Category Archives: Historical Interpretations and Methods

Piketty and Marx: Or, why no one needs to read anything

The Charnel-House

Less than a week ago, Jacobin magazine enumerated a list of nine canned responses criticizing the French neo-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Zachary Levenson gave us the guide for “How to Write a Marxist Critique of Thomas Piketty without Actually Reading the Book.” It ranges between Marx and Piketty’s radically different conceptions of capital to the latter’s conflation of derivatives stemming from finance and industry. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a long book,” Levenson writes, sympathizing with his readers, “and you just don’t have time in your busy schedule to finish it and formulate a materialist critique.” Don’t worry, he urges, “we’ve got you covered.”

No doubt: there’s plenty of truth to such a list, conceived as it is in parody. Many self-proclaimed Marxists are quite eager to dismiss the latest fad in social liberal economic thought, and counterpose the trenchant historical critique…

View original post 729 more words

Property Law in America and the Neo-Institutionalist Narrative

The readings for our first session offered me a much necessary corrective to a vision molded by the prevailing economic history narrative concerning property law in America. The neo-institutionalism consensus adopted after the works of Douglass North and Barry Weingast among others emphasizes the need of securing property rights as a precondition for optimum economic development. Economic historians and neo-institutionalist economists  often fall prey to describing property rights as a given, transhistorical reality. Afterwards, these scholars usually debate which legal tradition, common law or civil law, has been more conductive for economic growth (in the style of studies by Andrei Schleifer, Rafael La Porta and Florencio Lopez de Silanes). The works we have read and discussed demonstrated the need to properly historicize property rights, to reinstate the contingency behind their making, to study the local adaptation of metropolitan laws in colonial contexts, before we start thinking about their long-lasting, path-dependent effects on economic development.

 

In England, social evolution brought the need to establish the boundaries between communal and individual ownership, and the same definition of property is a product of civilization, urbanization and agricultural advance (Blackstone 1788 (1915), 716-719). Property in the form of individual, absolute dominion was a central concept in early modern “public law, political argument, political economy and moral philosophy” (Gordon 1996: 95): it is the historian’s task to unravel the ideology implicitly presented in each of these instances.

 

Gordon posits the conflictive nature of property rights through time: how can ideal, absolute property rights confront the reality of “relative, qualified property relations” (Gordon 1996: 96)? Is property as absolute dominion a precondition for the coming of a market society? If this is the case, how does the affirmation of inalienable, individual property rights find its way through the realities of socioeconomic life? Has the main result of the historical ascent of individual property rights a dismissal of other forms of economic organization more viable for problems meriting collective action?

 

The microeconomic concept of externalities might come useful to study the unintended consequences of this historical process. Thinking of the social costs imposed by the assertion of individual property rights through time helps read the evidence presented in both Gordon and Horwitz’s works. Interestingly enough, the neo-institutionalist narrative around the importance of property rights does not posit enough agency in the judiciary element interpreting (and making) the law: as Gordon’s Transformation brilliantly demonstrates, economic historians would do good in understanding that judges were key actors in determining the pace and direction of social change, and ultimately “the nature of American institutions” (Horwitz 1977: 2).

 

Judges were not impartial to the development of the American market economy, and the growing importance of the monied interests had an impact in their activist stance in the dawn of the 19th century. The want of adapting the common law tradition within a system of popular sovereignty derived in judges having to challenge what was “natural” in natural law and becoming in fact “architects of the legal system” (Horwitz 1977: 24). By the 1820s, the change was complete, and law was seen as a vehicle for governing society and promoting desirable courses of social change. Judges were more able then to grasp the problems arising from the transformation of an agrarian to a commercial and manufacturing economy, and as they challenged natural law they also contested notions of natural use in land. Water rights were a main example of this change in the conception of private property rights, given the increased importance of mills, dams and (later) canals.

 

The cases studied by Horowitz made me think of private and public goods, appropriability and access, and their relationship with land and natural resources: further work in land history could gain from qualifying these economic concepts in the light of the historical record. Banner and Horowitz were the most effective readings in challenging my own understanding of property rights from an almost “social physics” perspective to what they effectively are: historically contingent constructions, changing in space and time.

On Comparisons (Scott and Bloch)

Rebecca J. Scott Degrees of Freedom is a fascinating exercise in comparative, transnational and international history. Scott compares the historical trajectories of slavery and emancipation in Cuba and Louisiana, two plantation-based economies which relied on slave labor to produce sugar. Her book is a well-crafted example of how to write the history of similar problems in different geographic contexts. In her attempt to understand the construction of postemancipation societies, political (dis)enfranchisement and creation of political subjectivities, Scott provides us with the “zoom lens” parable (Scott, 5) with which historians can change the scale of the problems they study, to account both for constraining structures and individual actions.

