Highlights from The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View By Ellen Meiksins Wood

Capitalism defined…Above all, it is a system in which the bulk of society’s work is done by propertyless labourers who are obliged to sell their labour-power in exchange for a wage in order to gain access to the means of life and of labour itself. In the process of supplying the needs and wants of society, workers are at the same time and inseparably creating profits for those who buy their labour-power. In fact, the production of goods and services is subordinate to the production of capital and capitalist profit. The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital. | Location: 72

Even those who most emphatically insist on the system’s roots in human nature and its natural continuity with age-old human practices would not claim that it really existed before the early modern period, and then only in Western Europe. They may see bits of it in earlier periods, or detect its beginnings in the Middle Ages as a looming threat to a declining feudalism but still constrained by feudal restrictions, or they may say that it began with the expansion of trade or with voyages of discovery – with, say, Columbus’s explorations at the end of the fifteenth century. | Location: 76

(Call this) ‘proto-capitalism’, but few would say that the capitalist system existed in earnest before the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and some would place it as late as the eighteenth, or perhaps even the nineteenth, when it matured into its industrial form. Yet, paradoxically, historical accounts of how this system came into being have typically treated it as the natural realization of ever-present tendencies.  | Location: 100

The effect of these explanations is to stress the continuity between non-capitalist and capitalist societies, and to deny or disguise the specificity of capitalism. Exchange has existed more or less forever, and it seems that the capitalist market is just more of the same. In this kind of argument, because capitalism’s specific and unique need constantly to revolutionize the forces of production is just an extension and an acceleration of universal and transhistorical, almost natural, tendencies, industrialization is the inevitable outcome of humanity’s most basic inclinations. So the lineage of capitalism passes naturally from the earliest Babylonian merchant through the medieval burgher to the early modern bourgeois and finally to the industrial capitalist. | Location: 110

Central to these conventional accounts of history are certain assumptions, explicit or implicit, about human nature and about how human beings will behave, if only given the chance. They will, so the story goes, always avail themselves of the opportunity to maximize profit through acts of exchange, and in order to realize that natural inclination, they will always find ways of improving the organization and instruments of work in order to enhance the productivity of labour.


In the classic model, then, capitalism is an opportunity to be taken, wherever and whenever possible. This notion of opportunity is absolutely critical to the conventional understanding of the capitalist system | Location: 117

Almost every definition of market in the dictionary connotes an opportunity: as a concrete locale or institution, a market is a place where opportunities exist to buy and sell; as an abstraction, a market is the possibility of sale. Goods ‘find a market’, and we say there is a market for a service or commodity when there is a demand for it, which means it can and will be sold. Markets are ‘opened’ to those who want to sell. The market represents ‘conditions as regards, opportunity for, buying and selling’  | Location: 129

What may not always be so clear, even in socialist accounts of the market, is that the distinctive and dominant characteristic of the capitalist market is not opportunity or choice but, on the contrary, compulsion. Material life and social reproduction in capitalism are universally mediated by the market, so that all individuals must in one way or another enter into market relations in order to gain access to the means of life. This unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general. Location: 166

(As the regular story goes) With or without a natural inclination to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ (in Adam Smith’s famous formulation), rationally self-interested individuals have been engaging in acts of exchange since the dawn of history. These acts became increasingly specialized with an evolving division of labour, which was also accompanied by technical improvements in the instruments of production. Improvements in productivity, in many of these explanations, may in fact have been the primary purpose of the increasingly specialized division of labour, so that there tends to be a close connection between these accounts of commercial development and a kind of technological determinism. | Location: 171

Capitalism or ‘commercial society’, the highest stage of progress, represents a maturation of age-old commercial practices (together with technical advances) and their liberation from political and cultural constraints. Far from recognizing that the market became capitalist when it became compulsory, these accounts suggest that capitalism emerged when the market was liberated from age-old constraints and when, for one reason or another, opportunities for trade expanded. In these accounts, capitalism represents not so much a qualitative break from earlier forms as a massive quantitative increase: an expansion of markets and the growing commercialization of economic life. | Location: 190

