Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Smithian View of History

Bruce (11 October ) at the Bruce Web – history, politics, myth HERE [Please follow the link as our debate is "parallel" rather than direct (I am not sure exactly what Bruce is debating with me, so I have offered an alternative perspective of history, which I think I share with Adam Smith.]

"Hi Bruce

I shall offer some comments on your article: “Adam Smith and Glibertarianism: history vanished into the memory hole”, first stating I am not sure to whom you address your remarks and,adding, I do not share your narrower view of history than Adam Smith’s, nor (on a lesser scale of philosophical symmetry) mine.

Applying class analysis to history, especially where it is informed by back-projecting 19-21st century consciousness, is limiting. If the mass of people in the distant past were deprived of the category, “democracy” as an idea, they were unaware of it. Athenian “democracy” disenfranchised women and slaves; in its modern context, glimmers of democracy appeared in Cromwell’s England (Levellers) and in late 18th century British colonies, and in Britain and France. Until then, the issue of “Liberty” was more important and, in my view, liberty still is more important than democracy – the former cannot be other than self-evident, the latter often is a sham (as recent and current examples show).

In Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-63) he gives a very clear account of the very ‘slow and gradual’ political evolution of liberty: Magna Carta, trial by jury, independent judiciary, rule of law, Habeas Corpus, through the absolute monarchies of the ‘allodial’ and ‘feudal’ disorders of Europe from the fall of Rome in the 5th century to the Constitutional Monarchies after the English civil war, 1740-60, and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, 1688.

A lack of democratic consciousness runs right back to and throughout pre-history and, incidentally, so does a lack of consciousness about property. The discovery of “property” was a revolutionary idea enabling a minority of the world’s tribes to move to rising population levels from the population-limiting mode of subsistence of the forest and rivers in which, well past the 18th century, the absence of private property among the majority of the world’s tribes in the vast land-mass of Africa, south Asia, Australia, the Pacific and the Americas, held their human populations in check. Tribal populations before property, and many of them afterwards, unaware of the phenomenon of property lived on in their subsistence modes. Both property and non-property societies were oblivious of each other’s existence until relatively recently.

Whilst their concepts of property were primitive and were confined to tribal properties, they were firmly resistant to other tribes intruding on “their” particular territories, but without their having clear concepts of property they could not evolve into early civic societies, based on laws, that were practiced over millennia. The group and individual violence common in many such primitive regimes of ‘tribal’ property is well documented in anthropological studies. Marxists idealise the ‘forest’ mode of subsistence as “primitive communism”, but it certainly had a bloody record among populations over hundreds of millennia, with women mainly suffering as victims and ‘war’ booty, and men suffering early and violent deaths (proportionally greater than well-known, so-called “murder capitals” in modern times).

Shepherding and agriculture (Smith’s 2nd and 3rd ages of man) gradually brought more sophisticated forms of property, first from tribal towards extended familial property forms and then towards individual families, and finally to inheritable personal properties. With such local property forms the need for resolving disputes emerged, many of them violent. Societies with individual property forms developed fairly high forms of civic society, at least for short periods, and while the annual distribution of “the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life” remained skewed, the long accumulations of stone-civilisations spread across Europe and the north Asian landmass, while not much changed elsewhere.
Into this world of cycles of civilisation and barbarism, with accumulating knowledge amidst “pusillanimous superstition”, and slow growth in total “GDP” (for want of a better term), though fairly constant per capita GDP (the surplus creamed off and directed to stone monuments, the detritus of such is scattered across the Euro-Asian landmass), Bruce introduces a conceptual apparatus to judge past epochs as if such concepts are applicable or remotely relevant to the past generations involved, or to modern generations, about what is called “history” (none of which we can change, experience, or even remedy now).

The distant past is, well, distant. The terrible crimes of oppression, genocide, sexual dominance, shaman-led atrocities, wholesale slavery, conquest, and ignorance, cannot find a remedy, a balm or an anti-septic comfort, nor can they be “revenged” (by whom on whom?). We are not just the descendants of noble savages, ignoble tyrants, and human saints. There are now six billion (and counting) where two millennia ago there were 100 million, and a couple of hundred millennia ago there may have been 50,000 or fewer.

Back-projecting modern indignation onto that past is an awesome vision. Who knows which “crimes” and degrees of “culpability” were shared by which individuals in the ancestors of each of us? Who knows who, among the past populations aided and abetted any of the “crimes” of their fellows, whether chasing and killing interlopers from other tribes on “sacred land”, or stole their women, or swung the lash or the sword at the defenceless “spoils of war” and unspeakable domination, right up the modern genocides of Nazism or Stalinism?

A Smithian perspective is somewhat less ambitious, and more to the point. It is to study the past to learn how the present came about; to neither condemn nor praise it, but to understand it, and to offer advice in areas where changes may be made to improve the lot of those unable to prosper humanely under the current regimes of the current plenty.

Property made some societies in the mainly Northern latitudes incomparably more opulent that the majority of the rest of the world’s population; attacking, perhaps destroying, the basis of that opulence is to act as if property never happened, or that it should have happened differently. That it didn’t happen differently is sufficient warning that what didn’t happen couldn’t happen. No examples of societies without property, "fairly" or “unfairly” distributed, managed to create the technologies and knowledge levels of those with property. Searching for evidence of seething masses of revolutionary inspired “soldiers” held down by perfidious state functionaries is as futile as it is fictional.

I think understanding such awesome facts is a proper prelude to understanding how and why we might move, slowly and gradually, towards societies more in line with the sentiments, oft expressed by Adam Smith, where those who sustain and co-operate in the progress towards opulence share in the resultant growth in “the annual output of the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life”.

[My 2008 book, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, (Palgrave Macmillan) gives a more detailed account than I managed to squeeze in here.]

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Blogger Bruce Webb said...

Mr. Kennedy my post was not aimed at you, indeed I think we share the same target, those who claim the mantle of Adam Smith without actually having read even a truncated version of Books 1-3 to say nothing of Books 4-5. And I hasten to say I am in that category, I possess somewhere a copy of Wealth of Nations just as on the other side I have over time purchased a number of works by Marx. But in neither case has I ended up doing any systematic reading.

But then I don't claim to be an economist or a libertarian or a Marxist, just that I have enough knowledge of those fields and political theories to know when someone is faking it.

As to the substance of your argument here I think I am going to take you up on your offer to repost it on my blog and then take my time composing a response. To give you a hint I will be operating within a framework largely informed by the narratives of E.P. Thompson's 'Making of the English Working Class' and so start from the point of view that anti-majoritarian liberty is an oxymoron and a notion that the American Declaration of Independence was openly acting against.

In my view Britain was not even a democracy until the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and if pushed would extend that to the Act of 1928.

And I am an equal opportunity basher, in many ways the U.S. though historically much in advance of Britain in extending the franchise really did not achieve democracy until the series of One Man, One Vote Supreme Court rulings in the early sixties along with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

4:41 pm  
Blogger Bruce Webb said...

Well this morning I put up two posts, one simply cross-posting your post here, and another separate one attacking its historic premises.

In the days to come I hope to put up a more positive depiction of my own views on the actual relation between Freedom and Democracy that does not derive the former from a concept of Liberty fundamentally based on Private Property.

I hint at the approach in the last paragraphs of the linked post. Property Rights in many cases approaches a zero-sum game, from my perspective the legal development from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution was marked by a continual suppression of property rights by 'land lords' who took principles rooted in Roman Civil Law and imposed them on a land law system based on a more graduated and layered set of 'ownership' rights. 'ownership' in quotes because it is not clear that English Land Law prior to the Plantagenet's recongized any such thing in the way we understand it today.

7:58 pm  

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