The topic of capitalism came up again last week. Forgive me if you heard this rant from me before, but this is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but often without clarity as to what the term means historically. It is often conflated with a 'free market'. But markets have existed throughout human history, wherever people have engaged in consensual transactions. Capitalism however is a specific historic development, arising in Western Europe over the course of the 16th to 19th centuries, and from thence imposed on the rest of the world. Its essence is the predominance of employer-employee relations in production. That is, a relatively small number of people own most of the productive capital (hence, 'capitalists' and 'capitalism'), and the rest of society mostly lives by selling their labour to the capitalists in return for wages, while the capitalists get to keep the profit of their employees' production. You may ask, how did this vastly unequal distribution of capital arise in the first place? The answer is, not through any free market mechanisms, but through massive violence and robbery, usually state-sponsored -- e.g. enclosures of common lands, the transatlantic slave trade, colonial conquest, and dispossession of indigenous peoples. The ideology of the 'free market' is something that capitalists use for propaganda purposes when it suits them, but they cast it aside when it gets in their way. In fact, in the early 20th century as big corporations were forming and centralizing markets on a national scale for the first time, the big-business capitalists and their apologists regularly denounced the chaos of the free market and called on government regulation to prevent the 'cutthroat competition' that prevented further consolidation. See the work of historian Gabriel Kolko.
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