“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Social Darwinist Rats Leave Ship - Dog bits Man

We have probably expressed the opinion in the past – LI is nothing if not copiously opinionated – that James Buchan is the best writer on money who we have ever read. Not the best theorist, mind – he doesn’t try to compete in the heavy lifting department - but the best essayist. We missed his review of Neill Ferguson’s new book in praise of lucre, when it came out last week. That was a mistake.

Now, the truth is we have a sneaking liking for Ferguson, bloody imperialist and Thatcherite that he is. His history of the British Empire, which makes a stout attempt to defend that worldwide pillage on the premise that it was made on behalf of civilization – with the pillagers blindly creating a better world as they thought they were creating their own fortunes - makes the best case for colonialism that can currently be made. In the end, of course, it suffers from that foundational problem which Jesus, a carpenter and thus eminently familiar with construction specs, once pointed: a house built on sand cannot stand. Similarly, while the benefit to the UK of destroying the Indian textile industry, dispossessing the Amerindian nations, selling massive amounts of opium to the Chinese, exporting 6 million Africans into slavery and all the rest of it might be argued for, it is difficult to see why three cheers should emanate from the victims. Victims are stubborn like that.

Buchan notices that Ferguson’s new book, The Ascent of Money, is not very good until it reaches the nineteenth century… ah, but such a swift summary makes a sober porridge of Buchan’s acerbic prose, which has to be quoted for itself:

“Ferguson's reputation is so high that if he were a stock one would short him. The very title of his book, The Ascent of Money, is a screaming sell signal, like the shoe-shine boys trading stock tips at the door to Grand Central Station in New York in 1929. In fairness, Ferguson recognises that and his pages are hot with proof-stage tyre-marks, as he goes into violent reverse to escape from under collapsing arguments. None the less, his book is very readable indeed and the television series for which it is a sort of trailer, will, I am sure, be even better.

Ferguson believes money was invented to record and discharge debts, and he passes rather quickly on to the rise of banking in the Middle Ages, the issue by governments of annuities and other bonds, the origins of insurance and the establishment of joint-stock companies. As with all economist-historians, Ferguson's soul is at war with itself. History tells him there is such a thing as history. Economics tells him there is none, for everything is always and ever subject to unvarying laws (which just happened not to be discovered till the other day).

The result is that the book is not very interesting until it approaches our times. No philologer, Ferguson assumes pecunia means money in the sense that money means money. His account of the rococo Scottish financier John Law and his Banque Royale of 1719-20, based on no source older than 1969 and none in French, shows absolutely no feeling whatever for the character of his great countryman or the manners and laws of the French regency.

Yet Ferguson really understands the Rothschilds, and the 19th century in general, and he writes a long and marvellous chapter on the growth of house ownership as a civic right and the rise of mortgage finance. It was the depression itself that created the home-owning ideology and the credit institutions to pay for it, such as the Federal National Mortgage Association or Fanny Mae (which has just had to be rescued).”

As Buchan drily notes, Ferguson, in one of those sentences in which (as often happens with him) the historian is ambushed by the pundit, assures the reader that : "The only species that is now close to extinction in the developed world is the state-owned bank." This, of course, is “the precise reverse of observable reality.”

Which, of course, is where Ferguson ends up, much of the time. In a funny, violent tyre reversing in today's Guardian interview with him, he has just backed out of his support for the invasion of Iraq. And even gives the heave ho to John McCain, who he was advising this spring. However, since Ferguson believes ardently in the Social Darwinist gospel of the struggle for existence, it is perhaps not unexpected that he'd put a knife today in the positions he espoused yesterday. He is not going down, if he can help it, on anybody's ship.


P.M.Lawrence said...

"Similarly, while the benefit to the UK of destroying the Indian textile industry, dispossessing the Amerindian nations, selling massive amounts of opium to the Chinese, exporting 6 million Africans into slavery and all the rest of it might be argued for...".

Britain is not guilty of number 2 (it was the colonials who did that, and in fact one of their grievances was that Britain attempted to call a halt to it), and only partly guilty of number 4 (that figure ascribes the whole trade to Britain, conveniently forgetting how much was in the hands of French, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese and so on).

It is at least arguable that the whole catalogue falls under the heading of reckless (damage to Indian textile work was collateral damage, and did not affect basic conditions of existence) and/or negligent (not appreciating that plantation work could be slow death rather than escape from slaughter as a by-catch, and also fed the slave raids) rather than wilful, in that the harm was either not known or not appreciated at the time. And there is also the argument not available to today's hegemon that Britain was not hegemonic; that the only choice open to Britain was whether to participate and not be pushed under or stand aside and be beaten by others (not merely economically, either), that there was only a choice as to who and not as to whether. I am sure readers appreciate the limits of that argument, but not that they appreciate that it does go some way.

