Capitalism and extreme poverty
September 20, 2022 10:38 PM   Subscribe

A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century. twitter summary

Highlights:
• The common notion that extreme poverty is the “natural” condition of humanity and only declined with the rise of capitalism rests on income data that do not adequately capture access to essential goods.

• Data on real wages suggests that, historically, extreme poverty was uncommon and arose primarily during periods of severe social and economic dislocation, particularly under colonialism.

• The rise of capitalism from the long 16th century onward is associated with a decline in wages to below subsistence, a deterioration in human stature, and an upturn in premature mortality.

• In parts of South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, wages and/or height have still not recovered.

• Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.
posted by latkes (53 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder where the poverty models would put the Ohlone people of current day San Francisco bay who lived off oysters in that pristine and bountiful place before the Europeans arrived. Not sure I would feel impoverished with their life.
posted by grubby at 11:12 PM on September 20 [2 favorites]


Since the Industrial Revolution, the standard of living has risen dramatically across the globe. The number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased from over 40% in 1800 to less than 10% today. This trend has continued even after the 2008 financial crisis.

This study shows how capitalism has been associated with increased life expectancy and reduced child mortality rates over the last four centuries. However, it also highlights the fact that these gains have not been evenly distributed across countries and regions.
posted by Pickon at 11:25 PM on September 20 [6 favorites]


This pairs nicely with news of another recent, eye-watering report: Number of global ultra high net worth individuals hits record high
posted by progosk at 11:36 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]


Pickon, they use other metrics in their analysis.

I think you've also got to factor as 'not evenly distributed' both: the amplifying effect on life expectancy of free-at-point-of-use (or social safety net) healthcare, and the drains on life expectancy of being inheritors of your place in society after previous generations were trafficked for their labour.
posted by k3ninho at 11:52 PM on September 20 [9 favorites]


The Financial Times had an article the other day, looking at the differences in standards of living across different income brackets in several countries. I was surprised at the fact that the poorest 5% in Britain was significantly worse off than the poorest 5% in Slovenia, a poorer country overall.
posted by Harald74 at 1:37 AM on September 21 [13 favorites]


This seems like a cool study, thanks. My impression is that there's an over representation of Panglossian pro-capitalism writing out there, but we should also be careful about holding this article up as proof that capitalism=bad. As they do in the article, we need to tease apart the various aspects of e.g. population growth, technology, and inequality, rather than making blanket normative statements.
posted by Alex404 at 2:07 AM on September 21 [4 favorites]


So its arguing against capitalism but taking no account of the concurrent rise in population density resulting in a need for a greater efficiecy of production and the iterative progessions of technology that increased it? You know all those fat capitlist back then were just keeping all the grain in a vault to swim in. It really is something that lasts once it is harvested. We know this because well planned econimies have never resulted in famine. It would take such a great leap to think that they would.
posted by 517 at 2:26 AM on September 21 [2 favorites]


You know all those fat capitlist back then were just keeping all the grain in a vault to swim in.

Controlling price by holding large quantities of commodities in storage is a common way for the private sector to maintain profits — and it is often aided by governments to do so. Wheat, olive oil, maple syrup, you name it, it can be stored. Swimming in it may not be a good idea, however.
posted by UN at 3:14 AM on September 21 [14 favorites]






I like how the folks jumping in to reflexively and uncritically defend capitalism here have clearly not read the entire post, let alone the links.

(* For sarcastic versions of “like”.)
posted by eviemath at 3:41 AM on September 21 [31 favorites]


I know why height is used as an indicator in population wide studies, but as a short person, it cracks me up to think that my lack of height is concerning on par with low wages and reduced life expectancy. Short people got no reason to live, heh.
posted by the primroses were over at 4:42 AM on September 21 [7 favorites]


It makes sense. Capitalism loves to create externalities and memory holes to make the numbers work. You use slavery or a colony or a sacrifice zone to make your numbers, then try to make everyone forget about those people, and condemn them for their poverty.
posted by eustatic at 4:44 AM on September 21 [14 favorites]


This reminds me of a post I did a while back about the dramatic drop in real wages across Europe in the mid-1500s that didn't let up until the mid-1800s. There was discussion about why the drop might've happened; I'm looking forward to reading this paper to fill in more of the gaps in my understanding of that.

(As far as I can tell the rise of real wages in Europe at the end of the 1800s seemed to mostly be associated with the building of large railroad networks, greater extraction of goods from colonial empires, and - the part which led to all that wealth being shared around - changing military strategies which required large numbers of healthy citizens who liked their governments. But I'm sure there's lots more to it than that.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:56 AM on September 21 [9 favorites]


It appears that the whole world is Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts writ small - that it's always about elites causing suffering and death by relocating the sufficient local resources to other places where they can be used for profit while telling the locals that they are immoral for wanting, eg, enough to eat.

