Joyce Appleby begins her The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism with a discussion of the definition of her subject. Is capitalism an expression of a basic, immutable human nature (Smith: everyone exerts “uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort . . . to better his condition”)? Is it exploitation, the seizure of the means of production from farmers by the new lords of production, and the confinement of the rest to the status of wage laborers (Marx)?
Neither. Following Weber more than Smith or Marx, Appleby argues that capitalism is not the natural form of human enterprise, nor fundamentally as an economic system, but a “cultural system” that took form in seventeenth-century England. Through an thorough examination of pamphlet literature of that period, she was able to trace the development of new views of human nature, which amounted to a shift from Calvinist man to economic man. Capitalism expanded as England did (she nicely notes that for much of the world capitalism, like English, is a second language).
She describes the cultural system of capitalism this way:
“Capitalism is a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit. Profit seeking usually promotes production of efficiencies like the division of labor, economies of size, specialization, the expansion of the market for one’s good, and, above all, innovation. Because capitalism is a cultural system and not simply an economic one, it cannot be explained by material factors alone.”
Appleby is not the first to notice that capitalism is a “relentless revolution,” and that it has been a solvent of traditional ways and systems throughout the world. She is aware of the “disastrous adventures and human malevolence that this wealth-generating system has made possible and sometimes actually encouraged.” But, she adds, exploitation and injustice is not unique to a capitalist system. What is unique is its unprecedented capacity to generate new wealth.