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Capitalism describes on the one hand a specific economic and social order , on the other hand an epoch of economic history . The central features are controversial in view of historical change and the numerous definitions of capitalism as well as ideological differences. In general, capitalism is understood to mean an economic and social order that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the control of production and consumption via the market (market economy). Further constitutive characteristics are named: accumulation (for some the “heart”, main characteristic and guiding principle of capitalism), “free wage labor ” and the “pursuit of profit in the continuous, rational capitalist enterprise”.

A market economy has existed under many different forms of government, societies, and cultures. The epoch of modern capitalism describes a period in economic history that began in the 18th century with the industrial revolution and continues to this day. It followed the epochs of feudalism in the European Middle Ages and mercantilism at the time of absolutism . Historically, all capitalist countries have experienced economic growth, which has resulted in an increase in the general standard of living .



Etymologically , capitalism is derived from capital, which itself is derived from the Latin "capitalis" ("the head" or "relating to life"), this itself goes back to "caput" - "head". From the 16th century onwards, the Italian loan word “capitale” - “assets” in the sense of the head count of a herd of animals, as a contrast to the freshly thrown animals as “interest”. According to other sources, the Latin “caput” and “capitalis” have already undergone a change in meaning, which in German is followed by “Haupt-”. "Summa capitalis" was the main sum in economic accounts, from which "capital" arose.


Based on this word stock, words like “capital” and “capitalistic” were used as early as the 18th and 19th centuries, but with a vague and unspecific meaning. The word "capitaliste" is first used in France in 1753 and means here person who owns goods . In National-Oekonomie (1805) Julius von Soden used “capitalist” to denote a “surplus of enjoyable material, a supply”. Theodor Mommsen uses “capital” in his Roman history (1854–1856) .

In its current sense, it is used for the first time by Richard de Radonvilliers in 1842. Further evidence of its appearance can be found in Pierre Leroux in 1848 and in English for the first time in William Thackeray in 1854. In English, its further use is essentially based on David Ricardo . Before Marx, it was used to describe a class society in Louis Blanc's Organization du travail as early as 1840 ; already there he is judgmental. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels initially speak of a "capitalist mode of production", later in the first volume of Das Kapital (1867) of "capitalist". In contrast, the word “capitalism” is mentioned only once in the second volume of Das Kapital published by Friedrich Engels in 1885 . The word capitalism appears more frequently in his correspondence and in the later writings of Friedrich Engels.

At the beginning of the 20th century, its use increased and gained notoriety in particular through Werner Sombart's The Modern Capitalism (1902) and Max Weber's The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) .


Capitalism is an Essentially Contested Concept and is perceived very differently. Bachinger / Matis differentiate between three different perceptions.

In the market euphoric perception , capitalism and market economy are de facto equated. Capitalism is seen as an expendable term that comes from the " socialist moth box".

In the market-critical perception , capitalism stands for thinking that is exclusively oriented towards capitalist rationality, which aims at profit and the optimal utilization of the means of production used, without taking into account aspects of sustainability , ethics and possible social distortions .

In the socially critical perception , the phase of high capitalism is of particular importance. The enforcement of capitalism accordingly caused far-reaching shifts in the economic and social structure and drastic breaks in living and working conditions. The antagonism between capital owners and the capitalless ( proletarians ) had arisen. The “industrial proletariat” was available to the companies as a plentiful reserve army and was thus forced to accept low wages and material insecurity. For most industrial workers, the wages at that time were close to the subsistence level. Women and children therefore also had to go to work to ensure the family's livelihood. Working hours of 16 hours a day were not uncommon. The rapid growth of the urban agglomerations led to a dramatically low life expectancy. The polarization of society through the emergence of the “ social question ” as a result of uninhibited “ Manchester capitalism” is the social and economic background of Karl Marx's powerful analysis of capitalism.

Capitalism and market economy

Some authors advocate the more neutral term market economy instead of the term capitalism, which is understood as judgmental in Germany . The use of the term capitalism is common among Anglo-Saxon economists . According to John Kenneth Galbraith , the term “market system” was deliberately introduced in the USA after the Second World War , as “capitalism” had fallen into disrepute due to the global economic crisis . Some politicians, journalists and academics preferred the term "market economy" because the question of the dominant influence of companies and the question of economic power in general need not be addressed in this way. The term capitalism could only be used as a term for the modern financial world, since the connection between wealth and power is particularly evident here.

Other authors differentiate between the two terms. According to this, the existence of a capitalist economic order depends on the property relations of the means of production, a market economy is characterized by the coordination of economic processes via the market mechanism. Both characteristics appear together in the economic system of the capitalist market economy. In theory, however, a market economy could exist without capitalism (example: socialist market economy in Yugoslavia ) like capitalism without a market economy (which applies to the economy in National Socialist Germany ). Nevertheless, the last two economic systems mentioned occur comparatively rarely. Mankiw and other authors understand capitalism as a market economy with private ownership of the means of production, but they doubt that the market economy can function without private ownership.

History of theory

Pre-classical economists

The first fundamental ideas for capitalism can be found in the late Scholastic school of Salamanca and among the Physiocrats .

Classical economics

An important theoretician of capitalism is the Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith with his major work The Wealth of Nations (1776) . He justifies self-interest as an important motor for prosperity and fair distribution and means in Theory of Ethical Feelings (1759) that the self-regulation of the market through equilibrium prices deserves trust (the “ invisible hand ”).

Smith describes in the second book of The Wealth of Nations , how the use of capital can lead to a "revenue or profit" (English "revenue or profit" ). He considers the accumulation of capital to be necessary in order to use it to finance technical innovations.

