Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demanded only that one point should be fixed and immovable. In the same way I will have the right to conceive high hopes if I am happy enough to discover one thing only which is certain and indubitable.
—Descartes, Meditations, II
The late Ellen Meiksins Wood had a long and illustrious career teaching the history of political thought at Toronto’s York University. In light of her death earlier this year, it is fitting to recount just how much she taught us about the specificity of capitalism. Her sizable body of work not only spans the entire history of western political thought, it also thereby clairifies for us just what makes capitalism so different from the economic systems of other eras, and in doing so provides an understanding of the contemporary politico-economic reality that is a useful alternative to the perhaps more influential ‘post-Fordist’ or ‘commercialization model’ theorists such as David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein and others.
Wood teaches us how, in order to more fully appreciate the present moment of capitalist history, it will be necessary to distinguish ‘essence’ from ‘accident’ in capitalism, and for that it will be necessary for us to look briefly at the origins and development of capitalism in medieval and early modern England, and then to apply those insights to the ostensible economic and cultural novelties of the closing decades of the twentieth century. Implications for the social function of the novel (something this blog will concern itself with) then become a little more clear.
But let us begin with a cursory invocation of that shibboleth of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, the ‘Base and Superstructure’ model of capitalist society (which I shall return to time and again below), for as Raymond Williams notes: ‘in the transition from Marx to Marxism, and in the development of mainstream Marxism itself, the proposition of the determining base and the determined superstructure has been commonly held to be the key to Marxist cultural analysis’ (Williams 3). In other words, where you stand on the interpretive power of that model has commonly placed you as either Marxist, non-Marxist or post-Marxist.
For Ellen Meiksins Wood, the concept of ‘base and superstructure’ is a telling example of a ‘dead metaphor’, one that due to over- and mis-use has lost its power of figuration, but which, spectre-like, still haunts contemporary thought in some way. Such is true for the relationship between the economic ‘base’ that, for Marxists, is notoriously supposed to determine or cause the workings of the cultural ‘superstructure’, as if the culture were a billiards ball and economics the cue.
Raymond Williams’ classic piece ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’ provides a careful analysis of the many nuances of those terms, and provides a clear illustrative example of how this spatial metaphor once helped us draw an analytical distinction between the relative power of ideas versus the power of action. As Williams notes, Marx develops the base/superstructure model in order to ‘oppos[e] an ideology that had been insistent on the power of certain forces outside man, or, in its secular version, on an abstract determining consciousness. Marx’s own proposition explicitly denies this, and puts the origin of determination in men’s own activities’ (4). Williams additionally provides a telling anecdote that helps us imagine this model in action, as well as its limitations:
Clearly what we are examining in the base is primary productive forces. Yet some verycrucial distinctions have to be made here. It is true that in his analysis of capitalist production Marx considered ‘productive work’ in a very particular and specialized sense corresponding to that mode of production. There is a difficult passage in the Grundrisse in which he argues that while the man who makes a piano is a productive worker, there is a real question whether the man who distributes the piano is also a productive worker; but he probably is, since he contributes to the realization of surplus value. Yet when it comes to the man who plays the piano, whether to himself or to others, there is no question: he is not a productive worker at all. So piano-maker is base, but pianist superstructure. As a way of considering cultural activity, and incidentally the economics of modern cultural activity, this is very clearly a dead-end. (6)
And yet that ‘dead-end’ is what Marxists have been saddled with (at least in the eyes of non- and post-Marxists), and in some cases even saddled themselves with! It is thus worth enquiring as to just how interpretatively useful this model is, and to how it relates to what we understand as ‘capitalism’.
If ‘base and superstructure’ was originally meant by Marx as a flexibly-applied metaphor to help us understand how capitalism breaches any wall that is set up around it, especially those erected in the name of ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’, and of how, in Habermasian terms capitalism restlessly ‘colonizes the lifeworld’, then it is important, first, to understand that to which the metaphor was originally intended to correspond, and second, how the metaphorical correspondence ossified and began to conceal more than it revealed.
‘Base and superstructure’ made of capitalism an unintended analytical dualism, a binary opposition that became, as we shall see, increasingly difficult to shuttle between, let alone re-synthesize. But what is capitalism itself? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it first appears, for as Wood points out, most theorists tend to naturalize and dehistoricize it, imputing a transhistorical, latent tendency (with Adam Smith) to ‘truck, barter and exchange’. This in turn results in an often unintentional mis-comprehension of modern capitalism, as the freeing of Smith’s natural tendency from the unnatural constraints that tradition and retarded or outworn political systems have placed upon it.
Wood’s own definition of capitalism is worth quoting at length because it is both clear and pointed – we will need to remind ourselves of it in order to avoid drifting into various errors that she diagnoses:
Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labour-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. This is true not only of workers, who must sell their labour-power for a wage, but also of capitalists, who depend on the market to buy their inputs, including labour-power, and to sell their output for profit. Capitalism differs from other social forms because producers depend on the market for access to the means of production (unlike, for instance, peasants, who remain in direct, non-market possession of land); while appropriators cannot rely on ‘extra-economic’ powers of appropriation by means of direct coercion […] —but must depend on the purely ‘economic’ mechanisms of the market […] Capitalism is a system uniquely driven to improve the productivity of labour by technical means […] In fact, the production of goods and services is subordinate to the production of capital and capitalist profit. The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital. (Wood 2002, 2-3)
Note the words ‘must’, ‘dependent’, ‘cannot rely’, ‘driven’, and ‘subordinate’ here: As we shall see, far from being a domain of multivalent ‘freedoms’ the capitalist market is an arena of ‘imperatives’, of ‘thou must’s. Even Marxists, Wood maintains, fall into the error of forgetting this key point: that there is one metaphor, ‘The Market’ which denotes two very different economic realities. The first, (a contentious historical reality dating from, Wood will argue, late medieval England) the ‘market’ of capitalism, a market to which we are all driven, gets conflated with a second and historically prior reality, the commercial ‘market’ of the pre-capitalist world.
At that second ‘market’, to which we are all, like the proverbial ‘little piggy’, free to go, there is the opportunity of making a profit on goods which we have ourselves produced and which are surplus to our needs (or goods which we have bought more cheaply elsewhere, as ‘carrying trade’, from some other producer).
Capitalism, however, becomes a historical reality if and only if the social relations of production (who produces what, how it gets produced, and for whom) change: when workers are deprived of direct access to the means of their own subsistence, but are compelled to sell their labour to others—to nascent Capitalists, who are themselves compelled to continually increase their rate of profit.[footnote] This is also reflected in Karl Polanyi`s distinction between ‘societies with markets’ and ‘market society’ (cited in Wood 2002,21) [/footnote]
Meiksins Wood’s narrative here, in what might be termed the ‘production model’ of capitalist development, seeks to give a specific definition of how capitalism is to be differentiated from non-capitalism. Whether she is right or wrong about the precise transition to capitalism, her explanation has the virtue of being able to explain, in no uncertain terms, just what makes the capitalist era different from all preceding eras.
In the ‘commercialization model’ of the development of capitalism, by contrast, the story runs quite differently. It is a world in which
[. . .] rationally self-interested individuals have been engaging in acts of exchange since the dawn of history. These acts became increasingly specialized with an evolving division of labour, which was also accompanied by technical improvements in the instruments of production. Improvements in productivity, in many of these explanations, may in fact have been the primary purpose of the increasingly specialized division of labour, so that […] far from recognizing that the market became capitalist when it became compulsory, these accounts suggest that capitalism emerged when the market was liberated from age-old constraints commercial society and when, for one reason or another, opportunities for trade expanded. (Wood 2002, 11)
Here, history is driven forward by changes in technology, toward its own inherent teleology: toward the increasing liberation of commercial exchange. Cities (themselves ‘capitalism in embryo’ (13)) necessarily follow, as facilitators of the market of exchange, and are peopled by burghers or bourgeois, the meaning of which slips from ‘town-dweller’ to ‘capitalist’ with an all-too-natural ease.
In an extension of this model by the influential Fernand Braudel (1984), the increasingly powerful city becomes an imperialist ‘core’ that exploits the price differentials in various goods between the ‘peripheral’ regions that it dominates and those in the domains of far-flung trading partners. Capitalism thus develops in countries that possess an edge in controlling trade routes, such as Venice and Holland, who through exploiting ‘unequal exchange’ with territories that were often far more commercially and technologically advanced than they, are enabled to grow wealthy via ‘primitive accumulation’ and thus are ‘able to make the final leap to capitalism’ (Wood 2002, 18-19).
Wood’s model, by contrast, looks not to the commercial exchange of urban burghers but to the social relations of agrarian Britain. Here she finds not only the origins of capitalism, but more importantly, its essential features, features which distinguish the capitalist age from (as opposed to ‘find commercial continuities with’) all preceding ages. And, contrary to the theories of such prominent Marxists as Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson, her understanding of English capitalism is not a ‘bastard’ formation that will one day prove to be crippled by a pre-modern, inadequately developed state, but rather the prototype for all subsequent capitalist states.
