Origins of Capitalism
April 11, 2019

Jean Baechler (The Origins of Capitalism) doesn't buy any of Marx's various accounts of the rise of capitalism. In every permutation, Marx's theory of the "original of the capitalism system presupposes the capitalist system" (25).

Baechler continues: "To express myself in Platonic terms, I would say that the problem of origins is insoluble so long as one considers that Same engenders Same (the economic engenders the economic, the political, the political, the technical, the technical, and so on). I will try to show that we may obtain more satisfactory results by starting from the hypothesis that the Same is engendered by the Other" (25). That Other is politics, as he explains further on.

The dilemma of Marxist theory goes deeper. It claims to be a philosophy of history, but it gets around its contradictions by positing "the fiction of an historical foundation that is external to history" (25). An evolutionary account of the development of economies is one possibility, but this means that "a thought that wished to be historical . . . saw itself obliged to eliminate history by establishing itself upon a non-historical principle" (26).

Baechler doesn't think historians have done a good job of isolating the unique features of capitalism either. Markets, profit-seeking, division of labor, exchange, money, careful accounting, rational ordering of means to ends have existed in non-capitalist systems. Some are present in all human societies, no matter how simple.

In place of these, he argues that the essence of capitalism is its economic efficiency. Non-capitalist systems are inefficient because of political, religious, ethical, or other constraints. Capitalism prevails where these constraints are removed, and where the pursuit of efficiency is permitted to govern political and cultural life.

Thus, for instance, intellectual activity is ordered to "the creation of scientific and technical procedures that permit the lowering of costs," while "research undertaken simply for the satisfaction of understanding must be banned" (57). For a capitalist system to emerge, cultural constraints (habits of consumption, e.g.,) and moral constraints (the notion that profit-seeking is evil, or that leisure is the supreme good) are removed. Efficiency never triumphs over every obstacle, but the drive of a capitalist system is in that direction.

He suggests that the "degree of capitalist activity" can be defined by the intersection of two curves: "The one is determined by the area governed y the society. . . . The other is determined by the degree of autonomy that the state grants to trading activities" (41). These are political realities, the "Other" that effects change in the economic realm.

Having established efficiency as the "essence" of capitalism, and highlighted the role of politics, Baechler takes a historical glance at the genesis of capitalism's character types and institutions - the bourgeois, the entrepreneur, the laborer and consumer, as well as the market.

His treatment of the rise of the bourgeois class can be taken as representative of the style of argument. In the ancient world, cities had the capacity to arm themselves. They became demilitarized because of the early modern concentration of military power in a central state, and so city dwellers devoted themselves more and more to economic pursuits. Excluded from traditional aristocracies, they had to discover ways to legitimate their own order. The Protestant ethic plays an important role here, he thinks, because it provided an endorsement of commercial life and the merchant.

Capitalism markets have emerged, he says, in certain political circumstances: first, there there are numerous political units within a homogenous cultural zone (the nations of Europe within a culture formed by the classical world and Christendom); second, a limitation on meddling in the market within each political unit, along with a toleration of the disruptive potential of economic and technological growth. Byzantium provides a counter-example, as it was a single political unit in which production and sales, finance and law, workshops, stores, and markets were all under the power of the Prefect of Constantinople (80).

Baechler's account has much to commend it. He is careful to isolate what is and is not unique to capitalist systems. He highlights the role of extra-economic factors in the rise of capitalism. He includes comparative evidence from China, Japan, and elsewhere as a test case. It's neither an apology for capitalism nor a jeremiad, but a dispassionate treatment of capitalism's genesis.

From a theological perspective, Baechler presents some challenges. He notes several times that capitalism takes off only when religious constraints on efficiency are reduced or removed. In the US, he suggests, the triumph of the bourgeoisie came not so much because of the Protestant ethic as "by the absence of noble and ecclesiastical values" (70; one thinks, for instance, of Calvin's rejection of the medieval condemnation of usury). And he argues that the triumph of the entrepreneur is linked to a corresponding reduction in the status of priests, soldiers, and bureaucrats (89-84). The capitalism system is set up to encourage the best and brightest into economic rather than religious or political careers.

Baechler, in short, indicates that the rise of capitalism is bound up with the formation of the secular - both in the narrow sense of the separation of political order from the church and in the broader sense of the privatization of religion. If he's right, an assault on the secular, then, is an assault on capitalism itself.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.