In the fourth book he turns against the prevailing mercantilism , which viewed foreign trade as a zero-sum game . As a counter-model, he developed the theory of the absolute cost advantage , in which all participating countries would benefit from the division of labor . David Ricardo continues Smith's ideas in the theory of the comparative cost advantage .

The most important authors of classical economics besides Smith are David Ricardo , John Stuart Mill , Thomas Robert Malthus and Jean-Baptiste Say .


In the Marxist tradition, " capitalism" denotes "the mode of production based on commodity production, market economy, investment of capital, wage labor and profit" as well as the "social, political, legal and cultural relations as a social order conditioned by the rule of capital" .

Marx himself rarely used the term "capitalism" in his works, instead he speaks of "capitalist mode of production". According to Marx, the mode of production in capitalism is determined by capital . Capital can take many forms: money, means of production, land, real estate, commodities, etc. According to Marx, the general formula of capital movement is M - M - M '. Capital runs through the forms of money - commodities - (more) money . According to Marx, capital is a "value that utilizes itself (= increasing)". The users of capital, the capitalists produce goods that are worth more than the used for their manufacture means of production and the value of labor power. The added value must be realized in the sphere of circulation through the sale of the goods produced. The added value is created exclusively by the workers. Marx calls exploitation that the capitalist class appropriates surplus value . He often uses the French or English term "exploitation" for this. The production of surplus value presupposes that there are workers who, without possession of the means of production or alternative means of subsistence (e.g. self-produced food), are forced to sell their labor to the capitalist owners of the means of production. This creates the specific division of society into capitalists and working class . However, “capitalist” is only a name for a function in the production process. Marx speaks of a "character mask". As he explains in the preface to “ Das Kapital ”, the individual capitalists only act as “personifications of economic categories”.

According to Marx, capitalism is further characterized by the general production of goods. Labor is also traded as a commodity. Marx's main work " Capital " begins with an analysis of the commodity and its properties. The socially necessary (wage) labor time expended on this product is expressed in the value of a commodity. In value, a social relationship appears as a property of the commodity. The capital relationship is “a social relationship between people mediated through things”, between capitalists on the one hand and wage workers on the other, but also between the capitalists themselves, who also exchange goods with one another.

Marx and Engels describe capitalist society as a society of revolutionary upheaval in all traditional conditions, at its core, the area of ​​production, as a society of exploitation and alienation .

In his early writings, including the economic-philosophical manuscripts (1844) , Marx emphasized the aspect of alienation . The workers are alienated from the product of their labor because this, appropriated by the capitalists, takes the form of capital that rules the workers. Essential potentials and opportunities for development of the human “generic being”, that is, the human creative possibilities , would be “perverted” and replaced by a subtle form of bondage , even if this was based on an apparent, but only legal, freedom . In capitalism, work is not a possibility of self-realization , but work forced by the wage-worker status.

Marx derives the exploitative character of the capitalist mode of production from the analysis of the capitalist “commodity form”. Every commodity has a double character and has both exchange value and use value (see also commodity fetishism ). The increase of capital takes place through the exploitation of foreign labor as wage labor , whereby the exploitation consists in the fact that the capitalist does not pay the worker the entire value created by the worker, but only the socially average costs that the worker "reproduces his labor" (as well as to raise his offspring). The remaining “ new value ” created by the worker is what the capitalist strikes as “ surplus value ” from which he draws his profit . However, the rate of profit earned by the capitalist continues to decrease due to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall , among other things due to the competition between capitalists and the increasing replacement of human labor with machines, which, according to Marx, are not able to create any surplus value. This contradiction between the falling rate of profit and the need for valorization determines the fundamentally crisis-ridden character of the capitalist mode of production, which is expressed in regular crises of capitalism.

According to Marx, the development towards dominant oligopolies and monopolies , which led to excessive prices or an undersupply of the market, inevitably takes place. He calls this the " centralization " of capital.

The boundless urge for expansion of capital, which the bourgeoisie “chases across the globe”, is ultimately nothing but a desperate escape forwards in order to escape the contradictions inherent in capitalist society by conquering new markets. With these contradictions ultimately becoming unbearable, the hour of world history finally struck for the socialist revolution by the proletariat . Capital, according to Marx and Engels in the Communist Party's manifesto (1848) , produces its own “gravedigger”.

In Marxist tradition of capitalism in the phases early or transitional capitalism, competitive capitalism , monopoly capitalism , imperialism divided. After the Second World War, the “schools” split into state monopoly capitalism (orthodox Marxism) and late capitalism (western Marxism).

Neoclassical theory

The Neoclassical theory has substantial foundations of modern economics developed. This assumes that the economic actors behave rationally (model of the so-called Homo oeconomicus ) and try to maximize their own benefit. This benefit does not necessarily have to be a monetary benefit, i.e. a financial gain. It can just as well be a gain in emotional use (i.e. happiness and happiness), gain in rights and influence, in ideal use or the like. By aligning with the economic principle , the market can - under very restrictive and often unrealistic assumptions - ensure an optimal distribution of scarce resources . Requirements for a market that functions optimally are, for example, complete information , atomistic actors and voluntary participation in the market. If these assumptions are not fulfilled, the neoclassical theory predicts a so-called market failure .

Historical school

Older Historical School

The historical school of economics , which emerged in Germany from 1850, rejects the notion of generally applicable economic laws , which goes back to classical economics and rationalism , but instead seeks to underpin its - often sociological - findings by working out historical laws of development. The general laws of classical economics would only apply to the capitalist economic system.

