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Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of capital goods and the means of production, with the creation of goods and services for profit. Elements central to capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, and a price system.

There are multiple variants of capitalism, including laissez-faire, welfare capitalism, and state capitalism. Capitalism is considered to have been applied in a variety of historical cases, varying in time, geography, politics, and culture. There is general agreement that capitalism became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism.

Economists (including political economists) and historians have taken different perspectives on the analysis of capitalism. Economists usually emphasize the degree to which government does not have control over markets ( laissez-faire), as well as the importance of property rights. Most political economists emphasize private property as well, in addition to power relations, wage labor, class, and the uniqueness of capitalism as a historical formation. The extent to which different markets are free, as well as the rules defining private property, is a matter of politics and policy. Many states have what are termed mixed economies, referring to the varying degree of planned and market-driven elements in an economic system.

In the 20th century defenders of the capitalist system often replaced the terms capitalism with phrases such as free enterprise and private enterprise and capitalist with investor or rentier in reaction to the negative connotations sometimes associated with capitalism.

The term capitalism, in its modern sense, comes from the writings of Karl Marx.

Economic elements

There are a number of different elements in the capitalist socio-economic system.

Capitalism is defined as a social and economic system where capital assets are mainly owned and controlled by private persons, where labor is purchased for money wages, capital gains accrue to private owners, and the price mechanism is utilized to allocate capital goods between uses. The extent to which the price mechanism is used, the degree of competitiveness, and government intervention in markets distinguish exact forms of capitalism.

There are different variations of capitalism which have different relationships to markets and the state. In free-market and Laissez-faire forms of capitalism, markets are utilized most extensively with minimal or no regulation over the pricing mechanism. In interventionist and mixed economies, markets continue to play a dominant role but are regulated to some extent by government in order to correct market failures, promote social welfare, conserve natural resources, and fund defense and public safety. In state capitalist systems, markets are relied upon the least, with the state relying heavily on state-owned enterprises or indirect economic planning to accumulate capital.

Capitalism and capitalist economics is generally considered to be the opposite of socialism, which contrasts with all forms of capitalism in the following ways: social ownership of the means of production, where returns on the means of production accrue to society at large, and goods and services are produced directly for their utility (as opposed to being produced by profit-seeking businesses).

Factors of production

A product is any good produced for exchange on a market. A commodity refers to any good exchanged in a market, but more recently refers solely to standard products such as raw materials.

There are two types of products:

  • Capital goods (or the means of production including intermediate goods, i.e., raw materials, tools, industrial machines, vehicles, and factories)
  • consumer goods capital goods are used to produce consumer goods (e.g., televisions, cars, computers, houses) to be sold to others.

The three inputs required for production are:

  • Labor (including human capital)
  • Land (i.e., natural resources, which exist prior to human beings) and
  • Capital goods

Capitalism entails the private ownership of the latter two — natural resources and capital goods — by a class of owners called capitalists, either individually, collectively or through a state apparatus that operates to maximize profits or that serves the interests of capital owners.

Money, capital, and accumulation

Money was primarily a standardized medium of exchange, and final means of payment, that serves to measure the value of all goods and commodities in a standard of value. It is an abstraction of economic value and medium of exchange that eliminates the cumbersome system of barter by separating the transactions involved in the exchange of products, thus greatly facilitating specialization and trade through encouraging the exchange of commodities. Capitalism involves the further abstraction of money into other exchangeable assets and the accumulation of money through ownership, exchange, interest and various other financial instruments.

Capital in this sense refers to money used to buy something only in order to sell it again to realize a financial profit.

The accumulation of capital refers to the process of "making money", or growing an initial sum of money through investment in production. Capitalism is based around the accumulation of capital, whereby financial capital is invested in order to realize a profit and then reinvested into further production in a continuous process of accumulation. In Marxian economic theory, this dynamic is called the law of value.

Capital and financial markets

The defining feature of capitalist markets, in contrast to markets and exchange in pre-capitalist societies like feudalism, is the existence of a market for capital goods (the means of production), meaning exchange-relations (business relationships) exist within the production process. Additionally, capitalism features a market for labor. This distinguishes the capitalist market from pre-capitalist societies which generally only contained market exchange for final goods and secondary goods. The "market" in capitalism refers to capital markets and financial markets.

Capitalism is the system of raising, conserving and spending a set monetary value in a specified market. There are three main markets in a basic capitalistic economy: labor, goods and services, and financial. Labor markets (people) make products and get paid for work by the goods and services market (companies, firms, or corporations, etc.) which then sells the products back to the laborers. However, both of the first two markets pay into and receive benefits from the financial market, which handles and regulates the actual money in the economic system. This includes banks, credit-unions, stock exchanges, etc. From a monetary standpoint, governments control just how much money is in circulation worldwide, which can play a role on how money is spent in one's own country.

Wage labor and class structure

Wage labor refers to the class-structure of capitalism, whereby workers receive either a wage or a salary, and owners receive the profits generated by the factors of production employed in the production of economic value. Individuals who possess and supply financial capital to productive ventures become owners, either jointly (as shareholders) or individually. In Marxian economics these owners of the means of production and suppliers of capital are generally called capitalists. The description of the role of the capitalist has shifted, first referring to a useless intermediary between producers to an employer of producers, and eventually came to refer to owners of the means of production. The term capitalist is not generally used by supporters of mainstream economics.

"Workers" includes those who expend both manual and mental (or creative) labor in production, where production does not simply mean physical production but refers to the production of both tangible and intangible economic value. "Capitalists" are individuals who derive income from investments.

