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Capitalist Modernity in the 19th and the 20th Century

This essay examines the problems, discomforts, benefits, and drawbacks created by capitalist modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries and its impact on human society.

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After defining what capitalist modernity means in the introduction, the essay then examines the problems/discomforts created by capitalist modernity. The essay first discusses the environmental problems arising out of the overexploitation of natural resources.

Next, the sociological impact of sharper class distinctions is examined as also the resulting ideological differences that gave rise to socialism, Marxism, and fascism, and the resultant conflicts of the 19th and the 20th century are then explained.

Sociological aspects of adverse cultural backlash from traditional Eastern societies are highlighted as also the increase in racialism.

The essay then delves into the benefits that human society has accrued from capitalist modernity that include economic prosperity, greater human rights, scientific achievements, freedom from dogmas, and greater prosperity for nations. Each point is also amplified with concomitant drawbacks to giving a comprehensive explanation before summarizing the entire essay in the conclusion.

‘Modernity’ refers to the ‘Modern period’ which according to some historians extended from the 15th century to 18th century A.D. in Europe, which then spread to the known world thereon. The Industrial Revolution made mass production of goods and trades a possibility that resulted in sweeping changes in all human affairs. However, it was Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto published in 1848 clearly construed the parameters of ‘Capitalist Modernity’ as the “subjection of natural forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry……..clearing of whole continents for cultivation…. whole populations conjured out of the ground….” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) 66). It is this profusion in the means and processes of production, trade of goods, and competition amongst countries that are characterized by capitalist modernity. An understanding of capitalist modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries is essential for appreciating the dynamics of the present post-modern world. This essay examines the problems, discomforts, benefits, and drawbacks created by capitalist modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries and its impact on human society.

Problems/ Discomforts Created by Capitalist Modernity

Capitalist modernity has sociological, political, and environmental dimensions in addition to just economic activity. Industrialization was a natural subset of capitalist modernity. Industrialization involved the exploitation of resources in ways most profitable that necessarily do not pay heed to environmental concerns. This has led to environmental and energy problems (Reilly 143). Since profits outweigh all other interests, capitalistic ventures paid greater emphasis on the utilization of fossil fuels, and this process gathered pace in the 19th century where ecological considerations were disregarded to embrace full-scale industrialization. “By 1800 the world mined about 15 million tons of coal per year. By 1850 the amount had increased to over 100 million, and by 1950 to almost 1,500 million tons per year” (Reilly 148). The 19th-century use of coal, steam, and iron ore militated against the natural environment, leading to pollution of air and water and put at risk lives of millions of people living in the industrial areas. The methods of extraction and exploitation of minerals were inefficient.

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The workforce required to sustain the 19th-century industrial drive gave rise to huge industrial cities, where forests and vegetation were cleared to make way for industries. The resulting byproducts, waste material, and human sewage became too much for the ecosystem to sustain. These deleterious effects were partly reduced by the discovery of electricity in the 20th century, which then powered the industrial revolution. Electricity could be produced from water and thus was much cleaner than the coal-based economy of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, capitalist modernity has been responsible for the ecological problems (Reilly 152) that confront the world today. This is because ecology is concerned with public concern, while capitalism is normally based on privacy concerns. The law of supply and demand as popularized by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) emphasized competitiveness and selfishness as a virtue (Reilly 153) to keep the engine of capitalism running.

Such competitiveness gave rise to a society based on class distinctions. Capitalist modernity increased the gap between the rich and the poor, between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, making the society ripe for dissensions, riots, rebellion, and war. The scramble for resources pitted nations against each other and within nations, citizens against each other. The French Revolution had been a cry for liberty and equality, which was suppressed and replaced by Napoleonic France in the 19th century that gave rise to a long period of wars in Europe. Napoleonic France embraced capitalist modernity with fervor urging and at times coercing its citizens to work 12 to 15 hours a day (Reilly 165) in factories and industries under trying physical conditions.