Nairn and Anderson make an important and common assumption in their work: that the French Revolution was crucial for forming the capitalist state—that ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist’ are coextensive terms. But for Wood this is to anachronistically impute a causal relationship where none exists, as capitalism is historically prior to the bourgeois revolution in France, does not depend for its success upon the ‘rationalization’ of the state, and in fact has key features which are incompatible with such a state and which are obscured by a sloppy and ‘retrospective’ conflation of their separate histories (1991, 4-6).
Revolutions, in Wood’s thought (be they political, scientific or industrial), are effects rather than causes; the true mainspring of capitalist development is (following the work of Robert Brenner) the medieval agricultural social relationship amongst the ‘triad’ of aristocratic ‘landlord, capitalist tenant and wage-labourer’(1991, 9). For Brenner, the ‘pivot’ or fulcrum in this triangular grouping is the tenant farmer: he who had no rights to land other than his economic contract with the landlord, and who was compelled ‘to increase productivity by innovation, specialization and accumulation’(1991, 11). Capitalism does not need, in other words, either technological or political modernization in order to flourish. On the contrary, capitalist necessity is, indeed, the mother of such inventions. Its fundamental prerequisite, rather, is:
a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist ‘laws of motion’: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production […]These imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can and must constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form. It can and must constantly accumulate, constantly search out new markets, constantly impose its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on all human beings and the natural environment. [footnote] Such an understanding of capitalism, as we shall see, forces us to the conclusion that capitalism is modernity, and thus both modernity and post-modernity become redundant and obfuscatory explanatory categories. For in this model, change is mandated by the market’s very logic, logic that has not itself changed over time. In the cultural ‘sphere’, this model is represented by Marshall Berman’s influential work, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, which sees Marx as the first and greatest of Modernists, and which sees Modernism as both stretching back to Marx and forward to the 1980s, for to be Modernist is to be artistically alive to the ever-changing conditions of modernity, i.e. to capitalism, to a world that expresses, first and foremost, an unchanging imperative:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is compelled at last to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels 38-39).[/footnote]
For Wood, the narrative that explains this genesis best centres on England, where landlords were becoming less ‘feudal’, i.e., less and less dependent upon a fusion of coercive and economic power to squeeze more out of the peasantry. Such a feudal impulse would lead in France to the centralizing, bureaucratising Absolutist state, where the political would remain fused to the economic. In England, however, land-lords came to depend upon the increasing productivity of their land-less tenants, as well as upon the state, only to enshrine that reliance is law. And this was to be the key moment in the rise of capitalism: the ability of appropriators to sever the bonds between the political and the economic, to rely exclusively upon the latter while displacing the former into its own formally separate sphere which became the ‘ground’, the guarantor of the latter’s operational logic.
By way of analogy, it is as if Tony Soprano’s son had moved away from home to establish a ‘legitimate’ business , one which employed homeless illegal immigrants and which earned him far more than his father’s protection racket ever could. The son, however, still would call upon his father’s ‘enforcers’ from time to time, to keep the workers happy’ with their below-minimum wages.[footnote] In Empire of Capital (2003), Meiksins Wood demonstrates how this formal separation of ‘political’ from ‘economic’ has allowed capitalism to remain, despite its many technical innovations and eruptions of cultural formations, a relatively static totality. It is in this domain of being ‘formally separate’ from the political sphere that the ‘commodification of life’ happens. Capital is protected from meddling by the political sphere in ways that previous systems were not, and social functions thus pass from hands of state/community to the ‘relentless self-expansion’ of the economy, whose ‘requirements shape every aspect of life, not only the production and circulation of goods and services, but the distribution of resources, the disposition of labour, and the organization of time itself.’ (2003, 11-12) [/footnote]
To return to our genealogy of the present, both Nairn and Anderson locate the decline of late 1960s Britain in exactly the place that Wood sees capitalism’s genesis: in early modern England’s comparatively stunted political formations, formations which have persisted into the present century. The problem for Nairn and Anderson at their time of writing (1964-70) was that America soon joined in the general downturn of 1973, so the explanatory power of a moribund, growth limiting archaic superstructure was lost, as the United States possessed quintessentially modern social and political institutions. Anderson subsequently and substantially modified his thesis, which now maintained that the absence of modern social formations is actually beneficial to capitalist dynamism, but that economic hegemony causes capitalists to ultimately neglect innovation (re-investment) in favour of profit-taking (Wood 1991,15).
This move of Anderson’s was, says Wood, nothing short of an abandonment of the teleological quasi-Weberian rationalization model, in which capitalism is determined by the ineluctable forward march of ‘progress,’ which gives us in the same idealist breath both capitalism and the modern nation state. Instead, Anderson has adopted the E.P. Thompson-esque dialectical emphasis on the contradictory impulses of capitalism – which makes of Britain, then, not a ‘peculiar capitalism’ but a ‘peculiarly capitalist’ entity (Wood 1991, 17).
While French history was driven by a bourgeoisie which sought to gain access to ‘politically constituted property owners’ (i.e., aristocratic office-holders’) reigns of economic (i.e. taxation) power, (Wood 1991, 19-26; 2002, 116-121), and which adopted the rhetoric of universalist humanism as a means to that end, the Norman English ruling class had always been much more united. And the French centralization, from Absolutism through the Revolution and Napoleon, of both political and economic power stood in marked contrast to the separation of economic from political power in England. Wood highlights the differences between the discourse of the French philosopher Jean Bodin and the Englishman Sir Thomas Smith (ca. 1550) as emblematic of their two countries’ different destinies:
For Jean Bodin, a commonwealth is composed of ‘families, colleges, or corporate bodies’ united by a sovereign power. In contrast, Sir Thomas Smith […] defines a ‘commonwealth’ or ‘societie civill’ thus: ‘A common wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well [sic] in peace as in warre.’(1991, 44)
Here we see, of course, the English conception of a commonwealth as an artificial construction, by rational individuals, through legally binding contracts (‘covenauntes’) of a corporate structure that exists to satisfy their own self-interest – portents of the axioms which unite the apparently distinct political visions (and conceptions of human nature) of Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. But just as the Labour party campaigns ‘from the left’ and governs ‘from the right’, the individualist political rhetoric of Smith disguises a centralist English reality, just as the collectivist noises of Bodin belie actual French political parcellization and fragmentation. Locke’s notion of the ‘passive citizenship’ inherent to ‘tacit consent’ was not all that different in practice from Hobbes’ advocacy of absolutism, since what united the two was a desire to protect, ultimately, a peculiarly English conception of private property, one which paradoxically required the separation of economic and political power while also necessitating the guarantee of private economic power by the coercive apparatus of a central political state which, unlike that of France, had not been in competition with its landlords since the end of the 13C.
What Locke and Hobbes also shared, together with such Catholic humanists as Thomas More, was a (subsequently conventionally ‘protestant’) notion of property rights as dependent upon ‘’ (from Old French for ‘to profit from’(2002,106)). If improvement was protestant, however, it was so not by virtue of any Weberian idealism, but because of the property relations arising from the triad (‘of landlords living on capitalist ground rent, capitalist tenants living on profit, and laborers living on wages’) of agrarian producers. And we can see this common understanding of the primacy of property rights in Cromwell’s unease over grounding a resistance to the crown in the language of popular sovereignty – the real danger of such democratic ‘levelling’, of course, is to property rights (1991, 62-4).
In this light, Locke’s defence of property rights against a now more rapacious monarchy had to chart a middle ground so to speak, lest he give too many political rights to any man with the franchise (cf. Levellers’ notions of ‘selfe propriety’) in seeking to defend property rights against the crown. Thus, via Locke’s ‘tacit consent’ did England achieve the security of individual property rights in combination with a form of government which prevented further democratization, in terms of both political and economic power – an essential feature of capitalism to this day.
Another key variable in the development of capitalism in England, and one which gets crystallized in Locke’s political thought (and for which the culture of improvement is a necessary if not, by itself, sufficient condition), is the transition from customary and more relational notions of property to the ‘exclusive’ sense it takes from the 16C onwards, until its apotheosis at the end of the 18C with ‘Parliamentary Enclosures’ via Acts of Parliament. England’s ‘demilitarized’ (2002, 99) aristocracy, had by the 16C ceased to be classic ‘rentiers’ or ‘simple squeezers of profit’ (101) as noted above, since they had by and large given over their coercive function to the largely unified state. Their economic control over vast amounts of land, however, led them to impose variable ‘economic rents’ on tenants who then had to compete for access. With the aristocrats’ surveyors determining the value of land with abstract calculations based upon axioms of ‘improvement’, the tenants were more and more driven to increase productivity (not at first, it is important to note, via technical innovation) to keep their access.
