Historic Publications

A World Transformed: Studies in the History of Capitalism

The History of Capitalism series, which forms part of the Legatum Institute’s The Culture of Prosperity programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition.

This pamphlet was launched at the Legatum Institute on Tuesday, 12 January 2016 with guest remarks from author and historian, Antony Beevor.


What might the following cast of characters have in common? Marcus Minatius, an Italian banker (argentarius) active in the middle decades of the second century bc; Ea-nasir, a merchant who in about the year 1800 bc could be found running an import business in Ur, a city state located in modern-day southern Iraq; the businessman Abraham ben Yiju, who, though settled in Mangalore on India’s Malabar Coast by 1132, dreamed of returning to his family home in Tunisia; Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69); James Brydges (1673–1744), first Duke of Chandos and director of the Royal African Company; Richard Arkwright (1732–92) of Bolton, Lancashire, a barber and wig-maker whose obsessive tinkering with spinning machines led to an alternative career; Dr Frankenstein and his Monster; the Jarrow Marchers; and Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874–1965).

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A reading of the pages that follow will reveal one answer. In the year 2015 these were among the many figures, restored to life by the historian’s art, whose significance was studied as part of the Legatum Institute’s scrutiny, then in its second year, of capitalism’s history. In this collection of essays, based on lectures delivered at the Institute, voices long since stilled by the touch of time speak to the present with a surprising, even disconcerting, directness. The Legatum Institute owes a debt of gratitude, here happily acknowledged, to the historians who contributed to Part II of its lecture series, The History of Capitalism. Scholarship, originality, and wit marked the investigations here brought together as A World Transformed: Studies in the History of Capitalism.

History’s tidal waves—the vast forces of change that rise from the deep and come crashing down on whole societies and nations—are real enough. But students of such far-reaching transformations, when seeking to explain causes and consequences, are too often tempted by abstractions. Some accounts of turning points in the history of economics, for example, pay too little attention to the role of individual human beings, preferring instead to concentrate on the accumulation of data which, plotted along a graph, might indicate a medium- to long-term pattern of socioeconomic behaviour. Such patterns do of course recur. But so, too, do deviations from the norm and, quite often in the history of economics as of other areas of human endeavour, it is the deviation that really matters. An exception to the rule should, at the very least, alert us to the folly of assuming that the general tendency visible on today’s graph will be quite as general in the future. The extent of the deviation might also be the measure of wayward, and exemplary, creativity or even, perhaps, of genius in all its singularity. And quite possibly those whose behavioural patterns have been traced to so convenient, and generalising, an effect by the graph might well, having noticed the interesting deviation, resent being subsumed within a category. So salutary a counter-reaction would remind all concerned of the spiritual dignity which is the inalienable birthright of each human individual.

No such reminders need to be issued to the authors of these essays since their themes of transformation are studied in the context of human lives and deeds. Philip Kay shows how the provision of loans to foreign markets by Roman bankers such as Marcus Minatius led to a boom in monetary liquidity and an economic expansion which, being unsustainable, caused a major credit crisis in Rome itself.

Both Ea-nasir and Abraham ben Yiju, evoked by David Abulafia, show that globalisation may be a good deal older than anyone has previously supposed. Copper ingots imported from southern Arabia were the basis of Ea-nasir’s trade in Ur, centre of the Sumerian civilisation, and ben Yiju operated a huge network of maritime trade which extended from India through Aden and into Sicily. Maarten Prak helps us to place Rembrandt’s canvases in the mercantile context of seventeenth-century Amsterdam and shows how the Dutch economic expansion was part of something wider: a national movement and unity of purpose. The importance of that pioneering City of London institution, the Royal African Company, is recaptured in Bronwen Everill’s essay. Richard Arkwright is one of an extensive cast of characters whose testimonies, choreographed by Deirdre McCloskey, enable her to conclude that the giant leap forward of the northwest European economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the result of a new evaluation of human dignity. Philipp Blom’s account of interwar culture shows how the machine age’s imagery had left the factory and was now thought to imperil the soul, with Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis supplying more than an echo of Mary Shelley’s original creation. Stephen Clarke provides an account of the seminar whose participants pondered the question of why Britain’s economy recovered so quickly after 1932, and Andrew Roberts shows how Winston Churchill, having acquired his pro-capitalist convictions, was a consistent exponent of free-market virtues.

These transformations attained their significance because, far from being limited to the realms of economics and business, they touched the lives of humanity in a myriad ways. Historians of capitalism who capture the subject’s true significance therefore require, as is evident in these essays, an ability to draw on more than one discipline. That is a rare gift and may well be why capitalism’s history, though the subject of intensive study in many American universities, has yet to win its true place in British ones. The Legatum Institute’s History of Capitalism course remains a venture unique, by reason of both its depth and breadth, in the intellectual life of modern Britain.

By Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser, Legatum Institute

About the History of Capitalism Series

The History of Capitalism series, which forms part of the Legatum Institute’s The Culture of Prosperity programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism’s characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world’s continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations.

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