The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism - by Joyce Appleby

The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism , Joyce Appleby ( New York : W. W. Norton & Company , 2010 ), 494 pp., $30 cloth .

Joyce Appleby has produced a historical account of capitalism that neither obscures its great tragedies nor minimizes the scope of its triumphs. Rejecting a historicist framework in favor of one that accounts for both chance and necessity, Appleby rewards the reader with a capacious discussion of the development of one of the defining features of our world. Her goal is to show how capitalism is as much a social system as an economic one, but to do so while “shak[ing] free of the presentation of the history of capitalism as a morality play, peopled with those wearing either white or black hats.” In so doing, Appleby stresses the magnitude of changes wrought by capitalism, and the system's seemingly endless ability to create wealth; but she is fully cognizant that that very same system has led to worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and vast material inequalities.

Appleby's multicausal account surveys economic, political, social, and intellectual developments that catalyzed the emergence and consolidation of the capitalist system. For instance, in one chapter, “Crucial Developments in the Countryside,” she describes how innovative English farming techniques in the sixteenth century greatly diminished the prospects for famine in that country, liberating men and women from a predestined life of agricultural work. In the next chapter, “Commentary on Markets and Human Nature,” she shows how philosophical texts by such thinkers as Adam Smith and John Locke interacted with economic and political events in England to encourage the spread of capitalist principles. Indeed, Appleby traces the development of capitalism from Portuguese overseas trade in the fifteenth century to the 2008 financial crisis.

As the author surveys such diverse terrain, the veracity of her thesis becomes readily apparent: that we cannot separate our social and political life from our economic one, because the latter not only has social consequences, it is itself a consequence of our social and moral worlds. Thus, Appleby notes that while capitalism is in fact a “relentless revolution,” it can hardly be construed as a “mindless one.”