In re stored food and government power - I was just reading an article about food aid distribution in Haiti, which had really been not so much food aid distribution as food aid hoarding by corrupt wealthy cronies of the government. Food aid capture by elites, who then hoard it to keep prices high or to reward supporters, is pretty common. And of course food aid itself is a political tool - sending back to the countries that have been looted over the past couple of centuries a fraction of the food they would have if they were not trapped in extractive relationships.

Obviously food aid is hard to distribute without crashing markets, etc, and obviously many people have a sincere interest in not letting others literally starve. But a feature of contemporary capitalism definitely is the hoarding of grain while people starve outside.
posted by Frowner at 5:52 AM on September 21 [14 favorites]


Skimming the abstract will give you all the takeaways you need from this article, but the in-depth analysis is also a really good read. Notably, it absolutely skewers the methodology that begat Steven Pinker's execrable Enlightenment Now, one of the more popular odes to capitalism in recent years:
Similarly, Indian GDP per capita increased by 27% from 1870 to 1921 (Bolt & van Zanden, 2020). Yet during that time, British colonial policy induced serial famines that killed tens of millions of people, with life expectancy collapsing by 20%, “a deterioration in human health probably without precedent in the subcontinent’s long history of war and invasion” (Davis, 2002, p. 312). GDP data obscures this immiseration and implies instead a significant improvement in welfare.
I'm no economist, so maybe I'm reading too much into this, but in any other discipline that paragraph would be the equivalent of removing one's glove to slap the other author in the face with it. And there are like four more of them in the first section alone.

It's probably not going to change the narrative, but damn do I love me some vicious academic takedowns of idiotic right-wing talking points.
posted by Mayor West at 6:23 AM on September 21 [27 favorites]


...that it's always about elites causing suffering and death by relocating the sufficient local resources to other places where they can be used for profit while telling the locals that they are immoral for wanting, eg, enough to eat.

But this is kind of the point, isn't it? The problem is about power, not about capitalism per se. To quote from the post,

Where progress has occurred, significant improvements in human welfare began only around the 20th century. These gains coincide with the rise of anti-colonial and socialist political movements.

To paint with a huge brush, to the extent that we have access to extreme abundance, inequality and poverty are political problems, rather than economic ones. Capitalism certainly has ways in which it accumulates power, but I don't know of any economic system that doesn't. And capitalism does seem good at producing abundance, which is rather nice, environmental externalities aside.

Our contemporary problem is rather that our political (democratic) institutions have been eroded by those who have accumulated power under the capitalist system. As mentioned in the article, these power dynamics have been successfully reigned in in the past. I suppose where you lay on the left comes down in large part to whether you think that it's possible to reign it in again, or whether we need a full scale revolution.
posted by Alex404 at 6:23 AM on September 21 [3 favorites]


Although from the twitter thread, they mention:

I should emphasize that by capitalism here we do not mean a generic system of markets and trade. It is a world-system where production is organized around elite accumulation and corporate power, which involves "core" states subordinating and extracting from "peripheral" regions.

I guess I'm inclined to mean the former by capitalism, and a lot of people are inclined to mean the latter. I'm certainly no expert in this area, and am open to being wrong, but I still think this collapses the notion of capitalism and power together in a way that I'm inclined to resist.
posted by Alex404 at 6:56 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]


I want to believe.

But there are odd little things there. Why does capitalism start "from the long 16th century onward" rather than the French Revolution as per Marx, or the Industrial Revolution? Did poverty in China really rise "from 0.2% in 1990... to 24% in 2005"? I would have expected becoming the workshop of the world to have some kind of benefit, and China seemed to have a whole lot of poverty beforehand.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:02 AM on September 21 [4 favorites]


This is a paper that challenges mainstream economic history. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but it should be read skeptically. It is hard, however, to be skeptical about something that reinforces your political priors.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:13 AM on September 21 [4 favorites]


So its arguing against capitalism but taking no account of the concurrent rise in population density resulting in a need for a greater efficiecy of production and the iterative progessions of technology that increased it? You know all those fat capitlist back then were just keeping all the grain in a vault to swim in. It really is something that lasts once it is harvested. We know this because well planned econimies have never resulted in famine. It would take such a great leap to think that they would.

I can't believe I have to say this but capitalism did not replace planned economies when capitalism first spread.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:18 AM on September 21 [4 favorites]


I guess I'm inclined to mean the former by capitalism, and a lot of people are inclined to mean the latter.

Fernand Braudel did a good job of teasing apart capitalism and free markets and showing how they are often opposed to each other, and tracing the history of that opposition back to Medieval marketplaces. One of the things I remember from his analysis: In a free market, information about prices, wages and products is publicly and freely available. Everybody is in the public marketplace talking loudly. Nobody is quietly making private deals off to the side - they'll get censured if they do. Maintaining this kind of free market requires active government enforcement, because there is a lot of power to be had by becoming the person who knows all the prices when everybody else has incomplete information.