All these explanations have in common certain assumptions about the continuity of trade and markets, from their earliest manifestations in exchange to their maturity in modern industrial capitalism. The age-old practice of commercial profit-taking in the form of ‘buying cheap and selling dear’ is not, in these accounts, fundamentally different from capitalist exchange and accumulation through the appropriation of surplus value. The origin of capitalism or ‘commercial society’, then, does not in this model represent a major social transformation so much as a quantitative increment.  | Location: 194

(The market just) becomes more widespread and encompasses ever more commodities. It also brings with it ever more wealth – and here, in classical political economy, we encounter the notion that commerce and the economic rationality that it engenders – the prudence and frugality of rational economic actors engaged in commercial transactions – encourages the accumulation of sufficient wealth to permit investment. This ‘previous’ or ‘primitive’ accumulation, when it reaches a critical mass, brings commercialization to fruition in a mature ‘commercial society’.  | Location: 200

There also tends to be another common theme in these histories of capitalism: the bourgeois as agent of progress. We have become so used to the identification of bourgeois with capitalist that the presuppositions secreted in this conflation have become invisible to us. The burgher or bourgeois is, by definition, a town-dweller. Beyond that, specifically in its French form, the word was once conventionally used to mean nothing more than someone of non-noble status who, while he worked for a living, did not generally dirty his hands and used his mind more than his body in his work. That old usage tells us nothing about capitalism, and is likely to refer to a professional, an officeholder, or an intellectual no less than to a merchant.  | Location: 207

In the slippage from town-dweller to capitalist via the merchant that occurs in the later uses of ‘bourgeois’, we can follow the logic of the commercialization model: the ancient town-dweller gives way to the medieval burgher, who in turn develops seamlessly into the modern capitalist. As a famous historian has sardonically described this process, history is the perennial rise of the middle classes.  | Location: 215

(As it is presented) The change is rather in what happens to the forces and institutions – political, legal, cultural, and ideological, as well as technological – that have impeded the natural evolution of trade and the maturation of markets. If anything, in these models it is feudalism that represents the real historic rupture, interrupting the natural development of commercial society. The resumption of commercial development, beginning in the interstices of feudalism and then breaking through its constraints, is treated as a major change in the history of Europe, but it appears as a resumption of a historical process that was temporarily – if drastically and for a rather long time – deflected. | Location: 222

But if feudalism had derailed the progress of commercial society, according to these explanations, the intrinsic logic of the market never significantly changed. From the beginning, it involved rationally self-interested individuals maximizing their utilities by selling goods for profit whenever the opportunity presented itself. More particularly, it involved an increasing division of labour and specialization, requiring ever more elaborate networks of trade, and, above all, ever-improving productive techniques to cut costs and enhance commercial profits. This logic could in various ways be thwarted, but… (nevertheless continued) | Location: 230

always bound eventually to produce industrial capitalism, if left free to work out its natural logic. In other words, the commercialization model made no acknowledgement of imperatives specific to capitalism, of the specific ways in which the market operates in capitalism, of its specific laws of motion that uniquely compel people to enter the market, to reinvest surpluses and to produce ‘efficiently’ by improving labour productivity – the laws of competition, profit-maximization, and capital accumulation. It follows that adherents of this model saw no need to explain the specific social property relations and the specific mode of exploitation that determine these specific laws of motion. | Location: 241

There is, of course, a major paradox here. The market was supposed to be an arena of choice, and ‘commercial society’ the perfection of freedom. Yet this conception of the market seems to rule out human freedom. It has tended to be associated with a theory of history in which modern capitalism is the outcome of an almost natural and inevitable process, following certain universal, transhistorical, and immutable laws. The operation of these laws can, at least temporarily, be thwarted, but not without great cost. Its end product, the ‘free’ market, is an impersonal mechanism that can to some extent be controlled and regulated, but that cannot finally be thwarted without all the dangers – and the futility – entailed by any attempt to violate the laws of nature.  | Location: 1,059

