On the origins of capitalism



The political/social and ideological events informed the ruptures that paved the way for the victory of capitalism, without which those would not have been possible.

The question of the origins of capitalism arises insofar as it is considered, above all, a differentiated and historically determined mode of production. That is, as a specific modality of production and appropriation of the economic surplus, and ownership of the means to produce it: “As a mode of production, capitalism must be characterized by the productive forces it mobilizes, to whose emergence it has contributed powerfully at least in its first phase, and by the relations of production on which it rests”.[I]

This definition opens more problems than it closes; it has assumptions whose relationship it does not elucidate. Some authors have tried to define capitalism by its specific types of investment, as it, among other characteristics, presupposes permanent and incessant accumulation of capital; this accumulation, however, is based on the permanent reconversion of surplus value into capital; that is, in the use of surplus value as capital.

The complexity and conflict reached by today's capitalism (with the hypertrophy of financial capital, or "financialization of capital"; "globalization", the development of virtual or "immaterial" work and its precariousness, and a long etc.) seem to relegate the question of its origins to the museum of historians, when in fact they shed new light on it.

What distinguishes capitalism from other ways in which social production has developed in the past is surplus value as “a specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is extracted from direct producers”, in Marx's words. This is based on the nature of the modern relationship between labor power and capital. The wage-earner cannot sell the work he will carry out on behalf of the capitalist, since this work is already his property, since the latter, not possessing the means of production and reproduction of his own capacity for work, is forced to put his labor power available to the capitalist.

This work force or capacity, therefore, no longer belongs to the worker, but will be used for his own ends by the capitalist, who will consume it as he sees fit and for his exclusive benefit. Therefore, what the wage worker sells “is not his labor directly, but his labor power, which he temporarily makes available to the capitalist”.

This ability to work is inseparable from the employee's physical person, so he will have to continue working at the boss's service for the entire duration of the contract, even after having reproduced the part of the value that the capitalist advanced in the form of a salary, equivalent to the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of labor power (that is, of the reproduction of the worker, and of the working class). Having acquired labor power at its value, the capitalist has the right to consume it as he pleases, like any other commodity.

The protagonists and the exchange itself are formally “free”, but the freedom of those who are obliged to sell their labor power is of a particular kind: he is free in the double sense of having his own capacity or labor power, unlike the slave or of the serf, otherwise he would not be able to sell it as a commodity, but he is also free from ownership of the means of production and, therefore, from the possibility of reproducing his own work capacity.

The apparently fair exchange on the market between wages and labor power hides the fact that the wage earner receives the equivalent of the value of his means of subsistence, which can only be consumed unproductively, while for the capitalist, labor power is a producer of a new value (surplus value) which it appropriates, which constitutes a net profit:[ii] the economic surplus is not incorporated into a general social fund, but into a private patrimony that recycles it into capital, permanently restarting the same cycle, with deleterious consequences for society and its natural environment: “Capital production is completely wasteful of human material , as well as its way of distributing its products through commerce; its form of competition makes it very wasteful of material [natural] resources, so as to lose for society what it gains for the individual capitalist”.[iii]

Throughout its history, man has produced and reproduced himself as a social being through work. The dominance of capital introduces a new contradiction in this historical condition. In the bourgeois historical phase, this social reproduction takes place as a moment of capital reproduction.[iv] Its direction and social purposes appear as the will and practice of capital which, by virtue of its internal competition, is forced to transform into capital the surplus value extorted in the production process and realized in the circulation process.

The exploitation of labor by a differentiated and exploitative social class reaches, in a society dominated by capital, its finished form, without extra economic constraints. The production of surplus value (surplus value) constitutes the basis, objective and engine of bourgeois society. In the vast majority of texts that reach the general public, however, capitalism is characterized and defined on the basis of trade and profit, originating in the sphere of the circulation of goods.

To the extent that the exchange of objects or services between humans (with or without money-currency intermediating this exchange) and obtaining some advantage (including profit), individual or group, through it, sink their roots in the dawn of historical times, the question of the historical origins of capitalism is displaced by that of its, so to speak, anthropological origins, which would be rooted in human nature itself.

Na Cambridge History of Capitalism one can read that “for millennia, capitalists were scattered, fragile and vulnerable. The origins of capitalism go as far back as archaeologists can find surviving evidence of organized mercantile activities.” Radicalizing, without archaeological research, this point of view, there are texts that are widely disseminated in which it is stated that, to the extent that commerce seems to be part of human groups since they exist, capitalism would be in the “DNA” of society itself. humanity (and would therefore be insurmountable).[v]

In this conception, wages would be the “fair” price of work, determined, like any other commodity, by the law of supply and demand. The questions of the origin of the value of the commodity, the transformation of the workforce into a commodity, and the origin of the profit of capital, do not even arise. In other cases, capitalism is identified with big industry, although “industrial society and capitalism cannot be considered synonymous, although both notions are closely linked. The capitalist process is the original variant of the industrialization process, since it was capitalist societies that historically appeared as the first industrial societies”.[vi]

The prominence given by Marx to the productive factors in the emergence of capitalism was contested by two authors almost parallel in time, at the turn of the XNUMXth century, and both as German as Marx: Max Weber and Werner Sombart, who shared a similar logic with nuances ( well) differentiated: the ethical-religious origin (Protestant or Jewish) of capitalism. As a Brazilian author summed up, referring to the most famous of these trends, “Max Weber's contribution to understanding the genesis of capitalism… traces a theoretical design basically based on a religious perspective, without taking into account economic factors, per se.