Your most important representatives are Wilhelm Roscher , Bruno Hildebrand and Gustav von Schmoller .

Younger historical school

Georg Friedrich Knapp distinguishes capitalism from earlier economic epochs through the emergence of large companies.

In the emergence of the national economy (1917), which has become classic, Karl Bücher describes capitalism as the economic epoch in which all economic relationships are defined by their relationship to capital. Werner Sombart opposed this characterization in the second edition of Modern Capitalism . Richard Passow objected that this ran counter to normal economic usage.

Youngest or Third Historical School

Max Weber 1917

The so-called Youngest Historical School characterizes capitalism by means of an emerging capitalist attitude and founded the sociological investigation of capitalism.

Werner Sombart saw this attitude manifested in the principle of acquisition, rationality and individualism . In Modern Capitalism (1902) he outlined the widespread division of capitalism into the development phases of early , high and late capitalism . In late capitalism, he saw the increasing state intervention as the first signs of a development law leading to the socialization of the means of production. It was from him that the term " creative destruction ", later widely used by Joseph Schumpeter, comes from .

Max Weber understands and explains capitalism as Western rationalism and focuses on the striving for rationality that encompasses all levels of society. All decisions in the capitalist system are based on utility or profit maximization . In doing so, social action can be assumed that is purpose-oriented. “Capitalist economic acts” are determined by “Expectation of profit by taking advantage of exchange opportunities”.

The state , the bureaucracy and the law give the emerging (early) capitalism a stable social form for its development. Religion in the form of culture as social action is the strongest power with regard to rational-methodical conduct of life.

In his book The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that capitalism arose in north-western Europe and the USA for religious reasons and represents a further development of the Reformation movement - in the spiritual sense (cf. the Protestant work ethic and the Protestant Ethics in general). Since this was not tenable for Japan , Weber examined the (functionally corresponding) role of the samurai .

Arthur Spiethoff took a mediating position ("illustrative theory") between the historicizing characterization of capitalism in the historical school and the pure theory of classical and neoclassical economics.

Austrian school

Older and younger Austrian school

Ludwig von Mises

At the end of the 19th century, the Austrian School was formed around Carl Menger in Vienna . This rejected historically relativistic and historically deterministic theories of capitalism. Economic laws apply to them always and everywhere and arise from the scarcity of goods and the subjective relationship between people and them.

The Austrian School rejects the Homo oeconomicus of classical economics as unrealistic and also includes non-economic goals in its theory. State interventionism in the economic system is generally rejected ( oil spill theorem ).

Ludwig von Mises considered capitalism to be the only logically possible economic system. Socialism is not functional due to the impossibility of economic calculation in socialism . Mises writes: “Economic research has shown that no other conceivable economic order could attain the same degree of prosperity as capitalism. It has completely refuted all the arguments put forward in favor of socialism and interventionism. "

For Austrian economists, capitalist society's striving for profit is not a characteristic feature, since an increase in the value of the corresponding goods must be sought in order to satisfy needs. H. there is no difference between “capitalist” production for profit and “socialist” production for needs. The only difference is that in capitalism "profit" can only be achieved rationally through sensible cost accounting.

According to Mises, the entrepreneur's profit comes from predicting future consumer needs better than his competitors and using his capital accordingly. Regarding monopoly formation, Mises argued that monopolies cannot arise in a free market economy or are not permanent. Monopolies only ever come about through state intervention.

The most important representatives of the Austrian School are Ludwig von Mises ( Human Action (1949) ) and the Nobel Prize winner Friedrich von Hayek . The Thatcherism based in part on Hayek's analysis ( The Road to Serfdom (1944) ).

Joseph Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter defined a functioning capitalism as the "liberal model of an economy free of intervention, in which only the laws of the free market apply and in which there are no monopoly structures that can use state power to enforce partial interests at the expense of the general public."

Schumpeter judged that the “machine capitalism” did not work badly. They are driven by free enterprise ; However, precisely the success, which is also evident in monopolies, means that capitalism repeatedly destroys its own social structure, which protects and supports it . Schumpeter saw the possibility of constant renewal, but assumed in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) that capitalism would ultimately perish as a result of its successes.

At first he saw it as the engine of social development. However, he increasingly produces a water head of bureaucratic structures and a "crisis of the tax state" (by undertaking to weaken the state ). The automation of technical progress leads to ever greater concentration of capital and this ultimately to the erosion of contractual freedom through collective agreements.


The Ordoliberalismus calls for an economic system in which a created by the state regulatory framework the economic competition is to ensure the freedom of citizens and on the market. By embedding the historicizing approach in a generally applicable order theory, the analytical use of the term “capitalism” for economics appears doubtful for Walter Eucken . He mentions the Marxist use of the term “ hypostasis ” and “secularized gnosis”. Rather, economic systems coexist timelessly to solve scarcity problems and social conflicts of interest. Capitalism and socialism with their historical and judgmental connotations are therefore superfluous. Today's use of the market economy and central administration economy goes back to this order theory .


The Keynesian dates back to the 1937 published work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes back, which laid the foundation for a paradigm shift in economics. The work is primarily a critique of the theory of the general equilibrium of neoclassicalism and the minimalist role it demands of the state in the economic process. It is controversial to this day, but it is undisputed that Keynes has made a contribution to putting thinking in macroeconomic variables such as consumption, saving, investment and income on a new basis.

Keynesians consider capitalism to be inherently unstable. Fluctuations in overall economic final demand (including investments) therefore harbor the risk of a sustained macroeconomic imbalance with high unemployment, from which the economy cannot free itself due to the market's “self-healing powers” ​​emphasized by the (neo) classics. Keynesians are therefore calling for economic policy measures to stimulate real economic growth.


