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  • The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
  • James P. Kraft
The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. By Joyce Appleby. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 494 pp. $29.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Business and economic historians have long acknowledged the pioneering work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born economist who described capitalism as an ever-changing financial system driven by entrepreneurial innovations. The Relentless Revolution, by Joyce Appleby, traces what Schumpeter called the “perennial gale of creative destruction” over the course of nearly five centuries. The book is not only an impressive contribution to historical literature but also a crowning accomplishment to its author’s illustrious career. An emerita professor of history at UCLA, Appleby has headed the American Historical Association as well as the Organization of American Historians, and won the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Prize for distinguished writing in history.

Like Schumpeter, Appleby sees nothing natural or inevitable about the rise of capitalism and agrees that entrepreneurial activity routinely destroyed old ways of doing things while ushering in new periods of business expansion. But this book extends Schumpeter’s work in several important ways. To begin with, it explores business and economic developments since 1950 (the year Schumpeter died), including developments beyond Western Europe and the United States. It also considers the relevance of new studies that suggest the process of globalization has created a single, well-integrated capitalist world-system. Appleby acknowledges that deeply rooted forces have shaped the history of capitalism, and that many regions of the world remain on the periphery of a global economy, but she is skeptical of works that privilege structural forces over human activities and totalize the past. “Capitalism is not a unified, coordinated system,” she concludes. “Rather it is a set of practices and institutions that permit billions of people to pursue their economic interest in the marketplace” (p. 433). [End Page 744]

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the book is the author’s conviction that capitalism is a cultural as well as an economic system. In her words, “There can be no capitalism, as distinguished from select capitalist practices, without a culture of capitalism” (p. 119). Repeatedly, Appleby shows that cultural practices and traditions have shaped the history of capitalism, and vice versa. Though capitalism itself is amoral, she explains, the nations in which it takes hold are made up of individuals with a variety of moral concerns. People’s attitudes about science, religion, political struggles, race relations, and a host of other nonmaterial things continue to influence the course of capitalist development. Yet new commodities and markets alter people’s desires and perspectives, often in ways that add momentum to the “relentless revolution.”

Appleby’s analysis of the origins of capitalism is also unique. Like many scholars, she traces capitalism’s roots to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, and more specifically to commercial activities in the Netherlands and Great Britain. She adds to the traditional narrative, however, by exploring the importance of food shortages in Europe and the accompanying fear of famines. In some nations, such as France, it took nearly 80 percent of the population to produce a sufficient food supply. The large number of peasants working the land entrenched the power of aristocrats, whose wealth rested on their ability to collect rents and services from the farming population. The importation of New World crops like corn and sugarcane combined with the development of new agricultural technologies and practices gradually turned food scarcity into surplus. By the late seventeenth century, the farming population in Europe had declined sharply. Many former peasants lived in urban areas, which not only expanded the available pool of wage labor in those areas and stimulated capital investments in industry but also undermined feudal institutions and customs. In short, “an agricultural revolution made capitalism possible” (p. 86).

The placement of Asia within the history of capitalism makes this book even more distinctive. Some of the natural resources that blessed Great Britain and the United States were in short supply in parts of Asia, which made structural changes in the region all the more challenging. Myriad developments explain Asia’s gradual embrace of free-market principles, but the...


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