For Max Weber, the capitalist system is the result of a capitalist spirit, which depends on a Protestant ethic”. Although Weber relativized some elements of his basic methodological proposal, it remained unchanged, mainly in its historical (or rather, historiographical) foundations: “The various Protestant currents in England had stood out in terms of business results. The arrival of the Protestant Reformation allowed a growing body of people to embrace the ethic of order and work: what was the exclusive behavior of monks isolated from the world became mass behavior. It is what Weber called 'intra-worldly asceticism...

For Max Weber, “the determining factor that triggered the rise of capitalism was the Protestant Reformation with its rationality… The development of modern culture had a significant influence on the ethos rational, which would be a systematized ethical conduct, methodically rationalized. The Protestant ethic is associated with the idea that earning money is in no way reprehensible, on the contrary it should be considered as the goal of man's life, what should be strictly condemned is unnecessary spending, pomp, ostentation. For Weber, Protestantism leads people to seek a more disciplined life, one of non-ostentation, with habits of savings and discipline. People would live from work and work would be part of religion.

It is worth mentioning that, in this context, the capitalist entrepreneur would be the one who serves the company and distances himself from useless expenses, thus promoting a regulated life for himself… Not only work is exalted, but also a methodical conduct”.[vii] Although contested, Weber's approach has remained a model to the present, much more so than Sombart's,[viii] who attributed the genesis of capitalism to religion and Jewish ethics (plus the very inconvenient fact that the defender of the thesis had expressed his sympathies for the Nazi party).

A variant with Marxist tinges (but, above all, Braudelian and Weberian) was presented by Immanuel Wallerstein, who proposed the notion of “historical systems”, as “appropriate unit of analysis for social reality” (which would deny the priority given by Marx to “modes of production”). The “capitalist world-economy” would be one of them. Its origin would be situated “around 1450, and its locus in Western Europe… Far from being inevitable, this development was surprising and unpredictable (and) its resolution was not necessarily a happy one… Its decisive factor was never primarily the strength of capitalist forces, but the strength of those who made social opposition to it. Suddenly, the institutions that sustained this social opposition became very weak.

The inability to re-establish them opened a momentary (and probably unprecedented) breach for the capitalist forces, which quickly occupied and consolidated. We should think of this occurrence as something extraordinary, unexpected and underdetermined”.[ix] Capitalism would not have prevailed for its “virtues” (certainly commercial), but for the defects of its adversaries. Wallerstein took up Fernand Braudel's idea of ​​a “world-economy”, proposing the existence of a “modern world-system as a capitalist world-economy”.[X] In this proposal, capital has always existed, capitalism being the system in which “capital came to be used (invested) in a very specific way”.

What originated in the XNUMXth century, for this author, was the “European world-system”, an idea that he illustrated in his work Modern World System, divided into three volumes: “Capitalist agriculture and the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century”, “Mercantilism and the consolidation of the European world-economy, 1600-1750” and “The second era of great expansion of the European capitalist world, 1730-1840”. In the prelude to the first period, “the sufficient conditions (of capitalism) emerge involuntarily and contingently between 1250 and 1450, a period that many authors qualify as the “crisis of feudalism”…

The result of the decline of feudalism would have been one of many possibilities, and in the heat of events it was intrinsically impossible to anticipate such a peculiar development. This is exactly Wallerstein's position regarding the transition from feudalism to capitalism, that is, the formation of the modern world-system.[xi] Wallerstein presented his thesis as overcoming the anachronistic “step-by-step” approach of the sociology of development.

In this approach, capitalism would be a defining quality of the recent “world-system”, without differentiating a historical era or a mode of production. The “world-systems” would encompass the modes of production, but not the other way around. Its systemic logic would be the axis of interpretation of history. Followers of Wallerstein posited the existence of a millennium-long Afro-Eurasian, non-capitalist “world-system” as the great antecedent of the modern “European world-system”.[xii] Other authors pushed back this chronology and expanded its scope, reaching extreme formulations in its spatial and temporal dimensions.[xiii] The theory of “world-systems” as superior units was an adaptation of the proposal made by Braudel through the notion of “long duration”.

A “world-economy”, for Braudel, was a system capable of containing extensive economically centralized territories: in this “autonomous entity”, economic flows would go from the periphery to the center, with a social system where all people would be economically connected; therefore, it would be non-political, and also geographically delimited.

Braudel's concept designated the economy of a part of the planet capable of forming a self-sufficient system; political power was the basis of the constitution of an imperial center. Wallerstein invoked the Renaissance and the Reformation to explain that the crisis of feudalism ended the imperial principle and the supremacy of politics, which would have been transformed into an instrument destined only to collect the economic surplus.

The capitalist “world-system”, for him, would be specifically characterized by “possessing boundaries wider than any political unit”: “In the capitalist system there is no political authority capable of exercising authority over the whole”.[xiv] “Historical capitalism” would be the generalized commodification of processes that had previously followed paths other than those of a market. There would always have been capitalist social strata without them managing to impose their ethos the society. Both capitalism and the world market would be nothing more than the broader development of pre-existing phenomena, without historical rupture. The capitalist world-economy would be a system based on a hierarchical inequality of distribution, with the concentration of certain types of production (relatively monopolized production, with high profitability), in limited zones, headquarters of greater capital accumulation, which would allow the reinforcement of the state structures, seeking to guarantee the survival of monopolies.

The capitalist world system would function and evolve as a function, in the first place, of its economic factors. There were world-economies before capitalism, but they turned into empires and/or disintegrated: China, Persia and Rome are prime examples. The European “world-economy” was constituted from the end of the XNUMXth century; the constitution of the world market would not have been specifically linked to the emergence of capitalism, because “there was not just one capitalism, but several capitalisms (which) coexisted, each with its own zone, its own circuits.

