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New Left Review I/195, September-October 1992


Ellen Meiksins Wood

Custom Against Capitalism

The appeal to history in the justification of capitalism has always required a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, we are obliged to accept that capitalist modernization thoroughly transformed the world to the unambiguous benefit of humanity. On the other hand, we must concede that in this transformative process nothing much happened. There were no revolutionary moments, no deep social conflicts, no painful dislocations. There was no ‘century of revolution’ in England, and neither the Civil War nor 1688 had anything at all to do—either as cause or effect—with changes in social property relations. If, in the following century and/or in the one after that, there was something like an ‘industrial revolution’—and a growing number of historians would deny that the process of industrialization was anything like a ‘revolution’—it really discommoded no one in any fundamental way and simply improved the living standards of the working poor. Whatever evils have attended ‘modernization’ in the twentieth century, the original process of transformation (which never really happened) was on the whole benign (as it ought to be in the newly emergent capitalisms today, were it not for their tainted ancestry in Communism). In fact, had not the collapse of Communism given the concept of ‘capitalism’ a new ideological currency, it might have been more suitable to keep denying its existence altogether, as distinct from, say, ‘the modern world’ or ‘industrial society’.

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