The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth

Book Description by Harvard University Press

The Spirit of Capitalism answers a fundamental question of economics, a question neither economists nor economic historians have been able to answer: what are the reasons (rather than just the conditions) for sustained economic growth? Taking her title from Max Weber’s famous study on the same subject, Liah Greenfeld focuses on the problem of motivation behind the epochal change in behavior, which from the sixteenth century on has reoriented one economy after another from subsistence to profit, transforming the nature of economic activity. A detailed analysis of the development of economic consciousness in England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States allows her to argue that the motivation, or “spirit,” behind the modern, growth-oriented economy was not the liberation of the “rational economic actor,” but rather nationalism. Nationalism committed masses of people to an endless race for national prestige and thus brought into being the phenomenon of economic competitiveness.

Nowhere has economic activity been further removed from the rational calculation of costs than in the United States, where the economy has come to be perceived as the end-all of political life and the determinant of all social progress. American “economic civilization” spurs the nation on to ever-greater economic achievement. But it turns Americans into workaholics, unsure of the purpose of their pursuits, and leads American statesmen to exaggerate the weight of economic concerns in foreign policy, often to the detriment of American political influence and the confusion of the rest of the world.


Recipient of the 2002 Donald Kagan Best Book in European History Prize

[An] important new book…Liah Greenfeld argues that patriotism, or nationalism, may have a lot more to do with economic motivation than you think. Most of us have come to accept the economist’s view of humanity: On the whole, we are rational actors; we are naturally acquisitive; when political or social barriers are removed, most of us will go off on a determined quest to make money and achieve ever greater success. [Greenfeld] notes that [the] desire to make more and more money is a recent and localized phenomenon. For most people at most times and in most places, economic growth was not a central or even an important goal.–David Brooks, Wall Street Journal

The Spirit of Capitalism is an immensely refreshing book…[It] deserves to bring about a paradigm shift in the understanding of economic growth.–John Gray, Times Literary Supplement

This is a learned if irreverent and enjoyable book that is rooted in close study of several nations, and Greenfeld’s command of diverse historical sources is impressive…Greenfeld certainly presents a scholarly and eloquent case for its importance. Her chirpy and cheeky style is also refreshing in areas dominated by somewhat arid economic historians.–Frank Webster, Times Higher Education Supplement

Greenfeld offers a riveting follow-up to Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Here she seeks to answer three questions: what caused the emergence of the modern economy, what made the economic sphere so dominant; and what are the reasons for sustained economic growth? Her fundamental proposition is that nationalism is responsible for the reorientation of economic activity toward growth. She strengthens her argument by focusing on the periods of emergence of the modern economy in England, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States. In addition, she adeptly addresses the concerns of critics of her previous work by including an in-depth look at Japanese nationalism and the roles that economics and diplomacy have played in fostering nationalism in her five primary subjects plus the Netherlands and Russia. Although her approach is unorthodox, the quality of her research and the richness of her arguments should be challenging to the various economists, historians, philosophers, and other social scientists who often need to be stimulated by the writing of those outside their disciplines. Highly recommended for both academic and public libraries.–Norm Hutcherson, Library Journal

In the division of intellectual labor, there is much to be said for sociologists producing bold theses which set the cat among the pigeons. This book certainly does that, not least because it is ingenious and powerfully sustained, and it accordingly deserves widespread attention.–John A. Hall, Journal of Economic History

…a provocative and plausible argument… Greenfeld focuses only on wealthy countries, but her theory has interesting implications for assessing the market potential of poor countries today.–John T. Landry, Harvard Business Review

There is much to commend in this book. It asks bold and challenging questions. It takes an original approach to issues that are otherwise taken for granted or overlooked. It is fiercely independent of the prevailing intellectual fashions. It marries detailed textual analysis with bold theorizing. In a world increasingly blinkered by disciplinary structures, the author challenges the reader to think afresh about how the disciplinary explanations of human events fit together.–Peter Rutland, History and Theory

The Spirit of Capitalism shows the powerful explanatory potential of a rigorously articulated historical sociology.–Duncan Kelly, The Political Quarterly

The Spirit of Capitalism is a bold and important book. It provides a new perspective from which to view not only the history of the last four hundred years but also a host of theoretical debates that have troubled the social sciences since their beginnings. Greenfeld is to be commended for… placing human intelligence and action, rather than illusory iron laws of history, at the center of her story.– Kevin Schmiesing, Religion and Liberty

This is an important book. It will spark a variety of controversies. Its neoconservative orientation will anatagonize  those left of center… There is no doubt, however, that a book on an intriguing and important subject, featuring a flexible view of why things happen in history, and also displaying a lively sense of argument and ample documentation, is to be welcomed. It is a powerful and thought-provoking study.–Mark N. Hagopian, American Political Science Review

Liah Greenfeld is unashamedly a bold sociological thinker, in search of the big questions and the big answers. The big question here is to explain our modern “economic civilization”–the transformation of our life worldwide. Most writers have dealt with the “how”–the conditions of its emergence, take-off, and sustained growth. Greenfeld attempts the “why.” Though called “the spirit of capitalism,” in deference to Max Weber, she goes beyond Weber in arguing that nationalism, as a form of collective consciousness, is the cause of this great historical change, a bold and long foray. Those who feel that the social sciences should confront the big questions should not ignore this book.–Daniel Bell, Harvard University

I strongly recommend The Spirit of Capitalism. This book is important, original, inspired, and badly needed.–David Landes, Harvard University

The Spirit of Capitalism offers an important thesis which it defends with rigor and passion. It links nationalism to the market society in complex ways. Liah Greenfeld’s challenging, historically buttressed argument is bound to attract a wide and attentive audience.–Suzanne Keller, Princeton University

In The Sprit of Capitalism, Greenfeld presents a powerful and unexpected argument, exhibits ingenuity and erudition, and offers a mass of thoughtful side remarks…. Greenfeld takes this opportunity to make her argument to both an academic audience and the general public.–Victor Perez-Diaz, Complutense University of Madrid

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Another Take on How It All Began
    • 1. The Capitalist Spirit and the British Economic Miracle
    • 2. “The Great Seventeenth-Century Exception”
  • Part II: The Spread of the New Economic Consciousness on the European Continent
    • 3. The First Convert: France
    • 4. The Power of Concerted Action: Putting the Spirit of Capitalism to Work in Germany
  • Part III: The Asian Challenge: The Way of Japan
    • 5. Japanese Nationalism
    • 6. Racing and Fighting
  • Part IV: The Economic Civilization: The Spirit of Capitalism in the New World
    • 7. Searching for the American System
    • 8. The Thrust
  • Epilogue: Looking Backward from Year 2000
  • Notes
  • Index

2 thoughts on “The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth

  1. Pingback: Book review: Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness | Somatosphere

  2. Pingback: FPR | Book Review: Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness

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