Sunday, October 18, 2009

teaching time on the cross

I'm teaching Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross next week which means that I will hopefully have one solid week of great discussion after great discussion. For tomorrow we're reading the prologue and chapters 1 and 2, and I'm thinking of starting off class with the classical quantification debates, although there are really 2 or 3 other arguments I can foresee bringing up in class tomorrow. They mainly have to do with methodology, especially since the new economic historians have been quite forceful in forwarding their perspective as the "real economic" perspective and this idea occupies a significant part of the prologue and beginning chapters. These new economic historians rely on statistical analysis of data and formal economic models to answer questions in history. It raises immediately the question of how applicable economic models really are to reality: isn't the point of economic theory to generalize economic behavior by deducing a set of primary factors and testing the model against data? How does this compare to the obsession with general equilibrium since World War 2? I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Coase:

"Economists have devoted themselves to studying imaginary systems, and they don't distinguish between the imaginary system and the real world."

(There's a better one with the same flavor that I can't find right now where he basically says that all the Nobel prizes in economics have gone to economists who study a world which doesn't exist.)

So the idea that we can apply economic models to questions of history seems ridiculous. Especially since one of the central claims of McCloskey in "Does the Past Have Useful Economics?" is that we should be looking at history to inform our theory. There are other issues, such as how time has been dealt with in neoclassical economics (the answer: not very well, it's almost just like another dimension in space...), but this central point is very important because it strikes at the heart of what the new economic historians aim to do: reinterpret economic history using these models and data.

On the data -- few historians would disagree that the new economic history has done a great service to history by digging up massive amounts of data and compiling great databases of information on wages, slave prices, and other juicy details from employers' books. However, when it comes to how these economists have used the data, things are much more open to questions of methodology. Time on the Cross emphasizes formal methods, which are not "wrong" in and of themselves, but some argue that they clash with the traditional methodology of history (and of much social science) prior to the 1950s which was more oriented towards qualitative methods. When you combine this with the inherently conservative nature of neoclassical formal methods you have a mix that would definitely upset your traditional liberal historian.

But is there substance to the critique? I think there is. While one could argue that any historian uses models and that theory is always going to be a political project, the pressing need of the new economic historians to quantify everything seems not only a misplacement of emphasis of formal methods but can be downright hurtful to their analysis. For example, the narrow view of exploitation which they take up in Time on the Cross to argue that slaves were not as exploited as is commonly thought completely misses the main point and compromises the effectiveness of their argument. Essentially, they use a measure of the rate of exploitation which is the amount a slave produces over their compensation (in wages, living expenses, etc.). Even if Fogel and Engerman (rightly) point out that this isn't the whole of exploitation, simply by making the argument they are not adding anything productive to the debate at all. And what's worse, they imply that in a world of market processes where slaves get paid their marginal product exploitation is not an issue. Indeed, Ransom and Sutch used the same line of argument and measure of exploitation in their discussion of the postbellum Southern economy in One Kind of Freedom to say that racial exploitation is embodied in this labor market disequilibrium, implying that notions of power in the employer-employee relationship would be nonexistent were it not for overt racism. This is a world in which the neoclassical ideal is the baseline and so history is the story of deviations from this baseline. I simply cannot buy into such a story (and indeed, some very good neoclassical economists would not even buy into this story) , and I can see why people would be so upset by some passages of this book.

Another (less controversial!) thread of debate concerns the relationship between different economic systems in history. First and foremost, how do we characterize slavery as a socioeconomic system? Is it capitalist? Agrarian pre-capitalist? Feudalism? Whatever it is, the experience of the Southern U.S. is certainly not anomalous, as societies built on the idea of property in persons have existed for thousands of years. I think it's best to view slavery as an independent system of agricultural production for profit using people as (economic) property as the central means of production, and I do think this is where Fogel and Engerman operate on a stronger basis. Essentially, some historians of slavery in the South have argued that it's an institution that would have died out eventually -- either due to lack of markets, or declining productivity through exhausted resources, or some other economic reason. I believe that such arguments, especially made about entire institutions, do not do justice to the agency of anyone in such a system. If you have two distinct groups in an economic system and you argue that the system as a whole was on its way down the tubes, then you basically are arguing that both groups of agents were passive adjusters to forces out of their control. Fogel and Engerman instead give agency to both the strength of the families of slaves and also the rationality/profit-seeking behavior of the plantation owner by arguing that slavery was not on its way out immediately prior to the civil war. Here's a good quote explaining my point:

"While the New Orleans data show that slaveowners were averse to breaking up black families, they do not tell us about the reasons for their reluctance. Because earlier historians became overly preoccupied with dramatic and poignant but relatively isolated instances of the destruction of black marriages, they failed to grasp the extremely important role that the master class assigned to the family institution, a role that will be examined in chapter 4. Commitment to an exaggerated view of the eagerness of masters to put families on the auction block prevented historians from recognizing the strength and stability that the black family acquired despite the difficult circumstances of slave life." (Time on the Cross pg. 52)

In fact, you could argue that this was a central weakness of Marx's own theory: he failed to attribute sufficient level of agency to the proletariat and therefore saw the downfall of capitalism as occurring prematurely. Regardless of whether you buy into the conservative argument that individuals are inherently individualist, history has shown us that capital or state interests have not always been antithetical to worker interests and that worker interests haven't always been about overthrowing the property relations of capitalism. I of course would love to hear arguments against this and in fact to an extent I am one who is trying to produce such arguments, but it's by no means an easy question. Nevertheless, the ability of the capitalist system to reproduce itself at a rate contrary to Marx's and others' own predictions points to other forces at work in an economic system, and this, by analogy, is what Fogel and Engerman are doing with the traditional view of slavery. I think this is one very valuable contribution they have made.