They are linked, but they do not penetrate each other, nor do they even support each other”. In the capitalist world-economy, conjunctural cycles would behave analogously to Kondratiev cycles, lasting approximately fifty years and consisting of expansion and contraction phases motivated by determined technological changes. These theories have been criticized for their methodological basis. By considering only the cumulative or gradual character of the process, the capitalist era would lose its specific historical character. Nobody denied that capitalist economic relations emerged as international projections of a regional economy, which expanded worldwide.

However, for his critics, Wallerstein's theory “erres in considering the world-system in strictly circulationist terms [referring only to the circulation of goods and capital]. Capitalism, defined as a system of accumulation aiming profit through the market, is conceptualized in the context of exchange relations; economic relations take place between states within the framework of these exchanges. As a result, the question of the mode of production and its social component, the relations of production, is eliminated from the analysis, just as the relations and class struggles based on these relations disappear as irrelevant.

The system itself, in its totality and static abstraction, becomes an end in itself, in fact, in the construction of an 'ideal type'”.[xv] In another critique, we read that “the world-economy presents a characterization of historical capitalism very similar to mercantile capitalism. It considers that this system was forged by commodifying the productive activity with global mechanisms of competition, expansion of markets and bankruptcy of inefficient companies”.[xvi] In Gianfranco Pala's synthesis, “if structure and class relations are not enough to characterize a 'world-system', there is nothing left to define it other than its 'globality'. Which is equivalent to affirming a banality, that is, nothing. A specific difference of the capitalist mode of production is dissolved… We are faced with a 'descriptivism' – just because it is obvious – about the passage from one [social] form or situation to another”.[xvii]

Why did capitalism only come to be designated as such from approximately the second half of the XNUMXth century? This is just one of the questions that conceptions based on commerce do not answer. It is only in historically recent times that labor power has generally become a commodity, susceptible of being “acquired” against payment of remuneration (salary or similar forms). On this basis, the question of the origins of the labor/capital relationship as a socially dominant form gains entity, as it originates in a certain historical period, through a series of changes that qualitatively altered the social organization; not just the economic structure, but also the entire legal/political superstructure and prevailing ideological forms.

To the extent that, for capitalism, its constant expansion, in scope and depth, is a condition for survival, and also to the extent that a purely capitalist society does not exist and has never existed, the question of its origins differs from the question of “ transition”, as it presupposes a period of rupture, composed of countless more or less concatenated events; the notion of “transition” has a much broader meaning and has its own temporality, as it takes place in all societies where the passage from non-capitalist to capitalist forms, or from backward capitalist forms to more advanced forms, takes place.

Capital, as a social relationship, pre-existed capitalism, however it is defined. The question of the origin of capitalism refers not to the existence of capital in general, but to the transition from pre-capitalist systems to an economic/social system dominated by capital. Alan Macfarlane evoked Marx and Weber, “who dated very loosely, between 1475 and 1700, the revolution that led from feudalism to capitalism”. It would be better to speak of revolutions. As far as Marx was concerned, he referred to the “modern history of capital” (the term “capitalism” was little used in the mid-XNUMXth century) which dated, for him, to the creation, in the XNUMXth century, of a trade and a world market, coinciding with the so-called “European expansion” and with the discovery, conquest and colonization of America, as well as the colonization of important regions in Asia and Africa.

These phenomena had enormous repercussions in Europe, where they facilitated the transition to a new production system. The broader social phenomenon associated with this process, however, is not the expropriation and wage-earning (proletarianization) of important European population contingents, but the enslavement or submission to forced labor of huge portions of the African, American and even Asian population.

The combination of both phenomena was called by Marx “original accumulation of capital”, a formulation that became famous and was the subject of a specific chapter of The capital. Despite this nomination having been elevated to the status of a theoretical issue (Marx was not the first to deal with it), there was no lack of authors who, like André Gunder Frank, considered the aforementioned chapter as predominantly descriptive (that is, insufficient from the point of view theoretical or even historical). In any case, he is an unavoidable support for the theoretical structure of his work. Because, with it, “the structural and historical character of the conditions of economic development imposed itself, with all evidence, on reflection”:[xviii] according to another author, “Marx inserted historical data into the very depths of the argumentation from which he derives his conclusions.

He was the first major economist who systematically recognized and showed how economic theory could be transformed into historical analysis, and how historical exposition could be transformed into reasoned history.[xx] Even more: "It is perhaps impossible to find a relative, historical approach to economic laws in the history of economic thought before Marx",[xx] for he reintroduced history where classical economists had ignored it.

In the century and a half that separates us from magnum opus For Marx, the question of the origin and development of capitalism on a world scale was the object of heated polemics and debates. For the wage-labour/capital relationship presupposes not just one more stage in a long social evolution, but the most advanced and supreme (or “total”) stage of society structured on the basis of man's separation from his conditions of production,[xxx] carried out through the market, that is, “the multilateral dependence of individuals through value”.

The economic premises general of capitalism, commodity production and money circulation, preceded it in millennia; as a whole, these premises , however, were collected on a worldwide scale. Marx, as we have seen, identified the advent of the “age of capital” in the XNUMXth century, “although we see the beginnings of capitalist production already in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries in some Mediterranean cities”, referring also to the “transition of the mode of production feudal to capitalist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[xxiii]

Various authors after Marx pushed this date back quite a bit. Others, on the contrary, pushed it forward into the XNUMXth century, as “never, before our times, were markets anything more than accessory elements of economic life. Normally, the economic system was absorbed into the social system and, whatever the prevailing economic behavior, the presence of the market was recognized as compatible with it. The principle of exchange [trade] revealed no tendency to expand to the detriment of the rest. Where markets were most developed, as in the mercantilist system, they thrived under the control of a centralized administration that nurtured autarky in peasant households as much as in national life.[xxiii] The problem with this formulation is that, long before the XNUMXth century, local, regional and national markets became increasingly subordinated to the emergence and expansion of the world market, which conditioned “centralized administration”, where it existed.

