Coordinated by Aurelian GIUGĂL

Four Ways of Viewing Modernity: A Critical Reading of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Origin of Capitalism

Alexandru RACU

Independent Researcher



Abstract: This article represents a critical reading of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book The Origin of Capitalism. In the first part of the article, I present Wood’s thesis concerning the historical origin of capitalism and its political implications. In the second part of the article, I discuss Wood’s distinction between two types of modernity, a French democratic modernity and an English capitalist modernity, analyzing the limits of Wood’s critique of postmodernism and extending the debate concerning modernity in such a way as to include the Conservative critique of modernity articulated in the wake of the French Revolution. Finally, I discuss the relevance of Wood’s book for the key issues facing contemporary civilization, and the limits of her political project.


KeywordsCapitalism, Marxism, Enlightenment, Modernity, Postmodernit




Paraphrasing Nietzsche, who used to say that “man does not seek happiness, only the Englishman does that”, we could say that man is not by nature capitalist, but only the Englishman was already capitalist long before the age in which, according to official text book history, industrial capitalism was born in England. That’s more or less the way in which, in a single sentence, we could summarize the answer that the recently deceased Ellen Wood gave to the question of The Origin of Capitalism, this being the title of her 2002 book published at Verso. If modern anthropological studies have gainsaid Adam Smith’s belief that mercantile behavior is characteristic of all men, independent of space and time, reformulating the above mentioned paraphrase as “man does not seek profit”, but “only the Englishman sought it long before the official birth of capitalism”, would mislead us as to the magnitude and full implications of Wood’s thesis. For Wood distinguishes between searching for profit through commerce (one buys cheap on a market and sells dear on another), or even through the mere production of merchandise, and searching for profit through capitalism, i.e., through the improvement of efficiency, an imperative imposed on all economic agents by specific property relations that define only the capitalist system. In this sense, Ellen Wood confronts us with the examples of two flourishing commercial republics, Florence and the Netherlands, which, at the dawn of the modern age, have reached a much higher degree of commercial and technological development than the England of the same period. But despite this, and likewise, despite the fact that, compared to other European powers, England begins relatively late to accumulate riches from colonial exploitation, capitalism is born in England because England is the only country where property relations are radically changed through a revolution not seen anywhere else in the world. From this point of view, Wood refers to Marx’s analysis from Capital, more specifically, to the section that deals with the primitive accumulation, where Marx underlies the fact that the key element that explains the origin of capitalism does not consist in the creation of “a critical mass of wealth”, through the expropriation of the English peasants (the direct producers) at the end of Middle Ages. Instead, essential is the fact that the appearance of a rural proletariat, as a result of the expropriation of the peasants, and the subsequent institution of “a market in leases”1, for tenants who from now on lease manorial lands, will generate “new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before2.”

Thus, when it comes to explaining the origin of capitalism, Ellen Wood rejects “the commercialization model”. Even when it does not regard the search for profit as an ancestral custom, this explanatory model nevertheless views capitalism as the natural finality of the historical process. This means that, by necessity, the capitalist stage of history would have eventually been reached at some point in time, due to the development of the forces of production and the subsequent revolutionary transformation of the pre-modern relations of production. The latter, according to this view, were inhibiting the liberation of capitalist forces which, somehow, were already there from the very beginning, simply waiting for the hour of their liberation. Contrary to this view, and rather counter-intuitively, Wood argues that capitalism was not born in the urban commercial centers. Paradoxically, capitalism was born in the countryside, the space which, since Blaga at least, we tend to associate with unchanging eternity. Rejecting the Weberian thesis of a cultural origin of capitalism, Ellen Wood belongs, thus, to the Marxist tradition. But we are dealing here with a Marxism that insists on the radical contingency of the capitalist production mode. Once introduced in the rural England of the 16th century, the new property relations become, at least from a point onwards, determinative, in the sense that they compel producers to sell their labor power on a market ruled by the law of competitiveness, and they compel tenants to maximize their profit. Implicitly, in relation to the maximization of profit, all other moral and social considerations become secondary. Hence, the contradiction, which accompanies capitalism from the very beginning, between the needs of capital and the needs of society, the latter being championed, also from the very beginning, by the social movements that have defended the substance of society from the dissolving effects of a market that has sought and still seeks to subordinate this substance to itself in an ever increasing measure. Yet, the emergence of the new property relations, Wood insists, was in no way necessary, was in no way imposed by technological development, by demographic growth or by any other process through which capitalism would inscribe itself in the logic of historical determinism.


We thus arrive at a paradoxical aspect of this book which explains more the way in which capitalism did not appear (dismantling the dominating conception of its supposed commercial origin) than the way in which it did appear. If the origin of capitalism is not explained through a simple extension of commerce, but through a revolutionary transformation of property relations, then the origin of capitalism can be clarified only if we explain why the English landed aristocracy, with the support of the Crown, has engaged in this “revolution of the rich against the poor”, as Karl Polanyi named it3, a revolution without precedent in the history of mankind, and which has “[transformed completely] the most basic human relations and practices.4” Apparently, although the explanation is quite sketchy, Wood seems to suggest that the motive for this course of action could be represented precisely by the weakness of the English aristocracy. Compared with other European aristocracies, the latter had relatively weak capacities of extra-economic extraction of the surplus generated by producers, a fact which has determined it to find economic, non-feudal means of extracting this surplus, economic means that characterize what we know today as the capitalist order. But if we accept such a causality, although it is not clear to what extent this is, in fact, the position of the author, then the origin of capitalism remains foggy, for then one would have to explain the cause of the cause and so on, infinitely. Only the clear identification of an original contingent action and the explanation of the historical context that makes possible that action and its concrete effects, could be considered a satisfactory clarification of the problem that concerns the origin of capitalism. Or, from this point of view, even if we accept the rejection of the commercialization model, the problem of the origin of capitalism still remains insufficiently clarified.



In line with the Marxist tradition, Wood insists that the stake of her endeavor, namely the underlining of the contingent and specific character of capitalism, is not merely academic, but also political. For, the author argues, if we accept the thesis of the commercial origin of capitalism, which implies that “capitalism is the natural culmination of history, then surmounting” capitalism becomes “unimaginable.5” Or, according to Wood, if from the very beginning capitalism meant not only “historically unprecedented material advances”, but also “exploitation, poverty, and homelessness”, today “we have … reached the point where the destructive effects of capitalism are outstripping its material gains …, capital” not being able anymore “to prosper without depressing the conditions of great multitudes of people and degrading the environment throughout the world.6” Independently of whether we agree or not with Ellen Wood’s diagnostic of contemporary capitalism, it is important, in a country still dominated by very primitive forms of anticommunist ideology, to understand the nature of the Marxist argument and the historical horizon in which the project of overcoming capitalism, or more precisely the socialist ideal, articulates itself. If we analyze the dominating discourse of contemporary Romanian rightwing intellectuals, we will notice that in this discourse, the naturalization of capitalism, combined with the occultation of its real history, is translated in the vision of a serene world that has been capitalist from the very beginning and that will keep on progressing, endlessly, through capitalism, as long as the market is left to freely caper. Things being this way, socialism can then only be “an idea that entwists the minds”7 of those that are lazy, resentful and of those naturally prone to complaining, in a rather infantile way, those that are never satisfied, but want more, a perfect world, the terrestrial paradise that inevitably is transformed into a hell. But from Wood’s perspective, and that of the Marxist tradition, the overcoming of capitalism represents a necessity imposed by the inevitable collapse of this production mode, which, after it has spectacularly developed the forces of production, not only arrives at the point in which it inhibits their further development, but, furthermore, entered into convulsions, capitalism itself becomes, more and more, an ecological and social inferno. In brief, once the Marxist interpretation of the origin and destiny of the capitalist system is accepted, in the hypothesis in which this system would concretely represent the end of history, then history ends with a catastrophe. The socialist ideal, whatever we think of the extent to which it is feasible or to be desired, is born in a horizon that we can define as apocalyptic. Only in this context can it represent something more than a mere idea that entwists the minds of some (left-wing) intellectuals, and which shouldn’t cause too many concerns to other (right-wing) intellectuals as long as, in the absence of dramatic historical conditions, the idea cannot become a mass phenomenon and a real threat for the social class that defends the status quo.



According to Wood, the interpretation of the modern world is usually marked by three confusions: the confusion between commerce and capitalism, an issue that was clarified in the preceding paragraphs, the confusion between bourgeois and capitalist and, finally, the confusion between modernity and capitalism. Capitalism, argues Wood, imposed itself as a universal production mode not because, from the very beginning, all nations were running towards the same finish line, were England happened to arrive first. Instead, once the capitalist system has been established in England, in conditions that had nothing to do with historical necessity or with the coordinates of a trans-historical human nature, the other nations have been forced to copy this system for the simple reason that, as the new system proved to be more productive than anything the world had ever seen or imagined, copying it was the only way in which they could keep up with England from the point of view of economic and military power. In other places, capitalism has been imposed directly, through the force of arms, by the great colonial powers, in a way that replicated the original violence through which it has been constituted in the English kingdom. But for Wood, an example such as that of French absolutism, “centralizing project … completed” by the “so-called «bourgeois revolution»” of 17898, demonstrates that an alternative way of exiting feudalism existed, and that there exists therefore a non-capitalist modernity. Not the bourgeoisie, but the landed capitalist aristocracy has been the great winner of the English Civil War that ended with the 1688 Glorious Revolution, while “more subversive and democratic popular struggles”, from the England of that age,


“that challenged property forms conducive to capitalist development …, have lost … the battle against capitalist landlords, but they left a tremendous legacy of radical ideas quite distinct from the ‘progressive’ impulses of capitalism, a legacy that is still alive today in various democratic and anti-capitalist movements.9

At the same time, the French bourgeoisie that triumphs in 1789 and fully takes over the French state apparatus, in which it already occupied an important position, “was not a capitalist class” and, “for the most part” not “even a traditional commercial class,” but rather one formed of “professionals, officeholders, and intellectuals.10” And if “the right of enclosure” – that is the right to increase the productivity of property by eliminating the old customary rights of the popular classes and by subordinating any other social and human considerations to the new right of maximizing profit – “[figured] more prominently on the class agenda of the English landlord”11, the French bourgeoisie was demanding instead “civil equality” and “equal access to the highest state offices”12. There is therefore a fundamental difference between bourgeois and capitalist, and given the historical circumstances of revolutionary France, “even bourgeois class ideology took the form of a larger vision of general human emancipation …, which is … why it could be taken up by much more democratic and revolutionary forces.13

In conclusion, there are, according to Wood, two modernities: one capitalist, and one democratic, that accompanies the former from the very beginning, even if the aspirations of democratic modernity still wait to be fulfilled. Or, otherwise said, there is a conflict between democracy and capitalism that defines the dynamic of modern history14. Thus, Wood’s hope is that, in the circumstances of the conflict that opposes democracy to capitalism, the former will triumph over the latter, and only after the abolition of the capitalist production mode, the author argues, the Enlightenment project of human emancipation will finally be brought to completion. Just as there is a difference between modernity and capitalism, there is also a difference between “Cartesian rationalism and rational planning”, on the one hand, and “the economic rationality of capitalism” that finds its expression in “the ‘invisible hand’ of classical political economy and the philosophy of British empiricism” 15. Hence Wood’s criticism against postmodernism, which, in its attacks against the rationalism and universalism of the Enlightenment, would prove incapable to “[separate] the Enlightenment project from those aspects of our current condition that overwhelmingly belong not to the ‘project of modernity’ but to capitalism.16

Yet, both the extent to which the historical analysis of the author justifies her political hope, as well as her critique of certain postmodern thinkers who, in their supposed incapacity to distinguish the good modernity from the bad one, would also throw away the baby with the bathwater, raise a series of question marks and necessitate, as a result, a series of clarifications. In what follows, I will try to discuss the extent to which Ellen Wood actually overcomes the so called postmodern objections, and thus really manages to re-legitimate a distilled modernity. Likewise, I will try to draw the limits of the horizon of political expectation that opens once we accept Wood’s historical analysis of capitalism, even though, at the same time, we question the position that Wood assigns to capitalism within modernity as a whole.

First of all, even if we accept the seemingly solid argument that an end of capitalism is unconceivable as long as capitalism is “the product of some inevitable natural process”, on the other hand, from the fact that the end of capitalism cannot be conceived as long as we accept the thesis of the historical necessity of the evolution to capitalism, does not follow that the invalidation of this thesis, and therefore the highlighting of “the historical specificity of capitalism”17, would make the overcoming of capitalism possible, and even less so necessary. Or, otherwise said, from the truth of the sentence “if A is true, than B is impossible”, does not result that the sentence “if A is false, than B is possible” is also true. Logically, there remains the possibility that, born in “very specific historical conditions”18, capitalism, to use Weber’s formula, would ultimately prove to be “a cage” from which it is impossible to exit, or, at least, from which one cannot exit in a way that can be considered satisfactory. To prove itself unsurpassable (or at least unsurpassable in a satisfactory manner), capitalism, to use the formula of a local neoliberal economist, Lucian Croitoru, must not necessarily be written in our genetic code19, situation in which it would clearly be unsurpassable (or it could be surpassed, eventually, only through genetic engineering). However, there remains the possibility that, independently of the fact that it is not written in our genetic code, that it does not define human nature, capitalism can generate, together with an unprecedented material progress, also an unsurpassable historical impasse. Just as, in the question of the origin of capitalism, Ellen Wood explained how capitalism did not appear, similarly, when we pass from the identification of the origin of capitalism to the identification of the horizon of political possibilities of overcoming it, the author identifies correctly the conditions in which capitalism is unsurpassable, but the invalidation of these conditions does not count as a demonstration of the fact that capitalism can be surpassed. In what follows, starting from Wood’s observations concerning the postmodern critique of modernity, I will try to clarify the more concrete implications of these rather abstract arguments.



