Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction by James Fulcher

Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction by James Fulcher contains an overview of debates about capitalism and how and why it emerged, as well as explaining capitalism's tendency to crisis and comparing its modern incarnations to each other.  Despite a mostly Marxist-inspired analysis, the book ends on a very reformist note, encouraging those that desire to change social conditions to work for reforms within capitalism.

Fulcher examines three historical examples of capitalism, what he calls merchant capital, capitalist production and financial capitalism.  He notes that "all involve the investment of money in order to make a profit, the essential feature of capitalism." (14)  Slightly restating the point, he concludes the first chapter: "So the answer to our question [of what capitalism is] is that capitalism involves the investment of money to make more money." (18)

Fulcher reprises Ellen Meiksins Wood's account of the origins of capitalism in the opening of the second chapter.  With regard to British capitalism, Fulcher highlights combinations and friendly societies as forerunners of unions and the prior growth of merchant capitalism as presaging the emergence of capitalist production.  Earlier, he identifies the "growth of production, consumption and markets in 16th-century England" (21) and Journeyman's societies as antecedents of the aforementioned developments.  Moving even earlier into history, he cites "changes in social relationships in the countryside," (23) the enclosure movement and the Black Death as predisposing Britain to capitalism.  His search for contributing factors takes Fulcher all the way back to 1066, when the Norman invasion established a relatively centralized rule (in contrast to a more dispersed feudal rule in other countries) that prevented feudalism from taking deep root in Britain.

Fulcher then turns his attention to historical capitalist developments outside Britain.  He argues "it is quite wrong to seek the origins of capitalism solely in Britain" (31) citing developments such as the international cloth trade and mining, financiers such as the Fuggers of Augsburg, joint-stock corporations, bills of exchange and book keeping and movements of refugees as important milestones achieved (partially) outside of the British Isles.  Fulcher reminds the reader that "Economic leadership shifted from Italy to Germany and Flanders, then to Holland, and only later to Britain." (31)

Why did capitalism emerge in Europe?  Fulcher quips that "Virtually every distinctive feature of European society has been advanced by someone as the explanation of the emergence of capitalism in Europe." (32)  Fulcher discusses the theory that cities were responsible, but counters that much development originated in the countryside.  He then considers feudalism as a cause, since "such key features of capitalism as markets and wage labor could emerge within feudal society" (33) but retorts that this is hardly inevitable, since Eastern European feudalism intensified when capitalism was developing in Western Europe.  Fulcher mentions the Brenner thesis: "the peasants' capacity to organize against their feudal lords and free themselves from feudal bonds was here critical." (34)  Fulcher rejects cultural/religious explanations such as Weber's, although he does concede that the mass refugee migration caused by cultural differences could have played a part.  He mentions a negative argument about why capitalism didn't develop outside Europe, since a centralized state bureaucracy in other advanced societies provided other, "easier ways to become rich and powerful than through the accumulation of capital and the management of labor." (37)  Fulcher concludes, "The absence in Europe of a single, cohesive, and totally dominant elite of this kind is the common factor that brings together the various explanations we have been considering." (37)

The following chapter takes the reader through three stages of the development of industrial capitalism: anarchic capitalism, managed capitalism and remarketized capitalism.  Anarchic capitalism is "Competitive small-scale manufacturing, weak labor organization, economic deregulation, a strong state and minimal state welfare." (41)  Managed capitalism is "the growth of large corporations, the development of class organization, corporatist relationships between the state and class organizations, state intervention and regulation, state welfare and the extension of public ownership." (46)  The last period is what most would refer to as neoliberalism.  Fulcher ends the chapter by saying "it would be wrong to assume that this is the final stage in the development of capitalism." (57)

Chapter four compares Swedish, American and Japanese capitalism.  Chapter five sees Fulcher in the role of myth-buster, examining manufacturing, telework, tourism, agriculture, money, etc.: "Myth one is that global capitalism is recent, for it has deep historical roots.  Myth two is that capital circulates globally, when in reality most of it moves between a small group of rich countries.  Myth three is that capitalism is now organized globally rather than nationally, for international differences are as important as ever and nation-states continue to play a key role in the activities of transnational corporations.  Myth four is that global capitalism integrates the world, since the more global capitalism has become, the more divided the world has become by international inequalities of wealth." (103)

The final chapter addresses the crises of capitalism.  Commenting on the Tulip Mania, Fulcher writes, "Speculative capitalism was then, as it is now, not just the province of sophisticated financiers but also a popular activity." (106)  Fulcher emphasizes that the collapse of capitalism is not inevitable: "This did not mean, as some of his followers have thought, that Marx believed that capitalism would end in some huge economic collapse.  It would come to an end would when overthrown by the workers it exploited." (108)  He observes that, "Global consumption has not therefore kept pace with global production, and overproduction has been an ever-present threat to profits, wages and employment." (117)  Despite a vaguely Marxist analysis throughout the book, Fulcher concludes with a note of inevitability: "The search for an alternative to capitalism is fruitless in a world where capitalism has become utterly dominant, and no final crisis is in sight or, short of some ecological catastrophe, even really conceivable... Those who wish to reform the world should focus on the potential for change within capitalism.  There are different capitalisms, and capitalism has gone through many transformations." (127)

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