Monday, April 4, 2016

Big Think and the nature of capitalism

Jack Goody was one of those rare thinkers that tried to think big. Not common in economics anymore, and less clear in other social sciences, as somewhat narrowly defined techniques take over the breadth of historical understanding. I've only read before his The Theft of History, somewhat iconoclastic book in which he debunks the idea that individualism, democracy and freedom were somehow invented by modern Western society.

I started reading now his Metals, Culture and Capitalism. There are already some interesting things associated to his emphasis on iron, rather than precious metals, in the trade interaction between the West and the Rest. Note that this suggests, probably against the grain of Goody's concern, that the metallurgic advantages of the West, played an early role in the so-called Rise of the West.

But what caught my eye is the following quote:
“In this piece I have covered a long period of time and will undoubtedly have got some things wrong, although I hope my references will usually bear me out. On few, perhaps none, of the subjects am I expert, but the expert does not always see the wood for the trees. One reason for my taking a long time-span is that historians have taken a much too restricted view of their subject and this has prevented them from going back to the commonalities which join us both to the Near and the Far East of what is essentially one continent. For this reason I would question the history cultivated in part of that region, in Europe since the eighteenth, but especially the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the west led the way in many things. They emphasised the development of ‘capitalism’ as a new mode of production in Europe (an idea not limited to Marxism) and have therefore overlooked the commonalities of which I have spoken.”
First of all, there is the admission that to think big it requires to deal in areas that one is not a specialist, and that leads to mistakes. But most of the mistakes are not central to the argument in my view (see for example, the discussion with Brad DeLong related to David Graeber's book on debt; see comments section).

The second and more relevant point is that he seems, as much as Gunder Frank in ReOrient, to suggest that the notion of mode of production is problematic, and that the very idea of capitalism should be questioned. While I find revisionism with regards the timing and the causes of the Rise of the West (including the work of Gunder Frank, but even more Pomeranz and Bin Wong) relevant to understand the limits of conventional views on the subject, both that it happened much recent than normally thought and that demand forces might have played a role, I find the dismissal of the notion of capitalism problematic (I discussed some of that here). In extremely simplified way, one could argue that it's capitalism that is behind the Rise of the West.

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