This kind of free market broke down as proto-capitalists learned to meet farmers on the road to the market and buy all their stuff for a price that only the two of them knew about. This was handy for the farmers, since it let them get back to work, but it gradually handed power in the marketplace over to middlemen who came to control and profit from both producers and consumers.

Now we're living in a moral economy where the original free market is considered close to immoral. The worst sin at any of the companies I have worked for is sharing client contract details. They are so worried about losing that bit of pro-capitalist, anti-free-market advantage that they don't even share it with 99% of employees at the company.

That's just one example. In general, the point of accumulating capital is so that you can distort free markets in ways that are profitable for yourself.

Sometimes this results in greater production and more stuff for everybody, as when you force other people to defer consumption in order to build capital goods which enable mass production and mass distribution. However, Braudel pointed out that over the long term capitalists have generally been wary of investing in capital goods unless they had government support, since large investments in capital goods tend to be a big bankruptcy risk as markets can change a lot during the lifetime of an expensive production plant. It's why Warren Buffett said to never invest in airlines (and learned a painful lesson every time he did).
posted by clawsoon at 7:38 AM on September 21 [19 favorites]


But there are odd little things there. Why does capitalism start "from the long 16th century onward" rather than the French Revolution as per Marx, or the Industrial Revolution?

This is much argued about, but if Wikipedia is anything to go by they're working in what is becoming a consensus. Once you tease apart capitalism from industrialism and free markets and look at the thing itself - the accumulation of large amounts of pure abstract capital in the service of making profit - you can trace roots back to the Medieval Islamic world and a full flowering in the Early Modern period.

Did poverty in China really rise "from 0.2% in 1990... to 24% in 2005"? I would have expected becoming the workshop of the world to have some kind of benefit, and China seemed to have a whole lot of poverty beforehand.

You might find these guys interesting, if you haven't seen them already. They happen to be very pro-capitalist and very anti-Communist Party of China after having lived and worked in the country for a number of years, and offer an interesting (if not comprehensive) perspective on that question.
posted by clawsoon at 7:54 AM on September 21 [3 favorites]


Indian here. The more I learn about my country's colonial history, the more it becomes clear that colonialism, racism, and capitalism are so deeply intertwined that it is nonsensical to ask if you could have just one of them without the others.

> "well planned econimies have never resulted in famine"

I... what? India's entire history of famine shows that all of its famines - many of which were massive and horrendous - were directly caused by the British Raj, a superlatively powerful and well-planned capitalist economy.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:00 AM on September 21 [18 favorites]


I'm reading de Long's Slouching Toward Utopia right now, and he picks 1870 as the earliest possible start of the period that the economic growth could deliver benefits for the average human, and then really only in the "global north." He repeatedly John Stuart Mill on how the amazing technology of his era has not reduced human toil by a single iota up to that point. Population growth simply ate up the gains prior to that.

So he'd distinguish between the "commercial revolution" that this paper covers, and the period well after the industrial revolution had spread. To the extent that the paper is consistent with mainstream consensus, of course, that makes it more likely to be true.

After skimming the paper it's definitely one where evaluation requires familiarity with the sources. It seems most of the evidence is documentary, and I'm completely unfamiliar with how well that captures distributional data.

A lot of the data is how being the victim of a capitalist countries suck. I mean, capitalism was bad for India in the 18th and 19th and early 20th century, but I'm not sure the problem was capitalism in India. Whereas looking at Figure 5 for Europe, it's not like the take away is that the life of a 13th century peasant was better than that of a 17th century unskilled laborer. Though the famine data is perhaps at odds with that? Goes back to lack of familiarity about the sources. Braudel certainly paints life as pretty grim at the start of the commercial revolution.

Anyway, this is interesting to chew on. Will hopefully see more commentaries on it.
posted by mark k at 8:07 AM on September 21 [2 favorites]


This is a paper that challenges mainstream economic history. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but it should be read skeptically. It is hard, however, to be skeptical about something that reinforces your political priors.

Which is the problem most people have when reading mainstream economic history. ;-)

I didn't really have a picture of what capitalism was replacing and why it tended to be horrible on first appearance until I read books like these:

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas
Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America

They contain small-scale pictures of lives before and after the imposition of capitalism, and reading them helped connect the dots with a bunch of European history I had read. I've known for a long time that the 1600s was an absolutely horrible time to be an average person in Europe, but it wasn't until I read about the same formula (privatization of land, enserfment and enslavement, whips in the fields, guns during rebellions, the accumulation of capital to pay for it all, financial profit over famine relief) being used across the globe over the course of a couple of centuries that I saw that, yeah, this is an evolving-but-coherent system of morality and deployment of power which was used to successfully wipe out systems which were in almost every case better for the people living in them, at least for the first couple of centuries after the introduction of capitalism.

