Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Villains have incredible power to make us stupid.

At Slate, in a review of a book by Harvard historian Sven Beckert, Eric Herschthal, a Ph.D. candidate in History at Columbia University, makes a startling, if obvious, confession:
Less than a decade ago, a historian interested in the rise of capitalism would have a difficult time finding a job in a history department. The closest thing scholars wrote about capitalism was called labor history, the story of the working class. Almost no one bothered writing about the flip side, elite capitalists; to do so suggested sympathy for the enemy. The people who took capitalism seriously became economists (or bankers). Filling the void were popular accounts that celebrated the brilliance of tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and the Rothschilds, or perhaps the genius of the Industrial Revolution’s inventors—think Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. If anything like “the history of capitalism” existed, it exalted entrepreneurs and inventors, extolled the efficiency of the factory and the free market, and suggested that the whole system thrived only in the absence of a regulatory state.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008...The truth is that no one knows what “the history of capitalism” is because its history is just now being written. But if there is any indication of what it might look like, it appears in Sven Beckert’s remarkable and unsettling new book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History....Beckert, a recently tenured history professor at Harvard, has also decided to bring back the elite. But they’re cast, now, in a far harsher light.
Thank goodness we have arrived at a time where the presupposition of capitalists as villains is in vogue, so that academic historians can now remove the protective shield from their eyes and dare to observe them.  And, are you shocked to know what they find?  Herschthal's conclusion:

But the history of the downtrodden has been told, even if it remains incomplete. We need new histories that explain how the system that came to oppress them—in a word, capitalism— emerged in the first place, with all the inequalities, wealth, and violence that it produced. Beckert’s version will not be the final word in this new history of capitalism, but it is an exceptional start. 

Academic historians join a long history of human studies.  My back of the envelope estimate is that 95% of human studies have revolved around the moral superiority of one's god, clan, ethnicity, race, political faction, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Libraries are filled with the tomes of those who came before us - scholars who spent their lives becoming experts about the befoulment of their chosen villains.

It's a sort of example of the make-work bias - the idea that value is proportional to the amount of work required.  But, the problem is that effort in the intellectual pursuit of villains is waste.  Worse than waste, it increases our confidence and our misinformation - partners in crime against wisdom.

So, coincidentally along with the development of capitalism, each generation looks back on the generations before and sees that their working conditions were ghastly, relative to our own.  Those working conditions were enforced by "elite capitalists".  This is a fact that is undeniable.  And, thus, clearly the evidence confirms that capitalism and capitalists are the villain.  And, given this terrible and undeniable history, we must look forward, and cage this "unfettered" capitalism, lest the capitalists continue their pillage.  If you doubt any of this, consider the pre-capitalism laborer.  Few pre-capitalism laborers ever looked back at their ancestors and saw ghastly working conditions relative to their own.  This is a problem we can clearly place at the feet of capitalists.  (To be more clear, the previous ghastly conditions are the fault of capitalists.  The improvements came from the reformers.  This is also a fact that cannot be denied.  The reformers are right there at the front of the parade.  You can't miss them.  Herschthal didn't.  He has eyes through which to see.  He is a historian, which I am not, as I have been unable to view the past without sympathy for the historians' enemy.)

And, thus, Herschthal can write from within a culture where there is a concept of "at-will employment", which Wikipedia defines as:
a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish "just cause" for termination), and without warning. (emphasis in original)
Note that this term applies exclusively to employers.  We have no term for at-will employment, as applied to employees, because the notion is so universal that it would be redundant.  And, writing from within this culture - this culture that is defined by capitalism and in which "at-will employment" is in every way (vis-a-vis one's employer, one's family, etc.) assumed to be a right of labor, contrary to essentially all past human experience - Herschthal can pen this review indicting capitalism for appropriating the institution of slavery.  Yes, the institution of slavery, which dates to the early development of agriculture and just happened to decline on the heals of the industrial revolution.

Herschthal is, I am sure, armed with reams of knowledge which could demolish my criticism in any debate.  He could number the angels dancing of the head of this pin with remarkable aptitude, I have no doubt.  It is to our benefit that he identified the villain in the first paragraph, which should save lazy folks like me a lot of work.

5 comments:

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  2. After seeing what the professor said about the difficulty of finding a job studying capitalism, I wondered if maybe the reason it's now possible is because academics have been throwing the phrase "late capitalism" around for so long they have started to believe in their quasi-Marxist millennialism. Confirmation bias, indeed.

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    1. Sadly, you are probably right. I might expand on this in a new post.

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