On Sunday, April 25, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on campus, UCLA Professor Emerita Joyce Appleby will participate in a panel discussion on the U.S. economy. Appleby is the author, most recently, of "The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism" (Norton, 2010). The discussion on Sunday will take place at 11 a.m. in Haines 39.
"OTHER THINGS BEING equal" is a basic condition for laws of economics to hold true. But when was the last time other things were equal? In "The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism," a crowning achievement written for the widest possible audience, Professor Emerita Joyce Appleby reminds us that capitalism was not foreordained, was never a freestanding system, and has always, since it took root in 17th-century England, been shaped by the cultures and the politics of local participants.
"There really aren't very many histories of capitalism," Appleby said. "There are economic histories, certainly. But somehow taking capitalism as a phenomenon in itself and following it and seeing how it shaped society and how social events shaped it has not been done often."
Argentina and the United States were about equally wealthy in 1890, but other things weren't equal. Argentine ranchers who reaped huge returns from their huge estancias stood in the way of innovation, while North American workers moved or were forced wherever resources were discovered.
More recently, South Korea and Taiwan reformed land ownership and invested in agriculture to placate farmers while they launched new industries. In spite of the higher wages they had to pay, mid-19th century textile manufacturers kept their factories in England, Canada and the United States, where most of the skilled workers and managers were. After fortunes practically fell into the laps of early Spanish and Portuguese explorers, the Dutch built an advanced 17th-century economy on the humble herring. Slave masters spun rationales for their actions, and imperialists behaved abroad as they would have been ashamed to at home, all driven by profit.
Long before its greatest perils were known, the burning of fossil fuels changed the relationship between human beings and the environment. American industrialists not only transformed the landscape but kept labor unions weak, whereas German aristocrats, disdaining their newly rich, established a social safety net for workers. For the first time in history, great swaths of humanity did not fear famine.
“As I imply, it was these economic changes that made modernity possible," Appleby said. The author sets most judgments aside to observe how capitalism has been at once unstoppable and also subject to collective mores. Soviet Russia and Cuba rejected private enterprise outright, made early gains in social welfare and then suffered for their inflexibility amid hostile competition. Americans bought up the cars and luxuries they and others mass-produced, enthusiastically accepting standardized products while many others preferred artisans' wares. War, depression and persistent inequality propelled new economic theories.
Fast-growing India sharpened its taste for consumer goods, and coteries of technocrats brought up four Asian Tigers. China announced its recaptured global heft at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and an era of Anglo-American market deregulation bore bitter fruit. Microcredit lending and other antipoverty programs showed promise. Still, Appleby concludes, economic development will be the engine for wider prosperity: "Three hundred million people have been lifted up from poverty in India, Taiwan, Korea and China, so that commerce is still doing the heavy lifting."