Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 5 August 2011

Why Capitalism? A week-end reflection

This brief review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) of Werner Sombart's (great sociological historian of the Second German Historical School) Liebe, Luxus und Kapitalismus reminds us of the most basic question we can ask about capitalism: why? According to Sombart, fresh on the tracks of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it may have been the mediaeval notion and reality of courtly love - of knights pursuing ladies and inspiring the early troubadours (something incidentally that Nietzsche himself stresses in Gaya Scienza) - that gave rise to the spirit of capitalism instead. By encouraging the pursuit of luxury as a means of pleasing or impressing their lady of the heart, mediaeval knights may have incited the rise of wealth accumulation.

Of course, all this begs the question of why ladies should have coveted 'wealth' or 'luxury' in the first place! Similarly with Weber's "protestant ethic", it does not answer the question of why it promoted capitalism: but, precisely, that was not Weber's point at all! For him, protestantism, the ascetic ideal did not "cause" capitalism, but it supplied the urge "to rationalise" production. The two are separate things.

But the question remains of what "drove" the development of capitalism - and by "drive" we intend to refer to human "needs" in an almost psychoanalytic sense (remember Freud's Trieb, "drive"). Any answer to the question over the origins of capitalism has to include the fact that this system of production does satisfy human needs - though in a distorted fashion. And the point to its "supersession" or "overcoming" is that a point is reached where it fails and stops to satisfy the needs that it has generated! Happy week-end to all!

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