Yves here. The Real News Network interview below with Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College, is part of a series that examines the power dynamics that undergird our economic system. Unlike most interviews, this one is more ruminative. Rather than trying to deliver some key observations to viewers, this one is more intended to help people recognize that they have blinkered views on some issues. For instance, Prashad points out that India had a very different view of Communism than most Americans did did. They didn’t see it a monolithic system, but simply an manifestation of an approach to social and economic organization and that they could throw out parts that didn’t work well and see if they could come up with another implementation. Socialism has a similarly bad name in America, when in fact Japan had a very socialistic version of capitalism, and that socialistic version seems to be holding up better under the strain of the lost two decades than our supposedly more successful economy (just look at the social indicators side by side if you have any doubts).
There’s a great section in Robert Heilbroner’s Beyond the Veil of Economics, and due to the lateness of the hour I hope you’ll forgive me for reconstructing it rather than digging out the relevant part Heilbroner talks about how it’s conventional to see the coercive elements of the feudal system, in that it was the fear of the bailiff and the lash that kept the peasants toiling. But there is a coercive element to capitalism that we don’t see because we are so deeply part of this system, that people get up, every day, and go to jobs they often hate (or worse, languish unemployed and worry about basic survival). Now before you say, “well that’s just how it has to be” thats’ false. One of the excuses for the enclosure movement in England was that the yeoman farmers had it way too easy. If they could graze their livestock on the common pastureland, hunt, and garden a bit, they could support themselves comfortably, with plenty of leisure time.
I strongly suggest you read this post by Yasha Levine, Recovered Economic History – “Everyone But an Idiot Knows That The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor, or They Will Never Be Industrious,” in conjunction with the interview below. To give you some highlights:
Our popular economic wisdom says that capitalism equals freedom and free societies, right? Well, if you ever suspected that the logic is full of shit, then I’d recommend checking a book called The Invention of Capitalism, written by an economic historian named Michael Perelmen, who’s been exiled to Chico State, a redneck college in rural California, for his lack of freemarket friendliness. And Perelman has been putting his time in exile to damn good use, digging deep into the works and correspondence of Adam Smith and his contemporaries to write a history of the creation of capitalism that goes beyond superficial The Wealth of Nations fairy tale and straight to the source, allowing you to read the early capitalists, economists, philosophers, clergymen and statesmen in their own words. And it ain’t pretty….
Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support.
“The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’
Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.
The interview is worthwhile but, if you are time-pressed, you might prefer reading the transcript.