I am far from being an expert in postmodern philosophy. Still, within the limits of the present discussion, it will not be necessary, I think, to deal with the more subtle aspects of this paradigm. Postmodernism being, as also indicated in Wood’s book, a Counter-Enlightenment, the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, which I will briefly summarize, will help me approach the issue from a direction which I know much better, that of the conservative and reactionary Counter-Enlightenment, in both its Anglo-Saxon and its Continental versions. Paradoxically, this latter paradigm anticipates a series of postmodern attacks against the Enlightenment, even if in the case of the conservative and reactionary Counter-Enlightenment, both the grounding and the ultimate purpose of the attack against the Enlightenment are totally different from what happens in the case of postmodernism. In short, the postmodern critique against Enlightenment modernity starts from the premise that, in relation to other existing discourses, reason does not justify its claim to have a unique, or at least privileged, access to truth. On the other hand, the exercise of reason is ultimately reduced to a form of exercising power over the sphere of the non-rational, independently of whether we speak here about the environment, or subjectivities and cultures considered irrational or insufficiently rational, and which situate themselves outside of the center of power represented by the modern West. Concentrating an enormous amount of power, projected upon the non-rational otherness through the mediation of the modern institutions and techniques (modern inasmuch as they are built on a rational basis), whether it’s the capitalist market or the modern state, the West has justified, in the name of the same supposed moral and epistemic superiority, its colonizing imperialism deployed both within the Western world, as well as outside of it20, imperialism which, as specified in a formula cited by Ellen Wood herself, is accused of having generated “the disasters that have racked humanity throughout [the twentieth] century”21. Independently of whether modern rationality originates in an entrepreneurial logic, from which it cannot detach itself, or whether the capitalist order is just one of several, inevitably alienating, oppressive or outright barbarous forms of institutionalizing modern reason, it is essential that, for the postmodern thinkers, the oppressive exercise of power and the undermining of individual autonomy are everywhere present in the modern institutions. Moreover, these phenomena are inseparable from any supposedly emancipating project inscribed in the logic of modernity. To a great extent, we encounter this conception even before Foucault, from whose theory on the genesis and the nature of modern institutions we could deduce that claiming the right to healthcare and education automatically implies complicity with the modern carceral system22. We see this conception in the dialectic of Max Weber, criticized by Ellen Wood in her book, but also summed up in that memorable sentence from the first paragraph of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer describe “the wholly enlightened earth” as “radiant with triumphant calamity”23. For Jean-François Lyotard, the author of the volume The Postmodern Condition, French political modernity is born “under the sign … of a horrible crime”, whose victim has been Louis XVI, “a brave and entirely likeable king who was the incarnation of legitimacy. 24” “Although”, as Michael Allen Gillespie writes,


“it is almost certain that Louis XVI was guilty of treason and by the standards of his times deserved to be put to death, his execution carried the Revolution across a line that could not be crossed with impunity. Having transgressed this boundary, there was nothing left to constrain revolutionary passions, and within a few months executions had become a daily ritual, producing a Reign of Terror that lasted until July 1794, leaving more than thirty thousand dead across France (…) The Terror swallowed not just the members of the ancien régime but also many of the leaders of the Revolution as well. While the number killed was not great by comparison to the earlier butchery of the Wars of Religion or to the later slaughter of the twentieth century, the Reign of Terror had an extraordinary impact on the intellectual elite of its time, shattering their faith that reason could rule the world, that progress was inevitable, and that the spread of enlightenment would usher in an age of peace, prosperity and human freedom (…) The hopeful dreams of the ʻcentury of lightsʼ were swept away, and reaction set in on all sides. 25


Burke had already published, in November 1790, his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a volume meant to rehabilitate, after a century of attacks of reason, tradition and historically accumulated experience, and to defend legitimacy grounded in duration and British specificity from the abstract imperialism of human rights. In 1797, another star of the European reaction was becoming famous on the intellectual scene of the age: Joseph de Maistre, who, in Considerations on France, was insisting on the delirious nature of Enlightenment reason. Emphasizing, through the force of an unequaled rhetorical ferocity, the way in which those who start the revolution become the instruments of a power that they can no longer control, as well as the barbarous effects of the institutionalization of reason, Maistre deconstructs Enlightenment reason, reducing it to the condition of a mere discursive strategy meant to legitimize some criminally-destructive impulses, which, ultimately, prove to be self-destructive. Thus, according to the Maistrian view, the dialectic transformation of the Enlightenment (autonomy, reason, humanization) in its opposite (enslavement, deliriousness, barbarism) is inherent, from the very beginning, to an emancipatory project of modernity which, according to Ellen Wood, would escape the logic of capitalism. This means that for Maistre, as for postmodern thinkers, the problem is not capitalism. Capitalism is just one aspect of the problem. The problem is modernity. The most talented commentator of Maistre’s work, Jean-Yves Pranchère, makes the connection between Maistre’s view from Considerations on France and the view of Adorno and Horkheimer, who, interesting enough, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, credit Maistre for having understood the necessary connection between civilization and terror, and for the fact of having been right in his criticism of the Enlightenment in the same extent as the Enlightenment has been right in its critique against Catholicism26. If George Steiner was arguing that, anticipating a 20th century that was going to be “bathed in blood and torture”, Maistre demonstrated to be more farsighted than Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot27, in one of his statements, Maistre prophetically anticipates the somber perspective from the Dialectic of Enlightenment that covers both the two totalitarian systems of the 20th century, as well as the economic and cultural order of liberal democracies: “science will imbrute us”, says Maistre, “and this is the lowest degree of imbrutement”28.




