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Would anyone be interested in me establishing a history of capitalism[?] article?

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I reverted two changes: first, the capitalism that the article describes developed in the 16th century and after -- when was a capitalist system in place prior? Second, capitalist practices are not derived from feudalism. Slrubenstein

The ancient Mesopotamian states were capitalist, as were Greece and Rome. How is capitalism not derived from feudalism? Is there not a significant relationship between the feudal aristrocracy and the capitalist upperclass? Susan Mason 23:06 Feb 21, 2003 (UTC)

We may be getting into a matter of semantics, but I do not know of any theorist of capitalism who defines it in a way that would include Babylonian city-states, or the Roman Empire. Moreover, there is the opposite of a significant relationship between the Feudal aristocracy and the capitalist elite -- the bourgeois supported the French revolution, initially, and the rise of the House of Commons (along with the decline of the power of the monarchy and the House of Lords) is another example -- in the 18th century the bourgeoisie and the nobility were antagonistic classes. The rise of European capitalism involved a real break from feudal legal and political structures too.

One could -- indeed, I think one should say that all states, including ancient Mesopotamian states, the Greek city-states, and Rome, as well as all current nation-states, are "stratified," that is, divided into unequal socio-economic classes. In this context, you could say that the Feudal aristocracy and the Capitalist elite are similar in that they are at the top of their repsective societies. But how they got to the top, what it means to be at the top, what their values and behaviors are, are quite different. This, at least, is what I have gathered from most of the scholarly works I have read -- if there is a body of scholarship you know of that makes a different article, it should by all means by summarized in the article, Slrubenstein

Its definitely a matter of semantics. Define capitalism as having private property, corporate merchant groups, banks and interest rates, foreign trade and balances of trade, surplus and defecits, stocks and insurance, marketplaces and markets, power vaccums and zero-sum games, and you've just described the economy of Shinar some thousands of years ago.

For some the crucial issue is the dominance of a free labor market; for others, it is the items you mention on a global scale. By these criteria I doubt that Shinar counts -- but I think you are making a different, perhaps narrower, but in my opinion especially important point: that many elements of our contemporary economy existed in the distant past. I think that this information, in detail, should be in Wikipedia -- perhaps in this article, or perhaps better in an article on market economies[?] (capitalism being one example but not the only kind). I haven't read any theorist who claims that only "capitalist" economies" have private property, banks, or foreign trade. But if you know of scholarly literature on capitalism or on Shinar that argues that it was capitalist, that should be put in. The important thing here is our NPOV policy -- it isn't what you or I think capitalism is, or how best to characterize SHinar's economy, it is the body of scholarship.

While there is certainly a difference between fedualism and capitalism, this difference being much greater than the difference between mercantilism and capitalism, it is still true that capitalism in following feudalism is thus at least potentially influenced heavily by said feudalism, and is actually quite heavily influenced and derived from said system. In France, many of the older aristocratic manufacturies lasted up until the World War era.

Granted, the French king may have lost some power in France, but many of the local merchants and owners remained in power. The difference between feudalism and capitalism does not so much seem, to me, to be an economic difference, so much as there is a governmental or legalistic difference, that is, modern capitalism tends to be the economic system of republics, rather than monarchies. However, the actual technical details of how the economy works are quite similar.

Well, I am just going by scholars I have read, like Perry Anderson, Maurice Dobb, and Robert Brenner, and also Wallerstein. Who are you referring to? Slrubenstein

As you said, "The rise of European capitalism involved a real break from feudal legal and political structures." Which I agree with, however, as far as the structure of how economics worked, THAT remained much the same, and this is why I say that capitalism is derived from feudalism as a term describing a historical era, and at the same time, capitalism really is much the same thing as both feudalism and mercantilism when viewed SOLELY as an economic phenomenon, which is why I state that capitalism did exist far before it was "institutionalized" in modern Europe. Susan Mason

This view is at variance with the vast majority of scholarship. It's an arguable point of view, but I doubt that many (any?) serious historians would accept it. Two key differences (among many) are that pre-capitalist economies operated within a context that involved a great deal of implied non-cash mutual obligation, and that non-capitalist market economies did not generally allow for mobility between social classes. (This last is not simply a social matter, it has profound implications for economic behaviour as well.) Tannin 23:48 Feb 21, 2003 (UTC)


Instead of defining capitalism as "The economic policies institutionalized during such and such a period", perhaps it would be best to use some more informative definition of capitalism? My understand of capitalism involves some economic system involving private property, wages, corporate merchant groups, banks and interest rates, foreign trade and balances of trade, surplus and defecits, stocks and insurance, marketplaces and markets, etc.

