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Book Review


Jurgen Kocka, Capitalism: A Short History. Trans. Jeremiah Riemer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. viii +169. Bibliography and Index. $26.95 (cloth).


     As the German social historian Jurgen Kocka observes in the introduction to his new book, Capitalism: A Short History, the term capitalism is a controversial concept that scholars have often avoided because of its polemical and critical origins. Yet among American historians, the recent rise of the "History of Capitalism" as a field at Harvard University, driven in large part by Professor Sven Beckert and his graduate students, has resulted in the remarkable flourishing of an academic field. Although not without controversy, these young scholars and their scholarly initiatives at Cornell, the New School, and the University of Georgia have, in turn, led to a number of new faculty positions in leading U.S. history departments like Johns Hopkins, Chicago, and Brown. For doctoral students unable to find training within their home institutions, there is even a popular "Boot Camp" in the history of capitalism at Cornell and an accompanying online "MOOC" for undergraduates. Whether featured in an article in the New York Times or a lengthy "Interchange" on the history of capitalism in the Journal of American History, the history of capitalism, and its place in history faculties, has become a dynamic and rapidly growing academic subfield.1 Interdisciplinary at its core, the history of capitalism initiative is invigorating, and enriched by, the more traditional disciplines of business history, labor history, economic history, political economy, and institutional sociology. And there is still much more scholarship on the way from transnational scholars within the United States and in universities around the world.

     For anyone interested in a scholarly overview of the history of capitalism, Jurgen Kocka's short history is terrific starting point. This volume would work well in either an undergraduate or graduate course to frame more specific readings of the classics or recent scholarship on the global history of capitalism. In particular, it is encouraging that Kocka devoted considerable time to both the classic founding literature: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Joseph Schumpeter, and also to the pre-industrial era. For a book that has only 169 pages of primary text, Kocka wisely takes the time to discuss China and Arabia as well as Europe prior to 1500 at some length. As Kocka emphasizes, nearly all of the important capitalist institutions have their roots in the late medieval or early modern periods, and some trace their origins to the ancient world. Thus the first two chapters (on the historiography of capitalism and the pre-modern era), although shorter than the subsequent two chapters, are particularly welcome in his admittedly "short" history.

     Of course, anyone wanting to learn about the history of capitalism will find the centerpiece on the first and second industrial revolution, namely the changes in agriculture, textiles, and transportation that culminated in the great industrial changes of the late 19th century, crisp, clear, and comparative. Not surprisingly, Kocka adds a few more examples from his native Germany to his account than many Anglo-American versions, but the comparison is welcome. Indeed, by referencing Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Kocka incorporates a wider lens that would be useful in classroom discussions where international students increasingly expect the discussion to include both India and China if not a variety of other developing countries. If there is any failing, it comes at the end where Kocka's attempt to move beyond "managerial capitalism," epitomized by Alfred Chandler's model of the American second industrial revolution, to an analysis of "financialization" and the changing models of work in our post-industrial society leaves his narrative slightly disjointed. Given that Kocka himself is running a multi-year research program at the Humboldt in Berlin on "re: work" to better understand global changes in labor and the human life cycle, the lack of a clear narrative is no doubt partly a by-product of his own ongoing investigations. It is hard to definitively describe the endpoint of global capitalism when you are the one asking many of the fundamental questions.

     But if the recent history of capitalism remains unclear, Kocka's version is particularly valuable in emphasizing an explicit global perspective that re-contextualizes the history of capitalism and trade beyond American shores and, secondly, puts an emphasis on the deep institutional roots of capitalist systems, which predate the "Industrial Revolution" and continue to exist into the "post-industrial" age. In taking an institutional and transnational perspective on the history of capitalism, Jurgen Kocka's account should be of particular interest to global historians both in the United States and beyond. Putting geography, as much as technology, at the center of the analysis of the economy is a welcome change. As corporations have come, like in the age of Dutch East India Company, to rival the power of states, so too have regional blocs and sub-national units re-emerged as the mezzo- and pico- responses to global capitalism. This book clearly demonstrates how a global perspective shifts the conventional view of capitalism, and how the changing relationship between national borders and capitalist activities interacted in the historical development of the global economy. This is a book that both professional historians and those seeking an academic overview will find useful as they struggle to understand the global history of capitalism.

Christopher McKenna is University Reader in Business History and Strategy at the Said Business School, a Fellow of Brasenose College, and the Co-Director of the Global History of Capitalism Project in the Oxford Centre for Global History, all within the University of Oxford. You may contact him at



1 "In History Departments, It's Up with Capitalism," New York Times, 6 April 2013, A1; "Interchange: The History of Capitalism," Journal of American History 101 vol. 2 (September 2014): 503536.



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