Human history as economic growth

Someone has described Oded Galor’s The Journey of Humanity. The Origins of Wealth and Inequality as ‘a powerful mixture of fact, theory and interpretation’. And that’s just about right. It’s basically an attempt at an economic history of humankind, seeking to explain the complex forces behind economic development from when groups of modern human beings first began spreading from their original homeland of Africa to other parts of the planet. The author presents us with a multi-faceted narrative of ‘long-term’ history that seeks to explain why different social, technological and economic developments have taken place in different parts of the world at different times in the whole span of the 2-300,000 year ‘journey’ of homo sapiens. Much, he argues, can be explained by the environmental conditions prevailing in the earliest times whose influence on ‘the fundamental forces that have swept humanity across its voyage’ have been and remain seminal. This is the basis of the method of interpreting history he calls ‘Unified Growth Theory’.

Industrial development

In attempting to identify and trace the forces that have governed the process of human economic development, he differentiates between what he calls ‘the Malthusian epoch’ (i.e., pre-industrial revolution) and the period since (ie, the development of modern capitalist production). The distinction he makes is as follows. Before the nineteenth century the productive forces and hence the wealth of society and its ability to support more people were ever developing, but, as they did so, this progress was offset by increasing population growth, so confirming the argument of late 18th century economist Thomas Malthus in his ‘Essay on the Principles of Population’ (1798) that the human population will tend to grow more rapidly than the food supply causing poverty for the majority to remain inevitable. However, continues Galor, the industrial production of the last two centuries has allowed the human species to escape from the Malthusian ‘poverty trap’ by ushering in an ongoing era of sustained economic growth. In this era the growing need for and emphasis on what he calls ‘human capital’ (ie, education) has meant that human beings have increasingly developed the knowledge and consciousness necessary to put a relative brake on population growth and so not to fall back into a situation of increased production exceeded by the number of mouths to feed, creating, he tells us, ‘a long-term rise in human prosperity’. It is this development of ‘human capital’ in the last 200 years and the fertility decline that has gone with it that the author sees as most ‘revolutionary’ in driving the overwhelming changes that have taken place in the way human society has organised itself.

He then seeks to explain why these changes have taken root more or less quickly and profoundly in certain parts of the world than in others and to do this he uses his theory to examine early but in his view deep-rooted, almost ‘ingrained’ factors causing these differentiations. These are factors such as landscape fragmentation, soil types, population diversity, family size and cultural institutions, which, though they may at first glance seem minor or secondary, he sees as intrinsic and long acting. Emphasis on these factors may at first sight not seem to sit easily with the Marxist materialist view that it is the development of the forces of the production that drives the historical development of human societies. Yet there can nevertheless be perceived an implicit recognition that what underlies all this development are in fact the productive forces and that the other factors on which he lays emphasis are part of the superstructure which is perpetually interacting with those forces – as per materialist theory.

In other ways too Galor’s narrative seems compatible with the materialist view of history, in particular in its account of the gradual and stuttering move from hunter-gatherer society to settled agriculture (the ‘Agricultural Revolution’). This confirms that, though this change enabled increases in production, population and goods available, it did so at the cost of subservience of the majority of populations to small ruling castes and probably shorter lives and lower living standards than before for that majority. The author synthesises it most effectively: ‘As societies … grew larger, it became essential for individuals to collaborate on a regional basis outside their kinship group. To facilitate wide-scale cooperation, these more complex societies were characterised by persistent and often hereditary political leadership, social stratification and centralised decision-making. With significant disparities in wealth, authority and status came class divisions and a ruling class, consisting of a hereditary nobility, whose interest lay in maintaining the social hierarchy and unequal distribution of wealth. The distinctions in status were reinforced and maintained by cultural norms, beliefs and practices, often religious in nature.’

