Is India now a capitalist country? It seems fair to say it is, but what kind of capitalism we have, what its effects are on our material and moral natures, and what its future might be are all hotly disputed in Indian public discourse—as they should be. To hear Sitaram Yechury or Arundhati Roy, we have too much of it, are in thrall to it, and capitalism (or “neoliberalism”) is destroying our social fabric and making us pawns in the hands of sinister forces. From the point of view of Gurcharan Das or a captain of Indian industry, we are still far from the true economic freedom and jettisoning of needless restraints that would unlock our full economic potential; the journey of India’s capitalistic boat away from the bank of four decades of socialism has only just begun.
What is this all-encompassing system of which we have all become a part, a system that works to a logic, exhibits strengths and faults, and conceals secrets of which we might not be fully aware? A good sense of the history of the globalized fiscal and material world we now inhabit is provided by Joyce Appleby’s new and aptly named history of capitalism, The Relentless Revolution.
The Relentless Revolution:Norton, 494 pages,$29.95 (around Rs1,335).
Some partisans of capitalism see it as an inevitable endpoint in human affairs, realized a few centuries ago by the onset of modernity and the Industrial Revolution and now here to stay for good. But for Appleby, capitalism is “a historical development and not a discovery of natural principles”—there was nothing preordained about it. In one of her book’s best chapters, she takes us back to the world before capitalism: a world of limited mobility, food scarcity, rooted in agriculture and in communal and seasonal rhythms, and controlled economically by an aristocratic class who were also the only ones with disposable income.
Alongside the scientific and technological revolutions that birthed capitalism in the 18th century was an agricultural revolution that for the first time in human history freed up a significant part of the human population for activities other than farming. The idea of a market that was not literally a marketplace, and that hummed to the sound of thousands of discrete transactions which determined such values as supply and price, slowly dawned on the minds of people in England, which Appleby considers to be capitalism’s crucible.
Two episodes in the early history of capitalism give us some indication of its ambiguous nature. The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased worker productivity and incomes, and unleashed energies that continue to animate our world. At the same time, European sugar planters who had established massive plantations in the New World brought over millions of slaves from Africa by force to work these lands. The lure of profits, freed of the watch of law and of moral concerns, led to the brutalization of men who were seen to have no value other than their value as workers. Indeed, the same criticism could be made of the exploitation of India’s markets by British colonialism. From these and many other examples, both positive and negative, Appleby concludes that “the shape and direction of capitalism are always set by its participants and never by inexorable laws”.
Hero: Appleby discusses Amartya Sen’s work in a positive light. Ashesh Shah/Mint
As the global financial crash of 2008 showed, capitalism can be a dangerous beast unless disciplined, not just by regulatory institutions but by the values of players in an economy. The idea of “greed is good” works only up to a point. Capitalism has always been attacked by fierce opponents who constitute “the shadow history of anticapitalism”, but also dissected by constructive critics who wish to see it reformed from within and balanced from without. Appleby gives voice to some of these figures from our time, such as Muhammad Yunus, Amartya Sen and Peter Barnes. As Appleby stresses, capitalism is not just an economic but a social system, impinging not just on commerce but on every aspect of our lives. Since there is no escaping this relentless revolution, we need a critical attitude that allows us to appreciate capitalism’s enormous powers for wealth generation while also making us more conscious of its excesses and perversions. Appleby’s book is an invitation to such a perspective.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org