Why did a Capitalist Civilisation emerge when it did? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
The change from a feudal society to one based largely upon trade
and commerce was one of the most striking developments in world
history. Capitalism, in the sense purely of buying and selling for
profit was as old as humanity; Adam Smith considers it to be the
most basic and natural of human impulses (Smith 1990). However,
after what historians have dubbed the crisis of feudalism,
capitalism truly emerged as an "over arching organisation that
could focus large scale expansions and efforts" (Wolf 1982). This
was not necessarily an entirely homogenous development; it was as
different in England and France as it was in Japan and China.
Furthermore, it did not sweep all before it immediately, as
property and rank remained of great importance in almost all
societies, even the most commercially driven such as eighteenth
century England. However, by 1664 Thomas Munn remarked that in
Europe at least trade and commerce was "The great revenue of the
King, the honour of the Kingdom, noble profession of the merchant,
the employment of our poor" (Munn, 1664, 47).
Therefore this essay seeks to analyse a rise of capitalist
civilisation that began around the start of the sixteenth century,
and was well into its stride by the seventeenth. By capitalist, I
mean a system where the means of production were in mostly private
hands, trade and commerce was the engine of the economy and the
pursuit of profit was a worthy and common societal goal. The period
1500-1800 encapsulates its rise and rise in a manner which truly
changed world history.
States quickly realised than in the modern world, an overseas
empire and expanded capitalist network was necessary for world
influence. The decline of Spain, and rise of England, can be linked
to the latter's defeat of the Armada in 1588, which played a key
role in England developing commercial and colonial superiority.
Empires offered markets, resources and labour; the latter was most
notably produced by the slave trade, with 275,000 slaves sent to
America in the period 1451-1600. In the seventeenth century this
quintupled to 1,341,000. Europe successfully colonised parts of
East Asia, but such was the power of that continent's broader
commerce, and its access to newly formed colonial markets, that by
1717 the French government passed a law against the wearing of
The development of Empire was a crucial reason for the creation
of a capitalist civilisation in the years 1500-1800. It reflected
nation state's new found interest in wealth, the advances in
technology and exploration, the rise of the city as commercial
centre and the broader social changes occurring in the period.
Indeed, Wallerstein (1980) has seen colonialisation as a direct
reaction to the crisis of feudalism identified earlier in the
essay. What is clear is that in this period, rapid social,
technological and political changes removed the barriers which had
previously withheld capitalist endeavour. With these removed, it
burst forth to dominate the world. Genovese is absolutely right to
conclude that, in the period 1500-1800, "Capitalism…created a new
and dynamic theory and practice of individualism and carried it…to
the far reaches of an astonished world" (Genovese, 1983, vii).