Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is a book about 'The History of Capitalism' dull?

I was discussing my latest read Joyce Appleby's The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism with my company’s CEO when he said, “I could never read a book like that. It sounds so dull. How many pages is it? I hope the author included a lot of charts and graphs.”

Appleby’s book which is 436 pages long is not a typical history book. She approaches capitalism as an extension of culture unique to a particular time and place rather than a description of historical economic facts. Her argument is: without a supporting culture, capitalism cannot thrive. She found the true catalyst of capitalism to be the agrarian revolution that occurred in England in the 17th century. Innovations like crop rotation and the private enclosure of public lands resulted in a commercializing of agriculture. This took workers off the farm freeing the labor pool to pursue other endeavors culminating in the industrial revolution.

An important insight she makes is that capitalism manifests differently in different places and cultures. She describes how Germany and the United States overtook England’s capitalist lead in the 19th century, then goes on to describe capitalism’s manifestations in other countries including Japan, Russia, India and China. It is interesting to see how the politics of totalitarian communism and democratic pluralism led to very different forms of capitalist integration.

Appleby, who is a historian at UCLA, writes:
Teaching is a great revealer of ones ignorance. Everything seems to fit together while one is taking notes from someone else’s lecture. When the task of making sense of the past falls on you, gaps and non sequiturs stand out like hazard lights.
Filling in the gaps and non sequiturs of my inept history education is precisely what I enjoyed about this book. Appleby’s chapters describing the rise of capitalism in the 18th and early 19th centuries were riveting.* Thus, I am sorry to say I found the final chapters of the book to be disjointed and I hate to say it down right dull. Reading the last 100 pages which discussed modern day capitalism was a real struggle. Appleby whose main premise I think is “Capitalism today needs to find the right balance to survive” can’t seem to get her point across.**

*Also interesting were the reasons why capitalism never flourished in countries such as France. France like England and the Netherlands had sent out explorers to the New World fast on the heels of the Spanish. At that time France had the largest European army and grandest royal court. So why did they fall behind? The effects of France’s backward agriculture and the special perks Kings awarded favorites, such as the right to charge a fee to cross a bridge. The holder of this privilege could bequeath it to his heirs. Over time, tolls for roads, bridges, canals and towpaths accumulated, making it slow and costly to ship food from region to region. In a country as climatically diverse and large as France, harvest failures would not occur everywhere, but the fact that there was food elsewhere in the land didn’t help the hungry, because distribution was clogged by these seigniorial privileges. (pgs. 50-51)

** If you’ve read the book and came to a different conclusion I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share.

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