- The Information Nexus: Global Capitalism from the Renaissance to the Present by Steven G. Marks, and: The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies have Emerged and Declined since AD 500 by Bas van Bavel, and: Wealth, Poverty and Politics: Revised and Enlarged Edition by Thomas Sowell
The History, Essence, and Future of Global Capitalism
It is well known that until recently, economic history and its sibling fields of business and labor history had fallen quite out of favor in most history departments. Sometime around the 1980s, the subject drifted over to economic departments, with great consequences for how such history would be researched, written, and received. The economists' emphasis on quantitative over qualitative approaches alienated most historians enamored with the nuances and subjectivism of cultural history, which in turn alienated economists enamored with the purported certainty of more "scientific" methodologies. All of this, by [End Page 284] the 1990s, resulted in an unfortunate dearth of interdisciplinary dialogue, and for a field—economic history—that used to invite it: indeed, does so in its very name. Of course, within the last decade studies of past economic systems have witnessed a spectacular comeback in history departments, and now rank among the most popular areas of research. The reframing of this research to "history of capitalism" has rendered the field broad enough to appeal to historians who otherwise might not have engaged economic history, and for the first time in decades, a real possibility exists for true interdisciplinary work and cooperation on the subject. Just visit some of the business and economic history conferences.
Yet with the sudden popularity of the "history of capitalism," new questions and tensions arise. Historians still prefer qualitative, narrative history; economists still prefer quantification, and it is not always easy to marry the two: the risk of another divorce is always looming. Again, visit some of the annual conferences, and it is evident that the two types of scholars remain a bit wary of one another, if not overtly hostile. How to cure or at least mitigate this mutual suspicion is something that both sides will likely wrestle with for many years to come. Perhaps that's okay, but some sort of common accord and understanding between the two groups ought to be sought after.
In the meantime, other, no less significant, questions dominate the field. What do we mean by capitalism? When did capitalism begin? Is capitalism stable or unstable? Is it a source of prosperity and freedom, or the progenitor of inequality and exploitation? These questions are not new, of course, but simply more pronounced now that economic history is back en vogue. Economic historians will almost certainly debate and disagree on these topics long into the future, and that is not a bad thing: indeed it is very healthy for the field, and the diversity of opinions is precisely what gives the field its vibrancy. All three of the authors reviewed in this essay attempt to answer at least most of these questions, and all three arrive at starkly different answers.
Steven G. Marks is a professor of history at Clemson University. Known best for his research and writing in Russian history, his foray into economic history is The Information Nexus: Global Capitalism from the Renaissance to the Present. Marks primarily addresses the question of what makes capitalism so distinct from other economic systems. There is no easy answer to this, as he makes clear in part 1 of the book: a lengthy but valuable section on the history of the word "capitalism," which did not enter the common lexicon until the late-nineteenth century. "Capitalism is a socially and historically constructed concept," he concludes in this section; both its opponents and proponents, he...