Sunday, June 23, 2013

From My Notebook, no 13.


From the EH.NET BOOK REVIEW for SHOE (Societies for the History of Economics) (June 2013):
Spencer J. PackAristotle, Adam Smith and Karl Marx: On Some Fundamental Issues in 21st Century Political Economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2010. xv + 260 pp.  Reviewed for EH.Net by Gary Mongiovi, Department of Economics and Finance, St. John’s University.
(Extract):
The pursuit of material gain cultivates an obsessive concern with the acquisition of wealth, and consequently undermines the values necessary to achieve a properly balanced life; that is to say, it subordinates reason (which favors moderation) to the passions (which cause us always to covet more than have, even when we have more than we need). Aristotle’s assessment is a sobering corrective to the conventional view of the capitalist mind as a supremely rational and dispassionate engine.”
… “Smith, by contrast, saw commerce and finance as natural and beneficent. Yet he too recognized that commercial society can foster unseemly character traits. In pursuit of self-interest, capitalists and rentiers may be tempted to engage in predatory or deceptive behavior. Repetitive factory work dulls the intellects of the laboring classes
[Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the SHOE list.]
From a Review by Gary Mongiovi, Department of Economics and Finance, St. John’s University, of: Spencer J. Pack, Aristotle, Adam Smith and Karl Marx: On Some Fundamental Issues in 21st Century Political Economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar (to see all of Gary Mongiovi’s review, see it in Lost Legacy, 21 June 2013).
Gary Mongiovi:
Aristotle’s assessment is a sobering corrective to the conventional view of the capitalist mind as a supremely rational and dispassionate engine.”
I am not sure what a “capitalist mind” is, or how it came about.  Market transactions were common, if a minority habit, in Europe and the Near East long before what we know of today as “capitalism”, a word first used in English in 1854 (Thackeray’s “The Newcomes”; see Oxford English Dictionary). 
In so far has it is a common description of “MaxU” (Deirdre McCloskey) theorizing, I would concur, though the views of Aristotle are hardly relevant to the “capitalist mind”, and there was plenty of greed manifested in and before 4th century BCE. 
It was David Hume who described “reason as slave to the passions” and presumably that extended beyond primitive market forms to the earlier acquisition of larger flocks and more extensive lands from the 10th millennia BCE.
It was Adam Smith who described the human history of property as the impetus to the formation of “Laws and government [that] may be considered in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor and preserve for themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence” (Lectures On Jurisprudence, 1762-3; iv.21-2: p 208).
I think Smith missed the opportunity to characterise laws and governments as also, perhaps, primarily in some period, as a means to defend the rich against the depredations of ambitious rivals among the rich too and not just the poor, who were more easily kept in their place than rival family members and neighbours. For an inkling of the predominance of state violence aimed at rival claimants to their rule rather than threats to state power by the poor, read the long, 5th century BCE account by Herodotus, “The Histories”, (1998) 2008, Oxford University Press, (772 pages + 11 pages of Maps).  I remain surprised that Smith did not make more of this obvious connection – he was familiar with Herodotus and the other classical historians.
Gary Mongiovi:
Smith, by contrast, saw commerce and finance as natural and beneficent. Yet he too recognized that commercial society can foster unseemly character traits. In pursuit of self-interest, capitalists and rentiers may be tempted to engage in predatory or deceptive behavior. Repetitive factory work dulls the intellects of the laboring classes.”
This assessment of Adam Smith’s stance (“Yet he too recognized…”, etc.,) is surely an understatement of Smith’s ultra frank assessments of the behaviours of “merchants and manufacturers”, not forgetting the great ‘landowners”, throughout Wealth Of Nations and “Moral Sentiments”, and his lesser known “Lectures On Jurisprudence”, from who I quoted in my comments.  
It would be more accurate to say “commercial society does foster unseemly character traits.” And why not?  Humans (by obvious definition!) continued to populate every form of human society that has ever existed and, I dare venture to suggest, will also populate every future society that ever will exist.   We are not and never have been progressing towards any utopian configuration of moral society that some among us profess to believe in or expect to emerge, or worse, want to offer their “designed ideal society”. 
As we improve in some sense (itself controversial as different people have their own ideas of what constitutes perfection, as well as the appropriate steps towards their desired improvements).  All changes absorb the habits of whatever constitutes the present, defects and all. Social evolution, like biological, geological and any other kind of evolution, is blind. Humans do not advance on all fronts simultaneously.
Gary Mongiovi:
Repetitive factory work dulls the intellects of the laboring classes”.
I have discussed the ideas behind this interpretation of Adam Smith on the division of labour, as expressed in WN, books 1 and 5.  It is not what Smith meant, though it is what many readers conclude he meant. For example, my “debates” with some readers of Chomsky on Lost Legay who focus on Smith’s remarks (in Book 5) on the consequences of working in small workshops, which by definition employ dexterous youths in repetitive individual tasks (illustrated by the pin-making example in Book 1).  Smith had much more to say (of even greater significance than pin-making) about the division of labour later in Book 1, such as his insightful description of the national and international division of labour involved in making the common woolen coat of a day labourer, and his household conveniences, compared to an “African prince”.
Many readers tend to ignore the context in Book 5, where Smith discusses the education of youth and what should be done about this, given that the majority of such youths, at least in England, though not in Scotland where education for the majority of the male children of labourers and unemployed were educated, even if minimally, in “little schools”, organized in most parishes, under laws passed in the mid-1600s.  There were no such provisions for this class of labourer’s children in England’s 60,000 parishes until late in the 19th century.
In order to attract the sympathetic attention of his readers who were mainly middle and upper class parents in England, Smith linked the outrageous absence in English parishes for the education of the children who were most likely to populate the labour force as they reached adulthood.  Therefore, he did what any persuasive argument required for its successful adoption by the apathetic and indifferent political legislators (as he describes them across Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations). 
He linked his proposals to the recognisable self-interests of that social group who held the power to ameliorate the absence of education of the majority of the population.  They may be indifferent to appeals for social justice, but they were not indifferent to what Smith highlighted in that section of Wealth Of Nations, namely the security of their social positions should uneducated, ignorant, easily led and manipulated adult labourers come under the influence of the wild and reckless ideas of agitating “enthusiasts” and engage en mass in social disturbances that could threaten national stability.  In Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations he discusses in several places the role of persuasion in human discourse, both for noble and ignoble ends.
It wasn’t “factory work” as such that “dulled the minds” of the labouring classes” so much as the almost total absence of basic education in arithmetic, spelling, literacy an counting among these classes as children, a fate not commonly experienced by the children of the middle and upper classes, who either went to fine grammar schools, if boys and had home tutors if female, with a proportion of middle-class males going on universities (albeit with only two universities in England, but with four universities in Scotland).
Moreover, the origins of such views that Smith was writing against the division of labour, often accepted by the incorrect view of Smith’s purpose, is partly occasioned by an all too rosy image of the lives of the labouring classes who remained on the land, mines and fishing industries. 
For millennia the working lives of labourers were worse than anything experienced up to the 20th century in what a poet in the 19th century called the “dark satanic mills”, in what we now call the industrial revolution, which had a singular advantage, it led to the widespread higher, sustained, and real benefit from a rising per capita income that was unprecedented in all of human history, and by projection, all of pre-history as well.  The poor in the modern market societies became richer than the richest upper class beneficiaries of their grossly unequal societies of the deep past. 
I read some years back a multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnston (I forget the author’s name and I ‘lent’ my copy to a colleague who has not yet returned it).   In one of the volumes, he discusses the social affects of the distribution of electricity in the President’s district on the daily lives of women in keeping their husbands and sons working clothes clean before their homes had electricity for washing machines.  If you ever have doubts about the beneficial impact of market-led consumer society, I urge you to read that account.  The washing machines run by electricity and provide boring “repetitive factory work” to assemble them, tended by men and women. If that labour is “worse” than working in backbreaking, age inducing, even crippling, daily washing by hand and a bucket, I can only conclude you have no idea of the actual very hard work available in economies without factories, or electricity, or much else that you take for granted.

1 Comments:

Blogger Myrah said...

I like how you talk about the struggles the working class had to undergo and still does. It's important for people of higher classes to acknowledge the things this laboring class has done for the world.

8:04 pm  

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