09 October 2014

Capitalism is history

The "interchange" of scholars on the history of capitalism in the new issue of the Journal of American History has an inescapable "blind men and the elephant" quality to it. I mean no offense to the scholars, all experts in their fields facing the challenge to teach about capitalism in history classes. The definition of capitalism still seems open to dispute. How do you define it? At first glance, capitalism is an "ism" or ideology, but in terms of economic or social history capitalism is no more an ideology than "feudalism" was. But capitalism isn't merely a phenomenon of economic history, not simply a set of practices adopted at some point or destined to be abandoned at another point. Back when I was in grad school historians were debating when the U.S. became capitalist. They focused on perceived transitions to a "market" economy from more traditional "moral" economies, or looked for turning points when people began producing primarily for markets rather than to achieve subsistence or "sufficiency" for themselves. A debate continues over whether slavery was a capitalist phenomenon. Some historians rule it out because they consider "free labor" a defining component of capitalism, or assume that since "reinvestment" is another defining component, capitalist slaveholders would have invested more in keeping their slaves fit to work at their most efficient. Another group of historians rejects stark separations of slave and capitalist economies, noting that much of the money many pioneer capitalists had to invest in things came from the slave trade in one way or another. Simpler broad-stroke definitions simply won't do, either, since historians can show readily that profit motives and acquisitive impulses have existed throughout history.

Capitalism might best be described as an event, but is hard to describe because the event isn't over yet. We can begin to describe it because it has had to define itself in reaction to challenges from socialism, the labor movement, the regulatory state, etc. At a certain point in history, capitalism is simply progress. Once it becomes a reactionary force -- and even if you dispute whether what it resists is really "progress" or an inevitable change -- we can begin to define it by negation, by what it can not or will not become. The beginnings are not so obvious, in part because there's no such thing as the "Capitalist Manifesto." Unlike with socialists, no author I know of offered a package of ideas called "capitalism" as the next necessary step in human progress back when kings and nobles still reigned and economies were governed by guilds, "just price" customs and other traditions. If socialism always has an element of conspiracy to it, if only because socialists knew what they wanted, capitalism developed more spontaneously and with much less sense of destiny. In broadest terms, the opportunities created by technological innovation and the Age of Exploration enticed people into challenging old rules and customs that appeared to impede the enrichment of ambitious individuals, of nations, and to some extent societies as a whole. If capitalism as an event comes to an end eventually, it most likely won't be ended by the sort of working-class revolution Marx expected. It does not appear to follow as logically as he thought that workers will want to take over the means of production. As long as they are satisfied with life after hours, the working classes in developed countries can reconcile themselves to whatever alienation or exploitation they endure at work. It seems more likely now, in an era of diminishing resources, that the state, defined not as the vehicle of the proletariat that will wither away but as the thing that keeps us alive and always must, will set the terms for the end of capitalism. Nothing except dogma says that states can't function as capitalist investors themselves -- China belies the claim -- but the crises of the future may compel states to become the sort of "command economies" that are seen as anathema to capitalism.  In simpler terms, capitalism has been fueled by generations of new ideas about what can be done, but the future seems likely be governed by a greater overriding sense of what must be done. If capitalism is ultimately irreconcilable with such necessities, future generations may be able to define it more precisely as a thing of the past, though what follows -- global democracy, global totalitarianism, global religion, or perhaps a new dark age -- may remain a mystery to future historians for some time afterward.


Anonymous said...

I would say that, in it's current stage, capitalism is an attitude, an insistence that profit trumps all other considerations and that the lion's share of the profit belongs to investors and management and that they owe labor nothing more than whatever wages they are willing to pay. It is a belief that everything is nothing more than a commodity, to be bought and sold - for profit.

Samuel Wilson said...

This sort of capitalist might prefer to say that labor is entitled to no more than the market will bear, but either way the priority of human need is secondary. Commodification is an important cultural consequence of capitalism, as is its corollary, according to which money can virtually become anything already commodified, e.g. political speech.

The tyranny of shareholders is another perverse consequence of an actual democratization of capitalism, as more small-time or short-term investors demand immediate returns regardless of long-term consequences. Notice how Google has to sell eBay simply because Google's shareholders want the company to sell something to get more money -- and that's not the only such case I've read about lately.