What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for an economic system (or mode of production) to be classified as "Capitalism"?

Is it markets? Is it for-profit corporations? Is it limited liability companies? Is it workers selling their labour to capitalists/employees? Is it freedom to set up companies? Is it a low degree of government productive activity? Is it a subset of these or other elements?

I imagine the answer would depend on a particular schools of thought, so in principle I would expect different answers.

Disclaimer 1: this question is not requesting opinions about what capitalism is, it is not, it should be, it should be not, but authoritative answers, with proper references.

Disclaimer 2: for those voting to close this as too-broad, I asked on meta whether this question was on-topic, and (albeit not a popular post) it seems people agreed it was.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think such references exist (unless you mean references to someone else's opinion of which there are plenty) but you should add the "reference request" tag. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Aug 8, 2017 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ The older word is "capitalist" which just describes the owners of productive capital. The word capitalism was used first by early socialists and was used to describe a system in which capitalists, not workers, were allowed to own productive capital. I think today capitalism is an ill defined word and different people use it to describe different things. In it's original meaning it has nothing to do with free markets, just property rights to the "means of production". $\endgroup$
    – Tobias
    Aug 8, 2017 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ formally defining capitalism xd dabs furiously we anthropology now boyz $\endgroup$
    – Kitsune Cavalry
    Aug 9, 2017 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Tobias That sounds like an answer, If you could add some references too, it would be great. $\endgroup$
    – luchonacho
    Aug 9, 2017 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Ubiquitous Yes, it remains a popular topic, and it inserts neatly in a whole category of JEL codes. $\endgroup$
    – luchonacho
    Aug 9, 2017 at 9:48

1 Answer 1


In this article, sociologist Erik Olin Wright provides a definition of capitalism (from a socialist tradition):

Many people equate capitalism with the idea of a market economy. Capitalism is not simply an economy in which markets play a central role in coordinating economic activity; it is a specific kind of market economy, one in which workers do not own and control the firms in which they work, capital is privately owned and allocated to alternative purposes on the basis of private economic returns (or, equivalently, on the basis of private profit-making), and labor is allocated to economic activities through labor markets.


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