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The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

Author(s):Appleby, Joyce
Reviewer(s):Hohenberg, Paul M.

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Published by EH.NET (June 2010)

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism.? New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. xii + 494 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-393-06894-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul M. Hohenberg, Department of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


Someone who sets out to write a book on a very large subject, in the present case the economic development of the West and the world since 1600 or so, faces daunting challenges.? Without a predetermined point of view to serve as a selection device, superficiality is unavoidable.? Yet trying to force the cussed diversity of the past into too rigid a format almost guarantees a strained and unbalanced narrative.

Joyce Appleby?s project must surmount additional hurdles.? She is a distinguished historian and a fine writer, but much of the subject she has undertaken here lies outside her previous areas of scholarship.? Moreover, compared to most treatments of the same theme by economic historians, she feels the need to expand in several directions.? To begin with, she rightly extends the treatment to cover much of the world in order to keep up with the expansion of Western action and influence, and the spread of modern economic growth.? Much attention throughout focuses on the impact of Western development on those, within the Atlantic realm and beyond it, who paid much of the price — from slaves, women, factory workers, and people displaced by economic change, to whole populations and cultures shoved aside or buried under by the ?relentless revolution.??? Conceptually too, the view is broader than is typical, since Appleby insists on the cultural determinants of economic change.? Finally, she boldly raises the banner of Capitalism, notwithstanding that many economic historians have found the term slippery and troublesome to use as a central theme.? ?Nailing Jell-o to a wall? comes to mind.? Is the essence of capitalism free markets; secure property rights; individual enterprise; innovation; capital accumulation; commodifying labor; openness to change; exchange value as the sole measure of worth?? Of course, one could go on.

Given all this, one must grant that the book is something of a tour de force.? The author?s prodigious labors and skill in reading and writing make it more readable and rich in detail than one would expect from a work of such scope and of reasonable length.? Nonetheless, I confess that I found myself reminded, perhaps unfairly, of what Samuel Johnson said of dancing dogs and lady preachers, namely that even if it is not done well one is surprised to find it done at all. In this case, it is done quite well.? Why, then, is my gut reaction not more positive?

Politics and technology fill many pages, yet Appleby insists that capitalism is above all a matter of culture.? (I might almost say ?mentalit?? although the Annales school remains outside the author?s ken.) For this reason, she chooses Max Weber over both Adam Smith and Karl Marx as the prophet of Capitalism.? She situates the decisive mental turn that produced capitalism in the political upheavals that swept England between 1640 and the Glorious Revolution.? Having previously written on English economic thought in this period, she argues that England emerged from the time of troubles with at least some share of power in the hands of people who viewed economic activity as legitimate and not as demeaning or morally suspect.? Furthermore, economic calculation and forward-thinking action had become relatively pervasive on the part of producers and even of consumers.? Institutions favorable to economic development grew out of the changed attitudes, while progress in agriculture and the expansion of commerce played important supporting roles as necessary conditions for sustained expansion.

With the industrial revolution underway, the new spirit of inquiry having hatched scientific discoveries as well as the familiar ?wave of gadgets,? the rest was a matter of diffusion and imitation and of leapfrogging in later waves of technological change.? Most attention in the next phase centers on the U.S. and secondarily on Germany.? In the later nineteenth century, the subject of imperialism gets a good airing.? As with slave-worked plantation agriculture earlier, Appleby tries hard to bring the Western land grab in Africa and elsewhere under the umbrella of capitalism, but to this reader less than convincingly.? In fact, nineteenth century imperialism, like the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, owes more to militant nationalism, in my view, than to capitalism.? The chapter title, ?rulers as capitalists,? is clever but does not add greatly to the force of the argument.? This is not to deny that the colonial powers strove to turn a profit from their ventures, but that falls short of making profit the dominant motive for the last great expansion overseas.

Appleby manages to devote fully a hundred pages to the period since the end of fast postwar growth, say from 1973 on.? All the expected bases are touched, from the emerging economies of Asia to the explosion in information technology and the recent (current?) financial crisis.? While many crisp set pieces here (as elsewhere) enliven the account, Appleby has little new to add, and I would have wished that the space had been devoted to more detailed and nuanced treatment of the earlier material, some of which flew by like the near landscape from a high-speed European train.? A botched reference to J. de Vries? industrious revolution, a single dismissive reference to D. Landes and none to F. Braudel, and almost nothing on pre-factory industry seems to me to leave out too much.?? There is also, in my view, too great an emphasis on nation states as units of analysis, and too little on the role of cities and regions.

Perhaps I am underestimating the appeal this book might have for, say, a history undergraduate or a general reader looking for a survey and preferring a literate narrative to an account filled with tables and graphs (there are none).? But for the economic historian, despite pithy accounts of particular episodes, the stress on the overly familiar and the inability to engage closely with the hard questions causes the book to fall a bit short.?


Paul Hohenberg, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is past president of the Economic History Association.? The book he co-wrote with Lynn Hollen Lees, The Making of Urban Europe, 1000-1994 (Harvard University Press, 1995), recently appeared in a Chinese edition.

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII