One of the most positive trends in the social sciences in the last 30-40 years or so has been the renewed interest of economic historians in long-run analysis. Under various monikers such as ‘global history’, ‘world history’, and even ‘deep history’, the comparative study of economic and social change in the long run has offered some profound perspectives on the origins of our times. Generally, however, the guiding question has been the one at issue in the ‘rise of the West’ debate and the adjacent topics of Eurocentrism, imperialism, technological progress, and colonial ideology. That is to say, much of the discussion has been primarily concerned with the question “how did Europe come to dominate the world?”, and to some extent also the followup question, “when did, whatever it was that allowed this to happen, begin? “.
Bas van Bavel’s recent book, The Invisible Hand?, asks a very different kind of question. This book is not concerned with the rise of the West, but with the underlying economic framework that most mainstream economic historians use in understanding the long-run socioeconomic patterns that they study. Although the specifics differ by author, of course, most of the economic historical mainstream still presents the story of economic history, and with it the difference between poor and rich today, as that of the ‘unfolding’ of the free market. The main disagreements consist of what kind of institutional order was necessary to make that free market flourish in Western history, and to what extent such an order as the Western world has could be adopted by developing nations as a matter of policy. Although there are exceptions, for the most part the working assumption is still that more markets, freer markets, and strong property rights – read: strong enforcement of the power of property owners – were the core ingredients that the Western nations achieved and by which they prospered. Whereas others, failing to achieve such an institutional order, suffered and still suffer stagnation and poverty. It is in this light that these economic historians also read such historical sources on markets and merchants as we have: as analytical and political defenders of what Adam Smith called the ‘commercial society’. Continue reading “Book Review: Bas van Bavel, “The Invisible Hand?””
Since I recently wrote an extended, appreciative review of Zak Cope’s book of Third Worldist Marxism Divided World, Divided Class on this blog, some other radical commentators have provided reviews and replies as well. One of these is Don Hamerquist, who wrote what is in essence a review of my review. It can be found on the blog Sketchy Thoughts. Hamerquist’s commentary was critical of my analysis (on which it focuses more than Cope’s), but in a constructive manner, and has thereby given me occasion to restate and clarify some of the positions I have developed in recent times on this medium and elsewhere. Even though I don’t wholly agree, such focused, intelligent criticism as Hamerquist’s is of great value, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of personal egocentrism or puffery. Continue reading “Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist”
There are times when one encounters a book that is frustrating in a way particular to the intellectual life: that is to say, when one encounters a book that is precisely the book one wanted to write. Given the relative obscurity of my interests, this does not happen often to me, but Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class is precisely one of these. I have harboured plans for the longer term to write a book on the history of the labour aristocracy and its interrelationship with the rise of social-democracy as the political expression of the imperialist rent required for the maintenance of that class, with all the necessary economic and historical detail; in fact, I almost undertook this as my PhD subject. If I had done so, I might well have been embarrassed. Cope has done just this, even up to much of the same bibliography I had had in mind! Be that as it may; these reflections are not to make myself seem important, but to underline the value I think this book has, being the only one of its kind and a real historical contribution to the critique of political economy under capitalism. Continue reading “Book Review: Zak Cope, “Divided World, Divided Class: Global Political Economy and the Stratification of Labour Under Capitalism””
A quick comment may be appropriate on the subject of the so-called ‘rolling Jubilee’, a programme initiated by an organization calling itself Strike Debt. The purpose of this programme is to support debt relief for individuals. This follows up on the idea for a Biblical-type ‘jubilee’ of debt cancellation and nonpayment in the wake of the current crisis, one advocated for by, among others, the prominent anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and many of his followers around the Occupy movement, as well as by some of the post-Keynesian critics of the financial order, like Steve Keen. Whatever the merits or demerits of this proposal as such, the specific form of the rolling Jubilee is worth examining. The notion is here to use donated money to buy up junk debt for pennies on the dollar in the secondary market, and then instead of attempting to enforce the debt obligations, to abolish them instead. The website calls this ‘a bailout of the 99% by the 99%’, and as a fairly original and creative approach to using the financial markets for the purposes of radical politics, it has rightly garnered some attention. Continue reading “On the Rolling Jubilee”
Following a headlong confrontation over the Governor of Wisconsin, the reactionary Scott Walker, and his direct assaults on the public sector unions and their legislative achievements, much of the US left is now abuzz with the resounding failure of the campaign to recall him. In what had been seen as one of the last great revivals of the labor movement in the United States, workers officially and unofficially organized against Walker, even going so far as to occupy the Capitol building and to make the functioning of the Wisconsin legislature impossible. There were massive campaigns for opposition against the anti-union onslaught, and it was seen by many in organized labor as a decisive battle on whether the fight for union rights could be won in America. Laws undermining the public sector unions had already passed without much difficulty in Indiana and Missouri, but were defeated in Ohio. In this way, Wisconsin became something of a battleground, befitting a state which has a reputation for supplying leading politicians of both the left wing and the right wing, relative to American standards. But the Democratic Party took the leadership of the campaign together with the unions, and supplied a weak centrist called Tom Barrett against Walker – a candidate who, as mayor of Milwaukee, failed to even endorse unequivocally the union position, and who had lost the election against Walker in the first place. In the end, Barrett added about 150.000 extra votes, but Walker added 200.000 extra votes, and therefore won by a larger margin than before. For all the union efforts, the Democratic Party nationally put in no real support for the campaign, and President Obama could not be bothered to do more than post a Tweet about it. This despite his pledge, during his own campaigning, that in case of an attack on union organizing he’d “put on a pair of comfortable shoes and join them on the picket line”. Continue reading “Unions and the West: The Scott Walker Affair”