The second part of the article notes how there is much debate as to what the definition of capitalism is. Perhaps we should use something like that as the beginning of the article, rather than immediately declaring that capitalism first appeared around the 1500s. Susan Mason

I think these proposals are worth discussing, but I wouldn't want to act until there was more discussion -- the current introduction was itself the product of a long proces. I have two immediate responses: first, I think the current version's introductory definition is good in that all scholars I know of, across disciplines and the ideological spectrum, agree that corporations privately owning capital, and the labor market, are essential to capitalism. You present a long list and there may be some theorists who use this list to define capitalism, but I know for certain that many scholars would disagree. The article should provide an account of the debate -- but any opening definition should be something that many agree to.

Offhand I think I agree with your second suggestion, except that there is always a horse and cart issue: since many of the debates over what capitalism is are based on different readings of history, it is hard to make sense of these debates unless one already knows some of the history. Still, it's worth thinking about. But it seems to me that the opening of the article makes it very clear what the debates are about already! Slrubenstein


quoting from above from Susan

Its definitely a matter of semantics. Define capitalism as having private property, corporate merchant groups, banks and interest rates, foreign trade and balances of trade, surplus and defecits, stocks and insurance, marketplaces and markets, power vaccums and zero-sum games, and you've just described the economy of Shinar some thousands of years ago.

I would be interested in any references to the economy of the ancient Babylonian and related societies if you have any. You can just enter them here.

I am aware of descriptions of these societies that include strict social stratification based on things other than wealth (including very extensive slavery), and fixed pricing laws for the majoirty of key items involved in the economy - such as land rent, labour, oxen, wheat, etc. I am not aware of any corporate groupings like publicly traded companies. A corporate body that functions like a guild is not the same thing, and a group of merchants along the lines of a modern day partnership is not a coporate body.

All of these things mean that these ancient societies were not capitalist - although they did have some, even many, aspects in common with capitalism. I would be happy to see any references to some part of the ancient Babylonian societies that was more capitalist than what I have seen so far. The capitalist aspects might appear to be more important if you focus on the international (or inter-city-state) aspects of trade, rather than the way most of the people in these societies existed.


Indeed! It was just as capitalist as you describe! Susan Mason

Do you agree that offering of financial incentives was not the predominant method used to control which work most people did? (I think it was one of the methods, but not the predominant one, and it was a method that was often over-ridden by government, and other social forces.)

Do you agree that, trade in ownership of productive organisations was not sufficiently visible, or accounted for, to establish rising share price incentives (or some type of equivalent) as the predominant influence over the operation of those organisations?

If you say yes to both of those, then surely the notion of capital did not have a dominant influence in production, since organisations operated without any strong influence of their capital value over their performance, and motivated people essentially by means other than the use of capital, so how could they be capitalist? That's not to say that no one was making profits, or that no one tried to make profits, or that money wasn't used often, or that some form of business and trade didn't take place. It's just that other things, such as fear of the sword, birth-given social position, religous beliefs, or whatever, played a greater role in the interactions between people.


I agree with Susan that it would be nice to have a more descriptive definition of capitalism at the start rather than just saying when and where it happened, but I can see the problems with previous attempts (including my own ones). But here's another try.

Capitalism is the use of, or belief in, economic systems in which monetary valuations of products, factors of production, and ownership of productive organisations have a predominant influence over the organisation of production.

It seems to me that this definition works for all the various uses of the word that I can think of at the moment. If nobody points out anything wrong with it, then I might put it in the article.

Well, I for one do not find this a useful definition -- it amounts to saying that capitalism is a system in which production dinfluences production. I do not think "money" is a defining factor. In any event, the article opens with a very clear description of what capitalism is -- I do not see a need for another definition. Slrubenstein

It doesn't say that production influences production, it says that monetary valuations influence the organisation of production - I suppose I had the profit motive in mind here. But I take your point about money - I guess I can imagine capitalism in which all transactions are bartered, although it would be paralysingly inefficient without some type of "credit points" system very similar to money. Anyway, here's the same thing with money removed.

Capitalism is the use of, or belief in, economic systems in which the exchange values of products, factors of production, and ownership of productive organisations have a predominant influence over the organisation of production.

And maybe to make clearer the nature of the influence that these exchange values have, there should be some mention of profit incentives, as follows.

Capitalism is the use of, or belief in, economic systems in which the exchange values of products, factors of production, and ownership of productive organisations is encouraged or allowed to have a predominant influence over the organisation of production through an incentive to profit.

So what's wrong now?

What is wrong is that this represents a particular point of view -- and there is nothing wrong with that, except the introduction to the article as it stands explains that there is theoretical debvate over how to define capitalism. My suggestion is this: instead of trying to come up with one brief definition of capitalism that everyone will accept (which won't happen as there are so many debates), find the place in the article that covers the debate over what capitalism is -- right now it is woefully abbreviated; I think it should cover the debates between Sweezy and Dobb, Frank and Brenner, as well as the positions of Freidman and others. Could you situate your definition in terms of one of these debates, and develop it?

