I have recently been reading DEBT: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. It is sweeping survey of debt, money, commerce and social relations from the perspective of economics and anthropology. It was published in 2011 to acclaim, and is available free in PDF format.
The 5000 year scope invites the reader to situate our times, our conventions, and our mythologies into a greater continuum. Much can be learned from history.
As a co-operator, in a time when capitalism is vaunted so highly, I found several of the chapters refreshing. Indeed, there is no ‘inevitable’ triumph of capital (i.e. ‘end of history’) as some may say. There is a contest of visions, values, and social contracts, that are reconfigured through time.
This section I really enjoyed on page 260, on China during ‘The Middle Ages’:
“The Confucian state may have been the world’s greatest and most enduring bureaucracy, but it actively promoted markets, and as a result, commercial life in China soon became far more sophisticated, and markets more developed, than anywhere else in the world.
This despite the fact that Confucian orthodoxy was overtly hostile to merchants and even the profit motive itself. Commercial profit was
seen as legitimate only as compensation for the labor that merchants expended in transporting goods from one place to another, but never
as fruits of speculation. What this meant in practice was that they were pro-market but anti-capitalist.
Again, this seems bizarre, since we’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing, but, as the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, in many ways they could equally well be conceived as opposites. While markets are ways of exchanging goods through the medium of money-historically, ways for those with a surplus of grain to acquire candles and vice versa (in economic shorthand (C-M-C) for commodity-money-other commodity)-capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money (M-C-M). Normally, the easiest way to do this is by establishing some kind of formal or de facto monopoly. For this reason, capitalists, whether merchant princes, financiers, or industrialists, invariably try to ally themselves with political authorities to limit the freedom of the market, so as to make it easier for them to do so. From this perspective, China was for most of its history the ultimate anti-capitalist market state. Unlike later European princes, Chinese rulers systematically refused to team up with would-be Chinese capitalists (who always existed) . Instead, like their officials, they saw them as destructive parasites-though, unlike the usurers, ones whose fundamentally selfish and antisocial motivations could still be put to use in certain ways. In Confucian terms, merchants were like soldiers. Those drawn to a career in the military were assumed to be driven largely by a love of violence. As individuals, they were not good people; but they were also necessary to defend the frontiers. Similarly, merchants were driven by greed and basically immoral; yet if kept under careful administrative supervision, they could be made to serve the public good. Whatever one might think of the
principles, the results are hard to deny. For most of its history, China maintained the highest standard of living in the world-even England only really overtook it in perhaps the 1820s, well past the time of the Industrial Revolution.”
The distinction between markets, and the interests of those with pools of capital is important. Those who fashioned the early co-ops in the UK and Europe in the 1800s did conceive of co-ops as an alternative to early stage capitalism – a co-operative commonwealth. Those idealists also foresaw that concentrations of capital and the building of monopolies (and oligopolies) were a real threat to their society. Today, in Canada, this question gets too little attention in our credit union movement.
I recommend the book.