The non-history of capitalism

in Historical Materialism
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Abstract

Since historians first began explaining the emergence of capitalism, there has scarcely existed an explanation that did not begin by assuming the very thing that needed to be explained. Almost without exception, accounts of the origin of capitalism have been fundamentally circular: they have assumed the prior existence of capitalism in order to explain its coming into being. My intention here is to sketch a kind of potted history of these question — begging explanations and to consider their implications. I shall start with what has been called the ‘commercialisation model’, which has its origins in classical political economy and Enlightenment conceptions of progress. This model is arguably still the dominant one, even among its harshest critics, including both the demographic explanations that claim to have displaced the commercialisation model, and also most Marxist accounts, from the transition debate which started in the ‘50s until today. But there does now exist an important alternative account, and I shall end by considering that too.

The non-history of capitalism

in Historical Materialism

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