What is wrong with the current introduction and the definition it gives right now? Slrubenstein

I think that the current start of the article spends more time talking about the context of capitalism rather than capitalism - by context I mean, where it happened, when it happened, and what came before it, etc. These things should be mentioned somewhere near the start, but I think saying what it is should be the prime thing to say right off.

Then, the bits at the start that do say what it is are a particular point of view anyway. They are qualified by the word "especially", and the things mentioned are probably as good as most definitions I've seen, so on the whole compared to many sources it's not bad, quite good actually, but still there's no harm in trying for something better. One thing that I see as a small fault in the part that says what capitalism is, is the trade in ownership of companies. Trade in company ownership was important in the historical development of capitalism, and so given that the first sentence is an historical statement saying when capitalism developed, it is important to mention it there, and I think that as it stands in that sentence it is fine because it is talking about the economic systems that developed in the 16th to 19th centuries, and it wouldn't be right to simply remove it. But, there are types of capitalism that don't have trade in company ownership - I'm thinking here of Lenin's state capitalism, and perhaps more importantly post WWII European capitalism in which government ownership of major companies occured quite often. Government ownership didn't completely displace individual ownership, but the ideals behind it did allow for a form of capitalism in which companies weren't traded, but were still valued and managed with a profit motive and accounted for with a view to their capital worth. You can easily argue that the governments did a poor job in using their ownership rights, and that such practices were inefficient or whatever. You can also argue that much of it was motivated by socialist desires, but nevertheless many of the people doing it, and many comentators believed it was a form of capitalism, and that if government ownership did displace private ownership then it still would have been a form of capitalism - because it would ideally function the same, only without the unequal distribution of ownership - the only differnece in these people's minds was that the shareholder was the government, instead of a small number of rich people. So, in short, taking the historical route to introducing capitalism leads I think to too much emphasis on some of the early historical happenings, and this can lead to an inaccurate view of later widespread happenings in the world.

You raise many important points -- thank you! Still, I don't think I agree. Did Lenin really call what he was doing "state capitalism?" I thought the NEP was primarily a tactical response to the difficulties during the Civil War, and in no way represented an embrace of capitalism. And, as you say, many of the post-War developments in Europe are as easily characterized as "socialist" as "state capitalist" which is why I am willing to keep trade in shares of ownership of corporations in the beginning. Let me share with you some history: I personally would not include this in my definition of capitalism (for me, the crux is a labor market). But some time ago there was another contributor who insisted that it was elemental. So in one sense I agree with you -- but my point is, so manh people have their own definitions of capitalism, I just think the first section should be as basic and simple as possible. Otherwise, we will end up with a page long definition of "capitalism." So while I agree that we can always try to improve it, I beg you -- consider the value of keeping the first definition as simple as possible, and also consider the fact that writiing a Wikipedia article is almost always a political process in that it involves compromises between people who feel very strongly about issues. As you say, the question of whether post-war European government ownership is capitalist or socialist is a debate and that debate ought to be covered in the article. But if the question of state ownership is debated, let's leave it out of the opening. Slrubenstein

Yes, Lenin did call what he was doing "state capitalism". Some quotations (emphasis in original):
"While the revolution in Germany is slow in 'coming forth', our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it. Our task is to do this even more thoroughly than Peter the Great hastened the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, and he did not hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting against barbarism."
"The real nature of the New Economic Policy is this -- firstly, the proletarian state has given small producers freedom to trade; and secondly, in respect to the means of production in large-scale industry, the proletarian state is applying a number of principles of what in capitalist economies is called 'state capitalism."
"Experience has proven that we were wrong. It appears that a number of transitional stages were necessary -- state capitalism and socialism -- in order to prepare -- to prepare by many years of effort -- for the transition to communism."
-- bpt 23:56 May 3, 2003 (UTC)


I took out the following bit

"Zero unemployment would indicate that workers never quit to look for a better job, or were laid off because advancing technology reduced demand for their current skill sets. This condition would only occur in a completely static, stagnant economoy."

I never heard of anyone who quit for the purpose of looking for another job - people quit AFTER they have found another job, or they might quit because of some dispute or dislike of their job, and then look for another job, but it would be rare for someone to quit for the purpose of looking for another job. Anyway, the point is that you CAN look for another job while in your current job, and so zero unemployment does not imply a stagnant economy. Secondly, the classical economist's opinion of what happens when demand for your labour is reduced by technology in a pure capitalist economy is that your wages will drop, not that you will be fired. You might then decide to start looking for a better paying job while still working in your current job, or you might just accept the lower wages. In fact the standard economist view is that unemployment is not possible in a sufficiently free market economy, since everyone will be able to find some sort of job if they only lower their wage requirement enough.



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