Labor includes all physical and mental human resources, including entrepreneurial capacity and management skills, which are needed to produce products and services. Production is the act of making products or services by applying labor power to the means of production.


Macroeconomics keeps its eyes on things such as inflation: the rate at which money loses its value over time; growth: how much money a government has and how quickly it accrues money; unemployment, and rates of trade between other countries. Whereas microeconomics deals with individual firms, people, and other institutions that work within a set frame work of rules to balance prices and the workings of a singular government.

Both micro and macroeconomics work together to form a single set of evolving rules and regulations. Governments (the macroeconomic side) set both national and international regulations that keep track of prices and corporations' (microeconomics) growth rates, set prices, and trade, while the corporations influence what federal laws are set.

Types of capitalism

There are many variants of capitalism in existence that differ according to country and region. They vary in their institutional makeup and by their economic policies. The common features among all the different forms of capitalism is that they are based on the production of goods and services for profit, predominately market-based allocation of resources, and they are structured upon the accumulation of capital. The major forms of capitalism are listed below:


Mercantilism is a nationalist form of early capitalism that came into existence approximately in the late 16th century. It is characterized by the intertwining of national business interests to state-interest and imperialism, and consequently, the state apparatus is utilized to advance national business interests abroad. An example of this is colonists living in America who were only allowed to trade with and purchase goods from their respective mother countries (Britain, France, etc.). Mercantilism holds that the wealth of a nation is increased through a positive balance of trade with other nations, and corresponds to the phase of capitalist development called the Primitive accumulation of capital.

Free-market capitalism

Free-market capitalism refers to an economic system where prices for goods and services are set freely by the forces of supply and demand and are allowed to reach their point of equilibrium without intervention by government policy. It typically entails support for highly-competitive markets, private ownership of productive enterprises. Laissez-faire is a more extensive form of free-market capitalism where the role of the state is limited to protecting property rights.

Social-market economy

A social-market economy is a nominally free-market system where government intervention in price formation is kept to a minimum but the state provides significant services in the area of social security, unemployment benefits and recognition of labor rights through national collective bargaining arrangements. This model is prominent in Western and Northern European countries, albeit in slightly different configurations. The vast majority of enterprises are privately-owned in this economic model.

Rhine capitalism refers to the contemporary model of capitalism and adaptation of the social market model that exists in continental Western Europe today.

State capitalism

State capitalism consists of state ownership of the means of production within a state, and the organization of state enterprises as commercial, profit-seeking businesses. The debate between proponents of private versus state capitalism is centered around questions of managerial efficacy, productive efficiency, and fair distribution of wealth.

According to Aldo Musacchio, a professor at Harvard Business School, it is a system in which governments, whether democratic or autocratic, exercise a widespread influence on the economy, through either direct ownership or various subsidies. Musacchio also emphasizes the difference between today's state capitalism and its predecessors. Gone are the days when governments appointed bureaucrats to run companies. The world's largest state-owned enterprises are traded on the public markets and kept in good health by large institutional investors.

Corporate capitalism

Corporate capitalism is a free or mixed-market economy characterized by the dominance of hierarchical, bureaucratic corporations. State-monopoly capitalism was originally a Marxist concept referring to a form of corporate capitalism in which state policy is utilized to benefit and promote the interests of dominant or established corporations by shielding them from competitive pressures or by providing them with subsidies.

Mixed economy

A mixed economy is a largely market-based economy consisting of both private and public ownership of the means of production and economic interventionism through macroeconomic policies intended to correct market failures, reduce unemployment and keep inflation low. The degree of intervention in markets varies among different countries. Some mixed economies, such as France under dirigisme, also featured a degree of indirect economic planning over a largely capitalist-based economy.

Most capitalist economies are defined as "mixed economies" to some degree.


Other variants of capitalism include:

  • Financial capitalism
  • Late capitalism
  • Neo-capitalism
  • Post-capitalism
  • Technocapitalism
  • Welfare capitalism

Etymology and early usage

Other terms sometimes used for capitalism:

  • Capitalist mode of production
  • Economic liberalism
  • Free-enterprise economy
  • Free market
  • Laissez-faire economy
  • Market economy
  • Market liberalism
  • Self-regulating market
  • Profits system

The term capitalist as referring to an owner of capital (rather than its meaning of someone adherent to the economic system) shows earlier recorded use than the term capitalism, dating back to the mid-17th century. Capitalist is derived from capital, which evolved from capitale, a late Latin word based on proto-Indo-European caput, meaning "head" — also the origin of chattel and cattle in the sense of movable property (only much later to refer only to livestock). Capitale emerged in the 12th to 13th centuries in the sense of referring to funds, stock of merchandise, sum of money, or money carrying interest. By 1283 it was used in the sense of the capital assets of a trading firm. It was frequently interchanged with a number of other words — wealth, money, funds, goods, assets, property, and so on.

The Hollandische Mercurius uses capitalists in 1633 and 1654 to refer to owners of capital. In French, Étienne Clavier referred to capitalistes in 1788, six years before its first recorded English usage by Arthur Young in his work Travels in France (1792). David Ricardo, in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), referred to "the capitalist" many times. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet, used capitalist in his work Table Talk (1823). Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used the term capitalist in his first work, What is Property? (1840) to refer to the owners of capital. Benjamin Disraeli used the term capitalist in his 1845 work Sybil. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used the term capitalist (Kapitalist) in The Communist Manifesto (1848) to refer to a private owner of capital.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term capitalism was first used by novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1854 in The Newcomes, where he meant "having ownership of capital". Also according to the OED, Carl Adolph Douai, a German-American socialist and abolitionist, used the term private capitalism in 1863.

