capitalism

noun
cap·​i·​tal·​ism | \ˈka-pə-tə-ˌliz-əm, ˈkap-tə-, British also kə-ˈpi-tə-\

Definition of capitalism 

: an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

Keep scrolling for more

Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, and Democracy

Communism is one of our top all-time lookups, and user comments suggest that’s because it is often used in opaque ways. In some sources, communism is equated with socialism; in others, it is contrasted with democracy and capitalism. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that the word communism has been applied to varying political systems over time. When it was first used in English prose, communism referred to an economic and political theory that advocated the abolition of private property and the common sharing of all resources among a group of people, and it was often used interchangeably with the word socialism by 19th-century writers. The differences between communism and socialism are still debated, but generally English speakers used communism to refer to the political and economic ideologies that find their origin in Karl Marx’s theory of revolutionary socialism, which advocates a proletariat overthrow of capitalist structures within a society, societal and communal ownership and governance of the means of production, and the eventual establishment of a classless society. The most well-known expression of Marx’s theories is the 20th-century Bolshevism of the U.S.S.R., in which the state, through a single authoritarian party, controls a society’s economy and social activities with the goal of realizing Marx’s theories.

Communism is often contrasted with capitalism and democracy, though these can be false equivalencies depending on the usage. Capitalism refers to an economic theory in which a society’s means of production are held by private individuals or organizations, not the government, and where prices, distribution of goods, and products are determined by a free market. It can be contrasted with the economic theories of communism, though the word communism is used of both political and economic theories. Democracy refers to a system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised through a system of direct or indirect representation which is decided through periodic free elections. Democracy is contrasted with communism primarily because the 20th-century communism of the U.S.S.R. was characterized by an authoritarian government, whereas the democracy of the 20th-century U.S. was characterized by a representative government.

Did You Know?

Capital is wealth—that is, money and goods—that's used to produce more wealth. Capitalism is practiced enthusiastically by capitalists, people who use capital to increase production and make more goods and money. Capitalism works by encouraging competition in a fair and open market. Its opposite is often said to be socialism. Where a capitalist economy encourages private actions and ownership, socialism prefers public or government ownership and control of parts of the economy. In a pure capitalist system, there would be no public schools or public parks, no government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and maybe not even any public highways or police. In a pure socialist system, there wouldn't be any private corporations. In other words, there's just about no such thing as pure capitalism or pure socialism in the modern world.

Examples of capitalism in a Sentence

Capitalism is at once far too rational, trusting in nothing that it cannot weigh and measure, and far too little as well, accumulating wealth as an end in itself. — Terry Eagleton, Harper's, March 2005 The United States has assumed a global burden—not just fighting terrorism and rogue states, but spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy … — Brian Urquhart, New York Review Of Books, 9 Oct. 2003 The city was then the great maw of American capitalism. — Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic, August 2002 I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. — Ian Frazier, On The Rez, 2000 Even Cuba's famed health-care system has been unable to resist the siren song of capitalism. The Frank Pais Hospital … now offers "for pay" surgery to foreigners. — Ann Louise Bardach, Vanity Fair, March 1995
See More

