Profit maximization is a ‘clean’, strong forcing idea, i.e. one that allows for the abstraction from local context. It binds human actions together in a social structure that proves very hard to disentangle. Communal welfare cannot abstract from life in this way. The internal motivation hinges on local outcomes and thus erodes, leading either to societal collapse or suppression, which represent more primitive forcing ideas, namely following orders and immediate survival.

was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka

This is the first of some short book reviews here on creativechoice. I love reading and will share my thoughts about the books that I are think are worth my readers’ while.

Cover from goodreads.orgThe short book Capitalism: A Short History begins with a concise discussion of the most important figures in the history of the concept of capitalism: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Josef Schumpeter. Kocka also mentions other thinker such as Karl Polanyi.

The book has a wider view of capitalism than Marx, who looks mainly at the mode of production and the way labor is organized. Kocka shows that the merchants of the Middle Ages already operated in a capitalistic way because they were profit oriented and seeking expansion. Apart from what is generally considered the heartland of capitalism, he sketches the development of proto-capitalism in the Arab world (where profit seeking was, unlike interest, compatible with Islam) and China (where it was politically controlled and embedded).

Kocka tells the story of the inevitable expansion of capitalism. He discusses colonialism and the plantation economy, pointing out that the mode of production of capitalism does not require free labor. The Joint Stock Companies such as the VOC and the beginning of finance capitalism is discussed. The book shows how in mining, agrarian capitalism and proto-industrialization capitalism encroaches on the domain of labor.

The expansion eventually led to managerial capitalism in which the manager is no longer the owner of the enterprise, like during the Industrial Revolution. Kocka identifies the ‘autotelic character’ of capitalism:  “the concentration on goals of profit and growth coupled with a simultaneous indifference to other goals” (p.  114). This trend had started with managerial capitalism but reached new heights in financialization.

The book concludes with some thoughtful reflections about the current state of affairs and how capitalism is always embedded in a social, cultural and political context – and its reform is a ‘permanent task’.

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), a sickly boy who transformed into a bear of a man with father issues, was according to many critics the greatest of the American poets. While browsing a collection of his poetry on the Internet, I stumbled upon a poem about reckoning. I understand from his biography that he sought for redemption or some way to find closure with his father, who died of cancer when Ted was fourteen. The reckoning in this poem is political:

The Reckoning
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

The vanity of accumulation is a common theme in poetry. I like to approach it with rhyme and humor like here. This reminds me of Bertold Brecht (I would have expected a verse with penny or pence, and hence…). Grim digits of old pain are that the numbers in the books that ‘litter up’ the home like the home of a real pathological 21th century hoarder is littered up with stacks of newspaper or piles of assorted junk.

The next step is of course borrowing at a pawn shop (or taking a second mortgage perhaps? This poem is prescient of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis). The error cannot be traced down: The failure is systemic. I’ve heard economists like Krugman or Stiglitz say the same thing…

A fare here means subsistence if I’m not mistaken. Being secure means just to be able to live and eat in your house – even if it means remaining in debt bondage. ‘We’ are seeking security by succumbing to usury, by buying into ‘the lack that keeps us who we are’, by always being in debt with the shadow of your creditor looming over you, extracting any possible surplus that you may produce.

So, I read this as a strongly anti-capitalist poem of revolt. What do you think about that interpretation?

Reading: The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke was originally published on Meandering home