Sunday, July 16, 2023

Review of Capitalism: A Short History by Jürgen Kocka

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (02/24/2024)

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“With these findings in the history of concepts and theories as a foundation, and after having examined additional proposals for defining the term, I propose a working definition of capitalism that emphasizes decentralization, commodification, and accumulation as basic characteristics.  First, it is essential that individual and collective actors have rights, usually property rights, that enable them to make economic decisions in a relatively autonomous and decentralized way.  Second, markets serve as the main mechanisms of allocation and coordination; commodification permeates capitalism in many ways, including labor.  Third, capital is central, which means utilizing resources for present investment in expectation of future higher gains, accepting credit in addition to savings and earnings as sources of investment funds, dealing with uncertainty and risk, and maintaining profit and accumulation as goals.  Change, growth, and expansion are inscribed” – Jürgen Kocka, Chapter 1: What Does Capitalism Means?, Page 21

“These merchants traded on their own accounts, even if this was usually done in close coordination with the politically powerful, and often, moreover, in close cooperation with other merchants, typically in cross-border networks based on common ties of ethnicity, homeland, or religion.  There was no lack of profit seeking, daring, dynamism, or a willingness to cope with insecurity and competition.” – Jürgen Kocka, Chapter 2: Merchant Capitalism, Page 25

“In the controversies that have surrounded capitalism, state and market are usually regarded as antipodes, and for good reason.  Market action and governmental-political action are indeed beholden to different logics, especially in the democratic era.  Each one has different foundation on which its legitimacy rests: unequally distributed ownership rights on one side, equal citizenship rights on the other.  They follow different procedures: there one of exchange, here a process of debate with the aim of building consensus and deciding by majority.  There money is the most important medium; here, by contrast, it is power.” – Jürgen Kocka, Chapter 4: The Capitalist Era, Page 145


Is This An Overview?

What defines capital and capitalism has changed.  Capital used to mean money in the process of making more money.  Then expanded into any asset that obtains a profit.  Capitalism came into being as a criticism of the class society.  Capitalism has become a set of aspects which are based on decentralized decision making, commodification, and accumulation.  Within capitalism, markets are the form in which people coordinate and distribute resources.  Capitalism uses various means to expand, to make investments that have an opportunity for greater future reward.   The more global a market is, the more sales opportunities there are. 

The philosophers during the Enlightenment era witnesses destructive wars undertaken by governments, which lead them to seek alternative decision making methods.  Enlightenment philosophers provided a defense for market capitalism, as it could be used as a civilizing force.  The state and market may often be seen in opposition to each other, for they rely on different methods and procedures.  But markets and political power cannot be readily separated.  Capitalists have used government influence to shape production.  To protect their assets, even against competition.  The state and market have different functions, but each relies on the other’s function, to function.  Capitalism also has inherent problems, such as business cycles.  Capitalism values individualism, but too much individualism breaks social ties.  Firms under capitalism can behave in inappropriate ways to earn a profit, such as exploit labor.  Firm behavior that gave rise to labor movements. 



This book contains a diverse global history on the methods of capitalism.  Although there is a vast range of history, there is very little content on each historic example and explanation.  Most examples serve as proofs of concept rather than build comprehension of the topic.  Readers who already know more details about the examples are in a better position to understand the context of the ideas.

Social values change.  There are various historical state and market features that have become derided because of the change in values.  Although the author sometimes acknowledges that states have used what has become inappropriate methods of production, the author generally highlights capitalisms involvement in the inappropriate methods of production.  The negative consequences of capitalism are provided, but not the same aspects and consequences within state operations.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is capitalism?  How has the word changed meaning?
•What is capital?  How has the word changed meaning?
•What is merchant capitalism? 
•How did the Enlightenment shape capitalism? 
•What is utopian capitalism? 
•How did industrialization change capitalism? 
•How do markets operate? 
•Is there a need for a state? 
•What are the problems with capitalism?
•What inspired the labor movement? 
•What are business cycles? 
•How did Karl Marks influence capitalism?
•How did Joseph Schumpeter influence capitalism? 

Book Details
Translator:            Jürgen Kocka
Publisher:             Princeton University Press
Edition ISBN:      9780691178226
Pages to read:       171
Publication:          2018
1st Edition:           2013
Format:                 Paperback 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          3
Overall          3