Sunday, February 29, 2004

Market and economy down the ages
Kavita Soni-Sharma

A History of Capitalism 1500-2000
by Michel Beaud. Translated by Tom Dickman and Anny Lefebvre. Aakar books.

A History of Capitalism 1500-2000THIS is the latest book on the history of capitalism. To capture all the major trends in the rise of capitalism and the influence that it has had on society is no easy task. Yet the author has done well to capture the spirit of capitalism. There is a lot of information in this book about the manner in which capitalism emerged from the operation of the large trading enterprises of the 16th century, how it destroyed feudalism, democratised the world and established human will and effort as the central features that bring about changes in the world.

Capitalism, Beaud insists, is not a mode of production. The phrase that was used by Karl Marx to depict the important social, political, ideological and economic changes that took place in Europe since the 16th century. The most visible change occurred in the manner in which the landed aristocracy lost power. Big traders and bankers had always had some influence over the aristocracy. Now, however, social and political power moved into the hands of the bourgeoisie, smaller traders, merchants, producers and those who provided them with service like lawyers, teachers, doctors and clerks. The French Revolution that began in 1789 and continued till the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, was the most dramatic assertion of the power of the bourgeoisie. For the first time in human history those at the very apex of social hierarchy had to share their power and wealth with the rest of the society.

In Britain at the same time some amazing synergies were being created between science, technology and economics. For the first time in world history efforts were made to gear production to cater to the needs of the masses rather than the classes. By making simple but scientific modifications in the spinning machines, weaving machines and water pumping machines, British entrepreneurs ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Use of scientific knowledge changed the face of British agriculture and ensured that there was enough food available for the whole society even when most of the people were not directly involved in agriculture.

The other European countries soon followed the examples of Britain for economic growth and France for political growth. The growth of capitalism in Europe, however, was accompanied by the growth of colonialism. Europe soon colonised the countries of Asia and Africa. The White man began to see himself as a superior creature that had the right to loot everyone else. The suffering of Afro-Asian nations had only one positive consequence: it created the feeling of nationalism amongst them. By the 20th century many of them had become economically and politically more powerful than the Europeans who had harassed them in the past. Beaud, an economist, has ably told the history of capitalism in this extremely readable book.