Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Back at Work! Reporting from the Columbia Conference (part 1)

As announced last week, I was in New York until last night, the purpose of my visit was to attend a conference entitled ‘Reclaiming Adam Smith’, organised by the Columbia University Seminar on Studies in Political and Social Thought, the Heyman Centre for the Humanities, the Conference for the Study of Political Thought, and the Office of the Provost, Barnard College. I know, a long intro but academic politeness mandates a full reference.

Taken as a whole it was an illuminating experience. Despite the room changes, I managed to find tmy way to the sessions. Apart from Professor Chris Berry, Glasgow University, I knew nobody who attended, except by the writings of a few of them. In that sense it took some time over the two days before I was spoken to or I spoke to anyone. I went up and introduced myself to some people but felt awkward, I must say, at the cool, not to say, cold reactions. On reflection, perhaps many others were also strangers to each other and my experience was more general than it seemed. Perhaps, though, they thought I was a ‘nutter’ of some kind – well I did have a suit on, which probably worried anybody not from a Business School (er, joke!). I am an economist, of which there seemed to be few, if any others at all.

Let me get some negative comments out of the way. Most of the people attending were experienced and distinguished academics but the absence of elementary speaking skills surprised me. Too many considered that it was an acceptable standard of public performance to speak in a low-level conversational style unsuitable in rooms that were large, had appalling acoustics, and ignored the possible interest in what they were saying among the fairly spread-out audience of 50 others, plus the platform speakers. Even most of the platform speakers (with some notable exceptions) seemed to ignore the microphones, didn’t know how to adjust their height and direction, and also mumbled their responses to questions and interventions, a failing that, frankly, amazed me. Maybe there were not used to such a ‘large’ audience, which might explain the room changes. Hence, I missed much of the interactions in some of the sessions, which was a pity, given the high interest I found in what those floor speakers had to say who spoke loudly and clearly.

All the speakers read their papers (except one, a brilliant theorist of whom I shall report on tomorrow), which were handed out on the second morning and which I have since read carefully. They make excellent reading. All the authors of the printed papers request that they not be quoted from as they represent ‘work in progress’ and I am obliged to respect the authors’ embargoes under the normal rules of academic courtesy. Any comments I do make on what was said will be from my own notes and not from the written papers, and should be treated with caution and not as the final thoughts of the distinguished authors.

I would like to comment first on the ‘joint-star’ of the conference (in fact he slightly edges it), Nicholas Phillipson, Emeritus Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. Until the conference I had not heard of him or his work (though many other attendees did know him, judging by how warmly they greeted him during the intervals). I found his performance outstanding, as he showed everybody how to lecture, and he clearly followed Adam Smith’s advice in ‘Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’: to know his subject (he does), to be perspicuous (he was) and to be enthusiastic (which he is in spades).

He is writing an intellectual biography of Adam Smith, of which, if his session was but a sample, augurs well for what is coming, to which I certainly await with anticipation of not being other than educated in aspects of Adam Smith, so far untouched by what has been written to date. Meanwhile, I shall look for his previous publications.

His close ‘joint star’ was Emma Rothschild, author of the magnificent ‘Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment’ (2001), an excellent example of scholarship. She too spoke clearly, enunciating with perfect pronunciation her English and her French, and gave an account of Smith’s views on Empire and the connections he had with some close friends who had within their households individual slaves from the colonies and Africa. Smith, of course, opposed slavery on both economic (it was less efficient compared to wage labour) and moral grounds (it condemned human beings to the level of ‘the jail refuse of Europe’). It was her command of the detail that was impressive and the way she wove it into her themes of Smith’s views that colonies and empires were a false road to the creation of wealth, upon which he banked his vision of a general opulence, particularly for the labouring poor. The ‘empire’ project took off in earnest after the end of the Seven Years War (1756-63), the real First World (European) War, and its effects were much deeper felt in the British political establishment than I had realised to that point.

I remember taking the ‘Economics of Empire’ as an undergraduate and what Rothschild outlined in her paper fitted with my distant memories of my classes and readings. The ‘loss’ of the American colonies and the rising importance of India drew Britain into Empire, with all of its consequences - wars of conquest, national rivalries, and the waste of blood and treasure, let alone much of the miseries of the populations affected. Empire was a mistake of gigantic historical proportions and a set back for Smithian wealth creation, mitigated marginally by a minority of British colonial officials who did a good job, despite official disinterest and political scheming).

The colonies annexed in the late 19th century, in the main, represented dead losses to Britain and this is underlined by the direction of outward capital flows, not to Africa and India, but mainly to America (no longer a colony), with fewer capital flows to Canada, South America (also independent ex-colonies), South Africa and Australasia, but they were larger than what went to the colonies proper. Lenin’s ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism’, was totally wrong in seeing colonies as essential to capitalism; the British experience showed differently – they represented net losses, not gains.

I shall return to the second part of my report, plus my conclusions, tomorrow.


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