The initial usage of the term capitalism in its modern sense has been attributed to Louis Blanc in 1850 and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1861. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels referred to the capitalistic system (kapitalistisches System) and to the capitalist mode of production (kapitalistische Produktionsform) in Das Kapital (1867). The use of the word "capitalism" in reference to an economic system appears twice in Volume I of Das Kapital, p. 124 (German edition), and in Theories of Surplus Value, tome II, p. 493 (German edition). Marx did not extensively use the form capitalism, but instead those of capitalist and capitalist mode of production, which appear more than 2600 times in the trilogy Das Kapital.

Marx's notion of the capitalist mode of production is characterised as a system of primarily private ownership of the means of production in a mainly market economy, with a legal framework on commerce and a physical infrastructure provided by the state. He believed that no legal framework was available to protect the laborers, and so exploitation by the companies was rife. Engels made more frequent use of the term capitalism; volumes II and III of Das Kapital, both edited by Engels after Marx's death, contain the word "capitalism" four and three times, respectively. The three combined volumes of Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894) contain the word capitalist more than 2,600 times.

An 1877 work entitled Better Times by Hugh Gabutt and an 1884 article in the Pall Mall Gazette also used the term capitalism. A later use of the term capitalism to describe the production system was by the German economist Werner Sombart, in his 1902 book The Jews and Modern Capitalism (Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben). Sombart's close friend and colleague, Max Weber, also used capitalism in his 1904 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus).


Economic trade for profit has existed since the second millennium BC. However, capitalism in its modern form is usually traced to the Mercantilism of the 16th–18th Centuries.


A painting of a French seaport from 1638 at the height of mercantilism.

The period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries is commonly described as mercantilism. This period, the Age of Discovery, was associated with geographic exploration being exploited by merchant overseas traders, especially from England and the Low Countries; the European colonization of the Americas; and the rapid growth in overseas trade. Mercantilism was a system of trade for profit, although commodities were still largely produced by non-capitalist production methods.

While some scholars see mercantilism as the earliest stage of capitalism, others argue that capitalism did not emerge until later. For example, Karl Polanyi, noted that "mercantilism, with all its tendency toward commercialization, never attacked the safeguards which protected [the] two basic elements of production—labor and land—from becoming the elements of commerce"; thus mercantilist attitudes towards economic regulation were closer to feudalist attitudes, "they disagreed only on the methods of regulation."

Moreover Polanyi argued that the hallmark of capitalism is the establishment of generalized markets for what he referred to as the "fictitious commodities": land, labor, and money. Accordingly, "not until 1834 was a competitive labor market established in England, hence industrial capitalism as a social system cannot be said to have existed before that date."

Evidence of long-distance merchant-driven trade motivated by profit has been found as early as the second millennium BCE, with the Old Assyrian merchants. The earliest forms of mercantilism date back to the Roman Empire and Ancient China. When the Roman Empire expanded, the mercantilist economy expanded throughout Europe. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, most of the European economy became controlled by local feudal powers, and mercantilism collapsed there, however, mercantilism persisted in Arabia, the silk road trade lines continued, and mercantilism cycled following dynasty rise and collapse in East Asia. Due to its proximity to neighboring countries, the Arabs established trade routes to Egypt, Persia, and Byzantium. As Islam spread in the 7th century, mercantilism spread rapidly to Spain, Portugal, Northern Africa, and Asia. Mercantilism finally revived in Europe in the 14th century, as mercantilism spread from Spain and Portugal.

Among the major tenets of mercantilist theory was bullionism, a doctrine stressing the importance of accumulating precious metals. Mercantilists argued that a state should export more goods than it imported so that foreigners would have to pay the difference in precious metals. Mercantilists argued that only raw materials that could not be extracted at home should be imported; and promoted government subsidies, such as the granting of monopolies and protective tariffs, which mercantilists thought were necessary to encourage home production of manufactured goods.

Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey. The battle began East India Company rule in India.

European merchants, backed by state controls, subsidies, and monopolies, made most of their profits from the buying and selling of goods. In the words of Francis Bacon, the purpose of mercantilism was "the opening and well-balancing of trade; the cherishing of manufacturers; the banishing of idleness; the repressing of waste and excess by sumptuary laws; the improvement and husbanding of the soil; the regulation of prices..."

Similar practices of economic regimentation had begun earlier in the medieval towns. However, under mercantilism, given the contemporaneous rise of absolutism, the state superseded the local guilds as the regulator of the economy. During that time the guilds essentially functioned like cartels that monopolized the quantity of craftsmen to earn above-market wages.

At the period from the 18th century, the commercial stage of capitalism originated from the start of the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. These companies were characterized by their colonial and expansionary powers given to them by nation-states. During this era, merchants, who had traded under the previous stage of mercantilism, invested capital in the East India Companies and other colonies, seeking a return on investment. In his "History of Economic Analysis," Joseph Schumpeter reduced mercantilist propositions to three main concerns: exchange controls, export monopolism and balance of trade.


A Watt steam engine. The steam engine fuelled primarily by coal propelled the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

A new group of economic theorists, led by David Hume and Adam Smith, in the mid-18th century, challenged fundamental mercantilist doctrines as the belief that the amount of the world’s wealth remained constant and that a state could only increase its wealth at the expense of another state.

