Ellen Meiksins Wood: The Origin of Capitalism (2002, Verso) 3 stars

Defining capitalism is hard.

3 stars

This book had a really dramatic fall off for me. For the first couple chapters I was super into it, partly because it did that way of laying out a debate I can sort of situate myself in but don't entirely understand the history of (the debate about the role of imperialism in the birth of capitalism), and then making the opposite camp's argument (capitalism came about due to class relations internal to England, and only after developed imperialism) very compelling.

But then it fell off for me pretty hard, because it seems she has a very pure idea of what capitalism is that is in her brain but not very much given to us and then historical examples are tested against it. When she starts saying the Dutch Republic not being capitalist because so much of their wealth was buying basic necessities from eastern europe where labour was cheaper, it was really like "i think the same argument would apply to the only form of capitalism I have ever been alive for". It just becomes a bit tautological: capitalism originated in England, because before that there was no economic system that looked like what began happening in England in the 17th century.

Which ended up reinforcing my previous tendencies, instincts, in associating the "birth in england then spreading outward from there" crowd with the abstracted models of Marx's Capital rather than actual history, where a pure capitalism never appears.

Glad I read it. If you want a very readable summary of academic Marxist debates about how capitalism originated, it's first section is very good for that.