For Marx, “the tendency to create the world market is immediately given in the very concept of capital”. This concept, however, would only reach its correspondence with reality, would carry out its passage from potency to act, through the creation of this market with interoceanic voyages. The break marked by these events was not, for Marx and other authors, just geographical, that is, determined by the fact that, before that, a large part of the world (America, Oceania,[xxv] much of Africa and Asia) remained “unknown”, obviously unknown to Europeans, as its original inhabitants knew it perfectly well, but they were considered “disconnected from the historical circuit” by later historiography. The rupture represented by the creation of a global logistics network, later transformed into a commercial network, was decisive, as it encouraged, thanks to the enormous increase in transport and commercial exchange, a qualitative change in the forms of appropriation of economic surplus, surplus product (and , therefore, of overwork), which had its epicenter in western Europe.

The exceptional productive capacity developed under the rule of capital is anything but a myth. If we take the sixteenth century as its starting point, the increase provoked by capitalism in social production, based on the increase in labor productivity, was enormous. According to Angus Maddison's estimates,[xxiv] if considering a reference value equivalent to 100 in 1500, world production would have reached a value of 11.668 in 1992, a hundredfold of global production in five centuries, having been the initial “100” reached in millennia of human history. In the same period, the world population did not multiply by 20.[xxv] Production therefore grew five to six times faster than population growth. Labour, freed from its extra-economic fetters by capital, was transformed into a power unprecedented in any preceding period. The liberation of the productive force of labor from any non-economic limitation or constraint was the historical role of capital: “The great historical meaning of capital was to create surplus labor, superfluous, from the point of view of mere subsistence” (Marx) – also opening , through the creation of an unprecedented abundance of means to create wealth and to control this creation, the possibility of a society freed from the exploitation and alienation of work. The era of capital also provoked the greatest demographic revolution in history, with an exponential increase in the human population.

The release of productive potential revealed social work in its virtually unlimited capacity to create goods and transform nature. Overcoming the shackles that contained and limited it revolutionized society, also creating unprecedented inequality between social classes and regions of the planet. The economic inequality with which capitalism is associated is not, however, a natural condition. Usually considered as an “economic system”, capitalism is much more than that, it is a mode of production of social life, whose structure is not exhausted in the economy; she includeiem and articulatem their political/institutional, ideological and cultural conditions, which in several some aspects preceded it.

The notion of mode of production seeks to encompass all spheres of social and even individual life (including, for example, private life and psychology), starting from the relations of production, which “constitute the economic structure of society, the base on which which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which certain forms of social conscience correspond”. The concept of “mode of production” is, in all fairness, identified with the work of Karl Marx, who introduced it into Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (1857) and made it the main interpretive key to human history.[xxviii] “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and spiritual life”, this was his central concept. Does yours extend beyond the specifically capitalist era? This point is far from being peaceful, even among Marxist authors.

To clarify it, one must take into account that the principle of historical specification of all categories is at the basis of Marx's theory.[xxviii] The specificity of capitalist social structures does not deny the universal elements that distinguish what is human, as a particular form of nature: by studying the historical specificity of capitalist society, Marx also built bases for the historical understanding of all forms of social organization and their ways of interacting with each other and with the environment.

The emergence of the value form,[xxix] that allows the capitalist social structuring, corresponds to the specific form of the social synthesis of bourgeois society, conveying its specific form of social relations, which does not exclude that this understanding of the human phenomenon cannot serve as a guide for the elucidation of the historical dynamics of other formations social; the universal nature of the concept would allow for the analysis of other formations through the study of the specific forms of structuring their particular social syntheses. Some authors have maintained that Marx's work would maintain that each epoch would be marked by specificities and regularities, or its own forms of movement, without any contact with preceding or subsequent historical forms: to affirm the opposite would be to propose a “metaphysics of history”, something that Marx would not have done.

Marx's mature work would be an analysis of capitalist society without interpretive value for other historical social formations, as there would be no continuity between the different ways in which human beings organized themselves to actively relate to their natural environment.[xxx] There certainly did not exist, for Marx, a “master key to a general historical-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical”, but that statement enormously reduces the theoretical-methodological scope of Marx’s work, by circumscribing it to an analysis limited exclusively to the capitalist system.

Marx's theory, therefore, is not only a theory for the analysis of the dynamics of capitalism, but of the totality of human happenings, as part of natural history and also differentiated from it. This understanding was defended by Eric Hobsbawm: “Marx was concerned with establishing the general mechanism of all social transformations, that is, the formation of social relations of production that correspond to a defined stage of development of the material productive forces; the periodic development of conflicts between the productive forces and the relations of production; the 'epochs of social revolution', in which the relations of production adjust themselves again to the level of the productive forces.

