When I started blogging a few years ago, I did so with a double intention: to educate myself in the discipline of economics; and to articulate critical kickback against the falsehoods that are so common in the discipline of economics. The two tasks were connected, psychologically: I found it more or less impossible to actually sit down and read any economics without my mind becoming a stew of inchoate fury, which made reading very difficult. The expression and externalisation of that fury eased further study, while also producing a set of counter-texts – in the form of blog posts – which could in turn be examined and critiqued and built upon, as I tried to achieve a more adequate understanding of economics and the economy.
This remains the project – I am committed to it – I expect it to remain the principle focus of my intellectual work for the rest of my life. As projects tend to, however, this one has warped and twisted as its grown, such that my sense of the tasks required along the way have changed.
A couple quick stock-taking points, then, before getting on to the main things. First: the most important unexpected time-sink so far has certainly been Marx: as readers can confirm by clicking across to the early posts of my original blog, I initially (based on popular repute) expected Marx to be a somewhat naive, simplistic and outdated theorist of capitalism, whose work needed to be updated and/or superseded in order to bring some long-overdue fresh insight to critical left discourse. That turns out to be completely wrong – Marx is an at times brain-hurtingly complicated and sophisticated theorist, with a to-my-knowledge-unmatched grasp of many many many social/economic minutae; large-scale historical changes; and the connections between the two. Reckoning with and learning from Marx has occupied the bulk of my studying time so far – and there is plenty more still to be done. Here, also – as in many other areas – I’ve been immeasurably influenced by the work of and by conversations with NP, whose important re-interpretation of Capital is still unfolding at Rough Theory.
Second, my sense of the material – theoretical and empirical – that needs to be mastered as part of the general project has grown and solidified as things have progressed. My studies of economics began, as it were, largely ‘immanent’ to the discipline. Since I had, in part, adopted deconstruction as an interpretive practice, I was interested in discovering the flaws and aporias of economic discourse through examination of the discourse itself, and in a re-purposing of the different parts of mainstream discourse to alternative ends. Again, this aspect of the project still stands; but I now have an expanded sense of the extent to which economics as a discipline cannot, in fact, be adequately mastered without considerable use of resources that fall altogether outside its modern disciplinary boundary. Specifically, economics cannot be understood except in the context of social science more generally; and it cannot be understood without some knowledge of the larger-scale historical narrative of which the phenomena the discipline aims to analyse are part.
This brings me to the main point: immediate ongoing work. In the out-of-sight blog boiler-room, I’m reading a fair bit of social theory, which generally doesn’t seem worth posting on. (Zygmunt Bauman is sinister; Erving Goffman is prim; Talcott Parsons is boring.) Going forward, though, I also want to considerably expand my historical knowledge. I’m therefore proposing a conceivably unmanageable sub-project: a (very) brief history of capitalism, to be presented in installments on the blog.
To head off various objections, internal and potentially external, from the start, let me be clear what I’m not proposing: I’m not proposing an adequate history of world capitalist society. I am not a historian; I am not trained as a historian; I have no intention of becoming a historian. What I’m after is essentially a bare minimum (plus whatever additional information and/or understanding falls in my lap as we go). There is, it seems to me, a bare minimum of historical knowledge one can reasonably be expected to have if one aims to hold informed views about capitalism – capitalism being, fundamentally, a historical phenomenon. This bare minimum of knowledge is, it seems to me, in fact possessed by a tiny fraction of those people who actually hold, and insistently disseminate, strong views about capitalism.* I plan to myself attain that bare minimum of knowledge.
What I’m proposing, then, seems to me at least from one perspective as both unmanageably large, as a project, and more or less obligatory. It’s also something I won’t even be able to get started on for any number of months – what with the social theory, and various other commitments. My plan is to eventually – and I think I’m talking years here, though I’d be happy for things to go quicker – produce a pamphlet-length piece of writing that summarises the historical development of the capitalist system in a way that I consider both to be passably accurate, and to hit the key analytic points that should be at the core of any good theoretical analysis of presently-existing capitalism.
* There are some caveats here that I’m not clear I want to work through properly now. Basically I’m not aiming to stop or criticise anyone discussing capitalism, whether or not the discussion is even minimally historically informed. That would be elitist and also silly, I think. On the other hand – actually knowing what you’re talking about does help. There are an interesting set of issues here about different discursive spaces and the kinds of conversations appropriate to them, but I’m not going to address those now.