It is true, Ellen Wood does say that, “there is, of course, much to be said for acknowledging the two sides of ‘modernity’, not only the advances it is said to represent but also the destructive possibilities inherent in its productive capacities, its technologies, and its organizational forms, even in its universalistic values.29” Still, one remains nevertheless with the impression that, all nuances taken into consideration, what Ellen Wood ultimately says to us, is that there is a good French modernity, and a noxious English modernity, and that the good modernity - in no way the postmodern abdication, or worse, the premodern regression – represents our only alternative to the bad modernity. The offer being therefore of the “take it or leave it” type, inevitably, one does not discuss too much about the eventual costs that it entails. Or, it is interesting that, both from the point of view of the historical analysis, as well as from a normative point of view, Wood’s stance on modernity presents itself as the symmetrical opposite of the stance on modernity that characterizes what today is considered - despite the revolutionary nature of classical economic liberalism, well emphasized by Marx and Wood - as Anglo-Saxon conservatism. In this sense, for an author like Friedrich Hayek, who otherwise insists that he is not a conservative, but, like Burke, an “old whig”, things are the exact opposite of what they are in Wood’s case. Thus, for Hayek, on the contrary, good reason belongs to English empiricism, while French rationalism represents the bad reason. On the basis of the first type of reason, a wonderful capitalist world has been built, while from a political point of view, the second type of reason stands at the origin of the “totalitarian democracy” that manifested itself first in Robespierre’s France, and later in the Russia of Lenin and Stalin30. According to this understanding of things, when we are not simply dealing with the limits of human nature, capitalism not being able to bring fast enough, and for everybody (in an equitable fashion), manna from the heavens, the mischiefs of modernity are to be imputed exclusively to the second type of (political) reason, the French reason which, where it has not managed to build totalitarian systems, it has nevertheless managed to impede the full liberation of capitalist forces, hindering the work of capitalists through “interventionism” (ultimately viewed by Hayek or Mises as another, softer form, of “totalitarianism”).

Here it should be mentioned that if, indeed, Burke’s Anglo-Saxon conservatism has maintained, from the very beginning, a tight relationship of complicity with the British political economy31, not the same thing can be said about the French Catholic Reaction represented by Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald. From this point of view, the difference between the French and British Enlightenment, described by Wood, is mirrored by a similar difference between the French and British Counter-Enlightenment. Most likely without making the distinction, pointed out by Wood, between commerce and capitalism, Maistre was arguing in one of his letters that “the two modern gangrenes” are “the philosophical spirit”, i.e. the critical rationalism of the Enlightenment, and “the commercial spirit” 32. In his turn, Bonald was comparing the modern commercial order (again, we put aside the absence of the distinction between commerce and capitalism in his thought), that had replaced the organic social order of feudal pre-modernity, with a jungle in which savages reciprocally annihilate each other in the struggle for prey33. Bonald was painting a grim picture of an emerging industrial system that was generating uprooted proletarian masses, “crowded” in the new urban throngs and prey to “hunger, despair and all the vices generated by the corruption of the cities”34. Anticipating Marx, Bonald was already writing in 1820 about the contradictions of capitalism. According to him, the growth of productivity, resulting from the introduction of machines in the production process, was making necessary the absurdity of consumption machines that could absorb the overproduction which the mass of the working people - thrown into unemployment and into the arms of the revolutionary agitators by the same technological innovations that have increased production - was no longer able to consume35.

Thus, if Ellen Wood is the advocate of a French modernity, while Friedrich Hayek is the advocate of an English modernity, paradoxically, the anti-modern Catholic Counter-Revolutionaries, as well as the postmodern left (or, more precisely, the radical leftwing critique of the Enlightenment), consider the modern project to be irredeemably vitiated as a whole. The common premise is shared despite the fact that the former limit themselves to a perpetual, never constructive, anti-authoritarian subversion, while, given the latter’s failure of reconstructing the structure of the premodern theologico-political authority, their presence within contemporary modernity is, paradoxically, similar to that of the former, inasmuch as it is purely spectral – almost nobody even reads them anymore, while the others are read by the whole vanguard of the radical intelligentsia but without any significant practical result. If, after repeated failures, Bonald left the political scene in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution, and died a few years later with the conviction that either “the end of the world”, or “the end of society”, were at hand, for Maistre, things were clear already in 1794: “if a moral revolution does not take place in Europe, if the religious spirit is not consolidated in this part of the world, then the social bond is dissolved. We can guess nothing and should expect everything”36.