During the Industrial Revolution, the industrialist replaced the merchant as a dominant actor in the capitalist system and affected the decline of the traditional handicraft skills of artisans, guilds, and journeymen. Also during this period, the surplus generated by the rise of commercial agriculture encouraged increased mechanization of agriculture. Industrial capitalism marked the development of the factory system of manufacturing, characterized by a complex division of labor between and within work process and the routine of work tasks; and finally established the global domination of the capitalist mode of production.

Britain also abandoned its protectionist policy, as embraced by mercantilism. In the 19th century, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who based their beliefs on the Manchester School, initiated a movement to lower tariffs. In the 1840s, Britain adopted a less protectionist policy, with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts. Britain reduced tariffs and quotas, in line with Adam Smith and David Ricardo's advocacy for free trade.

Karl Polanyi argued that capitalism did not emerge until the progressive commodification of land, money, and labor culminating in the establishment of a generalized labor market in Britain in the 1830s. For Polanyi, "the extension of the market to the elements of industry – land, labor and money – was the inevitable consequence of the introduction of the factory system in a commercial society." Other sources argued that mercantilism fell after the repeal of the Navigation Acts in 1849.

Keynesianism and neoliberalism

The New York stock exchange traders' floor (1963)

In the period following the global depression of the 1930s, the state played an increasingly prominent role in the capitalistic system throughout much of the world.

After World War II, a broad array of new analytical tools in the social sciences were developed to explain the social and economic trends of the period, including the concepts of post-industrial society and the welfare state. This era was greatly influenced by Keynesian economic stabilization policies. The postwar boom ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the situation was worsened by the rise of stagflation.

Exceptionally high inflation combined with slow output growth, rising unemployment, and eventually recession to cause a loss of credibility in the Keynesian welfare-statist mode of regulation. Under the influence of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Western states embraced policy prescriptions inspired by laissez-faire capitalism and classical liberalism.

In particular, monetarism, a theoretical alternative to Keynesianism that is more compatible with laissez-faire, gained increasing prominence in the capitalist world, especially under the leadership of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s. Public and political interest began shifting away from the so-called collectivist concerns of Keynes's managed capitalism to a focus on individual choice, called "remarketized capitalism." In the eyes of many economic and political commentators, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought further evidence of the superiority of market capitalism over planned economy.


Although international trade has been associated with the development of capitalism for over five hundred years, some thinkers argue that a number of trends associated with globalization have acted to increase the mobility of people and capital since the last quarter of the 20th century, combining to circumscribe the room to maneuver of states in choosing non-capitalist models of development. Today, these trends have bolstered the argument that capitalism should now be viewed as a truly world system. However, other thinkers argue that globalization, even in its quantitative degree, is no greater now than during earlier periods of capitalist trade.


Classical political economy

The classical school of economic thought emerged in Britain in the late 18th century. The classical political economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill published analyses of the production, distribution and exchange of goods in a market that have since formed the basis of study for most contemporary economists.

In France, 'Physiocrats' like François Quesnay promoted free trade based on a conception that wealth originated from land. Quesnay's Tableau Économique (1759), described the economy analytically and laid the foundation of the Physiocrats' economic theory, followed by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot who opposed tariffs and customs duties and advocated free trade. Richard Cantillon defined long-run equilibrium as the balance of flows of income, and argued that the supply and demand mechanism around land influenced short-term prices.

Smith's attack on mercantilism and his reasoning for "the system of natural liberty" in The Wealth of Nations (1776) are usually taken as the beginning of classical political economy. Smith devised a set of concepts that remain strongly associated with capitalism today. His theories regarding the " invisible hand" are commonly interpreted to mean individual pursuit of self-interest unintentionally producing collective good for society. It was necessary for Smith to be so forceful in his argument in favour of free markets because he had to overcome the popular mercantilist sentiment of the time period.

He criticized monopolies, tariffs, duties, and other state enforced restrictions of his time and believed that the market is the most fair and efficient arbitrator of resources. This view was shared by David Ricardo, second most important of the classical political economists and one of the most influential economists of modern times.

In The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), he developed the law of comparative advantage, which explains why it is profitable for two parties to trade, even if one of the trading partners is more efficient in every type of economic production. This principle supports the economic case for free trade. Ricardo was a supporter of Say's Law and held the view that full employment is the normal equilibrium for a competitive economy. He also argued that inflation is closely related to changes in quantity of money and credit and was a proponent of the law of diminishing returns, which states that each additional unit of input yields less and less additional output.

The values of classical political economy are strongly associated with the classical liberal doctrine of minimal government intervention in the economy, though it does not necessarily oppose the state's provision of a few basic public goods. Classical liberal thought has generally assumed a clear division between the economy and other realms of social activity, such as the state.

While economic liberalism favors markets unfettered by the government, it maintains that the state has a legitimate role in providing public goods. For instance, Adam Smith argued that the state has a role in providing roads, canals, schools and bridges that cannot be efficiently implemented by private entities. However, he preferred that these goods should be paid proportionally to their consumption (e.g. putting a toll). In addition, he advocated retaliatory tariffs to bring about free trade, and copyrights and patents to encourage innovation.

Marxist political economy

Karl Marx considered capitalism to be a historically specific mode of production (the way in which the productive property is owned and controlled, combined with the corresponding social relations between individuals based on their connection with the process of production) in which capitalism has become the dominant mode of production.

The capitalist stage of development or " bourgeois society," for Marx, represented the most advanced form of social organization to date, but he also thought that the working classes would come to power in a worldwide socialist or communist transformation of human society as the end of the series of first aristocratic, then capitalist, and finally working class rule was reached.

