Posts Tagged ‘history’

absolut-capitalism

Clearly, Pope Francis’s criticisms of capitalism (as I have discussed here and here) have touched a nerve. They certainly have in the case of Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann, who attempts to argue both that capitalism is not responsible for causing poverty and that more capitalism will eventually eliminate poverty.

Hausmann’s story is a very familiar one. What it comes down to is the idea that the majority of people before capitalism arrived one the scene were poor and as capitalism develops and more and more people became wage-laborers with rising real wages. But areas of the world still remain outside of capitalism and those people will remain poor unless and until capitalism is allowed to fully develop.

It’s a story that is as old as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and it’s been told and retold by generations of classical and neoclassical economists ever since.

Their story is certainly right about one thing: capitalism does create the promise of ending poverty.

The problem is, their story conveniently overlooks important aspects of the development of capitalism—all the ways capitalism has over the course of its history created more, not less, poverty. I’m thinking of four instances in particular.

First, Hausmann never examines the actual emergence of capitalism, the so-called primary of accumulation of capital, when noncapitalist producers (feudal serfs, members of family and tribal communes, and so on) were dispossessed of their land (as large landowners took possession of their lands) and then forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in both rural and urban labor markets.

Second, Hausmann fails to mention the working poor, all those people who work for someone else and yet remain (along with their children), because of low wages and intermittent employment, below the poverty line.

Third, there’s nothing in Hausmann’s story about capitalist instability and all the times (including, most recently, during the Second Great Depression) wage-laborers are thrown onto the unemployment lines and forced (together with their families) to try to survive on food stamps and other poverty-level programs.

Finally, Hausmann presumes all the poor self-employed workers in India and elsewhere somehow exist outside of capitalism, when in fact they are often producing commodities either for capitalist enterprises or for the other workers who are directly employed by those enterprises. They’re not outside capitalism; their work is inextricably connected to how capitalism operates, especially (but certainly not only) in the Global South.

Those are four main ways (and, of course, there are many others, which I don’t have the space to discuss here) capitalism does in fact cause poverty, in both the North and the South, now and over the course of its history

They are the reasons why, as Pope Francis said in a recent speech in Bolivia: “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable.”

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As the Economic Policy Institute explains,

U.S. CEOs of major companies earned 20 times more than a typical worker in 1965; this ratio grew to 29.9-to-1 in 1978 and 58.7-to-1 by 1989, and then it surged in the 1990s to hit 376.1-to-1 by the end of the 1990s recovery in 2000. The fall in the stock market after 2000 reduced CEO stock-related pay (e.g., options) and caused CEO compensation to tumble until 2002 and 2003. CEO compensation recovered to a level of 345.3 times worker pay by 2007, almost back to its 2000 level. The financial crisis in 2008 and accompanying stock market decline reduced CEO compensation after 2007–2008, as discussed above, and the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio fell in tandem. By 2014, the stock market had recouped all of the value it lost following the financial crisis. Similarly, CEO compensation had grown from its 2009 low, and the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio in 2014 had recovered to 303.4-to-1, a rise of 107.6 since 2009. Though the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio remains below the peak values achieved earlier in the 2000s, it is far higher than what prevailed through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Special mention

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Special mention

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Thomas Piketty, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, is the latest to recognize an inconvenient historical truth: in 1953, Germany was able to negotiate a large (50-60-percent) reduction in its outstanding foreign debt (owed to many countries, including Greece).

ZEIT: So you’re telling us that the German Wirtschaftswunder [“economic miracle”] was based on the same kind of debt relief that we deny Greece today?

Piketty: Exactly. After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP. Around the same time, France managed a similarly artful turnaround. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead, both of our states employed the second method with the three components that I mentioned, including debt relief. Think about the London Debt Agreement of 1953, where 60% of German foreign debt was cancelled and its internal debts were restructured.

