Sunday, November 16, 2014

The history of capitalism, growth, and environmental limits

The Nov. 24 issue of The Nation has a very interesting, extended review by Timothy Shenk of a number of recent books on the history of capitalism. Given that environmental history is now intensively engaged with the topic of capitalism, that legal historians are also part of the new school, and that the emerging history of environmental law gives a prominent place to the industrial revolution and capitalism, I think this is a central topic for readers of this blog. Shenk writes:
Mostly young, and mostly specializing in the history of the United States, historians of capitalism are one part of a broader revival in political economy. Yet the success enjoyed by this segment of a larger groundswell remains noteworthy—and surprising. Despite the seeming predictability of the subject’s popularity at a time when economic issues have moved to the forefront of public debate, turning capitalism into the central category of historical analysis requires intellectual sacrifices, pushing some topics into the spotlight and relegating others to the shadows. This has not escaped the capitalism cohort’s peers, many of whom fear that the trend would undo advances made by a generation of cultural historians, while leading to even more scholarship of and by white men. Historians of capitalism vigorously protest those charges, but murmurs of discontent have already begun, and they will grow louder if the field continues to thrive.
Shenk is critical of the new trend's focus on economic growth as a corollary of capitalism:

“The First Cotton Gin,” Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 18, 1869
...the new historians of capitalism have a... complicated relationship with economists.... This is nowhere more evident than in the routine conflation of economic growth with capitalism. Though far from the only subject addressed by these historians, economic growth serves a crucial purpose in their accounts, in which capitalism’s ability to satisfy the yearning for more becomes its trump card. An incentive that has stymied would-be revolutionaries for centuries, economic growth unites communities around the pursuit of mutual enrichment, promises social mobility and political stability, and excuses every sacrifice made in its name. Despite its contemporary ubiquity, however, the idea that economic growth is a necessary feature of collective life has a brief history—much briefer than the history of economic growth itself. Not until the middle of the twentieth century was economic growth accepted as a natural and obviously attractive feature of a modern economy, and even then its reign soon came under assault.
Today, confronting the twin pressures of mounting income inequality and escalating concerns about climate change, partisans of economic growth face stronger opposition than at any time in decades. Even if continued growth were desirable, an increasing number of economists are convinced that a decrease from the last century’s norm will be unavoidable in the century ahead. It is a strange tableau: while economists speculate on growth’s decline, a swath of the historical profession, eager to challenge the tyranny of economists, has attempted to make modernity into the story of economic growth—a story that the economists of a prior generation did more than any other group to canonize. Understanding how we arrived at this intellectual crossroads requires a history of its own. 

After outlining this history, Shenk goes on:
But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.
Yet even if high growth rates could be sustained, the conviction is spreading that declining economic growth might be beneficial, even necessary. Though a departure from the recent past, skepticism of growth is also a return to a historical norm. Political leaders have long sought to ensure the well-being of their subjects, but the conflation of prosperity with a steadily rising national income has a much shorter history. National-income accounts were unavailable for most of the world until the middle of the twentieth century. And once they appeared, their relevance for the general population turned on two factors: the dependence of recently expanded welfare states on revenues linked to national economic performance; and the assumption that economic growth benefited rich and poor—or at least the middle class—alike. The first proposition remains true; the second has collapsed.
While the benefits of economic growth for the average American have become increasingly fuzzy, the costs have snapped into focus. Before the Industrial Revolution, economic growth was held in check by the pace at which animals could labor, crops mature and soil recover from depletion (or unexploited territories be acquired). Shifting to fossil fuels—first coal, then oil—upended that system. Energy previously supplied by immense tracts of land worked over decades now came from lumps of coal formed over millions of years. Thus commenced a revolution of economic time and space, with exponentially rising energy consumption propelling economic growth, a flight from the countryside to towns and cities, and a population explosion. Though restricted in the nineteenth century for the most part to Europe and the United States, that revolution has since spread across the planet. Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s population more than doubled, petroleum consumption more than tripled, and the global economy expanded sevenfold. Meanwhile, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by almost a fifth. That has prepared the way for an as yet undetermined statistic: how far and how fast the earth’s temperature will climb.
A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions. Others maintain that the same combination of entrepreneurial vigor and technological resourcefulness that has averted catastrophe in the past, and frustrated the many earlier prophets of capitalism’s downfall, will come to the rescue soon, perhaps via apps. Those of a reformist bent see these challenges as the foundation upon which a new generation of activists can build a politics that does more than mouth slogans borrowed from the past. They have reason to hope, as two of the most vibrant movements on the left are the campaigns against economic inequality and climate change, one symbolized by Occupy Wall Street, the other by the People’s Climate March. Yet both the skeptics and enthusiasts of capitalism’s twenty-first-century career tend to ignore one remarkable fact: before the twentieth century, the prospect of continued economic growth struck most people as an impossibility. And those most likely to declare the concept absurd were economists. 
There's a lot more in the review. Worth a read.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, this is a topic of great interest to #EnvHist types. I'm currently reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty First Century and C. Wright Mills's Power Elite side by side. I think Piketty's ideas about growth and equality are interesting. But possibly because he's a European, I think he misses the point that it was capitalization of land that really fueled US economic growth in the 20th century. We all remember turner's announcement that the frontier had closed, but I don't think most people understand it took another hundred years before increasing population and the building of western cities & industry turned that land into capital. So in a real sense the US is built on two unsustainable growth curves: industrial (driven by technology but also by cheap energy & raw materials), and land appreciation.

    I don't think Economic Historians fully "get" this, and I'm certain Banking Historians have miss the point that their entire field in the 19th century is really all about a war between the East where the old money was and the West where appreciating land values threatened to bury the old banks under a wave of new money. The Lincoln administration's monetary policy is always explained in terms of financing the Civil War. I think beneath this cover, Eastern bankers managed to eliminate State Banks' ability to issue currency and most important, their ability to collateralize (i.e.. capitalize) land. The Eastern Banks retained a monopoly on this, which made all the difference.