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Who's Afraid of Capitalism? : Historical Economics and the Naturalisation of Capitalism

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Title: Who's Afraid of Capitalism? : Historical Economics and the Naturalisation of Capitalism
Author(s): von Pfaler, Lauri
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences
Degree program: Master's Programme in Global Politics and Communication
Specialisation: Global and Political Economy
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2020
Abstract:
This thesis investigates the history and consequences of the post-WWII naturalisation of capitalism. It draws centrally on social history of political thought, an approach to intellectual history developed by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Neal Wood, and situates the transformations that turned economic history into neoclassically-oriented historical economics ‒ the most fundamental example of naturalisation in the period under investigation ‒ in their wider socio-political context. The aim is to understand the politics of concept-formation and discipline reconstruction. The thesis presents the commercialisation model, the central naturalising account of the origins of capitalism. It equates capitalism with trade, markets, and towns, and explains its emergence circularly by capitalist phenomena and dynamics. Capitalism becomes universal, a naturalised and expected development that is only impeded by political or cultural fetters. In contrast, the thesis claims that capitalism is a historically specific arrangement of social relations, norms, and practices. The characteristics that are both specific and have been historically central to it are account for by a brief history of their unintended emergence as a result of class conflicts in the medieval English countryside. The thesis then considers the absence of capitalism as an analytical and historical concept in the specialised discipline of the economy. Thereafter, it presents the building blocks of historical economics: an abstract concept of the market as an information processor, reified notions of information and choice, and mathematics. All emanate from post-WWII economics, and the origins of the first three are traced to the twentieth-century struggle against collectivism and Marxism. Next, the thesis situates the construction of historical economics, a universalising and increasingly ahistoricist field, in the socio-historical context from 1950s onwards, emphasising important similarities with neoliberal thought and Friedrich Hayek. Two disciplinary developments are shown to be crucial. The first, cliometrics, is constituted by the direct use of neoclassical economics to study history. The second, new institutional economics (NIE) is a product of the 1970s. NIE claims to be more realistic and historical than neoclassical economics, but shares its naturalising impulses with the former. It is actually a more powerful tool of naturalisation because its framework allows the explanation of the social in terms of the economic. The transformations had profound implications for the understanding of capitalism. The theoretico-methodological framework ensures that historical economics projects aspects that are historically specific to capitalism onto non-capitalist historical contexts. Consequently, the latter is portrayed as qualitatively similar to the former in a way that re-embraces and refines the older commercialisation thesis: markets and private property are naturalised; relative price changes become the motor of history; and capitalism ‒ or a variant of its conceptual ‘place-holders’ ‒ is argued to only have alternatives that end in tragedy. Finally, the policy implications of naturalisation are assessed.
Keyword(s): capitalism historical economics cliometrics new institutional economics neoliberalism global political economy


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