The word made flesh… or how I learned to stop worry and love the word capitalism.

by armchairrev

Given the somewhat narcotic effects of the rhythms of the Annales school of economic history, with its penchant for minutely-researched anecdotes, supposedly signifying millions of lives, and repetitious phraseology “means of production…surplus value…internal contradictions” I entered a sort-of sleep-like state, my head drooping over Braudel, my thoughts in a trance, and the reply to Lenin’s eternal question “What is to be done?” seemed clear. Whatever it was, when I regained consciousness, it was gone. Why is it that the piece of the puzzle always seems to be within grasp? It’s like we on the left have studied this phenomenon (ugly word, I know) called capitalism for an eternity—we know why it’s awful; our moral critique is correct, it’s an untenable, wasteful, irrational system, and some form of democratic planning should be put in its place. Are we hallucinating? Is everybody having a splendid time and we’re just trying to spoil it? Is the pain and suffering of being forced by the logic of capital accumulation to treat our fellow humans as beasts of burden imagined?

Reading Braudel I happened upon a passage about the history of the word “capitalism” that I thought I’d share:

Capitalism: a very recent word

Capitalism…has been pursued relentlessly by historians and lexicologists. According to Dauzat, it is to be found in the Encyclopedie in 1753 , but with a very particular meaning: ‘The state of one who is rich’. Unfortunately, this statement seems to be inaccurate; the text quoted cannot be traced. In 1842, the word occurs in the Enrichissements de la langue francaise by J.-B. Richard. But it was probably Louis Blanc, in his polemic with Bastiat, who gave it its new meaning when in 1850 he wrote: ‘ . . . What I call “capitalism” [and he used quotation marks] that is to say the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others. ‘ But the word still occurred only rarely. Proudhon occasionally uses it, correctly: ‘Land is still the fortress of capitalism’ , he writes – and indeed this was one of his major theses. And he defines it very well: ‘Economic and social regime in which capital, the source of income, does not generally belong to those who make it work through their labour. ‘ Six years later however, in 1867, the word was still unknown to Marx. In fact, it was not until the beginning of this century [20th cent. my remark] that it fully burst upon political debate as the natural opposite of socialism. It was to be launched in academic circles by Werner Sombart’s explosive book Der moderne Kapitalismus (1 st edition 1902) . Not unnaturally, this word which Marx never used was incorporated into the Marxist model, so much so that the terms slavery, feudalism and capitalism are commonly used to refer to the three major stages of development defined by the author of Capital. It is a political word then; hence perhaps the ambiguous side of its career. It was long banned by the economists of the first years of the century – Charles Gide, Canwas, Marshall, Seligman, Cassel – and only appeared in the Dictionnaire des sciences politiques after the First World War. It did not receive an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica until the 1926 edition; and appeared in the Dictionnaire de I’ Academie francaise only in 1936 and then with this ludicrous definition: ‘Capitalism: sum total of capitalists’ ( Capitalisme: ensemble des capitalistes) . The new definition of 1958 is not much better: ‘Economic regime in which the goods of production (les biens de production) belong to private individuals or firms’ – what is wrong with ‘means of production’ (les moyens de production)? In fact this word, which has become loaded with meaning since the beginning of the century and in particular since the Russian Revolution of 1917, clearly causes many people embarrassment. A reputable historian, Herbert Heaton, has suggested simply abolishing it: ‘ [Of all] the “isms” . . . the greatest noisemaker has been capitalism. That word unfortunately has acquired such a motley of meanings and definitions that one may justly plead that capitalism, like imperialism, is a term that should be cut out of the vocabulary of every self-respecting scholar’. Lucien Febvre himself felt it could be dropped, since it had been over-used. But if we were to listen to this not unreasonable advice, we should start missing the absentee immediately. As Andrew Shonfield says, ‘one . . . justification for the continued use of the word “capitalism” is that no one, not even its severest critics, has proposed a better word to put in its place’. Historians were perhaps most tempted of all by the new word, in the days when it did not yet have a whiff of brimstone about it. Blithely disregarding anachronism, they opened up the entire field of historical prospecting to it, from ancient Babylon to Hellenistic Greece, ancient China, Rome, the European Middle Ages, India. All the great names of yesterday’s historiography, from Theodore Mommsen to Henri Pirenne, dabbled in this sport, which later occasioned a virtual witch-hunt. The imprudent were rebuked, Mommsen first of all and by no less an authority than Marx himself. And rightly so perhaps: capital cannot simply be used as a synonym for money. But the mere mention of the word seems to have been enough reason for Paul Veyne to berate Michel Rostovtsef – the outstanding expert on the ancient economy. J. C. Van Leur insisted on seeing only ‘pedlars’ in the economy of South-East Asia. Karl Polanyi is full of scorn for historians who have dared to refer to Assyrian ‘merchants’ – and yet we have thousands of tablets bearing their correspondence; and so on. In many cases, the aim of the assault is to reduce everything to a post-Marxian orthodoxy: we are not allowed to talk about capitalism before the end of the eighteenth century, in other words before the industrial mode of production. Well this is really a question of terminology. I need hardly point out that no historian of ancien regime societies, a fortiori of ancient civilizations, would ever, when using the term capitalism, have in mind the definition Alexander Gerschenkron calmly gives us: ‘Capitalism, that is the modern industrial system’. I have already indicated that capitalism in the past (as distinct from capitalism today) only occupied a narrow platform of economic life. How could one possibly take it to mean a ‘system’ extending over the whole of society? It was nevertheless a world apart, different from and indeed foreign to the social and economic context surrounding it. And it is in relation to this context that it is defined as ‘capitalism’, not merely in relation to new capitalist forms which were to emerge later in time. In fact capitalism was what it was in relation to a noncapitalism of immense proportions. And to refuse to admit this dichotomy within the economy of the past, on the pretext that ‘true’ capitalism dates only from the nineteenth century, means abandoning the effort to understand the significance – crucial to the analysis of that economy – of what might be termed the former topology of capitalism. If there were certain areas where it elected residence – by no means inadvertently – that is because these were the only areas which favoured the reproduction of capital.

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