10 Questions with Joyce Appleby

10 Questions with Joyce Appleby

In less than 400 years, capitalism has generated unprecedented wealth and new forms of power, altered prevailing wisdom about human nature, and spread itself far beyond its improbable original setting, a process that the eminent historian Joyce Appleby describes in "The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism" (Norton, 2010). Running all the way to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the history pauses on the lives of industrialists, adventurers and pamphleteers.

The Relentless Revoution

Who were the first "relentless" revolutionaries? And why do you say "relentless"?

The English are the first to put together the institutions necessary for a capitalistic economy. They're the first to have an entrepreneurial-based culture. And I try to make the point that it wasn't evident that this would happen, that it wasn't inevitable.

These developments gained a momentum that couldn't be stopped by religious conservatives, oppressors, or famine, which is your biggest threat throughout history. There had always been episodes of prosperity, episodes of good times, but they had never sustained themselves.

Before all of this, I think the word "innovation" had very negative connotations.

Change and reform and novelty were certainly looked upon with great fear, because usually it meant an epidemic or an invasion, so change was almost always seen as a negative thing.

But now we treat innovation as a wholly positive thing.

That's a major shift in consciousness, I mean, deep consciousness, when people no longer fear change or, by extension, the future.

You say capitalism is a cultural system. How do different cultures make capitalism different from place to place?

Let me take the example of France and Germany in the 19th century. This may not strike you as cultural, but it really is. French savers and investors were not interested in putting money into industry. They wanted to buy some sort of bonds, government bonds, whereas the Germans innovated with commercial banks. It's extremely important in a society where you're just beginning this economic development for entrepreneurs to have access to capital.

I think it's interesting in the contemporary world that the Indians are great consumers. They love Gucci bags and cell phones – everyone loves cell phones – but they love all of these consumer goods. Do the Chinese? No, the Chinese are savers. The government is enticing people to buy now. But they're not going to buy until they're sure of their old age. They don't have a social security system and so they save. Those are deeply cultural differences, and they lead to very different economic structures.

What's a cultural peculiarity that's affected U.S. capitalism?

Germans put in a safety net for laborers in the 1880s. They had accident insurance, old age insurance, supplemental insurance. It was done by aristocrats; it was done by Bismarck, done by the Junkers. They loathed the industrialists. They had nothing but contempt for them. And they had none of the industrialists' hard, grinding attitudes towards labor. They didn’t relate to labor that way.

In the United States, it's the manufacturers, the industrialists who had the political power – the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies and the Rockefellers – and they're not interested in creating a social net. They don't want the taxes…. Our not having an aristocracy, which has many advantages, did, I think, prevent our getting a social safety net.

Could you explain how governments get into the act?

Up until the 19th century, capitalism truly was run by private interests. The government helped a little bit. It prohibited spying, and it could lay on tariffs, but it wasn't actively involved in production. But when the government began to be interested in investing and using its money, using its power to become capitalist you might say, you had it moving into Africa and into Southeast Asia – where they'd always been, but as traders, but now as producers.

And I make the point that this changed dramatically the relations of Europe with the rest of the world, because when you trade, you just really deal with the people on the coast, and you deal with a very few people. But when you want to get rubber out of the Belgian Congo, for instance, you go into the interior and you mobilize labor through force or by buying off local chiefs.

Of course what I'm describing is imperialism, but I approached imperialism as one aspect of the momentum of capitalism. There was now this possibility that governments could join in helping their own entrepreneurs but also in masterminding many pursuits, rubber being one of the most important.

When you produce around the world, you have to take the world's labor where it is. In the case of slavery, of course, we extracted the labor, but that became verboten after the 1830s, '40s, '50s, depending upon the place.

One of your chapters looks at slavery alongside mechanization, machines running on steam and fossil fuels, seeing modern slavery as yet another development of capitalism. On capitalism's own terms, how does slavery work? 

It concentrates and organizes labor into "factories in the fields," which is not my term; it's Carey McWilliams'. It's a wonderful expression for the highly organized, relatively efficient use of labor which is also highly capitalized. You sink all this money into workers, and then you work them to death, literally to death in the sugar colonies. They replaced their slave force every 13, 14 years, and that's pretty horrendous, when you steal and enslave young men who were anywhere from 15 to 16 to 17 years of age. They didn't get old people. They got young people to be slaves, and then they worked them to death. Terribly immoral, but they extracted huge profits.

You describe two very different, almost opposite effects of capitalism on women. How does that happen?

Don’t you think that that's one of the fascinating things about history, that arrows don't always point in the same direction?

Since the end of the 19th century, women started to get into the formal workforce. Department stores were built in downtowns in the '20s and '30s. Clerical workers grew with the great consolidation of corporations at the end of the 19th century. Women were salespersons and clerical workers.

But 150 years before that, though they'd never had an easy lot in life, their lives got much harder with industrialization. When food was scarce, women went without food in order that their husband and children could eat.

You end the book with some sense of optimism about what people can do in democracies to stop the worst effects of capitalism. What are some things people could accomplish?

This is where working for social justice is so important to me. We no longer hire children as laborers. They probably do in many parts of the world, but it has definitely tapered off and is completely gone in the West. Is that because it's not economically viable? No. It would still be great to hire kids. They're cheaper, they're smaller, they're agile, they can do things that adults can't do. Why don't we hire them? Because our sensibility has turned against that. It appalls us. I think there is going to be a sensibility shift in the near future that paying people less than a comfortable living wage is just barbaric. It's inhuman.

I've wanted a global living wage campaign for a long time, but I realize, individual countries can't do this and individual corporations can't do this because they're not going to undercut their competitiveness. But if a changing sensibility came about that this was no longer acceptable, then we'd see a change. The world is running out of cheap labor, in fact. The Chinese are going to Vietnam for workers.

What is next for China? You do give them attention, but would China be the next big chapter?

What I think is interesting about China now is that they've been almost flawless in the way they've introduced economic changes without rocking this very overloaded boat. What remains to be seen is whether or not they can continue to control a population that has access to the outside world, as the Chinese now do. "How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris?" Well, it's sort of how are you going to keep them docile politically after they've witnessed this great bubbling, bursting, changing, audacious public elsewhere.

The other thing is that I don't know if they can continue to innovate if they're going to control access to the Internet the way officials are, because information is absolutely critical to innovation now. Maybe they can. I'm not saying they can't, but it's going to be hard. So I would guess in 20 years that China would liberalize. I also think that India, this great developing democracy, may pass them up.

Published: Tuesday, March 30, 2010