Ovidian capitalism


If you’re not a Marxist at 20, there’s something wrong with your heart.  If you’re still a Marxist at 30, there’s something with your head.

So say the English, and quite right too.  When I was 20, I was persuaded that capitalism was the villain of the piece.  I believed there must have been a historical turning point when good hearted villagers devoted to mutual aid were so corrupted by the marketplace that they now lived lives of suspicion, estrangment, and desperation.  The professor from our sociology course in second year sung us this, the "cash nexus," lullabye so often we know it by heart. 

Most of us snap out of it.  (Not that sociology professor, of course. He’s got tenure.)  For many of us, capitalism is then a grim reality, something to be obeyed as the arbiter of our work-a-day lives.  If we think about capitalism…well, mostly we don’t think about capitalism. It is an ineluctable force, and mostly an impenetrable one.  We could become economists, but unless we have the good fortune to become Tyler Cowen, we are taking orders in a dismal science, committing ourselves to the tedious reckoning of the collective effects of all that getting and spending.  Capitalism, impenetrable perhaps but never mysterious.  Most of us would rather sell aluminium siding.

Not so fast.  Selling aluminium siding is a lot less fun than it looks.  And besides there is another way of looking at capitalism that makes it a good deal less dismal and rather more fascinating.  It is to say that capitalism is a transformation machine.  It allows for all things to be reckoned relative to one another.  It allows almost anything to be turned into almost anything else.  In one of the great Ovidian exercises of the 16th century for instance, a man could turn himself from a striving, grasping commoner into a gentleman, and he could do this merely by turning iron (mongering) first into gold and then gold into a manorial home, a well appointed wardrobe, and table growing with silver and hospitality.  (That the English were better at this transformation than the French explains, I believe, a substantial part of the relative wealth of these nations.) 

I always thought this "conversion," or "transformation" effect was the proper domain, or at least the likely preoccupation of the anthropologist.  And I figured that it must be a latter day revelation.  But this all ended when John Wheeler.  In 1601, Mr. Wheeler published A Treatise of Commerce.  He wrote this book in his capacity as the secretary of the Society of Merchant Adventures. And indeed his Treatise is generally dismissed as a piece of sustained shilling by Wheeler on behalf of his employers.  At their most generous, historians call the Treatise an early pamphlet in the field of public relations. 

Oh, but it’s much more than that.

In the opening pages, Wheeler wants to observe how much of the world is now part of the marketplace.

For there is nothing in the world so ordinary and natural unto men, as to contract, truck, merchandise, and traffic one with another, so that it is almost unpossible for three persons to converse together two hours, but they will fall into talk of one bargain or another, chopping [i.e., bartering], changing [i.e., exchanging], or some other kind of contract. 

Everyone does it.

The Prince with his subjects, the master with his servants, one friend and acquaintance withanother, the captain with his soldiers, the husband with his wife, women with and among themselves, and in a word, all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth and raveth after marts, markets and merchandising.

And then Wheeler reaches out of his workmanlike treatise for something like the sublime.  Having glimpsed how commerce was now implied everywhere apparently with everyone, Wheeler now proposes a reciprocal effect: that commerce must be a conduit of culture.

            … all things come into commerce, and pass into traffic…


Wheeler, John.  2004 (1601).  A Treatise of Commerce.  Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. 

4 thoughts on “Ovidian capitalism

  1. Ed Brenegar

    Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Same applies to capitalism. What is the alternative? The persistence of the belief in socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism, only goes to show just how pervasive capitalism has become. It is so vital that it doesn’t even require belief in it to be a beneficiary of it.

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  3. Fouro

    Aye, tis a thing of fundament the sweat of the brow.
    Nice piece, Grant. I’d hazard to say there’s a special piece of grey matter given over to the sublime beauty of craft and the power of creation with our own hands. The Shakers have a fine saying that, if memory serves, relates their belief that work and it’s product–it’s beautiful yet simple result when well tended–are Exhibit A that we are put here for a reason: Hands to work, hearts to God.

  4. Peter

    It’s odd that Wheeler came to these conclusions at a time when people in his own country were giving their lives, their wealth and possessions, and their happiness for their religious beliefs, apparently without regard to any monetary reckonings.

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