Proposed New Long Term Project: A Very Brief History of Capitalism

April 9, 2010

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posts of my original blog, I initially (based on popular repute) expected Marx to be a somewhat naive, simplistic and outdated theorist of capitalism, whose work needed to be updated and/or superseded in order to bring some long-overdue fresh insight to critical left discourse.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.


33 Responses to “Proposed New Long Term Project: A Very Brief History of Capitalism”

  1. Carl Says:

    Worth doing, to say the least. Have you seen Robin Blackburn’s work on the making of new world slavery? He does as careful and detailed an analysis of the role of slavery in the accumulation of capital that eventually enabled/required slavery’s overcoming as I’ve seen.

    Btw Goffman’s one of my favorites. I find his work dryly witty, and he was doing assemblage of structure from interaction well before the current ANT/OOO crowd had their epiphanies.

  2. duncan Says:

    Hey Carl – no, I haven’t read it – my historical knowledge in general is scanty as hell, that’s one reason I want to do this. I’ll add Blackburn to my reading list.

    Yeah, I’ve been enjoying Goffman. I have some quarrels with him: he treats the social roles he observes people slipping in and out of more or less as given – he doesn’t seem much attuned to the question of why these roles, as opposed to others, would be the ones in play in a given social space; and he has, I think, a tendency to use middle class ‘keeping up appearances’ type interactions as the paradigm his other case studies orbit around. There seems something distinctively ’50s to it, to me, if that makes sense – an awareness of the arbitrary and performative nature of a lot of social interactions, along with a lack of curiosity into the sources of those arbitrary norms. But those quarrels don’t mean I’m not liking his stuff. I suspect that a lot of good sociology is largely an excuse for someone with a novelistic eye to roam around and publish their observations in an accepted academic genre. I approve of this.

  3. Nate Says:

    Duncan, that’s great. I look forward to reading this stuff and I hope you’ll share your reading lists. I want to know this stuff. I also want to know more of the basics needed for understanding the present…!

  4. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nate.

    I probably can’t stress enough the ‘bare minimum’ aspect of this thing. 😛 You’re an actual historian – I’m pretty confident that you’re already way beyond the level of knowledge I’m aiming for. But yes – I’ll definitely put up notes on what I’m reading / hoping to.

    Take care…

  5. Chuckie K Says:

    ‘he treats the social roles he observes people slipping in and out of more or less as given’ – when you get down to it, he’s pretty much of a phenomenologist. Observation, but not actually empirical. What he sees is what you get. Which said, Frame Analysis and Forms of Talk wre invaluable for me. Give me an analtyic and interpretive model, and I’ll do the cultural and historical application myself. Call it low expectations.

  6. Mike Beggs Says:

    Hey Duncan,
    I think this sounds cool too, and I’d be keen to do some reading alongside if you’re up for it. Could start with the classic debates, like Dobb vs. Sweezy and ‘the Brenner debate’. I’m also keen to read more Braudel – I read the first volume of Capitalism and Civilisation and have the other two – awesome coffee table books full of cool maps and pictures. I’m sure there is more up-to-date stuff but I don’t really know the terrain either.

  7. duncan Says:

    Hey Chuckie K –

    Give me an analtyic and interpretive model, and I’ll do the cultural and historical application myself. Call it low expectations.

    that’s funny – and yes, I think it’s right to say that a lot of Goffman’s stuff isn’t really empirical – illustrative, maybe. Which again doesn’t mean it’s not good.

    Mike – thanks. I definitely want to start with that Brenner debate stuff. I think these are the key books [mostly putting them here for ease of future reference]:

    Aston & Philpin (eds), The Brenner Debate
    Brenner, Merchants and Revolution
    Hilton (ed), The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism
    Wood, Origins of Capitalism

    Like I say though, I won’t be ready to start on this for some time, so this is just a placeholder.

    The Braudel is absolutely sensational – I got part-way into Volume III before I had to take it back to the library; hoping to reclaim it soon. I disagree with his definition of capitalism, so to my eyes some of the analysis is a bit off. But it doesn’t matter, the richness of detail and the sweep are just fabulous.

    I’d also like to read Bloch’s Feudal Society, and probably the first volume of Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System, with reference to this period. But it’s all some time off for me yet.

  8. duncan Says:

    [On the Goffman thing, to be clear, there’s heaps of his stuff I haven’t read – and some of that stuff I will – so these are to a large extent provisional assessments.]

  9. roger Says:

    There’s also michel beaud’s history of capitalism, 1500-2000. A short book for such a giant title.

  10. duncan Says:

    Cool, thank you Roger. I don’t know it and will check it out.

  11. roger Says:

    And probably some plunge into Sombart – although my own plunges have so far been oddly dissatisfying.

  12. duncan Says:

    Yeah I guess I should look at Sombart but I can’t say I’m eager to – the Nazi thing puts me off rather. I saw a hilarious article a little while back aiming to defend his work; and I’m like – if this is the defense, what’s the prosecution? He’s clearly important for the intellectual history of the field, though – and he’s I guess interesting as a hinge between cut-and-dried Marxism and cut-and-dried fascism. I should add him to the list I suppose.

