Continuing with my history of the world…

Earlier, I characterised the emergence of capitalism in relation to the transformation of the four medieval figures of the lord, the peasant, the merchant, and the king. But I haven’t yet said anything about the king – except in relation to the strengthening of royal houses under absolutist state-forming enterprises which prefigured capitalist development. By the time the star of capitalism was rising, kings had largely lost their medieval role as military strongmen. And as we enter the early modern epoch, the idea of royal sovereignty in the form of an embodied individual – the monarch – started giving way to something more figurative, the fertile but troublesome idea of the sovereignty of the people. Classics of early modern political philosophy such as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan enable us to peek under the bonnet and watch the workings as the king was thus turned into the modern state. So, likewise, I’ll interpret the question of the role of the ‘king’ in capitalism more figuratively in terms of the role of the state.

The basic point is that despite our contemporary post-socialist tendency to counterpose ‘the market’ of the capitalist economy with ‘the state’, capitalist development has always been a state project, albeit in partnership with private actors. Without the state, there’d certainly be no capitalism, and probably not even all that much of a ‘market’ in the sense of places where people come together to buy and sell goods. The commercial ventures of early European capitalism both within and beyond the subcontinent’s borders were joint public-private efforts. Their success made countries like Britain and the Netherlands the richest tax-states the world had yet seen. An important feature of them was that state exchequers no longer functioned as the essentially private booty of warrior aristocracies but were redirected towards the aggrandisement of the state as a more organic national body. It’s not necessary to succumb to the delusion that capitalist states held the wellbeing of all their constituent people in equal regard in order to acknowledge this broad difference between a modern state grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the people and a medieval one grounded in the idea of the sovereignty of the monarch. But whatever the rights or wrongs of the early modern capitalist states, it does seem to me that all the potential jockeying between lord and yeoman, yeoman and labourer, merchant and lord and so on implicit in my preceding account could easily have gone in directions that would have interrupted the smooth progress of capital accumulation. The fact that it didn’t testifies to the importance of the state in mediating between these various factions in the interests of capital.

So to summarise, when it comes to deciding who among our cast of medieval characters – the king, the lord, the peasant or the merchant – was the prime architect of capitalism, my inclination is to let the historians keep arguing among themselves, and say with a shrug ‘all of the above’. But if I were forced to choose, I’d go for the merchant, with a little help from the king. Perhaps this makes intuitive sense inasmuch as one thing we can surely say about contemporary capitalism compared to its medieval forerunners is that ‘the market’ looms much larger in the former, and markets are what merchants are all about, right? Well, yes – except that under capitalism ‘markets’ in the medieval sense (traders selling their wares in a market square, or middlemen clinching hard-wrung business deals in harbour-front warehouses) have lost ground to vast vertically- and horizontally-integrated corporate enterprises whose very modus operandi is, with the collusion of the state, to defeat competition and destroy the market.

Now, as I mentioned above, one of the main ways that champions of the capitalist economy justify it is in terms of the stuff it produces – the wonderful panoply of consumer goods and technological marvels that it makes available to ordinary people. And two of the main ways that its critics counter this argument are by suggesting, first, that this wonderful panoply is socially dysfunctional, and, second, that it’s environmentally unsustainable. But a third criticism is that it’s economically unsustainable in its own terms. Going back to the definition of capitalism on p.18, I want to note that the driving force of the system is capital accumulation, which secures the reproduction of society only as an ‘unintended side-effect’. The incentive in a capitalist economy is to accumulate capital in whatever way is easiest, and only in certain special circumstances does that involve manufacturing goods, improving the technical efficiency of goods production and spreading the resulting stuff generously among ordinary people.

Consider William Cronon’s history of Chicago. In the 1830s the city was a fur-trading post of the early capitalist kind – a merchant capitalist enterprise linking foraging peoples of the world system’s outer periphery to the international clothing market. By the 1850s, the fur was mostly gone and Chicago was in its agrarian-industrial phase, using technological developments in transport and storage to link its prairie hinterlands with global markets for meat and grain. Part of this package in the 1850s included the invention of futures markets by the Chicago Board of Trade to help ease the flow of trade in agrarian commodities afflicted by ecological uncertainty. By the 1870s, Chicago was trading about $200 million in actual grain, but $2 billion in grain futures markets where the actual price of grain and the ecological factors affecting the crop no longer mattered. In this virtualisation of the productive economy, the debt state was (re)born in its modern guise – and at what a rate! Karl Marx described capitalism as a process of M → C → M’ (money is turned into commodities, which in their turn are transformed into more money than you started with). But why bother with that troublesome middle ‘C’ if it becomes easier simply to turn money into more money? Well, here’s one reason: Giovanni Arrighi argues that the status of the world’s leading capitalist country has passed from the city-states of Venice and Genoa, to the Netherlands, then to Britain and latterly to the USA. In each case, the period of decline was marked by a growing financialisation in which physical trade or manufacture was supplanted by a virtual economy – a process that seems far advanced in the declining capitalist powers of Britain and the USA today. So maybe there’s a case for keeping the market real. And for remembering that capitalism isn’t fundamentally about ‘the market’ in the sense of furnishing the goods and services that people want, although sometimes it does have that side-effect.

