Ellen Meiksins Wood is my hero in the academic world. I am saddened by her passing last week, not only because I look up to her and want to be like her (though this is a far-fetched dream), but also because I wanted to meet her one day … and shamelessly ask for her autographs, maybe.
The first time I’ve come to know her work was when I studied at ISS (International Institute of Social Studies) in 2010. It was one of our earliest and basic course, “Development Histories, Theories, and Practices”. As usual, before class, students have to read some stuffs to answer the question of that particular session. Her article, “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism” was to be read to answer the question of why capitalism first emerged in English and not elsewhere. It was a very intriguing question, typical ISS, and it’s an important question as it made us learn the distinctive features of capitalism that is often misunderstood (what makes it different from mercantilism, for example).
Now that she’s gone, I am preparing a tribute for her. I’ve finished reading two of her essays and I’ve been reading the longer version of her article that I mentioned above. It’s a book titled “The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view”. Today, I’ve finished 4 out of 10 chapters. Because I am already on her side, for me, the earlier part of this book is very lengthy and meticulous in explaining the flaws of opposing arguments that tried to teleologically explain the origins of capitalism by assuming that capitalism is “already there” and comes about by freeing its hindrance. She called it “the commercialization model”.
After reading that much of this book, I realized that it was not easy being her because a lot of (academia, highly educated! even Marxist!) people misunderstood capitalism, meanwhile she’s trying to be rigorous, precise, and accurate in understanding capitalism based on historical materialism approach. She got a lot of attacks on her rigidness, but her rigidness is exactly what makes me fall in love because it gives me the answer that makes sense and convincing, not just tiptoeing around the question and giving compromised sidetracks that abandons the real question.
I realized that her argument is standing strong to hold on to, as compared to the rests. She’s like a lone voice in her rigidness and she really slays the bullshits of other teleological arguments. If you read her works you know that she’s one of the most brilliant political theorist in our era. Another plus point is she has a strong integrity, in the sense that she didn’t feel obliged to be influenced by other arguments when it’s not consistent, although such arguments might be popular or having strong political supporters. But she’s not simply dismissing such arguments, she took the problem of really understanding what’s “missing”. For her, the most important thing is to deal with the core and she handle it radically (I mean to the root of the problem) without compromise.
I can imagine that she’s a person who never stop asking questions, at least in her mind. I can also imagine that she’s really studying everything to the core, at least starting with the right historical account.
From her book and articles, I got some idea and additional questions for my PhD research. Of course I will have to understand the history of what I am studying. I am really looking forward to be studying as hard as her!