After you suffer through a couple of horrible centuries, then, yes, capitalism seems to produce a better life for people.
posted by clawsoon at 8:22 AM on September 21 [11 favorites]


Splitpeasoup, 517's comment was meant in a sarcastic manner I believe, specifically referencing the famines during China's "Great Leap Forward."
posted by jellywerker at 8:24 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]


A lot of the data is how being the victim of a capitalist countries suck.

Here's Braudel, riffing I think on Wallerstein, about how they're all part of the same interdependent system:
"Every world-economy is divided into successive zones. There is the heart - the United Provinces (but not all the United Provinces) when Amsterdam dominated the world during the seventeenth century; or England (but not all of England) when London definitively supplanted Amsterdam after the 1780s. Then come intermediate zones about this central pivot. Finally, there are the very wide peripheral areas, which, in the division of labor characteristic of the economy-world, are subordinates rather than true participants. Within these peripheral zones, life often resembles purgatory or even hell...

Splendor, wealth, and pleasant living are grouped about the center of the world-economy, at its very heart. There the sunshine of history brings out the bright colors; there high prices, high salaries, banking, luxury merchandise, profitable industries, and capitalist agriculture are evident; and there the point of departure and the point of arrival for long-distance commerce and the afflux of precious metals, respected currency, and letters of credit are to be found. There every precocious form of economic modernity is practiced; the traveler observing fifteenth-century Venice or seventeenth-century Amsterdam or eighteenth-century London or twentieth-century New York is aware of this. The latest technical skills can usually also be found there, along with the basic scientific knowledge that accompanies them...

The standard of living drops a level when we reach the intermediate countries, those neighbors, rivals, and competitors of the center. There we find few free peasants, few freemen, imperfect, exchanges, incomplete banking, financial organizations that are often directed from outside, and relatively traditional industries. Elegant though eighteenth-century France may have appeared, its standard of living was not comparable to England's. John Bull, that overfed meat-eater, wore shoes; but his French counterpart, Jacques Bonhomme, was a puny, wan, and prematurely aged bread-eater with wooden clogs on his feet.

But how far away France seems when we reach the peripheral regions. Take 1650 as an example... With the exception of Canada and the young English colonies in America, the entire New World was a world based upon slavery. In like manner, the outer reaches of Central Europe, stretching to Poland and beyond, were a zone of second serfdom: serfdom, having virtually disappeared there as it had in the West, was reestablished during the sixteenth century...

Since points of view are reciprocal, if the center depends upon the periphery for supplies, the periphery depends upon the needs of the center that controls it. After all, Western Europe transferred - virtually reinvented - the ancient practice of slavery to the New World and "induced" the new serfdom in Eastern Europe as a result of economic imperatives... [Capitalism] would not have grown to be as sturdy in a restricted economic area, and it might not have grown at all if cheap labor had not been available.
It might ultimately be a matter of semantics, but in some sense I think there's a difference between being made a victim of a system and being made an essential part of a system.
posted by clawsoon at 8:31 AM on September 21 [5 favorites]


Is premature mortality a category that excludes perinatal mortality ?
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 8:33 AM on September 21


That Forbes article that Pickon mentions talks about "how people lived before the industrial revolution, when there was no medicine, no antibiotics, no clean water, nowhere near enough food, no electricity and no clean water", which to me, artificially conflates capitalism with scientific progress. It's not at all clear to me that those innovations require capitalism, though some form of energy advance, like what powered the Industrial Revolution probably does.

It also equates lack of money to poverty, which many above have noted is a false dichotomy.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:34 AM on September 21 [3 favorites]


To paint with a huge brush, to the extent that we have access to extreme abundance, inequality and poverty are political problems, rather than economic ones.

You cannot separate economics and politics. They are not independent spheres of action.

A guy I know, kind of a dumbass, posted a mind-numblingly simplistic pro-capitalist message on his instagram, something to the effect of: "No one 'invented' capitalism. It is what free people have always done, trading goods and services for mutual benefit."

As clawsoon points out, capitalism has little to do with "free markets." Capitalism is (at its simplest) a system -- propped up by political power -- in which producers and owners are separate classes: one works, the other profits. This division is enforced by political authority. The "success" of modern capitalism is that it gives just enough ownership to the middle and working classes (anyone can invest in the stock market! you too can be a small business owner and be your own boss!) so that our lives and well-being are tied to the system's continuation.

A lot of the data is how being the victim of a capitalist countries suck.

Well, yeah. Because capitalism requires victims. Surplus value has to come from somewhere.

That Forbes article is... not great. Maybe the book he's talking about is worthwhile, I don't know, but the article itself is facile self-congratulation for CEOs and smug d-bags.

