Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Far Left Should Look Outside their Windows and Confront Reality

The Herald, from which I have commented already on Ian Bell’s admirable article, has provoked a lively correspondence from ‘left’ critics of Smith – it is, after all, published in Glasgow, a city with a tolerable reputation for socialist ideas and practices.

Among them, this from Neil Davidson, Department of Geography and Sociology, University of Strathclyde (my alma mater), where he criticizes an earlier letter from James Young, a historian farther to the left than Neil, with a tolerable reputation in the media for robust polemic (the impartial spectator is not managing to reduce his language to something we can all ‘go along with’):

When Smith attacks unproductive labour, he is not making some timeless critique of state employees, but thinking quite specifically about Highland feudal retainers. When he attacks monopolies, he was not issuing a crystal-ball warning against the emergence of nationalised industry in the twentieth century, but criticising those companies of his own time which relied for their market position on the possession of exclusive royal charters.

It is not simply his deep distrust of businessmen (an aspect of The Wealth of Nations which Young, of course, completely ignores); he intuited, long before industrialisation really took off, that it would lead to a massive degradation in the condition of labourers and their reduction to mere "hands". It is this nightmarish (and deadly accurate) anticipation, which he shared with Adam Ferguson and John Millar, that later informed Hegel's conception of alienation, and through him, that of Marx.

Understood in the context of the Scottish Enlightenment conception of human potential, the description of pin manufacture at the beginning of The Wealth of Nations is not only a primer in the joys of the division of labour: it is a vision of Hell.

We know now that the market has not resulted in the realisation of human freedom, but in poverty, gross inequalities and the possibility of environmental collapse, but Smith was not to know this.”

Clearly, Neil Davidson understands something about Adam Smith that James Young has not. However, he is not quite there yet. Smith’s view of ‘unproductive labour’ had little to do with ‘highland retainers’, as opposed to retainers generally. Any labour, no matter how valid socially and useful it may be (or how useless, too) that did not reproduce its cost from its revenue that was sufficient to meet those costs and produce a profit was unproductive.

Mainly because the product of such labour was not sold in markets; retainers, and so on, received a wage only. Those who served at a rich person’s domestic dinner table worked for a wage; what they did was not ‘sold’ to the rich man’s guests; soldiers serving in the army did not have their services sold – they ‘did and died’ for the King’s shilling. This left productive labour, the products of which were sold in markets to earn revenue (the price of their products) which met their wage costs, the rent of landlords, and the profits of the Master artisan.

Smith did not predict that commercial society would lead necessarily to ‘massive degradation’, etc. It was what could happen if society did not act. He advised that society could avert such extrapolation by investing ‘small sums’ in public education, and partly paid for by parents (the richest paying more). The warnings about the former were in support of the adoption of the latter measures by the government, using the existing Scottish model as an example for educational reform in England. His advocacy took until 1879 to come into effect with the government passing the first Education Act.

I think calling what happened from the division of labour a “deadly accurate” anticipation is somewhat exaggerated. Real living standards rose throughout the industrialisation period (despite dreadful conditions in its early years), but the alternative prospects for the working classes were even more dreadful (as they are now in many cases in the developing world – and even worse in the non-developing world with famines, wars and neglect).

Likewise for the so-called ‘vision of Hell’ and the alleged claim that “the market has not resulted in the realisation of human freedom, but in poverty, gross inequalities and the possibility of environmental collapse”. Like a lot of neoclassical economists, apparently, geographers and sociologists do not look outside their windows. If markets have not been associated with greater freedom, I wonder what the non-market economies would be described as, by geographers ands sociologists on any freedom index they care to devise.

The problem with poverty is the absence of markets, not their working. From the wealth created by market operations, the solution to ‘environmental collapse’ will be found and paid for, should the ‘possibility’ become the actuality. There is no other source for the resources needed. Manna and the money equivalent of the goods, technology and knowledge are not going to arrive from ‘heaven’ – they never have in the past, and none of Kim in North Korea, Castro in Cuba, Chavez in Venezuela, nor Migabe in Zimbabwe, are going to do it either.

And this is the real agenda of those on the left, who in 19th century claimed that markets would lead to the immiseration of the labouring poor and the affluence of only the rich– it didn’t – are now claiming in the 21st century that markets will lead to environmental collapse because the vast majority of the people living in the developed world are affluent, not poor. I do not expect either James Young or Neil Davidson to see a contradiction in their stances.

The other day I was looking at my grandfather’s 1880 birth certificate from Ayr, whose father, Alexander Kennedy, is listed as ‘coal miner’. My grandfather also became a coal miner in the early 1900s. He was called Gavin and I was called after him. By all accounts, my grandfather’s working life was tough – coal mines were no place for the ‘weak’ – and he sometimes quoted lines about his experiences for some years he spent in Canada, before returning to the pits in Scotland: ‘This is the law of the Yukon, where the strong shall thrive, and the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.’

Now, my son, called ‘Gavin Alexander’, works with computers in a bank. The pits have long gone. His office is air conditioned and well-lit, he lives in flat he owns not far from where my grandparents lived in Edinburgh (they paid rent for years and never owned anything but the clothes they wore and the bits of furniture they bought second-hand). To compare inter-generational living standards is ‘no contest’ in terms of the supposed immiseration among the ‘alienated’ zombies, beloved of Marxist intellectuals (hardly the poor souls themselves that they imagine to be the reality the great-grandchildren of Smith’s pin-makers).

I suggest James and Neil look out of their windows, consider the inter-generational wealth shifts in their own families and modify their perceptions of the effect of markets.


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