We have already referred in earlier sections to how different schools of thought on the functioning of the pre-colonial Indian economy correspond fairly closely with different strands in economic thought. This is no coincidence, for each strand within Classical Political Economy was shaped by the experience of particular economic circumstances; thus, a range of ideas was thrown up, each of which was more or less appropriate to a given set of economic conditions. It is clear that, for our purposes, theories that were strongly shaped by the circumstances of nineteenth century trade and the Industrial Revolution … may not be the most apposite, reflecting as they do a set of economic interactions substantially different from those of Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.1
Sanjay Subrahmanyam wrote this passage referring to the problem of understanding India’s non-capitalist commercial system from an intellectual background rooted in the structures of capitalism and industrial production. British colonial policy-makers relied on theories that relied on a capitalist system to function. When these theories were applied to an environment operating outside of a capitalist system, they did not function. At the root of this argument is that historical analysis is always a product of its time, of its context; it doesn’t necessarily function as a worthwhile analysis of a different context. Got that? You will be quizzed on it later.
For reference, in this article the distinction should be made between capitalism, where capital is involved in the act of production itself and those who produce goods for exchange do not own the goods they produce, and commercialism, where people are still involved in producing things for exchange, but the people selling goods own their own products. It’s the difference between a person making something like bows and arrows to sell to support himself, and a person working in a pin factory, supporting himself by getting paid wages to help make pins for the rich tycoon who owns the factory and the pins. It’s all a little Smithian, but I don’t really feel like getting into any discussion of the relation between commercial capitalism and industrial capitalism at the moment.
End of Digression
Though these two cars, a Citroen DS Super and a Porsche Panamera S, may appear at first glance to be extremely different; one is a 176-mile per hour executive coach and the other is a quirky French oldtimer. But at their cores, they are exactly the same. Introduced to the market some forty-odd years apart, they are now separated only by a few feet on this Berlin street. Keeping in mind Subramanyam’s attention to context, there are several interesting conclusions we can draw from these two automobiles.
The low blue car, a Citroën DS D-Super, was put on sale as an envelope-pushing family car to convey the Post-War French family in comfort and style across the nation. It was radical departure from traditional car design: rather than common metal suspensions of springs and coils, the Citroën used a central hydraulic system to suspend the vehicle. It had front wheel drive decades before it became standard. It was an aerodynamic, extremely advanced automobile in its first year of production, 1955. The blue car you see here comes from the early 1970s, a testament to how forward the DS’ design was that nearly two decades later the car was still as up-to-date as any competitors.
Many people get hung up on the modernity of the car’s design. When one considers this car in terms of its context, one can see the intention to create a car of complete refinement and at the cutting edge of technological development.2
Just a few steps down from the automotive Everest of 1955 sits the pinnacle of today – the dark, lumpen shape is the most brand-new offering from Germany’s greatest sports car manufacturer, a departure from a brand known for small two-doors built to dominate every ribbon of asphalt on this green earth. This car here is fat, earthen, an open marketing ploy to cull as much capitol as the Porsche crest can acquire.
At least, that’s what the usual press on this car says. They claim that it may be fast, but it’s just a sellout; not only is it a dull thing to buy, but it is also a dull car to own. Its most notable quality, according to the automotive journalists of today is its incredible plainness at the high speeds it effortlessly attains. The massive vee-eight ought to be thunderous, with its twin turbochargers bellowing the car to its rocket-like top speed of one hundred and seventy seven miles per hour. The Panamera S should scream and bark and shiver down to its finest sinew to cry forth to the horizon, a jet-black Reichsadler soaring over the the swooping Autobahn. But the Panamera isn’t what the automotive press expected, nor is it what the automotive press wants it to be. The Panamera doesn’t seek to tingle or buzz like a sports car, because its aim is not to thrill or entertain, but simply to be as fast a four-wheeled vehicle for four passengers as can possibly be.
Laborious minds toiled away translating the forces of the world’s rippling tarmac into all but infinite abstract vectors, testing properties of aluminum and steel to absorb, to conquer the forces thrown at an automobile as it fights wind and earth, drag and friction, at nearly three miles a minute. From its ticking mechanicals radiates this expression of cutting-edge technology applied to a traditional sedan.
The challenge that these two cars confronted me as they sat just one parking space apart was how could I compare the two of them with each other. When I tried to understand them with like terms, I saw that they had extremely similar design briefs – build commercial successes by making family cars from top-flight technology and utter refinement. It seemed to me that they differed only in context – the DS was built for the roads of 1955, potholed, rutted, full of cobblestones, the DS was the fastest thing around because it would simply float along over post-war France’s rougher terrain. The Panamera, designed in a nation of smooth, rigorously maintained autobahns allowed for a low, ground-hugging ride and restrained, buttoned-down roadholdng for triple-digit speeds.
Their varying apporaches only reflect differences in the times and places of their origins; their quest for ultimate speed and refinement is one. These cars share the same four seats, the same four doors, the same piercing eyes, the same sloping rear. From their complex curves to their mechanically controlled clutches they are alike in nearly every way.
So if these cars are so very similar, why then am I obsessed with the Citroën and left completely cold by the Porsche? The difficulty here arises when it becomes clear that I have been disembedding these cars from their contexts all along. I have been judging the Panamera by the context of the DS. To me, the Panamera doesn’t fit in with the grungy, bohemian Europe that I see in my mind’s eye, that the DS fits in so perfectly with. Confusingly, the allure of the DS comes from seeing it in relation to the world of the Panamera; the DS comes across as odd and nonconventional among the everyday, slate-gray corporate estates that dot today’s Europe.
Ultimately, disembedding things from their contexts makes those things look very different, just as disembedding concepts from the relations that make them meaningful makes applying them to where they don’t necessarily fit in a problematic analytical method.
So why do these context-specific concepts get applied where they don’t have purchase? Why the misapplication? The problem, for me, lies in terminology. By using the same terms ‘cutting-edge technology’, ‘refinement’ ‘family car’ I get these cars all mixed up. What was refinement in the mid-20th century is not the same kind of refinement as in today’s world. The fast family car of 1955 is by no means a fast family car in 2009 and thinking of both the Citroën and Porsche along these lines can lead one to quickly get mixed up.
What have we learned? It is important to remember that the world of yesterday was not as it is today, nor is the way we look at the world today the best way of looking at the world of yesterday. Both Classical Political Economy and classic Citroën D-Super were shaped by their contemporary sets of social and economic relationships, and when these two points of reference are used to judge today’s economic circumstances (or today’s Porsche, for that matter) one gets very interesting results. The questions that a person asks, the frame of mind a person has – these frames define the kind of history that person will write and shapes the world that person sees.
1. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Political Economy of Commerce: southern India, 1500-1650 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 355-356.
2. For a serious history of the car’s development and time on sale, please read Ate Up With Motor’s typically rigorous article here.