There's no reason to believe that the scientific and technological advances of the last 200 years could have only occurred in a capitalist society, anymore than the idea that the "free market" (whatever that is supposed to mean) always makes the right decisions. Capitalism can be seen as responsible for the rapidity at which certain technologies have advanced, but then again, it is for those technologies which are profitable, not necessarily those that are actually beneficial to human life.

As for why the 16th-17th Centuries as the starting point, I would imagine it's because that period saw the emergence of the modern nation-state, global trade, the Atlantic slave trade, speculative investing, colonial wealth-extraction, corporations, land enclosure and privatization, even the beginnings of "financialization."

Of course, I'm an early modernist; a medievalist could no doubt make a very compelling argument for tracing all of these things back further, and of course, there are roots and precursors to all of these things in the centuries before the 1500s-1600s. It seems to me it is a somewhat (but not totally) arbitrary decision on where to start, determined, I would imagine, by the point at which whatever factors a study is examining reach a sort of critical mass that they can be measured and their effects analyzed.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:42 AM on September 21 [11 favorites]


(I just want to say that discussions like this are one of my favourite things about Metafilter, so thanks everyone.)
posted by Alex404 at 8:55 AM on September 21 [6 favorites]


I was thinking the other day about how we ("we" as a general culture, "we" as people who have an amateur interest in history) know so much about the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, but virtually nothing about the Spanish conquest of every other culture in Mexico.

(As Graeber pointed out, many of those conquests were driven by people trying to repay debts, and invested in by people trying to make a profit, so we're already talking about a financialized endeavour using the same financial techniques that the alliance of absolutist monarchs and proto-capitalists in Europe were using to crush the power of aristocrats. But I digress.)

Anyway... why the Aztecs? Why do we keep telling the story about them? I wonder if it's because they were they only society among all of the pre-contact societies in Mexico who were actually worse and more brutal than the Europeans. So we keep telling these stories so we can say, "Yeah, the system we introduced was bad in some ways, but it's not like the system we destroyed was any better. Like, my god, human sacrifice! Humans lived so much worse back then!"

And so we merrily go along saying "the system" and forgetting - because it's good propaganda to forget - that there were many "systems" that were destroyed, some of them egalitarian and republican long before those ideas got popular in Europe.
posted by clawsoon at 9:12 AM on September 21 [4 favorites]


I haven't had a chance to read the whole paper yet but I'm always SO glad to see someone calling bullshit on Steven Pinker's bullshit just-so-storyism about the present being the pinnacle of humanity (with the implication being that things are just getting better continually on their own and we don't need to do anything but let our betters on corporate boards and at the ivy leagues keep on pushing their agendas forward). He's a pangloss for the modern era, in this, the Best of All Possible Worlds (tm) which also happens to be the shitty dystopia.
posted by dis_integration at 10:53 AM on September 21 [2 favorites]


Also:

Since the Industrial Revolution, the standard of living has risen dramatically across the globe. The number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased from over 40% in 1800 to less than 10% today. This trend has continued even after the 2008 financial crisis.

This is *specifically* the claim the linked paper is arguing against.
posted by dis_integration at 10:56 AM on September 21 [3 favorites]


This is *specifically* the claim the linked paper is arguing against.

I mean, no, not really. It's arguing that things were better in 1400 than they were in 1600 or 1800, so that assessments that start too late give only a partial picture.

It's not arguing against the idea that the last century or two has vastly reduced extreme poverty; rather, it doesn't address it.

I may try a more substantial post later, but there's always been a Whiggian history vs. the Noble Savage tension in thinking at the past, especially for quick takes, which this paper's framing doesn't really address so much as mischievously exploit.
posted by mark k at 11:12 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]


It's not arguing against the idea that the last century or two has vastly reduced extreme poverty; rather, it doesn't address it.

It seems to be suggesting (though not arguing in detail) that capitalism during the last century or two has produced lots of extreme poverty, and that it has only been the addition of socialism in the form of generous welfare states which has corrected this failing of capitalism.
posted by clawsoon at 12:38 PM on September 21


An economic historian weighs in. "Hickel's ridiculous paper is basically a derivative mishmash of shoddy interpretations of EH research." That general opinion is followed by a half-dozen or so specific examples of cherry picked data points and other criticisms.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:31 PM on September 21 [2 favorites]


This "economic historian" is an undergrad.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:33 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]


I am ideologically inclined to agree with this paper so appreciate any alternative takes. Definitely not a field I am equipped to evaluate meaningfully myself.
posted by latkes at 8:52 PM on September 21


(On the other hand, the alternative ideology is destroying life on earth, so while worth hearing critiques of this paper, I am not super inclined to spend a lot of time on the idea that extractive economies and wealth concentration are a good)
posted by latkes at 9:00 PM on September 21 [3 favorites]


Another book I read recently that got me thinking about this stuff:

Serfdom and Social Control in Russia: Petrovskoe, a Village in Tambov

The author, writing in Reagan's 1980s America, has a beef with Soviet historians, and is trying to prove that communal land control (which survived at the village level into, and through, the serfdom era) doesn't make people any nicer to each other. And, indeed, he does a good job of showing that the peasants treated each other with violence and suspicion, with everybody brutally beating everybody below them on the social scale on a regular basis despite the fact that they all got together as a village once a year and parceled out the land relatively fairly.

