Posts Tagged ‘history’

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Yesterday, in a comment on my “Culture Beyond Capitalism,” which was reposted on the Real-World Economics Review blog, “Econoclast” requested I post the entry on “Capitalism” I wrote for Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

Here, then, is the text of the pre-publication version of that entry.

Capitalism

David F. Ruccio

While the capitalist system is generally celebrated by mainstream economists, American cultural studies scholars will search in vain through their writings for actual discussions of the term “capitalism.” Instead, neoclassical and Keynesian economists refer to the “market economy” (in which individuals and private firms make decisions in decentralized markets) or just “the economy” (defined by scarce means and unlimited desires, the correct balancing of which is said to characterize all societies) (Stiglitz and Walsh 2002; Bhagwati 2003; Krugman and Wells 2004; Samuelson and Nordhaus 2004).

In contrast, discussions of the term capitalism have long occupied a central position in the vocabulary of Marxian economic theory. References to capitalism in American studies and cultural studies draw, implicitly or explicitly, on the Marxian critique of political economy: a critique of capitalism as an economic and social system, and a critique of mainstream economic theory. Karl Marx and latter-day Marxists criticize capitalism because it is based on exploitation, in the sense that capitalists appropriate and decide how to distribute the surplus labor performed by the direct producers, and because it periodically enters into crisis, imposing tremendous costs on the majority of people. They also criticize the work of mainstream economists for celebrating the existence of capitalism and for treating capitalist institutions and behaviors as corresponding to human nature (Mandel 1976; Resnick and Wolff 1987; Harvey 1989).

Much of this scholarship draws on Marx and Frederick Engels’s critique of political economy in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and the three volumes of Capital (1867, 1884, 1894). In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels compare capitalism to other forms of economic and social organization such as feudalism and slavery. What they have in common is that all are based on class exploitation, defined as one group (feudal lords, slaveowners, and capitalists) appropriating the surplus labor of another (serfs, slaves, and wage-laborers). At the same time, capitalism exhibits a distinct dynamic. For the first time in history, it “established the world market,” making it possible for the capitalist class to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere” and giving “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country” (1848, 486, 487). It leads to radical and continuous changes throughout the economy and society, since, as Marx famously put it, “all that is solid melts into air” (487).

If the goal of the Manifesto was to challenge the prevailing belief that capitalism had eliminated classes and class struggles, the point of Capital was to analyze the specific conditions and consequences of the class dimensions of a society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. Capitalism presumes that the products of labor have become commodities, in the sense that the goods and services human beings produce have both a use-value (they satisfy some social need) and an exchange-value (they can be exchanged for other commodities or money). The existence of commodity exchange, in turn, presupposes a culture congruent with the “fetishism of commodities”: a culture whereby individuals come to believe and act such that they have the freedom to buy and sell commodities; that the commodities they exchange are equal in value and that the commodity owners meet one another as equals in the marketplace; that individuals have well-defined property rights in the commodities they sell and purchase; and that they are able to calculate the ability of external objects to satisfy their needs and desires. The existence of commodity exchange is not based on the essential and universal human rationality assumed within mainstream economics from Adam Smith to the present. Nor can the cultures and identities of commodity-exchanging individuals be derived solely from economic activities and institutions. Rather, commodity exchange both presumes and constitutes particular subjectivities – forms of rationality and calculation – on the part of economic agents (Amariglio and Callari 1993).

In both the Manifesto and Capital, capitalism refers to a system in which capitalists are able to produce commodities that will, at least in principle, yield them a profit. The source of the profit is the value created by the laborers who have been forced (historically, through a process Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation,” and, socially, through capitalist institutions and cultures [1867, 871–940]) to exercise the specifically capitalist “freedom” to sell their ability to labor as a commodity. Under the assumption that all commodities (including labor power) are exchanged at their values, a surplus-value arises based on the ability of capitalists to appropriate the surplus labor performed by the wage-laborers and to realize that extra labor by selling the commodities that are produced. Struggles consequently arise over the “rate of exploitation” (the ratio of surplus-value to the value of labor power labor) and over the subsequent distributions of surplus-value (to managers, state officials, and other capitalists, who receive portions of the surplus). The keyword “capitalism” thus designates not just an economic structure, but also the conflicts, contradictions, and subjectivities inherent in that structure. Both the initial emergence and the subsequent reproduction of capitalism, if and when they occur, often lead to social dislocations and acute crises; they are also conditioned by the most varied cultures and social identities.

