Prime Edition

The Relentless Revolution

Joyce Appleby

W.W. Norton and Company

Pages: 494 Rs. 849

Capitalising on the Herd: As and Bs but no Ys and Zs

Joyce Appleby’s account of capitalism has a number of convenient holes. It fails because it emanates from a strangely ahistorical worldview, writes Nandini Ramachandran

Nandini Ramachandran  3rd Jul 2011

he bedrock of capitalism, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, is the herd-instinct. Political economy is not a field renowned for whimsy, and it's easy to discard people in an age of data. Joyce Appleby sets out to remind us this in The Relentless Revolution. It is, we are informed, a history of "culture, contingency and coercion" in capitalist endeavour. The book thus records success stories from Wedgwood to Walmart; the story of capital as told from the ironic upside. We learn Pocahontas married the first Englishman to hybridise tobacco and that Phillip Farnsworth died obscurely after inventing the television, the cathode ray, the electrical scanner, and the vacuum tube. In doing so, it falls prey to a fallacy Alexander Pope once mocked:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night; GOD said, Let Newton Be! And all was Light.

History, Appleby forgets in her rush to record human achievement, is a kaleidoscope - law, economy, the arts, religion - every relationship intersects to weave a tale from the time. It is a chronicle of humanity, not people. It is odd Appleby fails to perceive the distinction, for her intellectual "mentors" never forgot the essential abstraction of their enterprise. For Adam Smith, economic wealth was the consequence of liberties and human volition. For Marx, economic wealth was the consequence of a depraved human nature: wage-slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, take your pick. For Weber, enterprise deployed a trained human nature. Capitalism, to them, was more than the serendipitous clash of self-interests; it was an organism born from a system of thought.

Truth be told, there is the barest hint of Marx in Relentless Revolution, Trotskyist title notwithstanding. This tale of capitalist 'endeavour' is told with an eye for profit rather than penury. The book is Weber and Smith all the way - with a large dose of their prodigal progeny, Keynes - and its writer shares all the standard Cold War prejudices. It is emblematic of the lunacy of Appleby to argue that "Russia lacked leaders knowledgeable about modern economics" after they invented the planned economy that hoisted the West out of the Great Depression.

This is the kind of book where London is a 'glittering world capital' in 1850. The dank Dickensian city has no place on this map. Native Americans intrude upon the scene only long enough to sicken and die in their millions. For a book ostensibly about invention, the atom-bomb merely "ended the Pacific War" while "environmentalists mounted one of the most successful movements in history". The politics of cotton and sugar are discussed extensively, but the politics of indigo is not even mentioned. Appleby might claim that "capitalism acquired a sinister patina when governments took the initiative away from the private investors who had been running the show." No one remotely familiar with privateers of the East India Company could reach such a startling conclusion. To those of us in the colonies, capitalism always had a sinister patina.

History, Appleby forgets in her rush to record human achievement, is a kaleidoscope — law, economy, the arts, religion — every relationship intersects to weave a tale from the time.

Her thesis about Indian capitalism is a microcosm of the problem with the book. It is a fragmentary analysis, an evasion then obscured by glib generalisations. "India's labour law prevents exploitation(!), the country suffers from pervasive corruption, dangerous roads, frequent protests..."  Appleby drifts through a cursory history of British and early-Independent India, makes a facile comparison of Mao and Gandhi, and tells us that Manmohan's Singh electoral base is the urban proletariat. In India, we often neglect our legacy from earlier generations. Without import substitution and agricultural self-sufficiency (since ruined) and non-alignment, we might have foundered in the manner of most de-colonised nations. It was the mixed economy and babu democracy that Appleby's despised License Raj cobbled together that allowed India to skirt her fate.

From the Mississippi Bubble to our recent recession, Capitalism has a history in crises as much as in causation. It "cultivates an optimism that denies reality". Appleby's book might've been written in a time of crisis, but her optimism remains. This is a narrative about ephemerality — a vision, a dream, an ad-campaign — as much as about places and events. She confines capitalism's disasters to her last chapter, and her final section describes the arsenal of progressive thinkers and experiments — Amartya Sen, Hernando De Soto, Mohammed Yunus — "who want to use the strengths of capitalism to enhance everyone's life", rather than denigrate its "rapacity" or "vulgarity". To quote the anointed aphorist of postmodern finance: If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice; if it increases, you suffered injustice. Histories are meant to eclipse both perspectives.

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