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[kap-i-tl-iz-uh m] /ˈkæp ɪ tlˌɪz əm/
an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.
Origin of capitalism
1850-55; capital1 + -ism
Related forms
anticapitalism, noun
procapitalism, noun
Word story
It is easy to forget that capitalism was coined not so long ago, in the mid-19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and individual entrepreneurs were creating new industries and amassing wealth. Terms for the other two major competing economic systems of the past two centuries—socialism and communism—were also coined around the same time. Also, about the same time it became common to designate all such coinages as “isms”: terms formed by adding the suffix -ism to a root word in order to expand its meaning to encompass a related system, theory, or practice. Thus from a fairly old word, capital, the relatively newer word, capitalism, was formed to describe the then emerging economies of the West. (Another towering ism coined later in the 19th century was, of course, Darwinism. )
On the surface, the meaning of capitalism seems straightforward, referring to an economic system in which private individuals, rather than governments, own property and businesses. But beneath the surface, strong currents of opinion and theory swirl about the term. Many people fiercely espouse capitalism as an economic freedom inseparable from democracy, as reflected in several books considered classics and still avidly read today: for example, Capitalism and Freedom by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman (first published in 1962), and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph A. Schumpeter (first published in 1943). So it may be a challenge to use the term without triggering a discussion of its broader political context.
Related Quotations
“History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.“
—Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)
“[F]rom the beginning, capitalism has been characterized by a tension between laissez-faire and intervention—laissez-faire representing the expression of its economic drive, intervention its democratic political orientation.“
—Robert Heilbroner and Lester Thurow, Economics Explained (1982)
“[C]apitalism works better than it sounds, while socialism sounds better than it works.“
—Richard M. Nixon, Beyond Peace (1994) Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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Examples from the Web for capitalism
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • For another, there was no clear-cut distinction between the capitalism that owned newspapers and the capitalism that advertised.

    The Free Press Hilaire Belloc
  • It is a race as to whether this peninsula will be captured by communism or capitalism.

    Rosinante to the Road Again John Dos Passos
  • The "social question" is solved; at least we are upon the way to "social peace," capitalism is saved, socialism is sloughed off.

  • His position was rather that Socialism must come, simply because capitalism could not last.

    Socialism John Spargo
  • He begins to see that capitalism has its good points, after all.'

    The Red Conspiracy Joseph J. Mereto
British Dictionary definitions for capitalism


Also called free enterprise, private enterprise. an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, characterized by the freedom of capitalists to operate or manage their property for profit in competitive conditions Compare socialism (sense 1)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for capitalism

1854, "condition of having capital;" from capital (n.1) + -ism. Meaning "political/economic system which encourages capitalists" is recorded from 1872.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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capitalism in Culture

capitalism definition

An economic and political system characterized by a free market for goods and services and private control of production and consumption. (Compare socialism and communism.)

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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