Atlantic History Capitalism
Tom Cutterham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0353


As a conceptual apparatus for the analysis of complex historical phenomena, “capitalism” has been a powerful tool for historians of the Atlantic World. Capitalism, used as a concept in the sense derived from the work of Karl Marx, generates analyses that integrate the processes of production, consumption, and exchange with the historical development of consciousness and social systems. It is a critique, rather than simply an alternative form, of political economy. How exactly to conduct such critical analysis has been a matter of prolific and sophisticated argument for over a century, and specific definitions of capitalism as an object of historical study vary as functions of that debate. Indeed, debates about the precise formulation and usefulness of capitalism as a concept, and about its geographical and temporal scope as a historical object, have run on similar though by no means parallel lines to debates over the “Atlantic World.” These discourses intersect most vibrantly in the study of Atlantic slavery. From the 19th to the 21st centuries, the relationship of slavery to capitalism has remained a site of intense conceptual struggle. All serious contributions to such debates, and to the study of historical capitalism generally, have relied to some extent on the evidence and analysis of scholars who were not themselves engaged in that study. This bibliography, however, will deal for the most part only with work that deploys the term “capitalism,” signifying a more or less conscious engagement with the tradition and debates that derive from Marx’s work.

General Overviews

By their nature, attempts at a general historical overview of capitalism must address, more or less explicitly, the theoretical questions surrounding its identity and boundaries. There is no uncontroversial survey or general introduction. While Appleby 2010 offers an accessible narrative synthesis in which theoretical debate is kept out of sight, the other works listed intend a somewhat more specialist audience. Kocka 2016 combines an introductory account of theoretical controversies with a broad historical sketch in less than two hundred pages. The Cambridge History of Capitalism (Neal and Williamson 2014) takes a highly eclectic approach that tends toward eliding the concept of capitalism with those of market exchange and economic growth. By contrast, the remaining works listed here engage directly with the tradition of Marxist analysis of capitalism. Wallerstein’s short polemic criticizes abstract and ahistorical tendencies within that tradition while setting out his own “world-systems” approach. Anievas and Nişancioğlu 2015, followed by Yazdani and Menon 2020, both emphasize global connections and processes that include but are hardly limited to the Atlantic World. Inikori 2017 adopts an explicitly Atlantic frame for an analysis that centers on the uneven development of wage labor over space and time.

  • Anievas, Alexander, and Kerem Nişancioğlu. How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt183pb6f

    Beginning with a useful critical review of the debate over capitalism’s origins and dynamics, How the West Came to Rule develops several case-studies showing the important role of non-European agents in early capitalist development. One chapter focuses on the Atlantic World.

  • Appleby, Joyce. The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

    This readable narrative synthesis presents a liberal account of global capitalism, focused on Britain and the United States, and inflected with the formulations of Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter.

  • Inikori, Joseph. “The Development of Capitalism in the Atlantic World: England, the Americas, and West Africa, 1450–1900.” Labour History 58.2 (2017): 138–153.

    DOI: 10.1080/0023656X.2017.1285515

    Defining capitalism in terms of the proportion of wage-labor in the overall labor force, this article compares regions around the Atlantic littoral over five centuries of economic development.

  • Kocka, Jürgen. Capitalism: A Brief History. Translated by Jeremiah Riemer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvc77kv8

    A highly accessible and compact overview of both the theoretical debates and the broad chronological outlines of global capitalist development, which gives more emphasis than Appleby to the preindustrial period and merchant capital.

  • Neal, Larry, and Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds. The Cambridge History of Capitalism. Vol. 1, The Rise of Capitalism: From Ancient Origins to 1848. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Defining capitalism loosely, this volume includes useful chapters on Africa and Latin America, on exchange with and among Native Americans, on state-formation, and on America as “capitalism’s promised land.”

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. Historical Capitalism. London: Verso, 1983.

    A brief presentation of the theoretical core from Wallerstein’s much lengthier work, this is a polemic calling for the historically minded analysis of capitalism that takes a world-system rather than nation-states or discrete regions as its object of analysis.

  • Yazdani, Kaveh, and Dilip M. Menon, eds. Capitalisms: Towards a Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Like Anievas and Nişancioğlu, but more theoretically eclectic, this volume emphasizes non-European contributions to capitalist development. Several chapters are framed as critiques of Neal and Williamson 2014.

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