Economy and Society: Evolution of Capitalism


R. R. Suresh

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    This is a textbook which brings together some of the major principles and theories, mainstream and heterodox, in explaining the emergence, evolution and working of the capitalist system. The subject matter is vast and principles and theories about a continual flow of events/phenomena are aplenty. Many have had a limited life (often losing their relevance as capitalism changed). Yet some have contributed significantly in the understanding of the capitalist socio-economic formation. These have been contextualised within the evolving structure of the capitalist system.

    Different systems prevailed in different parts of the world for many millennia before capitalism. Each flourished but gave way to another. The capitalist system emerged only recently in this world—about the 16th century, first in England. It subsequently spread to other parts of the world. Its spread and evolution has been in some way or the other different in different countries. It has gone through several stages and—even though large numbers of people, particularly in the developing countries, live under conditions of pre-capitalist systems—has a global reach today. Yet there is a certain commonality in the system in the different countries and in the world. The principles and theories discussed here help in highlighting this common essential nature of capitalism.

    This book emphasises that socio-economic formations change. The emergence of capitalism and its evolution illustrate this fact of change. Hence, the capitalist socio-economic formation must one day give way to another formation. Mainstream analysts, however, assume that the capitalist system is here to stay. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet bloc led Francis Fukuyama to proclaim ‘the end of history’,1 a view which only articulated what most already euphorically believed in since the Second World War. The 2008 economic crisis did lead to doubts about the eternalness of the system, doubts that tended to be brushed aside on the ground that all that was required was some corrective measures, some readjustments. Yet, as is pointed out in the book, the capitalist system has to deal with crises on several fronts—crises which may necessitate a different socio-economic formation.

    Mainstream economic analysts separate the economic and the non-economic aspects of the capitalist socio-economic formation on the premise that the capitalist market economy works irrespective of the politico-socio scenario in the state. This is reflected in the fact that mainstream social scientists tend to view each discipline as being independent of the other. More often than not, a person specialising in one area has little knowledge of the other areas, and thinks it not necessary to acquire any knowledge even if his analysis indicates some interconnection.

    A major reason for this segregated approach is the capitalists' desire that the state does not interfere with the economy. Changing textures of capitalism (monopoly capitalism, managerial capitalism, globalisation, etc.), the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the aggressive expansion of capitalism have reinforced this trend. Ironically, this is despite economics effectively impinging on more and more aspects of an ordinary person's life. A little objectivity in one's observation of the environment one lives in should make one aware of the subtle ways in which the market intrudes into our relations with others and into our values. There is even greater need, therefore, to analyse the socio-economic system in an integrated way so as to understand the interactive relationships between the economy, state and society. This requires correlating principles/theories in political science, sociology, economics and the like. This textbook has the limited objective of interrelating economics and economic life with other aspects of our lives—social, cultural, political, religious and intellectual.

    Interestingly, while the economy and economic life have become more and more complex over time, and economic aspects have tended to increasingly overwhelm socio-political aspects, mainstream economists have made economics even more difficult to comprehend for the layman (including the politicians), causing them to accept economic models and concepts as if they reflect what actually exists. For instance, the case for economic reforms in India and the world over rests on the neo-classical model of a competitive market capitalist system which is believed to actually exist despite markets in the real world being diametrically different. The pervasiveness of this capitalist indoctrination has been such that critics, even some leftists, unquestioningly accept mainstream economic concepts, models and worldview. People, thus, may seek to qualify such concepts as national income, capital and costs, but not question their validity. For instance, the incongruity of high and rising rates of growth of national income and increasing immiserisation of large sections of the people only elicits contrary stances (more so since the collapse of the Soviet bloc) about inequalities, poverty, environment but not to questioning the validity of the concept of national income itself.

    An understanding of how and why economic systems change is crucial not only in knowing the social order we live in but in analysing changing value systems, political systems, institutions (social, political, religious, legal or otherwise), social and political strife, clash between civilisations, etc.

