Capitalism: Values and Attitudes

The rise of modern global capitalism can be traced back to the start of the Industrial Revolution in Western countries. New machines made it easier to produce material goods. This Industrial Revolution was linked to changing attitudes to business. The idea spread that allowing businessmen to pursue profit and trade without restrictions or interference from government in a "free market" was the best way to increase national wealth. This social system generated huge economic growth. The money made from producing goods more quickly and cheaply was spent on building more factories and mines and constructing more new machinery. There seemed to be no limit to the expanding production and technological innovation, or the money being made from both.

By 1914, people in Europe and the USA were producing fifty times more goods and services worldwide than they had in the 1780s. However, despite its ability to generate vast wealth, the rise of industrial capitalism initially had a negative effect on the lives of working people. Conditions in factories were horrible. Workers were made to work excessively long hours for low wages in an environment that was unhealthy and dangerous. Children and teenagers often worked sixteen hours or more a day in industrial "sweatshops". The cities in which the workers lived were polluted and overcrowded. At the same time, traditional forms of social support and protection for working people and the poor were taken away by the capitalists.

Capitalism saw society as made up of individuals pursuing their personal advantage and satisfaction. Energetic and talented people were encouraged to make their fortunes, but the less fortunate were left to fend for themselves. Capitalists argued that charity and welfare decreased the incentives for workers to work in the factories. Workers lives were unpredictable and insecure. They were "free" to sell their labour to whoever would employ them for whatever wage they could get. They could also be laid off by employers whenever they were no longer needed. Over time conditions for working classes improved. Unemployment benefits and old age pensions were created. Factory workers began to earn enough to become consumers of the new cheap goods that the factories were producing. However, inequalities between rich and poor remained huge in capitalist societies in the 20th Century and continue to remain so in the 21st Century.