European feudalism in Europe was internally diverse, and it produced several different outcomes, only one of which was capitalism. It is not just a matter of different rates of ‘combined and uneven development’ or even of different transitional phases. The autonomous city-states that prospered in medieval and Renaissance Italy, for example, or the absolutist state in France, were distinct formations, each with its own internal logic of process that need not have given rise to capitalism. Where and when they did issue in capitalism, it was only as they came within the orbit of an already existing capitalist system and the competitive pressures it was able to impose on its political, military, or commercial rivals. No entry into the capitalist economy could thereafter be the same as earlier ones, as they all became subject to a larger and increasingly international capitalist system. | Location: 1,082

There is much that is questionable in these assumptions about the natural connection between cities and capitalism, but above all the tendency to naturalize capitalism, to disguise its distinctiveness as a historically specific social form with a beginning and, potentially, an end. The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has, as we have seen, generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear a more or less automatic consequence of practices as old as human history, or even the consequence of a ‘natural’ inclination, in Adam Smith’s words, to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’.  | Location: 1,086

There have, throughout history, been a great many towns and a great deal of trade that never gave rise to capitalism. For that matter, there have been elaborate urban settlements – such as the temple cities of ancient empires – that have not been commercial centres. More particularly, there have been societies with advanced urban cultures, highly developed trading systems, and far-flung commercial networks that have made ample use of market opportunities but have not systematically experienced what we have been calling market imperatives. These commercial powers have often produced a rich material and cultural infrastructure, far in advance of developments in the European backwater that first gave rise to capitalism.  | Location: 1,093

These great civilizations were not systematically subjected to the pressures of competitive production and profit-maximization, the compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and the relentless need to improve labour-productivity associated with capitalism.  | Location: 2,834

The emergence of capitalism is difficult to explain precisely because it bears no relation to prior superiority or more advanced development in commercial sophistication, science and technology, or ‘primitive accumulation’ in the classical sense of material wealth. Nor was the autonomy of cities the decisive factor. Free urban communes in Europe may have provided fertile ground for trade, prosperous burghers, and urban patriciates, but there is no obvious correlation between the success of such autonomous commercial centres and the rise of capitalism. Vastly successful commercial city-states like Florence did not give rise to capitalism | Location: 1,098

Capitalism did emerge in England, whose cities, in the context of a precociously centralized monarchical state, were arguably among the least autonomous in Europe. The critical factor in the divergence of capitalism from all other forms of ‘commercial society’ was the development of certain social property relations that generated market imperatives and capitalist ‘laws of motion’, which imposed themselves on production.  | Location: 1,103

The system’s contradictions have always gone far beyond the vagaries of economic cycles. We need only consider the most obvious effects of English agrarian capitalism: the conditions for material prosperity existed in early modern England in historically unprecedented ways, yet those conditions were achieved at the cost of widespread dispossession and intense exploitation. These new conditions also established the foundation and seeds for new and more effective forms of colonial expansion and imperialism in search of new markets, labour forces, and resources.  | Location: 2,838

There are the corollaries of ‘improvement’: productivity and the ability to feed a vast population set against the subordination of all other considerations to the imperatives of profit. This means, among other things, that people who could be fed are often left to starve. There is, in general, a great disparity between the productive capacities of capitalism and the quality of life it delivers. The ethic of ‘improvement’ in its original sense, in which production is inseparable from profit, is also the ethic of exploitation, poverty, and homelessness. Irresponsible land use and environmental destruction are also consequences of the ethic.  | Location: 2,844

Capitalism was born at the very core of human life, in the interaction with nature on which life itself depends, and the transformation of that interaction by agrarian capitalism revealed the inherently destructive impulses of a system in which the very fundamentals of existence are subjected to the requirements of profit. In other words, the origin of capitalism revealed the essential secret of capitalism. The expansion regularly reproduced effects it had at the beginning | Location: 2,857… | Location: 2,848

Dispossession, extinction of customary property rights, the imposition of market imperatives, and environmental destruction. These processes have extended their reach from the relations between exploiting and exploited classes to the relations between imperialist and subordinate countries. But if the destructive effects of capitalism have constantly reproduced themselves, its positive effects have not been nearly as consistent since the system’s moment of origin. Once capitalism was established in one country, once it began to impose…| Location: 2,853