Following Adam Smith, Marx distinguished the use value of commodities from their exchange value in the market. Capital, according to Marx, is created with the purchase of commodities for the purpose of creating new commodities with an exchange value higher than the sum of the original purchases. For Marx, the use of labor power had itself become a commodity under capitalism; the exchange value of labor power, as reflected in the wage, is less than the value it produces for the capitalist.

This difference in values, he argues, constitutes surplus value, which the capitalists extract and accumulate. In his book Capital, Marx argues that the capitalist mode of production is distinguished by how the owners of capital extract this surplus from workers—all prior class societies had extracted surplus labor, but capitalism was new in doing so via the sale-value of produced commodities. He argues that a core requirement of a capitalist society is that a large portion of the population must not possess sources of self-sustenance that would allow them to be independent, and must instead be compelled, to survive, to sell their labor for a living wage.

In conjunction with his criticism of capitalism was Marx's belief that exploited labor would be the driving force behind a revolution to a socialist-style economy. For Marx, this cycle of the extraction of the surplus value by the owners of capital or the bourgeoisie becomes the basis of class struggle. This argument is intertwined with Marx's version of the labor theory of value arguing that labor is the source of all value, and thus of profit.

Vladimir Lenin, in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), modified classic Marxist theory and argued that capitalism necessarily induced monopoly capitalism—which he also called "imperialism"—to find new markets and resources, representing the last and highest stage of capitalism. Some 20th-century Marxian economists consider capitalism to be a social formation where capitalist class processes dominate, but are not exclusive.

Capitalist class processes, to these thinkers, are simply those in which surplus labor takes the form of surplus value, usable as capital; other tendencies for utilization of labor nonetheless exist simultaneously in existing societies where capitalist processes are predominant. However, other late Marxian thinkers argue that a social formation as a whole may be classed as capitalist if capitalism is the mode by which a surplus is extracted, even if this surplus is not produced by capitalist activity, as when an absolute majority of the population is engaged in non-capitalist economic activity.

In Limits to Capital (1982), David Harvey outlines an overdetermined, "spatially restless" capitalism coupled with the spatiality of crisis formation and resolution. Harvey used Marx’s theory of crisis to aid his argument that capitalism must have its “fixes” but that we cannot predetermine what fixes will be implemented, nor in what form they will be. His work on contractions of capital accumulation and international movements of capitalist modes of production and money flows has been influential. According to Harvey, capitalism creates the conditions for volatile and geographically uneven development

Weberian political sociology

In social science, the understanding of the defining characteristics of capitalism has been strongly influenced by the German sociologist, Max Weber. Weber considered market exchange, a voluntary supply of labor and a planned division of labor within the entreprises as defining features of capitalism. Capitalist enterprises, in contrast to their counterparts in prior modes of economic activity, were directed toward the rationalization of production, maximizing efficiency and productivity – a tendency embedded in a sociological process of enveloping rationalization that formed modern legal bureaucracies in both public and private spheres. According to Weber, workers in pre-capitalist economies understood work in terms of a personal relationship between master and journeyman in a guild, or between lord and peasant in a manor.

For these developments of capitalism to emerge, Weber argued, it was necessary the development of a "capitalist spirit"; that is, ideas and habits that favour a rational pursuit of economic gain. These ideas, in order to propagate a certain manner of life and come to dominate others, "had to originate somewhere... as a way of life common to whole groups of men". In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), Weber sought to trace how a particular form of religious spirit, infused into traditional modes of economic activity, was a condition of possibility of modern western capitalism. For Weber, the 'spirit of capitalism' was, in general, that of ascetic Protestantism; this ideology was able to motivate extreme rationalization of daily life, a propensity to accumulate capital by a religious ethic to advance economically through hard and diligent work, and thus also the propensity to reinvest capital. This was sufficient, then, to create "self-mediating capital" as conceived by Marx.

This is pictured in the Protestant understanding of beruf – whose meaning encompass at the same time profession, vocation, and calling – as exemplified in Proverbs 22:29, “Seest thou a man diligent in his calling? He shall stand before kings”. In the Protestant Ethic, Weber describes the developments of this idea of calling from its religious roots, through the understanding of someone`s economic success as a sign of his salvation, until the conception that moneymaking is, within the modern economic order, the result and the expression of diligence in one’s calling.

Finally, as the social mores critical for its development became no longer necessary for its maintenance, modern western capitalism came to represent the order "now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt" (p. 123). This is further seen in his criticism of "specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart" that were developing, in his opinion, with the fading of the original Puritan "spirit" associated with capitalism.

Institutional economics

Thorstein Veblen

Institutional economics, once the main school of economic thought in the United States, holds that capitalism cannot be separated from the political and social system within which it is embedded. It emphasizes the legal foundations of capitalism (see John R. Commons) and the evolutionary, habituated, and volitional processes by which institutions are erected and then changed (see John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and Daniel Bromley.)

One key figure in institutional economics was Thorstein Veblen who in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), analyzed the motivations of wealthy people in capitalism who conspicuously consumed their riches as a way of demonstrating success. The concept of conspicuous consumption was in direct contradiction to the neoclassical view that capitalism was efficient.

In The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) Veblen distinguished the motivations of industrial production for people to use things from business motivations that used, or misused, industrial infrastructure for profit, arguing that the former often is hindered because businesses pursue the latter. Output and technological advance are restricted by business practices and the creation of monopolies. Businesses protect their existing capital investments and employ excessive credit, leading to depressions and increasing military expenditure and war through business control of political power.

