Understanding Capitalism


A review article around Anwar Shaikh’s ‘Capitalism’, now turning into a classic

Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises by Anwar Shaikh

Capitalist history is played out on a moving stage.’- Shaikh, 2016, p. 50 (see also p. 5; italics added).

The Book 1  by Anwar Shaikh 2  which is reviewed here was published a little over six years ago; it has been translated into Chinese and Turkish, and is about to come out in a Spanish translation, as well; it has also won a prestigious Chinese award and the author has provided an updated “Introduction” to the book.

Shaikh runs to keep pace, like in Alice in Wonderland, not only with the ‘moving stage’ but the changing dynamics and development of the play on a stage that is in motion, for capitalist history is like a jigsaw puzzle, defying interpretations of an unchanging form. That, I think, is the secret of Shaikh’s study of capitalist history applicable to societies that ostensibly change and develop almost incessantly.

The sheer quantitative dimensions of Shaikh’s enterprise are mind-boggling: three parts divided into 17 chapters of nearly a thousand pages with the contents, the appendices, figures, tables, notes of abbreviations, references, subject and name indices. The Chinese, ever practical, produced an attractive two-volume set and I would endorse a second edition in English to be produced in three volumes, corresponding to the three parts into which the book is divided, which are Foundations of the Analysis, Theory of Real Competition, and Theory of Turbulent Macro-Dynamics (this is sometimes hyphenated).

It is easily comparable qualitatively to the ‘classics’ of the subject of Economics in the Post World War II period: Hicks (1946), Samuelson (1947), Simon 3  (1947), Robinson (1956), Debreu (1959), Sraffa (1960) and Taylor (2010) 4 . By ‘classics’ I mean those books that become standard within a few years of publication; otherwise, they take roughly a couple – or more – generations of graduate student lives to establish themselves. Classics are reprinted but rarely brought out in ‘new’ editions! All of these books – some of them were composed of articles that the authors put together, coherently, in a book form – became classics within a few years of publication.

Shaikh’s book is a classic of similar sort; that is why it is just about right to write a review article now. However, it is well to equip oneself with Shaikh’s essay in Szenberg and Ramrattan (2014) and his Goldsmiths interview of May 2019 (Ragupathy, 2022). Much of the book by Shaikh, as befits a classic, is based on the over 30 articles he has authored singly or jointly; they are meticulously referenced in this work.

Shaikh’s and Sraffa’s book have this in common: they both are critical of the current view of capitalism, informed by a view of classical economics (my conjecture is that Sraffa emphasizes the Ricardian aspects, whereas Shaikh the Marxian ones) – but they draw qualitatively different conclusions. They both are a Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory, Sraffa explicitly and Shaikh implicitly.

The author says, in the “Preface” and “Acknowledgements” (p. xxxv):

‘This book has been in the making for fifteen years. An earlier attempt was abandoned in 1998 after a decade ....’

I, however, am of the opinion that The Book was in preparation, at least in the author’s fertile and critical mind, for almost half-a-century – ever since his Columbia doctoral thesis (Shaikh, 1973) and Humbug paper (Shaikh, 1974) 5 . The author also observes, (p. 7; italics added):

‘Most of the time, the patterns are directly visible, but sometimes formalization requires the tools of modern nonlinear dynamics and empirical testing requires the tools of modern econometrics.’

The tools of modern nonlinear dynamics are required because the data of capitalist dynamics is suffused with intrinsic nonlinearities and lumpiness (p. 7) – these are supplemented with the tools of modern econometrics. I am woefully incompetent in all kinds of econometrics, but have some modicum of knowledge in modern nonlinear dynamics which I will put to use ‘here and there’ in this review…


Reviews of Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century; (2014)