Tuesday, April 27, 2010

why history matters, even in economic thought

In fusing together some notes on models of state and society, I came to another reason of why history is so important, even in the case of theoretical models.

The work of Miliband, Poulantzas and other Marxists from the 1960s and early 70s examined the relationship between the state and capitalist society. Their work was motivated by the desire to explain why capitalism was still, in the 1970s, the dominant economic system, given Marx's predictions of its certain collapse.

Block, Przeworski, and Wallerstein (later 1970s and 1980s) were also motivated by a central question. They aimed to explain how labor was able to make such significant advances in terms of wages, and working conditions, and collective bargaining institutions more generally since the late nineteenth century, all of which were strong indicators of the development of the welfare state model of capitalism.

Both groups of theories trying to explain the exact same period (and arguably, depending on your notion of objectivity, the exact same phenomenon), and the difference in how the question is framed makes all the difference in the outcomes of the theories...


  1. Something that came up today in talking with a student that is at very least tangentially related if not directly so.
    You use the phrase "the welfare state model of capitalism". Do you think it is important to make the distinction between different type of capitalisms in these arguments?
    That is, is welfare state capitalism a different form of capitalism, or a different mode of production entirely from free market capitalism? How do we weigh the similarities and differences in analysis and critique? Does making a distinction really matter in our analysis?

  2. I'll comment on James' point later, but I want to add:

    If anyone has more knowledge on other theories of the state and on what motivated those theories (such as the postmodern theory of the state or neoclassical, New Institutionalist theory of the state), please leave a comment!

  3. To the extent that they were lacking in previous time periods, welfare state capitalism is embodied in a set of institutions encompassed in state apparatuses, that formalize capital-labor bargaining.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "these arguments", unless you mean that Marxists such as Miliband and Poulantzas are just as reformist as Przeworski and co. for the fact that they study the state in the first place, and that in reality all manifestations of the state are fundamentally the same. That is a radical position that I'm not entirely unsympathetic toward.

    But my point remains that from the vantage point of these two scholars, there /was/ a difference... and that in itself is interesting and important.