Speech by Holberg International Memorial Prize Laureate Jürgen Kocka, held at the award ceremony on 8 June 2011

Kocka taler

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, representatives of the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund, members of the Holberg Prize Academic Committee, dear colleagues, friends and guests

I am deeply impressed and extremely delighted, I feel distinguished and honored by the prize I am receiving today, the Holberg International Memorial Prize. I want to express my gratitude to the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund, the members of its Board and its Academic Committee. I am grateful to the University of Bergen which I do not visit for the first time. I am grateful to the Norwegian Parliament for having established this unique and generous prize which I see as a sign of respect and recognition for what in German is called Kulturwissenschaften including the humanities, the social sciences, law and theology.

I am proud to join a distinguished group of previous laureates whose names lend additional weight to this prize, eminent scholars, among them the philosopher Jürgen Habermas who has influenced my way of thinking since I was a student, the sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt from whom I have learned so much in many interesting meetings and delightful conversations before he died last year, and Natalie Davis, fellow historian and close colleague whom I admire and envy for her capability to pursue history not only as a scholarly discipline but also as an art. Clearly, it is an excellent company one is allowed to join if awarded the Holberg Prize. I enjoy very much to be honored together with Jörn Jacobsen who has been awarded this year’s Nils Klim Prize for his research in criminal law and legal theory.

I was invited to speak about my current work which is on the history of capitalism. Over the last decades, most non-Marxist economic historians, economists and social scientists have avoided the term as too vague or polemic. But recently the semantic situation has started to change. This has to do with the decline of Marxism, the end of the Cold War, and perhaps with the recent financial crisis. We can observe a come-back of the term, at least in English and German.

Why does it make sense for a historian to reflect upon capitalism? One reason: the concept helps to overcome narrow specialization. It brings economic, social, cultural and legal-political factors together. If one writes about capitalism, one certainly writes about property rights and decentralized economic decision making by entrepreneurs and firms, about money, markets and commodification about investment, profit and risk, about credit and speculation innovation, innovation and growth. But one also discusses how religious beliefs have facilitated or hindered the rise of capitalism. One cannot avoid talking about social classes and social inequality, about the relations between markets and states as well as about the tension between private success and public responsibility or irresponsibility.

Another advantage of the term “capitalism”: it allows (and demands) cooperation between historians and the practitioners of neighbouring disciplines. The most influential ideas for the study of capitalism have been offered by historically oriented social scientists in the tradition of Marx, Max Weber or Schumpeter – to mention just three, but I could add many others like Tawney, Braudel and Albert O. Hirschman. Clearly this is a field of rich interdisciplinary opportunities. Historians can profit a lot, and they can offer a lot when cooperating with historically interested social scientists from other disciplines. I wished there were more of this cooperation.

A third advantage of the term “capitalism”: it invites us to investigate change over long periods of time, at least from the medieval period to the present time. It also enables us to adopt a global historical view. Usually capitalism is seen as a phenomenon which originated in Europe and flourished in the West before it spread out into other parts of the world, mostly in the 20th century and climaxing in present-day globalization. But is this correct? Were there not elements of capitalism – long-distance trade, merchants, investments, wage-work – in Tokugawa Japan, in Mogul India or in the Chinese Empire under the Quing dynasty (without using the word)? And what shall we make out of the recent experience of dynamic capitalism in places like Singapore, Vietnam and China? Apparently capitalism can flourish under very different legal-political roofs, under democratic, authoritarian and even dictatorial conditions. What, then, is the relation between capitalism and freedom?

“Capitalism and crisis” is a central historical topic with much relevance for today. The economic historian Charles Kindleberger began his survey of deep economic crises with the highly speculative South Sea Bubble of 1720 in which Isaac Newton lost a gigantic fortune. Newton commented that he could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people. For the period between 1810 and 1987, Kindleberger listed 20 such crises. He observed a regular pattern of manias, panics, crashes and painful recovery.