It got me wondering whether he was wrong about communalism being tied to hierarchical violence. Maybe, I found myself thinking, communal life was relatively egalitarian and violence-free until it was conquered by a violent aristocracy who imposed top-down violence in order to force the doubling of grain production, first for their own aristocratic/military use and later for profit-driven, capitalist-funded export to Western Europe.

The book also talked about the pressure that the aristocracy put on the peasants to reproduce. It led to some of the highest rates of reproduction of any society in history, apparently. Lots and lots and lots of babies. And that put me in mind of Jefferson's "defense" of "Indians" in which he argued that they weren't worthless after all because surely with some changes to their lifestyle they could be induced to reproduce as quickly as African slaves and therefore provide another cheap labour pool.

We talk about endless-growth capitalism being unsustainable, but nowadays we usually think of it in terms of resource extraction and habitat destruction. But before the 1850s, they were thinking about it in terms of maximizing the number of serf and slave babies. Make them have as many babies as possible because more babies means more workers means more land under cultivation means more profit.

Was the same pressure put on freer Western European peasants or industrial workers? I don't know, but I'd be interested in finding out.

In the critique that Mr.Know-it-some posted, Kedrosky says that falling real wages were actually due to rising populations, and surely there's some truth to that. But maybe there's also some truth to the idea he dismisses that "pro-natal policy" - drive your profit-generating workers to have as many profit-generating worker babies as possible - drove some? most? of that population increase and associated drop in real wages?

(Kedrosky says that "real wages declined because fertility rose with living standards", but that seems to be a self-contradiction. If your real wages are falling, surely your living standards are not rising. It also seems to be in contradiction with the common (if not inevitable) case of low living standards being associated with high fertility rates.)
posted by clawsoon at 9:21 PM on September 21 [4 favorites]


Sort of weird that someone getting a BA in Economics would call themselves an "economic historian," isn't it? I mean, looking at his CV he is rather accomplished for an undergrad, but that seems like a med student calling themselves a Doctor. Although, a fine arts student could call themselves a dancer, an acting student could call themselves an actor, a dancing student a dancer... I suppose it comes down to whether someone want to pay you to do it. (oh the irony)
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:35 AM on September 22


Outside of explicitly pro-capitalist frameworks like Chicago school economics, is this really all that surprising?

I mean, if you look at large swaths of the Americas, Africa, or Southern Asia, places that were targets of explicit European colonialism, it seems pretty clear that standards of living probably decreased locally as a result of white-guys-in-boats showing up. And no shit: the guys in boats weren't there to bring the bounties of capitalism to the locals, they were there to extract wealth and take it home (along with, in some cases, the locals themselves, and anything else that wasn't too big to fit on a boat). They weren't even subtle or sugar-coated about it; the purpose of a colony isn't to benefit the colony, it's to benefit the state operating the colony from afar. Impoverishing the 'locals' isn't a bug, it's a feature. Before colonialism, surplus value was generally retained locally; after colonialism, it wasn't. When you extract surplus value from an economy, people get poorer (always comparatively, often absolutely).

Capitalism only benefits you if you can capture some of the surplus value it extracts from labor. If you don't have a seat at the surplus value table, you're getting fucked. Period. You don't need to be Karl fucking Marx to understand that; lots of people on the business end of the musket figured it out pretty quickly—they were just ill-equipped to do anything about it. (And capitalism has some fairly neat feedback mechanisms for dispensing juuuuust enough surplus value to the right people to keep everyone else in line. And if that fails, there are other, more blunt mechanisms.)

This critique doesn't stop at modern settler-colonial states under capitalism, though. Or rather, "capitalism" is a bigger tent than I think it often gets credit for being. If capitalism is the set of tools and techniques for extracting surplus value from others' labor and concentrating it, and then using it to extract increasing amounts of surplus value from labor, its birth wasn't the Industrial Revolution, it was the Neolithic Revolution. As soon as you have sedentary farming, you set the stage for hierarchical societies, including leadership cliques insulated from productive labor, and professional soldiers/men-at-arms to act as enforcers.