But I’m running ahead of my chronology once again. So a final point about the emergence of capitalism – it had some kind of relation to science, technology and the notion of ‘progress’. But what kind? A common self-conception in the west often conflates various political, economic and intellectual strands into an indissoluble nexus: democracy and political freedom, capitalism, economic efficiency, increasing scientific knowledge and engineering skill, rational enquiry – all flying under the banner of ‘progress’. This particular assemblage came together in the French Enlightenment of the 18th century and has been a pretty immoveable part of the furniture of western thought ever since. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, only a few decades prior to the French Revolution the argument that historical change was desirable and generally moved in a positive direction would have seemed ridiculous to most people, whereas after the Revolution and through to the present the reverse has become true – hence such contemporary panegyrics to modernity as the Ecomodernist Manifesto with its tendentious claim that “humanity has flourished in the last two centuries”. I guess it depends what you mean by flourishing. Certainly, there are a lot more of us than there were two centuries ago. Then again, there are more people suffering malnutrition today than even existed in 1800.

So it’s important, I think, to question the narrative of progress empirically, but it’s even more important to question its generative logic. One of the hallmarks of the modern epoch is its tendency to think that there’s a singular logic to history, usually described with a spatial metaphor. So, according to various modernist schools of thought, history moves ‘forwards’ (progressives), ‘backwards’ (romantics), in circles (Spenglerians) or dialectically (Marxists). I don’t think any of these assertions are wholly true, though doubtless they all capture something of value. The progressive view of history, that it moves ever ‘forwards’, is much the most pervasive in our culture – with the pernicious result that it becomes difficult to suggest there’s anything of value in past ways from which we could learn in the here and now without being indicted for wishing to ‘turn the clock back’. To me, the motion of history seems more multiple, pulling apart the ‘progressive’ nexus of capitalism and Enlightenment: capitalism isn’t intrinsically related to democracy or political freedom, and the pursuit of reason (scientific, technical or political) isn’t always ‘progressive’. But there does seem to be a certain kind of mechanistically reductionist thinking (which I don’t necessarily mean pejoratively) that emerged in Europe coterminously with the rise of capitalism, modern science, and ideas of rationality and social progress as part of the same cultural assemblage. Clearly there are linkages between these phenomena, but I think they’re complex and not simply co-determined – and I’m inclined to pretty much leave that thought there, except for a couple of remarks.

First, the physical and biological sciences in the Enlightenment and the preceding ‘Age of Reason’ made such great strides by looking for hidden, universal patterns in the relations between things that thinkers in the social and political sciences have consistently been in thrall to reductionist, scientific universalism ever since – with results that, by comparison, vary from the disappointing to the disastrous, prompting various counter-movements against universalist reason. But second, on the other hand, one of the features of the modern epoch has been the emergence of a public sphere involving “rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions”. This has been quite consequential for the way that notions like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are construed in contemporary thought, but is also consequential politically – for example, in the mobilisation of middle-class English people (women, especially) against colonial slavery in the 18th century. This wasn’t necessarily the decisive, still less the only, reason for the abolition of slavery, and it’s common to dismiss the significance of such ‘chattering classes’ and their bourgeois concerns for decency – much the same is true today when it comes to issues like climate change and the Transition Towns movement (in both cases the issue turns on the linkages between public culture and private consumption, respectively of sugar and carbon). Though I share this critique of the public sphere up to a point, my feeling is that it can easily slide into complacency, or indeed connivance, regarding the diminished prospects in the absence of a strong public sphere for an information society that can hold power to account, for activism, free association and critical inquiry. Perhaps the modern public sphere has the same function in a virtual realm that the town had for medieval peasants in a physical one – a space unorganisable by coercive power which is therefore able at some level to hold it to account. And while the ‘coercive power’ that I refer to certainly encompasses the kind of formal state power that historically has so often been directed against peasant society from without, it also refers to the more diffuse kinds of power that operate within peasant society – seniors against juniors, men against women, families against individual members threatening their ‘name’, and whole networks of traditional authority operating both independently of and in concert with external power dynamics. My main focus in this essay is on recuperating a version of small-scale, local agrarian society as a vital force for the future prosperity of the world, but the version that I want to recuperate also requires defences against the negative tendencies intrinsic to such a society.

