Notes on Joyce Appleby’s “Relentless Revolution”


Joyce Appleby’s “Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism” “explores the benchmarks of capitalism’s ascent through analyzing the capitalist system as it relates to practices, thoughts, values, and ideals present in the political formation of western society.” Appleby’s conception of charting the evolution of capitalism as it is observed today is through the lens of economic practices emerging through cultural systems over time. Appleby’s history of capitalism highlights how “different societies responded to challenges in how people planned the potentiality of economic success in their lives.”[1]

Early on Appleby discusses the differing theories on when capitalism took hold, with some scholars arguing that its beginning can be traced to the Middle Ages, others offering the Pre-historic age, while most agreeing that its ascent started in the eighteenth century alongside the emergence of the first Industrial Revolution in England. Appleby is aware of the Eurocentric bias that accompanies theories that hold England as the site of capitalism’s birth, however she provides a commentary on periodization as well as the unique qualities in England’s history that solidifies that status:

Of  course to start at any date is arbitrary. All historical developments have antecedents, some going back centuries… yet the seventeenth century brought fundamental alterations to England and contemporaries became acutely and astutely aware of them.”[2]

Appleby further emphasizes that as capitalism took shape in England “changes became irreversible and cumulative, growth created development, and capital became more abundant. Appleby writes that “at the cultural heart of capitalism is the individual’s capacity to control resources and initiate projects.” [3]

The “individual” in England during the dawning years toward capitalism away from the old ways could have been represented by a number of characters whether factory owner, factory worker, merchant or noble. Appleby indicates that across the economic statuses of these characters was a willingness to concede to the social order, which was a major requirement for sustained building of the nascent capitalist framework in England.

A history of capitalism cannot be written without including the foremost philosophical thought on economics. On Adam Smith Appleby summarizes his thesis as being a long sequence of progressive steps that produced an almost effortless move toward the accumulation of capital and the attendant system that follows.

Appleby observes in reading Karl Marx how the philosopher’s emphasis on coercion figured prominently in the transformation to capitalism in England and that a “new class of men who coalesced around their shared interest in production, especially their need to organize laboring people into new work patterns’ had swiftly replaced the old order of things.”[4] Although Appleby’s notes compelling ideas in both Smith and Marx’s analysis of economics she is most drawn to Max Weber’s emphasis of how religion particularly the Protestant Reformation, ushered in a morality and rationality that galvanized people to the world of work and transformed their habits. Appleby also notes Weber’s “emphasis on contingency and unintended consequences in the formation of capitalism as well as his identifying the pivotal roles that cultural and intellectual traits played in its emergence which influenced her framing of capitalism in history. It is understandable then that Weber’s influence shows in Appleby’s definition of capitalism:

“Capitalism is a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit.”[5]

The culture of capitalism that Appleby alludes to varies across nations. The transformation which capitalist economies wrought affected infrastructural growth specific to industry resources within nation states. Historically the cultivation and extraction of certain commodities such as sugar, cocoa and tea for European consumers resulted in the transatlantic slave system- as well as the “inducement to disparage Africans” as deserving of perpetual bondage.[6]  The same Europe that participated in the slave trade, Appleby writes, became sharper under the grindstone of success, but also was a culture that nurtured natural rights, democracy and humanitarian sensibility.[7] Thus Appleby demonstrates that the culture of capitalism is not a formulaic thing, the vicissitudes of capital allow for dehumanization of subjects historically considered fungible such as enslaved captives, but also had its moment of “enlightened thinking” in the discourses of intellectual thought.

In Appleby’s closing thoughts, she reminds that capitalism is a set of practices which people pursue in the marketplace while calling attention to the tensions associated with capitalism that suggest problems: the relationship between capitalism and democracy and capitalism and equality.[8] In the current age, these tensions could not be more apparent.

[1] Joyce Appleby, The relentless revolution: a history of capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).4

[2] Ibid,12

[3] Ibid,14

[4] Ibid,16-18

[5] Ibid,18

[6] Ibid 134

[7] Ibid, 162

[8] Ibid,434


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