In the case of the United States, the last two centuries have witnessed the widening and deepening of capitalism, both domestically and internationally. Initially a market for foreign (especially British) capitalist commodities, the original thirteen colonies oversaw the establishment and growth of domestic capitalist enterprises, which sought both raw materials and markets for final goods within expanding geographical boundaries and across a heterogeneous class landscape. One result was that noncapitalist – communal, independent, slave, and feudal — producers were eventually undermined or displaced, thereby causing waves of rural peoples – men, women, and children of diverse racial and ethnic origins – to migrate to existing and newly established cities and to sell their labor power to industrial capitalists. The opening up of new domestic markets (through the determined efforts of retail merchants, advertisers, and banks), capitalist competition (which drove down the unit costs of production), and government programs (to establish a national currency and regulate trusts and working conditions) spurred further capitalist growth. The continued development of capitalist manufacturing provoked vast international migrations of laborers: initially, from Africa and Western Europe; later, and continuing to this day, from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa (Dowd 1977; Duboff 1989; Amott and Matthaei 1996).

The movement of capital that accompanied the expansion of markets and the search for cheaper raw materials transformed regions outside the industrialized Northeast, including the relocation of textile mills to the South, the creation of foundries and automobile factories in the Midwest, the development of the oil industry in the Southwest, and the flourishing of capitalist agriculture and the movie industry on the West Coast. Capital was also exported to other countries to take advantage of lower wage levels and other cost advantages, thereby introducing economic and social dislocations similar to those that had occurred inside the United States. In both cases, governments, business groups, and social movements (such as trade unions, civil rights organizations, and political parties) struggled over the economic and social conditions and consequences of the new industrial capitalist investments – the boom and bust cycles of domestic economic growth; large-scale movements of populations; the formation of new social identities; and imperial interventions. The uneven development of capitalism at home and abroad has left its mark on the culture of the United States (Kaplan and Pease 1993; Jacobson 2000).

Recently, as during the Great Depression of the 1930s and many other times throughout its history, U.S. capitalism recently entered into an economic and cultural crisis. The conditions leading up to the current crisis have put new issues on the agenda of American and cultural studies – the exponential growth of inequality (Collins et al. 2008), the role of economists in creating the crisis (Grossberg 2010), the increasing importance of the financial sector (Martin 2010), the continued racialization of the housing market through subprime lending practices (Lipsitz 2011), and the heightened role of communication technologies and culture in processes of capital accumulation (Fuchs et al. 2010). The severity of the crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of neoliberalism and of capitalism itself (Clarke 2010).

In the analysis of this nexus of capitalism and U.S. culture, we face three major challenges that in turn open up new paths of investigation for American and cultural studies. The first concerns globalization. It is often assumed that the internationalization of the U.S. economy and society is a radically new phenomenon, something that burst on the scene in the 1980s. However, when measured in terms of movements of people (migration), goods and services (imports and exports), and money (capital inflows and outflows), the globalization of capitalism achieved, beginning in the 1980s, levels that are quite similar to those experienced almost a century earlier (Ruccio 2003). Because of these similarities and others (particularly the rise in the rate of exploitation and, with it, the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth), it is a mistake to describe contemporary developments as unprecedented (Phillips 2002). This is not to say that the forms of capitalist development during the two periods are the same. One of the challenges for students of American culture is to register these differences—such as the outsourcing of jobs, the growth of Wal-Mart, the spread of financial markets, the conduct of wars to protect petroleum supplies, the emergence of new media and communication technologies—without losing sight of the past.

The second challenge is to avoid treating capitalism as a purely economic system, separate from culture. The influence of capitalism on the culture industry— including the rise of a capitalist film industry and the export of U.S. culture (Miller et al. 2001; Wayne 2003)—has been widely studied and debated. What is less clear is that the capitalist economy is “saturated” by cultural meanings and identities. From this perspective, each moment of capitalism, from the existence of commodity exchange to the export of capital, is simultaneously economic and cultural. The point is not to substitute cultural studies for political economy, but to recognize—and analyze, concretely and historically—the cultural conditions of capitalism. Money, commodities, labor power, surplus-value, profits: all of these economic forms require the performance of specific, historically and socially constructed, meanings and identities. It is also important to understand the role of economic thought in influencing the development of U.S. capitalism and U.S. culture generally. These topics remain open, though a fruitful place to begin is by understanding the role that “languages of class” play in creating new class identities (Gibson-Graham et al. 2001), the complex interplay of capitalist and noncapitalist economic imaginaries (Watkins 1998), and the need to rethink the economy and economic knowledge (Grossberg 2010a).

