History of Economic Growth and Capitalism

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= discussion of four books on the topic, from a review in the New York Review of Books


Michel Bauwens, 2003:

"This is from a review/discussion of various books on the topic of the history of economic growth and capitalism.

Until about 300 years ago, periods of economic growth had always been reversed leaving long-term income levels unchanged: the standard of living of a 16th cy. agricultural workers was hardly different that his colleagues under the Roman Empire. This is because in agriculture-based societies, the Malthusian laws were really operative (Maltus: Essay on Population, 1798): i.e. population always grew faster than income, regularly pushing countries back to subsistence levels. This only changed in the late 17th cy. , in Holland and Britain.

This exceptional state of affairs was at first explained culturally by referring to the unique characteristics of the West, f.e. example, the theories of Max Weber.

And also the following two books:

* Book: Douglas C. North and Robert Paul Thomas. The Rise of the Western World: a new economic history. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973

* Book: John A. Hall. Powers and Liberties: the Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West. Penguin, 1985.

Mainstream thinking would have it that greed, the appetite for gain, is universal but is held back by inadequate institutions and culture. That is precisely what is disputed in a new slate of books.

* Book: The Spirit of Capitalism: nationalism and economic growth. Lieh Greenfeld. Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

A desire for continuous economic growth is not natural for human beings, and for most of history, has been absent. So how did it come about ? The author seeks the answer in the history of ideas and the sociology of culture, and her answer is: Nationalism.

* Book: Jean Baecher. The Origins of Capitalism. st. Martin, 1976.

Baechler explains how it is the fractured nature of feudalism itself, which left interstices where city states and private property could develop, which in turn allowed the development of capitalism.


MB: Could not find original article on which these notes are based.