For years, the discipline of economics has been moving steadily away from the real world towards formalized axioms and mathematical models with only a precarious bearing on actuality. Commentators seek to fill the gap as best they can, but in the absence of real background scholarship, journalism is vulnerable to the myopias of fashion and immediacy. The deeper enigmas of post-war development remain in either case largely untouched.
Bringing together the strengths of both the economist and the historian, Robert Brenner rises to this challenge. In this work, a revised and newly introduced edition of his acclaimed New Left Review special report, he charts the turbulent post-war history of the global system and unearths the mechanisms of over-production and over-competition which lie behind its long-term crisis since the early 1970s, thereby demonstrating the thoroughly systematic factors behind wage repression, high unemployment and unequal development, and raising disturbing and far-reaching questions about its future trajectory.
In An Economic Theory of the Feudal System, published in 1976 by Verso in a translation by Lawrence Garner, Witold Kula constructs a model of the Polish economy as it developed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Introducing the book, Fernand Braudel wrote:
Kula's demonstration proceeds step by step. It analyses the very dynamic of the feudal economy, and its functional possibilities for the seigneurial economy oriented towards the export trade; for the peasant plots which sought to produce a surplus for the local market; for the craft guilds with their difficulties in a relatively unurbanized society. Numerous Polish monographs-studies of production and prices-provide documentation for Kula's hypotheses. His model is then submitted to the test of the "long-term dynamic.” The problem for it is to ascertain “the constant or recurrent phenomena whose cumulative action determined structural transformations.” For each of the parties to the system, nearly always unconsciously, by merely adapting their historical calculations to changing economic or political conjunctures, to their particular situation, to the resistances of the others, eventually falsified the inter-play of the system and altered the model so much that in the end it disintegrated. Thus from 1820 to 1860 the whole system was overthrown in a Poland that remained “feudal,” yet where the landowners had become capitalist entrepreneurs whose behaviour would have been aberrant and impossible in 1780 or so.In the excerpt below, Kula defends the concept of an "economic system" and the theorization therof.
Kula demonstrates the possibility of sudden ruptures in an economic model, once its resilience has been tried too repeatedly by a number of contradictions working in the same direction — contradictions some of which may be internal or inherent to the system itself, and others external and sometimes unpredictable (for example, the halt of European purchases of Polish cereals during the Continental System). His analysis of these is unerringly subtle and logical.
Kula's work is thus an example of a Marxist problematic mastered, assimilated and elevated to the level of a lucid and intelligent humanism, and a broad explanation of the evolution of the collective destiny of men. All the findings of Polish and non-Polish economic and historical research are gathered here in an effort of objective and patient reflection, of unusual intellectual honesty. The subject of this book — in effect, underdevelopment in modern history — is of such great interest that this novel approach to it, at once very general in its analysis of a phenomenon of long duration, and very concrete in its account of the daily economic calculations of peasant, lord, magnate or squire, is an important event for historians.
"If I told you eight years ago that America would reverse the great recession, reboot the auto industry, and unleash the greatest stretch of job creation in our history ... you might have said our sights were set a little too high." Thus boasted the former US president Barack Obama in his farewell address. But is the financial crisis really behind us? Has the strategy implemented to save the banks not, on the contrary, created the conditions for the next conflagration? Cédric Durandwrites.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the February 2017 Le Monde diplomatique. Translated by David Broder.
Figure 1: GDP growth in the advanced economies
Happy anniversary! On 2 April 2007, New Century Financial Corporation entered into liquidation. The collapse of this US real estate investment company — the second biggest provider of the now-infamous subprime mortgages — fired the starting gun on a financial crisis bigger than any the world had seen since 1929. Ten years on, capitalism is still yet to recover from this major shock. Growth is sluggish, under-employment endemic and the extreme monetary policies implement by central banks are reaching their limits.
This post first appeared at Research & Destroy.
We can imagine a person slowly becoming aware that he is the subject of catastrophe. The form of consciousness might be likened to someone peering out the window of a plane. They have been aboard for a long time, years, decades. From cruising altitude the landscape below scrolls past evenly, somewhat abstracted. The stabilizing mechanisms of eye and brain smooth the scene. Perhaps they are somewhere above the upper midwest. Their knowledge of the miseries that have seized flyover country hovers at the periphery of a becalmed boredom. Steady hum of the jet engines, sense of stillness. Borne by prevailing winds the first balloonists detected no wind whatsoever. So this flight. Though the passengers will never travel faster than this they scarcely feel any motion at all.