    There is a strong and often aggressive, even violent, resistance to such a holistic viewpoint gaining general acceptance. This comes from the ideology of the dominant set(s) of people in society today, an ideology which emphasises a capitalist worldview. At all points of time, dominant ideology has to contend with insurgent ideologies, that is, with ideologies which were either dominant in the past or which seek to be dominant in the future: the former is represented by religious fundamentalism, the latter by Marxism. Both represent alternative approaches to the study of society. Common to both is that they view the different aspects of society as a part of an organic whole. But otherwise they differ fundamentally. The religious fundamentalist approach invokes divine forces external to the system so that people cannot alter their position in the social hierarchy of the country by their own efforts: the nexus between the state and religion seeks to ensure that the system continues. Such a system characterises semi-capitalist social orders. The Marxist approach emphasises that society (man) can determine how the economy functions, studies the social system as an integral organic whole, recognises that each part acts and interacts dialectically with the others causing the social order to change over time and believes that just as capitalism succeeded pre-capitalist systems, capitalism must also give to a superior system, namely socialism.

    This book incorporates mainstream and heterodox principles and theories into an understanding along Marxian historical materialist lines of the dialectical forces that propel the capitalist system to evolve from a competitive capitalist nation-based system to a transnational corporation-dominated global system. It stresses that the capitalist system is constantly changing, propelled by the underlying tendency towards increasing concentration of ownership and control of the means of production in fewer and fewer hands. Its innovative feature is that it departs from traditional analysis of the capitalist system in integrating the real sector of the economy with its monetary (financial) sector. In this, it carries forward Keynes' analysis. The place of finance in the economy has evolved significantly. However, not much attention has been given to it in current macroeconomics including economic growth (even Marxists, though Marx himself has incisive views on the subject). Considerable space has been given to explaining money and finance in this connection.

    The book starts with introducing the reader (in Chapter 1) to a simplified Marxian approach to the study of the economy, state and society. This is followed (in Chapter 2) by a survey of the various modes of production mainly with a view to bring out their distinctive features. This chapter is followed by a discussion of the origins of capitalism in England (discussed in Chapter 3) in the form of debates regarding the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The following chapter (i.e., Chapter 4) brings out the basic, distinctive features, the differentia specifica so to say, of the capitalist mode of production and the socio-political regime necessary for these features to exist. The rest of the book (Chapters 5 to 10) discusses the evolution, working and problems (crises tendencies) of the capitalist system, from its competitive nation-based phase to its present transnational global phase.

    The book is primarily addressed to the student who has some knowledge of economics. However, economic terms, from mainstream economics or Marxist political economy, are sought to be explained simply so that people from other disciplines and intelligent laymen also benefit. These explanations are either in text or in the footnotes. The serious reader would benefit referring to them.

    The book, as textbooks tend to be, discusses the subject in a rather abstract manner—despite reference to real situations—based on the origin and evolution of capitalism in England and the USA. Capitalism in these countries originated as industrial systems. It should not be used as a basis for understanding the emergence and evolution of capitalism in countries where it occurred or is occurring late. The origins of capitalism in these other countries can be in agriculture, in trade and in the service sectors. Moreover, in many of the countries where capitalism is a late entrant, pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist modes may continue to exist and may even be preponderant in terms of population covered.2 The reason is that each country differs from the other in its history, a history which includes the emergence of capitalism in other countries. A discussion of these differences is beyond the scope of this book. In any case, material in English is not easily available even for the limited work done regarding the socio-economic histories of different countries. Yet the book does bring out crucial points, such as that the essential features and required regime of a capitalist mode of production will tend to remain the same wherever it emerges (and irrespective of the sector in which it originates),3 that the stages it goes through would tend to replicate4 those in the countries where it occurred early and that the capitalist system is oriented towards increasing concentration of ownership and control of the means of production. These common factors result in the capitalist systems in the different countries coalescing into a world system based on transnational corporations.

    Cross-references are common in the text. But often arguments/phenomena are repeated where it is felt that the reader may not take the trouble to refer elsewhere.5 This is inevitable with a subject that is closely interknit, and chapterisation is only for convenience. Students who study this subject must make it a practice to follow up these cross-references. This will help in forming a comprehensive answer to questions.