This general analysis does not imply any formulation about specific historical periods or about relations of production and concrete productive forces… Inasmuch as classes are only special cases of the social relations of production in specific, albeit certainly very long, historical periods. The only reference to historical formations and periods consists of a brief and neither explained nor justified list of 'epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society', expressed as the 'ancient Asiatic, feudal and modern bourgeois' modes of production, the latter representing the final antagonistic form of the social process of production”.[xxxii]

The concept of mode of production, however, did not emerge from a miraculous and supra-historical theoretical hat;[xxxi] he recognized antecedents in previous thinkers, such as William Robertson, contemporary and countryman of Adam Smith – considered the father of economic science – who wrote in 1790: “In all inquiry into the action of men while together in society, the first object of attention must be be your livelihood. According to the variations of this, its laws and policies will be different”. The passage from the notion of “method of subsistence” to that of mode of production was marked by Antoine Barnave's critique, based on the analysis of the conflict between agriculture and commerce in modern times.[xxxii]

The socio-economic formation, as a combination of modes of production in a given society,[xxxv] would be the modus operandi for the concept of mode of production in historical analysis.[xxxiv] Thus, it is stated that “the expression 'social formation' is frequently used to designate concrete stages, marked by heterogeneities, especially the forms of transition between the different modes of production”.[xxxiv] Godelier argued that this expression implied, in Marx, the integration of a social totality under the domination of a mode of production, which transformed each aspect of social life according to its specific dynamics, in a kind of self-reproduced circuit.

The general epistemological validity of “historical materialism”, Marx's theory, opens up a set of problems. A general approach to history should be based on affirming the existence of needs common to men of all times and societies. Marx called them “generic needs”, stating that their satisfaction had particular destinations in different social contexts. Determining these needs would make it possible to establish “concepts common to the whole society” (independent of the modes of production of each historical phase), on which Marx would not have left more than “scattered indications”, “reshaping the social space into two large spheres: the sphere of social production, crossed by power relations and ideological relations, and the sphere of politics, conceived as the field of reproduction/transformation of social relations.

At the same time, the Marxian intuition of the primacy of the immediate production process would be verified”. The conceptualization of these general conditions would allow finding “the good articulation between, on the one hand, the individual, his needs and intersubjective relationships, and, on the other, man as bearer of functions and agent of social relations”.[xxxviii]

The continuity of human history, in this conception, was based on its uniqueness, independent of differentiated “civilizations”, and determined by needs common to all men, with elements or tendencies common to all their geohistorical phases, which would prevent division. it into opposing or incompatible “civilizations”. If, in the words of Marx, “the totality of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor”; “Didn’t Marx himself have a strong tradition among Marxists of denying the existence of any human nature? stricto sensu: the very tendency of humans to act in the sense of retaining superior productive forces once obtained, through changes in the production relations, affirmed by Marx, resembles a postulate about human nature, even though its concrete realization is very variable over time time".[xxxviii]

How to reconcile this idea with the fact that Marx rejected any teleology deduced from an a priori “human nature”? It would be a “limit concept” of Marxist theory: “The expression naturwürschig, often used by Marx, has in him a very different meaning from that given by historians, poets and philosophers of the 'romantic school'… In Marx's lexicon (the expression) serves to characterize all relations, situations and social connections that are not yet produced and maintained ('reproduced') or more or less altered and developed by human actions… The spontaneous form of a social context contrasts with others, more or less conscious and desired, produced by human actions… Spontaneous forms are thus simultaneously characterized positively as already historical starting points of a continued development in which, more and more consciously, they are reproduced without changes, or can be altered or completely overthrown”.[xxxix]

At the time of Marx, historiography was already clashing with pre-modern historiographical schemes, in which there was not exactly “history”, as a mutant development, but the reproduction of similar civilizational cycles based on the basic schemes of natural cycles. Rejecting this, the hegemonic historiographical method of the XNUMXth century focused on seeking a history “true to the facts”, with a gradualist character. To this positivist scheme, Marx opposed the idea that the way in which man produced his social life conditioned the dimensions of his life in its entirety; without proposing, however, a scheme valid for all human societies, “adorned with this or that specific trait. Marx renounced defining a model of this type; instead of approaching society as a given object and in the form in which it presents itself, he analyzed the processes of production and reproduction of social life, thus creating the necessary ground to scientifically approach 'the special logic of the special object', the concrete logic contradictions and the development of a given social formation”.[xl]

In summary, the anthropologist Emmanuel Terray defined: (1) The mode of production, as the combination of an economic base and the corresponding political and ideological superstructures; (2) The economic basis of the mode of production as a determined relationship between the different factors of the work process: labor power, object of work, means of work – a relationship that should be considered under a double relationship: that of the transformation of nature by man – and from this point of view it appears as a system of productive forces – and the control of the factors of production – and from this angle, it appears as a set of relations of production; (3) The legal-political superstructure as the set of political and ideological conditions for the reproduction of this relationship.[xi]

For Pierre Vilar, historian, “a mode of production is a structure that expresses a type of total social reality, which encompasses elements, in quantitative and qualitative relations, which are governed by a continuous interaction: (1) The rules that govern the attainment by man of products of nature, and the social distribution of these products; (2) The rules that govern the relationships between men, through spontaneous or institutionalized groupings; (3) The intellectual or mythical justifications that [men] give these relationships, with varying degrees of awareness and systematization, the groups that organize them and take advantage of them, and that they impose on subordinate groups”.[xliii]

The word “capital” comes from the Latin capital, capitals (“main, first, chief”), which in turn comes from the Indo-European kaput, "head". It is the same etymology of the “capital city” (or “first city”) of modern nations, or the Italian boss, boss. In a broad sense, the concept of “capital” has been used since the beginning of the Modern Era as a synonym for wealth, in whatever form it is presented and however it is used: the term emerged in Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, place and period considered as the initial cradle of the new production system, designating stocks of goods, sums of money or money with the right to interest.