    (I don’t think I’ll have time to respond to your latest post for a little while, by the way. Will get to it though.)

  13. Nate Says:

    I want to read all of these books…! *sigh*

    I remember liking Ellen Meiksins-Wood’s _The Origin of Capitalim_ but I think I read it like 8 years ago and took no notes, so I have no recollection of any of its content. Any of you read it? and if so, what do you think of it?

    I also remember liking Michael Perelman’s _The Invention of Capitalism_ a lot, I remember more details about that one better but stiff foggy. If I remember right it’s more about political economists as ideologues than it is about the actual origins of actual capitalist societies.

    I think Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch is a good read, about primitive accumulation. It’s challenging in its insistence than gender and unwaged, typically feminized labor be included in how we understand capitalism.

  14. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nate. The reading list grows…

  15. Chuckie K Says:

    “Brenner, Merchants and Revolution” – this is B’s dissertation, about the English Civil War. Very long, fairly interesting, but largely unconnected to the question of the transition.

  16. Chuckie K Says:

    “Bloch’s Feudal Society” -this also you will probably find disappointing from the perspective of the transition. Basically, he just periodizes the early and the High Middle Ages. Foundational, but dated. For the medievalist.

  17. Benoît Says:

    Severely off-topic, but I was wondering if you’d be interested in a project I’m aiming at a number of the blog authors in the continental philosophy blogosphere. Specifically, I’m interested in developing a mailing list that would act as a “back channel” for discussion across a range of minds, the virtue of which is on-going, long-form discussion that bridges the gap between blog comments sections and email. If this interests you, let me know at what[dot]is[dot]ground[at]gmail[dot]com.

  18. duncan Says:

    Benoît – thank you, that’s a kind thought. The truth, though, is that I’ve probably got enough on my plate already. 😛 (Plus, I guess the stuff I’m trying to focus on now isn’t generally philosophy.) I hope the list works out though!

    Chuckie K – thanks. I was unclear about the Bloch – I was more hoping for a taste of the ‘before’ in the ‘before & after’. If you know better or more up to date works, though…

    Interesting on the Brenner: my impulse, in current state of knowledge, would be to see the civil war as part of the transition? Stuff like this is why I want to do more reading though.


  19. roger Says:

    Huh, and we haven’t mentioned the Great Transformation yet, have we? Although this might already have read. And some of Robert Brenner’s articles about the early modern period, which you have to look around for.

  20. duncan Says:

    Cheers Roger – yeah, I’ve already read the Polanyi, but it’s great and would I’m sure repay rereading. I’ll look for Brenner pieces other than the one I listed, on your and Chuckie K’s advice.

  21. Molly Says:

    Chuckie I thought Merchants and Revolution really relevant to understanding the transition, as a transition to modernity as well as to a new kind of property relation.

    also duncan for a nice handy story from the pre-history to modernity there are Anderson’s two classic works, (_Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism_ and _Lineages of the Absolutist State_) which probably won’t persuade entirely as interpretations, but really leave a nice clear chronicle in your head of the core evolution over centuries from variations on arrangement of strongman landlord and farming folkses to modern ruling class and state apparatus.

  22. Chuckie K Says:

    The Brenner is a very detailed study of the London merchants. Names, businesses, religious affiliation, political commitment. An attempt at fine-grained approach to the ‘bourgeois’ of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Empirical examination of the class/politics correlation. It is not a big-picture approach like the article(s) on capitalism within feudalism.

  23. duncan Says:

    I see what you mean now, Chuckie K. Molly – thanks; someone else recommended Anderson to me, and I clean forgot. Onto the list he goes!

  24. Nate Says:

    I’ve been meaning for years to dig into the world systems folk seriously (I’ve read I think an article each by Arrighi and by Wallerstein, maybe two each); I’d bet that they’re quite relevant if they’re not already on the list. This is going to be an awesome project. 🙂

  25. duncan Says:

    Thanks Nate – yeah, I’m looking forward to reading the world systems stuff properly too. I read a couple short books by Wallerstein last year, and liked them a lot. (Not the big one though!) He seems to be treated a bit sniffily on the (real) left, and I’m not entirely clear why – as far as I can tell he’s basically an orthodox Marxist, who just happens to emphasise international inequities between core and periphery, rather than the class struggle within nation-states. I’m sort of impressed how mainstream he’s managed to become, given how orthodox (Marxist) the basic framework is.

    (The other main criticism of Wallerstein’s stuff seems to be that it’s schematic as all hell – which it certainly is; but so is most of the geopolitical theoretical work I’ve seen: at least the world systems stuff is in the right genre – i.e. it’s talking about large-scale systemic social dynamics that reproduce poverty and suffering.)

    (I’m totally withholding judgement until I’ve actually read the stuff properly, though, so this is just mouthing off.)