In one way or another, then, the various correlates of capitalism, modernity and ‘progress’ involve political tensions between the universal and the particular. So perhaps more important than the spurious notion of objective historical ‘progress’ is the idea of progress that animates modern thought. In an earlier post, I enthused about the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, not least for the way it captured the excitement prompted by the concept of the ‘modern’ – the concept of ‘progress’, effectively – for a vast swath of humanity of humble origins who for the first time were able to conceive of themselves as world-historical agents. I was taken to task by various people, not least New York academic Anthony Galluzzo, for falling under Berman’s spell and endorsing his conception of modernity. Anthony – who I confess knows far more than I do about modernist literature and culture – drew my attention to Perry Anderson’s critique of Berman, and registered his own displeasure with Berman for what he saw as a complicity with modernity’s destruction of the non-modern, the violence of ‘progress’ in the face of the non-progressive.

Now, I probably shouldn’t get too side-tracked into this debate here but it raises issues that are relevant to my theme. To my mind, Berman isn’t guilty of a simplistic teleology, a narrative of ‘modernity as progress at all costs’ – rather, he’s interested in tracing some of the new ways in which an idea of ‘the modern’ enabled non-elite people to construct a sense of agency or self-determination in their lives. And in this I think he gets the better of the exchange with Anderson, who has a more elitist and teleological sense of historical progress as a complete overcoming of the disappointing and alienated present: “the vocation of a socialist revolution”, says Anderson, “would be neither to prolong nor to fulfil modernity, but to abolish it”, thereby betraying an ironically modernist urge for radical renewal, rather than a more workaday juggling with the potentialities of the here and now. But perhaps there’s also a paradox in my position inasmuch as ordinary people don’t actually need to conceive of themselves as world-transforming historical agents until they’re enmeshed in a world-transforming historical ideology like modernity. I’d argue that convincing responses to the problems of a given social order do have to be dialectical, subsuming the form of the ideology that they’re striving to overcome. So if the notion of ‘progress’ is the problem, then we need to progress beyond progress! The most promising way of doing so that I can see is via an agrarian self-determination shorn of any ideas about epochal ‘progress’ or ‘regress’. But to achieve it we need a modernist sense of world-historical agency, of collectively bringing something better into being – a better future which is better because it’s not directed to future betterment but because it enables self-realisation in the here and now.

To try to pull together my rather abstract message from the last few paragraphs with a specific example, perhaps I could invoke Roger Scruton’s conservative elegy for the “hard won consolations of the English yeoman farmer” in his book News From Somewhere. There’s much about Scruton’s characterisation of a self-reliant and deeply-rooted local farm community that rings true and would doubtless resonate with agrarian people in other parts of the rural world – a small-c ‘conservative’ world regardless of the more activist political conservatism that Scruton wants to justify from it. But what’s missing from it is the ghost of class conflicts past that delivered this particular version of yeoman England. The difficult job for a modern agrarian populism is to reckon with the reality of contemporary rural life rather than trying to dissolve it, while at the same time remembering that it has a specific history, only one of many possible histories, in which some people’s interests and visions were effaced. It’s easy not to remember this – as, for example, in Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the eeriness of the English countryside, which doesn’t once mention its historical class politics. Well of course it’s eerie – it’s full of defeated ghosts! In the early 19th century, William Cobbett developed a conservative-rural-radical vision for an economy of local self-reliance in the countryside that nevertheless cast a pitiless eye over the exclusionary rural class alliances that immiserated farm labourers, while delivering the world of the yeoman farmer. It’s scarcely been bettered since – certainly not by Scruton, or by other contemporary representations of the ‘countryman’. Ah well, at least we have The Land magazine.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this long analysis of capitalism and the development of the early modern world system together by asserting the following “six things they don’t tell you about capitalism”:

  1. Capitalism isn’t about free wage labour
  2. Capitalism isn’t about political freedom or democracy
  3. Capitalism is achieved by centralised states, not decentralised markets
  4. Capitalism isn’t about science, technology or ‘progress’ – at least, not in any simple sense
  5. Capitalism wasn’t the unique achievement of Europeans
  6. Peasants are the universal class – probably

I hope that the first five points, counterintuitive though they are to the usual stories we tell about capitalism, will make sense on the basis of what I’ve written thus far, even if they might not command your agreement. The sixth may need some further explanation.