Capitalism: A History of Violence

Alexander Anievas and TDOT resident Kerem Nişancıoğlu introduce their new book How The West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism.

‘For the last two decades, challenges to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism have been casually dismissed by a status quo swimming in hubris. From Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that ‘there is no alternative’ to Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’, the study and critique of capitalism has been relegated to margins of public discourse. More recently, Mark Hunter argued that any attack on capitalism is ‘an attack on human nature’, thereby reaffirming the now centuries-old conceit that capitalism is as ‘natural and organic’ as living and breathing.

However, as stock markets came crashing down in 2008, the force of history reasserted itself in a series of revolutions, square occupations, anti-austerity protests, strikes, riots, and anti-state movements taking place from London to Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Rojava, Santiago and beyond. Such movements have torn at the certainties of ‘capitalist realism’ and started sporadically – if inconsistently – challenging such long-held ‘common sense’ truisms and the power structures that bolster them.


Even after five years of relentless austerity and the continuing disorientation and weakness of much of the Left around the world, the fire ignited by the 2008 economic meltdown has yet to be extinguished. One need only be reminded of Syriza’s rise to power in Greece – arguably the most important electoral victory for a Left party in Europe in almost half a century. In Spain, Podemos presents the biggest challenge to the country’s two-party system since the end of the Francoist dictatorship four decades ago. As such, the hopes of capitalism’s ideologues for a ‘return to normality’ remain as elusive as ever.

In this context, the critique of capitalism has re-entered the public discourse in ways previously unimaginable. Indeed, a number of the most celebrated publications of recent years, have in different ways oriented themselves around re-investigating and understanding the meaning of capitalism, be they social democraticMarxistKeynesian or neo-conservative. In universities across the world, students and scholars are now collaborating in ways that seek to challenge ruling class orthodoxies. As a recent New York Times article put it: ‘A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism’. This renewed attention to the study of capitalism is a much welcomed development; particularly so as it allows us to critically question claims that capitalism is the natural order of things, or the highest expression of human nature.

In our book How the West Came to Rulewe argue that capitalism is a relatively recent, socially constructed and historically specific way of organising society. More specifically, we show that the origins and subsequent history of capitalism is one of violence – a history built on the brutal subjugation and annihilation of non-capitalist ways of life. Some of the key historical turning points in the making of capitalism emerged – to quote Marx – “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Blood represents the long durational process of death and exploitation that marked the origins of capitalism: the Black Death that tore apart feudalism in Europe; the colonial genocides of indigenous people spanning the Americas to the Indonesian archipelago; the ravages of the European slave trade and accompanying devastation of the African continent; and the witch-hunts of 16th and 17th century Europe that subjugated women under a new ‘sexual division of labour’. Dirt denotes the appropriation and recomposition of land in accordance with needs of capital accumulation: the enclosures in England which drove peasants off their land; the colonial dispossession of indigenous communities in the Americas; and the imposition of territorial divisions among colonial competitors in Asia.

But capitalism’s history of violence is far from just history – it is a continuing nightmare from which humanity has yet to awake. The conquest, ecological ruin, slavery, state terrorism, sexism, racism, exploitation and immiseration upon which capitalism was built continue unabated to this day. From the fatal consequences of austerity in the UK to the ravages of sweatshop labour in Bangladesh, from wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq to the systematic execution of black people by police in the US, the global and domestic handmaidens of capitalism continue to subordinate and destroy all who dare to resist its suffocating embrace.

These historical examples – of which there are countless more – should remind us that capitalism is neither natural nor eternal. Rather, it was historically constructed by viciously subordinating and annihilating other ways of life. Such observations not only open the possibility of identifying the historical limits of capitalism but also demand we think about constructing alternative ways of living that put an end to this history of violence.’

How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

Originally published at Pluto Press.


6 thoughts on “Capitalism: A History of Violence

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

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