But no class struggle

But if we can perceive a broadly materialist thrust to his Unified Growth Theory, Galor is to say the least equivocal towards the founder of the materialist conception of history, Karl Marx. Though referring to Marx at one stage as a ‘great thinker’, he writes off his key concept of the class struggle on the grounds that the idea that ‘ever intensifying competition among capitalists could only result in a reduction in their profits, inducing them to deepen the exploitation of workers’ has not come to pass. In fact, however, Marx never argued that intensifying competition would result in a reduction in profits, but rather that it would more likely lead to the ruin of the less competitive and to the concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands (which has in fact happened). Galor also rejects what he calls ‘the central pillar of the Marxist thesis … the unavoidable power struggle between capitalists and workers that would lead ultimately to a revolution and the shattering of the class-based society’, on the grounds that ‘the communist revolution Marx and Engels foresaw happened in 1917 in Russia of all places’, ie, not in the industrialised nations they saw as fertile ground for revolution. It will of course be clear to anyone who has read Marx attentively that the Leninist revolution in Russia bore no relation, except in the label falsely attributed to it, to the kind of democratic revolution of a class-conscious majority of workers that Marx advocated and foresaw. So the author is, to say the least, mixed up about Marx, and his ‘vulgar’ Marxism is all the more surprising given the exceptional scholarship and erudition which characterises this book as a whole. Perhaps it is instructive in this regard that nowhere does Marx’s name appear in the book’s extensive bibliography.

Nevertheless, the author’s description of capitalism (though he never uses the word) as ‘splendour and misery’ is strikingly apt. His thrust is that developments of all kinds must be weighed in the balance and even the worst tragedies have ‘limited long-term impact on the grand arc of human development’. So he owns that there have been massive humanitarian crises – wars, genocides, depressions, pandemics, atrocities, mass exoduses of refugees – in the last 200 years but at the same time points to continually increased prosperity or at least less poverty for billions and the hope that this will continue ‘to create, promote equality of opportunity, reduce human misery and build a better world’. He also however mentions – if briefly – global warming and climate crisis and wonders whether this will be a ‘short-lived’ phenomenon resolvable via ‘revolutionary technologies’ or whether it will be ‘the single historical event that derails humanity from its journey thus far, bringing the most catastrophic long-lasting consequences of all’.

The author’s intentions are clearly laudable. He states the need ‘to decipher the Mystery of Inequality and foster global prosperity’ and to address ‘the misery and injustice that continue to affect a large portion of humanity’. He writes that ‘education, tolerance and greater gender equality hold the keys to our species’ flourishing in the decades and centuries to come’. But none of this contemplates or allows for the obvious way out of the strife and suffering he recognises or a solution to the very incomplete flourishing of human development that the profit system, with all its splendour and technology, has proved capable of offering. None of this contemplates either an end to that strife or the complete human flourishing that a leaderless, stateless, classless society of voluntary cooperation and free access can offer once the majority of the world’s workers choose to establish it peacefully and democratically.


Next article: Cooking the Books 2 – Are nurses exploited? / Letter ⮞

One Reply to “Human history as economic growth”

  1. The Socialist Standard Past and Present received the following comment in response to HKM’s book review. I’ve cut and pasted it below. I’ve also let HKM know about the comment:

    Najoop said…
    “With significant disparities in wealth, authority and status came class divisions and a ruling class, consisting of a hereditary nobility, whose interest lay in maintaining the social hierarchy and unequal distribution of wealth”

    No. He/you got it all reversed. First came/was “class divisions and a ruling class” THEN came “significant disparities in wealth, authority and status” because the ruling class has always been a gang of psychopaths — study the theory of “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” …— which also coherently explains what mystified Galor calls “the Mystery of Inequality.”

    And, Galor “points to continually increased prosperity or at least less poverty for billions and the hope that this will continue ‘to create, promote equality of opportunity, reduce human misery and build a better world’”
    He is apparently a blind lunatic species racist because it is exactly this process of “continually increased prosperity” for billions of humans that has led us to the current omnicidal 6th mass extinction, an astronomical ongoing human atrocity against other life forms and ultimately ourselves.

    Galor presents the typical ignorant insane propaganda coming from members of “civilized” humans, and so this sort of “laudable” work is cherished by the mainstream culture.

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