Book Review

Like a Rolling Stone

9780393068948_300a review by Gabriel Loiacono

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
by Joyce Appleby
494 pages. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

This is a big book.  I don’t mean by this that it is physically large: it is 436 pages before the endnotes, a reasonable length considering the topic.  I mean instead that it is big in scope, interpretation, and ambition.  At times, Appleby offers vistas of world history that are breathtaking, both in how much of that history they take in at once, and in how readers are invited to reconsider whole periods in a new light.  Appleby stresses that capitalism has never been a natural or fore-ordained system.  It happened by accident, Appleby insists, refuting Adam Smith and Karl Marx.  It happened against many odds, in particular ways, beginning with seventeenth-century England, and then happened again, in different ways, in other places and times.  Once it did happen, though, it remade – and continues to remake – our world.  It is a cultural system as much as an economic system, which is inseparable from our ideas of morality and how the world works.  Among the most important changes it has wrought are: a departure from old expectations of scarcity; a new expectation of turning profits; mobility, in every sense of that word; encouragement of democracy; ever-increasing emphasis on consumer choice; and even, Appleby avers, an uncovering of what it is that people really want.

This big book could be described as two books, actually.  Chapters 1 to 6 could constitute a first book, focusing on how capitalism happened in Europe and the United States from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.  Chapters 7 to 13 are like a second book, tracing how capitalism has changed over time, responding to different circumstances, sometimes looking like it might expire, but so far coming back again and again.  For me, the “first book” was far more exciting, bold, and revisionist than the “second book.”  The “first book” encourages readers to reconsider what capitalism is, and to reconsider the major theories of capitalism.  Appleby finds Max Weber to be a more accurate observer of capitalism than Smith or Marx.  Although this “first book” focuses on the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it sweeps through the ancient and medieval worlds too, and glances over aspects of human experience that one might not expect in a history of capitalism.  This reviewer, a historian of social welfare, was gratified to see the history of English and American poor relief coherently woven into Appleby’s big story.  Many discrete topics, from the Age of Exploration to the Age of Personal Computing, are explained simply and incorporated, clearly and succinctly, into the arc of her story.

The arc of the story is from scarcity to abundance, from highly structured societies to more fluid ones, from slow change to fast change, and all through the peculiarities of different nations’ embraces of capitalism.  Ironically, as the pace of change picks up in world capitalism, circa 1870, the pace of the book slows down.  Where the “first book” is exhilaratingly wide-ranging, fast-moving, and fresh, the “second book” feels quite different.  By chapter 7, capitalism is established in western Europe and the United States, and Appleby’s interpretive thrust becomes less daring, and a bit more plodding.  Much of the “second book” is a retelling of well-known bits of the past, say World War II, with an emphasis on world economic history.  Some bits, like European colonialism in Africa, look different under Appleby’s lens but most do not really.  I am, like Appleby, an early Americanist, but much more of the “first book” was new to me than the “second book.”  I am not sure that Appleby has as many important things to say about the twentieth century as she does about the earlier periods.  That said, I still appreciate that The Relentless Revolution brings its big story right up to the “Great Recession” of 2008.  Appleby’s coverage of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is an able synthesis, and makes clear the continuities between the early modern period and the present.  This makes the book even more valuable.

One other critique I can offer of this book is in its wrestling with teleology.  In chapter 1, Appleby presses mightily against Smith’s and Marx’s presentation of capitalism as a natural development.  “Societies that are resistant to capitalist ways today appear unnatural,” she writes.  “Yet Europeans actually deviated from a global norm” (21).  A distinct but related point is Appleby’s ratification of the argument by an Indian M.P. in the British Parliament that capitalism is not “a natural system like physics” but “a social system created by human beings for their purposes” (387).  All of this makes a lot of sense.  Even Appleby, however, seems unable to escape Smith’s and Marx’s teleological understanding of capitalism.  After detailing early modern economic changes, she asks why Portugal, Spain, or the Netherlands did not become the first capitalists.  While carefully arguing against teleology when discussing Spain and Portugal (36), Appleby’s discussion of the Dutch undermines her insistence on the unpredictable, random, and peculiar development of capitalism (53).

