Jürgen Kocka

Princeton University Press
ISBN 978-0-691-16522-6   £18.95.

Reviewed by Alan Dent



            Divided into five chapters: What Does Capitalism Mean ?, Merchant Capitalism, Expansion, The Capitalist Era and Analysis and Critique, this seminal work has eight pages of notes and a fourteen page bibliography. 

            Kocka begins pertinently, as capitalism is for some a term of abuse, for others an expression of praise, in some quarters a neutral description of a natural form, in others a concept applicable to a variety of economic arrangements which share essential characteristics. He focuses on three classic definitions, those of Marx, Weber and Schumpeter, explores the strengths and weakness in each but doesn’t nail his colours.  

            The main text is a mere hundred and sixty-nine pages. One of its pleasures is its density. Kocka knows the history of capitalism thoroughly and his capacity to sum up an era or trend in a few words, as his ability to make apposite references throughout is heartening and impressive. He can cover enormous ground in few clauses. 

            In chapter three, he refers to Marx’s famous dictum that capitalism came into the world “soaked in blood and filth” (often translated as “dripping with blood and dirt”), something Kocka sees as a half-truth. In his subsequent discussion, however, he acknowledges the close relation of commercial ambition and violence, what he calls: 

                        “..an irritating amalgamation of trade and warfare..” 

Particularly irritating, it might be added, for its victims. This “aggressive jumble of lust for power, capitalist dynamism and lawless violence” is clearly identified as a problem for the historian trying to tease out the wellsprings of the world system we know today. Perhaps such teasing out is impossible. It could be that the system required this “jumble” and without it would never have established itself.  

            He points out, in the later chapters, that the “labor question” (it’s an American edition) no longer carries the agitating power it once did. Interestingly, however, he observes that if we include the southern hemisphere and its largely poor countries, we find it is as pertinent as it was in Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s worth wondering too, as junior doctors take strike action against a new government contract, and the Secretary of State for Health dubs the BMA a “trade union” whether it might not still be potent in advanced economies but under a very different form from that of the classic industrial disputes which ended with the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

            It’s unfair to the scope of the book to focus too minutely on its references to Adam Smith, but there might be some value in doing so. In the same chapter in which he refers to Marx, he explains Smith’s view that individuals are best placed to recognise their own interests. This is not, it should be pointed out, a rhetorical device such as it might be in the hands of a Republican or Conservative politician: Smith’s view is part of the high-minded philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. When he says “individuals” he means all of them, not just those with large fortunes. Smith’s view would accept that workers are just as capable as recognising their own interests as employers. He opposed authoritarian government and would have been unlikely to accept strict controls on the freedom of trade unionists. They are individuals too. 

            However, we should interrogate the terms: what is an “individual” and what is an “interest” ? 

            Clearly, “individual” doesn’t refer simply to biology: worms, dogs, eagles and ladybirds are individuals in that sense. It has a social and psychological meaning. Defined psychologically, individuality requires a social context. To take a facile example, if we all had individual languages, they might work for the elaboration of thought, but they would make linguistic communication of that thought impossible. Further, language capacity is a biological endowment we possess as individuals only because we are members of a community. The Wild Boy of Averyon didn’t have language at all.  

            What is an “interest” ? Suppose my wife’s interest is to push me off a cliff, claim the insurance and set up house with her lover. If she is the best judge of her interest, why should society intervene ? If the answer is something in the order of: when people behave in ways that harm others, society has a right to intervene, how do we define “harm” ? 

            Does it harm me if my neighbour drives a diesel car ? Does it harm my child if the newsagent sells sweets ? 

            Given that there seems to be something close to a universal, social oversight of legitimacy, because someone has to take responsibility for children, it seems the limit of harm is quite narrowly set.  

            Smith was at pains to reconcile his views in The Theory of Moral Sentiments with burgeoning capitalism. Isn’t his “partial evil”  a way of asserting that what looks evil must serve some overarching good ?    Thus, the obvious evils of the capitalism of his time were subsumed into a system whose overall outcomes were beneficent.  

            An obviously dubious conclusion, but there is much more than Smith in this book. The index includes Braudel, Condorcet, Engels, Grotius, Hobbes, Keynes, Lenin, Montesquieu, Newton, Proudhon, Rockerfeller…Kocka’s scholarship is broad and deep. This book will spare you a decade’s reading in the subject. Perhaps its most interesting section is its last where Kocka writes: 

                        “Markets…..presuppose framework conditions that can be established only by political means…..Without the use of political power, capitalism would never have taken off, nor can it take off in the future.” 

            This is a simple but powerful rebuke to Von Hayek, the Mont Pélerin Society and neo-liberals of all stripes. Were our economy the product of the working of markets and only markets, we would be catching fish and breeding sheep. Capitalism is a State system. It needs and always has needed the power of the State and of law in order to function. Prior to universal suffrage, the State could defend and further the interests of property without let or hindrance. Once people can vote, the State has to show itself capable of reconciling the interests of all its citizens. Can the State in the advanced capitalist societies do this ? Kocka’s conclusion raises the question. No one knows the answer.