Her use of the term “degrees of freedom” (Scott, 6), borrowed from both physicists and statisticians, allows to study not “agency” as a continuum but varying levels of it: this operates as a sort of Gödel’s principle for historians, for indeterminacy about what “really” happened in the past has the humbling and humanizing consequence of the incompleteness and uncertainty of our work. Scott also speaks of her cases as “complex dynamic systems in motion over time” (Scott, 258), in which we can read both convergences and divergences. The obvious parallels are the initial “macro” conditions of both Cuba and Louisiana and the “individual and family strategies developed by the survivors of slavery” (p. 257). The differences had more to do with the contrast in the achievement of political enfranchisement and citizenship: whereas blacks in Louisiana found themselves trapped by the constraints imposed by former slaveowners and white supremacists, black Cubans found a much more open public sphere in their way towards an including society.
I found in Scott’s book a model of how to establish general patterns that repeat themselves while allowing for individual variances on different levels, a problem that economic historians are usually unaware of, in their continuous search of stylized facts that can be modeled and tested. For the political, social, cultural, racial and ethnic dimensions affecting economic “agents” make them historical actors, with ideas and actions always contingent upon the place and time they live in. Scott agrees with inquiring over the common causes found in both of her case studies, however, she openly warns us against coming with “simple global explanation(s) of the differences in the outcomes” (Scott, 264).
The limits and possibilities of the comparative method are thoroughly explored by Bloch. In his article, he argues in favor of comparison in the craft of history: however specific and microhistorical a phenomenon might be, historians would do well in trying to think of their research problems with the help of studies made on similar issues in other regions and periods. Comparison is a means to question our own assumptions, to discover facts that we had taken as given, to generate new questions about our own problems, and to better interrogate and cross-examine a source “as witness” (Bloch, 48). The French historian also cautions us against finding connections where there are not: comparison might help us find causality, but we have to distinguish between the initial conditions and the actual evolution of the historical phenomenon we study: henceforth, historians should be equally aware of both “the analogous tendencies [… and the] deep disharmonies” (Bloch, 64). Comparisons are most powerful in illuminating “the perception of differences [… and] the ‘originality’ of the different societies” (Bloch, 58). Case studies are relevant to assemble bodies of evidence, yet we historians should challenge our own perceptions of spatial boundaries in our work. The question Bloch seems to make is: have our stories been happening elsewhere?

On Technology and Cyborg Civilizations (Edwards)

A fascinating account that links “the sociology and history of science and technology, […] post-structuralist critical theorists, […] philosophical studies of artificial intelligence, [… and] the interpretive sociology of computer communities” (Edwards, p. xviii), The Close World demonstrates how computers and technological change served as a means to achieve military objectives during the Cold War Era, and in so doing they had larger, unsuspected performative effects on scientific development, political discourses, subjectivity formation and popular culture in America and the capitalist bloc.
The Close World is a superb case study of how to study rationalization and subjectification in a field with a “fundamental experience” (Foucault p. 779), that being cognition and the “human-machine integration” problem (Edwards, p. 1). The book offers a most pertinent example of how interdisciplinarity helps tackle both material and cultural aspects in historical works. By understanding computers as machines and metaphors, and by advancing the closed-world concept as a “closed system, rationally ordered to produce carefully defined outputs […] not only military but rhetorical” (Edwards p. 6), the author offers a compelling case of how rigid disciplinary divisions cannot guide the craft of history. A specialized approach would have disembedded the economic, cultural, military, technological and political aspects that Edwards manages to bring together superbly, illuminating our understanding of the Cold War era by demonstrating the need to study capitalism as a complex, globalizing system that was at the time threatened by the emergence and relative success of socialism. The Closed World embeds technology and its symbolism as fundamental parts of “the social process” (Edwards, p. 40)
The Closed World becomes an enclosing, encompassing analytical framework to study in depth the logic and dynamics of containment and anticommunism policies. The United States might be the geographic area studied by Edwards, however, the forcefulness of his argument, the representativity of the phenomenon he observes, and the richness of the book’s theoretical foundations, could make this book to be included in several fields, those of American, international and transnational history, intellectual history as well as the history of technology and science. I found Edward’s book to offer elements to explain of the theoretical impact of structures, large(r)-scale approaches, social science insights and quantitative methods in different historiographical traditions, namely social and economic history during the 1960s and 1970s.
This is among the best readings we have had in the course so far, and I cannot help but thank Edwards for providing a way to approach and historicize pop culture and science fiction, notwithstanding the fact that his book proves to be relevant to understand the lack of “integrity and authenticity” (Edwards, p. 364) in our present time. Published in 1996, The Closed World turned out to be prescient of the problems riddling our generation. We are in front of an enduring, firmly grounded and captivating narrative, history as it should be.

