Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital Ideas

I’m currently working on fleshing out the conclusion to a paper, essentially trying to demonstrate that it is possible to derive Habermasian norms from shared contemporary historical experiences, without having to assume a common human nature. Much of the paper covers ground already discussed often on this blog, but the conclusion does touch on some new ground – basically, on how we might try to understand the concept of “capitalism” in a way that avoids generating endless dichotomies between states vs. markets, regulation vs. freedom, and similar concepts. I’ll post the current, very rough, version of this section below the fold.

The section needs fixing in so many ways I’ve lost count, but what I’m mainly worrying about at the moment is whether the core definition I suggest for capitalism makes any sense. I’ll then need to do a lot more work than has been done in this sketch, to explain how you might actually put this definition into play, to explain why it is historically and socially plausible that certain political ideals should emerge at particular historical moments…

[Note that, since this is an exerpt from a longer piece, it occasionally refers back to authors and issues not included here.]

In this section, I wish to explore how we might try to preserve Habermas’ insight that certain contemporary critical sensibilities can be considered universal, by grounding this insight in a more thoroughly historical, pragmatist framework. As I understand this task, it would require us to identify elements of a contemporary global social context – elements of historical experience that are widely shared, even across the historical boundaries erected by states, regions and ethnicities. We would then need to explain how these widely shared historical experiences make it historically plausible that particular kinds of political ideals would arise at the present time – like Habermas, we would be searching for very abstract critical sensibilities, whose global resonance makes them unlikely to correspond directly with any concrete social institutions. As in Habermas’ framework, these counter-factual critical sensibilities would represent a reservoir of ideals that could be directed against concrete institutions. These ideals, however, would be incubated through our practical experience of living in a modern social context, rather than somehow encrypted and then deciphered in human nature. Following this path, I suggest, we could construct a theoretical approach that is self-reflexive while also remaining fully historical.

In the brief time remaining, I cannot fully outline such a framework. I can, however, suggest a route that might lead us in a promising direction. The recent interest in “globalisation” suggests a broad receptiveness to the concept that, on some level at least, we can speak of sharing a global social context. The term “globalisation” has, however, been criticised for its failure to cast any light on the specific of what this context might be: social institutions, cultures and economies appear to vary widely across the globe – in what sense can we really be said to live in any kind of global society?

The related notion of “global capitalism” might bring us a bit closer – and yet, common definitions of capitalism sit in tension with the concept of capitalism as some kind of global social relation. Capitalism is most often defined in terms of social institutions like the market and private property – in other words, as a means for distributing social wealth. This definition, however, is intrinsically divisive. It leads us, for example, to classify nations or regions as more capitalist if they have developed strong, self-regulating markets and robust private property systems, and to label a strong regulatory state that intervenes often in production and distribution less capitalist than a state that allows markets to self-regulate with minimal political intervention. As a framework for organising historical information, this definition leads us to view the middle of the 20th century as less capitalist than the periods that came before, or after. As a guide to political practice, this definition implies we should dismantle the market and private property if we wish to abolish capitalism, and bolster the market and private property if we wish to embrace it. In short, this definition of capitalism slices the contemporary world, as well as recent history, into capitalist and non-capitalist categories – classifications that may be very useful for some purposes, but that constrain our ability to understand overarching global patterns.

A more productive definition for our purposes might be one that abstracts from the various concrete social institutions with which capitalism has been historically associated. Rather than viewing capitalism in terms of the institutions of private property and the market, I suggest that we define capitalism as any organisation of social life that has, as its consequence, the generation and reproduction of a drive toward economic growth.