    1 The End of History and the Last Man (1992) is a book by Francis Fukuyama, expanding on his 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’ published in the international affairs journal, The National Interest. In the book, Fukuyama argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the end point of humanity's socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government. (Wikipedia.)

    2 The functioning of the capitalist economy differs in details in different countries. This is to be expected given the different historical circumstances under which capitalism emerged in the different countries at different times. Moreover, in many of the later countries (more so in the larger countries) pre-capitalist formations continue and coexist with capitalism so that many sections of society are not imbued with capitalist ‘rationality and ethics’. (This is true even of countries where pre-capitalist modes of production have been destroyed by the onset of capitalism. In these countries, large sections of the populace continue to produce without being motivated by the capitalist objective of maximising private profits—for example, those in the household sector, non-government organisations, no-profit-no-loss organisations and philanthropic organisations and public sector/governmental bodies.) However, despite all this and despite countries experiencing varying degrees of control over the market by the capitalist sector, this sector affects everyone and all sectors and, more importantly, becomes the motor of change of the socio-economic formation. Also see Chapter 2, footnote 6, and Chapter 6 under Section vii: The role of the state.

    3 However, the capitalists will tend to be more tolerant of pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist values and practices as long as the control of the state is in their hands.

    4 It is likely that the late entrants may start with the monopoly-capitalist stage, that the competitive phase is either skipped or follows/accompanies the growth of capitalism at the monopoly stage.