Capitalist modernity gave rise to ideological differences as “capitalist free market has professed greater interests in liberty than inequality and all socialists have been more concerned with equality than with liberty” (Reilly 159). Karl Marx viewed the capitalist system as exploitative; the bourgeoisie exploiting the working class, proletariat and thus had concluded that there was a need to “overthrow the bourgeoisie rule, [and] conquest of political power by the proletariat” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) 74). According to them industrialization increased the divide between the rich and the poor and shackled the poor to the chains of servility and penury. Their clarion call, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. (Jackson 122)” evoked the Russian revolution. Engels amplified that despite the growing wealth of the rich, the workers were “sinking into pauperism (Marx, Engels and Moore 65)”. According to Marx and Engels, the problems of industrialization did not lie in its natural form but in the ‘bourgeoisie capitalism’.The reaction to capitalist modernity thus gave rise to socialism, communism, and fascism that gathered ideological strength in the 19th century and operative strength in the 20th century leading to the Second World War and the Cold War which engaged much of the world in its grasp leading to billions of dollars of expenditure in waging wars and developing more lethal weapons including Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The proxy wars waged by the two chief protagonists; the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century have had a concomitant effect in the 21st century. The seeds of the ongoing global war on terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism were sown in the Cold War duel between the US and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Reactions to capitalist modernity were not restricted just to communism. Since capitalist modernity emphasized the centrality of profits and the free market system, every other aspect of human affairs was treated secondarily. This rush to make gains at all costs impinged on the social, cultural, and ethical values of society. In more traditional Muslim and Eastern societies, capitalist values were rejected by those societies even as their governments tried to imbibe the capitalist system. Hence in the 19th and the 20th century, Eastern societies had initiatives such as “Japanese spirit, Western Technique…[Egyptian] technical modernization without excessive cultural westernization” (Huntington 74). Despite such integrative efforts, in the 19th and the 20th century, societies have become more polarized as a reaction to capitalist modernity which many views as corrupting, soulless and ungodly.

Not only did capitalism increase the divide between the rich and the poor it also led to an increase in racial divide. As per the capitalist theory, class divides are unavoidable but other inequalities such as “race, gender, nationality, religion, and background (Reilly 181)” become less important. However, in actuality, the White boss perceived his African workers first as Black and then whether he was a Christian, rich or poor, and lastly a man or a woman. Slavery persisted in the United States and South Africa, both overtly capitalist nations through the 19th century. Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1860 by Abraham Lincoln, African Americans continued to be persecuted and discriminated against throughout the 20th century. In South Africa, the apartheid regime continued until 1994 till Nelson Mandela took over as the first Black President of the state. However, to state that capitalist modernity has only led to problems would be misleading as it has resulted in numerous benefits.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Capitalist Modernity

Capitalist modernity is closely connected to the western concept of individualism which brought dynamism to human entrepreneurship and enterprise. Capitalist modernity freed the Western society from religious and social dogmas and allowed the growth of scientific temper. For the first time in human history, the individual became more important than the state, ideology, or God. This emphasis on the ‘individual’, led to a spurt of developmental activity in all spheres of human endeavors. The great works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith and Rousseau became fully operative in the 19th century as capitalist modernity took hold of the world. It has also led to specialization of knowledge and skills and technological innovations. The need to generate more profits in the most efficient ways led to greater impetus and pursuit of science and technology. The scientific discoveries of the 19th and the 20th century were mostly made in the universities and laboratories of nation-states that had adopted the capitalist mold. As economic activity picked pace, nations became prosperous and the standards of living of those nations ahead on the capitalist curve increased significantly. After learning the lessons of the 19th century, capitalist nations tinkered with all aspects of human endeavor in the 20th century to bring about positive change in the human condition. The same capitalist regimes that had inflicted colonialism in the Third World gave up most of their colonial possessions by the mid-20th century. Human rights and equality of all humans, something which the Marxists, communists and socialists had always striven for, became more effective and realistic in capitalist states. Capitalist modernity is inherently globalizing (Barker 188). As capitalist nations prospered and dominated large parts of the world through the 19th and the 20th century, they spread their concepts to the rest of the world, and today most of the nations in the world have integrated into the capitalist system. Thus capitalist modernity has served as a global unifier. Even social interactions have become modified and globalized due to capitalist modernity. The fruits of the industrial revolution allowed advances in science and technology including the science of war which ensured the victory of the Christian world over the Muslims led by the Ottoman Empire which had lagged behind on industrialization. Since commodities became available in large numbers, more finished products were made available to a larger number of people and thus more money could be generated with the sale of those goods thus prosperity increased. Hence industrialization undoubtedly helped those countries.

