The conflation of capitalism with urban markets, trade, and commerce, and capitalists with burghers, we saw, springs from an assumption that capitalist social relations are somehow natural — they are outside of history, not contingent, and, unless there are sufficient restraints, would be the default manner of organizing any society any where. This assumption, besides being an irrational, faith-inflected posit of a natural law that is nowhere and everywhere at once, is glaringly contradicted by the historical record. Our Burghers of Calais were not proto-capitalists; they were were something else entirely. Their particular circumstance and the way they oriented themselves to the world, their fellows, and their profession did not differ from capitalism only in scale, but in quality.

Capitalism properly described is a way of organizing society according to the logic of the market. The market’s logic, not the logic of discrete markets, where a merchant can profit by buying cheap in one region and selling dear in another, drives the motor of capitalist society. This sort of market driven society is , in and of itself, entirely novel in history: it represents a moment when economic power comes into its own and achieves a freedom, relative to previous social patterns, from military, political, mercantile, dynastical, religious, and other forms of power. Before capitalism, economic power was united with power’s other forms, and wealth would be acquired and reproduced according to their respective logics: whether by militarist expansion, feudal domination, State office, or the like. Not so with capitalism: with it wealth is to be had by working in the market–by outcompeting competitors according to codified sets of rules that encourage a very specific social mode of behavior.

This becomes clearer by contrasting the logic of one market with the logic of many markets. The former is the method of capitalist society; the latter that of commercial, or mercantalist, society. Where capitalism seeks to pierce barriers to trade, absorb all things into one market, and equate them with a unified process of evaluation–where you will pay the same for box of pens in one town as you will in another–commercial society sees no basic need to do this, and in fact profits from a disjointed group of markets. Capitalists earn wealth by increasing productivity, by getting more grain from their acre or more pens from their factory; merchants earn theirs by achieving a monopoly control of a given market or commodity, or by having a corner on one market and selling dear what they acquire cheap. Capitalists become wealthy through production, mercantalists through circulation.

It becomes clear, then, that the consuming base of society in capitalism will be broader than that of a mercantalist society. As capitalists are always striving to increase production a bit more, to continue to edge out their opponents, they need to have their increased output purchased. Merchants in commercial society are not subject, or are not subject to so great a degree, to this concern. If they control the only shipping route that is bringing cinnamon into Europe, they will make their profit whether the total amount of production increases or not; in fact, it may be in the interest of a mercantile economy to restrict production, or at least the availability of produced goods. Hence the consuming base of mercantile societies was very limited, the aristocracy, nobility, and other elites, not the peasant or dispossessed masses. From this it is easy to see why capitalism seeks to produce a vast array of cheap consumer goods, while commercial societies tended to accrue their wealth through the limited trade of luxury items.

The most significant difference between the economic logic of capitalism and that of previous society, though, lies in the autonomy of the market. In capitalism, the market not only represents an opportunity: it represents an imperative. If a capitalist enterprise does not remain economically viable it will fail, and its owner will go bankrupt, lose his property, go under. This, again, stands in stark contrast to broader mercantalist societies. Where capitalist wealth is earned by economic means — by increased productivity — merchantile wealth is earned through privileges sustained by military or political power. If a merchant-society could not maintain its monopoly or keep its corner on the market, then its economy would collapse. Capitalist-society may need a certain amount of political and military coercion to keep on track, but the ultimate determining factor of its economy is neither; what maintains its wealth is the economy’s logic itself. And so economic imperatives become the motive anxiety of capitalist society as a whole. The non-capitalist world had no such economic worries: they struggled to maintain military or political dominance, certainly, but economic imperatives, the bottom line, and the drive to increase yields were not the central tenets of this effort.