A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in one of the back rows of Mathematics 312 for another macroeconomics lecture. Straining to hear the voice of the professor, I kept craning my neck to listen. What I caught for my troubles were the excited fragments of a story, accompanied by PowerPoint, describing a meteoric growth spurt that the world began to suffer once the seeds of the Industrial Revolution firmly rooted themselves in the British Isles.
Our lecturer spoke about our species’ most radical transformation, in which achievements throughout thousands of years were suddenly dwarfed by the dynamism, efficiency, and wonders of the newly-born market mechanism.
Not content with outdoing the past, this trailblazing new social mechanism then went on to leave centuries of tradition in the dust so as to continue its expansion, ridding the Earth from the feudal forms of organization that had maintained human societies in relative stagnation.
Yet, for all the magic that was flashed before my eyes, I was genuinely dumbfounded by one of my professor’s brief side-comments. When detailing the gradual urbanization of Europe, my professor chose an interesting set of words. He described the movement of labor from its agricultural roots to the newly growing manufacturing sector as you would an adventure, briefly painting the picture of a wide migration of bright-eyed folks who voluntarily packed up their belongings and sought out the new employment that the cities could offer.
Naturally, as a “hopeless” Marxist, I was astounded by this description. As I learned while studying European history, the birth of capitalism, no matter how wondrous the consequences of it may have been, was a terrifying nightmare for a great number that had a hand in it. The amassed wealth that jump-started the movement came from century after century of ruthless extraction from deposits in colonies such as Spain’s, Portugal’s, and Great Britain’s, some of which were staffed by the remnants of exterminated populations or, as was most often the case, brutalized slaves transported from West Africa.
The “freeing” of an industrial labor force was an even more grotesque part of the process. Through a series of enclosures that began to unfold in mid-16th century Europe, hordes of sustenance farmers were deprived of a means with which to sustain themselves, forcing them to migrate as vagabonds to whatever hands that would feed them. Their eventual integration into wage labor came about not by their willingness to relocate into the factory but by the unrestrained deployment of state violence, which rounded up squadrons of these new “beggars” into atrocious workhouses. The early 19th century conjures, for me, haunting images of gaunt children stuffed in mine shafts.
Capital, then, came into this world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Karl Marx once put it. I don’t even have to look that far back in time to witness what I’m detailing. The unfolding development of China, India, and other “latecomers” has replicated this process of primitive accumulation with an uncanny attention to detail. Life isn’t particularly rosy for the one billion dispossessed that (according to Amnesty International’s latest statistics) dwell in the new global slums.
That story is nowhere to be found in the introductory courses of the economics department. You don’t have to be a radical leftist to acknowledge the danger of “whitewashing” in institutions like ours. Academia should be the realm of criticism, not reductionism. Such portraits of crucial historical phenomena not only constitute a distortion, but also may create a shaky basis for the theoretical interpretation of the present, in which the capitalistic laws of motion rule formerly untouched corners of the globe.
If we want to preach the gospel of “sustainable development” in our classes, then we must be acutely aware of the serious violations of human rights that have accompanied and still accompany the burdensome process of economic growth. Remarking on the recent appointment of Jim Yong Kim as the head of the World Bank (that our own Jeffrey Sachs avidly supported), English anthropologist Jason Hickel made the claim that there exists a “development delusion” in the First World, in which we believe superficial changes to the structure of such institutions can truly reverse 30 years of failed policies. These misconceptions are only strengthened when the darker portraits of our past are sanitized, even in centers of learning.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a member of the International Socialist Organization and the Spectator editorial board.
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