Maistre’s religion was clerical and authoritarian, not democratic and fraternal, as that of Dostoyevsky or Péguy later (this, and other similar versions of Christian Socialism, would represent a fifth way of positioning oneself within modernity). Through a remarkable PR effort, the ideology of the Austrian School presents the relation between capital and labor not as domination of capital, but as free cooperation between individuals, the abstract individual-consumer being sovereign in the marketplace, as the one who creates value through his choices: it does not matter the position from which he negotiates his salary, the position that he occupies in the production process and how much he earns, for it is still he who, as sovereign consumer, gives orders to the capitalists, and not the other way around37. On the other hand, Hayek insists that the only alternative to the commercial order (or, better said, the capitalist order) in which labor discipline is imposed by the constraints of the market (you don’t work – you don’t eat), and in which the worker has the freedom to change his employer, is militarized centralization, inevitably undemocratic, in which labor discipline is imposed, from the center, through beatings38. Through beatings, torture and with the blessing of Hayek, Pinochet’s military have saved, in the 1970’s, capitalist “freedom” from the democratically validated socialist program of president Allende. If the democratic and socialist imagination has articulated, and continues to articulate, on the Latin American Continent, various forms of anti-capitalist political mobilization, with which, up to a certain point, I find it hard not to sympathize, the fact of the matter is that the political systems of the past century, known as “real socialisms”, have confirmed, in different degrees according to each case, Hayek’s theory concerning the way in which a socialist economy is condemned to function. This fact, as well as the much poorer economic results, when compared to the Western economies, have led to “the «collapse of Communism» in the late 1980s and 1990’s”39, these being the words with which Wood’s book begins. Their place within the whole of the author’s text, as well as the quotation marks used when referring to the collapse of communism, are as suggestive as possible. If Jean-Claude Michéa defines the triumphant capitalism of “the end of history” as “the empire of the lesser evil”, the fact, underlined by Wood, that contemporary capitalism looks worse with every day that passes, is something to be noticed by most observers, even if, as it is normal to be, when it comes to the identification of the causes behind the phenomenon, things are not so clear anymore and opinions are divided, on the right as well as on the left. Things being this way, we can theoretically imagine even the situation in which the continuous “depressing” of “the conditions of great multitudes of people” and “the continuous [degradation] of the environment throughout the world”40 would finally end, as far as political consciousness is concerned, with the dialectical inversion of the famous slogan of the Romanian students that, in the Spring of 1990, occupied University Square: more precisely, I am talking of the transformation of the slogan “better dead than red” into “better red than dead.” But, setting aside the fact that this clearly cannot be regarded as a “happy ending” of history, as long as it is not at all clear by what does “the real alternative of socialism”41 (formula with which, in an equally suggestive way, Wood’s book ends) differ from the reality of socialisms that the modern world has known thus far, I am afraid that, in such conditions, the inversion mentioned in the preceding sentence will represent only a logical inversion, eventually a new slogan, maybe cynical, maybe desperate, but not also a new political reality42.

In an article about Vaclav Hável, written in 1999, Slavoj Žižek argued that we have reached the point (and we are still at that point) where “we can easily imagine the extinction of the human race, but it is impossible to imagine a radical change of the social system – even if life on earth disappears, capitalism will somehow remain intact. 43” I think that any discussion concerning the overcoming of capitalism is useless as long as it does not manage to explain why things are this way, when it comes to present day collective consciousness (or, perhaps, it may be more appropriate to say, when it comes to the present impossibility of articulating a collective consciousness). What is it that explains such an impasse of the social imaginary44? Ellen Wood’s position is trenchant: the postwar “social market” is a compromise that cannot last, a market with “a human face” being, in the long run, impossible45. But even if we accept Wood’s diagnostic, I fear that a socialist book that begins with the collapse of communism, with or without quotation marks, can only illusively evolve, linearly, through a radical critique of contemporary capitalism, towards “the real alternative of socialism”. In order to move from point A to point B, it should return, circularly and self-critically, on the starting point, or the point of the initial failure. Just as the rebirth of anti-capitalist critique in the last years cannot be dismissed as a mere whim of those who fail to appreciate the blessings of capitalism, similarly, the postmodernization of the left and even the complicity of the new orientation with the profound logic of neoliberalism, an aspect underlined by several thinkers, can be explained only as a reaction to the credibility crisis of the Marxist project. Or, at this point, I think one must go beyond the struggle with the capitalist gene discovered by the Romanian Central Bank’s economist, Mr. Lucian Croitoru. The problem is not so much to demonstrate that the capitalist system can have a historical end because it had a historical beginning, even if we add to this demonstration the demonstration that, from a social and ecological point of view, in the long run, capitalism is unsustainable. If they did demonstrate something, albeit with huge, and morally unacceptable, human and ecological costs, the socialist regimes have demonstrated that there is a life after capitalism, even if not the life that we wish for ourselves. Or, more precisely, taking into account the fact that, contrary to Marx’s predictions, communists have taken over power only in the underdeveloped countries from the periphery of capitalism, socialist regimes have only demonstrated that there are alternative ways of entering into modernity, but which, in the end, have ended up converting to capitalism (be it democratically-liberal, as in Eastern Europe, or authoritarian, as in China) due to the latter’s proven higher competiveness. However, what remains to be demonstrated, is that, to use again Hayek’s terms, the modern project to which Wood adheres, and that “has often been tried but never successfully”, does not represent “a utopia”46; or, to put it another way, that a truly democratic society, a society without exploitation, not necessarily without authority, is possible.