Recently I compared three of these crises – those of 1873, 1929 and 2008. While these crises show some similarities, they also differ in basic respects. While the similarities of the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008 have been much stressed, the difference between them were huge, among them the powerful rise of finance market capitalism in recent decades, the nowadays broad acceptance of debt and indebtedness in the private and in the public spheres, a now much more active role of the governments – which this time have taken over and, in a way, shouldered the crisis of the markets, or at least tried to do so (with consequences not yet clear). Times are different and changing, and this limits the possibility of directly learning from history.

Each time, the economic, social and partly even the political consequences were devastating, the human costs high and unequally distributed. At the same time, the crises triggered, after some years, productive responses. In the 1880s there was a move towards a more organized type of capitalism. New forms of cooperation were invented, between large industrial enterprises as well as between them and large banks; associations were organized, and there were other steps towards market coordination, supported by increasing government regulation and the start of the rise of a welfare state. - And in the 1930s the Depression led not only to fascism and war, but also to Roosevelt’s New Deal which in a way reformed American capitalism; and to John Maynard Keynes who developed his “General Theory” and his far reaching policy recommendations on the background of the Depression – a basis of economic policies in many countries for decades to come (though not repeatable for ever). In other words, crises caused breakdowns, sacrifices and losses, but they also served as dynamic factors, as engines which helped to change and reform capitalism. Whether the recent crisis will lead to such productive results remains to be seen, but it can be doubted.

Why? One of the reasons is the current weakness of Kapitalismuskritik. If we look more closely into the years after 1873 and 1929, we see that in both cases it was not the capitalist economy per se which led to those structural reforms, and not mainly the capitalist actors themselves who carried them through. Rather it was the interplay between the capitalist crisis, massive criticism of capitalism and political actions based on social mobilization in the public sphere – an interplay which generated partial solutions to basic problems and thus led to structural reforms. History shows how changeable capitalism has been over time. It has survived and outlived its enemies since it is a system which can learn, be reformed and adjusted to different conditions. But these reconfigurations of capitalism are not mainly the work of the capitalists, but, to a large part, results of criticism, anger and pressure from the public and politics. Capitalism needs its critics. Presently criticism of capitalism is week – quite in contrast to the 1930s.

Like other intellectuals and scholars of the Enlightenment era Ludvig Holberg was a man of many talents, activities and professions: playwright, essayist, historian and philosopher. He was not only professor of History, but also of Rhetoric and Latin. Nowadays we are usually more specialized. In the times of Holberg, historians still dared to immerse themselves into huge topics. They were not yet disciplined and domesticated by all the caveats and methodological rules the profession has institutionalized in the meantime. When Holberg decided to write about Jewish history, it was a “Jewish History From the Beginning of the World”. Modern historians are usually more modest. There are other differences between Holberg and modern historians.

But I would like to close by mentioning two aspects of Holberg’s intellectual profile in view of which I am particularly glad to receive a price named after this important native of Bergen. On the one hand he was very much an international figure who had travelled a lot, practiced the transfer of ideas across borders, and wrote about transnational phenomena. On the other hand he dealt with history in order to learn from it for the present. In both respects Holberg is modern or, at least, he should be.

The move towards transnational and even global perspectives is perhaps the most exciting and promising trend in the historical discipline today, especially fascinating for younger historians. As to learning from history, one has to admit that there are sceptics. No doubt, history as a discipline serves many purposes and fulfils many needs, entertainment and enjoyment among them. Still, I belong to a generation of German historians who got into the field right after the catastrophes of German history which climaxed in the 1930s and 40s, with a devastating impact on Europe and the world. To be critical vis à vis this history and to learn from it in order to help improving the opportunities of the future, has been a central motive. Nowadays global issues are more pressing. But I continue to be convinced that, in a modest and usually indirect way, the study of history can help to orient the present and make us more prudent for the future.

It is in these contexts, too, that I like to see the Holberg International Memorial Prize. I am very proud to receive it. Thank you again.

Professor Jürgen Kocka
Holberg International Memorial Prize Laureate 2011