Monday, April 25, 2011

Capitalism Defined, Part V: Polanyi and the Fictions of Free-Market Societies

While Max Weber founded what one might call the sociological study of capitalism, the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi was among the first scholars to identify capitalism as a fit subject for anthropological study. Following the lead of Jacob Malinowski (whose study of Trobriand Islanders in the 1920s became a classic) and sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies (who developed the gemeinschaft/gesellschaft dichotomy), Polanyi argued that Adam Smith’s economic man, who pursued only profits and personal comforts, was a myth. The primary function of most human economies, Polanyi observed, was to improve participants’ social status and augment their “social assets,” not their store of worldly goods. In pre-state societies like the Trobriand Islanders’, people’s primary economic goals were reciprocity – the symmetrical exchange of goods as gifts, usually in a social context attended by ritual (7-9) – and redistribution, whereby chiefs accumulated goods for the purpose of giving them to followers. The former ethic promoted social cohesion, while the latter produced political hierarchies by tying clients to their chiefly patrons. Neither ethic, though, was typical of capitalist societies; indeed, one later ethnohistorian, Daniel Richter, called redistribution a “kind of upside-down capitalism” because it involved negative accumulation (Ordeal of the Longhouse [Chapel Hill, 1992], p. 22).

More sophisticated state societies, like ancient Greece, medieval Europe, or 18th-century Dahomey, had more complicated economies, but they still weren’t capitalistic. Most produced for household or local consumption, and the trade in which they engaged – which, granted, might be very valuable (like the spice and slave trades) – usually consisted of luxury goods bought and sold by social outsiders or state employees. These societies did employ various kinds of money – beads, cowry shells, gold coins – in trade, but Polanyi argued that they used money as a “semantic system” to represent and discharge particular social obligations, like bride price or fines (190-194). Production, consumption, and trade thus remained thoroughly “embedded” (82) in political or social relationships, and philosophers from these societies, like Aristotle, defined the "good life" as a communal one, where people took pleasure not in material accumulation and consumption but in festivals, theater, political debate, and even battle.

The primary innovation of capitalism, Polanyi argued, was to yank economic inputs out of these social contexts by commodifying them (30-32). The merchants, industrialists, and liberal economists of the 18th and 19th century developed and codified a new set of economic "fiction[s]" (32), like wage labor and free trade, which subordinated previous social relationships to the new imperatives of commodity exchange. They then used the power of the state, first in Britain, later in other countries, to remove all impediments to the commodification and exchange of inputs – passing enclosure laws, creating poorhouses, removing tariffs, and instituting a global gold standard. They thereby created a so-called "self-regulating market," which capitalists and liberal economists believed was natural but was in fact highly artificial and socially destructive. Capitalism, Polanyi argued, created a global wave of ghastliness, knocking down laws, customs, and institutions that might have mitigated its ill effects. 19th-century India saw the destruction of its textile industry and the spread of famine due to rising grain prices; Native North Americans lost their land and went into a steep demographic and cultural decline; and 20th-century African migrant laborers escaped starvation only by losing their homes, families, and culture.

One might argue (as I would) that Polanyi's conclusions are a bit shrill, since he observed in his earlier work that the British developed mechanisms for defending their society against capitalism's evils: trade unions, a protectionist movement, and the creation of a welfare state after 1906. Presumably, other societies injured by capitalism's "self-regulating market" were able to develop their own countermeasures, like the legal defense associations that Plains Indians established to recover some of their lost lands. One might also argue that Polanyi was merely adding another layer of sophistication to Marx's early analysis of the cultural bankruptcy of capitalism. This is in some ways, however, beside the point. Polanyi's real strength lies in his analysis of pre-capitalist economies and his careful differentiation of societies with some of the features of capitalism (like trade and currency) from those that are genuinely capitalistic. In defining a thing, it is helpful to understand what that thing is not; in the case of capitalism, it is very helpful to know that the great majority of human societies have not organized their economies according to its rules.

Quotes from George Dalton, ed., Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (Boston, 1968). See also Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, 1944); idem, "Traders and Trade," in Jeremy Sabloff and C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, eds., Ancient Civilization and Trade (Albuquerque, 1975), 133-154.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quote of the Week


"In France, the bourgeoisie, after the great Revolution, resorted to every kind of desperate expedient for avoiding responsibility - empire, revived monarchy, sham monarchy, sham empire - until the failure of all left them with no escape from responsibility in the Third Republic, and even that perished from lack of a true governing class." A.J.P. Taylor, in The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918 (new edition, London, 1948), p. 138. I don't think Taylor is entirely fair to the Third Republic, but I suppose it was hard for someone who remembered that republic's last few years (in the 1930s) to credit it with ever having produced responsible legislators or capable leaders.

[Image at right: the coat-of-arms of the aforementioned "sham monarch," Louis-Philippe (1830-48).]