On Power and Subjectivity (Foucault and Kotkin)

The readings for these week were probably among the most fascinating in the course. Foucault’s “The Subject and Power” is an ideal article to understand the research agenda of this influential French philosopher, centered of the “history of the different modes by which […] human beings are made subjects” (p. 777). Foucault develops the basic foundations for a “new economy of power relations” (p. 779), a theory of power that accounts for its fluidity and dynamics, as opposed to other legal and institutional approaches. In so doing, Foucault suggests that the rationalization of society is to be studied as a process in various fields, disentangling the ways by which subjection and formation of subjectivity are enacted and performed in several aspects of social life.

In his account, Foucault suggests that structures are both individualizing and totalizing. Power is a living, fluid relationship, and it exists dynamically, “only when it is put into action” (p. 788), that can or cannot exist with consent, renunciation of freedom, consensus or violence. Power relations are deeply embedded in social networks. A relationship of power requires and constrains freedom, but it also engenders “a strategy of struggle” (p. 794). It comes as no surprise then that philosophers have to prioritize grounding their worldviews “in a very precise moment of history” (p. 785).

The research strategy advanced by Foucault is brilliantly displayed in Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain. In his study of how “the Bolsheviks brought “the revolution”” (p. 2) to the iron ores of Magnitogorsk, Kotkin demonstrates that at the same time that the Soviet state was asserting its rule, a new society was being created, in the form of a “quintessential Enligthtenment utopia, an attempt, via the instrumentality of the state, to impose a rational ordering on society, while at the same time wrenching the class divisions brought about by nineteenth century industrialization” (p. 364). Not only were Foucauldian disciplinary techniques defining in the rise of a socialist civilization, but the power relationships embedded in the everyday life proved crucial for the emergence of “a set of values, a social identity, a way of life” (p. 23).

On Performative Authorities (Symes and Thompson)

Carol Symes’s A Common Stage is a masterly reconstruction of theater and performed activity in medieval Arras. The author argues that theater in this age was but another manifestation of a public sphere, as “groups and individuals conveyed information, asserted opinion, negotiated conflicts, and exercised agency during a period when theater was open to all” (Symes p. 3).

I was particularly surprised by the exercises in historical imagination Symes displays in her work. As Sean O’Neill points out and George Aumoithe is concerned about, these exercises raise questions on the pertinence of the recreation of experience for the readership of any historical work. My own opinion is that as long as these exercises in imagination are guided by a critical approach to sources, they are but another rhetorical strategy the historian displays in the craft of her work, and thus are not to be criticized in ways different to those we use to study other non-performative parts of any historical work.

Symes and Thompson show the limits of presentism and rigid disciplinary approaches to both medieval theater and eighteenth century crowd actions, for both historical phenomena and the sources they can be described with are embedded within their particular contexts. We would do wrong if we read them otherwise, as Chien Wen Kung rightly points out in his comment.

On Symes and Thompson

Carol Symes’s A Common Stage is a masterly reconstruction of theater and performed activity in medieval Arras. The author argues that theater in this age was but another manifestation of a public sphere, as “groups and individuals conveyed information, asserted opinion, negotiated conflicts, and exercised agency during a period when theater was open to all” (Symes p. 3).

I was particularly surprised by the exercises in historical imagination Symes displays in her work. As Sean O’Neill points out and George Aumoithe is concerned about, these exercises raise questions on the pertinence of the recreation of experience for the readership of any historical work. My own opinion is that as long as these exercises in imagination are guided by a critical approach to sources, they are but another rhetorical strategy the historian displays in the craft of her work, and thus are not to be criticized in ways different to those we use to study other non-performative parts of any historical work.

Symes and Thompson show the limits of presentism and rigid disciplinary approaches to both medieval theater and eighteenth century crowd actions, for both historical phenomena and the sources they can be described with are embedded within their particular contexts. We would do wrong if we read them otherwise, as Chien Wen Kung rightly points out in his comment.