The existence of one capitalist society thereafter transformed all others, and the subsequent expansion of capitalist imperatives constantly changed the caonditions of economic development. There is also a more general lesson to be drawn from the experience of English agrarian capitalism. Once market imperatives set the terms of social reproduction, all economic actors – both appropriators and producers, even if they remain in possession, or indeed outright ownership, of the means of production are subject to the demands of increasing competition, increasing productivity, capital accumulation and the intense exploitation of labor. | Location: 2,857

Even the absence of a division between appropriators and producers is no guarantee of immunity. Once the market is established as an economic ‘discipline’ or ‘regulator’, once economic actors become market-dependent for the conditions of their own reproduction, even workers who own the means of production, individually or collectively, will be obliged to respond to the market’s imperatives – to compete and accumulate, to let ‘uncompetitive’ enterprises and their workers go, and to exploit themselves. | Location: 2,862

Wherever market imperatives regulate the economy and govern social reproduction, there will be no escape from exploitation. There can, in other words, be no such thing as a truly ‘social’ or democratic market, much less market socialism… | Location: 2,866

When people warned that the market means not only supermarkets with vast quantities and varieties of consumer goods but also unemployment, poverty, environmental destruction, the degradation of public services and culture, the reply would be, ‘Yes, of course, but that’s not what we mean by the market.’ The idea was that you could pick and choose what you want from the self-regulating market. The market can act as a regulator of the economy just enough to guarantee some rationality, some correspondence between what people want and what is produced. The market can act as a signal, a source of information, a form of communication between producers and consumers, and it can guarantee that useless or inefficient enterprises will shape up or be winnowed out.  We can dispense with its nastier side. | Location: 2,878

But we cannot refuse to confront the implications of the one irreducible condition without which the market cannot act as an economic discipline: the market dependence of direct producers, and specifically its most extreme form, the commodification of labour-power – a condition that places the strictest limits on the ‘socialization’ of the market and its capacity to assume a human face.  | Location: 2,882

Today it is more obvious than ever that the imperatives of the market will not allow capital to prosper without depressing the conditions of great multitudes of people and degrading the environment throughout the world. We have now reached the point where the destructive effects of capitalism are outstripping its material gains. No ‘developing’ economy setting out on the capitalist road today, for example, is likely to achieve even the contradictory development that England underwent.  | Location: 2,885

With the pressures of competition, accumulation, and exploitation imposed by more developed capitalist economies, and with the inevitable crises of overcapacity engendered by capitalist competition, the attempt to achieve material prosperity according to capitalist principles is increasingly likely to bring with it the negative side of the capitalist contradiction, its dispossession and destruction, more than its material benefits – certainly for the vast majority. There is, if anything a growing disparity between the material capacities created by capitalism and the quality of life it can deliver .… | Location: 2,890

Visible not only in the growing gap between rich and poor but also, for instance, in the deterioration of public services in the very countries – such as the US and UK – where the principles of the capitalist market are most uninhibited. It is true that parts of Continental Europe enjoy better public services, to say nothing of their often more congenial urban environments. But these advantages (which are, in any case, at growing risk) owe far more to pre-capitalist burgher cultures or even the legacy of absolutism than to the logic of capitalism. | Location: 2,894

Capitalism is also incapable of promoting sustainable development, not because it encourages technological advances that are capable of straining the earth’s resources but because the purpose of capitalist production is exchange value not use value, profit not people. This produces, on the one hand, massive waste and, on the other, inadequate provision of basic necessities, such as affordable housing. Capitalism can certainly produce and even profit from energy-efficient technologies, but its own inherent logic systematically prohibits their sustainable utilization. Just as the requirements of profit and capital accumulation inevitably drive production beyond consumption and beyond limits of use, they also compel destruction long before the possibilities of use are exhausted. | Location: 2,899

Whatever capitalism may do to enable the efficient use of resources, its own imperatives will always drive it further. Without constantly breaching the limits of conservation, without constantly moving forward the boundaries of waste and destruction, there can be no capital accumulation. As capitalism spreads more widely and penetrates more deeply into every aspect of social life and the natural environment, its contradictions are increasingly escaping all our efforts to control them.