Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is Capitalism? has the fourth of James Livingston’s essays on What is Called History at the End of Modernity. among other tings, Livingston is interested in recent assertions that slavery was capitalist. Like many of the people who have commented on the essay, I was reminded of the debate between Brenner and Wallerstein in the 1970s, but I also thought of this from Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


“In 1980 the Soviet Union produced nearly 6 billion pounds of cotton, making it the world’s largest producer after China. These stratospheric gains—production increased by about 70 percent between 1950 and 1966 alone—were only possible because of massive state investments in irrigation, fertilizers and machinery.

                Such recourse to the state in postcolonial and postcapitalist societies was not a return to the war capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” (Empire of Cotton pages 435-36)

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems to say that the rapid growth of cotton production in the USSR and China was “a sharpening of the tools and enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.” It is not just slavery that is capitalist, communism is capitalist. If communism is capitalism, is capitalism a useful category for the analysis of economies?
Clearly, there is a place for the study of capitalism.  If nothing else, we need to try to understand how people have used the term in different places and times. What is not clear is how useful it is as a tool to analyze economic history.

In economics it seems to me that capitalism has largely gone out of fashion as a useful category for analysis. Economists used to write about capitalism on a regular basis (for example, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy; Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom; and Williamson’s Economic Institutions of Capitalism).  Many departments of economics offered courses in Comparative Economic Systems that examined the differences between capitalism, communism and socialism. Comparative economic systems courses went out of fashion with the decline of communism. More generally, it wasn’t clear that traditional notions of what capitalism were useful for understanding big questions like growth and distribution.  New institutional economists generally seem to regard the old categories used in comparative economic systems as inadequate.


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