On Jairus Banaji’s A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism
Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it—the multivolume 2014 Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE—but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.
Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved. These questions are likely no closer to resolution today than they were when European radicals started using the word “capitalism” two hundred years ago.
For many, the whole question of origins is a pseudo-problem—you can write economic history without modes of production. But those who have dreamed of transcending capitalism find it harder to let go of the thorn. If the object can’t be defined, can it be dismantled? If there was no starting point, can there be an end? Marxist scholars have been central to the origins debate, but Marx himself said enough different things on the topic to inspire contending schools, each speaking in his name.