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Arab 1848

Except for a brief period following last month's tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan, the attention of the world media has been focused this year on the revolutions underway in the Arab world. Several online commentators, most notably Tariq Ali and Andrew Sullivan, have tried to make sense of this multinational wave of uprisings by comparing it to the European revolutions of 1848, which had similar goals, spread with equal speed through Europe's cities a century and a half ago, and came – unfortunately for the insurgents – to a bad end. As I think this is actually a pretty fair historical comparison, I present herewith a short summary of the actual 1848 uprisings, which has to date been missing from these commentators' remarks.

Of the 1848 revolutions, one may say that they were caused by poor harvests, unemployment, the dissatisfaction of the educated middle class with repressive monarchical governments, and the related aspiration of romantic nationalists to create unified linguistic nation-states. The first rebellion of the year broke out in January in the Kingdom of Sicily, but the real flashpoint for the continental insurrection was Europe's cultural capital, Paris, where in February urban mobs expelled France's king, Louis-Philippe, and bourgeois legislators proclaimed the Second Republic. News of the French revolution spread quickly, thanks to cheap newspapers and widespread literacy. In Italy, insurgents forced King Charles Albert of Piedmont to grant his subjects a constitution and drove Austrian troops out of Milan; later that year an army organized by Italy's princes besieged Austria's forts in northern Italy. In Germany, liberal reformers convened the Frankfurt Assembly to promote a unified German republic, insurgents expelled the Grand Duke of Baden, crowds seized control of Berlin, and King Wilhelm IV of Prussia felt obliged to issue a constitution creating a Prussian Assembly. In Austria, rebels seized control of Vienna and forced Metternich, symbol of the monarchical restoration of 1815, to flee for his life. The Austrian rebellion ultimately drove King Ferdinand, one of the more comically imbecilic of the Hapsburgs (famous for his demand "I am the emperor and I want dumplings!"), to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph. Nationalist uprisings also broke out in Hungary and Romania.

In the shorter term, these revolutions were failures. The new French republic violently suppressed an uprising by Paris workers in June, and in December conservatives and rural voters seeking a restoration of order elected the authoritarian Louis Napoleon as president. He overthrew the republic three years later. The Frankfurt Assembly never obtained any real power and degenerated quickly into a talking-shop. The Austrian monarchy regained control of Vienna and northern Italy, and recaptured Hungary in 1849 with Russian aid. The new Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, held his throne for another 67 years. The Sicilian and Romanian revolutions were suppressed. Europe's bourgeoisie discovered they hated proletarian radicalism more than authoritarian government, and became more conservative. This is all bad news for the Arab world, if the revolutions that began there this January follow the 1848 model.

There was, however, brighter historical news in the long term. Few of Europe's monarchs could ignore the crowds that besieged the continent's principal cities and drove their royal kinsmen from their thrones, and many decided that the best way to prevent future revolution was to grant at limited concessions to the more moderate protestors – usually a constitution and an elected parliament. These concessions prevented uprisings from occurring in Denmark and the Netherlands, and pacified insurgents in Prussia and Piedmont. Several Arab monarchs, including the kings of Morocco and Jordan, appear to be following this example (consciously or not) in 2011. None of the rest of Europe's monarchical governments felt they could ever again afford to ignore the popular will in their countries; gone forever were the days when, as in 1814-15, the princes of Europe could trade people like commodities at the conference table. Louis Napoleon, after his coup d'etat, felt the need to legitimize his rule with popular plebiscites, while Austria's emperor eventually (after losing northern Italy in the wars of the Risorgimento) granted limited autonomy within the empire to Hungary. Admittedly, there is another, darker solution that some governments devised to the problem of popular restiveness post-1848: uniting people through warfare, either foreign adventures (as with Louis Napoleon's new French Empire) or wars of national unity (as with Prussia in Germany and Piedmont in Italy). Let us hope the successors to the Arab 1848 resist the temptation to follow this particular example.

(My principal sources for the above are Michael Rapport's 1848: Year of Revolution [New York, 2009] and the first chapter of Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Capital [New York, 1975]; for a short introduction to the subject, see this article by Kurt Anderson.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where They Are Now


To mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, USA Today ran a cover story this weekend on the descendants of some of the principal leaders of that conflict. Who would have guessed that Robert E. Lee V would be a football coach, J.E.B. Stuart V an orthopedic surgeon, and Stonewall Jackson's great-great-grandson a song-writer? Someone with more imagination than your humble narrator, certainly.

I also wouldn't have guessed that there were still 100 living children of Civil War veterans, but I shouldn't be surprised; some veterans of that war married late and had children in their 70s. These included my own great-grandfather, Willes Bruce (no relation to Bruce Willis), who, according to my sister Corinna's research, was 72 when our grandfather Jack was born. Willes was from Tennessee and was supposedly an officer in the Confederate army. He was born in 1829, when Andrew Jackson was president and work had just started on the United States' first railroad; his son died in 1979, 150 years and 32 presidents later, and nearly ten years after the first Moon landing.