By ‘capitalism’ I mean a mode of production in which formally free labour is recruited for regular employment by ongoing enterprises competing in the market for profit.footnote＊ This is an evidently Weberian definition: it takes up more or less directly Weber’s account of the rise of bü rgerlicher Betriebskapitalismus with its ‘rational’ organization of free labour. But it needs to be divorced from any presupposition about a predetermined process of ‘rationalization’. Not only is there nothing inevitable about such a process, but it is in any case debatable, pace Weber, how far either rational calculation in the form of double-entry bookkeeping or formal legal rules are necessary to it. At the same time, the ownership of the means of production is left open. ‘Capitalism’, as here defined, does not entail the private entrepreneur or owner-manager as the employer of the vendors of their labour. There must of course be an employer of one kind or another, and it is an interesting historical observation that states—or, to put it more accurately, the incumbents of governmental roles and their subordinate agents—have
Capitalism as a mode of production is compatible with a number of different modes of both persuasion and coercion. Although there is undoubtedly some sort of ‘elective affinity’ between a capitalist mode of production, a liberal mode of persuasion, and a democratic mode of coercion, it is a question to be settled empirically just how many other modes of persuasion and coercion may be compatible with it. It is, for example, possible to conceive of a capitalist mode of production combined with a theocratic mode of persuasion (on the model, say, of present-day Iran) or a socialist mode of coercion (on the model, say, of present-day China). No more can be said by way of generalization than that in all societies, the modes of production, persuasion and coercion reciprocally influence one another.
The term ‘mode of production’ itself, however, does carry the implication that one mode can, in Marx’s well-known phrase, reside in the pores of another. It is a familiar sociological fact that formally free labour cancoexist with slavery, serfdom, debt-peonage, or reliance on the labour of kinsfolk. But the non-servile building-labourers of ancient Rome, the seasonal grape-pickers of medieval France, the casually-employed squatters on the haciendas of colonial Mexico, or the hired porters of precolonial West Africa were all marginal to the central economic institutions of their societies. However difficult it may be to say precisely when the transition to a capitalist mode of production occurs in any given society, it is only complete when it can be agreed by observers of all theoretical persuasions that formally free wage-labour is dominant in the economy as a whole.
Finally, although there is an important distinction to be drawn between agricultural and industrial capitalism, there is no necessary connection between the dominance of free labour and the process of industrialization. It is true that ‘feudal industrialism’ is almost a contradiction in terms. In a feudal mode of production, the role of the dependent cultivators (who may, but do not have to, be enserfed) is a necessary corollary of the autonomy of the landholding magnates, whereas the factory-based production of manufactured goods normally implies (as Weber also emphasized) the separation of the workplace from the home. But factory
Next, a few words about my chosen title. ‘Triumph’ is in inverted commas for two reasons: first, because the displacement by capitalism of other modes of production is in no sense predetermined; and second, because where such displacement does occur, there is no implication that it is irreversible. It is a contingent matter whose explanation is to be sought in the competitive advantage which capitalist practices confer on the roles which carry them.