Nevertheless, it will be an interesting week and I'll be sure to post more comments in the coming days!


  1. Dan,
    Regarding Marx and agency:
    Allow me to disagree with your comment on the teleological character of Marx's theory. There have definitely been many Marxist who focus on the inevitability of the overthrow of capitalism (Kautsky comes to mind as the best example of disregarding the role of agency - basically the idea that the productive forces will be incompatible with the existing social relations).
    But even if we turn to Marx and, what I would call, his most deterministic writings, I think that things are not as neat as we sometimes present them to be. Remember the preface of the "Contribution to the Critique to Political Economy", where Marx talks of an era of "social revolution" (which occurs when the relations of production become fetters to the development of the productive forces). I would argue that a revolution is very different from a transformation, whose outcome would already be theoretically predetermined. Revolutions can fail.

    The other element that I think shows the openendedness of Marxism is consciousness and the difference between a class in-itself and a class for-itself. So, for Marx, the working class becomes a class for-itself only when it realizes its historical role. Their position in the production process does not suffice in order to mobilize the workers to overcome their exploitation. It is only after acquiring the consciousness of their position that they can start the process of annuling it. Again, whether one is certain about the success is to some extent an act of faith. Luxemburg writes somewhere that the choice is between "Socialism or Barbarism" - I agree with her (but notice how big the gap between the two).

    OK, thanks for the post.

    P.S. "As Mao says, we should never forget class struggle" (Althusser). Some Marxists over the years (and especially in economics) have thought of class struggle as derivative of the development of the forces of production. They thought that relying on class struggle would make the theory voluntaristic and unscientific. I think that these people have very deep insecurities (which to some extent stem from their not being too sophisticated in philosophical terms).

  2. Harry,

    Thanks a lot for your comment! This actually fits in quite nicely with some of the arguments I "would like to produce" (as I mentioned in my post). I particularly agree with your "P.S." comment and it has been an historical project of many Marxist historians of the New Left to show this (Jerry Friedman, for example, talks about this idea of class struggle).

    I also see the difference between a class-in-itself and for-itself.

    The point I'm still not clear on, however, is this difference between transformation and revolution. Perhaps there was a typo or something here? Because I seriously do not know what you're arguing.

    But again, thanks for clarifying how the spectrum of Marxists varies on this important issue.

  3. My argument is that we can read Marx as follows:
    Economic/objective/structural conditions only provide us with the fertile ground for the occurrence of revolutions. Whether those revolutions will actually happen, whether they will succeed (in taking over power) and whether they will succeed in transforming the relations of production and the conditions of existence is a very different matter. The economic conditions are not the only factors for the success of whether a revolution will produce a transformation. I would argue that heightened class struggle and revolutionary class consciousness play a big role in this matter - and that they are not directly derived from economic conditions.
    I think that this is a reading of Marx that is consistent with his writings - and which is significantly different from stagist teleological theories produced within Marxism.

  4. On your introductory paragraphs.
    Does neoclassical economics conform to history? Does history need to be re-written to fit into neoclassical theories? These are important questions. There is certainly a dialectical relationship at play, history is changing as theories of history change.

    I do however have a problem with your quote from Coase. Reality in reference to history is no more stable as a concept than a theory. Reality is shaping theory certainly, but the reverse is also true.

    Some realities that used to exist no longer do modern bullshit alert..
    But my point being that theories that are derived of a specific time, are almost by definition not going to fit into perceptions of reality of other times or of different theories.

    It is thus that Marx's theory of history loses its historical aspect and becomes dialectical materialism, allowing both theory and historical reality to become fluid.

    I probably have not explained this well, but at least in my mind there is no contradiction between any one theory and any one reality as both are fluid concepts.

  5. James,

    The relationship you suggest between history and theory is very interesting. To be honest, I've never thought much about the idea that theory can shape reality and I'm wondering if you can clarify the mechanisms there. As far as /history/ informing /theory/ I think McCloskey's point is similar to my post on Keynes and the General Theory, which is a few posts back. The essential argument there is that Keynes correctly noted the disequilibrium behavior of the economy and chose to stress that in his work. This is definitely novel and is a real contribution to economic methodology.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  6. Now I remember that this post reminds me of the section I always complain about in Althusser's "Reading Capital" named "Marxism is not HIstoricism" or soemthing like that. SOmebody should read it and explain it to me because I honestly don't understand it...
    What is clear is that there is a tension within Marx. Check out the latest RM and the specific topic of Primtive Accumulation being an example and of course Rajesh is currently the expert on that. Today we kind of touched that but beer gets in the way...

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