German Historical School and Austrian School

From the perspective of the German Historical School, capitalism is primarily identified in terms of the organization of production for markets. Although this perspective shares similar theoretical roots with that of Weber, its emphasis on markets and money lends it different focus. For followers of the German Historical School, the key shift from traditional modes of economic activity to capitalism involved the shift from medieval restrictions on credit and money to the modern monetary economy combined with an emphasis on the profit motive.

Ludwig von Mises

In the late 19th century, the German Historical School of economics diverged, with the emerging Austrian School of economics, led at the time by Carl Menger. Later generations of followers of the Austrian School continued to be influential in Western economic thought in the early part of the 20th century.

Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter, sometimes associated with the School, emphasized the " creative destruction" of capitalism—the fact that market economies undergo constant change. Schumpeter argued that at any moment in time there are rising industries and declining industries. Schumpeter, and many contemporary economists influenced by his work, argue that resources should flow from the declining to the expanding industries for an economy to grow, but they recognized that sometimes resources are slow to withdraw from the declining industries because of various forms of institutional resistance to change.

The Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were among the leading defenders of market economy against 20th century proponents of socialist planned economies. Mises and Hayek argued that only market capitalism could manage a complex, modern economy.

Since a modern economy produces such a large array of distinct goods and services, and consists of such a large array of consumers and enterprises, argued Mises and Hayek, the information problems facing any other form of economic organization other than market capitalism would exceed its capacity to handle information. Thinkers within Supply-side economics built on the work of the Austrian School, and particularly emphasize Say's Law: "supply creates its own demand." Capitalism, to this school, is defined by lack of state restraint on the decisions of producers.

Austrian economists such as Murray Rothbard argued that Marx failed to make the distinction between capitalism and mercantilism. They argue that Marx conflated the imperialistic, colonialistic, protectionist and interventionist doctrines of mercantilism with capitalism.

Austrian economics has been a major influence on some forms of libertarianism, in which laissez-faire capitalism is considered to be the ideal economic system.

Keynesian economics

In his 1937 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, the British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that capitalism suffered a basic problem in its ability to recover from periods of slowdowns in investment. Keynes argued that a capitalist economy could remain in an indefinite equilibrium despite high unemployment.

Essentially rejecting Say's law, he argued that some people may have a liquidity preference that would see them rather hold money than buy new goods or services, which therefore raised the prospect that the Great Depression would not end without what he termed in the General Theory "a somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment."

Keynesian economics challenged the notion that laissez-faire capitalist economics could operate well on their own, without state intervention used to promote aggregate demand, fighting high unemployment and deflation of the sort seen during the 1930s. He and his followers recommended " pump-priming" the economy to avoid recession: cutting taxes, increasing government borrowing, and spending during an economic down-turn. This was to be accompanied by trying to control wages nationally partly through the use of inflation to cut real wages and to deter people from holding money.

John Maynard Keynes tried to provide solutions to many of Marx’s problems without completely abandoning the classical understanding of capitalism. His work attempted to show that regulation can be effective, and that economic stabilizers can rein in the aggressive expansions and recessions that Marx disliked. These changes sought to create more stability in the business cycle, and reduce the abuses of laborers. Keynesian economists argue that Keynesian policies were one of the primary reasons capitalism was able to recover following the Great Depression. The premises of Keynes’s work have, however, since been challenged by neoclassical and supply-side economics and the Austrian School.

Another challenge to Keynesian thinking came from his colleague Piero Sraffa, and subsequently from the Neo-Ricardian school that followed Sraffa. In Sraffa's highly technical analysis, capitalism is defined by an entire system of social relations among both producers and consumers, but with a primary emphasis on the demands of production. According to Sraffa, the tendency of capital to seek its highest rate of profit causes a dynamic instability in social and economic relations.

Neoclassical economics and the Chicago School

Today, the majority of academic research on capitalism in the English-speaking world draws on neoclassical economic thought. It favors extensive market coordination and relatively neutral patterns of governmental market regulation aimed at maintaining property rights; deregulated labor markets; corporate governance dominated by financial owners of firms; and financial systems depending chiefly on capital market-based financing rather than state financing.

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman took many of the basic principles set forth by Adam Smith and the classical economists and gave them a new twist. One example of this is his article in the September 1970 issue of The New York Times Magazine, where he argues that the social responsibility of business is “to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits...(through) open and free competition without deception or fraud.” This is similar to Smith’s argument that self-interest in turn benefits the whole of society. Work like this helped lay the foundations for the coming marketization (or privatization) of state enterprises and the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

The Chicago School of economics is best known for its free market advocacy and monetarist ideas. According to Friedman and other monetarists, market economies are inherently stable if left to themselves and depressions result only from government intervention.

Friedman, for example, argued that the Great Depression was result of a contraction of the money supply, controlled by the Federal Reserve, and not by the lack of investment as John Maynard Keynes had argued. Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is among the economists today generally accepting Friedman's analysis of the causes of the Great Depression.

Neoclassical economists, today the majority of economists, consider value to be subjective, varying from person to person and for the same person at different times, and thus reject the labor theory of value. Marginalism is the theory that economic value results from marginal utility and marginal cost (the marginal concepts). These economists see capitalists as earning profits by forgoing current consumption, by taking risks, and by organizing production.

Neoclassical economic theory

Neoclassical economics explain capitalism as made up of individuals, enterprises, markets and government. According to their theories, individuals engage in a capitalist economy as consumers, laborers, and investors. As laborers, individuals may decide which jobs to prepare for, and in which markets to look for work. As investors they decide how much of their income to save and how to invest their savings. These savings, which become investments, provide much of the money that businesses need to grow.

