Accounting and the birth of the notion of capitalism


Critical Perspectives on Accounting

mars 2007, vol. 18, n°3, pp.263-296

Départements : Comptabilité et Contrôle de Gestion

The purpose of this paper is to cast a new light on the post-Sombartian debate. As we know, Sombart (Sombart W. Der Moderne Kapitalismus. M¨unchen, Leipzig: Duncker and Humbolt, 1916) thought that the invention of double-entry bookkeeping was essential to the birth of capitalism. Max Weber developed the same theme, but to a lesser extent. Accounting scholars have debated the idea quite extensively during the 20th century. All these previous works have in common the fact that they address the historical question by comparing accounting practices to business practices, some of which are interpreted as capitalist. In this paper, my aim is not so much to understand the birth of capitalism, but to contribute to some understanding of the birth of the concept of capitalism itself. The concept was forged during the 19th century. At that time, capitalism and a certain kind of double-entry bookkeeping practice that was able to highlight the circuit of capital were inextricably linked. It might be suggested that this historical situation greatly helped the scholars of the period to conceptualise what they called capitalism, and it is easy to show that the notion of capitalism itself is rooted in accounting notions. I will thus argue that the history of how the concept of capitalism was invented is an example of the influence of accounting ideas on economic and sociological thinkingKeywords: Capitalism; Accounting; Karl Marx; Werner Sombart; Double-entry bookkeeping