This pamphlet was launched at the Legatum Institute on Thursday, 23 April 2015


The essays in this publication are based on lectures that were delivered at the Legatum Institute during 2014 as part of a course of study entitled “History of Capitalism”. This inauguration of a three-year syllabus provided five scholars with an opportunity to outline the chief features of a movement of endeavour and thought that has transformed the human condition.

Lucid exposition, intellectual originality, and narrative skills of a high order are evident in the pages that follow, and the Institute is indebted to the five historians whose essays, here assembled, constitute a chronological introduction to capitalism’s variegated history. The caravanserai of early medieval Arabia and Palestine; urban civilisation and financial innovation in Spain and Italy during the central Middle Ages; north-west Europe’s sixteenth-century access of wealth, together with the emergence of an Atlanticist dimension to the “early modern” world economy; colonial exploration, maritime adventure, and plunder beyond compare in the eighteenth century, most notably in the case of the East India Company; industrialisation’s Promethean energy which, after its initial appearance in the valleys of south-east Wales, went on to claim the “developed world” as its domain: themes such as these, zestfully explored in our essayists’ prose, illustrate the range and depth of the Legatum Institute’s investigation into capitalism’s origins and evolution.

Capitalism is one of history’s most famous “isms”, but its significance cannot be grasped by those who conceive of it as an abstract and impersonal force. That determinist approach was part of a fashionable consensus in Western historiography during the mid to late twentieth century. Human agency, individual ideas, and the shifting pattern of day-to-day events were accorded a less central role in the narratives penned by historians. In their place came the social and economic forces which were now acclaimed as the historian’s true focus. These long-term tendencies and structures were supposed to be the motor of history since they determined the shape of events. However, the entrepreneurial spirit, the energy behind capitalism’s historic journey, cannot be categorised so simplistically.

Ideas that once seemed original and daring have a habit of turning into orthodoxies. And orthodoxies breed, in turn, a counter-reaction. The attempt to reduce historical experience to a series of socio-economic laws can now be dismissed as a dingy little episode in the history of ideas. Historical writing in our time has re-embraced narrative and chronology, the biographies of individual personalities, the unpredictability of events, and speculative thought that is inspired by the imagination rather than being determined by its context.

As a result of this recovered freedom, the history of capitalism has acquired a new and more generous dimension, and it can no longer be limited to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This particular “ism” is not an example of a general economic law, nor is it a predetermined historical phenomenon. Capitalism’s history ought to be understood rather as an aspect of the life of the mind and spirit. Those who wish to do justice to the subject’s intellectual depth need to be prepared therefore for a journey that explores political life and thought, the history of the visual arts, literary self-expression, scientific discovery, religious intuition, and philosophical insight as well as those features of material existence that are investigated by the historian of economic advance.

The wealth of evidence presented in the pages that follow show that “capitalism” is not limited to industrial societies. The term perhaps eludes a universal or essentialist definition, but it is invariably associated with ownership of private property, capital accumulation, wage labour, competitive markets, legally binding contracts in relation to services, and agreements concerning prices. Many of these attributes can be seen at work in the economic history of the central Middle Ages in Europe. The Latin word “capitale”, a derivative of “caput” (head), gained currency during the centuries that followed the late fifth century collapse of the western Roman empire. “Chattel”, an English term for moveable property, records a similar application and derivation. In the mid-thirteenth century “capitale” was being used to describe a merchant’s stock of goods and by the 1280s its meaning had extended to include the entire assets of a firm or business engaged in trade. “Capitalist”, in the sense of an individual who owns capital, had established itself in English usage by the mid-seventeenth century. A history of the word alone explains why a narrative account of capitalism needs to extend over a millennium and a half of recorded human history. Research work presented during the second year of this syllabus suggests that some features of capitalist endeavour, globalisation for example, may be witnessed in societies that are more ancient even than those of Greece and Rome.

Capitalism’s deep roots, together with its capacity for renewal, raise the possibility that this is a phenomenon whose history is coeval with that of settled, urban civilisation. Viewed within this long-term perspective, capitalist ways of living and of thinking seem natural rather than contrived, and the twentieth century planned economy by contrast, appears aberrant. The classic form of capitalism adopted in the West has been grounded in that civilisation’s custodianship of the notion of human dignity, the rule of law, and the right to privacy. Collectivism annulled these dignities.

The history of capitalism can only be really understood in an international dimension and with a multidisciplinary focus. These are the defining attributes of the work of the Legatum Institute in all its programmes of study and that thematic attention to varieties of “prosperity”—eudaimonia as Aristotle termed it—is the means by which a deepened appreciation of historical knowledge may shape our thoughts about the present and guide our aspirations for the future. It is therefore particularly appropriate that the study of capitalism’s history should have found its focus and inspiration at the Legatum Institute.

By Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser, Legatum Institute

About the History of Capitalism Series

The History of Capitalism series, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's The Culture of Prosperity programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations.