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Working “longer and harder”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I’m reading the book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought by conservative historian Jerry Z. Muller who is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

Overall the book is quite well and has a good accessible writing style, he covers the works of Hegel, Marx, Smith, Weber, and the like and their thoughts on capitalism.  Essentially, the book is an overview of how 18th, 19th, and 20th century European academics, philosophers, and economists thought of capitalism and its place in society.

While Muller does a good job of summing up the views of many of his subjects his scholarship gets really shotty and downright atrocious in other instances.  Take this for example:

Rising wages, it was said, would undermine the will to work, since workers would only labor long enough to meet their traditional requirements, after which they would prefer more leisure to more income…There is in fact some (not very reliable) evidence of just this pattern in England in the first half of the eighteenth century, but by the second half of the century wage earners were willing to work longer and harder to earn more…(58)

Yes, that’s right people!  The working class were willing to work more!  This is one of the more appalling quotes from the book.  Muller completely ignores the vast history of the industrial revolution in England and its debilitating effects on the working class: the fight for unions, the fight within parliament to regulate working hours, the fight of the capitalists to force their workers to work longer, the horrible living conditions, the break up of families through the labor process, 14 hour days for child laborers, 16 to 18 hour days for men and women.  All of this is glossed over and then explained to us as if we are to believe that the workers were willing to “work longer and harder.”

I also have issue with his views on Marx and Lukács.  Where as he tends to give the arguments of the other economists and philosophers a fair say he just can’t help himself in criticizing every aspect of their work.  Plus, some of his criticism doesn’t really hold up that well to scrutiny and much of it makes one wonder whether he actually read the works of these men.  When you look at his end notes you can see that he knows German and has read the original sources of Smith and Hegel and others.  But when looking at the end notes for Marx he doesn’t rarely lists (from what I can see) a single reference an original source.  He lists very some of Marx’s correspondence and some selective quoting from Das Kapital, but, a lot of times he will quote from an original work that was originally quoted somewhere else.  Much of his sources are reliant on some other academic’s work.  He’s just quoting someone who is quoting and/or explaining Marx; or he is quoting someone who is quoting someone who is quoting and/or explaining Marx.  This leads to some shabby conclusions by Muller.

The more I study academics and literature at my grad school the more I realize how much many academics really don’t know what they are talking about in certain instances and how “experts” in certain fields aren’t really “experts” in those fields (they normally ended up training in another field).

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2 Comments
  1. Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:58 pm

    ‘The more I study academics and literature at my grad school the more I realize how much many academics really don’t know what they are talking about in certain instances and how “experts” in certain fields aren’t really “experts” in those fields (they normally ended up training in another field).’

    Satirically funny :-)

  2. Friday, March 13, 2009 3:38 am

    Satirically funny :-)

    Yes! I know! That’s the hilarious part about it. The closer I get to my Ph.D. (I’m on my Masters now) I’m like, “Oh my God, this person has no fucking clue what they are talking about.”

    Don’t get me wrong though. Many academics actually do know what they are talking about and have minor differences with other smart academics. BUT, one thing is, is that there are so many academics claiming to know their shit (like Muller, who is a historian and not an economist) and then talk about something without actually reading the primary sources. Like Thomas Sowell talking about Karl Marx’s thought and then never actually reading anything he wrote, just citing a bunch of works on him and such (although he DOES know what he is talking about when discussing Say’s law).

    It’s academics citing other academics about primary sources that pisses me off.

    One good book on this phenomenon is Levin’s book The Opening of the American Mind in where the author writes about conservative academics critiquing American universities but the only people they cite are other conservative academics critiquing universities who in turn cite those very same academics.

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