Saturday, May 9, 2009

Read a nice review by Mark Engler of Ascent of Money, a book by the financial historian, Niall Ferguson. In which Mark starts with Niall’s earlier books praising the British empire for being a benevolent dictatorship that may have been indifferent to the ruled but did bring good things. In India and particularly the city where I reside that I still call Madras, the British still are remembered. Especially, in railways, gothic structures, etc. But this did have their own ends: railways to transport more British goods and kill the Indian trade; and the imposing gothic architecture to remind the colonized of the power of those living inside.

Then, the review provided stunning financial tidbits. That bond markets rose from the state’s need for money to go to war; and that modern insurance evolved from a fund for the widow of pastors of Church of Scotland. Wikipedia enlightens:

Insurance as we know it today can be traced to the Great Fire of London, which in 1666 devoured 13,200 houses. In the aftermath of this disaster, [an English physician] Nicholas Barbon opened an office to insure buildings. In 1680, he established England's first fire insurance company, "The Fire Office," to insure brick and frame homes. [Benjamin Franklin, that great polymath, brought insurance to America by offering it against fire]

Then I got to read a great metaphor for how some get through while other struggle (nonetheless in academics and by extension, in life). A newspaper columnist writes of Ferguson that:

The doors kept swinging open for him, while the rest were fumbling with bunches of odd-shaped keys, trying to jam them into the lock.

Then Mark mentions a widely respected work of the Hungarian intellectual, Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation. Mentioning this book, he goes on to dissect what I think Karl Marx should have been known more for: the real purpose of revolution.

Here’s how Mark neatly sums up Polanyi:

…The Great Transformation relates how throughout much of history, the economy was embedded in social and political institutions. With the rise of capitalist societies, the economic sphere became and autonomous force with its own internal logic, wrecking havoc on society and natural world. Reversing this process does not require revolution, but a deep transformation we have to make the economic system serve social needs through a politics of democratic control, rather than letting the ‘laws’ of markets dictate our every priority.

Marx is more misunderstood than I thought. His key worry was capitalism was alienating us from each other as well as from our true capacities. Pretty honest, at least for me. My true needs were what others told me they are, rather than what I consciously chose. A simple example is that I have very few branded wear simply because I don’t fit into them easily. But I still was asked to buy brands because it would put me on the ramp, where I won’t walk but would be recognized.

Revolution, another mudsling on Marx, donned a different avatar than he wanted it to be. Marx believed that political force is meaningless if the society is not ready for it. This explains why semi-feudal Russia massacred so many in the name of Marx (and was detested); while Ukraine’s Orange Revolution happened because the Ukrainian society was ready for it.

Above all, Marx wanted us to live wholesomely, being and becoming what we wanted to be (rather than becoming other’s shadows).

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