No Need to Choose: History from Above, History from Below
June 29, 2014 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Where does the new inter­est in the “his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism” come from? I’d suggest the following rudiments of an answer. The financial crisis of 2008-09 has clearly placed certain issues of historicization on the agenda. If the accelerated and seemingly unstoppable drive for the “flattening” of the world through a process of neoliberal globalization since the early 1990s has not actually brought us to a permanently unfolding and self-reproducing neoliberal present, but has rather encountered severe structural problems, then how do we historicize this current time? That is, how do we understand the contemporary crisis of capitalism, in all its political and social ramifications, in relation to longer-run processes of capitalist restructuring and their logics of development and difficulty; and how do we locate the history of the present inside a larger-scale framework of periods and conjunctures?

To bring the specificities of the present into focus, I’ll argue that the preceding era, essentially the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, often treated as a ground from which a successful politics of the Left might be rebuilt, was actually a very particular and non-repeatable time. In doing this, I’ll draw on two bodies of argument. One uses the increasingly rich historiography of slavery, post-emancipation societies, and the Black Atlantic, with its challenge to our basic notations of the origins of the modern world. The other concerns the distinctive conditions of accumulation and exploitation now defining the new globalized division of labor of the present, particularly in the deregulated migrant and transnationalized labor markets still being generated at ever-accelerating pace. In this second argument I’ll draw some contrasts with the previous accumulation regime established after 1945 and lasting until the mid-1970s.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (9 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

I'm still digesting this, but I think one obvious thing we in the laboring class will have to face is that if capital no longer honors borders and nations, neither must we when it comes to organizing and solidarity.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:01 PM on June 29, 2014 [13 favorites]

One of my favorite quotes is the unattributable "History is written by the winners", which always made the very existence of "history from below" surprising, subversive, and ultimately doomed, now that the wealthy interests who pay for the Hallowed Halls of Education have figured out what's happening there. Its association with Marxism probably helped jumpstart the interest in Economic History because Marxism is all about Economics, albeit a flawed model of it. It's getting harder and harder to convince people that Everything Is NOT All About Money (but then, today, a larger and larger share of it is).

But I have my doubts about any "History of Economics" that doesn't go back at least as far as Feudalism, which seemed to have perfected Capitalism, if you define Capital as the Land the Nobility controlled - which I, personally, do. Wealth accumulation comes from exploiting the labor of the Serfdom, and occasionally militarily acquiring neighbor lands (mergers and acquisitions). Remember, that 'great document of Freedom', the Magna Carta, had nothing to offer the People in general, it just transferred power from a single King to the Landed Gentry. SO Capitalist.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:37 PM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

"To sum­ma­rize: on the one hand, there are strong grounds for see­ing servi­tude and slav­ery as the social forms of labor that were foun­da­tional to the cap­i­tal­ist moder­nity forged dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tury; and on the other hand, there is equally com­pelling evi­dence since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury of the shap­ing of a new and rad­i­cally stripped-down ver­sion of the labor con­tract. These new forms of the exploita­tion of labor have been accu­mu­lat­ing around the grow­ing preva­lence of minimum-wage, dequal­i­fied and deskilled, dis­or­ga­nized and dereg­u­lated, semi-legal and migrant labor mar­kets, in which work­ers are sys­tem­i­cally stripped of most forms of secu­rity and orga­nized pro­tec­tions. This is what is char­ac­ter­is­tic for the cir­cu­la­tion of labor power in the glob­al­ized and post-Fordist economies of the late cap­i­tal­ist world, and this is where I think we should begin the task of spec­i­fy­ing the dis­tinc­tive­ness of the present. Whether from the stand­point of the “future” of cap­i­tal­ism or from the stand­point of its “ori­gins,” the more clas­si­cal under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism and its social for­ma­tions as being cen­tered around indus­trial pro­duc­tion in man­u­fac­tur­ing begins to seem like an incred­i­bly par­tial and poten­tially dis­tortive one, a phase to be found over­whelm­ingly in the West, in ways that pre­sup­posed pre­cisely its absence from the rest of the world and lasted for a remark­ably brief slice of his­tor­i­cal time."
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 3:26 PM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Once we define working-class for­ma­tion not by the cre­ation of the wage rela­tion­ship in the strict sense alone, there­fore, but by labor’s con­tri­bu­tions to the wider vari­ety of accu­mu­la­tion regimes we can encounter in the his­to­ries of cap­i­tal­ism between the eigh­teenth cen­tury and now, we can see the mul­ti­plic­ity of pos­si­ble labor regimes more eas­ily too.