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Capitalist modernity has helped provide mass employment to people in numerous factories, industries, and institutions. The drawback, however, has been that due to the nature of capitalism, losses result in such industries in closing down causing large scale unemployment as was the case during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Along with economics and trade, capitalist modernity ensured the spread of Western culture throughout the world in the 19th and 20th century. American values, movies and music came to be identified as symbols of success prompting other societies and states to follow suit. This led to global cultural homogenization and made Western values, laws and conduct more acceptable. The drawback was that in some quarters of the world, such a movement was termed as ‘American cultural imperialism’ (Smart 3) and indeed in one case led to the overthrow of a leader, The Shah of Iran in 1979 who tried to westernize a deeply religious Islamic society too fast.

Without a doubt, the development of trade and commerce through the 19th and the 20th century initiated the growth and development of international structures from which most states in the world have benefited. Capitalist modernity gave rise to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) in 1947 that later crystallised into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. The GATT and the WTO came into being because of capitalist modernity which felt the need for a global organization to continue the growth and consumption trajectory. The world community’s singular achievement through this forum was that it allowed for the first time, weaker nations a platform for arbitration of their grievances against the unfair trade protectionist policies of the developed nations. Even a communist country like China, which was previously ideologically opposed to capitalist modernity, has embraced it with spectacular results, albeit modified to suit its political structure. China too joined the WTO in 2001 after campaigning hard for 15 years. In fact, today 153 nations are part of the WTO with Russia negotiating to join the organization. Capitalist modernity has also given rise to other important financial institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund to name a few. These institutions have helped scores of developing countries to prosper. The drawback has been that the institutional structures of these financial bodies give some developed countries a greater say in how aid or grants are to be disbursed and thus provide them with political leverage over those seeking help. Since these banks are capitalist institutions, they adhere to capitalist norms and aid given usually comes attached with stringent conditions that sometimes impinge on national sovereignty. Countries seeking help sometimes get into a debt trap as was the case with Mexico in the 1980s (Haynes 80).

In conclusion it can be reiterated that capitalist modernity is as much a state of mind as it is a material condition. ‘Modernity’ unshackled the human spirit from the bondage of religious dogma and superstition that prevailed during the ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe. The Industrial Revolution added a new dimension to modernity, in that it gave rise to massed economic activity that took root in the form of capitalism. Capitalist modernity emphasized the prominence of consumption and production of goods which soon began affecting every aspect of human life. In the 19th and the 20th century, capitalist modernity became the mainstay of human endeavors leading to many benefits as well as problems. It brought about economic prosperity, social, physical and intellectual enrichment of the society. The attendant drawbacks and discomforts resulting from capitalist modernity too were many. The exploitation of resources affected the environment adversely; competition amongst nations led to wars, competition amongst citizens led to greater class distinctions between the rich and the poor and also heightened racial attitudes. Despite its many drawbacks, capitalist modernity succeeded globally, leading to internationalism while the so-called egalitarian constructs such as communism suffered a decline.


Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Washington D.C.: SAGE, 2003.

Haynes, Jeffrey. Third World Politics: A Concise Introduction. NY: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996.

Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. NY: Touchstone, 1996.

Jackson, John Hampden. England Since the Industrial Revolution, 1815-1948. NY: Taylor & Francis, 1975.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manisfesto (1848). Ed. L.M. Findlay. NY: Broadview Press, 2004.

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Marx, Karl, et al. The Communist Manifesto. NY: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Reilly, Kevin. The West and the World: A History of Civilization from 1400 to the Present. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2002.

Smart, Barry. Facing Modernity: Ambivalence, Reflexivity and Morality. Washington D.C.: SAGE, 1999.

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