Order and disorder under capitalism

9780199390632“Currents of time swirling and eddying all about us, on the battlefields and in the military headquarters, in the factories and on the streets, in boardrooms and cabinet chambers, murkily at first, yet tending ever towards a moment of transfiguration in which pattern is born from chaos.”

J.M. Coetzee (1983), Life and Times of Michael K.

“The economic history of the developed capitalist world appears to be one of almost constant progress: inexorable growth, rising standards of living, rising productivity, and ever-improving health, well-being and welfare. Seen from afar, it is the system’s order, its internal coherence, which stands out.

Yet the closer one looks, the more haphazard it all seems. Individuals wander along entangled paths, propelled by obscure motivations towards some dimly imagined ends, crisscrossing and colliding as they act out their economic roles as buyers and sellers, bosses and workers, producers and speculators, employed and unemployed. Information, misinformation, and disinformation hold equal sway. Ignorance is as purposeful as knowledge. Private and public spheres are intertwined throughout, as are wealth and poverty, development and underdevelopment, conquest and cooperation. And everywhere there appears a characteristic unevenness: across localities, regions and nations; and across time, in the form of booms, busts, and breakdowns. Seen up close, it is the system’s disorder that is most striking.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), from p.3 of Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises

The above paragraphs open the introduction to Shaikh’s recently published magnum opus Capitalism, which aims to construct an economic theory of capitalism that offers greater explanatory power than mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian as well as heterodox post-Keynesian approaches. The former tends to start with order, harmony and equilibrium, and in its modern guise adds various imperfections to the analysis, while the latter emphasise disorder, imperfections and disequilibrium from the beginning, which require intervention to remedy. Shaikh contends that both order and disorder are present under capitalism, each giving rise to the other. As he outlines on page 5:

…systemic order is generated in-and-through continual disorder, the latter being its immanent mechanism. To attempt to theoretically separate order from disorder, or even to merely emphasise one over the other, is to lose sight of their intrinsic unity, and hence of the very factors that endow the system with its deep patterns. Yet order is not synonymous with optimality, nor is disorder synonymous with an absence of order. Order-in-and-through-disorder is of a piece, an insensitive force that tramples both expectations and preferences. This is precisely the source of the system’s vigour.

While Shaikh does not specifically mention dialectics here, he is surely echoing Marx. Throughout the book, he rejects theories of perfection or imperfection, instead conducting an analysis of what he terms the ‘real’ and constantly confronting his theory with empirical evidence in the spirit of the classical political economists and Marx, as well as Keynes and Kalecki.

Capitalism is certainly weighty, but it is well worth studying. I have already discussed some parts of the book on this blog and will return to its ideas and their application again.


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