In contrast to Keynesians, who demand the entire set of instruments of state economic policy (in particular an anti-cyclical financial policy ), monetarism focuses on the stabilizing effects of a medium-term oriented monetary policy . According to monetarist analysis, capitalism tends towards a stable equilibrium with flexible prices. It is therefore only recommended to pursue a continuous trend-oriented monetary policy that provides for the monetary support of real growth. The goal of price level stability has priority because this is seen as a prerequisite for the functioning of the market economy adjustment process. On the other hand, the employment goal will be achieved by itself, if the free play of the market is created. The state should essentially limit itself to regulatory and competition policy tasks. Interventions can e.g. B. be indicated in the presence of external effects , but must be justified in each individual case. With reference to the democratic developments in Europe, America and parts of Asia, Milton Friedman argues that capitalist societies tend towards the rule of law and democracy in the long term .

Other libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism

Since the middle of the 20th century, libertarian and anarcho-capitalist theorists have refused to use the term “capitalist” at all for European states and the USA, and see advancing socialist tendencies: capitalism has been given up in favor of a mixed system; All of the ecological and social deficiencies criticized by capitalism critics were in fact caused by state intervention and not the result of the free market. This is also the case with David D. Friedman , who developed an anarcho-capitalist theory with The Machinery of Freedom (1971) .

Newer approaches

Arguing on the basis of neoclassical theory, Thomas Piketty argues in his work Le capital au XXIe siecle (German Capital in the 21st Century ), published in 2013 , that inequality is not a coincidental but a necessary feature of capitalism. Piketty advocates limiting inequality, for example through progressive income taxation or wealth taxes.


Relevant sociological lexicons define capitalism as an economic and social order with the following characteristics: production of goods under conditions of private ownership of the means of production, which a minority has at their disposal, while the majority must enter into wage employment . The driving force of economic processes is the interest of the owners of the means of production in increasing the capital employed; H. of profit maximization and accumulation .

Max Weber saw capitalism as “the most fateful power of our modern life”. In no way is it to be equated with the “striving for maximum profit”, rather it contributes to taming the irrational drive of unlimited greed for gain. According to him, a capitalist economic act is based on the expectation of profit from the perception of peaceful employment opportunities. However, capitalism is identical “with the pursuit of profit, in the continuous, rational capitalist operation: for ever renewed profit: for profitability.” Weber differentiates between rational capitalism , political capitalism and traditional trade capitalism . Rational capitalism (= "bourgeois working capitalism"), which is concentrated around the modern type of market, has only developed in the West.

The critical theory saw in the ideology of just exchange the central justification strategy of the capitalist system of exploitation. Walter Benjamin characterizes capitalism as an "essentially religious phenomenon" for "satisfying the same worries, torments, and unrest to which the so-called religions once answered". The sociologists Dirk Baecker and Christoph Deutschmann took up Benjamin's idea and placed it in the context of the socio-economic situation at the turn of the millennium under the conditions of globalized capitalism without any socio-political alternative. According to Dirk Baecker, “this society believes in capitalism” since “the sociological alternative is no longer available and the form of society is no longer the subject of an ideologically based political decision”. The social historian Jürgen Kocka shares the view that “ no superior alternatives to capitalism are currently discernible”.


According to Duden Wirtschaft , “capitalism” is a term coined under the production and working conditions of the late 18th century and the early 19th century. He describes an economic and social order in which private ownership of the means of production, the principle of profit maximization and the market economy are typical, with ownership of capital being the prerequisite for the power of disposal over the means of production and the right to issue instructions over the labor. The workers were typically propertyless and economically dependent on the few capital owners. The social and economic conditions of that time cannot be compared with the current production conditions. Since the end of the 19th century, the economic systems of the western industrialized countries have been reformed through a large number of social and economic laws, and strong trade unions have ensured a balance between employers and employees. In addition, the economic and technical progress led to considerable social progress, especially in market-based economic systems, and solid conditions of prosperity arose for large parts of the population. The term capitalism therefore does not correctly describe the market economy system that exists today in the western industrialized countries.

According to the Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon , “capitalism” is a “historicizing and, v. a. by the representatives of Marxism, evaluative term for the modern capitalist market economies with dominating private ownership of the means of production and decentralized planning of the economic process. "Attempts to periodize economic history are based on individual evaluations and it is not taken into account that there are basic problems of economic activity that are every economic order would have to be solved. Capitalism is characterized differently and the division into different phases is not uniform. The fundamentally consistent view in the individual theories is that capitalism is a transitional phenomenon and destroys itself with systemic inevitability: Marxist theory derives the transitional character of capitalism from historical materialism . In contrast, economists such as Werner Sombart and Joseph Schumpeter saw increasing concentration of power, ever larger companies and the increasing suppression of contractual freedom through collective agreements and increasing bureaucratisation and state intervention as indicators of the future inevitable dominance of socialism. Since, according to Gabler, no compelling statements about the future historical development could be derived from a scientific logic, the assumption of the transitional character implied in the concept of capitalism cannot be proven.

The variety of attempts to define the term “capitalism” confirms, according to the concise dictionary of economics, the opinion of those who consider it unsuitable for scientific use. Compounds such as early, high, late, state, financial capitalism or many more suggested that these compounds were defined by means of completely different characteristics. Instead of using the term capitalism, a sharpening and expansion of the order theory is proposed.

