n the simplest terms, capitalism can be defined as the condition of possessing capital — the original funds or principal of an individual, company, or corporation, which provide the basis for financial and economic operations. The term capitalism also describes an ideology which favors the existence of capitalists (individuals who accumulate capital which then becomes available for investment in financial or industrial enterprises). Robinson Crusoe is a bourgeois Puritan, but on his island his preoccupations — labor, raw materials, the processes of production, colonialism (and implicit Imperialism), shrewdness, self-discipline, and profit — are (oddly enough, at first glance) those of the proto-capitalist. James Joyce would write that "The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races." Karl Marx, noting that "Robinson Crusoe's experiences are a favorite theme with political economists," took the opportunity, in his Capital, (q.v.) to critique Defoe's fantasy from his own very different perspective.
In light of what we know (and what Defoe himself knew) about the actual behavior of men like Alexander Selkirk who were marooned on desert islands, what are we to make of the fairy-tale fashion in which Crusoe's mythic story unfolds? In what ways does Robinson Crusoe anticipate the imperialistic attitudes which we find in later British authors such as Kipling? How would Crusoe have defined a gentleman, and how would his definition differ from that which we encounter in a novel such as Dickens's Great Expectations?
- From Labor to Value: Marx, Ruskin, and the Critique of Capitalism
- "Variations on Robinson Crusoe" (from Images of Crisis, Routledge, 1982)
Originally written 1987; content last modified April 1997;
links last added 14 July 2019