2.6 Capitalism

A case has been made that it is the rise of capitalism that is the key defining process of modern period and that the archaeology of this period is to be framed as an archaeology of capitalism (Leone and Potter 1988, 19; Paynter 1988, 415; Wurst 1999; Orser 1996, 71-2) The workings of capitalism have been a principal focus of the archaeology of the modern period on both sides of the Atlantic and it may be futile to consider many of the other processes mentioned in this document without considering them in light of the effects of capitalism.  An economic framework of global capitalism not only informs the logic of industrial practice and motivates innovations in manufacture and communication, it also constructs the modern self as a disciplined individual whose labour can be quantified and exchanged for money.  Modern relations with objects – as consumer goods – are heavily entangled with the forms of being and the social relationships which are associated with capitalist societies.  The re-casting of social relations as economic relations and individualism, both of which are key characteristics of capitalism, are intimately bound up with Improvement and related changes to the character towns, estates and farms and other places and landscapes.  

Archaeologists have defined capitalism as "a necessary shorthand for the changing practices and transitions that have shaped aspects of modern life" (Johnson 1996, 3)  which "embraces lifeways, conceptions of the self and the individual, table manners, music and bodily discipline" (Schuyler 1999, 226). Capitalism, here, is not considered in limited form as a certain kind of economy; it is seen to involve widespread changes to the nature of self, to daily habits, routines and practices, to relationships between people and their material worlds.  For these reasons, archaeology has a significant role in researching the emergence, development and complex character of capitalism – a reformation which can only be understood if the changes it entailed for social and material relationships are understood.

Certainly, any attempt to look at the industrial or social developments of the period are implicitly also the archaeology of capitalism, because only the great influx of capital from industry and global trade permitted the ‘improved’ buildings and developments of the period. Although the exact mechanisms of consumer demand can be disputed, the increased availability of money was clearly a significant driver in the great expansion of production.

Classical Marxist theory moreover offers an explanation for the emergence and formulation of class relations around the growth of a capitalist economy.  ‘Classes’ of people defined by their economic relationships to one another, and by an awareness of their collective position – class consciousness – were posited by Marx as the successors to feudal relationships.  Historical commentators, however, have often described modern social and economic relationships as ‘feudal’, especially in the highland areas of Scotland.  Archaeology can help to refine and challenge that suggestion by examining how participation in capitalist global economies has articulated with other forms of social relations, particularly with reference to the ways particular relationships were formed in and through material environments.


See also the ScARF Case Study: New Lanark