Friday, March 4, 2016

Ice-9 of the Economic System: Ellen Meiksins Wood's "The Origin of Capitalism"




I had only just discovered Wood when she died, and had some passionate sharing about her writings with a  friend and it was like discovering a band no one had hear of.  But now she died and it’s like becoming a Sublime fan in 1996 – too late to go to one of those conferences where’s she’s talking and listen to her talk and then ask her a twenty-minute question that is 90% the thing you think and then realize that you have to tie it in to the thing she was there talking about at the very end to your great embarrassment.

So there’s a lot to like here. The best thing is that she sets capitalism aside. The classical Marxist view is to think of capitalism as some sort of evolution. This makes it an inevitability and then communism is its own sort of proclaimed inevitability. What she does is instead look at the start of capitalism as a historical accident, one that started in one place and then spread.

This isolates the system, into one that has a definite start. What makes a definite start good is that it creates an idea of an ending. It isn’t inevitable. It is just a thing that happened that could be overcome. But the problem is that once settled in one country, it spread with its own “imperative” in each new country as Wood described (195). This puts me to mind of Vonnegut’s description of Ice-9, one where once it started; every water molecule knew how to form the new crystal. The problem is melting all the crystals so that the water (read: economic system) forgets what structure it once took so that it can take on less destructive to the human race. This book doesn’t take us all the way, but it shows the monster can be slain.