Reading Notes: Week 1: Modes of Production and Growth


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), pp. 469-500.
Robert Brenner, "Property Relations and the Growth of Agricultural Productivity."

The first week's readings fall into three groups.

The first group is made up of those who believe in "modes of production"--that human behavior was in some sense fundamentally different (because of the non-dominance of market institutions) back before 1700 or so. The sudden appearance of modern economic growth looks, to them, like the formation of a crystal in a super-saturated solution: a small seed causes a change of state, and the new springs out of the old, rapidly comes to dominate it, and creates our modern--fast-growing, market-oriented, materialistic, bourgeois society.

As you read these articles, ask yourself the following questions: Was change really as discontinuous as these authors imply? How could you test the assertions that before the coming of "commercial society", economic processes were much "softer"--much less driven by the logic of competition and material gain?

But if there wasn't a discontinuous change, how then do you explain the transition from (relative) stasis to our current era of--by historical standards--incredibly rapid growth?

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 13-17, 104-130, 210-64.
Massimo Livi-Bacci, A Concise History of World Population (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 30-136.

This second group of authors make up a group I think of as the "ecologists". They focus on the evolution of human populations and technologies. Diamond focuses for the most part on eras in which human populations can be seen as "Malthusian." Are his hypotheses about human populations and technological development plausible? Where are they solidly founded? Where are they wild guesses?

Does he know the difference? What should he do--have done--to back up his story?

Bacci focuses on the demographic transition--what it is, how it occurred, how there is every reason to think that the demographic transition is closely related to rising incomes, and thus how there is every reason to think that the current population explosion will not drag the world into some Malthusian pit.

Michael Kremer, "Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990," Quarterly Journal of Economics 108 (August 1993), pp. 681-716.

Michael Kremer's article I both love and hate. The econometrics are embarrassing. The phase diagram--with its putative "proof" that productivity levels and living standards are always rising, and its implication that the industrial revolution and what followed were inevitable once the point of humanity was loosed upon Kremer's phase space--is unconvincing. Both the econometrics and the phase diagram take up valuable space that could have been used for useful purposes.

But the insight is amazing. the insight that back before the industrial revolution, as far back as we can see, human population growth has been slowly increasing in speed--roughly in parallel with the rate of increase of human populations as a whole.

This insight--that sheer human numbers played an important role in determining the pace of technological progress--does raise the possibility that the first set of readings may be looking for a fundamental change-of-state that is not really there. Combine language, literacy, printing, and relatively dense populations, and technological progress may be inevitable.

Thus is it possible to think of a non-capitalist industrial revolution? Kremer implicitly says "yes"--that it may be sheer luck that market institutions happened to dominate in those places where technological research density finally exceeded whatever critical value set total output growth growing faster than populations.