A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism
by Jairus Banaji (2020)
Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it – the 2014 multivolume Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE – but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.
Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved. These questions are likely no closer to resolution today than they were when European radicals started using the word “capitalism” two hundred years ago.
For many, the whole question of origins is a pseudo-problem—you can write economic history without modes of production. But those who have dreamed of transcending capitalism find it harder to let go of the thorn. If the object can’t be defined, can it be dismantled? If there was no starting point, can there be an end? Marxist scholars have been central to the origins debate, but Marx himself said enough different things on the topic to inspire contending schools, each speaking in his name.
The so-called transition debate is often broken down into approaches that focus on the growth of trade and approaches that focus on the transformation of social relations of production. In the 1950s iteration, the Cambridge economist and Communist Party Historians Group member Maurice Dobb squared off against Paul Sweezy, who earned an economics PhD at Harvard before launching the independent socialist journal Monthly Review. Dobb outlined three common ways of understanding capitalism: as a rational-entrepreneurial mindset, as production for a distant market, and as a class relation between capitalists and wage-laborers. He found the first two “insufficiently restrictive,” since acquisitive investment and long-distance trade have clearly been present in societies since antiquity.
Such ancient phenomena can neither explain nor serve as a definition for capitalism as a distinct economic system. For Dobb, the correct definition was found in class relations, which pointed toward a history of conflict between lords and peasants, rather than distant trade. Sweezy countered that late medieval commerce was a powerful disintegrating force capable of breaking apart feudalism and ushering in capitalism, including through the growth of towns.1 A generation later, the “Brenner debate” of the late-1970s took on the same question, with Robert Brenner defending the centrality of agrarian class structure to the transition against two sets of opponents: historians who emphasized a demographic explanation for the crisis of feudalism, and world-systems theorists who saw the creation of a continent-spanning world economy after 1492 as the fundamental transition to modern capitalist development.2 …..