    5 Unfortunately, it is a common failing amongst readers, particularly amongst students, in India.

  • Model Questions

    • Explain (i) social productive forces, (ii) artificial environment, and (iii) production potential of an economy. Indicate the place of social productive forces in the Marxian schema of social change.
    • Distinguish between variable capital and constant capital. Explain organic composition of capital.
    • Explain mode of production. Distinguish between antagonistic and non-antagonistic modes of production. Discuss its place in the change from one socio-economic formation to another.
    • Would you describe the following as a change in the mode of production: give reasons for your answer: (i) increased use of fixed capital per worker; (ii) increase in the area of land brought under cultivation; (iii) increased export of cotton from a country; (iv) increase in the number of educational institutions in the country; (v) the growing importance of the market in the functioning of the economy; (vi) nationalisation of production units.
    • Explain the concept of the superstructure of a socio-economic formation. Discuss its place in the Marxian thesis of the development of society.
    • Why is the superstructure more resistant to change?
    • Explain dialectical historical materialism. Do you agree with the criticism that it reduces the study of development of human society into economic determinism?
    • Explain the three dialectical processes. Oscar Lange describes these processes as laws that emphasise the tendency to harmonious adjustment of the social productive forces, mode of production and superstructure. How then are these processes used to explain development of human society?
    • The evolution of human society is through the emergence of contradictions and their resolution. Explain.
    • Explain why class struggle accompanies the transition from one socio-economic formation to another.
    • Summarise briefly features of each mode of production.
    • Indicate the organising principles of an economy under the different modes of production. Explain why the organising principle is what it is in a mode. Illustrate with reference to a mode—say, under feudalism or capitalism. Show how the organising principles, the production-distribution relations in the economy, prevalent in a feudal system are incompatible with the capitalist mode of production.
    • Work out the effect of growth in productive forces on production-distribution relations in the economy. Discuss the relationship between growth in productivity and the division of society on a class basis.
    • Distinguish between (i) simple commodity production and capitalist commodity production, (ii) commodity production under capitalism and socialism.
    • Summarise the Brenner debate and the Dobb-Sweezy debate.
    • Critically discuss the (i) Brenner debate and (ii) Dobb-Sweezy debate in the light of the causes for the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
    • Write short notes on the importance of the following as causes for the transition from feudalism to capitalism: (i) technological improvements in agriculture, (ii) growth of long-distance trade, (iii) growth of towns, (iv) class struggle, (v) role of primitive accumulation, (vi) demographic changes and (vii) colonial exploitation.
    • Bring out the factors that led to the growth of wage labour in England prior to the civil war in the 17th century.
    • Discuss briefly the factors that brought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
    • Bring out the relevance of the analysis of factors causing the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England.
    • Explain the relation between the economy and the state under feudalism and capitalism. What creates the impression that the two are separate spheres of activity under capitalism? Are the two in fact separate?
    • What is the source of the difference between the production relations under precapitalist and capitalist modes of production?
    • What are the institutions necessary for the maintenance of the M – C – M∗ circuit in capitalism?
    • Describe briefly the basic features of the capitalist mode of production. Why are they necessary for the pursuit of the M – C – M∗ circuit?
    • Compare pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production in respect of (i) nature of wealth accumulation, (ii) source of property accumulation, (iii) rule of law and private property, (iv) the existence of wage labour, (v) markets and market system and (vi) commodity production.
    • Bring out the prerequisites of a regime conducive to the capitalist mode of production. Indicate the thematic changes needed to bring this about.
    • Compare the extent of changes in capitalist and pre-capitalist modes of production. Would you agree with those who believe that mercantilism is the initial phase of capitalism?
    • Briefly enumerate the stages in the evolution of capitalism. Why would they be viewed as sub-epochs?
    • Describe the basic features of the competitive capitalist phase of capitalism.
    • Explain why economists believe that capitalism inevitably evolves from its competitive phase to the monopoly phase.
    • Briefly describe the basic features of Fordist phase of monopoly capitalism.
    • Compare the role of the state under competitive capitalism and monopoly capitalism in its Fordist phase. Account for the difference.
    • Explain the phenomena of ‘decomposition of capital’ and ‘decomposition of management’. Relate these to the growth of the corporate form of business organisation.
    • Account for the growing size of the business firm has been associated with the growing importance of finance and financial institutions in the functioning of the economy.
    • Account for the buoyant state of the economy in the Fordist phase. Why was the period characterised by the prevalence of socio-political stability?
    • The accord between economic accumulation and socio-political stability ensures the economic, political and societal reproduction of capitalism illustrates the close correspondence between base and superstructure (between the economy, state and society). Explain.
    • Bring out the factors that led to the collapse of the Fordist capitalist socio-economic formation.
    • Explain ‘the first industrial divide’ and ‘the second industrial divide’. Bring out their impact on the nature of the capitalist economy.
    • Describe the post-Fordist phase of the capitalist economy. Indicate the factors that affected the evolution of the capitalist system in this phase.
    • Compare Fordist and post-Fordist phases with regard to (i) the relative contribution of the different economic sectors in the national product, (ii) the relation between production and consumption, (iii) the nature of the workforce and labour unionisation, (iv) the nature of the middle class, and (v) the role of the state.