Pecunia (-ae) is cognate with pecus (-udis), beast, which shows the original connection in the Roman mind of wealth with productive capacity (here, the idea is yokes of oxen, work animals), as it is in so many other cultures that measure wealth in herds. Note also that the original word has the less regular and simple form, another common feature when words are related.

roger said...

Of course Britain is guilty of no. 2 - that they were moderates compared to the Americans does not mean that they weren't displacing the American Indian nations. Look, Mr. Lawrence, at Canada. As for the slave trade - I'm not really sure that I have to say, oh, the arabs, dutch, french, etc. were also slave traders - we are talking about the British. Such excuses are morally unintelligible. If I murder x, well, it isn't as though I can plead that murder is common enough that I am being unfairly blamed.
The case of the Indian Textile industry is fairly well known. I cold easily expand on the British exploitation and misuse of Indian wealth - you do know, Mr. Lawrence, where the 18th century nabobs got the money to build their big, beautiful houses?

The British, of course, didn't invent wholesale robbery as the road to wealth and development. But they are unique in seeming unable to cope with robbery without covering it in veils of the most ludicrous moral uplift. Ferguson was a cheerleader for the neo-imperialism of 2002-2003. It was disgusting, infamous as policy advice, hypocritical as a "moral" project. I'd much prefer my robber not to lecture me about his virtues and my vices as he is taking my wallet.

P.M.Lawrence said...

On no. 2, the simple fact of the matter is, the only aspect or emanation of Britain that did it was the colonials. You did not get some collective Britain doing it, only the local aspects. Do indeed look at Canada - you will not find that order of behaviour there. You will find ill treatment, but not dispossession.

The point at issue on no. 4 is the number. It is not an excuse about participation, it's pointing out that the specifics of the charge are wrong, laying others' crimes at Britain's door as well.

You are apparently unfamiliar with the general run of European imperialism, if you suppose that Britain was "unique in seeming unable to cope with robbery without covering it in veils of the most ludicrous moral uplift". Not only did the French exceed them, but in general Britain only supposed that such things were incidental benefits; the French, however, took those things as justifications for the whole enterprise, the mission civilisatrice.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, whereever the British went, you have the same story of dispossession. The Canadian history of dispossession of Indian Nations. As Jill St. Germain puts it in Indian Treat making Policy in the United States and Canada, "From the land transfers of the 1790s to the Robinson Treaties of 1850, there was little to be found in the Indian treaties of British North America aside from provisions for the surrender of territory."

Now, every pillaging expedition that goes by the name of empire sanctifies itself in some way. The Spanish brought Christianity, the French brought civilization. But neither of those qualities were claims that they were doing their job for the natives - the French and the Spanish were very clear that they were imposing, by force, upon the native populations, and reaping the gains. This is in line with the Moghul Empire. It is the British imperialist discourse that provided a twist, coloring itself, with maximum hypocrisy, as a power grab on behalf of elevating the natives. It was all sacrifice. That is more than a nuance - it is the basis of Britain's worldwide reputation for hypocrisy. And this hypocrisy has been effortlessly transposed to the Americans.

Anonymous said...

what? is the current crisis so bad we're going to see a disturbing sequel to the soviet NEPman and the civil war carpetbagger - the "dog bits man"

best regards


P.M.Lawrence said...

Roger, we've been over this before. Britain was not monolithic. All those things were done by local British interests, against the wishes of "Britain" as a whole - to the extent that it makes sense to talk of such - which consistently dragged its feet because of the financial and other costs of deeper entanglement. That mindset really only changed about the time of the Boer War, and even then only briefly; you can safely criticise that in that way. Up until then Britain as a whole is indeed culpable, but not of those things; rather, of being an accessory after the fact, ratifying and consolidating the things that were done. The fact that sincere efforts at mitigation were made is indeed taken as hypocrisy, but only by those who read Britain as monolithic. In fact, such suspicions go back to at least the end (and the manner of the end) of the War of the Spanish Succession, on the part of those who did not read it as the consequence of a different party coming to the fore but as a continued outworking of a continuing entity. By all means criticise that emergent behaviour, but do not mistake it for any actual "Britain".

By the bye, while the French were indeed very clear that they were profiting, they also sincerely - and monolithically - believed that they were conferring net benefits on the natives, and that they were primarily motivated by that "mission civilisatrice" and only secondarily by profit. (There is a partial exception in the case of North Africa, where there was yet a third motive that was primary: to strengthen a faltering monarchy by uniting the country behind foreign adventures.)