The third potential stumbling block is the treatment of capitalism as an all-encompassing, unitary system that has colonized every social arena and region of the globe. While capitalism certainly represents a powerful project for making and remaking the world, deploying the concept of capitalism as a complete mapping of the economic and social landscape has the effect of obscuring noncapitalist forms of economic organization and cultural sense-making. “Capitalocentrism” (akin to the role played by “phallocentrism” and “logocentrism” with respect to gender and language) hides from view the diverse ways in which people in the United States and elsewhere participate in individual and collective noncapitalist economies— including barter, communal production, gift-making, and solidarity—that fall outside the practices and presumed logic of capitalism (Gibson-Graham 1996; Ruccio and Gibson-Graham 2001). On this view, U.S. culture is heterogeneous and contradictory with respect to different class structures. It contains elements that foster and reproduce capitalism and, at the same time, its noncapitalist others.

References

Amariglio, J. and A. Callari. 1993. “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism.” In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. E. Apter and W. Pietz, 186-216. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Amott, Teresa and Julie Matthaei. 1996. Race, Gender and Work: A Multi- Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Rev. ed. Boston: South End Press.

Bhagwati, Jagdish. 2003. Free Trade Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Clarke, J. “After Neo-Liberalism.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 375-94.

Collins, J.; M. di Leonardis; and B. Williams, eds. 2008. New Landscapes of Inequality. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research Press.

Dowd, Douglas Fitzgerald. 1977. The Twisted Dream: Capitalist Development in the United States since 1776. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop Publishers.

Duboff, Richard B. 1989. Accumulation and Power: An Economic History of the United States. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Fuchs, C.; M. Schafranek; D. Hakken; and M. Breen. 2010. Special issue on “Capitalist crisis, communication & culture.” tripleC (cognition, communication, co-operation): Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 8 (2): 193-309.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Gibson-Graham, J. K.; Stephen Resnick; and Richard Wolff, eds. 2000. Class and Its Others. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1998. “Cultural Studies vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 613-24. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

 Grossberg, L. 2010a. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2010b. “Standing on a Bridge: Rescuing Economies From Economists.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34 (4): 316-36.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2000. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang.

Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. 2004. Microeconomics. New York: Worth Publishers.

Lipsitz, G. 2011. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mandel, Ernest. 1976. Late Capitalism. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books.

Martin, R. 2010. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Cultural Studies 24 (3): 418-30.

Marx, Karl. 1867-94 (1976-81). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. 3 vols. Trans. Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach. New York: Vintage Books.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1848 (1976). “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519. New York: International Publishers.

Miller, T. et al. 2001. Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute.

Phillips, Kevin. 2002. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. New York: Broadway Books.

Resnick, S. A. and R. D. Wolff. 1987. Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

Ruccio, David F. 2003. “Globalization and Imperialism,” Rethinking Marxism 15 (January): 75-94.

Ruccio, David F. and J. K. Gibson-Graham. 2001. “‘After’ Development: Reimagining Economy and Class.” In Re/presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Political Economy, ed. J.-K. Gibson-Graham et al., 158-81. Durham: Duke University Press.

Samuelson, Paul A. and William D. Nordhaus. 2004. Economics. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. and Carl E. Walsh. 2002. Economics. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Watkins, Evan. 1998. Everyday Exchanges: Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wayne, Michael. 2003. “Post-Fordism, Monopoly Capitalism, and Hollywood’s Media Industrial Complex.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (1): 82-103.

Wright, Handel Kashope. 2001. “Larry Grossberg on the Status Quo of Cultural Studies: An Interview.” Cultural Values 5 (April): 133-62.

 

 

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Back in April, Raumplan and Cascina Cuccagna organized an exhibit for Milan Design Week titled “Capitalism is Over.” The basic argument was that, while capitalism may have worked in the first few decades of the postwar period, during the “Golden Age” of capitalism—when “the demand for products and everyday objects rose to never before attained summits”—since the late 1970s, growth has slowed down and “following the neoliberal theories, governments promoted policies that fostered the expansion of financial profits and lower wages.” Their example was Olivetti:

The historical Olivetti attitude to resilience and innovation suffered a fairly marked setback during the crises of the Seventies, which reduced investments in the production sector and initiated the financialized economy that today is reaching its full development. The growth of profits corresponded to a loss of identity and of the centrality of production’s contents, that became increasingly interchangeable. Although since the Eighties Olivetti’s revenues and number of employees has steadily increased, it is also clear that the progressive dematerialisation of its core business doomed the company. Olivetti gradually lost its productive and innovative bent and became essentially a financial investment vehicle.