    & I haven’t read a single solitary word by Arrighi. Onto the list!!

  26. duncan Says:

    NB: FWIW & if anyone’s interested, I’m adding a couple other things to the reading list: The Fontana Economic History of Europe and The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. The former is a pretty manageable series of paperbacks, looks very readable. The latter is an absolute behemoth of a thing that there’s no way on God’s earth I’m reading all the way through – but it looks really good. Volume I and Volumes I-III respectively seem like the relevant bits for the later Middle Ages & the start of the transition.


  27. Mike Beggs Says:

    Ha, it’s funny you mention these. I got the first volume of the Cambridge one when my library chucked out books. And my reaction was the same – looks pretty awesome, with long essays by the likes of Marc Bloch and M. M. Postan – but also, I’ll never finish it. So I picked up the Fontana books – which, I read in a review, were deliberately designed as the time-poor-man’s Cambridge. Reasonably respectable too from what I gather, though apparently the earlier volumes are more coherent than the later.

  28. duncan Says:

    Hey Mike! Sorry not to reply sooner – I only just saw your comment; I dunno if wordpress notification is playing up or if I just missed it – sorry. Anyway, as it happens it’s fortuitous, because I just finished the first volume of the Fontana yesterday, and would definitely recommend it – very clear and useful… with the notably exception of the essay by Richard Roehl, which is an absolutely bonkers (and, to my admittedly ignorant eyes, seemingly seriously underinformed) attempt to apply Keynesian analysis of structures of demand to the 11th century (and onwards). It’s funny though, because it makes one think about how much the default pie-in-the-sky economist’s approach has changed since the book was published (1972). Back then you had weird anachronistic applications of Keynes; now you have weird universalisations of rational choice stuff, or something.

    But anyhow – yes. I’m going to try to slog through a fair bit of the Cambridge, because it really does look good; but lord that’s a lot of book.

    [BTW – I didn’t say before, and maybe no one’s reading, but it’s really fabulous to have such informed advice from you folks. Thanks…]

  29. duncan Says:

    [Another comment mostly functioning as notes]

    Chuckie K was saying above that Bloch’s Feudal Society is dated. Here’s a useful online summary of why:

    Basically it seems that Bloch’s portrayal of the political and military bonds of ‘feudal’ society doesn’t really match up with how medieval Europe actually functioned. You’ve got a highly disparate set of modes of political and social organisation, varying enormously both geographically and across time. I’m unclear if Bloch’s picture works fine for say northern France – I’m assuming he’s getting it from somewhere – but it doesn’t seem to be right for most of Europe.

    The canonical takedown appears to be –

    Elizabeth A.R. Brown, The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe (1974)

    which is an article reprinted in this book

    Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenswein, Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (1998)

    which looks useful all round and is therefore onto the reading list.

    Then you’ve got a much longer and by the sound of it pretty tedious takedown of the ‘feudal society’ idea by Susan Reynolds –

    Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994)

    – which I’m not at all sure if I’m gong bother with, but will at least make a note of here, along with Reynolds’ earlier book –

    Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (1984)

    This debate seems to be about ‘feudal society’ as political structures of mostly military loyalty, however, rather than about economic relations associated with manorial agricultural production, etc. My current state of (so very little) knowledge suggests that Georges Duby is the go-to man on modes of agricultural organisation –

    Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (1968)

    – though again this is pretty old and there may have been multiple upheavals in the scholarly consensus since, for all I know.

    Another (even earlier) canonical but controversial medievalist:

    Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities (1927)
    Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1936)

    The ‘Pirenne thesis’ has generated endless arguments in the scholarship, but I don’t yet know where to find a good summary of the debate.

    Clearly the focus of all this stuff comes a long way before the focus of the ‘transition debate’ – but I’ve decided to back up & get at least a sense of what’s happening in Europe from about 900.

  30. […] back into discussions with international friends, and especially to tag along with Duncan Law’s project to review the literature on the history of capitalism. Published […]

  31. duncan Says:

    Jonathan Jarrett’s blog is an absolute goldmine w/r/t anything early-medieval in Europe, and I should trawl through the whole site systematically when I finally get round to historical work again – but just as a (somewhat random) reminder to self – a recent post where Jarrett discusses different senses of ‘feudalism’ can be found here –

    – along with some useful links.

  32. duncan Says:

    Totally different topic – but in this Crooked Timber thread Matthew Lister recommends Alec Nove’s An Economic History of the USSR, 1917-1991, as good on the New Economic Policy among other things, and Nove does seem to be a prominent figure among British historians of Soviet Russia, so maybe I should take a look (long way off yet, obvs.)

  33. duncan Says:

    Another text to keep track of:

    Drelichman, Mauricio and Voth, Hans-Joachim, Lending to the Borrower from Hell: Debt and Default in the Age of Philip II (August 4, 2009). The Economic Journal, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

    Taking issue with Braudel’s analysis of international credit in early modern Europe, apparently. (Haven’t read it yet.)

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