Studies in the development of individualistic capitalism

Anthony Coughlan puts the spotlight on the work of the late Raymond Crotty, whose work on economic and pre-history, and his highly original theory of the origins of capitalism, are attracting growing international interest

Raymond Crotty (1925-94) is probably the most original social scientist to come out of modern Ireland.

It is fit therefore that this year’s Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin on 22-23 August should have Professor Lars Mjoset of the University of Oslo and Professor Joe Lee of University College Cork assessing the significance of Crotty’s work for Irish and international economic history.

Raymond Crotty is best known in Ireland for his constitutional action in 1987 against the government’s attempt to ratify the EU’s Single European Act Treaty by simple majority vote in the Dáil instead of by referendum.

The Supreme Court upheld Crotty. People owe it to him therefore that all new EU treaties transferring further slices of sovereignty to Brussels must be put to popular referendum in Ireland. A huge democratic achievement for one public-spirited citizen to bring about.

Because of his anti-establishment views and his advocacy of a land tax as a means of putting pressure on Irish landowners to use their land more productively, Crotty offended powerful Irish interests. That did not encourage a sympathetic reception at home for his views on economics and world history and economics -- a situation which is now changing because of Crotty’s growing reputation internationally.

Crotty’s recent posthumously published book, When Histories Collide: the development and impact of individualistic capitalism (Altamira Press, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, New York and Oxford, 2001, £35) is the fullest exposition of his theory of world history from the neolithic revolution up to the end of the 20th century.

On the way, he seeks to explain phenomena as diverse as the role of pastoral migrations in early civilisation, India’s sacred cows, the decline of the Roman empire, feudalism, slavery, why Britain became the first industrial country, the patterns of western colonisation, the lack of socio-economic development in the contemporary Third World, and the developmental success of Japan and China.

Internationally renowned sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale, has called the book “an original and challenging work, unusual and exciting”. Professor Charles Tilly of Columbia University says it gives an “astonishing set of insights into the relations between agriculture and civilisation”.

Crotty expounds in this book what is likely to become known as his ‘lactose intolerance’ theory of civilisation.

Lactose intolerance is a device of nature to expedite weaning and to ensure that mothers, having fed their offspring in infancy, are then set free to re-engage in their natural task of reproduction.

Various peoples around the world are lactose intolerant or malabsorbent; that is, consuming milk after infancy makes them ill. Lactose tolerance is based on a genetic mutation acquired in ancient times by pastoralist peoples, the northern Eurasians, the Arab Bedouin and the Nilo-Hamites of Africa. Without it there would be no modern dairy industry.

Today thousands of years of genetic evolution have resulted in high proportions of adult Africans, Europeans and Indians being able to consume milk -- they are lactose tolerant. On the other hand, nearly all adult east and south east Asians and indigenous Americans have a repugnance to milk -- they are lactose intolerant.

In ancient times the acquisition of lactose tolerance made it possible for more pastoralists, and therefore more efficient pastoralists, to subsist on given pastoral resources. It shifted the ancient balance of power from the crop-growing, lactose malabsorbent peoples who built the first city civilisations in the valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Nile and Yangtze, toward the pastoralists.

The modern world is one created by the Indo-European pastoralist peoples who, having acquired lactose tolerance, domesticated the horse and discovered metallurgy. Their acquisition of lactose tolerance was the basis of their survival and increased living standards.

They entered western Europe four to five thousand years ago and used their cattle to clear the forest and grow crops. They used capital, in the form of cattle, seeds and implements, to raise their output by their own efforts.

Whereas production in all other societies had been determined by the fixed amount of land or slaves available, neither the amount nor productivity of capital was inherently limited. In Crotty’s view, this was the origin, uniquely in Europe, of capital, individualism and the rule of law.

The rule of law in Europe was the expression of the unique political-economic relationship that existed between the individual and society in a situation where land did not limit production and where the individual’s production sustained himself and simultaneously enhanced the productivity and security of his fellows.

The individual hunter-gatherer, the individual on the communally grazed rather than individually owned pastures of the Asiatic steppes, and in the crowded river valleys of crop-growing ancient society, were powerless to add to productivity by their own efforts. Rather, by their presence they reduced the amount available to all the other members of society.

Echoing Marx, Crotty saw the principal concern of law as the protection of the property that has been the economic basis of law-governed societies.

Crotty’s study of the third world brought home to him that Ireland’s traditional economic problem of high unemployment and emigration had analogies in most former colonies of the European powers.

Here societies organised in communal, non-individualistic ways -- as Ireland had been in the days of the clans and Brehon law -- had had an alien system imposed on them which conflicted profoundly with their traditional way of doings things.

Their indigenous social structures had been ruptured by the externally imposed social structures of ‘individualistic capitalism’, in particular private property in livestock and pasture land, condemning them to permanent ‘undevelopment’.

These former capitalist colonies contrast with two kind of society that either benefited from capitalist colonialism or else escaped colonisation.

The first of these comprised the settler colonies of north America and Australasia, where the indigenous inhabitants were either few in number or were exterminated by European colonists.

The second group comprised the east Asian cultures of China, Japan and the Pacific Rim, as well as Russia, which largely escaped capitalist colonisation and borrowed eclectically from the West, taking what suited them while keeping their own cultures. The east Asian countries have rapidly developed in recent decades and are characterised by forms of collectivist psychology, behaviour and institutions which Crotty was one of the first to draw attention to.

When Histories Collide is available from the Four Provinces Bookshop, 244 Grays Inn Rd., London WClX-8JR, for £35 including postage

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-09-18 08:06:58.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2003 Anthony Coughlan