For Franz Oppenheimer and his student Ludwig Erhard , capitalism was an economic system that positively established inequality:

“Something impressed me so deeply that I cannot lose it, namely dealing with the socio-political questions of our time. He recognized "capitalism" as the principle that leads to inequality, indeed that actually establishes inequality, although nothing was further from him than a dreary leveling out. On the other hand, he hated communism because it inevitably leads to bondage. There must be a way - a third way - that means a happy synthesis, a way out. I tried, almost in accordance with his mandate, tried in the social market economy to show a not sentimental but a realistic path. "

- Ludwig Erhard : Franz Oppenheimer, the teacher and friend

For Ludwig Erhard and Alfred Müller-Armack , it was about the question of social justice ; in addition, they also saw real wage increases in the amount of productivity gains as necessary so that supply and demand could be balanced.

Thomas Piketty analyzed in his much-discussed book Le capital au XXIe siecle (German Das Kapital in the 21st Century ) 2013 that inequality is a necessary characteristic of capitalism if the state does not intervene to correct it.

Among Anglo-Saxon economists such as B. the Nobel laureates in economics Paul Krugman , Joseph E. Stiglitz etc. the use of the term capitalism is common as a description of the western economic systems.

Cultural evolution research

Based on more recent development models of cultural evolution research , it was shown that the emergence and spread of investment capitalism, which characterizes modern culture and modernity , can be explained by the new form of technological niche construction that spread from the Middle Ages. According to this research paradigm, investment capitalism appears coevolutionary with the technology of the "composite machine" such as windmills or gears, which consist of a multitude of simple machines connected in series (in antiquity the "mighty five '' of increased output" inclined plane , wedge , Screw , lever and wheel ). For the first time in terms of technology history, the assembled machine shows the possibility of continuous improvement and innovation, because the efficiency, effectiveness and functionality of assembled machines can be continuously optimized and changed.

In contrast to the coin as an economic medium of antiquity, which economically links markets and production sites of the same level of development and leads to an economy aimed at accumulation (“horizontal coupling”), capital in modern times enables targeted investments in innovations in assembled machines. Capital forms the economic medium that links production sites and markets of different development levels virtually and medially over the development period and enables future developments to be valued (“vertical coupling”). From this cultural-revolutionary-civilization-theoretical perspective it follows that the technology of the composite machine forms the technical-historical-material basis of the production of surplus value , the capitalist class structure , the concept of growth and progress as well as the “linear time regime”.



Private property and various other features of capitalism can be found in varying degrees already from the Neolithic revolution . The author Peter Temin is of the opinion that a market economy already existed in the Roman Empire . Others see essential characteristics of capitalism in the caliphate from the 9th to the 12th century : money economy , market economy , early forms of society ( “mufawada” and “mudaraba” ) and capital (“al-mal”) . Jürgen Kocka assumes that with the existence of individual property rights, markets and capital, early forms of capitalism were given in medieval China, the Arab world and in Renaissance Europe.

In contrast, Marxist historians take the view that one can only speak of capitalism with the generalized production for the market, which first spread in England.

Commercial capitalism

In the Middle Ages, there was a phase of sustained economic change known as the commercial revolution . According to a thesis by Ferdinand Tönnies , long-distance trade emerged in Europe and with it the first institutions that bore the essential characteristics of capitalism from the 13th century . This delay was largely due to the territorial fragmentation and the small-scale jurisdictions. The emergence of long-distance trade in northern Italy ( Venice , Pisa , Genoa , Florence ) and Portugal , then pronounced in the 15th century in the area of ​​today's Belgium and the Netherlands with the centers of Bruges and Antwerp and even later in the German Hanseatic cities , was only possible after the merchants themselves took over the city regiment and built their own legal system with their own armed forces.


The developing productive forces of England and the northern Netherlands successfully pushed back the feudalist social structures with the early bourgeois revolution and enabled the free development of the market . The prerequisites for protoindustrialization and the emergence of early capitalism were thus in place.


Industrial capitalism began in the factory system that emerged at the end of the 18th century, namely in the cotton mills in England. The same time as the Industrial Revolution factories incurred were due to the mechanical spinning machine ( Spinning Jenny ) the bottleneck in the demand for spun into yarn cotton eliminate and completely bring to the further invention of the power loom a huge production increase in the production of woven textiles for which there was great demand in the domestic and foreign markets. In industries of metal production and other trades, too, factories became profit- generating investment objects for a new class of “industrial capitalists” . In them, wage workers created a “social” product in a new, machine-mediated division of labor .

While Marx (like the classics) still assumed that under the regime of the capitalist mode of production the wage workers would only be paid a wage that was necessary for the reproduction of their labor power, the workers, through their collective organization in trade unions and workers' parties , forced the economic elites, them to participate in the production advances and prosperity gains of the unfolding industrial capitalism. For this reason, the predicted impoverishment tendencies of the working class - just like the escalating class struggles with a proletarian overthrow of the capitalist mode of production (world revolution)  - have not yet occurred to the extent expected by Marxists. Instead, industrial capitalism became the world's dominant social formation in the 19th and 20th centuries , although non-capitalist industrial societies also emerged from time to time under Soviet rule and after national revolutions in former colonial areas.

The inequality of wealth and development opportunities was the big topic of the classic economists Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, each of whom has argued that economic development should ultimately exacerbate social differences. But they underestimated the technological change, which ultimately brought a significant increase in prosperity to all classes.

