Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

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Bruce Plante Cartoon: Is it too soon?  download (1)


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As I tell my students, nothing gets a mainstream economist frothing at the mouth quite like mentioning Karl Polanyi.

Or at least it used to, when mainstream economists actually knew who Polanyi was and grasped—however dismissively—what he wrote about the history of capitalism.

To his credit, Eric Hilt (pdf) appears to know something about the author of The Great Transformation and how his work influenced the new history of capitalism. And his review of ten recent books, including Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, is not as dismissive as those of other mainstream economists, such as Alan L. Olmstead.

Much of the research of economic historians focuses on questions originating in economic theory, which tend to be quite narrow. In contrast, these book present expansive narratives and explore questions that may not be amenable to the analytical tools of economists. The authors’ critical perspectives also distinguish their work from that of economic historians and make it relevant to the concerns of many popular readers. The historians of capitalism rightly remind us that economic growth and development can have human costs not captured in average incomes; that our economic history includes no small measure of cruelty, coercion, and expropriation, rather than free exchanges occurring in the context of secure property rights; and that the economic system we have today is not a natural condition, but the outcome of policy choices that could have been made differently.

Hilt is, I think, correct: the new history of capitalism does represent a reminder to—and thus an indictment of—contemporary mainstream economics, precisely because it includes an analysis of the “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” of the emergence and development of capitalism and the idea that contemporary capitalism is “not a natural condition.”

Generations of economics students won’t have seen or heard either of those propositions. Indeed, what little history has been presented to them emphasizes exactly the opposite: that capitalism emerged both smoothly—without conflict, through voluntary decisions and the spread of markets—and naturally—in a manner that corresponds to human nature.

But then, as if he can’t help himself, Hilt chooses the side of mainstream economists against the new historians of capitalism—because they haven’t demonstrated the appropriate respect. On Hilt’s reading, Baptist, Beckert, and the others haven’t respected capitalism, either historically (because of the role of slavery and its coercive institutions in the history of capitalism) or today (especially after the crash of 2007-08 and the misery it has visited on tens of millions of ordinary citizens, in the United States and around the world). And they don’t respect the “rigor” and “sophisticated analyses” of mainstream economic history, which they “have failed to engage.”

The influence of the recent crisis and the Great Recession in these works. . .creates something of a pitfall for their analysis. Just as poor historical analogies can distort our understanding of the present, modern analogies can produce fallacious or unsound is misapplied. Although financial development often leads to volatility, and although venality and corruption among financiers seems to be as close to a historical constant as one can find, not all finance is harmful. The financial sector performs of vitally important function. . .

Ignoring the economic history literature has led historians of capitalism to make assertions that have been refuted conclusively and to get important elements of their arguments wrong.

In the end, what Hilt can’t seem to abide in the new history of capitalism are two things: first, that historically violence played an important role in the emergence and development of capitalism—rather than, as mainstream economists would have it, that the brutal institutions of slavery and government imposition of market forces are fundamentally incompatible with capitalism; and second, that methodologically the new historians fail to articulate and test “counterfactual” statements.

The fact is, mainstream economists always seek to minimize the role of violence and force in the emergence and development of capitalism and to resort to problematic causal inferences in an attempt to isolate the effects of economic, cultural, political and natural forces within a complex, evolving social totality.

So, no, capitalism didn’t need to resort to “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” over the course of its history. But it did—and those conditions that are often hidden underneath the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” have stamped both its origins and the way it continues to operate today.

Or, as Polanyi (pdf) himself wrote,

the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends.



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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.