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Michael Sonenscher, Capitalism: The Story Behind the Word

Emily Erikson
p. 95-98
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Michael Sonenscher, Capitalism: The Story Behind the Word, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022, 248 pages, 978-069123720-6

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1It is unlikely that readers interested in the history of economic thought will be surprised to hear that the term “capitalism” is frequently used in a vague and contradictory manner. They may however be chagrined, as I was, to find that the kind of vague gesturing to everything that is bad about the current state of the world often intended when students on campus use the word is largely in keeping with historical usage. Michael Sonenscher demonstrates the existence of this almost definitional ambiguity in one of the earlier uses of the term by Francois Bonald, who used it to refer to “the social question” of how to ensure a state was responsive to its citizenry. Interestingly, however, at this time, Bonald was neither a socialist nor a progressive, but was instead critiquing capitalism from a royalist position.

2Sonenscher charts an interesting course for an exploration of the history of the word. The book is not an exercise in etymology, nor an archaeology of knowledge. The bold cover art, large type, and small pocket size make it seem like a cross-over book for a larger public audience, but the argument is complex, covers some fairly obscure ground, and will be more easily digested by people already familiar with the main concepts and figures. These characteristics make the book denser than what I might have expected from the cover but are crucial to accomplishing what I now take to be the aim of the author. That goal as I understand it is not to identify the historical roots of the idea of capitalism. Instead, it is to leverage an understanding of how capitalism has meant different things in different eras to show that the concept is a vector through which people think about tackling large and important social problems. And perhaps most importantly, by undertaking this task, the author also acts to preserve the knowledge and wisdom that has already been brought to bear upon this very central and complex question over the ages.

3In the first chapter, the author disentangles the idea of the division of labor from the idea of property and ownership, which in the trajectory of meaning taken by the term “capitalism” (or forced upon that term) became conflated over time. The concept of capital is clearly about property and ownership, but capitalism came to also mean something about the division of labor.

4The author is particularly interested in pointing out that property is different from the division of labor because the history of the word capitalism captures many arguments about how different ways of conceiving property and ownership, i.e. different property regimes and regulations, can be a central means through which the negative consequences of markets may be ameliorated by reformers. Thus, property, i.e. capital, can be used to fix markets, i.e. capitalism—and therefore necessarily need to be distinguished from each other. Here I would point out that the division of labor should not be entirely conflated with the idea of markets either—as for example we see the division of labor within families and corporations as well as in markets—but I do take the larger point and hope that other people will as well.

5The second chapter provides a further overview of the way in which capitalism evolved through argumentation over the constitution of social evils and possible remedies and explores the tension between negative and positive conceptions of liberty often addressed by its critics. In the third chapter, Sonenscher establishes that the term capitalism, or capitalisme, was coined in French literature in the 1830s to refer to the nexus between the state, war, and finance. Thus, public debt and stocks become central to its meaning, and although they are given somewhat less attention in the text, companies and incorporation were an important part of this larger conversation as they were necessary for the expansion of the stock market.

6In the fourth chapter, we see that this meaning quickly became tied to discussions of social welfare and the mutual responsibility and relationship between the state and the public by royalist critics of the nascent French democracy. The fifth chapter charts the appropriation of the term by the left, which used it to signify the private control of capital, in contrast to centralized ownership of capital. Here again the conversation interestingly intersects with companies and guilds, which controlled access to types of work through membership and therefore infringed, through privatized means, on the universal right to work leftists were interested in defending and/or establishing. The last chapter of the first part weaves these strands together to argue that in each era, authors were trying to solve two larger problems that they falsely conceptualized as one problem (i.e. the problem of capitalism). One was the regulation of the ownership of capital and the other was the adoption and effect of the division of labor, which in this case the author also treats as effectively the same as the spread of markets.

7The second part of the book is a little bit more free ranging and exploratory. The author chooses from a wide field to focus on certain thinkers that, I assume, he found to pose the most interesting, promising, and/or important solutions to both of these problems. At this point a historical timeline is deserted and we move, fairly rapidly, from Marx backwards in time to Smith forward to Hegel and again to Ricardo, then finish with Lorenz von Stein.

8Moving away from a strict chronology allows the author to make new and interesting connections, highlighting real tensions and social dilemmas faced in modern and contemporary societies that we refer to as capitalist—and even those we do not.

9The links often seem both illuminating and novel, although I am not sure that I absolutely one hundred percent take them at face value in all instances. For example, the author connects Hegel’s conceptualization of an administrative civil society that links the state and market to French and English authors, which improves our ability to see the underlying conceptual similarities between these different schools of thought. But it seems to me that the German Cameralist writings on administration must have also had some influence on Hegel. So, I am not certain that the historical lineage traced out here is correct, although with more evidence I could be persuaded. But I also do not believe that it is necessarily the aim of the author to trace out paths of direct influence between thinkers. For example, it is perhaps more important to point out the area of convergence that existed without direct influence, since when similar ideas appear to different people operating in different traditions, it is possible that this is a sign that they are real features of the world that everyone thinking deeply about the problems may have to confront.

10So, I find the real value of the second part of the book to be speculative rather than historical. It is not entirely framed that way, but I hope the author would not disagree with this interpretation too much.

11If I had a few additional quibbles I might say that the author states that the idea of communism—as defined by Marx—is better described as a synthesis of French legal thought and German theology than the normal way through which it is understood (and understood by Marx) as a mix of Hegelianism and British political economy. While it may be a terrific insight to reveal these conceptual links, it would take a lot more specificity and evidence to convince me that French legal thought was in fact a greater influence on Marx that Smith or Hegel. Later, the conception of a negative community of goods is not linked to public goods, which seems like a strange oversight.

12All in all, this is the big ambitious and well-informed kind of thinking we need. Capitalism: The History Behind the Word gives an invaluable lens into the problems and tensions that we still face and portrays how several great minds have tried to find solutions that can improve the world that preserve individual freedoms while saving society from inequities and injustices those freedoms can produce. I hope a much larger audience than historians of economic thought will pick up this volume because it has a lot to say to all of us.

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Emily Erikson, « Michael Sonenscher, Capitalism: The Story Behind the Word »Œconomia, 14-1 | 2024, 95-98.

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Emily Erikson, « Michael Sonenscher, Capitalism: The Story Behind the Word »Œconomia [En ligne], 14-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Emily Erikson

Yale University.

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