FUEL Vancouver

Capitalism is controversial, and has been so from its first stirrings. To many, it is an ill, an inherently flawed system based on greed and inequality, a system imposed by the few on the 99%. To others, it is the most natural and logical way to organize human affairs, an efficient system that rewards ability and hard work, and inherently promotes freedom. Whichever side they are on, to most people, capitalism is explainable through a universal theory — the definition of a universal theory is that it holds true no matter the historical conditions or specific circumstances.

Yet it is neither natural nor inevitable that our world is organized by an economic system we refer to as capitalism: the very fact that there have been other systems before it, and that capitalism has evolved over time, tells us that it is a historical phenomenon. And as such, it is not entirely random, either: it is historically contingent, that is shaped and inflected and constrained by particular historical developments.

Capitalism has been transformed and shaped by historical developments. The capitalism we encounter today, when we buy pepper in the supermarket, is not the same system under which the English East India Company brought spices to Europe; our capitalism is one of international trade treaties, and competition watchdogs, and global supply chains. Just as clearly, our capitalism is not the one of the Lancaster cotton mills, but one of working-age and working-hour regulations, of trade unions, and outsourcing.

As a scholarly practice, history is not about proving any particular logic or theory but about explaining how events actually happened, in all their unpredictability and unruliness. And I think that it is within this unruliness, not in the abstractions of a neat but lifeless theory, that some of the truth about capitalism can be captured.

It is my contention that to cut to the heart of capitalism, to understand it as a system, we need to set aside the trade treaties and workers’ rights and government interventions and study capitalism out in the wild, unencumbered and unrestrained by these restrictions and regulations. This is not to say that those are in any way wrong or misguided: those accomplishments were hard-fought for, have saved millions of lives, and have made our own immeasurably better. But if we are curious to know what capitalism is truly like, what is the best and the worst it can be and will do, when we want to better understand how it emerged historically, then we need to look at the truest, most authentic capitalists there are: outlaws.