Adam's Reviews > The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

The Relentless Revolution by Joyce Appleby
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Aug 22, 2011

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This is an ambitious undertaking that charts the development and growth of capitalism around the world. The book begins by outlining three schools of thought on capitalism that are separately influenced by the writings of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Appleby states that while most economists adhere to the philosophy of Adam Smith, she finds Weber to be the most compelling. Examining the interplay between culture and economics, she counters Smith’s argument that people are hard-wired for capitalism because they carried a natural desire for bettering their condition from the womb to the grave. For centuries in Europe, the emphasis was on food security and social stability rather than on personal economic gain. With the exception of England, this held true in the Age of Discovery as European explorers reached across oceans to expand the reach of empire and commercial networks. Appleby argues that entrepreneurs and nobles in England successfully transitioned to a capitalist economy before any other European commonwealths because cultural factors (Protestant Reformation), political turmoil (English Civil War/Glorious Revolution), and technological innovation (agricultural revolution) fostered a social climate that proved more accepting of change. Still the economic ideas associated with capitalism had to be sold to the English people. Appleby effectively compares the situation in England with that in other areas of Europe to show the importance of culture and politics in economic development.

She continues to use this comparative approach as she explains changes in the capitalistic system through the present day. Appleby shows that capitalism is not a unified system. Rather, the capitalist “system” varies from place to place and changes over time because of social, cultural, political, and technological developments. One of the most interesting examples that she presents is in her discussion of the differences in economic behavior in the United States and Europe after World War II. Appleby makes other compelling claims. For example, she suggests: “Capitalism’s history suggests that democracy and capitalism might be decoupled because they generate values that are often in conflict…capitalism is amoral while democracy is suffused with moral concerns about the well-being of the whole and the rectitude of leaders…democracy and capitalism go together nicely, but they often act like the couple that can neither live with nor live without each other.” (433-434) She ends stating: “People do learn from their mistakes. There is no reason to think that societies won’t continue to modify and monitor their economies in pursuit of shared goals. A relentless revolution, yes, but not a mindless one."

The Relentless Revolution has many positive attributes, but it also has some distracting qualities. Appleby makes a convincing argument and writes about a very complex subject in an accessible manner. The scope of the book and the research that into went it are also impressive. The breadth, however, also poses a challenge to the reader. It is difficult to keep track of developments as they occur across the globe over time. The task is made more difficult because discussions sometimes lapse back in time unexpectedly as the reader progresses from one subsection to the next. Appleby could have aided the reader with the inclusion of chapter introductions or summaries that clearly lay out the themes in each section. Furthermore, it sometimes proved difficult to link different subsections to one another, which made me wonder if I had missed something in my reading. At times, Appleby wanders in her discussion with tangential anecdotes or factoids thrown into paragraphs at random. Perhaps what at times seems to be a cacophony of stories and events is purposeful and serves to back-up Appleby’s point that capitalism is a multivariate “system” with many different histories.
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Reading Progress

August 22, 2011 – Started Reading
August 22, 2011 – Shelved
August 28, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Mario (new)

Mario García Extensive review. What do you mean by "distracting qualities" of the book? Do you understand the fragmentary method of exposition or are you trying to point something else? I think I'll give it a read but it's not sure whether this book is plain redundancy on seminal economy works. Any insights? Cheers.

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