University of Cambridge > > Core Seminar in Economic and Social History > Capitalism – a concept too big to fail?

Capitalism – a concept too big to fail?

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The use of the term capitalism is so pervasive today that trying to define what it means in practice seems impossible. There are many things we might term ‘capitalist’, but just as many exceptions and different ways of putting parts of the economy under state control. Thirty five years ago it was easier to define capitalism by simply pointing to what it was not –it was not a planned communist economy aimed at equality of access to, and distribution of goods and services. Now, however, capitalism is used to describe most economies, even that of the officially communist PCR . Yet, understanding it is undeniably crucial to any aspect of politics, individual choice, and collective action. This paper will examine how the term came into being in the early twentieth century, and then how different historians took it up to argue that it emerged in European societies in the period from roughly the Italian Renaissance until the end of the eighteenth century. The concept was used, and continues to be used, in many different and ambiguous ways. This paper will argue that greater understanding can only be gained by being more precise about how we conceptualize different aspects of the emerging European and global economy of the early modern period.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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