    • Explain the meaning of the ‘financialisation’ of the economy. Account for the increasing financialisation of the economy from the 1990s.
    • Discuss the impact of technological progress on the functioning of the capitalist economy.
    • Explain the phenomenon of ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’. How does Schumpeter use this to argue the case for the monopolies?
    • Explain why the neo-classical economists believed that the capitalist economy would be a self-regulating economy which would be fully efficient, ensure full-employment stability and maximum growth.
    • Bring out the role of Say's law and the quantity theory of money as the foundations of the classical/neo-classical assertion of a capitalist economy functioning at full employment level.
    • Bring out the reasons why Schumpeter, Galbraith and Keynes believed that the market was an inefficient system as the basis of the functioning of a capitalist system.
    • Explain the Keynesian argument that the capitalist economy would tend towards chronic underemployment equilibrium when the state follows a laissez faire policy.
    • Compare (i) Ricardian and Marxian views on economic crises, (ii) Keynesian and Marxian views on economic crises.
    • Compare (i) feudalism and capitalism in relation to economic development, (ii) competitive capitalism and monopoly capitalism with respect to economic development.
    • Compare the views of Schumpeter and Baran on the relative superiority of competitive capitalism and monopoly capitalism.
    • What do you understand by commodity fetishism? Indicate its impact on crises tendencies.1
    • Explain the reproduction schemes. What are the conditions that must be satisfied for maintaining equilibrium of the reproduction schemes?
    • Explain why the use of money as a medium of exchange causes the emergence of the possibility of economic crises. When does this possibility become reality?
    • Compare: (i) the Ricardian and Keynesian views on economic crises, (ii) Keynesian and Marxian views on economic crises.
    • Explain the concept of surplus value. What is its origin?
    • What are the reasons for the falling rate of profit? Compare possibility and necessity theories in this regard.
    • Compare the possibility and necessity theories of crises. What are the implications of these two approaches with regard to the possibility of the state being able to prevent the collapse of capitalism?
    • Explain the reasons for the financial crisis of October 2008.2
    • Explain the reasons why big business is opposed to the maintenance of full employment stability in the country. What is the political business cycle?
    • Explain the reasons for ecological crisis in a capitalist system. How is this interrelated with economic crises and sociological contradiction under capitalism?
    • Discuss the reasons for the sharpening of sociological contradictions in the capitalist system.
    • Explain the emergence of the middle class under capitalism. What has been the changing composition and role of the middle class in society?
    • The stated constancy of the share of wages and profits during the Fordist period hides increasing inequalities of incomes. Explain.
    • Discuss the view that mercantilism is commercial capitalism, the first stage of capitalism. Compare mercantilism and imperialism.
    • ‘It is in the small workshops, organised by the newly emerging capitalist class, that the forerunners of the modern corporations are to be found.’ Explain.
    • Explain the evolution of the multinational corporation from the small workshop.
    • Bring out the importance of the pyramid system of corporate administration on the expansion in the size of the firm. Work out its significance in facilitating economic globalisation.
    • Distinguish between classic internationalisation, old internationalisation, economic globalisation and financial globalisation.
    • Explain the factors that led to the transition from one stage of internationalisation to the other.
    • Discuss Kiely's view that the claim of globalisation of the world economy and mobile capital is an exaggeration.
    • Discuss the impact of globalisation in the Third World.
    • Explain the view that it is organisation and not technology which is responsible for inequalities in the international distribution of incomes and wealth.
    • Comment on the view that imperialism is a pre-capitalist phenomenon.
    • Explain Lenin's views on imperialism.
    • Comment on some of the points of criticism of Lenin's theory.
    • Explain neo-colonialism and dependency theory. Indicate the context in which they were propounded.
    • Does the economic globalisation in the post-Fordist period make Lenin's theory of imperialism obsolete?
    • Indicate the change in the nature of finance capital since Lenin's time. Explain its consequences on the prevalence of imperialism.
    • Bring out the conflict between nationalism and globalisation today. Indicate its impact on (i) forms of capital accumulation, (ii) on the capitalist and labour classes within the country and internationally, the role of the state, the economic sovereignty of the country, (iii) exploitation within a nation and between nations—on inter-national versus intra-national imperialism, and (iv) impact on state action for economic development of Third World countries.
    • Explain the view that Third World countries willingly participate in economic globalisation.
    • Discuss the thesis that the world today is heading towards the establishment of a transnational state.

    1 Refer also to the commodification of land, labour and money.

    2 Include here the meaning and reasons for the financialisation of the economy.


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    About the Author

    R.R. Suresh retired as Reader from the Department of Economics, Ramjas College, Delhi University. He has taught Economics for four decades. He began his career in teaching in 1962.

    His main focus areas were National Income Accounting and Comparative Economic Systems. He was active in syllabus revision committees of the Department of Economics, Delhi University, and in committees on Public Finance, National Income Accounting and Comparative Economic Systems.

    Apart from his activities on academic fronts, Dr Suresh was also the President of Ramjas College Staff Association for ten years and a member of the executive committee of Delhi University Teachers Association. He was an elected Delhi University teacher's representative on the University's highest decision-making body, the Executive Council.

    He has written two books, Public Sector Banking and Economics for Class 12.

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