An Indictment of Capitalism – 200 years ago!

A mirror held up to capitalist society almost 200 years ago (in 19th century) by Sismondi of France. This and other scathing criticism of capitalist society were put on a scientific footing by Marx-Engels in the second half of 19th century.



“I have seen production increasing, whilst enjoyments were diminishing. The mass of the nation here, no less than philosophers, seems to forget that the increase of wealth is not the end in political economy, but its instrument in procuring the happiness of all. I sought for this happiness in every class, and I could nowhere find it.

The upper class

The high English aristocracy has indeed arrived to a degree of wealth and luxury which surpasses all that can be seen in other nations; nevertheless it does not itself enjoy the opulence which it seems to have acquired at the expense of other classes; security is wanting and in every family most of the individuals experience privation rather than abundance…


Below this titled and not titled aristocracy, I see commerce occupy a distinguished rank; its enterprises embrace the whole world, its agents brave the ices of the poles, and heats of equator, whilst every one of its leading men, meeting on Exchange, can dispose of thousands. At the same time, in the streets of London, and in those of the other great towns of England, the shops display goods sufficient for the consumption of the world. But have riches secured to the English merchant the kind of happiness which they ought to secure him? No: in no country are failures so frequent, nowhere are those collossal fortunes, sufficient in themselves to supply a public loan to uphold an Empire, or a republic, overthrown with as much rapidity. All complain that business is scarce, difficult, not remunerative.

Twice, within an interval of a few years, a terrible crisis has ruined part of the bankers, and spread desolation among all the English manufacturers.


At the same time another crisis has ruined the farmers, and been felt in its rebound by retail traders. On the other hand, commerce, in spite of its immense extent, has ceased to call for young men who have their fortunes to make; every place is occupied, in the superior ranks of society no less than in the inferior; the greater number offer their labour in vain, without being able to obtain remuneration.

Has, then, this national opulence, whose material progress strikes every eye, nevertheless tended to the advantage of the poor?

Not so. The people of England are destitute of comfort now, and of security for the future. There are no longer yeomen, they have been obliged to become day labourer.


In the towns there are scarcely any longer artisans, or independent heads of a small business, but only manufacturers. The operative, to employ a word which the system has created, does not know what it is to have a station; he only gains wages, and as these wages cannot suffice for all seasons, he is almost every year reduced to ask alms from the poor rates.

Currency and banking

This opulent nation has found it more economical to sell all the gold and silver which she possessed, to do without coin, and to depend entirely on a paper circulation; she has thus voluntarily deprived herself of the most valuable of all the advantages of coin: stability of value. The holders of the notes of the provincial banks run the risk everyday of being ruined by frequent and, as it were, epidemic failures of the bankers; and the whole state is exposed to a convulsion in the forture of every individual, if an invasion or a revolution should shake the credit of the national bank.


The English nation has found it more economical to give up those modes of cultivation which require much hand-labour, and she has dismissed half the cultivators who lived in the fields. She has found it more economical to supersede workmen by steam-engines; she has dismissed … the operatives in towns, and weavers giving place to power-looms, are now sinking under famine; she has found it more economical to reduce all working people to the lowest possible wages on which they can subsist, and these working people being no longer anything but a rabble, have not feared plunging into still deeper misery by the addition of an increasing family.,

She has found it more economical to feed the Irish with potatoes, and clothe them in rags; and now every packet brings legions of Irsh, who, working for less than the English, drive them from every employment.

What is the fruit of this immense accumulation of wealth? Have they had any other effect than to make every class partake of care, privation, and the danger of complete ruin? Has not England, by forgetting men for things, sacrificed the end to the means?

social disparity

“There can only be luxury if it is bought with another’s labour; only those will work hard and untiringly who have to do in order to get not the frills but the very necessities of life”

“Although the invention of the machine which increases man’s capacity, is a blessing for mankind, it is made into a scourge for the poor by the unjust distribution we make of its benefits.”

“The gain of an employer is sometimes nothing if not despoiling the working he employs; he does not benefit because his enterprise produces much more than it costs, but because he does not pay all the costs, because he does not accord the labourer a remuneration equal to his work. Such an industry is a social evil, for it reduces those who perform the work to utmost poverty, assuring to those who direct it but the ordinary profits on capital”

“Amongst those who share in the national income, one group acquires new rights each year by new labours, the other have previously acquired permanent rights by reason of a primary effort which makes a year’s labour more advantageous.”

“Nothing can prevent that every new discovery in applied mechanics should diminish the working population by that much. To this danger it is constantly exposed, and society provides no remedy for it”

“A time will come, no doubt, when our descendants will condemn us as barbarians because we have left the working classes without security, just as we already condemn, as they also will, as barbarian the nations who reduced those same classes to slavery.”

From Nouveaux Principes d’Économie Politique by Sismondi first published in 1819 (as quoted in Accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg (1912))
(subtitles added)

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