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Allan Powell: Appleby writes of capitalism, then and now

July 26, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

If you are looking for a complete, detailed and balanced account of the emergence and development of capitalism, you would be pleased with the newly published volume authored by Professor Joyce Appleby. There is much to be learned about the ubiquitous presence, ability to adapt to different cultures and geographical settings in “The Relentless Revolution:  A History Of Capitalism.”

There are ongoing surprises as one misconception after another are brushed away. We would be correct in assuming that capitalism (the use of money to acquire more money) had its birth in England. We would be wrong in supposing that it was first applied to financing the factories of Great Britain. Appleby is blunt in the claim, “before there were factories under roof, there were factories in the fields.”

It was the desire for more and more sugar that attracted large investments needed to build sugar (and later cotton, rice and tobacco) plantations. All of these enterprises required cheap labor to be profitable and provided the impetus for slave labor. The sad and sordid story of the exploitation of human beings by force that lasted 300 years and affected 11 million African men and women, rivals the worst in human history. No less than six major Christian nations participated in this nefarious trading that “shipped like cattle to the Western Hemisphere” the captive labor supply.

Another misconception is held by those who believe that the earliest capitalists were middle-class adventurers with some extra money to invest. Historian Appleby gives an impressive list of European rulers who saw opportunities to become even richer in foreign settings such as India, Africa, China, Brazil and the Caribbean Islands. Brutality was used liberally to exploit some natural resource useful in running an empire.

Typical of these inhuman stories is that of King Leopold of Belgium in what became known as the Belgian Congo where the king wished to get, “a slice of this magnificent African cake.” He usurped land equal to 76 times the size of Belgium to satisfy his quest for latex to produce rubber, diamonds and elephant tusks for ivory. The abuse to the native population was so egregious that Swedish and American missionaries organized a crusade to halt the abuse.

Of importance to us is the record of the acceptance of capitalism in the United States and the popularity of the corporate structure of business as a means to riches. The structure and legal capabilities granted to corporations endow them with advantages unattainable in single proprietorships. When granted the power of a legal person that conferred eternal life, limited liability and the means to get unlimited capital, it is clear that no actual person could match this combination of gifts. As if this was not enough, courts have permitted the use of other legal fictions such as “act of God” to enhance their power and avoid responsibility for damages.

After the Civil War, American corporations began a race for monopoly control of each source of wealth. Control of the production of oil, iron and other products and the singular control of railroads became an obsession until stalled by the passage of anti-trust laws. Trusts, to get monopoly control, used a paper swapping routine by which trust certificates were exchanged for stock certificates. Any number of competitors could be unified into one artificial entity without having to buy the controlling stock required to run each member company. With complete control came the power to set prices at will.

As was customary, corporations yearned for cheap labor. For many years, courts had ruled that any meetings held by laborers to improve their lot were regarded as an illegal conspiracy. Collective bargaining was — and still is — a very tenuous desire of labor. Corporate officers used violence to restrain the progress of labor and to break strikes. Historian Appleby devotes considerable space to the subject of the “two faces of capitalism,” beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing to the financial crisis of 2008. These contrasting “faces” alone make very interesting history.

At the conclusion of her well- written book, Appleby offers a warning worthy of our attention. “The danger of concentration is even greater if the two leviathans in our lives — the government and the economy — read off the same profit sheet. When government works hand in glove with the nation’s businessmen, you can be sure that the market’s own corrective mechanism will be disabled, competition will then be muted, cronyism rampant and inefficiency protected.” Hopefully this wisdom is widely understood and appreciated.


Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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