Mike Bird argues that there are holes in Piketty’s argument. But his main source, a discussion paper by Timothy W. Guinnane, actually shows that the main principles guiding the 1953 agreement—especially the “the premise that Germany’s actual payments could not be so high as to endanger the short-term welfare of her people or her long-term ability to rebuild a shattered economy and society”—run counter to the austerity measures demanded by the troika in its handling of the current debt crisis in Greece.

There are, of course, significant differences, which Guinnane also explains:

Surely the London Agreement’s relative generosity reflects not abstract notions of justice, which can be applied to any situation on the basis of some sort of “precedent,” but two concrete facts of the German case. First, increasing tension with the Soviet Union had led to a strong desire to rebuild a sound, democratic Germany. Harsh repayment terms would not serve that end. When the U.S. decided to forgive much of Germany’s Marshall plan debt, in effect treating it on a par with other European recipients of that aid, it was just recognizing that what in 1945 had been a defeated enemy was now a valued ally.

A second point was also something Keynes insisted upon as a reason to oppose reparations. Prior to World World I, the German economy was central to the European economy as a whole; a healthy Europe could not exist alongside a sick Germany. The same held true after World War II. The German economy was so important to the world economy, and to Europe in particular, that the country was in a strong position to demand concessions that would enable her to return quickly to her traditional role as the engine of the European economy.

Then as now, the negotiations over the terms of repaying outstanding foreign debt have nothing to do with “abstract notions of justice,” or for that matter economic rationality, but with pure and naked power.

But the fact that Germany was able to successfully renegotiate is external debt in 1953, on terms that assumed “that reducing German consumption was not an acceptable way to ensure repayment of the debts,” demonstrates that historically there have been many ways of repaying debt.

The current hard line on Greece turns out to be the exception to that historical truth.

capitalism-religion

The other day, I remarked that we appear to be in the midst of a veritable renaissance of research into the history of capitalism.

That post was about the role slavery played in the emergence and development of capitalism in the West. But another aspect of capitalism’s history that seems to be receiving a great deal of attention these days is religion, especially in the United States.

Kate Bowler’s 2013 book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (to which I responded with a recently published essay called “American Hustle“) was devoted to this topic. Now, there are two new books: The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff and One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse.

Capitalism is not a natural phenomenon; it required a great deal of work, historically, to bring it into being, and it requires a lot of ongoing work, socially, to reproduce it over time. And part of that work, historically and socially, has involved the production of a whole set of identities and meanings that celebrates the winners and blames the losers, all the while creating the hope that everyone is a potential winner.

As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig explains,

Capitalism is a system braced by stories. Consider the rise of the liberal individual, a kind of atomistic personhood, distinct from all other persons. It seems the whole Enlightenment had a hand in creating this particular view of man—yet the concept was unknown to the people of the medieval and ancient worlds. The idea was not intentionally developed as a thread in capitalism’s web of self-justification, but it has been recruited for such purposes, where it underwrites much free-market discourse about the primacy of the individual over the collective. This is only one of the many accounts which have been absorbed into the vast narrative support structure of capitalism—that is, the series of stories that make life under capitalism seem plausible, positive, and even necessary. In the United States, Christianity might be capitalism’s most impressive conscription so far.

Sale Of Slaves

We seem to be in the midst of a veritable renaissance of research on the history of capitalism, especially on the role slavery played in the emergence and development of capitalism in the West.

Two new books on the subject have just received the Bancroft Award: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History and Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity.

As Grandin [ht: ja] explains,

Despite all this scholarly work, each generation—from WEB Du Bois’s to Robin Blackburn’s, from Eric Williams’ to Walter Johnson’s—seems condemned to have to prove the obvious anew: slavery created the modern world, and the modern world’s divisions (both abstract and concrete) are the product of slavery. Slavery is both the thing that can’t be transcended but also what can never be remembered. That Catch-22—can’t forget, can’t remember—is the motor contradiction of public discourse, from exalted discussions of American Exceptionalism to the everyday idiocy found on cable, in its coverage, for example, of Baltimore and Ferguson.

Right now, we are living that history—of the spectacular failures of capitalism and the enduring effects of slavery.