To arrive at our contemporary conception of property one more necessary condition had to be added into the mix, however: the wholesale rewriting of customary property relations between the Aristocracy and peasantry, who had until the 16C counted upon access to common lands for their basic subsistence. But with the 16C come the ‘enclosure’ movement, which began with but was not limited to the physical fencing in of the commons. Meiksins Wood is no doubt familiar with but does not quote a key early justification for this, which is detailed in More’s Utopia (1516):
By the same rule, they supply cities that do not increase so fast, from others that breed faster; and if there is any increase over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens out of the several towns, and send them over to the neighbouring continent; where, if they find that the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they fix a colony, taking the inhabitants into their society, if they are willing to live with them; and where they do that of their own accord, they quickly enter into their method of life, and conform to their rules, and this proves a happiness to both nations; for according to their constitution, such care is taken of the soil that it becomes fruitful enough for both, though it might be otherwise too narrow and barren for any one of them. But if the natives refuse to conform themselves to their laws, they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist. For they account it a very just cause of war, for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated; since every man has by the law of nature a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence.(More)
By the time of Locke , however, such ‘rights’ to ‘idle’ or waste lands becomes more and more naturalized. Note the vocabulary that Locke (1690) applies to the ‘Indian’ in the following passage:
[…]I shall endeavour to show how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners […] God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience. The earth and all that is therein is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And though all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of Nature, and nobody has originally a private dominion exclusive of the rest of mankind in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state, yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial, to any particular men. The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his- i.e., a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it before it can do him any good for the support of his life. (Locke Section 25)
The Indian is, of course, merely ignorant of the ‘natural’ commercial progress which has resulted in enclosure, and he is still in a retarded social state – in that oxymoronic anachronism that Locke terms a ‘tenant in common’. Locke’s ultimate ‘anchoring’ of property rights in the realm of the divine here is not unimportant to our contemporary situation either, since as Frederic Jameson (1991, 266) notes, our now thoroughly naturalized notion of the market is a ‘screen’ to mask our lack of a coherent theory of property, especially ‘“the justification of original property titles”’. While Jameson does not pursue the matter further, even a casual perusal of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1975) bears him out.
For Nozick, the doyenne of American neo-liberalism, redistribution via taxation amounts to theft, since property can justly be transferred by individuals in only three distinct ways: by exchange, by ‘gifting’ or by inheritance, and exchanges are themselves just only when the history of their prior exchange has also been just (e.g., it is not just to buy from a thief). The original American colonists’ appropriation of land from the Native peoples would thus be immediately problematic, except Nozick tacitly invokes Locke’s very notion of ‘improvement’ as justification. [footnote] See Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), especially pages 150-55 and 170-178. While Nozick freely admits that to date ‘no workable or coherent value-added property scheme has yet been devised,’ he suggests that the notion of ‘improving’ an object lies more closely at the heart of this problem than does simply “laboring” upon it, pertinently asking, ‘why should one’s entitlement extend to the whole object rather than just to the added value one’s labor has produced?’ (175) [/footnote]
God, as guarantor of Locke’s understanding of Natural Law, meant that English colonists did not have to rely, unlike the French, upon the authorization of a central political authority to initiate acts of appropriation (Wood 2003, 97). Rather, the ‘natural’ laws of the market announced that ‘opportunity’. Locke thus subordinates even politics to property – his theory of colonization is in fact more a theory of property than of international law or war. Imperialism is now ‘a directly economic relationship’ justified by ‘the obligation to produce exchange-value’, through not merely production (which some Indians did) but through ‘competitive production’ (98-100).
As Wood goes onto point out, Locke’s crucial theory of the value of property is peculiarly English – and peculiarly capitalist. Land in nature possesses only nominal value, until mixed with labour – but not just any labour: it must be improving (i.e. profit-oriented) labour (Wood 2002, 110).
We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, which begins the property, without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus, the grass my horse has bit, the turfs my servant has cut, and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property without the assignation or consent of anybody. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. (Locke Section 27)
The improver does not need ‘express consent of all commoners’: tacit consent via representation by the supposedly organic unity of the ‘crown in parliament’ will do. Also, notice the shell game Locke unwittingly plays here in his example: property arises when I, or my horse, or my servant makes something of the neglected commons! This has been noted by others before Meiksins Wood, of course, but she adds a crucially perceptive addendum to it: the logical conclusion of Locke’s own formulation is that the (unlabouring) profitable landlord is more industrious than the labouring (unprofitable) servant! Here is our contemporary economic understanding of the term ‘producers’ not as ‘workers’ but as ‘shareholders’. Traditional (passively appropriating) rentier landlords never saw themselves this way, as producers: this is new, this is capitalism, and no ‘epochal change’ has altered the logic which had become universal by the close of the 18C, which decreed that the greater part of wealth shall no longer come from mere rent or coercion, but ‘by increasing [footnote] Meiksins Wood on Locke on America:
Locke, as we saw, explains that an acre of land in unimproved America may be as naturally fertile as an acre in England, but it is not worth 1/1000 of the English acre, if we calculate ‘all the Profit an Indian received from it were it valued and sold here’. In other words, the Indian has added no exchange value to the land, which effectively means he has failed to mix his labour with it. The measure of labour is not effort but profitability (2002, 157).
Insufficiently productive and profitable agriculture, by the standards of English agrarian capitalism, effectively constitutes waste (158)[…] the issue is not simply occupancy or even fruitful use but relative value(160) [/footnote] labour productivity’ (Meiksins Wood 2002, 110-113).
Thus we see, as we move from More to Locke and on to Nozick, a peculiarly English ‘metaphor’ of property becoming progressively naturalized and, as export commodity to England’s colonies, progressively more universalized. [footnote] Similarly, Harvey (2007, 63) notes how the foreign policy of George W. Bush is remarkably in tune with to that of Woodrow Wilson, whom Harvey quotes from a speech in 1919:
Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused. [/footnote]
It follows from Meiksins Wood’s re-historicizing of ‘property’ that the causal relationship between property relations and social change be reconsidered as well. As mentioned above, Marx originally formulated a visual/structural metaphor to represent this relationship, the concept of ‘base and superstructure’ mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. It is to be found in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and runs as follows:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (Marx 1977, my italics)
The problem with this metaphor (as with all metaphors), is that it all-too-easily ossifies, becomes a cliché, becomes in other words un-self-critical, conventional wisdom – which is precisely what happens in ‘vulgar’ Soviet Marxism, with its tendency toward technological determinism and with its ‘stagist’ (a ‘unilinear succession of [increasingly productive] modes of production’) theory [footnote] [/footnote] of history, and with its teleological presupposition of the very thing – Capitalism – that it purports to explain (Wood 1995, 4-6) .
The key weapon to deploy against such structuralist determinism is history: from history’s point of view, class not as a ‘structural location,’ but a ‘process and relationship’ (1995, 13). The relationship between capitalist and worker is such that capital ‘divorc[es] the producer from the means of production’ [Capital, I, 668] (Wood 1995, 21), a divorce whose effects are economic, but whose causes are political and historical. However, later Marxists forget this history and formally separate economics and politics into spatial categories or ‘spheres’ of base and superstructure – even if they try to modify that by having the spheres interact (cf. Althusserian ‘relative autonomy’), they are still ‘spheres’, and ‘the economy itself is evacuated of social content and depoliticized’(22). And thus does Marxism become complicit in naturalizing the very capitalist concepts it hopes to combat (22).
But for Marx himself, the economy exists, is made up of, specific social relations of property and of domination – legal and political relationships – which are all ‘organic’ to capitalism and so cannot be separated out. Bourgeois economists do just that, and set economy and society, base and superstructure, into a ‘merely reflective’ relationship. And so any Marxist who insists upon ‘base and superstructure’ as separate spheres is bourgeois in this sense, and loses all possibility of real critique.
