Capitalism 4.2

Article Abstracts – Summer 2023


Timothy Guinnane

THIS ALL-INTERTEXT ISSUE of Capitalism highlights the role of not just reading but rereading. Reading seems fundamental to any historical inquiry. So long as we rely mostly on written primary sources, we will read to acquire new knowledge. Reading and rereading are also central to the way we identify gaps or weaknesses in earlier historical scholarship and place our own contributions in context. Yet the ever-increasing tide of new scholarly work threatens our ability to read in useful ways. An interdisciplinary outlook exacerbates the problem: it is hard enough to keep up in one subdiscipline, but this journal reflects the perception that one subdiscipline is not enough.


Nationalism Revisited and the State
Emma Rothschild

The paper examines the political and economic circumstances in which Frank Knight wrote “Economic Theory and Nationalism” in 1934–1935 and the changing politics of state power in relation to economic life. It points to new possibilities for an economic history of the state and of government in economic life.

Whatever Happened to the Affluent Society? Or, the Dynamics of Consumer-Driven Capitalism Revealed
Jan de Vries

This article is an exploration of the ways in which affluence undermines itself, based on a reexamination of two influential books: John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society (1958) and Tibor Scotivsky’s Joyless Economy (1976). Galbraith’s book offered blueprints for the reform of both the American economy and the discipline of economics based on his understanding that the affluent society was driven increasingly by the consumer rather than the producer. The essay explores the strengths and weaknesses of Galbraith’s analysis based on an account of the course of American public policy in the decades since he wrote. He had advocated for an expansion of public goods; what emerged instead was an expansion of transfer payments. Scitovsky’s account of consumer behavior sought to explain why rising income led to dissatisfied—joyless—consumers. Expanding on his approach, I identify the dynamic of consumer demand that acts to undermine the condition of affluence itself.

Islam, Merchants, and Capitalism: Fifty-Five Years in the Socioeconomic History of the Medieval Islamic World
Lorenzo M. Bondioli

“Islam, Merchants, and Capitalism” draws attention to the missing link between early and central medieval Islamic socioeconomic history (ca. 650–1250) and the history of capitalism. This intertext essay starts from reassessing the work of French Marxist Islamicist Maxime Rodinson, who first made a programmatic attempt to forge such a link in his seminal 1966 Islam and Capitalism. It then proceeds to lay bare the reasons why Rodinson’s call went largely unheard in the following decades, identifying the persistence of a pervasive decline paradigm within medieval Islamic socioeconomic history as the key obstacle preventing advances in the field and foreclosing avenues for theoretical discussion. Regrettably this paradigm, while outdated and no longer tenable, still remains authoritative and is frequently invoked by modern theorists of “underdevelopment.” The essay then discusses some examples of recent groundbreaking scholarship that deploy new archaeological and documentary sources to decidedly move away from decline, showing the way forward out of this historiographical impasse. Finally, the essay returns to the question of capitalism, and of the forms in which this ambiguous term can, or cannot, be applied to early and central medieval Islamic societies, calling for a recentering of the Islamic Middle Ages in a longue-durée global history of capitalism.

Islam, Christianity, and the Development of Machine Capitalism: The Weber Hypothesis Revisited
Mark Gould

Max Weber characterized the values constituted in ascetic Protestantism that resulted in an inner-worldly asceticism. Karl Marx elucidated the first stage of manufacture, a form of capitalism characterized by precapitalist production processes. When these values interpenetrated an economy at the first stage of manufacture, they generated the spirit of capitalism, which resulted in systematic and sustained capital accumulation. My reconceptualization of Protestant religious commitments clarifies how they led to the rationalization of the first stage of manufacture and thus resulted in systematic capital accumulation leading to machine capitalism. My characterization of religious commitment in (Sunni) Islam shows that while the economic preconditions for the development of machine capitalism, the first stage of manufacture, were sometimes present in Islamicate lands, Islamic religious commitments neither rationalized economic production nor created a tendency toward capital accumulation. In consequence, they did not result in machine capitalism.

The Ghosts of Max Weber in the Economic History of Preindustrial Europe
Francesca Trivellato

During the past fifty years, economic historians trained in economics have turned Max Weber into a champion of the cultural foundations of economic growth that he was not. The article examines the reasons and consequences of this misappropriation. It begins by highlighting Weber’s aversion to monocausal explanations and identifies two lines of argument in his voluminous writings on the historical development of Western capitalism: one stressing religious values and one focusing on political and legal institutions. While Weber never fully reconciled these two lines of argument, he considered them complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The article continues by tracing the engagement (or lack thereof) with Weber in the work of Douglass C. North and in a recent flurry of papers on the “economics of religion” that ostensibly tests the empirical validity of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). It then discusses the return of interest in the coevolution of cultural and institutional processes of change among some economists and political scientists. Throughout, the article signals how this reception history went hand in hand with a decline in exchanges between economists and scholars in other disciplines. Ultimately, it argues for the importance of incorporating the history of disciplines in our disciplinary practices. More specifically, it stresses the continued relevance of Weber’s research agenda for the comparative and historical study of capitalisms (in the plural), in spite of the fact that many of his conclusions appear now outdated.