Adjusted for inflation, the global economy has grown by an average of 1.6 percent annually over the past 300 years. The fortunes grew faster. Historically, their growth rate is closer to four percent if you look at pre-tax income. According to Thomas Piketty , up until the 19th century the rate of wealth growth was in fact mostly greater than that of the economy and thus of total income, and he believes it will remain so in the 21st century. The greater equality in this relationship in the 20th century until after the middle of it is explained by Piketty with the great political upheavals, the world wars and the severe economic crises of this time, which clearly damaged traditional wealth.

Late 19th and early 20th centuries

Towards the end of the 19th century, the role of bankers and financiers became increasingly important. Monopolies and cartels are increasing; the company owners delegate the production process to managers . The banking system , corporate ties and the stock market are becoming increasingly complex. In Marxist diction, this phase is also referred to as the time of “finance capitalism”, “ monopoly capitalism ” or “ state monopoly capitalism ” . At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, boom and depression (1857/58, 1873) became a growing problem. Outside the Marxist interpretation of history, too, reference is made to the enormous number of monopolies and trusts .

Great Depression and Stabilization

Even before the First World War , financial capitalism had developed that was not subject to any control. This collapsed in the Great Depression beginning in 1929. A severe global recession turned into a period of depression . The state had to intervene and created institutions of stabilization. In the United States, significant economic and social reforms took place under the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt .

The social market economy was also the result of a social learning process that had been initiated by the global economic crisis. The regulatory alternative in Germany had already narrowed in the mid-1930s to the alternatives between the “controlled market economy”, the ordoliberal type and the “market-based management economy” of the Keynesian type . After the Second World War , Ludwig Erhard and Alfred Müller-Armack in particular founded the social market economy under government responsibility. Instead of pure or unbridled capitalism, state frameworks should ensure the functioning of the market economy. This idea was based on ordoliberal theories. The social market economy should serve the realization of social security and social justice. According to Erhard, a well-functioning market economy, because it is managed, should bring prosperity for everyone. A broad wealth creation of all social classes should be promoted as popular capitalism . His goal was the utopia of a depoletarianized society of property citizens who no longer needed state social policy. In practice, however, popular capitalism did not make any progress; rather, there was a growing awareness of the inadequacy of the distribution of income and wealth resulting from the market mechanism. The trend towards an unequal distribution of income and wealth was palpable as early as the 1950s. Despite relatively low contributions, claims from statutory pension insurance were more important than any other source of income for employees' old-age provision, and the volume of statutory pension insurance by far exceeded the volume of household wealth accumulation. The Bismarck social state was therefore not only retained, but expanded. Since 1957, the formula social market economy has been reinterpreted from Erhard's interpretation of national capitalism to a market economy with an independent welfare state. Only then did the term social market economy become the central consensus and peace formula of the middle way.

The resulting German capitalism model is also known as Rhenish capitalism .

Globalization and the disintegration of real socialism

The history of capitalism has always been closely linked to the internationalization of trade. The process of dismantling trade barriers ( GATT 1948) and the resulting international interdependence of trade and capital movements, especially since the abolition of the Bretton Woods system , are referred to as globalization . However, some authors deny that globalization is stronger in the 20th century than in previous eras.

The consequences of this development are controversial: critics of globalization blame capitalism for the persistence or widening of the global gap between rich and poor. Proponents of globalization, on the other hand, argue that the takeover of the Western economic system and the dismantling of trade barriers are the only way to curb poverty , and speak of the “inevitability of capitalism” in view of global population growth .

After the fall of the Soviet Union and Real Socialism, some observers spoke of the end of history , when capitalism and democracy were the only government and economic systems to survive.

After the end of globalization optimism, the discussion about whether capitalism and democracy are compatible in the long term has been intensifying for several years.

The American economist Shoshana Zuboff coined the term surveillance capitalism and sees it as a development analogous to industrial capitalism .

Variants of capitalism under discussion

Karl Marx hardly uses the term capitalism himself . In the Marxist tradition , however, it not only found a broad reception, but also experienced a diversification into variants such as organized capitalism , neo and late capitalism , financial and competitive capitalism or monopoly and state monopoly capitalism . In the more recent discussions in economics and sociology , further new compounds have been coined, some of which have received a great response from the public , such as Rhenish capitalism , casino capitalism , financial market capitalism and turbo -capitalism as well as the political catchphrases such as killer capitalism, predator capitalism or locust capitalism .

In addition, real socialist economic systems within the left were also critically described as state capitalism .


See also


Primary literature

Classical economics


Historical school

Joseph Schumpeter

Austrian school



  • John Maynard Keynes : General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money . 9th edition. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2000, ISBN 978-3-428-07985-8 (English: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) . Translated by Fritz Waeger).

Ordoliberalism, neoliberalism

Secondary literature



  • Elmar Altvater : Capitalism - For the determination, delimitation and dynamics of a historical formation . In: Consider knowledge ethics . Volume 3, 2002, pp. 281–291 ( ).
  • Sven Beckert : "King Cotton". A history of global capitalism . Beck, Munich 2014.
  • Jürgen Kocka : History of Capitalism. Beck, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-406-65492-3 .
  • Ellen Meiksins Wood : The Origin of Capitalism. A search for clues. Laika-Verlag, Hamburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-942281-67-6 .
  • Sören Brandes, Malte Zierenberg (Ed.): Practices of Capitalism . In: Mittelweg 36 , Volume 26, Issue 1, February / March 2017, Introduction (PDF)
  • Jürgen Kocka, Marcel van der Linden (ed.): Capitalism. The Reemergence of a Historical Concept . London 2016.
  • Larry Neal, Jeffrey Williamson (Eds.): The Cambridge History of Capitalism . 2 volumes. Cambridge 2014.

Political science


  • Jens Beckert : Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2016.