Vulgar Marxism gave way to a re-conceptualizing of base and superstructure by Louis Althusser and his followers, for whom the ‘mode of production’ determines the ‘social formation’ ‘in the last instance.’ But while the latter is economically determined, it is also wholly theoretical, and therefore ‘contingent’, particular, unpredictable, and Althusser, says Wood, largely ignored it. Most importantly, the
structuralist conceptual apparatus also tended to encourage the kind of separation of the ‘economic’ from the ‘social’ and ‘historical’ which often entails the identification of the ‘economic’ with technology; and it is not surprising to find Marxists of structuralist persuasion looking to technological determinism to supply the historical dynamism missing from their view of the world as a series of discontinuous, self-enclosed and static structures. (51)
Thus could Althusserians be mechanical, but not ‘vulgar’, and theoretical and empirical. However, if ‘the absolute and unconditional determinations of structure g[i]ve way to the absolute and irreducible contingency of the particular ‘conjuncture [footnote] A notoriously difficult term to pin down. According to Miguel Vatter, it is for Althusser the ‘self-institution of the political from the horizon of the eventual or aleatory [random, contingent], ’ which Vatter amends as follows: Late Althusser (ca. 1982)
[/footnote] contingency’(51-2). For Wood, the British historian E.P. Thompson falls into the excluded middle between those two binaries, and successfully transcends in his historical practice (if not in his more theoretical work) their aporia.
attempt[s] to think the emergence of the world of forms out of events. What Althusser calls conjuncture in “Machiavel et nous” is [in “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre”] more adequately referred to as rencontre (encounter), in reference to the Epicurean-Lucretian doctrine of the clinamen or swerve of atoms that account for their coming together and constituting a world of forms out of event-like encounters. The world can be said to be accomplished fact [le fait accompli], in which, once the fact is accomplished, the reign of Reason, of Sense, of Necessity and of Purpose is established. But this accomplishment of the fact [accomplissement du fait] is nothing but the pure effect of contingency, because it is suspended to the aleatoric encounter of atoms due to the swerve [sic] of the clinamen [‘swerve’!]. Before the accomplishment of the fact, before the world, there is nothing but the non-accomplishment of the fact, the non-world which is nothing other than the unreal existence of atoms. Nothing precedes the encounter of atoms, nothing determines such an encounter as a necessary one, so that the “constituent” dimension of the “accomplishment of fact” is itself a contingent event, in no way determinable by what Althusser calls “the non-accomplishment of the fact.” (Vatter 2003)
Thompson goes back to Marx, whose Gesellschaftsformen may be best translated as ‘forms of society’, Wood argues, rather than ‘social formations’, since doing so highlights Marx’s insight that in each form of society
there is a specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it. (Marx, Grundrisse, cited in Wood 1995, 57)
To employ Thompson’s formulation: capitalism is not capitalism by virtue of ‘the totality of its relations’ but because its logic can be discerned ‘within all the activities of a society,’ as a ‘determining pressure’ for ‘development and form’. This, again, is less the depiction of a structure than of a historical process, one which reveals the Althusserian ‘relative autonomy’ of culture to be less a solution than an evasion of the base/superstructure problem, because the ‘last instance’ of causation never arrives (59).
The consequences for literature (and other cultural forms) here are immense:
Production, distribution and consumption are not only digging, carrying and eating, but are also planning, organizing and enjoying. Imaginative and intellectual faculties are not confined to a ‘superstructure’ and erected on a ‘base’ of things (including men-things); they are implicit in the creative act of labour which makes man man. (Thompson, Poverty of Theory, cited in Meiksins Wood 1995, 64).
Immediately the novel’s social function is recast. It is now certainly fallacious to view it as a closed, self-referential linguistic system. But with Thompson we can also say that it is neither a mere symptom of social relations, nor an autonomous ‘agent’, but both. The novel cannot transcend its epoch in order to ‘represent’ it, but neither is it wholly cut off from the social by something as spatially delimiting and causally limiting as a ‘sphere’. The novel cannot wholly escape the ideology of the dominant mode of production of its time, but the mode of production is not itself immune to critique by the novel, if the novel is determined to wrestle with the contradictions inherent to its form, and is willing to corral the very contradictions of social domination in its content.
Thus the novel can also regain the terrain of struggle that Wood speaks of in her discussion of the above passage by Thompson. The base/superstructure metaphor also fails, she says, to deal with how the ‘cultures’ of different classes relate to and ‘express the mode of production’ (65). The base/superstructure metaphor may work somewhat for the ruling class, but, she asks, what of the ruled? For while their social life is essential to (and ‘is “congruent” with’) the reproduction of the dominant mode, the ruled can also ‘come into contradiction with the “commonsense of power”’ and thereby produce struggle and, in turn, history.
But this in turn raises the question of whether realism is the literary mode most well-suited to such agonistic engagement: does Meiksins Wood’s insight here imply that Lukács was, in a sense, ‘right’ in his arguments with modernism [footnote] See Ernst Bloch, and others, Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts of the Classic Debate within German Marxism. trans. Ronald Taylor (London and NewYork: Verso, 1977). As the juxtaposed exchanges in this volume illustrate, the ‘debate’ over the aims of realism and the avant-garde is far from settled. While Ernst Block questions Georg Lukács’ assumption that capitalist reality is a ‘coherent, infinitely mediated totality’ (22) Lukács replies that the ‘true realist’ knows how ‘thoughts and feelings grow out of the life of society and how experiences and emotions are parts of the total complex of reality’ (33). Bertolt Brecht, for his part, avers that while the latter may indeed the case, the very ‘concept of realism[…] must first be cleansed before use,’ since ‘reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change’ (81-2). Peter Zusi (2004,208) notes how each of the arrows launched by the authors collected in this volume flies past its intended target, making their arguments ‘reminiscent of the scholastic realism debates of the fourteenth century.’ The fact was, Zusi says, that ‘this feud was interminable precisely because each side raised similar cognitive claims. Each claimed to portray a deeper, essential reality, arrived at through a labourious process of mediation’ (Zusi 211). Yet without a method for distinguishing essence from accident, their dispute ‘remained patently irresolvable.’
Nevertheless, as Fredric Jameson advises in his conclusion to this volume,
In such extinct yet still virulent intellectual conflicts, the fundamental contradiction is between history itself and the conceptual apparatus which, seeking to grasp its realities, only succeeds in reproducing their discord within itself in the form of an enigma for thought, an aporia. It is to this aporia that we must hold, which contains within its structure the crux of a history beyond which we have not yet passed. It cannot of course tell us what our conception of realism ought to be; yet its study makes it impossible to us not to feel the obligation to reinvent one (Bloch et al, 213).
In other words, Jameson is implicitly reminding the novelist as well as the critic that they are both always grappling with history from within its confines, from within a history that is always on the move. If one wishes to address Lukács’ ‘total complex of reality’, one needs, with Brecht, to ‘demand invention’ (83) and, following Jameson’s imperative, ‘reinvent[ion]’(83).[/footnote]
(that its methods, detached from the realist 19C tradition, were ‘linked indissolubly’ only to a fatalistic, despairing elite trapped in ‘late bourgeois ideological decay’ and were thus incapable of serving ‘the cause of “revolutionary democracy”’ (Lunn 83-5)? Must novelists who wish to ‘write about capitalism’ follow, essentially, in the footsteps of E.P. Thompson’s painstaking analysis of historical detail, and aim to produce mimetic reflections of industrial society? What about Dickens, metaphor and fabulism? To choose one of the poles of the realism/formalism binary is a ‘Hobson’s choice’, since realism must be continually unsettled or critiqued by, for lack of a better word, modernist techniques of doubt, while such critiques must themselves be continually subjected to historicization.
Much of the remainder of Meiksins Wood’s writings are deployed to counter skeptics of the primacy of Anglo-capitalism (particularly skeptics of the Braudel / ‘commercialization’ variety), and thus go beyond the scopeof this piece. There remain, however, a number of key concepts in her work which shall throw light upon any contemporary literature which hopes to reference ‘the economic’. One of these, of particular import for the study of the emerging field of ‘World Literature’, is England’s subsequent exporting of its unique invention, the historical eruption that is capitalism – which marks the beginning of a uniquely capitalist imperialism.
The problem, as Meiksins Wood sees it, is that though England was indeed prototypically capitalist, it was rather late in getting into the imperialist game. Many other nations used slavery (along with other extra-economic methods associated with Mercantilism) in order to gain wealth, but only England used it to make capitalist wealth (2002, 145-150). England’s first venture into colonialism, however, tells a lesson in capitalist contradiction that is no less relevant today, in our so-called globalized world, with ‘service economies’ in core nations and production ensconced in low-wage semi-peripheries abroad: for Ireland was settled with England’s surplus population in the wake of the improving enclosures of the 16C, with an eye to transforming Irish agriculture along the lines of the mother country. But after the 17C Ireland had developed sufficiently to make it a potential competitive threat to England, and England responded defensively with harsh economic restrictions (e.g. its corn laws were directly linked to the potato famine) on the further development of the colony . It was
a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the imperial history of capitalism [. . .] This history exemplifies one of the founding contradictions of capitalism: the need to impose its imperatives as universally as possible, and the need to limit the damaging consequences that this universalization has for capital itself [. . .] Today, the old role of colonial settlers as a means of transporting economic compulsions has been taken over by local nation states, which act as transmission belts for capitalist imperatives and enforce the ‘laws’ of the market. (2002, 154-6)
Moreover, unlike other nations’ colonies, the Irish plantations, while begun by the state, were carried out by private ‘undertakers’, for private profit(2002, 164). [footnote] The French, for example, while seeking to amass wealth for the state, also saw their mission as one of civilizing the Natives in New France, of making them French. Contrast this with the ruthless, capitalist-driven English colonization of lands just to the south, modeled on their experience in Ireland, but where ‘transplantation became genocide’ (2003, 90). Furthermore, not only did the English justify the appropriation of native land by virtue of its relative idleness and relative lack of exchange-value, they even divined a theory of human value based upon the ethic of ‘improvement’ as well: an (improved) Irishman’s life, by the calculations of William Petty’s ‘labour theory of value’, was worth £70, while an (unimproved) Native’s was pegged at only £25! (2003,85) This, of course, puts slavery as well in a new light: Although France made use of slavery on its plantations, the imperatives to service the capitalist mother England made colonial America a far far larger enterprise, and one which radically transformed slavery:
[/footnote] And representative thinkers such as Locke saw this not only as justified, but as ‘adding to the common good’ of the colonised peoples (165).
