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Myth of eternity

Book>> The Relentless Revolution • by Joyce Appleby • Norton and Norton • Rs 1,300

By Hrishikesh Mattoo
Published: Monday 31 May 2010

Book>> The Relentless Revolution • by Joyce Appleby • Norton and Norton • Rs 1,300

When the world economic crisis was at its worst, Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve described it as a “tsunami”. A few economists likened it to a storm. The parallels with weather indicate two things: the economic system is as inherent to the world as nature, and its weather-like unpredictability will always confound us.

It is a train of thought that goes back to Adam Smith who in the late 18th century described capitalist entrepreneurship as an inherent human characteristic. In The Relentless Revolution, American historian Joyce Appleby disagrees with this. Unlike the weather, she argues, capitalism has a history that can be traced.
Appleby’s story has little to do with usual symbols of the Industrial Revolution like the dark Satanic mills. Instead, Appleby sees in mundane changes in agriculture, the beginnings of more dramatic developments. In 16th century Europe, she observes, about 80 per cent of the population was engaged in agriculture—roughly the same proportion as at the time of the Roman Empire. By 1800, the British farming population had dropped by more than half. Innovations that produced commercial agricultural practices like crop rotation and private enclosure of public lands created a pool of surplus labour, setting the stage for British capitalism in coming centuries.

Appleby is attentive to the ugly forces that the quest for profit unleashed. But it is the individual entrepreneur who is at the centre of her analysis. Her book offers sketches of British innovators from James Watt to Josiah Wedgwood and what she calls the “industrial leviathans” of the US—Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

While Appleby’s historical analysis reminds us that capitalism was not always with US, we leave with a yearning to learn more about the individuals who nurtured the system.

Hrishikesh Mattoo is a doctoral candidate at York University

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