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Review for Tribune - The Relentless Revolution

Review of The Relentless Revolution - A History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby

Ever since credit and crunch became the most quoted words of a generation copies of Marx & Engels The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital have flown off the shelves.

The constant re-issue of these books as the market demands prove yet again that capitalism subsumes everything eventually, even anti-capitalist manifestoes.

Yet there has also been a significant renewal of interest in the works on and of capitalist writer Ayn Rand, particularly the novel she is most known for, Atlas Shrugged.

Joyce Appleby, a notable American historian, therefore provides a timely tome with her latest, The Relentless Revolution – A History of Capitalism.

Whilst Appleby covers a broad canvas, one of her driving questions asks just how deep are the roots of capitalism? We discover that they are as deep as England’s own soil, and it is on England that she rests her focus for ‘only in England’ did an entirely new system for producing goods emerge, which far surpassed the simple trading of goods. The Jews, Arabs, Chinese were all exceptional traders, but were pioneers of neither the Industrial nor the Agricultural Revolutions.

Appleby also engages with the West/Islam ‘clash of civilisations’, in which she refers to the distaste and incomprehension of Western capitalism because of those who have powerful ties of rituals and shared beliefs that travel back centuries. She states that ‘these (capitalist) preoccupations of ours are as distasteful to them as they were to men and women in sixteenth-century Europe’, which can be read as being that we in the West have ‘progressed’ far beyond Islamic nations because they are currently where we were all the way back in the sixteenth century. Except it is not as cut and dried as that, because she does not seem to rate capitalism as progression. Instead she implies that those countries, in which people live within religious structures and under particular religious strictures, have something far richer than capitalism.

Religion plays a large part in this history, not least because she has included many biblical allusions, as well as taking time to consider Weber’s seminal text, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is this link, between the rise of capitalism and the Puritans, who invested their work with religious reverence, which is emphasised for those unfamiliar with Weber.

A bland economic theory this is not. The Relentless Revolution is more of a story – the story of capitalism as a culture; how, where and why this particular culture spread when for four thousand years previously humans had got on well enough with day-to-day trading and bartering. Appleby takes great care to emphasise this distinction – trading did not capitalism make.

Yet, given that her focus is on England, I felt there was far too little on figures such as Queen Elizabeth I, who, in many ways, can be likened to that other arch capitalist, Margaret Thatcher. Appleby engaged with neither figure. Thatcher is mentioned just twice, compared to Elizabeth’s thrice. True, this is a history of capitalism, but that history cannot be told without those who validated and added to the ideology, and both these women, at different points in its development, most certainly did. Yet, she also takes care to cover those who made valiant attempts to play devil’s advocate where money was concerned. Shakespeare, who was at the cradle of capitalism as we know it today, used it as a motif in a number of his works, The Merchant of Venice being the prime example. There are also his recurrent motifs of the idyll of the forest – the neutral nature as the antidote to concerns of (court and) commerce and fortune-seeking. It is hardly surprising then, to realise that Marx was obsessed with Shakespeare – could recite him at the drop of a hat and would pepper conversations with Shakespearean allusions. Then came the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848 that occurred throughout Europe, except, of course, here, where despite The Chartists using intelligent anti-capitalist arguments, encouraged by the works of the Romantics like Blake, Byron and Shelley, they were often ridiculed in the mainstream press. This is something that Appleby has not taken into consideration – the role of the media in ignoring, or particularly throughout the nineteenth century satirising, anti-capitalist discourses and movements, thereby sanctioning capitalism.

Overall, it all makes for a multi-stranded tale as rich as its subject. Yet, whilst Appleby has thankfully plumped for the qualitative over the quantitative, the book sadly lacks a real core that would have held it together to create a meaningful whole. There are also regular instances of clumsiness; alliteration is hardly appropriate in a book such as this, for instance, ‘The roles of culture, contingency, and coercion, so critically important in the history of capitalism’. Appleby also has an addiction to the exclamation mark, which can serve to cheapen important points!

At times, it is hard to tell what sort of book one is reading – there is simply so much information to digest. Two or more books could easily have been produced from this material – all covering different aspects. This very observation, in one way, only goes to show that Appleby is not as canny commercially as she is with matters historical.

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