Capitalism  

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"If at age 20 you are not a Communist then you have no heart. If at age 30 you are not a Capitalist then you have no brains." [...]


"Enter the London Stock Exchange, that place more respectable than many a court. You will see the deputies of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt; there, the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican honors the Quaker's promise. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others to drink; this one goes to be baptized . . ; that one has his foreskin cut off and the Hebrew words mumbled over the child which he does not understand; others go to their church to await the inspiration of God, their hats on their heads, and all are content" --Voltaire's Letters on the English (tr. unidentified)

Pyramid of Capitalist System, anonymous American cartoon (1911)
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Pyramid of Capitalist System, anonymous American cartoon (1911)
This page Capitalism is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
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This page Capitalism is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Capitalism generally refers to an economic system in which the means of production are all or mostly privately owned.

Contents

History

Economic trade for profit has existed since at least the second millennium BC. However, capitalism in its modern form is usually traced to the emergence of agrarian capitalism and mercantilism of the Early Modern era.

Agrarian capitalism

The economic foundations of the feudal agricultural system began to shift substantially in 16th century England; the manorial system had broken down by this time, and land began to be concentrated in the hands of fewer landlords with increasingly large estates. Instead of a serf-based system of labor, workers were increasingly being employed as part of a broader and expanding money economy. The system put pressure on both the landlords and the tenants to increase the productivity of the agriculture to make profit; the weakened coercive power of the aristocracy to extract peasant surpluses encouraged them to try out better methods, and the tenants also had incentive to improve their methods, in order to flourish in an increasingly competitive labor market. Terms of rent for the land were becoming subject to economic market forces rather than the previous stagnant system of custom and feudal obligation.

By the early 17th-century, England was a centralized state, in which much of the feudal order of Medieval Europe had been swept away. This centralization was strengthened by a good system of roads and a disproportionately large capital city, London. The capital acted as a central market hub for the entire country, creating a very large internal market for goods, instead of the fragmented feudal holdings that prevailed in most parts of the Continent.

Mercantilism

The economic doctrine that held sway between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries is commonly described as mercantilism This period, the Age of Discovery, was associated with the geographic exploration of foreign lands by merchant traders, especially from England and the Low Countries. Mercantilism was a system of trade for profit, although commodities were still largely produced by non-capitalist production methods. Most scholars consider the era of merchant capitalism and mercantilism as the origin of modern capitalism, although Karl Polanyi argued that the hallmark of capitalism is the establishment of generalized markets for what he referred to as the "fictitious commodities": land, labor, and money. Accordingly, he argued that "not until 1834 was a competitive labor market established in England, hence industrial capitalism as a social system cannot be said to have existed before that date."

England began a large-scale and integrative approach to mercantilism during the Elizabethan Era (1558–1603). A systematic and coherent explanation of balance of trade was made public through Thomas Mun's argument England's Treasure by Forraign Trade, or the Balance of our Forraign Trade is The Rule of Our Treasure. It was written in the 1620s and published in 1664.

Among the major tenets of mercantilist theory was bullionism, a doctrine stressing the importance of accumulating precious metals. Mercantilists argued that a state should export more goods than it imported so that foreigners would have to pay the difference in precious metals. Mercantilists argued that only raw materials that could not be extracted at home should be imported; and promoted government subsidies, such as the granting of monopolies and protective tariffs, which mercantilists thought were necessary to encourage home production of manufactured goods.

European merchants, backed by state controls, subsidies, and monopolies, made most of their profits from the buying and selling of goods. In the words of Francis Bacon, the purpose of mercantilism was "the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufacturers; the banishing of idleness; the repressing of waste and excess by sumptuary laws; the improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulation of prices ..."

The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company inaugurated an expansive era of commerce and trade. These companies were characterized by their colonial and expansionary powers given to them by nation-states. During this era, merchants, who had traded under the previous stage of mercantilism, invested capital in the East India Companies and other colonies, seeking a return on investment.

Industrial capitalism

A new group of economic theorists, led by David Hume and Adam Smith, in the mid-18th century, challenged fundamental mercantilist doctrines such as the belief that the amount of the world's wealth remained constant and that a state could only increase its wealth at the expense of another state.

During the Industrial Revolution, the industrialist replaced the merchant as a dominant factor in the capitalist system and affected the decline of the traditional handicraft skills of artisans, guilds, and journeymen. Also during this period, the surplus generated by the rise of commercial agriculture encouraged increased mechanization of agriculture. Industrial capitalism marked the development of the factory system of manufacturing, characterized by a complex division of labor between and within work process and the routine of work tasks; and finally established the global domination of the capitalist mode of production.

Britain also abandoned its protectionist policy, as embraced by mercantilism. In the 19th century, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who based their beliefs on the Manchester School, initiated a movement to lower tariffs. In the 1840s, Britain adopted a less protectionist policy, with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts. Britain reduced tariffs and quotas, in line with David Ricardo's advocacy for free trade.

Globalization

Industrialization allowed cheap production of household items using economies of scale, while rapid population growth created sustained demand for commodities. Globalization in this period was decisively shaped by nineteenth-century imperialism. After the First and Second Opium Wars and the completion of British conquest of India, vast populations of these regions became ready consumers of European exports. It was in this period that areas of sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific islands were incorporated into the world system. Meanwhile, the conquest of new parts of the globe, notably sub-Saharan Africa, by Europeans yielded valuable natural resources such as rubber, diamonds and coal and helped fuel trade and investment between the European imperial powers, their colonies, and the United States.

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea, the various products of the whole earth, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep. Militarism and imperialism of racial and cultural rivalries were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper. What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man was that age which came to an end in August 1914.

The global financial system was mainly tied to the gold standard in this period. The United Kingdom first formally adopted this standard in 1821. Soon to follow was Canada in 1853, Newfoundland in 1865, and the United States and Germany (de jure) in 1873. New technologies, such as the telegraph, the transatlantic cable, the Radiotelephone, the steamship and railway allowed goods and information to move around the world at an unprecedented degree.

Keynesianism and neoliberalism

In the period following the global depression of the 1930s, the state played an increasingly prominent role in the capitalistic system throughout much of the world. The post war era was greatly influenced by Keynesian economic stabilization policies. The postwar boom ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the situation was worsened by the rise of stagflation.

Monetarism, a theoretical alternative to Keynesianism that is more compatible with laissez-faire, gained increasing prominence in the capitalist world, especially under the leadership of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s. Public and political interest began shifting away from the so-called collectivist concerns of Keynes's managed capitalism to a focus on individual choice, called "remarketized capitalism."

Origins


See also





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