Capitalist development was also accompanied by conceptions of property that encouraged the reduction of slaves to unconditional property, and their complete commodification as chattels. As the dominant forms of labour in the wider capitalist economy were legally free, and at a time when even ideologues of empire like John Locke were declaring that men were by nature free and equal, slaves had to be placed outside the normal universe of natural freedom and equality to permanent subordination (105-6)
While the state ‘got out of the way’ of the economic activities of the Irish planters, the planters still needed the state for its obvious coercive capacity. This is another paradoxical capitalist reality that has not changed in our own time, despite noises about ‘transnational corporations’ and the ‘decline of the nation-state’:
But, while no one would deny the global reach of capital, there is little evidence that today’s ‘global’ capital is less in need of national states than were earlier capitalist interests. Global capital, no less than ‘national’ capital, relies on nation states to maintain local conditions favourable to accumulation as well as to help it navigate the global economy. It might, then, be more accurate to say that ‘globalization’ is characterized less by the decline of the nation state than by a growing contradiction between the global scope of capital and its persistent need for more local and national forms of ‘extra-economic’ support, a growing disparity between its economic reach and its political grasp. (2002, 177)
That is, capitalism’s relentlessly anarchic forward drive, its ‘constant revolutionizing of the means of production’ in Marx’s terms, its continuous need to expand, ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’, is matched by an equal and opposite need for a stable nation-state, one that supplies not only the Hobbesian coercive enforcement of contracts, but also the vital infrastructure and consumers that make industrial capitalism possible.
There is an important consequence to Meiksins Wood’s theory of globalization, which in turn begets two corollaries: the originator of capitalism becomes thereby the first market hegemon; that is, the originator necessarily determines the extent of deviation from itself, of all subsequent capitalism, for in the wake of England’s development of the market imperative, emerging capitalist nations had no choice but to respond in kind. As Meiksins Wood puts it, ‘other countries develop in the shadow of, in competition with and in subservience to, developed nations’ (2002, 195).
It follows from this, first, that once the market is in place as ‘discipliner’ or ‘regulator’, no one can escape its imperatives, [footnote] Although, for liberal discourse, this is manifestly not the case, and it is just as hard to detect how wealth is transferred ‘from weaker to stranger nations’ as it was from worker to capitalist. Countries appear legally ‘free’ to buy and sell, or not, just as workers are ‘free’ to sell, or not to sell, their labour (Wood 2003, 3-4). [/footnote] even if they employ no wage labour and exploit merely themselves and their families. There can thus never be a democratic market or market socialism – you can’t pick and choose what you want from the market, as it is a totalising system (Meiksins Wood 2002,196). Second, ‘culture’ (or what Todd Gitlin has mercilessly attacked as essentialist, ‘identity politics’) is no way to ‘stick it to the Man’, no way to do battle with the hegemon. Rather, as Neil Lazarus has shown, true liberationist struggle is to colonialism (or globalization) what Marxism is in the ‘historical context of capitalist modernity’ (Lazarus 1999, 124). To dispense with history in favour of a postcolonial present marked by global flows and hybrid identity politics, Lazarus insists, is to miss the fundamental lesson of Marxist historiography: the past can be redeemed only through a radical consciousness of it. Similarly, the present can only be redeemed by a critical awareness of the specificity (as opposed to postmodern ‘sublimity’) of what it means for capitalism to be ‘global’: as Meiksins Wood puts it in Empire of Capital, ‘Global capitalism is what it is not only because it is global but, above all, because it is capitalist’ (Meiksins Wood 2003, 14). With our understanding of capitalism’s successful bifurcation of political economy into separate political and economic spheres, this means that as capitalism globalizes itself,
the economic power of capital may be able to move beyond the reach of military and political power, but it cannot do so unless and until the ‘laws’ [market imperatives] of the capitalist economy are themselves extended – and this is something that needs extra-economic help, both in domestic class relations and in imperial domination […] in implanting the compulsions of the market. (20)
Meiksins Wood goes on to give the example of foreign aid which is tied to forcing agriculture to focus on export-oriented monoculture, thereby destroying smaller farms in the process – which is analogous to the domestic enclosures of their own past, both in England and in its colonies (21-22). This is but one example, but it makes a telling point: although there are certainly differences between capitalism in the 17C and in the 21C, what unites them is an appropriative logic that hasn’t changed in the four hundred years between them. Capitalist imperialism, however, has the following paradoxical or contradictory problem: it must impose its imperatives universally, yet ‘limit the damaging consequences’ of this process for capital itself; that is, it must expand competitive markets, but protect its own from direct competition. This has a direct impact on the economy, of course, as what appears on the surface to be the workings of relatively independent financial centres’ [e.g. New York, London] deployments of ‘fictitious capital’ in the name of transnational corporations is really the manipulation of currencies and interest rates by nation states in the name of national capital.
A final and crucial intervention by Meiksins Wood is her utter evisceration of the whole modernity/post-modernity debate. Following logically from the precision of her definition of capitalism and from her painstaking historical analysis of the differences between the origins of English capitalism and the roots of the French revolution, she is able to show that the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’ have proven to be more trouble than they are worth.
The main problem for historical materialists is that the very term ‘modernity’ is Weberian, and thus carries with it all the idealist baggage inherent to the concept of ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘rationalisation’, which, despite giving us the tool of criticality, through which we might achieve the goal of universal emancipation, it somehow, Janus-faced, also gave us industrial capitalism and led us to the prison house of instrumental reason (2002, 182-83).
And yet the Enlightenment was largely the child of 18C France, a decidedly non-capitalist, Absolutist country whose ‘bourgeoisie’ was not even primarily commercial, but professional, bureaucratic and intellectual, who declaimed a theory of universal rights by way of combatting privileged aristocratic access to the power and wealth of absolutist office-holding, and who, once in power, employed rationalization and central planning to further cement its (and Absolutism’s) hold on the French state (2002,184-86). If French ‘modernity’ was a ‘rupture’ with the past, it had nothing to do with capitalism.
While France bureaucratised itself further and razed its cities to make way for the straight lines of its Enlightenment boulevards, in England meanwhile the ideological expression of capitalism was
[. . .] not Cartesian rationalism and rational planning but the ‘invisible hand’ of classical political economy and the philosophy of British empiricism. Not the formal garden of Versailles but the irregular, apparently unplanned, ‘natural’ landscape garden. Even the English state that promoted the early rise of capitalism was far less ‘rational’ in Weberian terms than was the bureaucratic state of the French ancien regime; and the English legal system based on the common law is to this day less ‘rational’ than the Napoleonic code that followed the French Revolution, or other continental systems based on Roman law. (2002, 188)
Now, if I call my love a ‘rose’ because she is physically beautiful, but neglect to notice her prickles and thorns , then my metaphor falls at the very first hurdle since there is no correlative in my love’s personality to the rose’s unforgettable thorns. Similarly, ‘modernity’ is thus another kind of bad metaphor (to use the term loosely), since its component parts fail to make even the most basic of one-to-one correspondences with their intended referent. And if that is true, what are we to make of a concept as nebulous as ‘post-modernity’ (or the de-hyphenated, and therefore more naturalized, ‘postmodernity’)?
‘Postmodernity’ generally represents a phase of capitalism marked by certain distinctive economic and technological characteristics (the ‘information age’, ‘lean production’, ‘flexible accumulation’, ‘disorganized capitalism,’ consumerism, and so on). But, more particularly, it is marked by certain cultural formations mixed up in the formula ‘postmodernism’, whose single most outstanding feature is its challenge to the ‘Enlightenment project’ [. . .] But the concept itself is, in essence, an inversion of ‘modernity’ in its conventional meaning and carries with it many of the same problematic presuppositions. This modernity belongs to a view of history that cuts across the great divide between capitalist and non-capitalist societies, a view that treats specifically capitalist laws of motion as if they were the universal laws of history and lumps together various very different historical developments, capitalist and non-capitalist. The idea of postmodernity is derived from a conception of modernity that, at worst, makes capitalism historically invisible or, at the very least, naturalizes it. (2002, 190-191)
We are therefore returned to the central question at stake here: what, precisely, has changed? What validates the deployment of the epochal prefix, ‘Post-’? By way of an answer, Meiksins Wood proposes the words of Rosa Luxemburg, for whom in The Accumulation of Capital capitalism is expressed in non-capitalist ways of militarism and imperialism over the non-capitalist world. But:
‘[a]lthough it strives to become universal, and, indeed, on account of this tendency, it must break down – because it is immanently incapable of becoming a universal form of production.’ It is the first mode of economy that tends to engulf the whole world, but it is also the first that cannot exist by itself because it ‘needs other economic systems as a medium and soil’ (2003, 127).