Business firms decide what to produce and where this production should occur. They also purchase inputs (materials, labor, and capital). Businesses try to influence consumer purchase decisions through marketing and advertisement, as well as the creation of new and improved products. Driving the capitalist economy is the search for profits (revenues minus expenses). This is known as the profit motive, and it helps ensure that companies produce the goods and services that consumers desire and are able to buy. To be profitable, firms must sell a quantity of their product at a certain price to yield a profit. A business may lose money if sales fall too low or if its costs become too high. The profit motive encourages firms to operate more efficiently. By using less materials, labor or capital, a firm can cut its production costs, which can lead to increased profits.

An economy grows when the total value of goods and services produced rises. This growth requires investment in infrastructure, capital and other resources necessary in production. In a capitalist system, businesses decide when and how much they want to invest.

Income in a capitalist economy depends primarily on what skills are in demand and what skills are being supplied. Skills that are in scarce supply are worth more in the market and can attract higher incomes. Competition among workers for jobs — and among employers for skilled workers — help determine wage rates. Firms need to pay high enough wages to attract the appropriate workers; when jobs are scarce, workers may accept lower wages than they would when jobs are plentiful. Trade union and governments influence wages in capitalist systems. Unions act to represent their members in negotiations with employers over such things as wage rates and acceptable working conditions.

The market

The price (P) of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply, S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand, D). This results in a market equilibrium, with a given quantity (Q) sold of the product. A rise in demand would result in an increase in price and an increase in output.

Supply is the amount of a good or service produced by a firm and which is available for sale. Demand is the amount that people are willing to buy at a specific price. Prices tend to rise when demand exceeds supply, and fall when supply exceeds demand. In theory, the market is able to coordinate itself when a new equilibrium price and quantity is reached.

Competition arises when more than one producer is trying to sell the same or similar products to the same buyers. In capitalist theory, competition leads to innovation and more affordable prices. Without competition, a monopoly or cartel may develop. A monopoly occurs when a firm supplies the total output in the market; the firm can therefore limit output and raise prices because it has no fear of competition. A cartel is a group of firms that act together in a monopolistic manner to control output and raise prices.

Role of government

In a capitalist system, the government does not prohibit private property or prevent individuals from working where they please. The government does not prevent firms from determining what wages they will pay and what prices they will charge for their products. Many countries, however, have minimum wage laws and minimum safety standards.

Under some versions of capitalism, the government carries out a number of economic functions, such as issuing money, supervising public utilities and enforcing private contracts. Many countries have competition laws that prohibit monopolies and cartels from forming. Despite anti-monopoly laws, large corporations can form near-monopolies in some industries. Such firms can temporarily drop prices and accept losses to prevent competition from entering the market, and then raise them again once the threat of entry is reduced. In many countries, public utilities (e.g. electricity, heating fuel, communications) are able to operate as a monopoly under government regulation, due to high economies of scale.

Government agencies regulate the standards of service in many industries, such as airlines and broadcasting, as well as financing a wide range of programs. In addition, the government regulates the flow of capital and uses financial tools such as the interest rate to control factors such as inflation and unemployment.

Democracy, the state, and legal frameworks

Private property

The relationship between the state, its formal mechanisms, and capitalist societies has been debated in many fields of social and political theory, with active discussion since the 19th century. Hernando de Soto is a contemporary economist who has argued that an important characteristic of capitalism is the functioning state protection of property rights in a formal property system where ownership and transactions are clearly recorded.

According to de Soto, this is the process by which physical assets are transformed into capital, which in turn may be used in many more ways and much more efficiently in the market economy. A number of Marxian economists have argued that the Enclosure Acts in England, and similar legislation elsewhere, were an integral part of capitalist primitive accumulation and that specific legal frameworks of private land ownership have been integral to the development of capitalism.


New institutional economics, a field pioneered by Douglass North, stresses the need of a legal framework in order for capitalism to function optimally, and focuses on the relationship between the historical development of capitalism and the creation and maintenance of political and economic institutions. In new institutional economics and other fields focusing on public policy, economists seek to judge when and whether governmental intervention (such as taxes, welfare, and government regulation) can result in potential gains in efficiency. According to Gregory Mankiw, a New Keynesian economist, governmental intervention can improve on market outcomes under conditions of " market failure", or situations in which the market on its own does not allocate resources efficiently.

Market failure occurs when an externality is present and a market will either under-produce a product with a positive externalization or overproduce a product that generates a negative externalization. Air pollution, for instance, is a negative externalization that cannot be incorporated into markets as the world’s air is not owned and then sold for use to polluters. So, too much pollution could be emitted and people not involved in the production pay the cost of the pollution instead of the firm that initially emitted the air pollution. Critics of market failure theory, like Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, and James M. Buchanan argue that government programs and policies also fall short of absolute perfection. Market failures are often small, and government failures are sometimes large. It is therefore the case that imperfect markets are often better than imperfect governmental alternatives. While all nations currently have some kind of market regulations, the desirable degree of regulation is disputed.


The relationship between democracy and capitalism is a contentious area in theory and popular political movements. The extension of universal adult male suffrage in 19th century Britain occurred along with the development of industrial capitalism, and democracy became widespread at the same time as capitalism, leading many theorists to posit a causal relationship between them, or that each affects the other. However, in the 20th century, according to some authors, capitalism also accompanied a variety of political formations quite distinct from liberal democracies, including fascist regimes, absolute monarchies, and single-party states.

