Friday, July 2, 2010

reflections on research, part one of an ongoing series

Two weeks ago I found myself face-to-face with theory in the most direct sense. It was a beautiful and disgusting experience. I finally realized that what I knew about capitalism in the modern world was not sufficient for understanding the world. Because to understand the world you need to know how we got here. Ideas that had resonated with me for months, years, were reduced to the faintest glimmer when observed under the scope of history. And yet -- at the same time -- those ideas gained a new weight of truth when reconsidered and adjusted according to experience.

This is a story of dismay, discovery, and despair. It is a story of realizing that a key idea lies in a story personally uncovered years ago, and that what I'd been reading all along and never fully comprehending is in fact what I had agreed with and found most complex and interesting from the beginning. In short, it's a story about research.

I should have taken myself more seriously months ago when I called for (yes, here on this very blog!) an evolutionary model of the state and capitalist society. But I suppressed these ideas when I began to think about the American Revolution as a bourgeois revolution -- the story of one set of elites replacing another, legitimated by a new economic order founded on the capitalist mode of production.

But in the end, it is the evolutionary model which is key, because to understand the state in modern capitalist society one must explain the origins of the key concepts -- legitimization of class relations, state suppression of capital-labor conflict, and other key ideas of the modern theory. These concepts simply did not materialize out of the bourgeois notions of economy manifested from the Revolution. So, partly what my research is focused on is searching for the origins of modern state institutions in a time when such institutions did not exist. This requires explaining why they didn't exist, as well as what forms bureaucracy took in the intervening period between (arguably) 1776 and the 1850s.

Nevertheless, as I'm sure you can tell, such questions require looking far outside what the economist normally concerns her or himself with. And then to translate it all back into economic implications -- these were some of the biggest ideological challenges I faced.

Never did I even think of Barrington Moore's thesis which claimed that the true bourgeois revolution was the Civil War. I was caught up in showing how, during the early Republic period, the state had spurred a nascent capitalist order into becoming, on the eve of the Civil War, a volatile and viscious beast, an enemy of the people. I rejected all individualist-motivated scholarly case studies of the evils of democratic capitalism. Democracy in America? Surely these were bourgeois notions that defined a "freedom to trade" (as I believe Castro put it) and not much else. Democracy had little political meaning to the people of the Revolution. Supposedly.

I will write more in the coming weeks about these ideas (though of course I will not disclose all of my secrets), but let me just leave you with this: it is a complex yet highly intriguing story which requires significantly rethinking the place of the state in capitalism.


  1. maybe you've seen this or already knew this, but i read this not five minutes after reading this post and thought it would make you laugh (bitterly? i laughed bitterly...):

  2. mwahaha. this is very entertaining. thanks!