Wood maintains that her ideas, which follow in a line from Marx through Lenin’s ‘highest stage of capitalism’ theory of imperialism were accurate at the time, and that they still haven’t been superseded: capitalism still has not demonstrated that it can ‘universalize its successes’. Or, capitalism cannot itself even exist without a ‘non-capitalist environment’ that is controlled with ‘extra-economic force’ (127). She ends this her latest book, Empire of Capital, with the suggestion that although Locke’s theory of colonial expropriation through the right/obligation to produce exchange value required brutal force but did not need a doctrine of war, the new imperialism cannot dispense with such justification (2003, 153):
Capitalist imperialism has become almost entirely a matter of economic domination, in which market imperatives, manipulated by the dominant capitalist powers, are made to do the work no longer done by imperial states or colonial settlers. But we are now discovering that the universality of capitalist imperatives has not at all removed the need for military force […] The imposition of economic imperatives can be a very bloody business. But once subordinate powers are made vulnerable to those imperatives and the ‘laws’ of the market, direct rule by imperial states is no longer required to impose the will of capital. Yet here, again, we encounter the paradox that, while market imperatives may reach far beyond the power of any single state, these imperatives themselves must be enforced by extra-economic power […]That is why, paradoxically, the more purely economic empire has become, the more the nation state has proliferated. (153-54)
Meiksins Wood calls this new historical development ‘surplus imperialism’, and emphasizes that the nation state remains its key element of analysis. For as more nation states become, paradoxically, both a part of and yet a threat to global competition, it becomes at once necessary to police them ever more thoroughly, be they ‘rogue’, ‘failed’, unstable or newly ‘competitive’ (155-58). Military hegemony is needed to enforce economic hegemony (and generates its own economic ‘leverage’), but deploying it is becoming increasingly complex and fraught with risk, not the least of which is not displaying with sufficient frequency the global reach and capacity of “hard power” ‘pour encourager les autres’ for the edification of client-competitors world-wide (165-67).
That, in short, is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s theory of the specificity of capitalism – of the continuities it necessarily maintains within the historical change its logic inevitably induces. In what follows I will briefly compare her work to that of two theorists of postmodernity, David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, and also highlight some of the differences that she shares with thinkers of the ‘World Systems’ school. It is indeed interesting that these two ‘camps’ – Meiksins Wood (as well Robert Brenner) on the one hand, Harvey, Jameson and the ‘Braudelians’ on the other), almost never refer [footnote] Not quite ‘never’: see Robert Brenner’s “The Origins of Capitalist Development: a Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in New Left Review 104 (July-Aug 1977) pp. 25-92. Meiksins Wood and Harvey have also responded to each others’ work in a few journal articles – see my examination of Historical Materialism’s debate on Empire of Capital below.[/footnote] to each other’s work in their own. And while I do not claim to be their ideal reader, a brief comparative analysis may yield fruitful results for the study of culture. The working methodology of this analysis is very much in the spirit of Ockham’s ‘razor’: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate – ‘entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.’ That is, the onus is on any concept of the ostensibly ‘new’ not merely to demonstrate its potential explanatory value, but to do so with an eye to theoretical economy rather than largesse.
If Frederic Jameson seems to be straddling a fence in his chapter on economics in 1991’s Postmodernism, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, by 1998 he has abandoned any previously-held ambivalence about the autonomy of culture and its place in a ‘post-Fordist’ world: postmodern culture has indeed been produced by the logic of capitalism, but in the end severs its ties with its parent and strikes out on its own. The parent meanwhile, has had a late life crisis and reinvents itself utterly, almost beyond recognition, and does not seem to mind it if the child does not phone home. The two are no doubt linked by a shared DNA, but the extent to which genetics determines their respective behaviour is, at best, obscure.
Jameson begins by affirming but also denying the separation of capitalism from culture, of base from superstructure. Capitalism’s ideology is not merely part of the superstructure, but is
generated by the thing itself, as its objectively necessary afterimage; somehow both dimensions must be registered together, in their identity as well as in their difference. They are, to use a contemporary but already outmoded language, semiautonomous; which means, if it is to mean anything, that they are not really autonomous or independent from each other, but they are not really at one with each other, either. (1991, 260-61)
We should contrast this immediately with Meiksins Wood: Jameson is not saying that the superstructure is shot through with evidence of the base, but appears to be the Althusserian structural separation of the two into vaguely interacting ‘spheres’ even as he announces that the Althusserian moment has passed (263). And although he proceeds to modify this notion of ‘semi-autonomy’ somewhat (while retaining the structural or visual metaphor), and hints that ‘the ideological dimension is intrinsically embedded within the reality, which secretes it as a necessary feature of its own structure’ (262), he then announces that all political struggle (following, tellingly, the example of Stuart Hall), is to be waged ‘over the legitimacy of concepts and ideologies.’
The reader is at this point having trouble following the bouncing ball. But it gets ‘better’ still: for the trouble with a war waged entirely in the superstructure is that, he concedes, socialism can no longer be socialism if the concept that ‘the market is in human nature’ is ‘allowed to stand unchallenged,’ although if we can only challenge it in the realm of discourse, the danger is
that this dimension is potentially unrelated to reality and can be left to float off on its own, to found its own subdiscipline and its own specialists. I still prefer to call /market/ what it is, namely an ideologeme, and to premise about it what one must premise about all ideologies: that, unfortunately, we have to talk about the realities fully as much as the concepts. Is market discourse merely a rhetoric? It is and it isn’t (to rehearse the great formal logic of the identity of identity and nonidentity); and to get it right you have to talk about real markets just as much as about metaphysics, psychology, advertising, culture, representations, and libidinal apparatuses. (264)
However, since this, sadly somehow means that we must jettison ‘the vast continent of political philosophy as such’ it is unclear how we are to discuss markets except, perhaps, in terms of our ‘libidinal apparatuses’, etc. For political philosophy is just another ‘market’ (of opportunity, not imperative) where we are free to think ourselves free to choose from among contending ideologies. Still, the ‘market’ both is and is not a market, so it is difficult to tell exactly how, or even if, ideology maps onto reality any longer. My own definition of market coincides with Meiksins Wood’s: the coercive power of the market imperative to sell one’s labour in order to eat, a power that is backed up by the all-too-real coercive power of ‘domination’ of the state (272). Jameson seems to treat actual power as something highly allergenic, and dismisses such prophetic works as Orwell’s 1984 as ‘antediluvian fantasy representations’ of power, ‘narratives rather comical for the new postmodern age’ in which production is ‘displaced’ by circulation (272).
Now, production may well have been displaced by circulation in the ever-more-dominant financial centres of New York, Chicago and London proper , but there is zero evidence that has replaced production (i.e. that finance capital is now more important than manufacturing capital) in toto, as we shall see below. Jameson’s mistake here is one that is analogous to a similar mistake made by the theorist Ernst Bloch, one pointed out by Georg Lukács in the context of a debate surrounding the relative merits of, ‘modernist’ writing:
Under capitalism [. . .] the different strands of the economy achieve a quite unprecedented autonomy, as we can see from the examples of trade and money – an autonomy so extensive that financial crises can arise directly from the circulation of money. As a result of the objective structure of this economic system, the surface of capitalism appears to ‘disintegrate’ into a series of elements all driven towards independence. Obviously this must be reflected in the consciousness of the men who live in this society, and hence too in the consciousness of poets and thinkers [. . .] Bloch’s mistake lies merely in the fact that he identifies this state of mind directly and unreservedly with reality itself. He equates the highly distorted image created in this state of mind with the thing itself, instead of objectively unravelling the essence, the origins and the mediations of the distortion by comparing it with reality. (Lukács 1977, 32-34)
Lukács may in fact be mistaken about the ‘autonomy’ of ‘money’, but his main point here is that it is indeed dangerous to mistake an effect of the capitalist dynamic for its cause. But that is exactly what Jameson does when he asserts that
Today, culture impacts back on reality in ways that make any independent and, as it were, non- or extra-cultural form of it problematical (in a kind of Heisenberg principle of mass culture which intervenes between your eye and the thing itself), so that finally the theorists unite their voices in the new doxa that the ‘referent’ no longer exists […] Here, then, the media, as which the market was itself fantasized, now returns into the ‘market’ and by becoming a part of it seals and certifies the formerly metaphorical or analogical identification as a ‘literal’ reality. (Jameson 1991, 277)
It is indeed tiresome to see a major academic resort to employing one of the most clichéd academic tropes of the recent past: by invoking the ‘Heisenberg principle’ Jameson imputes a quasi-scientific plausibility to his ‘proof’ that it is now impossible to conduct an ‘extra-cultural’ examination of capitalism, or even culture itself (one half-awaits a cryptic allusion to a ‘paradigm shift’ from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at this point). Jameson also flies dangerously close to Richard Rorty’s consensual pragmatism here, and his position is a complete inversion of E.P Thompson’s, for instead of culture being ‘shot through’ with traces of real market imperatives, with Jameson we have only a concept of a ‘market’ that is ‘always already’ ideologically mediated by postmodern culture. In the end, Jameson, who must surely exempt his own text from such a fate (else what analytical power could it possess?) is here shuttling between both sides of the Lilliputian ‘Big Endian/Little Endian’ debate, unaware that he has thereby transported us to the flying island of Laputa.