It is one thing to invalidate the thesis of the capitalist human nature by emphasizing the historicity of capitalism, and it is another thing to demonstrate that there is no human nature but only history, and, in particular, history committed to progress. The existence of nature does not exclude the reality of history, but, to quote Leo Strauss, the existence of nature being presupposed, the latter is identified with the “eternal and unchangeable order within which History takes place and which is not in any way affected by History”. Nature is the “ʻrealm of necessityʼ” within which “any ‘realm of freedom’ is no more than a dependent province”47. The invalidation of the thesis that refers to human nature as being, by definition, capitalist, does not automatically imply – if we are to give a not so refreshing example – the invalidation of Maistre’s reactionary thesis according to which man, being “a social and wicked being”, is therefore condemned “to live” forever “under the yoke” 48. Or, more broadly speaking, the invalidation of the thesis that refers to human nature as being, by definition, capitalist, cannot be equated with the demonstration of the fact that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism are, historically, possible. This being said, we can only hope that the future holds for us surprises that are rather pleasant than unpleasaFFnt.



DE BONALD, Louis Ambroise, Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux, Union Générale d’Éditions, Paris, 1966.

DE BONALD, Louis Ambroise, On Political Economy, in The True & Only Wealth of Nations (Essays on Family, Economy & Society), Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, Naples, Florida, 2006.

CROITORU, Lucian, Capitalismul este în codul genetic (Capitalism is in the genetic code):

FRASE, Peter, “Four Futures”, in Jacobin, Issue 5,

GAUCHET, Marcel, La gauche face au défi de l’individualisme?,

GAUCHET, Marcel, Alain BADIOU, Ce soir (ou jamais !), televised debate,

GENGEMRBE, Gerard, La Contre-Révolution ou l’histoire désespéranteÉditions Imago, Paris, 1989.

GILLESPIE, Michael Allen, The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009.

HAYEK, Friedrich A., The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

HAYEK, Friedrich, The Road to Serfdom, The University of Chicago Press, 1944.

HICKS, Stephen R. C., Explaining Postmodernism - Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Scholarly Publishing, Tempe, Arizona and New Berlin/Milwaukee, 2004.

HORKHEIMER, Max, Theodor W. ADORNO, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2002.

LYOTARD, Jean-François, “Discussion Lyotard-Rorty”, Critique, May 1985.

DE MAISTRE, Joseph, Contre Rousseau (De l’état de nature), Éditions mille et une nuits, département de la Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 2008.

DE MAISTRE, Joseph, Considérations sur la France in Œuvres, Éditions Robert Laffont, Paris, 2007.

DE MAISTRE, Joseph, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines, în Œuvres, Éditions Robert Laffont, Paris, 2007.

DE MAISTRE, Joseph, Lettre à Madame la Baronne de Pont, in Lettres choisies de J. de Maistre, Lyon, Imprimeur de l’Archevêché et des Facultés Catholiques, Éditeur Emmanuel Vitte, 1901.

MARX, Karl, Capital, translated from German by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling,

VON MISES, Ludwig, Capitalismul şi duşmanii săi - Ce înseamnă laissez-faire ? (Capitalism and its enemies – What does laissez-faire mean ?), translated from English by Dan Cristian Comănescu, Nemira, Bucureşti, 1998.

POLANYI, Karl, The Great Transformation – The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press, Boston, 2001.

PRANCHÈRE, Jean-Yves, L’Autorité contre les Lumières - La philosophie de Joseph de Maistre, Librairie Droz S.A., Genève, 2004.

PRANCHÈRE, Jean-Yves, “The Persistence of Maistrian Thought” in Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence – Selected Studies, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 2001.

STRAUSS, Leo, Natural Right and History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1953.

STRAUSS, Leo, Alexandre KOJÈVE, On Tyranny, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1961.

WOOD, Ellen, De la Democraţie la Liberalism (From Democracy to Liberalism), translated from English by Alex Cistelecan,

WOOD, Ellen Meiksins, The Origin of Capitalism – A Longer View, Verso, London, 2002.

ZAMORA, Daniel, “Can We Criticize Foucault?” in Jacobin, 12.10.2014,

ŽIŽEK, Slavoj, Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism, London Review of Books, vol. 21, no. 21, 28 October 1999,


1 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism – A Longer View, Verso, London, 2002, p. 53.

2 Ibidem, p. 37.

3 Karl POLANYI, The Great Transformation – The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press, Boston, 2001, p. 37.

4 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., p. 95.

5 Ibidem, p. 8.

6 Ibidem, pp. 194, 197.

7 This is the title of a recent book, in which three of the leading Romanian public intellectuals, Andrei Pleşu, Gabriel Liiceanu and Horia-Roman Patapievici, condemn the so-called rebirth of Marxism.

8 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., p. 186.

9 Ibidem, p. 120.

10 Ibidem, p. 184.

11 Ibidem, p. 117.

12 Ibidem, p. 185.

13 Ibidem, p. 187.

14 See in this sense another text written by Ellen Meiksins WOOD, De la Democraţie la Capitalism (From Democracy to Capitalism), translated from English by Alex Cistelecan and published on the website CriticAtac:

15 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., pp. 188, 192.

16 Ibidem, p. 190.

17 Ibidem, p. 37.

18 Ibidem.

19 See Lucian CROITORU, Capitalismul este în codul genetic (Capitalism is in the genetic code) [].

20 For a very good synthesis see Stephen R. C. HICKS, Explaining Postmodernism - Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Scholargy Publishing, Tempe, Arizona and New Berlin/Milwaukee, 2004, pp. 1-30.

