Thursday, November 05, 2009

Janet Daley on capitalism and "the human condition" - Vulgar Smithianism resurgent (yet again)

[An e-mail message to Norman Geras that he guest-posted on Normblog. This began with Norm's post responding to a column by Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph.]

Hi Norm,

In your post "The human condition has been around for ages" you nicely picked up on Janet Daley's confusion. If I were a Marxist, I might even go further than mere "confusion" and describe her statement as a typical example of a certain type of widespread ideological mystification.

But in some ways I thought your interpretation of her remarks was actually too generous. You said:

Daley surely wouldn't want to assert that the human condition, with its mix of vices and virtues, was absent from pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations. Did, and do, the denizens of non-capitalist societies not experience such features of the human condition as birth and death, joy and grief, love, hatred, illness, old age, indigestion and that dream where you're trying to get away from some looming threat and your legs just won't move fast enough, if they'll move at all? What Daley means to say, I think, is not that capitalism is just the human condition, as if other types of society might not be the human condition, but that capitalism is the optimal form of society for bringing out the best in human nature.

My guess is that she really did mean to say that capitalism just is "the human condition"--unless it is artificially and/or coercively interfered with. This comes out even more clearly, I think, if one quotes the key sentence from her piece without ellipses:
Properly speaking, capitalism is not a system at all (which is why most of its supporters prefer the term "free market economics"): it is just the human condition in economic form.
You talk about "pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations," but that takes for granted precisely what Daley would probably deny or find baffling--i.e., the idea that, even before 20th-century Communism, there were coherent non-capitalist socio-economic systems that could be seen as alternatives to a capitalist market economy, rather than simply imperfect or underdeveloped forms of a capitalist market economy. As Daley says, capitalism is not just one system among other systems. It is human nature unleashed.

In this respect, the mentality I am attributing to Daley is actually very widespread in the modern world (whether or not the people who hold it could or would spell it out explicitly). And people who think this way have a powerful and respectable theoretical warrant for their perspective, whether or not they are fully aware of its origin.

What I'm talking about is what might be called everyday Smithianism. (This is largely equivalent to economic liberalism, in the proper 19th-century sense of that phrase, but to avoid distracting details I will just refer to the interlocking visions of human nature and social order laid out by Adam Smith in Books I-II of The Wealth of Nations.)

Smith is actually a very complex, interesting, and illuminating social theorist--more than most Smithians, in fact--so one shouldn't oversimplify or casually dismiss him. But in the core doctrine of The Wealth of Nations he did offer one of the most powerful and systematic arguments in favor of the propositions that the market economy and market activity are "natural" and--unless 'artificially' interfered with--also universal and trans-historical, not least because they're rooted in central and trans-historical features of human nature. ("Natural" is the word that Smith himself uses, repeatedly and systematically.) With variations in detail and explicit terminology, these beliefs are at the heart of an orientation that for centuries now has been one of the most durable, pervasive, and influential theoretical and ideological perspectives in the modern world.

This Smithian perspective is important and worth taking seriously, and in certain circumstances it can even help illuminate important aspects of social and historical reality. But, like you (and Marx), I believe that, taken as a whole, it's oversimplified, incorrect, and profoundly misleading (theoretically, historically, practically, etc).

However, it is also important to recognize that for a great many people (including, over the years, a lot of vulgar Marxists) this perspective and its central premises look like obvious common sense and/or the deepest and most sophisticated theory. That is, if you just clear away 'artificial' obstacles to individual action and the free expression of the defining propensities of human nature, something like "free market economics" spontaneously emerges.

(And one doesn't have to go to the Daily Telegraph to find these underlying assumptions. This is a pervasive phenomenon, of which I will offer one small academic example. I've recently been having a small exchange with a friend of mine, an archaeologist, about the latest fashions in the economic archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean, which seem to involve yet another of the perennial resurgences of Smithianism. Nowadays a lot of archaeologists working on such issues--including the kinds of ex-Marxists or semi-post-Marxists who have gone "post-modern"--see themselves as reacting against the kinds of positions they attribute to Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley as those were caricatured in the misbegotten "formalist vs substantivist" debates in economic anthropology and economic history. Both Polanyi and Finley had appropriately pointed out that it is wildly misleading to simply equate "economic" activity with market activity and to treat all past socio-economic formations as though they were simply imperfect or rudimentary market economies. The latest fashion is to dismiss this sensible perspective as 'primitivist', and instead to keep repeating the brilliant point that even back in the Bronze Age one can find examples of people engaged in exchanges, trucking and bartering, using money, and acting intelligently--as though any of that had ever been the point of the argument. In short, straightforward vulgar Smithianism is once again being triumphantly rediscovered and trotted out as super-sophisticated innovative wisdom--or so it appears to me. Of course, I'm not questioning any specific archaeological analyses, which would obviously be far beyond my expertise, just the larger theoretical and ideological orientations that inform how the implications are interpreted.)

In short... does Daley really believe "that capitalism is just the human condition"? Probably.

(Jeff Weintraub)