Robert Drury King

Can capital/capitalism be described as a system?[1]  We make casual reference to the term, capitalist system, but what supports this casual usage?  It has long been recognized that the term capitalism itself is used in a tremendous variety of contexts, for a diverse set of purposes.  Consider a remark from Maurice Dobb, written in his 1947 monograph, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, but which still proves insightful today as a document reporting on the historiography of the capital system.  I use this text merely to sketch the problem, i.e., whether whatever capital is, it forms a system.  Dobb noted, then, that:

It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the term Capitalism, which in recent years has enjoyed so wide a currency alike in popular talk and in historical writing, should have been used so variously, and that there should have been no common measure of agreement in its use.  What is more remarkable is that in economic theory, as this has been expounded by the traditional schools, the term should have appeared so rarely, if at all.[2]

Dobb’s formulation possesses the additional merit of isolating the conceptual nature of the problem:

Sombart, in his article on the subject in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, says: ‘This term is not found in Gide, Cauwes, Marshall, Seligman, or Cassel, to mention only the best known texts.  In other treatises such as those of Schendler, Adolf Wagner, Richard Ehrenburg, and Philopovich, there is some discussion of capitalism, but the concept[3] is subsequently rejected.’  Neither Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy nor the Dictionnaire de l’Economie Politique includes the term capitalism.[4]

When we consult the dictionaries of political economy today, do we find a well-defined term?[5]  When we come to consider capitalism as a concept today, can we say that its situation is much changed from the one Dobb recognized in 1947?  Does capitalism describe a concept with a distinct extension?  Does it possess a referent, offer itself up to reliable intuitions, mark a distinct object, satisfy criterion affirming its status as the object of a representation?  What is capitalism, such that it forms a system?

Admittedly, Dobb recognizes that the problem may not lie with capitalism, but with its status as a system:

There is even a school of thought, numbering its adherents both among economists and historians, which has refused to recognize that Capitalism as a title for a determinate economic system can be given an exact meaning.[6]

But is the problem for Dobb one pertaining to its status as a system, or is the problem of a more general or methodological nature, say with economics or with historiography?  Dobb notes:

In the case of economists this is largely because the central concepts of their theory, as customarily stated, are modeled in a plane of abstraction that is innocent of those historically relative factors in terms of which Capitalism can alone be defined.  In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general  which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs.  No period of history, it is said, is ever made of whole cloth; and since all periods are complex admixtures of elements, it is a misleading simplification to label any section of the historical process with the title of a single element.[7]

One ought to pause and consider, though, upon what basis it is that Dobb speaks of distinct elements of epochs, processes, or elements.   For do not these terms encounter the same issues of identification, isolation, and labeling? Dobb is clear, however, that:

A system like Capitalism may be spoken of abstractly as describing an aspect which in varying measure has characterized numerous periods of history.  But as such it is an abstract economic notion, not an historical one;[8] and to trace back the origins of any such ‘system’ is generally a vain pursuit that can have no end.  If Capitalism does not exist as an historical entity, critics of the present economic order  who call for a change of system are tilting at windmills; and Marx in particular, who was originally responsible for the talk about a capitalist system, was following a will o’ the wisp.[9]

Yet on this formulation the problem seems to lie ever more clearly not with the system term, but with the referent capital; it is as if the referent simply does not constitute a system, despite the fact that we find the term system (and not capitalism) placed in scare quotes, so that we ought to attend to all the reservations these marks can suggest.

Additionally, Dobb might have considered that Marx did not trace history out; and Marxist historiography is rather more structural than narratival.  It does not seek out origins, or beginnings in time.  Slavoj Zizek puts this point well:

But if today Capitalism has received authoritative recognition as an historical category, this affords no assurance that those who claim to study this system are talking about the same thing.  Some might think that a variety of usage gave little ground for comment and could do no great harm.  But the difference of verbal usage is not only associated with a different emphasis in the search for what is relevant among the multitude of historical incidents and with a different principle of selection in composing the chronicle of events, but is apt to lead to a different mode of interpretation and a different causal-genetic story.

The point for Zizek, as it is for us, is that capitalism, considered as a system, cannot be grasped through a historical narrative, left alone.  The more useful device is that one which we believe Marx ought to take much of the credit for, at least as regards the tools and applications it has for capturing of the systematicity of the system of capital, namely, the structural device.  What does a structural (and also conceptual) historiography look like?  This is the place for a different project and so I will conclude my description of the current one, here.  (See other Current Projects, one of which takes a swipe at answering this last question).

