Part I: Background, motivation, initial challenge
This is an extremely important point: themes of social policy; of more academic or theoretical issues; even themes concerning the very future of economic systems arise from a discussion of what we can learn from precapitalist forms of society. (See the Tocqueville quote on the right side of this blog.) Here's a quick question to demonstrate my point: where was the first social security program enacted? Answer: Bismarck's Germany, 1889. Interestingly enough, the social security act page on the government website has at the top a disclaimer: THIS IS AN ARCHIVAL OR HISTORICAL DOCUMENT AND MAY NOT REFLECT CURRENT POLICIES OR PROCEDURES.
I beg to differ. History can tell you a lot about contemporary policy, especially an act such as this one which was introduced in the U.S. as part of New Deal legislation in the 1930s. But why did Bismarck enact it? In part, to quell labor unrest. He did it to appease labor which was obviously pushing for more radical reform. Social security was just enough to keep them happy with a labor reform and to not hurt capital too much. The fact that social security was instituted as part of New Deal reforms at a time when, as Sombart would later write, "workers learned to look toward the State to solve their conflicts with capital" (paraphrased) tells you a lot about historical contingency and how it influences contemporary policy. In short, policies that are sometimes seen as a victory for leftists were really, at another point in time, merely a compromise between parties who were looking towards much more radical change -- that goes for both labor and capital! And even further, that very fact changed how future labor radicalism in unions was expressed!! (Think carefully about the Sombart quote!)
So given the importance of history, might we find elements of so-called "primitive societies" in our contemporary one? And if so, how do they interact on the scene of policy or academic discussions? It's a big question to tackle but their are clues in the example of Bismarck's policy. This is my specific thesis: The historical and contemporary existence (both of which need to be proved) of moral economies -- more specifically, institutions of democratic governance of the economic sphere-- work against capitalist institutions that have aimed, since day 1, to separate the spheres of politics and economy.
The first important question is: how do we demonstrate the existence of these moral economies? (But don't forget, we eventually want to arrive at an answer to the question of "why study traditional economic institutions?") A helpful related question is, how do you "see" capitalism? I've never written a blog post on "Why 'Imagining History'?" but this is exactly what I mean by it: we must accept that we are largely informed of history through other people imagining historical events, constructed of course from letters and other documents, other evidence that is necessarily incomplete. The task of understanding history is to imagine for yourself in the most complete way how events took place and then unfolded as a sequence. Here we are confronted with the possibility of imagining what capitalism looked like in the early 1800s U.S. and imagining its alternatives.
This is the end of part I, which has summarized the background, motivation and initial problems for exploring the question of the uses and abuses of praising traditional economic institutions. Part II to come in a day or two! And please, feel free to post your own thoughts/answer to the question. I will try to incorporate these views into future posts.