Journal Article

What is capitalism? : towards a working definition


Since the 2008 financial crisis, capitalism has returned as a major concept within the social sciences. While this has led to many important interventions, there is yet to be a clear, operationalisable definition of the concept. Possessing such a definition is important, both for assessing the merits of the recent literature, but also in response to ‘capitalist realism’, the societal and academic malaise which impedes the imagination of socio-economic alternatives. To think ‘beyond capitalism’ requires a clear understanding of what one is trying to transcend. As such, we need a definition of capitalism which serves to both encompass its multiple varieties, but circumscribed enough to remain operationalisable. Capitalism must therefore be theorised as rooted in a clear and manifest series of economic logics, however these need to be viewed as open to variation and transition. In this paper we thus review existing definitions of capitalism and offer our own preferred approach. We present a definition of capitalism based on an economic logic consisting of seven elements: (1) free enterprise and the competitive market, (2) the pursuit of profit and its private appropriation, (3) wage labour and the production of commodities, (4) property rights, (5) the financial infrastructure of money and investment that makes possible credit and debt (6) a highly variable degree of state regulation and (7) a propensity for growth as the productive re-investment of profit. The economic logic of capitalism interacts with other institutional orders of society to produce the overall shape of capitalism.

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Harris, Neal

Oxford Brookes departments

School of Law and Social Sciences


Year of publication: 2023
Date of RADAR deposit: 2023-08-08

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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