This was a point I made in my dissertation a decade ago. I felt out of fashion when I was writing. All my secondary sources were 50+ years old. Now I feel compelled to move on from research. Bad timing I guess. A couple of points:

The author and the NYT talk about the world as if capitalism mattered only to the "Atlantic World" (North America and Europe with West Africans). These questions will not get adequate answers without Latin America and Asia.

Throughout he waivers between saying today's labor market is similar to the 18th and 19th century Atlantic slave trade and saying they are different.

They are different. That unfree labor market was heavily regulated and governed by contracts.

I do not share what I read as optimism in his concluding paragraph. I cannot imagine a comparable politics emerging anytime soon in the US. The concept of "labor" upon which socialist politics was conceived itself is problematic. It assumes that individual workers possess a set of rights that they can exercise as citizens. That just isn't true anymore in the US.

I'd argue that China has the best chance of seeing the emergence of a liberatory politics of labor. A lot of capital is in the hands of multinationals. Workers have a socialist lexicon that they could easily mold to their own purposes.

As for the "history from below" comment. The NYT stopped being a serious newspaper a long time ago.
posted by CtrlAltD at 9:34 PM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think one factor is an urge among the centre-left to recontextualize slavery as part of capitalism, which is in contrast to classical Marxism.

Marx believed that society evolves through stages, each more productive than the last: Primitive Communism; Slave Societies; Feudalism; Capitalism; True Communism. Under Capitalism, competitive pressure reduces wages to subsistence level. Therefore capitalists have no incentive to revert back to chattel slavery: they're already only spending bare subsistence on their workers. Whips and chains would just represent an additional expense.

The modern right-wing view is pretty similar: that slavery was an inefficient relic which capitalism helped end. In the US, slavery was an economically inefficient way of hoarding labour on Southern plantations, at a time when market forces should have moved free, self-interested workers into Northern factories instead.

The modern centre-left prefers to see slavery as being a part of capitalism. That helps them reconextualize the abolition of slavery as a victory of the centre-left against unfettered capitalism.

The Marxist view valorized Revolution over Reformism. True change only happens when one system overthrows another. Trying to defeat the relentless economic pressures of capitalism with political pressure to pass laws is like trying to stop a tsunami with a bath sponge.

The centre-left view valorizes Reformism instead. The abolition of slavery becomes a shining example of Reformism: political pressure leading to effective state action which overcame the economic forces of capitalism. If it happened before, then it can work again.

Both the Marxist and the Right-wing views threaten the use of that example, since in both views the abolition of slavery was assisted by economic forces, not a triumph over economic forces.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:48 AM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I measure the readability index of the two extremely-verbose paragraphs at the top of the page as 23. (HS senior is 12.) The question "why should I plow through that munge" makes me wonder: who is the author's audience?
posted by Twang at 11:49 AM on June 30, 2014

I disagree with the assumption that interest in capitalist history is recent and driven by something specific.

Remember this fawning farce from 2002? It predates the collapse and has the opposite viewpoint. Isn't the lesson just that giant worldwide economic crises change some opinions?
posted by windowbr8r at 2:02 PM on June 30, 2014

I measure the readability index of the two extremely-verbose paragraphs at the top of the page as 23. (HS senior is 12.) The question "why should I plow through that munge" makes me wonder: who is the author's audience?

The article is the text of a talk Eley gave at the University of Pennsylvania's history department as part of a program in which graduate students in history choose a historian with broad interdisciplinary appeal to speak on a topic of interest. So...graduate students and professors in history, particularly historiography?

Judging by the list of past talks in the Kaplan lecture series, this particular department has had an interest in slavery, race and economics for roughly the past decade, and it's the second time they've had Eley speak. Presumably it's a continuing conversation.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:14 PM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

The question "why should I plow through that munge" makes me wonder: who is the author's audience?

Datapoint of one: I am his audience and I thought that it was hard to read. It would be even harder to listen to.

The worst part from my perspective is that he takes the easy way out. He "raises questions" by citing a few books his audience will know, but he doesn't commit to a viewpoint or make an analogy or comparison that the audience can explore or critique. He makes a bunch of tentative "we need" statements.

Popular book references + topical NYT reference + "we needs" + "everything's changing" = Keynote address.

But that is not to dismiss the OP. Thank you posting this. I would not have otherwise seen it.
posted by CtrlAltD at 9:11 AM on July 1, 2014

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