While some thinkers argue that capitalist development more-or-less inevitably eventually leads to the emergence of democracy, others dispute this claim. Research on the democratic peace theory indicates that capitalist democracies rarely make war with one another and have little internal violence. However, critics of the democratic peace theory note that democratic capitalist states may fight infrequently and or never with other democratic capitalist states because of political similarity or stability rather than because they are democratic or capitalist.

Some commentators argue that though economic growth under capitalism has led to democratization in the past, it may not do so in the future, as authoritarian regimes have been able to manage economic growth without making concessions to greater political freedom. States that have highly capitalistic economic systems have thrived under authoritarian or oppressive political systems. Singapore, which maintains a highly open market economy and attracts lots of foreign investment, does not protect civil liberties such as freedom of speech and expression. The private (capitalist) sector in the People's Republic of China has grown exponentially and thrived since its inception, despite having an authoritarian government. Augusto Pinochet's rule in Chile led to economic growth by using authoritarian means to create a safe environment for investment and capitalism.

In response to criticism of the system, some proponents of capitalism have argued that its advantages are supported by empirical research. Indices of Economic Freedom show a correlation between nations with more economic freedom (as defined by the indices) and higher scores on variables such as income and life expectancy, including the poor, in these nations.

Advocacy for capitalism

Economic growth

World's GDP per capita shows exponential growth since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Capitalism and the economy of the People's Republic of China

Many theorists and policymakers in predominantly capitalist nations have emphasized capitalism's ability to promote economic growth, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), capacity utilization or standard of living. This argument was central, for example, to Adam Smith's advocacy of letting a free market control production and price, and allocate resources. Many theorists have noted that this increase in global GDP over time coincides with the emergence of the modern world capitalist system.

In years 1000–1820 world economy grew sixfold, 50% per person. After capitalism had started to spread more widely, in years 1820–1998 world economy grew 50-fold, i.e., 9-fold per person. In most capitalist economic regions such as Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the economy grew 19-fold per person even though these countries already had a higher starting level, and in Japan, which was poor in 1820, to 31-fold, whereas in the rest of the world the growth was only 5-fold per person.

Proponents argue that increasing GDP (per capita) is empirically shown to bring about improved standards of living, such as better availability of food, housing, clothing, and health care. The decrease in the number of hours worked per week and the decreased participation of children and the elderly in the workforce have been attributed to capitalism.

Proponents also believe that a capitalist economy offers far more opportunities for individuals to raise their income through new professions or business ventures than do other economic forms. To their thinking, this potential is much greater than in either traditional feudal or tribal societies or in socialist societies.

Political freedom

In his book The Road to Serfdom, Freidrich Hayek reasons that the economic freedom of capitalism is a requisite of political freedom. The argument he puts forward is that the market mechanism is the only way of deciding what to produce and how to distribute the items without using coercion. Milton Friedman further repeated the statement which has been continuously echoed by others such as Andrew Brennan and Ronald Reagan. Friedman stated that centralized operations of economic activity is always accompanied by political repression. In his view, transactions in a market economy are voluntary, and the wide diversity that voluntary activity permits is a fundamental threat to repressive political leaders and greatly diminish power to coerce. Friedman's view was also shared by John Maynard Keynes, who believed that capitalism is vital for freedom to survive and thrive.


Austrian School economists have argued that capitalism can organize itself into a complex system without an external guidance or central planning mechanism. Friedrich Hayek considered the phenomenon of self-organization as underpinning capitalism. Prices serve as a signal as to the urgent and unfilled wants of people, and the opportunity to earn profits if successful, or absorb losses if resources are used poorly or left idle, gives entrepreneurs incentive to use their knowledge and resources to satisfy those wants. Thus the activities of millions of people, each seeking his own interest, are coordinated.


An Industrial Workers of the World poster (1911)

Critics of capitalism associate it with social inequality and unfair distribution of wealth and power; a tendency toward market monopoly or oligopoly (and government by oligarchy); imperialism, counter-revolutionary wars and various forms of economic and cultural exploitation; materialism; repression of workers and trade unionists; social alienation; economic inequality; unemployment; and economic instability. Individual property rights have also been associated with the tragedy of the anticommons.

Notable critics of capitalism have included: socialists, anarchists, communists, national socialists, social democrats, technocrats, some types of conservatives, Luddites, Narodniks, Shakers, and some types of nationalists.

Marxists have advocated a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism that would lead to socialism, before eventually transforming into communism. Many socialists consider capitalism to be irrational, in that production and the direction of the economy are unplanned, creating many inconsistencies and internal contradictions. Labor historians and scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein have argued that unfree labor — by slaves, indentured servants, prisoners, and other coerced persons — is compatible with capitalist relations.

Many aspects of capitalism have come under attack from the anti-globalization movement, which is primarily opposed to corporate capitalism. Environmentalists have argued that capitalism requires continual economic growth, and that it will inevitably deplete the finite natural resources of the Earth.

Many religions have criticized or opposed specific elements of capitalism. Traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam forbid lending money at interest, although alternative methods of banking have been developed. Some Christians have criticized capitalism for its materialist aspects and its inability to account for the wellbeing of all people. Many of Jesus's parables deal with clearly economic concerns: farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, being excluded from banquets and the houses of the rich, and have implications for wealth and power distribution.

Gustave Boulanger's painting The Slave Market

David Schweickart wrote that, in capitalist societies,

"ordinary people are deemed competent enough to select their political leaders-but not their bosses. Contemporary capitalism celebrates democracy, yet denies us our democratic rights at precisely the point where they might be utilized most immediately and concretely: at the place where we spend most of the active and alert hours of our adult lives."

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