Thoughts: The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, by Ellen Meiksins Wood

One good thing about my arbitrary rule-driven reading list is that I’ve found myself reading a lot of stuff I never would have ordinarily looked at. A bad thing is that I find myself having to share my terrible opinions on stuff I know nothing about. So let’s talk about capitalism. Sort of.

Ever since the nonsense that’s come out over the last few years telling us we don’t trust experts anymore, I’ve been more aware of just how much I do end up trusting experts, or at least people who know more than me, and it’s a lot. I may have mentioned in my Basti rant that reading translations involve a huge leap of faith – you’re trusting someone to convey things you can’t verify for yourself. And pretty much all non-fiction is the same, unless you’re an expert yourself, or at least a serious scholar, which I am not. When I read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence, I had no real foundation of knowledge to base my opinions on, just the strength of the arguments and depictions of research by the authors.

And that’s in a subject that I find vaguely interesting.

I know the absolute minimum of economics that you can osmose from the world around you, haven’t read any economic theory and, let’s be honest, am not willing to put in that effort in future. Am I part of the problem? Probably!

Anyway, let me start by saying The Origin of Capitalism was a lot more interesting that I thought it would be. There were chunks of the book where the argument became a bit… semantic? for me, and I don’t know enough about economics jargon and terminology to follow some of her arguments about definitions and such, but the main thrust of her argument, about where/when capitalism developed and why, was thoroughly explained in a way I could follow. I didn’t follow so well the rebuttals and responses to other people’s arguments, though – this isn’t really a book for laypeople; it’s a book that wades right into argument and expects that you know who’s arguing and what about in order to get the most from it.

But I’m glad I read it. As I said, I found it genuinely interesting to follow the history and I think I’ve learned more about what capitalism actually is (I assume there are a thousand definitions of “capitalism”, but learning one definition in some kind of depth is still learning, right?). Meiksins Wood is very insistent that capitalism isn’t some kind of pinnacle of human civilisation or an inevitability, that it’s just one system among many and one possibility among many, and I found myself really convinced by this idea. Trying to imagine a world outside capitalism is like trying to imagine the edges of the universe, in a way, as our whole lives are dictated by it, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise.

And of course as it’s the pre-NaNoWriMo season, which means worldbuilding season, I found a lot to think about and borrow…

So, I’m probably not going to pursue a lifetime of economic scholarship, but I’m glad I dipped my toe in this time.

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