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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