Economic Crises and the Shape of Modern History
The profound economic crisis touched off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008 poses deep and uncomfortable questions for social analysis. The crisis has, to be sure, given rise to a multitude of books, most of them focused on what specific forces or policies caused the financial meltdown and what can be done to repair the damage. As cogent as some of these analyses might be, they rarely touch on a larger question that, in my opinion, the crisis insistently poses: the question of capitalism itself as a moving force in history. In recent decades, few in the contemporary social sciences, beyond a relatively small Marxist remnant, have taken seriously the notion that capitalism as a socioeconomic system has intrinsic dynamics that impart a specific direction and rhythm to modern history. The question of capitalism’s historical effects cannot even be posed in mainstream mathematical economics, which assumes that self-interested calculation is a universal constant and that movements in economic variables are necessarily governed by equilibrium conditions. Meanwhile, left-leaning social scientists, who are currently interested more in questions of gender, race, ethnicity, or colonialism than in economic inequality, favor cultural and political explanations of the social world. They tend to shun arguments about economic dynamics as inherently reductionist. Even the growing band of sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists who work on economic relations rarely pay much heed to the larger rhythms of capitalism. Their essential (and very important) project is to demonstrate in study after study that real-world economic conduct consistently fails to correspond to the economists’ models. But their understandable zeal to refute the economists’ arguments has rendered them nearly as skeptical as cultural historians, anthropologists, and cultural sociologists about the autonomous causal powers of economic forces. Outside of economics departments, contemporary social scientists tend to treat as taboo any argument that might be construed as “economic determinism.”
Yet the cascading effects of the current economic crisis seem to demonstrate irrefutably the tremendous power of economic forces in our contemporary lives. Moreover, the course of the crisis insistently echoes capitalist crises of past decades and centuries. Comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s are rife in both public and academic discourse on the current crisis, and the bubble in securitized mortgages that was its proximate cause looks uncomfortably like the long history of asset bubbles stretching back as far as the tulip mania in early seventeenth-century Holland. Our societies are being battered by powerful economic forces that appear to be systemic — that is, intrinsic to the enduring dynamics of capitalism. Our current experience should convince us to lift the taboo that has prevented us from asking how capitalism’s dynamics shape our past and our future.
This essay considers what I regard as a fundamental set of questions about the place of economic crises, like the one we are living through, in the temporal shape of modern history. What kind of historical event is an economic crisis? What are the distinctive temporalities of economic life under capitalism that make crises recur — in spite of our common desire to avoid their obviously destructive effects? How do economic temporalities combine with political or cultural temporalities to shape historical change over both the short and long run? How can an understanding of the temporalities of capitalism help illuminate the implications of the current crisis?
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