From this standpoint, some unifying dimensions of modern history, and of the contemporary world, become clearer. We can begin to consider, for example, that it might be possible for parts of the contemporary world to be “capitalist”, even without a strong market or private property; that the middle of the 20th century can be considered just as “capitalist” as the present era, even though the state was much more interventionist than now; that various institutions – states, markets, universities, NGOs, families, etc. – might play different roles, at different times, in reproducing capitalism, to the extent that they play some role in transmitting incentives and compulsions for economic growth; that the abolition of private property and the market does not necessarily entail the abolition of capitalism; etc. We can also begin to conceptualise some of the other dramatic features that differentiate modernity from other historical periods – we can begin to grasp how the enormous dynamism, the process of creation and destruction of institutions, cultures and practices, that characterises modernity, can also still appear, on some level, historically coherent and unified: to the extent that the drive for economic growth is retained, we are still in some sense in the same kind of society, even if this drive has led us to transform all concrete social institutions.

For present purposes, this alternative conception of capitalism can remain at the level of a thought experiment – one that, if it proves sufficiently productive, we could attempt to prove in a more conventional sense. Nor can we fully explore the potential of this thought experiment here. I can, however, suggest that it would be productive to begin by thinking seriously about the impact of living in a world in which concrete social institutions are routinely created and destroyed, as we retain and reproduce the central drive for economic growth. This dynamic process of creation and destruction provides us with practical, everyday experience of the historical character of our social institutions: we collectively demonstrate to ourselves, through our everyday practice, that concrete social, economic and cultural institutions and practices are human products, that such institutions can be brought into being and can be destroyed. We teach ourselves, in other words, the most corrosive critical sensibility of all: that we possess the potential to make conscious decisions about our social lives.

I suggest that we could build on this foundation, and begin to understand the historical emergence of a range of critical sensibilities – sensibilities that might not be identical to the ones Habermas identifies, but that would be similarly universal within our historical moment. We could also, I suggest, begin to differentiate between sensibilities that we could only realise through a radical transformation of our shared historical context, and sensibilities that we can express partially or fully while preserving capitalism’s drive for economic growth. In this way, our concern with seemingly abstract philosophical matters can translate into deeply practical insights – helping us to determine whether and how, as Mark Considine has asked, “the new gestures, feints, slogans, programs and experiments that have helped to proclaim this – end to the old rigidities – has something really new to say to researchers, practitioners and citizens” (Considine 2005: 1).

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2 responses to “Capital Ideas

  1. Pingback: News from the Edge of Empire

  2. N Pepperell August 13, 2006 at 9:27 am

    Just wanted to cross-post here my comments to News from the Edge of Empire.

    ***
    Many thanks for the very thorough discussion of my post – which was at such a primitive point that I wasn’t expecting incisive commentary!

    By way of agreeing with many of your critiques, I should perhaps indicate that this post is a bit of a rougher draft than I normally put up – it’s part of a conference paper whose length and setting precludes going into too much detail, and I’m struggling at the moment to decide what I can include in this section. I’m conscious that the main point of the paper is to discuss Habermas and Rorty to an audience only passingly familiar with either one. The section I posted is the one small bit where I can move into some of my own thinking – and, you’re right, I’m far too superficial in this piece to provide the kind of clear sense of how a historically-grounded theory can provide a meaningful substitite for all the theories based on notion of human nature.

    Hopefully, I’ll do a better job in the final draft of this piece – and a better job still when I can unpack some of this into a longer work. But at the moment, I wouldn’t expect a reader to be more than at best agnostic – I may be talking the talk, but the walk just ain’t there… ;-P

    I’m still ambivalent about whether I will continue with my current framing technique of recapturing the vocabulary of “capitalism” to make this sort of point. The vocabulary of capitalism is useful in that it’s familiar, has an intellectual history, and offers a reference point for many people. The vocabulary of capitalism also gets in the way in that it’s familiar, has an intellectual history, and offers a reference point for many people… This is the sort of thing that I hope to work out as I present and teach – seeing what the best path to communicating the core ideas might be.

    I am, though, interested in maintaining the balance between a vocabulary that is broad enough to explain key experiences in the historical period that interests me, and narrow enough to provide a useful guide to action. I’m also interested in mobilising terms that can grasp the creative, as well as the destructive, potentials of our historical experience – among other things, since the leap to human nature is so often the resort of forms of analysis that can only see negative dimensions in the present time. So that’s the agenda – even though, I’d emphatically agree, the present piece only scratches the surface.

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