21 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., p. 189.

22 See in this sense Daniel Zamora’s criticism of Foucault. Zamora underlines the latter’s complicity with neoliberalism. For Foucault, argues Zamora, the mechanisms of social assistance and social insurance, which he put on the same plane as the prison, the barracks, or the school, were indispensable institutions «for the exercise of power in modern societies».’” On the other hand, in neoliberalism, Foucault seemingly discovered „a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state” (Daniel ZAMORA, “Can We Criticize Foucault?”, Jacobin, 12.10.2014, []).

23 Max HORKHEIMER & Theodor W. ADORNO, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2002, p. 1.

24 Jean-François LYOTARD, “Discussion Lyotard-Rorty”, Critique, May 1985, p. 583.

25 Michael Allen GILLESPIE, The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, pp. 255-256.

26 Jean-Yves PRANCHÈRE, L’Autorité contre les Lumières - La philosophie de Joseph de Maistre, Librairie Droz S.A., Genève, 2004, pp. 18-21 ; Max HORKHEIMER & Theodor W. ADORNO, Dialectic of…cit., pp. 71, 80.

27 Quoted in Jean-Yves PRANCHÈRE, “The Persistence of Maistrian Thought” in Richard LEBRUN (ed.), Joseph de Maistre’s Life, Thought and Influence – Selected Studies, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 2001, p. 294.

28 Joseph de MAISTRE, Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines, în Œuvres, Éditions Robert Laffont, Paris, 2007, p. 387.

29 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., p. 192.

30 Friedrich A. HAYEK, The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 54-55.

31 See Karl POLANYI, The Great Transformation...cit., pp. 121-124. From another angle, see Leo STRAUSS, Natural Right and History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1953, pp. 314-317. Likewise, see also Marx’s brutal attack against Burke from the first volume of Capital: “This sycophant who, in the pay of the English oligarchy, played the romantic laudator temporis acti against the French Revolution, just as, in the pay of the North American Colonies, at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the Liberal against the English oligarchy, was an out and out vulgar bourgeois” (Karl MARX, Capital, translated from German by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, Volume 1, Chapter 31,


32 Joseph de MAISTRE, Lettre à Madame la Baronne de Pont, in Lettres choisies de J. de Maistre, Lyon, Imprimeur de l’Archevêché et des Facultés Catholiques, Éditeur Emmanuel Vitte, 1901, p. 104.

33 Louis Ambroise de BONALD, Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux, Union Générale d’Éditions, Paris, 1966, p. 230.

34 Louis Ambroise de BONALD, quoted in Gerard GENGEMBRE, La Contre-Révolution ou l’histoire désespérante, Éditions Imago, Paris, 1989, pp. 271-272, 275.

35 Louis Ambroise de BONALD, On Political Economy, in The True & Only Wealth of Nations (Essays on Family, Economy & Society), Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, Naples, Florida, 2006, pp. 117-119.

36 Joseph de MAISTRE, Considérations sur la France in Œuvres, Éditions Robert Laffont, Paris, 2007, p 211. Hence, Maistre’s belief in the futility of political struggles, for obviously, not men, but only God can make religious revolutions (an eschatological theme developed in Maistre’s most charming work, Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg).

37 See Ludwig von MISES, Capitalismul şi duşmanii săi - Ce înseamnă laissez-faire ? (Capitalism and its enemies – What does laissez-faire mean ?), translated from English by Dan Cristian Comănescu, Nemira, Bucharest, 1998.

38 Friedrich A. HAYEK, The Road to Serfdom, The University of Chicago Press, 1944, pp. 102-103, 125-127.

39 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., p. 1.

40 Ibidem, p. 197.

41 Ibidem, p. 198.

42 For a very interesting discussion concerning four possible post-capitalist scenarios, one ideal, the other catastrophic, and two somewhere in between, see Peter FRASE’s article Four Futures (Jacobin, Issue 5, []). According to the author, although we do not know which of these four scenarios, or what combination of scenarios, will represent the post-capitalist future of mankind, it is nevertheless certain that the days of capitalism, as we know it, are numbered.

43 Slavoj ŽIŽEK, Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism, London Review of Books, vol. 21, no. 21, 28 October 1999


44 One who discusses in detail, in one of his recent conferences, the political impasse of the left, is Marcel GAUCHET See also the televised debate between GAUCHET and Alain BADIOU

45 Ellen Meiksins WOOD, The Origin of Capitalism…cit., pp. 196-197.

46 Friedrich A. HAYEK, The Constitution…cit., pp. 54-55.

47 Leo STRAUSS & Alexandre KOJÈVE, On Tyranny, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1961, p. 212.

48 Joseph de MAISTRE, Contre Rousseau (De l’état de nature), Éditions mille et une nuits, département de la Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 2008, p. 61. More precisely, „a scelerat” in whose heart „the laws of justice and beauty” remain „carved in characters that cannot be effaced” (Ibidem, p. 62), Maistre being more moderate, when it comes to understanding human nature, than Hobbes or other reactionary thinkers such as Donoso Cortés.