By 1998’s The Cultural Turn Jameson has found an historical explanation for the above in Arrighi’s further elaboration of the Braudelian ‘long’, spiral-shaped trajectory of capitalism, and a spatio-temporal, technological one in David Harvey’s account of the radical transformations in industry since 1973. To deal with the latter first, Jameson agrees with Harvey about a ‘cybernetic “revolution” […] abolish[ing] time and space’ (Jameson 1998, 143). If 19C capitalism’s abstractions of money and number produced modernism, which itself ‘realistically’ reproduced/represented ‘the increasing abstraction of Lenin’s ‘imperialist stage’, postmodernism today expresses the symptoms of the abstractions of finance capitalism, which are ‘qualitatively and structurally distinct’ from the earlier one . Harvey himself calls this new regime that of ‘flexible accumulation’:
It rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. It has entrained rapid shifts in the patterning of uneven development, both between sectors and between geographical regions, giving rise, for example, to a vast surge in so-called ‘service-sector’ employment as well as to entirely new industrial ensembles in hitherto underdeveloped regions [. . .] to say nothing of the vast profusion of activities in newly industrializing countries . It has also entailed a new round of what I shall call ‘time-space compression’ [. . .] in the capitalist world – the time horizons of both private and public decision-making have shrunk, while satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space. (Harvey 1990, 147)
Of course, Harvey needs first to show what exactly is causing this time-space compression. It sounds at first like it is technologically determined (note the modifier ‘above all’, in the preceding passage) but Harvey wants also to affirm that it is the underlying logic of capitalism that itself drives technological change:
If there has been some kind of transformation in the political economy of late twentieth-century capitalism, then it behoves us to establish how deep and fundamental the change might be. Signs and tokens of radical changes in labour processes, in consumer habits, in geographical and geopolitical configurations, in state powers and society where production for profit remains the basic organizing principle of economic life. We need some way, therefore, to represent all the shifting and churning that has gone on since the first major post-war recession of 1973, which does not lose sight of the fact that the basic rules of a capitalist mode of production continue to operate as invariant shaping forces in historical-geographical development (121)
If I read this passage correctly, it contains an unresolvable contradiction: that while, yes, capitalism remains capitalism – an ‘invariant force’– there has nevertheless been some kind of ‘transformation in the political economy of late twentieth-century capitalism’! Something is shaping capitalism before it shapes ‘historical-geographical development’, and so it looks like capitalism isn’t so ‘invariant’ as it seems! Harvey is also now taking cues from the French ‘Regulation School’, and so capitalism is henceforth to be known by another name: a ‘regime of accumulation’, and is characterized by and sustained by a ‘Mode of Regulation’, those ‘norms, habits, laws,’ etc that get interiorized by actors in the economy and which thereby govern their behaviour (122). This can all be put in much simpler terms, of course: ‘cultural forms’ now reflect in a determining sense back upon the economy, but it does not at all appear clear if or how the economy is determinant of those cultural forms, even ‘in the last instance [footnote] I borrow this phrase from Althusser because Harvey seems here to want to transcend Althusserian semi-autonomy, but cannot. Althusser’s now famous phrase comes from the following passage of For Marx:
[/footnote]Harvey, like Jameson, flirts more than a little with out-and-out idealism here.
In History [sic], these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes (Althusser 113)
If the above constitutes a theoretical weakness in Harvey’s thought, there are also two correlative weaknesses, one theoretical, the other empirical . By dividing the 20C into the successive ‘regimes’ of ‘Fordism’ and ‘Flexible Accumulation’, Harvey must (a) theoretically show that the concept of an ostensible successor regime is specific enough to warrant differentiation from capitalism ‘pure and simple’ as well as from the regime immediately preceding it. But he must also (b) empirically demonstrate that the successor regime amounts in the end to the historically dominant means of capital accumulation. These are both far from given.
First, some scholars suggest that the very term ‘Fordism’ is misleadingly vague at best, and that, at worst, it disguises the invariant ‘inner nature’ of capitalism by concentrating on the admittedly ‘tremendous changes’ in its ‘outward manifestations’ (Sweezy 1974, xxvi). According to Harry Braverman, Marx was particularly interested in transitional epochs, and it is perhaps for this reason that each generation of Marxists wishes to put his or her stamp on history, by imputing transformational changes onto his or her own generation. Moreover, ‘Fordism’ itself goes by a number of pen names, each with its own inherent blindness, and that, while there was indeed an ‘epochal shift’ from the disorganized, atomised era of ‘competitive’ capital to a much more highly concentrated variant in the last decades of the 19C, it is most important to stress the determining factor in naming the new era which came to dominate the 20C:
Marxists have used various names for this new stage of capitalism since it first made its appearance: finance capitalism, imperialism, neocapitalism, late capitalism. But since it has been generally recognized that, as Lenin put it in one of the pioneer treatments of the subject, ‘the economic quintessence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism,’ it is the latter term that has proved the most acceptable. (Braverman 1998, 175)
And while Braverman does not elaborate it is not difficult to interpolate the rationale for the above: ‘Finance’ is unacceptable because it suggests a relative unimportance of production; ‘imperialism’ connotes an undue primacy of extra-economic factors; prefixes such as ‘neo’ both lack all descriptiveness as well as place an undue stress upon historical discontinuity over continuity; and ‘late’ (although popularised by the noted scholar Ernst Mandel), like Lenin’s use of the term ‘highest’ carries with it too much teleological baggage. ‘Monopoly capitalism’ alone embodies upon one of capitalism’s most important contradictory tensions: its simultaneous centripetal and centrifugal urges, the ineluctable twin tendencies toward both outward expansion and its ‘concentration and centralization’ of power (175), its fundamental need to be relieved of all ‘barriers’ to the former, while needing the prerequisite of a highly developed infrastructure in order to support the latter.
The term ‘Fordism’ itself (coined by Palloix et al in the mid 1970s and developed by Joachim Hirsch and Bob Jessop in the early 1980s (Bonefeld and Holloway 1991, 1-2)) is less acceptable than monopoly capitalism, because it embeds both Taylorist practices of scientific management as well as Keynesian economic theories within itself, which has the effect of downplaying the centrality of the one while overstating the efficacy and extent of implementation of the other. According to John Bellamy Foster,
Others claim, in opposition to Braverman, that Taylorism was a passing managerial strategy, later replaced by Fordism, bureaucratic control, “humanistic” control, or what have you. No doubt there have been important modifications in managerial practice since the time of Taylor. Management is quite willing to use more elaborate work rules, credentialism, and so on, to further divide the workers and centralize control [. . .] But a good case can nonetheless be made that Taylor’s principles of scientific management remain ‘the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production.’ All of these other strategies are therefore mere modifications of the tendency toward the polarization of working conditions under monopoly capitalism – that is, the degradation of work for the vast majority and the upgrading of work for a relative few. (Foster 1998, xx)
This is very much the view of John Tomaney, for whom Fordism was a ‘technical solution’ to the problem of bottlenecks in productive ‘throughput’, and for whom ‘the essential underlying principle of both Taylorism and Fordism, however, was the institution of a flow line, designed to ensure high rates of utilization of fixed capital’ (Tomaney 1994, 176). Here again, then, we return to the essential issue: Fordist production techniques as one response to the larger more essential and perennial problem of the continual need [footnote] Marx formulated that this need is met in one of two ways: either (1) by improving the return of fixed capital via technology-driven productivity gains (relative surplus value) or (2) by expanding the size of the market and labour force and/or by lengthening the working day (absolute surplus value). The ‘Fordist’ period of expansion from 1945-68 was thus largely driven by relative surplus value. Key aspects of ‘Post-Fordist’ production, when seen in this light, do not require new terminology such as ‘flexible accumulation’ in order to be understood. Components such as ‘out-sourcing’, ‘Maquiladora’ zones etc. are simply a reversion to absolute surplus value, just as ‘Monetarism’ and ‘Finance capitalism’ are hardly new but are reversions to pre-Keynesian economic practices. [/footnote] – the imperative to – increase profit in the face of the tendency for rates of profit to fall [footnote] Joachim Hirsch (1991, 8-34) maintains that this key Marxist concept has ‘unresolved theoretical problems’ and ‘does not explain any single historical crisis’, but Robert Brenner’s book The Boom and the Bubble: The US in the World Economy (2002), disproves this utterly. Supported by an immense amount of painstakingly detailed empirical data, Brenner’s argument is in essence an inductive proof of this ‘law’ of the tendency toward falling rates of profit. [/footnote] as inherent to capitalism. And any neologism [footnote] Even ‘Keynesianism’, which was, as Neil Lazarus notes, essentially little more than a short-lived ‘stalemate’ between profits and wages rather than an ‘mode of regulation’ – a stalemate which could not long endure falling rates of profit (Lazarus 1999, 31-32). Indeed, the only long-lived sense of ‘Keynesianism’ is ‘military Keynesianism [cf. Brenner 2002, 36-44 and Godden 1990, 174-78], and it remains to be seen to what extent its sole practitioner, the United States, can maintain the steadily increasing deficits (caused by the two pillars of this policy – simultaneous military expenditure and income tax cuts for the wealthy) which underwrite its practice. [/footnote] which places such an emphasis upon technique also therefore subscribes to technological determinism, which is tantamount to ignoring the very social relations which drive technology forward in the first place. Thus, I would maintain, that by discussing Fordist capitalism as simply ‘Fordism,’ we are (to employ a distinction of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s in a slightly different context), losing sight of the fact that Fordist capitalism is what it is not because it is Fordist, but because it is capitalist.
