The idea that it’s harder to write at length than concisely is so familiar that it has become a cliché, but it is surely true that if writing a history of capitalism then number of pages could be a help rather than a hindrance. Historian Jürgen Kocka has written [amazon_link id=”069116522X” target=”_blank” ]Capitalism: A Short History[/amazon_link] at 169 pages. What’s more, it spans the centuries from China during the Han Dynasty through the Arab empire and the European Middle Ages to global financial capitalism today.
[amazon_image id=”069116522X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Capitalism: A Short History[/amazon_image]
The point of the book is stated most clearly in the very last paragraph:
“Every era, every region and every civilization gets the capitalism it deserves. Currently, considered alternatives to capitalism are hard to identify. But within capitalism, very different variants and alternatives can be observes and even more of them can be imagined. It is their development that matters. The reform of capitalism is a permanent task. In this the critique of capitalism plays a central role.”
The unstated aim of the book, I think, is to address the critics – generally speaking, these are the people who talk about ‘capitalism’, whereas capitalists talk about ‘the economy’, or something else. Kocha seems to me to be saying that a system of exchange based on markets is deeply embedded in human society and should be regarded as reformable but essential. He argues that capitalism is linked to financial innovation and therefore long pre-dates industrialisation, and one should not conflate the two. Double entry book-keeping, promissory notes, futures trading were all key for the formation of capitalism. And this financial development was closely linked to state formation.
Kocha therefore disagrees with the Marxist line that production and the organization of work are intrinsic to the definition of capitalism – although he accepts that, “Preindustrial commercial traditions of capitalism, wherever they persisted, significantly promoted the breakthrough to industrialization.”
If you’re neither a Marxist not a critic of capitalism in general (as opposed to some of its specifics today), this is a mildly interesting debate but not one to affect the blood pressure in either direction. On the other hand, there are some nice insights, and it is after all a short book, ideal for a train journey or flight. Describing the capitalism we would like to deserve would take rather more pages.