Laws of History: Economic Determinism


The Laws of History: Economic Determinism is an undisputed law of history, though by no means the only one.

John Kofas writes: "Economic Determinism is an undisputed law of history, though by no means the only one as many Marxists would argue. Societal institutions, the state, the economy, social classes, religion, the family, values systems and norms are to a large extent economically determined. The question is to what degree do other forces play a role in determining history and society? For Christians who hold to the doctrine of Divine Providence, history is guided by the hand of God, while for Hegel history is the unfolding of the mind of God. Are the laws of history more rooted in the spiritual as St. Augustine argued, the intellectual as Hegel and to some degree Kant contended, or in the material as Marx and Engels maintained?

After the ceremony of president Ronald Reagan's funeral, former president Mikhail Gorbachev was asked if Reagan's high defense spending was the principal reason for the fall of the Communist bloc. Garbachev replied that there were multiple causes for the fall of Communism. Reflecting prevailing thinking among conservatives, Colin Powell insisted that defense spending was at the core. Since the early 1990s, Marxist scholars scrambled to explain why the fall took place and what this means for the future of Marxism as an ideology. If we assume that the laws of history are a reflection of the laws of nature, economic determinism is a very important law. Marx and Engels, among many others, deserve credit for their work in refining economic determinism into a coherent doctrine that helps all scholars explain history and political economy. Gorbachev was indeed correct that many forces precipitated Communism's downfall, among them economic. Semi-integrated into the world capitalist-system while pursuing its own regional integration, the Communist bloc was neither Communist nor capitalist, but a mixture of an anachronistic enclave that operated very inefficiently without meeting the material needs of its people and without offering much hope for the future. Ironically, the doctrine of "Economic Determinism" explains the fall of Communism. That should give hope to those who believe in Socialism as a viable system, and it should be a source of concern for those advocating globalization. The same forces that brought down Communism are at work in any political economy that fails to serve society and fails to keep pace with change".

Robert Crow writes: "High on the list of candidates for "laws of history" should be "Economic problems are blamed on the foreigner/outsider." Anti-Semitism, racism and nativism, and protectionism are obvious examples. This law also accounts for the pummeling meted out to globalization in the face of overwhelming evidence of its net beneficial effects to rich countries and poor countries alike. Reactions to globalization demonstrate the power and universality of this law inasmuch as globalization is condemned by significant portions of the population in rich countries and poor countries alike. In rich countries, "unfair" competition from low-cost foreign workers is said to take the jobs of honest, hard-working men and women. In poor countries, "unfair" competition from sophisticated, well-capitalized firms in rich countries is said to hold back domestic development, thereby taking the jobs of honest, hard-working men and women. The glass that in fact is three-quarters full is seen, as a result of the blame-it-on-the-outsider law, as three-quarters empty.

The benefits of free trade are among the oldest and most firmly established propositions of economic theory. Moreover, these benefits are supported by massive economic evidence, not the least of which is the emergence of globalized East Asia over the past 60 years from relative poverty to significant prosperity. This contrasts sharply with the record of protectionist Latin America, which has gone from relative prosperity to relative poverty over the same period. John Kofas writes: "Ironically, the doctrine of "Economic Determinism" explains the fall of Communism. That should give hope to those who believe in Socialism as a viable system, and it should be a source of concern for those advocating globalization. The same forces that brought down Communism are at work in any political economy that fails to serve society and fails to keep pace with change". With respect to globalization, Kofas is half right: those advocating autarky and protectionism are the ones failing society. However, according to the blame-it-on-the-outsider historical law, failure to serve society by picking on foreigners will probably continue to be one of the easiest ways of getting and keeping political power".

Harry Papasotiriou says: "While many political and social phenomena can be explained in terms of economic determinants, I would like to point to two alternative lines of argument. First, culture and religion may be a determinant of economics, as Max Weber famously argued regarding capitalism and the Protestant ethic. A more recent example might be the fact that in the last few decades East Asia did much better economically than the Muslim world (Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea were among the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s). Second, warfare and international competition is also a major determinant of economic, social and political phenomena, according to the historian William McNeill, among others. The ancient Greek philosopher Heracletus stated that war is the midwife of everything. For example, the rise of the sovereign states system, which was the necessary political framework for industrialization in the past few centuries, resulted from European warfare during the period from the 15th to the 19th century, according to Tilly et al in The Formation of the National State in Europe, among others".

RH: Is Islamic belief in fatalism a brake on progress? William H. McNeill, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Chicago, is an extraordinarily prolific writer: His most recent book, with his son J. R. McNeill, is The Human Web. (April 2004)

 

Ronald Hilton -


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