In the thirteenth century, in Italy, there was already talk of the “capital of goods” of a commercial firm. The French jurist Beumanoir used the term in the XNUMXth century to refer to the capital of a debt. In this sense, its use was later generalized in the sense of the sum of the borrowed money, differentiated from the interest paid on the loan. The term “capitalist”, in turn, refers to the owner of capital; in this sense, the use of the term dates from the middle of the seventeenth century. O Hollandische Mercurius used it between 1633 and 1654 to refer to owners of capital. David Ricardo, us Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (from 1817) also used it. His predecessor Adam Smith, however, did not use it in The Wealth of Nations (1776), where he referred to the new economic system as the “mercantile system” or “liberal”.

The term "capitalist" had already been used in 1753 in Encyclopaedia Britannica, as “the state of someone who is rich”; in France, it was already used since the 1759th century to refer to the owners of the means of industrial production. Rousseau used it in XNUMX in his correspondence, as did Mirabeau. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used it in What is the property? (1840) to refer to landlords in general. Benjamin Disraeli, future British prime minister, used it in his novel Sybil (1845), also called The Two Nations, in which the background of the plot was the atrocious conditions of existence of the new working class in England. Marx and Engels spoke of the Capitalist No. Communist Manifesto (1848) to refer to owners of capital. The term was also used by Louis Blanc, a republican socialist, in 1850. Marx and Engels referred to the capitalist system (Capitalistic System) and the capitalist mode of production (Capitalistische Produktionsform) On Das Kapital (1867): the term “capitalism” appears, however, only twice in volume I of that work. Finally, “around 1860, a new word entered the economic and political vocabulary of the world: capitalism”.[xiii]

The question of the origin of capitalism refers to the conception of human history as a differentiated continuity of natural history and to the society-nature metabolism as its decisive factor, to the “universal metabolism of nature”. If human history is considered as a succession of gradual changes conditioned by the clash and evolution of ideologies or “mentalities”, it can be considered, in fact, that capitalism would be a very old idea that took millennia to take root due to some dullness of the spirit or the absence of scientific/technical conditions for that (forgetting Adam Smith's first lesson: technological advances and machinery were children of the division of labor, not the other way around).

If we consider the structure of history as based on the contradictory sequence of modes of production, and the interrelation and penetration between them, conditioned by its material base, that is, by the degree of development of the predominant social productive forces, capitalism is a rupture historical, a discontinuity or “qualitative leap” in relation to the societies that preceded it. The great matrix of modern thought, which allowed us to arrive at this conception, was elaborated in attempts to overcome the linear evolutionary/progressive systems of the Enlightenment, based on an idealist philosophy.

These attempts were initially concentrated in the work of GWF Hegel, whose logic is structured around the categories of being, appearance and essence, from which he elaborated a vision of the historical process “decidedly separated from the evolutionary scheme. He remained a prisoner of this Kant scheme which, even after the French Revolution, remained faithful to the category of gradualism. For Kant history advanced at a slow but infallible pace for progress: the Enlightenment 'must necessarily, little by little (muss nach und nach), ascend to the thrones and exercise influence in the government's own directions'. However, the evolutionary scheme of history entered into a crisis with Fichte who, in an effort to decipher the French Revolution, arrived at a conception of history that admitted, alongside slow and gradual progress, violent leaps. Fichte used the image of a river that, when something tries to impede its peaceful course, overflows and floods everything.

According to Fichte, the convulsions of the revolution do not occur through the interweaving and development of objective contradictions, but through the artificial intervention (the blindness and thirst for domination of the despots) 'who in vain intend to oppose this progressive propagation of lights'. The complete defeat of the evolutionary scheme only occurs with Hegel, so much so that the category of the qualitative leap assumes a central position in his philosophy of history”.[xiv]

The origins of capitalism cover a period that extends, approximately, from the eleventh century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, a century that witnessed the “European depression” from which this continent or region of the world only emerged through the effort, the “qualitative leap forward”. ”, which represented the appropriation by capital of the sphere of production, through the so-called Industrial Revolution. Most popular texts that deal with this period do so only from the point of view of the “economic path” (when it comes to economic history texts) or the political or cultural-ideological event, separated from that, and framed within of the chronological triad (ancient, middle and modern history, in the XNUMXth century completed with “contemporary history”) derived from the attempts to divide history into periods carried out at the beginning of modernity, having as a criterion for this division or classification the political/ideological happening. This or these angles continue to dominate school textbooks and even university textbooks, which continue to present us with a version of human history that is disconnected from its productive bases and excludes leaps and revolutionary changes.

The political/social and ideological events informed the ruptures that paved the way for the victory of capitalism, without which those would not have been possible, since history does not have a life of its own, it is what men make of it, under predetermined conditions. In the well-known words of Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they wish; they do not make it in circumstances chosen by themselves, but in circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past”. This historiographic reconstitution is necessary because the processes and events, in all levels of human activity, that marked the advent of capitalism had nothing of a “natural automatism”.

Put bluntly, “explaining capitalism as natural, denying its specificity and the long and painful historical processes that gave rise to it, restricts our understanding of the past, and at the same time, limits our hopes and expectations for the future”.[xlv] In full agreement with this, our look at the past looks to the future.

*Osvaldo Coggiola He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Marxist economic theory: an introduction (boitempo).


[I] Gerard Bensussan. Capitalism. Dictionnaire Critique du Marxisme. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1982.