Literary studies

  • Urs Urban: The Economy of Literature. On the literary genealogy of the economic man. Aisthesis, Bielefeld 2018. ISBN 978-3-8498-1305-5

Web links

Wiktionary: Capitalism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Capitalism  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Karl Bachinger, Herbert Matis : Socio-economic development: conceptions and analyzes from Adam Smith to Amartya K. Sen. Volume 3074, UTB 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-3074-6 , pp. 75-76.
  2. Heart : Gerhard Willke: Capitalism. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 16. - Main feature : Luc Boltanski , Ève Chiapello : The new spirit of capitalism. UKV, Konstanz 1999, p. 39. - Guiding principle : Immanuel Wallerstein: The structural crisis or why capitalism could no longer be profitable. In: Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, Craig Calhoun: Is Capitalism Dying ? Five scenarios for the 21st century. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2014, p. 19.
  3. For Max Weber, the pursuit of profit and ever renewed profit in the capitalist individual enterprise is identical with capitalism, while the mere “pursuit of profit, for monetary profit, for the highest possible profit” has nothing to do with capitalism per se. Cf. Max Weber: Collected essays on the sociology of religion . Mohr, Tübingen 1963, p. 4. Weber's definition corresponds to Marx's definition of the capitalist mode of production, according to which profits arise in production ( production of surplus value) .
  4. ^ Joan Violet Robinson: The historical development of markets. Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed August 4, 2020 .
  5. Allen, Robert C., 1947-: The British industrial revolution in global perspective . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009, ISBN 978-0-521-86827-3 .
  6. ^ Deane, Phyllis .: The first industrial revolution . 2d ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England] 1979, ISBN 0-521-22667-8 .
  7. Stearns, Peter N.,: The industrial revolution in world history . Boulder, ISBN 0-8133-8596-2 .
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  16. ^ A b Karl Bachinger, Herbert Matis: Socio-economic development: conceptions and analyzes from Adam Smith to Amartya K. Sen. Volume 3074, UTB 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-3074-6 , p. 76
  17. ^ Karl Bachinger, Herbert Matis: Socio-economic development: conceptions and analyzes from Adam Smith to Amartya K. Sen. Volume 3074, UTB 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-3074-6 , p. 77
  18. ^ Karl Bachinger, Herbert Matis: Socio-economic development: conceptions and analyzes from Adam Smith to Amartya K. Sen. Volume 3074, UTB 2008, ISBN 978-3-8252-3074-6 , pp. 78, 79
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  44. ^ Walter Eucken: Principles of economic policy . 6th edition. UTB Mohr / Siebeck, Tübingen 1990, p. 206 sq .
  45. ^ A b Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon, Keynesianismus
  46. Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon, Monetarism
  47. Milton Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom . Eichborn, 2002, ISBN 3-8218-3960-0 .
  48. ^ As an example, Ludwig von Mises : Human Action - A Treatise on Economics . 1st edition. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn (Alabama) 2007, ISBN 978-0-945466-24-6 , pp. 829 ( [PDF; 55.7 MB ] First edition: 1948).
  49. Michel Husson: Le capital au XXIe siècle. Richesse des données, pauvreté de la théorie
  50. a b
  51. For example, Werner Fuchs-Heinritz / Rüdiger Lautmann / Otthein Rammstedt / Hanns Wienold (eds.): Lexicon for Sociology . 4th edition, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2007, p. 323 ff. Similarly in Karl-Heinz Hillmann : Dictionary of Sociology (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 410). 4th, revised and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-520-41004-4 , p. 403 and in Günter Endruweit / Gisela Trommsdorf (ed.): Dictionary of Sociology . Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart ²2002, p. 264.
  52. Max Weber: Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion I . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1963, preliminary remark , p. 4.
  53. a b Max Weber: Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion I . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1963, preliminary remark , p. 10.
  54. Dirk Käsler , Max Weber: an introduction to life, work and effect , Campus Verlag, 2003, ISBN 3-593-37360-2 , p. 179
  55. Richard Swedberg: Fundamentals of Economic Sociology , ed. by Andrea Maurer, VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2009, p. 92
  56. a b Richard Swedberg: Fundamentals of Economic Sociology , ed. by Andrea Maurer, VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2009, p. 50.
  57. ^ Theodor W. Adorno: Sociology and empirical research. In: ders: Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 8: Sociological Writings I. 3rd edition. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1990, p. 209. - Jürgen Habermas: Technology and science as 'ideology' . Suhrkamp 1969, p. 71f.
  58. ^ Walter Benjamin: Capitalism as Religion . In: Dirk Baecker (ed.): Capitalism as religion. Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2003, p. 16.
  59. Dirk Baecker (Ed.): Introduction to Capitalism as Religion . Berlin 2003, p. 3.
  60. Jürgen Kocka: History of Capitalism . Beck, Munich 2013, p. 128.
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  69. Cf. Davor Löffler: Generative Realities I. Technological civilization as a new axial age and level of civilization. An anthropology of the 21st century . Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019, pp. 524–545
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  71. ^ Karl H. Metz: Origins of the future. The history of technology in western civilization . Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2006, p. 34.
  72. Cf. Davor Löffler: Generative Realities I. Technological civilization as a new axial age and level of civilization. An anthropology of the 21st century . Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019, pp. 509–516.
  73. Cf. Davor Löffler: Generative Realities I. Technological civilization as a new axial age and level of civilization. An anthropology of the 21st century . Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019, p. 491.
