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 seldom been significant employers of wage-labourers in place of kinsmen, clients, conscripts, vassals, or slaves. But it can still be a ‘capitalist’ mode of production if the equity of the particular Betrieb is held by a consortium or a bank or a cooperative or a pension fund or even by the state. What matters is the existence of a fully-functioning market in which competing employers bid for workers who are legally entitled to refuse the wages and conditions which are offered to them, however disadvantageous their bargaining position in practice.

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 workers can be slaves, or indentured apprentices, or prisoners, or directed labourers within a command economy, or immigrant Gastarbeiter liable to deportation on the expiry of their short-term contracts. It can even be argued that serfdom is not incompatible with industrialization to the extent that manufacture can be so sited as to take advantage of families glebae adscripti who commute labour service on the land to labour service in the factory. But this is practicable only on a scale too limited to bring about the industrialization of a whole economy. Although miners can more readily be serfs (as they were, for example, in Scotland throughout the seventeenth century),footnote1 factory workers who are not formally free will almost always be tied to their employment in other ways.

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.

This way of putting it does, however, presuppose that evolution from one mode of production (or persuasion, or coercion) to another comes about through a process analogous but not reducible to natural selection, in which the objects of selection are the practices defining the role sconstitutive of the institutions which in turn define the mode.footnote2 Although individuals, groups, classes, and indeed societies may all be competing with one another, they are not themselves the units of selection. Marx was as mistaken in identifying classes as ‘the’ protagonists in social evolution as Spencer was in identifying individuals. Only practices are genuine replicators whose survival or extinction, and thereby the survival or extinction of the mode of production, persuasion, or coercion whose constitutive roles they define, depends on the net selective value of their phenotypic effects. I cannot here expound the implications of this formulation in any detail. But two points may be worth making in order to avoid possible misunderstanding.

The first point is that explanation of any chosen evolutionary sequence does not, in the theory of social any more than in the theory of natural selection, rest on identifying features of the existing environment which currently favour the persistence of whatever characteristic of the society is to be explained. What matters is the context in which mutant or recombinant practices emerge and the sequence of events which causes them to survive and be propagated to the point of constituting the society’s mode of production, persuasion or coercion as the case may be. As in the theory of natural selection, rival hypotheses have to be quasi-experimentally tested with the benefit of hindsight in order to demonstrate what difference to the evolution of the society would have been made if the characteristics of the environment favouring the carriers of the mutant or recombinant practices had not been present.