What the Industrial Revolution did was essentially supercharge what had previously been a largely regional process. The pre-industrial English were pretty good at capturing the surplus value produced in and around the British Isles (and, from time to time, northern France), but they couldn't realistically exercise control from afar over the Indian subcontinent until the late 18th / 19th century (though possibly they could have earlier, or some other European power could have, if the Europeans had acted as a bloc instead of constantly undermining each others' colonial ambitions).

But it's my view, and I've seen little evidence to the contrary, that once you have a peasant class toiling for the benefit of their lord/king/chief/God-Emperor, you're pretty much off to the races. Capitalism, which is to say the general framework of surplus-value-extraction, takes advantage of whatever technological advantages it has at its disposal in the service of further value-extraction.

That a bunch of Europeans in particular ended up at the top of the global pyramid of exploitation isn't a triumph of philosophy or some particular economic theory, it's largely just that they got lucky, and—like most hyper-rich people (cf. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk)—happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right means at hand, to take advantage of the situation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:29 PM on September 22 [3 favorites]


We "knew" this yes, but I think Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel bring more or different rigor than say when Graeber mentions this.

As I said elsewhere capitalism winds up being the worst offender, but all our economic theories were growthist, especially modern ones like capitalism and communism. Afaik, economic growth cannot really be separated from exploitation, externalities, etc.

We now face deeper transformation from a fecund expansionist species into roughly an island bound species, more adapted to physical limits. We'll have a more zero sum world overall, but it we try then maybe it'll be less exploitative too.

“No civilization can possibly survive to an interstellar spacefaring phase unless it limits its numbers” (and implicitly consumption) — Carl Sagan

We've many pathways to mitigate damage of course, but adaptation always sucks, so it'll sadly all become unimaginably worse before it gets better..

'He looked at me, and with a sad smile, simply said "They will die".' — James G Dyke
posted by jeffburdges at 3:51 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]


If capitalism is the set of tools and techniques for extracting surplus value from others' labor and concentrating it, and then using it to extract increasing amounts of surplus value from labor, its birth wasn't the Industrial Revolution, it was the Neolithic Revolution.

AIUI, until the early Industrial Revolution it was very unusual for the concentrated wealth to be used to increase extractable wealth. It was more likely used for ceremony, for display, well beyond the direct comfort of the rulers. Often it had social-support effects, maybe by mistake, but it used up the surplus. Potlatches, rituals, formal dining that guaranteed cold food but gave six people a job handing platters into the hall. Broken meats at the gates, chantries, almshouses, lots of the Confucian rites.

There are productive improvements for all of H sap’s existence, compounding in that slow-start exponential way. And it’s an interesting question whether that compounding crossed a threshold and caused different mentality, or whether a shift of mentality fanned the compounding.

tl;dr Braudel, yeah! The whole Civ & Cap. Starts slowly but has very good illustrations.
posted by clew at 4:23 PM on September 22 [1 favorite]


tl;dr Braudel, yeah! The whole Civ & Cap. Starts slowly but has very good illustrations.

The one place to not take him as seriously is when he talks about Chinese and Indian economic history, with his assumption of centuries of stasis. He's great on Europe because he had loads of documentary evidence to dig into, but he was finishing up just as serious non-European economic history was starting to take off.
posted by clawsoon at 9:37 AM on September 23 [1 favorite]


until the early Industrial Revolution it was very unusual for the concentrated wealth to be used to increase extractable wealth. It was more likely used for ceremony, for display, well beyond the direct comfort of the rulers. Often it had social-support effects, maybe by mistake, but it used up the surplus.

While I don't doubt that a lot of surplus value was used for ceremony, display, and other status-display functions, some of which had a redistributive effect—arguably the same is true today, in the sense that all those billionaires' megayachts have to be built and crewed and maintained, and their mansions have to be cleaned, their high-end restaurants have to be staffed, etc. etc.—I'm a bit skeptical that it was unusual for concentrated wealth to be recycled into further wealth creation, given the development of complex hierarchical societies that seem to have followed sedentary agrarianism in many places.

E.g. after the development of agriculture in the Near East, which seems to be the place where it's been studied the most extensively (at least, to my knowledge) you see impressively large-scale public works following pretty directly from sedentary farming: irrigation systems which increased the amount of arable land and the variety of crops that could be grown (and moved it away from flood-prone riverbank areas), or extensive terracing in hilly areas, granaries for food storage and seeding of subsequent crops (which tends to lead to increased yields through selective breeding), road-building, mining and transporting clay for high-quality pottery and ore for metallic tools, etc. If you were a Mesopotamian ruler, public works like that are basically your high-ROI CAPEXs, if we view it through a modern lens. (Obviously they probably thought of it in terms of different motivations, like maybe "how do we not all starve" or "how do we keep the peasants fed and not rioting", i.e. a risk-management framework, but the end result is basically investment of surplus into systems that create more surplus just the same.)