  74. Cf. Davor Löffler: Generative Realities I. Technological civilization as a new axial age and level of civilization. An anthropology of the 21st century . Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019, pp. 542–545
  75. Aleida Assmann: Time out of joint. The rise and fall of the modern time regime. Munich: Hanser 2013, pp. 19–21.
  76. Cf. Davor Löffler: Generative Realities I. Technological civilization as a new axial age and level of civilization. An anthropology of the 21st century . Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2019, pp. 561–574; Before that, Löffler: Distributing Potentiality. Post-Capitalist Economies and the Generative Time Regime . In: Identities , Vol. 15, No. 1–2, 2018, pp. 8–44, pp. 29–35.
  77. ^ Uwe Wesel: Early forms of law in pre-state societies . Suhrkamp, ​​1985, ISBN 978-3-518-57723-3 .
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  87. Marx 1865 in Wages, Prices and Profit (MEW 16, pp. 101–152. Z. BS 110: “… draw your attention to the real wage increase that took place in Great Britain from 1849 to 1859. You are all familiar with the ten-hour bill , or rather, the ten and a half hour bill, which has been in force since 1848. This was one of the greatest economic changes that had occurred before our eyes. It was a sudden and involuntary increase in wages, not in some local branches of business, but in the leading branches of industry brought about by England dominated the world market. It brought an increase in wages under exceptionally unfavorable circumstances. ”
    and p. 111:“ During the same period in which the introduction of the ten-hour bill and the subsequent increase in wages took place, the place took place in Great Britain for reasons which are not listed here is, a general increase in the wages of farm workers. ”
    and S 112:“ Finding that from 1849 to 1859 the average rate of the land Labor wages in Great Britain experienced an increase of about 40%. ”
    But also:“ Ricardo has correctly observed that the machinery is constantly competing with labor and can often only be introduced when the price of labor has reached a certain level, but the application is of machinery is just one of the many methods of increasing the productivity of labor. Exactly the same development that makes unskilled work relatively superfluous, on the other hand, simplifies learned work and devalues ​​it. ”“ The same law can be found in another form. With the development of the productive power of labor, the accumulation of capital is accelerated, even in spite of a relatively high rate of wages. ”[150]
    and:“ At the same time as accumulation progresses, there is a progressive change in the composition of capital. That part of total capital which consists of fixed capital - machinery, raw materials, means of production in all conceivable forms - increases more rapidly than the other part of capital which is invested in wages or in the purchase of labor. This law has been established more or less precisely by Barton, Ricardo, Sismondi, Professor Richard Jones, Professor Ramsay, Cherbuliez, and others. a. "" These few hints will suffice to show that the whole development of modern industry must tilt the scales more and more in favor of the capitalist and against the worker and that consequently it is the general tendency of capitalist production, not the average wage standard to raise, but rather to lower it, or to push the value of labor more or less to its minimum limit. ”[151]“ At the same time, and quite independently of the general fron which the wage system implies, the working class should make the final effectiveness of these daily struggles do not overestimate. It should not forget that it is fighting against effects, but not against the causes of those effects; that although it slows down the downward movement, it does not change its direction; that she uses palliative means that do not cure the evil. ”p. 152) at best proves the assumption of a relative, but not an absolute, tendency towards poverty.
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  93. ^ Werner Abelshauser: German economic history. From 1945 to the present. Munich 2011, p. 93.
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  98. ^ So also Stefan Remke: Trade unions and social legislation. Volume 33 of publications of the Institute for Social Movements: Representations. 2005, ISBN 3-89861-380-1 , p. 58.
  99. ^ Lutz Leisering: The German Post-War Social State - Development and Crisis of a Centrist Social Model . In: Hans-Peter Schwarz (Ed.): The Federal Republic of Germany: a balance sheet after 60 years . Böhlau, Cologne / Weimar 2008, ISBN 978-3-412-20237-8 , p. 425.
  100. Michel Albert interview with Wirtschaftswoche
  101. ^ Peter Evans: The Eclipse of the State? Reflections on Stateness in an Era of Globalization . In: World Politics . tape 50.1 , 1997, p. 62-87 .
  102. Exemplary: Another world is possible! In: attac / Publik-Forum . tape 50 , May 13, 2002 ( Online [PDF]).
  103. Francis Fukuyama : The End of the Story . 1992, ISBN 978-3-463-40132-4 .
  104. E.g. Christoph Deutschmann: Is global capitalism compatible with political democracy? In: Leviathan , September 2005, 33rd vol., Heft 3, pp. 325–336; Michael Steber: Legitimacy and Political Participation . In: Mandana Bigi u. a. (Ed.): Democracy, Law and Legitimacy in the 21st Century . VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2008, pp. 13-27. Elmar Altvater , Ulrich Beck u. a .: Democracy or Capitalism? Blätter Verlag, Berlin 2013.
  105. Shoshana Zuboff: "There is an unbearable longing in many of us ." In: Der Spiegel . September 29, 2018 (Spiegel interview).
  106. The term “capitalism” appears only once in Capital (Volume 2, MEW 24, p. 123), in contrast to the frequently used adjective “capitalist”.
  107. So especially in the theoretical traditions of anarchism and council communism as well as Trotskyism . For the former cf. Rudolf Rocker : We and the Marxists . In: The Syndicalist . February 15, 1919 ( ). On council communism cf. Group of international communists: 60 theses on Bolshevism . In: Anton Pannekoek , Paul Mattick (Ed.): Marxist Anti-Leninism . 2nd Edition. Ça ira, Freiburg 2007, ISBN 3-924627-22-3 . On Trotskyism cf. Tony Cliff : State Capitalism in Russia . Socialist workers group, Frankfurt 1975 ( ).