Friday, October 15, 2010

Transitions to capitalism

The economic system we call capitalism was a kind of cultural discovery, and, in terms of its consequences, probably the greatest cultural discovery in human history. Like the advent of urban civilization thousands of years ago, capitalism opened up a whole new continent, a new world, for development, and we're still just in the process of exploring that space. It was, in other words, a huge and relatively quick success, despite introducing some new strains associated with alienation (as I sketched in the theme).

But in the transition to capitalism, other kinds of issues arise, associated with a period in which an old order is disintegrating even as a new one is still not fully formed. Before a stable establishment of capitalist legal and property relations,  in other words, not to mention some kind of democratic government, the rule of law rather than people, and the status equality of everyone, there is ample opportunity for abuse, which is usually realized. We see this both historically and currently, in the three major transitions to capitalism:

  • The first, of course, occurred in the West, starting perhaps as early as the Renaissance, with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and gave rise to issues surrounding the enclosure of formerly common land, among other problems.
  • The next was the transition from non-Western traditional cultures to capitalist that occurred along with Western expansion and imperialism, starting from perhaps the mid-18th century and still continuing today, and this has had some severe problems associated just with the encounter between cultures.
  • The third one was, and is, the transition from socialism to capitalism, starting at the end of the 80's of the last century, and still to come in the case of Cuba and North Korea. The worst case of abuse here has obviously been the rise of an oligarchic kleptocracy in the remnants of the Soviet Union, and it remains to be seen whether China's autocracy will be able to avoid that fate, or will be just another form of it.
These sorts of transitions, by their nature, can't be easy, and in some cases in the past -- thinking of tribal and aboriginal cultures in particular -- have been, or still are, tragic. But change happens, at all levels, and while we can do our best to mitigate its bad effects, I don't think we can realistically hope to eliminate them all. And certainly, though I'm by no means any sort of historical determinist, I do think that efforts to halt or reverse such overwhelmingly beneficial developments as arise in the wake of the emergent, modern individual -- emancipation, equality of status, democracy, rule of law, individual rights, freedom of trade, etc. -- would be a tragic error of vastly greater scope.

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