In reference to another Current Project of mine, this project bears on the following:

  1. The desire to determine whether the system of capital is in fact a system so that it might be analyzed systematically.  For, if capital does not constitute a system (as I argue that it does, in its structurally unique mode of reproduction), then systems analysis is inadequate for this kind of analysis.  This would not then necessitate my acceptance of a kind of scorched earth scenario in which I would have to admit that systems analysis is useless for analyzing capital (and the various effects of its reproduction, say), but only that I show that systems analysis gains some useful purchase on analyzing capital, even if the systems analysis need be augmented with other methods of analysis.


Robert Drury King
Heathwood Press
Sierra Nevada College
Centre Leo Apostel, Free University Brussels

[1] One must be careful to distinguish these terms.  The arguments for this are presented very nicely in Istvan Meszaros’s Beyond Capital (Monthly Review Press, 2000), but for present purposes of this working paper I will not provide a more direct citation.  Still, a longer article on this topic would demand the drawing of a tighter distinction and an elucidation of the reasons for the tightening.

[2] Dobb 1947, 1.

[3] Emphasis mine.  But consider, why not be contented with a definition of the system that satisfies a reliable consultation of our intuitions?  This point teases at a much larger engagement with the experimental philosophy tradition.

[4] Ibid. Also consider Braudel from Civilization and Capitalism, Vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce, pg. 231. “Whether through negligence or caution, or because my subject matter did not seem to require it, I have only used the word capitalism five or six times so far, and even then I could have avoided it. ‘Why didn’t you!’ may be the reaction of all those who would like to ban this ‘fighting word’ for good.  Ambiguous, hardly scientific, and usually indiscriminately applied, it is—above all—a word that cannot be used of the ages before the industrial period without being accused of anachronism.  Personally, after a long struggle, I gave up on trying to get rid of this troublesome intruder.  I decided in the end that there was nothing to be gained by throwing out along with the word the controversies it arouses, which have some pertinence to the present-day world.  To the historian, the understanding past and understanding the present are the same thing.  A passion for history can hardly be expected to stop short of at a respectful distance from the present day, pleading that it is unseemly, or even dangerous, to take another step.  In any case, such precautions are delusive: if capitalism is thrown out of the door, it comes in through the window.  For whether one likes it or not, there was, even in the pre-industrial era, a form of economic activity irresistibly evocative of this word and of no other.  While such activity may not yet have been employing the industrial ‘mode of production’ (which I do not myself consider to be the be-all and end-all of capitalism) it cannot in any case be confused with classic market transactions.”

[5] Braudel, 231: “Since the word is so controversial, let us begin with a study in vocabulary, by tracing the historical development of the words capital, capitalist, capitalism, three terms that are linked and inseparable.”  Notably, Braudel does not explicitly link any of these terms to the word system; and he does not suggest any etymological link between the terms in his historical-etymological analysis.  Is Marx the first to link capital and system, as Dobb claims?  One wonders if Hegel is not the first and has much reason to suspect that he is.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Braudel is, on this point, as he tends to be, insightful. Cf., Civilization and Capitalism, Vol. 2, pgs. 231-232. “Capitalism, having been identified as the realm of investment and of a high rate of capital formation, must next be related to economic life, with which it was not entirely coterminous.  There are thus two zones in which it can be located: its native soil so to speak, the sector in which it was completely at home; and another sector which it entered only obliquely, insinuating itself into this zone without ever completely dominating it.  Until the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, when capital moved into industrial production, now newly-promoted to the rank of large profit-maker, it was in the sphere of circulation, trade and marketing that capitalism was most at home….”

[9] Dobb 1947, 1-2.

Robert Drury King

Robert Drury King

Robert Drury King writes in the fields of recent European philosophy, systems theory (with particular interests in dissipative systems, constructivist epistemology, and autopoiesis) and Marxism, viewed minimally as systemic and structural critique at the intersections of theory and activism. All of Robert’s research revolves around the goals of identifying the kinds of systems that define the core social, ecological, economic, and political problems of contemporary life and of determining the ways in which we, as one species among many others, ought to work towards constructing novel forms of sustainable social life, broadly construed. Robert views the project of a critical theory to be the one in which any such determination of novel forms of social life would proceed from the ground of a presuppositionless thought, geared towards a systemic critique of the ideologies that attract the decisions and actions of our daily life toward non-novel and non-sustainable ends. Robert is highly influenced by Hegelian dialectics, Frankfurt School critical theory, French post-structuralist theory, including especially the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the Marxism of István Mészáros, and a range of systems theories from cybernetics to autopoiesis, the biology of cognition, and the recent thinking of the entropy of the system of capital through the theoretical framework of dissipative systems, such as is being pioneered by Robert Biel.