Introduction: The spread of and resistance to global capitalism

Kevin H. O'Rourke, Jeffrey G. Williamson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This second volume of the Cambridge History of Capitalism deals with capitalism’s evolution within Western Europe and its offshoots, and its spread to the rest of the world after 1848. Throughout, capitalism increased in complexity as it overcame resistance and setbacks. Given that global capitalism is currently under severe stress and that world economic growth appears to be slowing down, it is easy to be distracted by these problems of the present. Indeed, the last chapter of this volume will focus mainly on those problems as they relate to the future. This introduction, however, will resist this presentist temptation and instead use the past to organize our thinking. Here we trace out capitalism’s global historical road map since 1848 so that the details in the chapters that follow can be placed in context. Capitalism and global capitalism: The spread of global capitalism has two dimensions, and they can be distinguished by means of an analogy that will appear again towards the end of the chapter. The gold standard was, strictly speaking, a domestic institution, linking a country’s money supply to its gold reserves. The gold standard only became an international exchange rate system once several countries had independently decided to adopt the gold standard, and to allow free trade in gold. Similarly, the emergence of global capitalism as an international economic system required not only that the institutions of capitalism be introduced in the economies of all global participants, but also that those participants allowed a wide range of economic interactions to take place between them. If socialism had succeeded in embracing the planet, we would have had an international system that was certainly global, but not capitalist. And it has not been uncommon for capitalist economies to shield themselves from the global economy. A global capitalist system requires both the domestic capitalist institutions and the international interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Capitalism Volume 2
Subtitle of host publicationThe Spread of Capitalism: From 1848 to the Present
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139095105
ISBN (Print)9781107019645
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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