[ii] Labor power has a peculiarity that makes it unique among all commodities: that of being able to produce a value greater than its cost of production. This property, which makes it indispensable to capital, tends to increase with each new improvement of the productive forces, which makes it possible to increase the surplus of its product over its cost: the part of the working day in which the worker produces the equivalent of his salary. is shortened, the part of the day being lengthened when he has to give the capitalist his labor without being paid. Therefore, the distinction between work and labor power makes it possible to explain the “greater value” resulting from the production process, appropriated by the capitalist (surplus value), as the difference between the value of the commodity produced, that is, labor time spent on its production and the value of labor power, calculated on the basis of the values ​​of the commodities necessary for its conservation and reproduction. Having renounced his own labor power, his product is also the property of the capitalist.

[iii] Karl Marx. The capital. Book I, São Paulo, Nova Cultural, 1986 [1867].

[iv] Robert Finesch. Concetti Hegeliani and historical materialism. The Contraddizione nº 140, Rome, July-September 2012.

[v] It's not an exaggeration. In an article with a significant title, published in a widely circulated Brazilian magazine, a renowned historian stated that capitalism “is a natural event, an organic part of human progress (which) happens naturally, without the need for help from governments. It can be said that it is inevitable, unless the government takes certain measures to prevent it” (Paul Johnson. Humanity has capitalism in its blood. Veja, São Paulo, December 27, 2000). The author situates the beginning of capitalism in England in the XNUMXth century: in the preceding millennia, the most varied governments would have taken these measures, a version that would be a good way to help enormously simplify the history of humanity...

[vi] Raymond Boudon and François Borricaud. Capitalism. Critical Dictionary of Sociology. Buenos Aires, Editorial, 1990.

[vii] Glaudionor Gomes Barbosa. Origin of capitalism: a comparison between the approaches of Max Weber and Werner Sombart. Social and Human, vol. 22, nº 1, Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), 2009.

[viii] Werner Sombart. The Jews and Economic Life. São Paulo, Editora Unesp, 2014 [1911].

[ix] Immanuel Wallerstein. Historical Capitalism. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1985.

[X] Immanuel Wallerstein. World-Systems Analysis: an Introduction. Mexico, Siglo XXI, 2005.

[xi] Eduardo Barros Mariutti. Considerations on the world-system perspective. New Studies nº 69, São Paulo, July 2004.

[xii] Philippe Beaujard. Asia-Europe-Afrique: a système monde (-400, +600). In: Philippe Norel and Laurent Testot (eds.). Une Histoire du Monde Global. Auxerre, Editions Sciences Humaines, 2012.

[xiii] André Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills. The World System. Five hundred years or five thousand? London, Routledge, 1993.

[xiv] Immanuel Wallerstein. The Capitalist World Economy. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1979.

[xv] Berch Berberoglu. L'Eredità dell'Impero. Milan, Vangelista, 1993.

[xvi] Claudio Katz. Dependency Theory. 50 years later. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020.

[xvii] Gianfranco Pala. The vagrant pietra. invariant nº 25, Rome, 1993.

[xviii] Pierre Vilar. Sviluppo Economic and Historical Analysis. Bari, Laterza, 1978.

[xx] Joseph A. Schumpeter. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Rio de Janeiro, Culture Fund, 1961.

[xx] Witold Kula. Problems and Methods of Economic History. Barcelona, ​​Peninsula, 1974.

[xxx] Godelier pointed out that “Marx was right to eliminate the problem of origin and to affirm that it was not the original unity of man with his conditions of production that presented problems, but their separation” (Maurice Godelier. Marxist Theory of Precapitalist Societies. Barcelona, ​​Laia, 1977). According to Marx, “what requires explanation, what is the result of a historical process (is) the separation of inorganic conditions and active human existence, a separation that is not total except in the relationship between wage labor and capital” (Karl Marx. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 1991 [1857-1858]).

[xxiii] Karl Marx. The capital (Book 1 and Book 3, respectively), cit.

[xxiii] Karl Polanyi. La Grande Transformazione. Turin, Giulio Einaudi, 1974 [1944].

[xxv] Although the British incorporated Australia into their dominions only in the 1770s (after the voyages across the Indian Ocean led by James Cook, “the father of Oceania”, which began in 1766), the Portuguese already knew about it thanks to the first circumnavigation of the globe. , under the command of Fernão de Magalhães, who discovered the Marianas and other islands, and reached Australia in 1522. Other Portuguese later explored the region; in 1525 Gomes de Sequeira discovered the Carolinas and in the following year Jorge de Meneses arrived in New Guinea. The Dutch arrived much later in the region; Abel Tasman sailed off the coast of Australia in 1642 and discovered the island named Tasmania in his honor.

[xxiv] Angus Madison. Monitoring the World Economy 1820-1992. Paris, OECD Development Center, 1995.

[xxv] The demographic revolution of the contemporary era had its origins in the second half of the eighteenth century, parallel to the Industrial Revolution, and largely as a result of it.

[xxviii] “The materialist conception of history starts from the thesis that production, and with it the exchange of products, is the basis of the entire social order; that in all societies that march through history, the distribution of products, and along with it the social division of men into classes or social strata, is determined by what society produces and how it produces or by the way in which its products are exchanged. (Friedrich Engels. Socialism Utopique et Socialisme Scientifique. Paris, Editions Sociales, 1973).

[xxviii] “It is as incorrect to accuse the materialist conception of history of 'partiality' as it is to criticize physicists for their 'partiality' in reducing the diverse movements of animate and inanimate bodies to the law of gravity, without taking into account the changes caused by secondary factors. In the same way that the laws of physics owe to their 'unilaterality' the fact that they can be applied in technology, the 'laws' that govern the connections between the different sectors of social life, which materialist researchers discovered, and which served them as heuristic principles in their empirical (historical) analyzes of social facts owe precisely to their one-sided character the fact that they are theoretically and practically applicable (...) This particular quality, 'one-sidedness', is inherent in every new and revolutionary theory, aimed make epoch” (Karl Korsch. Karl Marx. Barcelona, ​​Folio, 2004 [1938]).

