Was America Born Capitalist?

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Of all the "isms" that afflict us, capitalism is the worst. According to many scholars, capitalism has been ultimately responsible for much of what ails us, in both the past and the present, including our race problem, our grossly unequal distribution of wealth, and the general sense of malaise and oppression that academics in particular feel. It is not surprising therefore that scholars should be interested in the origins of such a powerful force, especially one that seems to affect them so personally.

The trouble is that we scholars cannot agree on the nature of the beast. Some identify it with a general market economy; others, following Marx, with a particular mode of production, involving a bourgeoisie that owns the means of production and a proletariat that is forced to sell its labor for monetary wages; still others, following Weber, with a system of calculative and secularized rationalism; and still others, with simple hard work and a spirit of development. As has often been pointed out, the way in which scholars define the term capitalism usually determines the results of their analysis.

About the Author

Gordon S. Wood, a former Wilson Center Fellow, is Alda O. Way University Professor and professor of history at Brown University.

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