These criticisms notwithstanding, The Relentless Revolution is a rewarding book for a broad swathe of readers, academic and lay, intellectual historians and social historians.  Indeed, it is hard to think of anyone who would not learn important things from the book.  It could be the central reading for an economic history course or even a survey history course.  One of its great strengths is how it takes strands of intellectual history, business history, history of science, and social history, and brings them together so that all of them illuminate one another.  She does not simply make them co-exist, she makes them improve one another.  1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 5 in this book.  For example, in just three paragraphs on page 90, Appleby shows how English poor relief made possible experimental business models, which in turn made possible a new conception of human beings as rational actors in a natural economic system.  In this way, social history leads to business history which in turn leads to intellectual history.

Appleby turns a skeptical eye on the still popular view of the economy as a natural system.  Throughout the “second book” she points out how often this view actually disguises the advantages of already successful actors and nations.  The book ends with many questions about the future of capitalism.  Appleby’s great hope for the future is that we be moral actors in capitalism.  Will capitalism endure?  Appleby strongly implies that it will, of course, being a “relentless” revolution.  Another way to put this is that capitalism is like a rolling stone, constantly moving, gathering no moss, and yet changing to suit its new circumstances.

Gabriel Loiacono is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.  He is writing a book entitled Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: Stories of Welfare from the Early Republic. 

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  1. Dear Gabriel: Thank you for this interesting review of a book I’ve been wanting to read. But could you clarify something.

    You write: “Appleby stresses that capitalism has never been a natural or fore-ordained system. It happened by accident, Appleby insists, refuting Adam Smith and Karl Marx.”

    And this: “In chapter 1, Appleby presses mightily against Smith’s and Marx’s presentation of capitalism as a natural development.”

    And then this: “Even Appleby, however, seems unable to escape Smith’s and Marx’s teleological understanding of capitalism.”

    Does Appleby make the claim that Smith and Marx had a view that capitalism was natural? Or is this your interpretation of her analysis? Because it does not jibe with my understandings of Smith and Marx, especially the latter, who strained to demonstrate capitalism was an economic system that emerged from a very particular historical moment of class struggle or a very particular mode of production. This is not to say that Marx was not at times teleological in his assumptions that capitalism would inevitably engender new socialist modes of production, but such a teleological view of history, in this case, is not necessarily the same thing as an understanding that capitalism accords with human nature. Thanks.

  2. Like Andrew Hartman, I found the assertion that Marx interpreted capitalism as a natural phenomenon confounding, not least because that neo-Classical view flies in the face of Marx’s core stance that people can transform society, that is, make history. Of course, in his view that social arrangements are not divinely ordained but are the social outcomes of power struggles, Marx is leaning on, and advancing, Rousseau’s Pre-Romantic ideas and, in the spirit of his own times, attempting to make them scientific. Hence, Engels writes in Anti-Duhring: “Already in Rousseau, therefore, we find not only a sequence of ideas which correspond exactly with the sequence developed in Marx’s Capital, but that correspondence extends also to details, Rousseau using a whole series of the same dialectical developments as Marx used: processes which in their nature are antagonistic, contain a contradiction…”

    Please clarify your statements about Marx and Smith.

    • Re the interesting quote about Rousseau and Marx from Anti-Duhring: Did Marx himself indicate a debt to Rousseau? (I’m pretty sure Marx mentions R. somewhere, just can’t recall where offhand.)

  3. I’ve only read the first 20 or so pages of the book and I don’t think she is saying that Marx held a belief that capitalism was a “natural” phenomena.
    “Karl Marx, observing this disruption in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, could not accept the English evolutionary explanation for the emergence of capitalism. He believed that coercion had been absolutely necessary in effecting this transformation.” P. 16
    But she does state: “According to Smith, capitalism emerged naturally from the universal tendency of men and women to ‘truck and barter’.” P. 15

    “Following [Adam] Smith, economic analyzers presumed a natural human psychology geared to ceaseless economic activity. Weber challenged this assumption with a single line: ‘A man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose’. ” P. 17

    She agrees with Weber’s criticism of Marx “for assuming the existence of a market mentality before there was a capitalist market.” P. 18

  4. Forgive me for coming late to the conversation and without my copy of the book! These are very good questions you raise, Luis and Andrew, and some helpful quotations, Paul. Let me get my hands on my or another copy of this very rich book and leap back into the fray. For now, let me just say that reading this big synthetic work was, in the first chapters, provocative and thrilling for me, whether I agreed or not. Try Chapter One and, I think, you’ll be hooked.

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