[xxix] At the beginning of The capital, Marx refers to the empirical fact of exchange value, determining it as “the phenomenal form of a content distinct from it: what is at the basis of exchange value is the value, considered independently of this phenomenal form”. Thus, “the Marxian analysis of merchandise presents itself as a leap from the simple to the complex, from substance to phenomenal form” – the dialectic of the value form would therefore be the founding principle of a critical theory of society (Hans Georg Backhaus. Dialetica della Forma Valore. Elementi critici per la ricotruzione della Marxian theory of value. Rome, Riuniti, 2009).

[xxx] Moishe Postone. Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[xxxii] Eric J. Hobsbawn. How to Change the World. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2012.

[xxxi] It is no mystery that Marx's theory articulated and reformulated in an overcoming synthesis concepts previously formulated by other authors: the concept of surplus value originated in salaried work was found in leftist Ricardian William Thompson, the analysis of history based on the struggle of classes in French liberal historians, such as François Guizot, in Pourquoi la révolution d'Angleterre at-elle réussi?, and Augustin Thierry, in his Histoire du Tiers État.

[xxxii] Ian Simpson Ross. Adam Smith. A biography. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 1999; Antoine Barnave. Introduction à la Revolution Française. Paris, Association Marc Bloch, 1977 [1793].

[xxxv] Guy Dhoquois. La formation économique et sociale comme combination de modes de production. Thought nº 159, Paris, October 1971. For Domenico Moro, “the concept of mode of production defines the functioning mechanisms of capital in general, abstracting from individual economies and States. For this reason, we must relate the category of the mode of production with that of the historically determined socio-economic formation, which gives us the image of individual states and the relations between them at a given moment”.

[xxxiv] Cesare Luporini and Emilio Sereni. The Concept of Economic-Social Training. México, Pasado y Presente, 1976. In this interpretation, “the universal meaning of each particular way of life is the mode of production that is at its base. The ways of life gathered in an articulation can configure the notion of socio-economic formation” (Elvio Rodrigues Martins. Geography and Philosophy. Free Teaching Thesis, São Paulo, University of São Paulo (USP – FFLCH), 2017). The concept had its origin in Marx's writings, "where socioeconomic formation (ökonomische Gesellschaftsformation) was used as an alternative to 'mode of production' to designate the totality of social relations that define a historically given society. Against the mechanistic view and economistic temptations, this concept allowed Marx to present an analysis of determined social configurations based on their structural and superstructural dimensions. The fact that this concept was, in some cases, presented in a way that does not differentiate it from that of the mode of production, or that places socioeconomic formations in successive order, inaugurated quarrels about its place in Marx’s work” (Marcelo Starcenbaum. José Aricó and the concept of socioeconomic formation. In: Karen Benezra (ed.). Accumulation and Subjectivity. Rethinking Marx in Latin America. New York, State University of New York Press, 2022).

[xxxiv] Michael Löwy, Gérard Duménil and Emmanuel Renault. 100 Words of Marxism. Sao Paulo, Cortez, 2015.

[xxxviii] Tony Andréani. From the Society to the History. Paris, Méridiens Klincksieck, 1989, vol. I (Les concepts common à toute société): according to the author, in Manuscripts from 1844 (so-called “economic-philosophical”) of Marx, there is the concept of a human nature based on generic needs (the “generic being” of man), anchored in non-economic structures, produced and reproduced by work.

[xxxviii] Ciro FS Cardoso: Why do human beings act the way they do? Answers based on human nature and its critics. History Magazine nº 167, São Paulo, FFLCH-USP, July/December 2012.

[xxxix] Karl Korsch. Karl Marx, cit.

[xl] Antoine Pelletier and Jean-Jacques Goblot. Historical Materialism and History of Civilizations. Lisbon, Print, 1970.

[xi] Emmanuel Terray. Marxism in the Face of Primitive Societies. Rio de Janeiro, Grail, 1979.

[xliii] Pierre Vilar. Introduction to the Vocabulary of Historical Analysis. Barcelona, ​​Criticism, 1982.

[xiii] Eric J. Hobsbawn. The Age of Capital. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1988.

[xiv] Renato Caputo and Holly Golightly. The story is a qualitative leap. La Citta Futura, Rome, February 2023. The main attempt prior to Marx to overcome Hegelian idealism, represented by the materialist critique of Ludwig Feuerbach, lost the historical-dialectical core that constituted its most important content, as Feuerbach “does not see how the sensible world that the fence is not something immediately given from eternity, always the same to itself, but the product of industry and social conditions; and precisely in the sense that it is a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole series of generations, each of which has built itself on the shoulders of the previous one, has further perfected its industry and relations, and has modified its order of society on the basis of the evolution of needs” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. São Paulo, Martins Fontes, 1998 [1845]). “What I dislike about Feuerbach is that he talks too much about philosophy and too little about politics”, wrote the young Karl Marx about it. The incompleteness of Feuerbach's method consisted in that his materialism had a “naturalistic” character; he conceived nature as an object and not as a subject, did not conceive of it “as a sensorial human activity, as a practice”. Feuerbach conceived “Man” abstractly, as “human being in general” and not concretely, in his active relationship with nature through industry and commerce, that is, through his social organization.

[xlv] Ellen Meiksins Wood. The Origin of Capitalism. Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Zahar, 2001.

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