Martin Kirk makes much the same argument in a recent Guardian column, supplemented by the idea that people—especially young people—have lost faith in capitalism.

Why do people feel this way? Probably not because they want to travel back in time and live in the USSR. For millennials especially, the binaries of capitalism v socialism, or capitalism v communism, are hollow and old-fashioned. Far more likely is that people are realizing – either consciously or at some gut level – that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has as its single goal turning natural and human resources into capital, and do so more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment.

Because that is what capitalism is all about; that’s the sum total of the plan. We can see it embodied in the imperative to increase GDP, everywhere, at an exponential rate, even though we know that GDP, on its own, does not reduce poverty or make people happier and healthier. Global GDP has grown 630% since 1980, and in that same time inequality, poverty and hunger have also risen.

As I have argued before (e.g., herehere, and here) capitalism has a real growth problem. The premise and promise of capitalism are that it “delivers the goods.” It did, for a while, and now it seems it can’t—which has many people looking beyond capitalism.

To be clear, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we would all be better off with less or no growth. That’s certainly true for our natural environment, in terms of issues such as global warming, pollution, and so on. Fewer resources would be extracted; less energy would be needed, thus lowering the level of greenhouse gasses; and, in general, less environmental damage might be caused by our economic activities.

My argument, however, is about the predominant economic system in the world today. It is capitalism that has a slow-growth problem. And that’s because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.

It is a premise in the sense that capitalists—the capitalist class as a whole, not necessarily individual capitalists in one enterprise or another—can collect and utilize for their own purposes more surplus-value when capitalism is growing—when productivity is high, when more commodities are being produced, when the economy as a whole is growing. There’s more surplus available, even if workers’ wages are rising, and each member of the capitalist class can get their aliquot share of that growing surplus.

So, growth is a problem both for capitalism—since, in its absence, it makes it difficult to extract more surplus—and for us—since, in the drive to create more growth, we are forced to suffer through more inequality, poverty, and destruction of the social and natural environment.

It’s time then, yes, to accept the idea that capitalism deserves to be placed in the dustbin of history—and, at the same time, to begin the process of imagining and creating an alternative set of economic and social institutions.

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

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Mark Tansey, “Duet” (2004)

There are plenty of reasons why contemporary libertarians might want to read Karl Marx—and at least one reason why they wouldn’t.

Chris Dillow suggests libertarians “would be surprised by a lot of Marx” and offers three reasons why they should read him.

One is that Marx saw economics as a historical process.

One implication of this for libertarians is that they must ask: what material economic basis would make our ideas more popular? I’d argue that one such basis is greater equality, as this would diminish demands for statist regulation.

A second is Marx’s view of the relationship between property rights and technical progress.

This might speak to our current secular stagnation. Why are productivity growth and capital spending so weak? Might one reason be that the fear of future losses from competition is deterring investment? Or that excessively tight intellectual property laws are restricting innovation? Marx poses the question: how should property rights alter to foster growth? This surely should interest libertarians.

The third reason lies in Marx’s attitudes about the expansion of the realm of freedom.

Marx’s main gripe with capitalism wasn’t so much that it was unfair but that it thwarted our freedom to develop our human potential. Work, instead of being a source of self-expression, is oppressive and alienating under capitalism.

According to Dillow, libertarians should read Marx because, in all three cases, he poses some questions to them that should sharpen their thinking.

I agree.* But, as I explained back in 2012, there’s at least one reason why Marx would infuriate libertarian readers—because of their sense of the right of private individuals to do what they like on and with their property.

Marx, in chapter 6 of volume 1 of Capital, presents an analysis of private power to which libertarians are—and, I suspect, always will be—blind:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

 

*Although I can’t agree with Dillow’s suggestion that readers should start volume 1 of Capital at chapter 10, and turn to the first nine chapters last. In my view, readers should begin with the first three chapters, on the commodity, where Marx presents the initial steps in his critique of political economy. In fact, every time I teach Capital, I run the risk of rushing through the remaining material precisely because I find so much to present to contemporary students about commodities and markets in that first section.

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Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

 

*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.

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Special mention

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Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*

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For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

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And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

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Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.

 

*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.