The word Capitalism is used for many different meanings.
Meanings of the Word "Capitalism"
Here are various meanings that can be conveyed, either in isolation or in confusion, through the use of the word "Capitalism". In a vague attempt of classification, the "type" of such definitions have been distinguished as "P" for phenomena, "I" for ideologies, "S" for systems.
- P.1. the phenomenon by which some riches be saved, accumulated and invested, so as to enable undertakings that wouldn't be possible if such riches were not invested. (etymologically, capital means "ahead of".)
- P.2. the phenomenon by which such capital be the private property of some individuals, either alone or organized in businesses.
- P.3. the phenomenon by which some set of individuals earn their living entirely thanks to the rent of capital goods.
- P.4. the class of individuals who earn their living entirely thanks to the rent of capital goods.
- I.1. any ideology accepting or promoting the existence of capital goods, including communism (called "State Capitalism" by many), or any of the latter definitions.
- I.2. any ideology accepting or promoting individual private property of capital goods.
- I.3. specific classical liberal schools of thought that consider capitalism as a good thing, when done within the respect of private property in general.
- I.4. specific mercantilist schools of thought that promote the interests of capitalists on the claim that whatever is good for capitalists is good for everyone.
- S.1. any economic system in which there exists capital goods.
- S.2. any economic system in which there exists private property of capital goods.
- S.3. an economic system, more specifically known as laissez-faire capitalism, that conforms to what classical liberal schools of thought propose, and in which governments do not intervene at all in economic matters.
- S.4. an economic system that conforms to the mercantilist views, where governments should politically intervene in economic matters, so as to stimulate and/or regulate it.
- S.5. the changing and evolving economic system or set of economic systems that have historically evolved in Europe since feudal times and have come to dominate the world economy in the nineteenth century.
- I.5. Any ideology that justifies the capitalist societies as examplified by Western Europe and Northern America. In particular, conservatism in these countries (I.5 comes after S.5 because in the case of conservatism, it is the ideology that complies to the system, and not the other way round).
Confusion between the meanings of the word "Capitalism"
As with many common words, and most particularly ideologically laden words, "Capitalism" has many meanings, and there is a lot confusion when using it as to whether it means any particular meaning, or whether it is just a slogan or insult used without particular meaning intend (or worse, with confusion intended).
"Capitalism" as a phenomenon (meanings P.1 to P.4) is certainly different from "Capitalism" as an ideology (I.1 to I.5) or from "Capitalism" as a system (S.1 to S.5) - not the same kind of notion at all. Yet, sometimes the confusion is made nonetheless.
Opponents to Capitalism often deny that these represent subtantially different things -- but then, in some extreme case, religious conservatives consider the whole debate for and against capitalism as the same occidental and jewish plot to corrupt their True Religion (be it Christianity, Islam, or whatever). Although it is arguable whether or not two meanings of the word "Capitalism" of the same kind (for instance, I.4 and I.5, or S.4 and S.5) are somehow "equivalent" under someone's subjective notion of equivalence, for the sake of not making a straw man argument when accusing someone else to be a proponent of Capitalism, these different concepts must be clearly distinguished.
For instance, often the term Capitalism is used by communists to dismiss classical liberalism (I.3) by accusing it with the defects of mercantilism (I.4), even though classical liberalism was invented as a opposition to mercantilism in the first place, long before communism (I.1) was ever popular.
The word Capitalism was mostly unknown, and didn't have any ideologic or systemic connotation until Karl Marx used it to dismiss it in his famous book das Kapital. The word became famous, mostly used by communists in a derogatory way while ignoring any distinction between meanings of it. Finally, some classical liberal thinkers (notably after Ayn Rand) accepted this insult as a valid name for their ideology. Actually, some of the most radical classical liberal thinkers now call themselves anarcho-capitalists (incidentally, Ayn Rand was opposed to anarcho-capitalism).