions of human nature.  In the beginning of the 17th century human beings were depicted in sermons and literature as fickle, impulsive, and prone to self-destructive behavior.  Yet at the end, English writers started talking about the predictability of people’s actions in their market relations.  Soon this economic definition became the dominant one.

Wanting to find out how this fundamental transformation of the understanding of human nature took place, I read the hundreds of pamphlets, broadsides, and books examining England’s expanding market relations.  I discovered where the new definition of human nature came in and learned how central to capitalism are the ways people have analyzed their economy—first in puzzled awe, then in critical assessment, and finally through the expertise of specialists.