There's admittedly a lot of zero-sum stuff, like having the ability to raise armies (requiring food surplus), which then necessitates defensive fortifications if your neighbors do the same. But given that complex city-states did emerge following agriculture (at least several times, independently), it seems clear that these zero-sum activities didn't soak up the entirety of the surplus value being created.

The Industrial Revolution really got things moving quickly, but you can look at the spread of earlier technologies and practices like crop rotation, the heavy plow, draught animals, etc., and in almost every case it looks like the first uses that new technologies are put is to increase value-creation, food supplies seemingly being the most universal (or maybe just the easiest to measure, I suppose).

I guess it would be quite interesting to look at the percentage of economic output being directed towards nonproductive ends, vs. the percentage being reinvested into further production, and whether it's shifted much over time. I've never seen an analysis like that though, nor am I really sure how you'd conduct it, but it'd be interesting if anyone knows of anything in that vein.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:30 PM on September 23 [2 favorites]


This "economic historian" is an undergrad.

Makes him a good fit for for this cohort.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:20 AM on September 25


I've been rummaging around trying to remember where I got the idea that valorizing wealth as display slowed down production intensification for a long time. I'm not, mm, going to get through Braudel again in a hurry.

This is the kind of thing I was thinking of, though the popular article starts it with a different frame: a long survey of landholders in Cambridge, England, at the very very beginning of capitalism, which finds that it's specifically the families that could make "new money" that don't consume it with status display:
The majority of these newly wealthy families in Cambridge gave away more than half of their profits from property. “That’s not because they had to, it’s because they chose to,” said Casson.

At the time, other medieval families were spending their cash on luxury consumer goods such as jewellery, silks and furs, or choosing to live “a wild lifestyle” by 13th-century standards. “Potentially, they could have spent the money on mistresses... but also on things like food and drink. Bills for hospitality in medieval times were very high,” said Casson.

Instead, the entrepreneurs chose to fund places such as the Leper Chapel, part of an isolation hospital for people with leprosy. The building still exists in Cambridge today.
So what I was thinking of was the "other" rich medieval families, the pre-capitalists, whose use of money is hospitality and show rather than anything like re-investment. The abbeys do re-invest, afaik, in England and Europe, and they slowly wind up with really a great deal of the land.
posted by clew at 12:47 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


at the very very beginning of capitalism, which finds that it's specifically the families that could make "new money" that don't consume it with status display

I think it was in Jonathan's Sumption's history of the Hundred Years' War where he talked a bit about how the "noblesse d'épée" was giving way to the "noblesse de robe" during that period. Dudes like Geoffroi de Charny and the Black Prince were well-loved exemplars of the old nobility because they never thought about money. You win treasure gloriously and you spend it gloriously and you don't care if it adds up. You are as far as can be from calculating compounding rates of interest.

A big part of their disappearance had to do with the budding alliance between kings and commoner proto-capitalists. Both groups had a desire to squeeze the old aristocracy. Caring if things added up and calculating compound rates (and being able to survive a reputation as a miserly skinflint) were great tools to make the old aristocracy go away.

I've been wondering if that survival part was harder than it looked at first. You're a family with new money who miserably piles it up and makes everybody around you miserable. You never put on a feast or a festival. You stare suspiciously at every outgoing dollar and every person who's enjoying themself. What keeps you from getting killed? (Especially when there are guys with swords around who are willing to kill you and use your money to put on a feast?)
posted by clawsoon at 2:23 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


E.g. after the development of agriculture in the Near East, which seems to be the place where it's been studied the most extensively (at least, to my knowledge) you see impressively large-scale public works following pretty directly from sedentary farming: irrigation systems which increased the amount of arable land and the variety of crops that could be grown (and moved it away from flood-prone riverbank areas), or extensive terracing in hilly areas, granaries for food storage and seeding of subsequent crops (which tends to lead to increased yields through selective breeding), road-building, mining and transporting clay for high-quality pottery and ore for metallic tools, etc. If you were a Mesopotamian ruler, public works like that are basically your high-ROI CAPEXs, if we view it through a modern lens.

Graeber and Wengrow make the interesting argument in The Dawn of Everything that sedentary agriculture lasted for a long time before growth-oriented authoritarianism got locked in. Communal public works without treating them as endless-growth-generating capital; a political ability to back away from intensification; no extraction of surplus by an unchallengeable elite; all of this lasting for centuries or maybe millennia before the Mesopotamian ruler story that we're familiar with starts. I don't have the expertise to judge the argument, but it's worth a read if this is the sort of thing you're interested in.
posted by clawsoon at 2:34 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Well, it’s in my heap!

The Cambridge example kind of suggests that the "new money" made their wealth tolerable by giving it away usefully, so poorer people and the Church weren’t angry, and not spectacularly, so the aristocracy wasn’t threatened.
posted by clew at 10:25 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


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