Found the TTC course "History of the US Economy in the 20th Century" pretty interesting, so when I saw a new-looking book A History of Capitalism by Michel Beaud in the library I snapped it up. Wasn't till I got a chapter or so in that I realised this was a Marxist history of capitalism. Don't want to get all Joe McCarthy about it, but I think it would have been helpful to mention that on the cover or in the blurb, or at least say stuff like "a devastating indictment of Capitalism through the ages". If a book is "A History of X by an hardline opponent of X", it would be nice to indicate that somewhere. I suppose the word "Capitalism" should have clued me in: a non-Communist would have called it "An Economic History" or something.
Good points: most economic histories tend to skirt briefly over the disruptions and suffering usually caused by the Industrial Revolution: this book focuses heavily on it, using much more emotional language than you usually see. It also specifically quotes the more ruthless sayings of pro-market philosophers and economists like Adam Smith.
The dialectic of history also makes the book much more readable, since it presents history as a narrative, an entertaining story rather than just a bunch of stuff that happened. Overall, its a much better read than most economics.
Bad points: the book doesn't really engage with conventional economic arguments at all. Rather than dismiss, argue against, or provide evidence against non-Marxist economic thought; the book mostly ignores it completely.
So, we get a couple of pages of Adam Smith, but no discussion of the core element of his theory, that by specialization productivity can be improved, which leads to growth of the economy. On 18th century Britain, at the start he makes much of the suffering caused by land enclosures, and at the end he mentions that agricultural productivity had increased greatly; but he doesn't consider the possibility that there might have been a connection.
Marx gets hagiographic treatment. Ricardo's work gets a mixed review: good to the precise extent that Marx agreed with him. Non-Marxist socialism is disparaged as "utopian" rather than "scientific".
We get lots of traditional Marxist explanations of events in terms of surplus labour and accumulation. There are lots of neat little class diagrams with one-way arrows pointing from the peasantry to the bourgeoisie, where the wealth is generated and accumulates. There's lots of talk of bourgeois "accumulation", with no suggestion that this wealth might circulate anywhere else in the economy: it's as if the bourgeoisie just roll around in coins like Scrooge McDuck, rather than spend or invest.
The increase in wealth in the 18th century is attributed to "pillage" of the colonial world: "pillage" being taken to include indistinguishably the production of crops from plantations, silver mining and direct theft of gold from South American civilizations. There's no discussion of how, say Germany managed to industrialize without colonies at first, and then use its industrialized muscle to acquire them.
The book seems most informative on the 19th and early 20th centuries. The depression of the 1930s is treated with a refreshing lack of US-centrism: it's attributed to the lack of any institutions to stabilize global currencies and act counter-cyclically: the UK no longer dominating enough to do so, the US being unwilling to do so, and the post-WW2 Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank) not yet created.
Beaud is also good at demolishing some myths. For instance, Henry Ford's generous wages are sometimes described as being motivated by altruism and a desire that employees could be purchasers: he points out that beforehand Ford's factories suffered great turnover, absenteeism and retention problems:
In 1913 "Ford required between 13,000 and 14,000 workers to run his plants at any one time, and in that year over 50,000 workers quit." At the end of the same year, in order to add 100 persons to the workforce in one factory, the company found it necessary to add 963 workers.The book is also good at pointing out how the reduction in working hours over the 20th century was generally caused by direct government action, or else collective action by unions; not by market forces or individual workers preferences.
The book was originally published in 1981 and revised in 2001, with a new chapter added to cover that period. Hard to say how much was changed: the original publication date would have been promising for an ending where capitalism is doomed by its contradictions, but Beaud seems less hopeful now.
He describes the period 1945 to 1980 as "Capitalism's Great Leap Forward", grudgingly admitting the success of the system. The 1980 to 2000 section mostly goes through globalisation and the usual anti-capitalist complaints about it: excessive branding, privatisation of the public sphere, inequality and environmental problems.
Beaud sums up by gloomily acknowledging that capitalism is stronger than ever, but manages to raise a faint hope of apocalypse with the rise of Asia.
Given these developments, must not Europe and the West be prepared to harvest the storm whose seeds they sowed while conquering the world for the sake of progress, civilisation and Christian faith? A storm of which we have felt so far only the first squalls...Overall, a surprisingly interesting book, though at times you feel like you've entered Bizarro World. However, it doesn't engage enough with conventional capitalist economics to provide a meaningful critique of it. Has plentiful notes and the information that it cites seems to be accurate.
So, makes a pretty good social history of the negative side of capitalism. If you're a Marxist, you'll probably like it; if you're fairly familiar with conventional economics, you'll probably be interested by it. But it wouldn't really be a good introduction to economic history: too many inconvenient theories and facts are sidelined.
What I'm Watching
Having finished Civilisation, decided to try the next obvious classic documentary The Great War. Another BBC documentary, this one in black-and-white, from 1964 and with 26 40-minute episodes. Didn't realise that the main scriptwriter was John Terraine, one of whose books I liked.
Have watched the first 5 episodes. Seems pretty good and reasonably objective so far, though gets a bit over-patriotic about some modest British achievements. Voiceover isn't too annoying, and it gives a good impression of what was going on. The high point is definitely the interviews with protagonists on all sides. With so many survivors still around, they were able to get junior staff officers to describe what was going on in command, as well as a wide selection of front-line soldiers and some civilians.
The amazon page complains about the graphics a lot: I thought they were intelligible and useful, though they're heavily re-used: you see the same Schlieffen plan diagram about 5 times. Also apparently some of the footage was used out of context, from other times in the war and occasionally with movie footage used. Still thought it was striking though. One particular one was of Parisian taxis, commandeered to rush troops into position ahead of the German advance.
This seemed like a brilliant idea very briefly, but I'm pretty sure is turning into a big mistake.
Trying to get a coworker up to speed with RSS feeds, but she complained she didn't have enough to read. So, I exported my Google Reader feeds to hers.
I assumed she'd immediately unsubscribe from most, go back to her own list, or just give up, but she still seems to be using it a few days later. I feel painfully exposed.
The political apathy of the middle class owes something to the differences in the way 21st-century India and 18th/19th-century western Europe developed. Whereas the growth of free-thinking western bourgeois culture preceded universal suffrage, Indian democracy is nearly half a century older than the birth of an economically vibrant middle class. So, whereas fighting for political power was a crucial element of early western bourgeois culture, in India political rights were taken for granted and are now neglected by those who see their prosperity as a result of their own economic wherewithal. Politics for the middle class is an intellectual preoccupation, not an urgent ethical imperative. Polls routinely show that compared to poorer sections of society, the middle class treats voting and other political activity as low priorities. In a recent focus group I ran with the polling company ACNielsen, young IT professionals dismissed political activity as dishonest, and said they preferred donations to their own company charities as the way to make a difference. The Indian middle class behaves more like the contemporary consuming classes of the west, relentlessly concentrating on expanding its choice of lifestyles while taking political parties to be as bad as each other and non-party politics to be hopelessly idealistic.Cool oscilloscope patterns (YouTube).
Behaviourist electroshock punishments used at special school.
VoxEU: Over-reaction to credit crisis.
The public is overreacting to the current turmoil in financial markets. The turmoil is most likely a situation where very specific problems are spread out extensively across investors and countries and thus the defaults are benign.
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