Thursday, March 25, 2010

return of the blog

I won't try to make any excuses for my absence, except in saying that I have reached a lull in an otherwise hectic semester. But through the course of my travails I've come across many articles and thought, "I really should write about this!" Unfortunately, I've either now forgotten about the articles or can't remember where the links are. I should have starred them on my Google Reader...

Anyway, the return of this blog, indeed its 99th post, will be marked by an interesting challenge that has occupied me along various dimensions over the last four (or so) months. I am already aware of a few solutions, but I'm working on finding my own. It is, of course, related to a possible dissertation topic -- caveat lector.

The problem is simply stated. Why does the state act in the interests of capital? Capitalists don't, in general, occupy positions of power in the government. How could they be capitalists if they did? So, capitalists must influence outcomes through some other means. Most people immediately think of money. Both republicans and democrats receive large campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, financial institutions, and oil companies (to name a few examples). Money surely affects government policy -- on the left and right of the political spectrum. Acknowledging that fact is one of the first steps toward realizing that the function of the state itself (and all of the arms of the octopus -- government, law, and so on) is to act in preservation of the underlying economic system.

Framing this question in history is not impossible, but you have to be very sensitive to the context. First of all, to even ask the question, "Why does the state act in the interests of capital", you must assume the state to which you refer is embedded in a capitalist economy. How do you see capitalism? What are its defining traits? Most likely, you will have to engage in debates on whether the area and time period you study is capitalist or not.

Second, history concerns itself with change, but the original question simply requires a static model to answer it (given a state and given capitalist society...). Therefore, you must be prepared to explain the relationship between changes in economics and changes in the law. Third (as if the challenge wasn't daunting enough already!), to borrow the title of this blog, the answer relies critically on being able to imagine the various relationships at work through a (most likely) inadequate set of primary sources! It's easy to look today at policies of the president and say whether they are a good example of the government acting in a particular agent's interests. The the relationship between the economy and the state has varied considerably over time, so there's no quick-and-easy model you can apply to a historical example.

Of course, the other issue is that we're dealing with the law (of all institutions why did I pick this one?!). Let me tell you, after immersing myself in judge and lawyer biographies, court opinions and statutes, as well as employment contracts, it is very easy -- indeed, downright tempting -- to romanticize the law as this great institution striving for equality before the law and justice. The law develops very slowly and the changes are mostly quite subtle. Therefore, without going into your study with some kind of theoretical model, it's very difficult to emerge from your study with a firm grasp on anything.

Anyway, I was going to write a bit more, but I realized it might be too long for a returning post.

I'll conclude with a teaser for following posts, to keep you clicking that "Refresh button" every five minutes in excruciating anticipation of what I will write next. Let me tell you that a promising solution to the above points may actually come from the economic theory of contract design. Taking as our initial starting point the idea that the law is whatever the nobles do in classic kafkaesque style, we question whether employment contracts in the early 1800s (that is, what capitalists designed and then did) can be used to explain changes in labor law. Furthermore, we will see whether framing the problem in this way gets at that ever-elusive problem of connecting the capitalist and legal system dots to make a picture that mom would be proud to stick on the refrigerator.

Until next time!

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