1854, "condition of having capital;" from capital (n.1) + -ism. Meaning "political/economic system which encourages capitalists" is recorded from 1872, originally used disparagingly by socialists. Meaning "concentration of capital in the hands of a few; the power or influence of large capital" is from 1877.
"Capital" may be most briefly described as wealth producing more wealth; and "capitalism" as the system directing that process. This latter term came into general use during the second half of the 19th century as a word chiefly signifying the world-wide modern system of organizing production and trade by private enterprise free to seek profit and fortune by employing for wages the mass of human labour. There is no satisfactory definition of the term, though nothing is more evident than the thing. [J.L. Garvin, "Capitalism" in Encyclopaedia britannica, 1929]
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