Political Economy and Culture in Global History blog series – a view from the terminus

by Prof. Joanna Innes (Somerville College, Oxford)

Some reading groups are like pilgrimages: the pilgrims set off together for an agreed destination, sharing experiences along the way. Others are more like inns at road junctions: travellers following different routes meet and converse. Of course, a pilgrimage may also stop off at an inn. The ‘Political Economy and Culture in Global History’ reading group has been more like an inn – though perhaps the group’s founders are a pilgrimage group, passing through.

If the reading group is an inn at a road junction, these blog posts might be thought of as photos left by travellers on a bulletin board at the inn – recording what they’ve seen on their journey, which may not be a journey that’s been shared by other travellers. I’ve been asked to reflect on the set of blog posts as a group. How to review a bulletin board studded with these miscellaneous travellers’ photos?

To find a way through this task, I’ve decided to approach it subjectively: to look at the posts with my own journey in mind, see which photos I recognise and can relate to, and which, though I don’t recognise them, look interesting, showing me places I might like to visit some day.

Canterbury Tales

Woodcut from William Caxton’s impression of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 1484, Meta-Wiki, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The focus of the group has been on thrashing through ideas about how to think big about the role played especially by economic relationships in structuring interrelations around the globe, over several centuries of recent history. My own route to this meeting place hasn’t had either economic history or global history as major themes – though, as someone who’s always operated as a multi-sub-disciplinary historian, I have intermittently engaged on both of these terrains of enquiry and argument. I’ve found both the reading group and the blog stimulating for the prompt they’ve provided to think conceptually about economic power-relationships and the history of the modern world. And to discover, experientially, what kinds of things make most sense to me now when I try to think about these very large questions.

The uses and limits of ‘capitalism’ as a component in this story has been a recurrent preoccupation in the reading group, foregrounded in the Past & Present virtual issue. ‘Capitalism’ clearly carries a lot of baggage, past and present. But as a starting point for thought, it seems to me to have the great attraction – as opposed to some apparently more neutral conception of ‘the economic’ – that it welds together ‘economy’ and ‘power’. In a collection of essays edited by Jürgen Kocka and Marcel van den Linden called Capitalism: the re-emergence of a historical concept (2016), it’s noted that when the word was first defined in the Grand dictionnaire universel of 1867, it was as ‘the power of capital or capitalists’. Though perhaps that personalises things too much. Because when we think about the kinds of power associated with economic relationships we need to think about two different forms of power. One is the power that people obtain by virtue of their roles within the system, power they can direct consciously: as deployers of capital, or (commonly a less powerful but not powerless role) as agents performing tasks on which the performance of the system depends. But there are also other sorts of power inherent in logic of the system: which opens up or facilitates some options, and closes down or constrains access to others. This second kind of power operates ‘behind the backs’ of human actors (to borrow Hegel’s image).

Also deeply embedded in the history of thinking about capitalism, it seems to me, is a preoccupation with the theoretically but in practice not always very distanced relationship between political and economic power. There’s a long history of thinking about the confusing, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t relative autonomy of political and economic domains as a distinctive feature of modern arrangements. The very words that we now routinely use to designate these domains – the political, the economic, the social – came to be widely used in that way, across a range of European languages, only from the early nineteenth century. Though, as so often with language, these new terms gave expression to incipient ways of thinking. Adam Smith saw Europe as having passed through a feudal phase in which force, domination, had infused many human relationships, whereas in commercial society, as he described it, a whole sector of relationships were relatively depersonalised, constructed as relationships between employer and employee, making it possible for workers to experience themselves not as bondsmen but free. Marx thought that the division between the political and the economic was a real and distinctive feature of the modern world but at the same time a kind of lie, an obfuscation. In the new, post-French-revolutionary European culture that he inhabited, people might simultaneously be free, equal citizens, and yet, as economic actors, unequal, subjugated (and therefore not truly free and equal as citizens either).

As I understand it, medievalists now think that formulations like this, formulations which imagine there to have been a preceding ‘feudalism’ which fused the political and the economic, tend to understate the extent to which there was in this earlier time a distinct conception of political power. Still, a world in which jurisdiction could be a property right was one that carved things up differently. Adam Smith saw feudalism as an episode: a deviation through which Europe had, regrettably, passed. What happens if we go back to the Roman world? Is it useful to think of there having been relatively autonomous spheres of political and economic power then? And can we usefully think of their economic realm, if we can think of it like that, as having been in any way ‘capitalist’? That’s one of the things I’ve been wondering about.

So, ‘capitalism’ (my train of thought goes) invites us to think about power in economic relationships, in a context in which economic power is in some sense distinguishable from political power: in which having political power on your side may be enabling, but isn’t the end in itself. (Though ‘state capitalism’ adds to the range of possible variations on this theme.) Beyond that, capitalism connotes some specific way of ordering productive relationships, economic activity. Wage labour is often taken to be its defining feature, but that’s increasingly questioned now, as historians affirm the historic compatibility of capitalism and slavery. And more generally, in an era of gig economies, it doesn’t seem obvious that wage labour is the capitalist telos. Probably capitalism does imply something along these lines, but more broadly conceived: perhaps, the commodification of productive relationships. More definitional of capitalism than labour, though, seems to me to be capital itself. I think what I take to be a broadly Marxist notion — that capital is a particular way, or family of ways, of abstracting and storing and manipulating wealth or value — remains a good starting point for thought in this regard.

So we have a system that’s economic, rather than explicitly and essentially political, and it operates across parts or most of the globe. Indeed, so far in human history only this kind of system has shown itself capable of operating across a huge portion of the globe. This is a way of doing things that makes a global economy feasible. But looking at its operations globally also makes it apparent what a relatively thin (if nonetheless powerful) kind of entity it is. One of the most interesting features of reading for the reading group, as I’ve experienced it, has been reading about the very diverse contexts in which this networked value-storage and manipulation system has operated and operates. It can do this – it can travel relatively easily – because it only needs to coopt people and their ways of lifeup to a certain point for its own purposes. While people in different societies have all kinds of reasons, or constraints on choice, that entangle them with it. Perhaps we could make use in this connection of Habermas’ notion of the life world as distinct from the system. Capitalism in this context is the system, constantly interacting with life worlds, reshaping and being reshaped by them.

So do I now know what capitalism is? No, I still don’t know. And am I confident that it’s a useful concept? No, I’m not confident. But this is the sort of context that I now think I’d want to flesh out more if I were trying to develop better answers to those questions.

Where does this leave me with what I have and haven’t found easily relatable in the blog?

Not surprisingly, given the context out of which they come, it’s the pilgrims’ posts that I most immediately relate to: what Peter Hill and Andrew Edwards and Juan Neves have to say. I’m not fully persuaded by any of their formulations, but I recognise them as contributions to what to me has seemed like the mainstream of our discussion. I’m also in sympathy with Mark Philp’s piece, though it’s written in a more theoretical idiom than I would use. I particularly agree with his resistance to excessive abstraction – even if he does make that point in very abstract terms! – and with his desire to put power into the picture. I’m less inclined to agree with his conclusion that there are many economies and many capitalisms, inasmuch as that formulation suggests that there are many quite strongly bounded systems, though he probably doesn’t mean to imply that. I’m inclined instead to stress the heterogeneity of capitalism and its interactions with lifeworlds, which are manifold but not discrete and countable.

I can also relate to Katherine Paugh’s post. I think she’s right to affirm that if we want to understand how people live in the world, we need to look at what, especially from the 1970s came to be roughly distinguished as systems of production and reproduction, a formulation associated with the argument that women’s contribution will be grossly understated if the role of reproductive systems, in family and household, are downplayed. The question, to what extent these arrangements make and are made by particular instantiations of capitalism is an interesting one. Incidentally, I’m struck that Katherine doesn’t mention the proto-industrialisation literature at all, given that the interaction of productive and reproductive systems was central to that: I’m not sure if that’s because it isn’t global enough to have engaged her or if it’s just passed her by. But I concede that it would almost certainly fall within her category of the ‘wonkish’ and ‘demographic’, insufficiently material and experiential.

Every contribution offers something of interest, and many of them relate to themes in my own work—thus in relation to the economic arrangements that sustain cultural production (Chihab El Khachab) or the role of technology (Eoin Phillips). I certainly endorse Erin O’Halloran‘s emphasis on the need to collaborate in order to achieve high quality in global history. But the other posts don’t relate so much to themes I’ve thought about in connection with this reading group. Among other posts, it’s probably Farida Makar’s which from my point of view offers most. Because it leads us into questions of influence – how to understand what look like similar or parallel developments when these are not clearly necessitated by the logic of the connecting system itself – and I think that’s an omnipresent, inescapable issue in global history. But I’ll end by talking about Tom Cutterham’s post, as the most closely connected with the project as I’ve been conceiving it. Tom points us to a developing American historiography in which the American revolution is seen as needing to be situated in a competitive capitalist world, in which part of what was at stake was Americans being able to determine their own monetary and trading and taxing systems, ‘taking back control’ over their own ships and produce, even as they found themselves cut off from, or enjoying less secure forms of relationship, with important former trading partners, such as the West Indies. The implicit Brexit riff here is mine, not Tom’s. But I think that riff points to a potential (whether or not an actual) problem with that historiography, as Tom summons it up for us. Because it seems to me that this is a very valuable perspective: it’s vitally important to put at the centre of our accounts of the American Revolution the fact that we’re not just looking at a set of backwoodsmen trying to get away from the European world, but at people one of whose objects was to recalibrate their place within it. But this doesn’t mean that we can understand their project – any more than we can understand the Brexiteers’ project – only as an effort to reposition themselves within the international economy, for maximum gain. As in the case of the Brexit project, there were certainly other things going on.

Because if capitalism plays an overwhelmingly large role in shaping the character of the modern world, it still isn’t the only thing that determines it.

This piece is part of a series on Political Economy and Culture in Global History, derived from a collective discussion project of the same name, supported by the Past & Present Society (among others). You can read an introduction to the series here. These pieces accompany a virtual special issue of the journal Past & Present, published in late 2020.

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