Capitalism and Division of Labor

Capitalism is a socioeconomic system in which goods and services are produced for profitable exchange in a free market. The means of production are mostly in private ownership. As capital is accumulated, it is reinvested in further production. Investment decisions are usually made privately, and production and distribution are mainly controlled by independent companies that operate in competition with each other. The work required to produce goods and services is supplied by a labor force working for wages, and money is used to manage the distribution and exchange of goods, services, and labor. The division of labor refers to the functional subdivision of production processes into sequences of separate operations, each carried out by workers who possess relatively few skills, and whose wages cost less than those of fully skilled individuals who are capable of producing the entire product. Though discernible earlier, the adoption of a division of labor was a particular feature of the factories and mills of eighteenth century Britain. Moreover, its principles were ultimately adopted most fully in the Fordist assembly lines of industrial capitalism devised in Detroit before 1914 but which became dominant in Western economies especially in the period from the end of World War II until the 1970s. In more recent times, the term division of labor has also been employed to describe the geographical phenomenon whereby the components of a product are manufactured in plants in widely dispersed localities.

In the process of supplying the requirements of society, capitalism relies on the efforts of wage earning workers to yield profits for the owners of capital. Theoretically, the two groups – the capitalist entrepreneurs and the wage earning workers – are separate; in practice, however, a clear separation is rare. The capitalist system is, nonetheless, a highly distinctive approach to the supply of society’s material needs in which the core objective is the production and self expansion of capital; its operation has given rise to the creation of recognizable geographies of production, consumption, and exchange. Human geographers study the processes of capitalism in order to understand and explain its social, economic, and political impacts and the ways in which its related landscapes are created, used, and changed.

While they are undeniably dominant in the world today, institutionalized capitalist economic practices are in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. Thus, although some features of the system are discernible in the ancient world, and there are still strongly contested academic debates about precisely when capitalism evolved, most authorities believe that it began to emerge in the early post Medieval period as feudalism declined. Moreover, it is suggested that capitalism developed first in England. However, it soon appeared in other countries of Western Europe. Thriving merchant capitalism – focused on investment in trade and centered on cities such as London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, and Genoa – emerged as a major feature of the economic geography of early modern Europe. By the eighteenth century, trade, colonization, and imperialism had spread this form of capitalism to the rest of the globe. Moreover, by then, industrial capitalism had developed in Europe sowing the seeds of further, far reaching global impacts. Indeed, notwithstanding some strong ideological challenges, capitalism has profoundly changed the world and its influence has become pervasive.

Theoretical and Conceptual Ideas

Geographies of Early Capitalism

Geographies of Modern Capitalism

Large Corporations, Political Regulation, Fordism, Mass Production, and Economies of Scale