Recent Examples on the Web

Liberals criticize free-market capitalism as the cause of persistent inequality and environmental degradation. Bobby Jindal, WSJ, "Conservatism Isn’t Dead Yet," 25 Nov. 2018 One is that the rise of machine learning and improved data collection techniques has created a dystopian panopticon in which all of us have become helpless pawns of late capitalism. Casey Newton, The Verge, "How WhatsApp is undermining Facebook’s war on election interference," 19 Oct. 2018 There is a hint of capitalism here, despite the invisibility cloaks (which camouflaged against the runway, as inspired by Harry Potter). Rachel Nussbaum, Glamour, "This Fashion Show Sent Models Down the Runway Makeup-Free to Make a Point," 14 Sep. 2018 The second point from Swiped that rings true—and it’s tied into the conversation about capitalism—is that women put an inordinate amount of work into the mechanics of dating, relative to men. Cady Drell, Marie Claire, "HBO's 'Swiped' Argues That Silicon Valley Must Fix the Dating Mess It Created," 10 Sep. 2018 Raghbendra Jha, an economics professor at the Australian National University, says the pile of bad loans is a manifestation of India’s crony capitalism. Iain Marlow, Bloomberg.com, "India’s Push to Fast-Track Bankruptcies," 26 June 2018 Bots and AR-15s are dangerous objects, not the neutral commodities imagined in theories of free-trade capitalism. Priya Satia, The New Republic, "What Mass Shootings and Big Data Have in Common," 10 May 2018 In Alberta, Mr Kenney—who crafted Mr Harper’s outreach to conservative nonwhites—rails against Ottawa and crony capitalism. The Economist, "Anti-elitist politicians in Canada are courting immigrants," 19 Apr. 2018 In many ways, fans operate and are defined by their unwillingness to adhere to the norms of capitalism. Nancy Baym, WIRED, "Book Excerpt: How Music Fans Built the Internet," 10 July 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'capitalism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of capitalism

1833, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for capitalism

see capital entry 2

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about capitalism

Share capitalism

Statistics for capitalism

Last Updated

7 Dec 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for capitalism

The first known use of capitalism was in 1833

See more words from the same year

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for capitalism

capitalism

noun

Financial Definition of capitalism

What It Is

Capitalism is an economic and social system in which participants privately own the means of production -- called capital. Free market competition, not a central government or regulating body, dictates production levels and prices.

How It Works

Under capitalism, prices and wages are determined by the forces of supply and demand.

Members of a capitalist economy are driven to obtain the maximum amount of utility ("benefit" or "profit") at the least cost. Privately owned industry caters to a consumer sector that wants goods and services of the highest value for the lowest price. Competition forces companies to keep prices low to attract consumers. The role of government in a capitalist society is to protect the legal rights of actors in the economy, not to regulate the free market system.

In capitalism, the most effective companies are those that create the greatest amount of utility. The most inefficient companies will be forced out of the market when the consumer discovers he can obtain the same goods for a lower cost elsewhere.

Why It Matters

Capitalism characterizes the behavior of the global economy. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, capitalism has become the dominant economic system worldwide.

Capitalism is often considered the antithesis of Socialism -- an economic and political system where the ownership of capital (the means of production) is commonly owned. Socialist industry and production is regulated by the central government.

The Efficient Market hypothesis, an ideal of capitalism, states that finance market prices are always at the correct level at any given time considering all public information and expectations. Supporters of this theory believe that prices are necessarily always fair and correct. Dissidents believe that prices are often the result of random mistakes and misunderstandings and do not always represent the true value of a stock.

Through the ongoing balancing act of supply and demand, a capitalist economy is constantly striving to reach a level of long-term equilibrium where supply matches demand causing prices to stabilize. In the real world, political policy, natural weather events, consumer confidence and a whole host of other outside effects constantly affect the market, making the long-term equilibrium goal nearly impossible to achieve.

Source: Investing Answers

capitalism

noun

English Language Learners Definition of capitalism

: a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government

capitalism

noun
cap·​i·​tal·​ism | \ˈka-pə-tə-ˌliz-əm \

Kids Definition of capitalism

: a system under which the ownership of land and wealth is for the most part in the hands of private individuals

Keep scrolling for more

More from Merriam-Webster on capitalism

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with capitalism

Spanish Central: Translation of capitalism

Nglish: Translation of capitalism for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of capitalism for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about capitalism

Comments on capitalism

What made you want to look up capitalism? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

a soft lustrous wool fabric with mohair

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Late Autumn 2018 Words of the Day Quiz

  • frosted-autumn-leaves
  • Which is a synonym of yahoo?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

TAKE THE QUIZ
SCRABBLE® Sprint

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!