A final difficulty with ‘Fordism’ is that it was never universalizable, either globally or within individual industrialized nations: there is inherent to capitalism a pattern of uneven development such that every ‘core’ is predicated upon both an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ ‘periphery’. As David Harvey notes,
Labour markets therefore tend to divide into what O’Connor (1973) called a ‘monopoly’ sector, and a much more diverse ‘competitive’ sector in which labour was far from privileged. The resultant inequalities produced serious social tensions and strong social movements on the part of the excluded – movements that were compounded by the way in which race, gender, and ethnicity often determined who had access to privileged employment and who did not. The inequalities were particularly hard to sustain in the face of rising expectations, fed in part by all the artifice applied to need-creation and the production of a new kind of consumerist society […] This was a sure formula for discontent. The civil rights movement in the United States spilled over into a revolutionary rage that shook the inner cities. (1990, 138)
Finally, I would like to draw attention to the fruitfulness of the exchanges between Meiksins Wood and her critics in the pages of the journal Historical Materialism. While these debates are far from settled, they provided Meiksins Wood with an opportunity to clarify the lines of demarcation between her ideas and those of her critics, and to distill her conception of the specificity of capitalism. She thereby forces us to consider what continually asks her critics: precisely what is capitalist about capitalism, what is its history, and how does it differ from other economic formations? The Historical Materialism debate shows us just how deeply naturalised our understanding of capitalism has become, since it reveals, in my view, how Meiksins Wood’s critics continually find themselves either unwilling or unable to answer the above questions.
David Harvey, in his examination of her work, finds himself ‘surprised at how much concordance there seems to be between [them]’(Harvey 2007, 58). For instance, he claims that they are largely in agreement that the classical Marxist theorists had an ‘aspatial’ bent and failed to fulfil promise of Marx’s project by moving beyond the nation state in order to conceptualise the ‘spatiotemporal dynamics’ of an integrating 20C ‘global imperialist system (58-9). He also includes Meiksins Wood in his claim that Marxist theorists were largely un unison regarding the conclusion that ‘the imperialism question [was] the primary contradiction of capitalism from the mid-1960s onwards,’ and he even finds ‘her insistence on the paramount importance of value production rather than exchange in the British case [to be] incredibly accurate’(59-60). That is, her ‘typological approach’ to classifying the variety of historical imperialisms yields fruit at least in the case of British exporting of capitalism to Ireland and America (60). Be that as it may, he then mysteriously asks why she refuses to enlarge upon this typology so that she can recognise the empires of Venice, Genoa and Amsterdam as ‘in any sense capitalist,’ especially regarding the insights of Arrighi regarding ‘the key role of financialisation as preceding hegemonic shifts’ (61). This in turn causes her analysis of ‘globalization’ to be ‘cryptic if not overly simplistic’. Harvey then proceeds to give a fairly standard Braudelian potted history of the development of capitalism, beginning with the ‘surpluses piled up by localised groups of traders and merchants who pillaged the rest of the world at will from the sixteenth century onwards.’ What Harvey is really doing here, however, is (as Meiksins Wood herself points out in her “Reply to Critics’) evading the question of just what capitalism really is and where it came from – a question not merely of typology but of history – something that Meiksins Wood detects ‘so often [in] those who take for granted that capitalism is just a quantitative increase in age-old practices of trade’ (Meiksins Wood 2007, 145).
Furthermore, Meiksins Wood notes, when Harvey mentions the ‘surpluses’ that have been somehow ‘piled up by localised groups’ he repeats an error that is made by all thinkers who subscribe to the ‘commercialization model’ of the origin of capitalism: he ‘begs the question’ (assumes what he is trying to prove):
namely that his understanding of ‘primitive accumulation’ has more to do with Adam Smith than Marx, in the sense that capitalism is, for him, simply the product of accumulated wealth and not the result of a distinctive social transformation such as Marx had in mind (in the passages I have quoted, Harvey speaks of social transformations, at best, as if they were consequence rather than cause). If anything, historical process in Harvey’s account is largely illusory . there is no process of historic transformation from non-capitalism to capitalism, because he takes capitalism more or less for granted […] Harvey starts from the premise that capitalism is the accumulated wealth of traders and merchants, and the essential factor appears to be simply the amassing of wealth by people of that kind, which becomes somehow decisive when it reaches some kind of critical mass. Problems arose, he suggests, when this wealth could not be productively absorbed, and then conditions had to change to permit its absorption, conditions achieved by industrial capitalism. But this account cannot get us very far in explaining the origin of capitalism or the social transformations that brought it about, because it begins by assuming that wealth amassed by merchants and traders is already a priori capitalist (or, at least, proto-capitalist, or, at the very least, capitalist in inevitable tendency). It is no use objecting to my refusal to recognise, say, Genoa or Venice as in any way capitalist unless you are going to explain very carefully in what sense they are capitalist, how their economic ‘laws of motion’ or ‘rules for reproduction’ differ from non-capitalist social forms, and what unites them with other very different cases such as early-modern English capitalism or contemporary US capitalism, despite all their other divergences. This is something that neither Harvey nor, for that matter, Arrighi, ever do (146).
Arrighi shares something else in common with another of Meiksins Wood’s critics, François Chesnais – the belief that the new, globalizing, capitalist imperialism is characterized by the ‘domination of a precise form of capital, namely highly concentrated interest and dividend-bearing money-capital’ which predominantly ‘operates in financial markets’ such as New York and London, making these cities of a piece with the capitalist or proto-capitalist city states of Genoa, Venice and Amsterdam (Chesnais 123). This narrative can be found in numerous books, including Braudel’s The Perspective of the World (1984) Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century (1994), and Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (2004). Meiksins Wood has her own, pithy response to this:
In today’s theories of financialisation, finance is finance is finance – only sometimes there is more of it. Th e dominant social-property relations seem to make no difference in determining how financial wealth operates, the conditions in which it circulates, or what imperatives it answers to. (2007, 161)
And she reminds us time and again that we must be clear on how capitalism differs from non-capitalism if capitalism’s chief feature is finance, when by finance we really mean usury, the simple making of profit from interest, as if there somehow could be a ‘completely new dynamic’ marked by ‘a complete severance of finance from production’(163) – that is, by a complete severance from the imperatives of capitalist social property relations. As David McNally puts it,
It appears here as if capital has found its pure form: money begetting money without passing through the mediation of labor and concrete use-values. Indeed, this is the form of capital that entrances both vulgar economics and postmodern theorists of the information economy. (Cited in Meiksins Wood 2007, 164).
There is much else of interest in the other criticisms and exchanges (both here and in the 2006 Historical Materialism forum [footnote] See Historical Materialism 14.4 (2006), especially Meiksins Wood’s ‘Logics of Power: A Conversation with David Harvey’ [/footnote] on David Harvey’s The New Imperialism), and I have but touched upon a few of the salient differences between Wood and her critics here. But I would like to close this piece with a diagram that demarcates these differences, and that recapitulates the depiction I have described thus far, a perhaps skeletal picture upon the broad, black brushstrokes of its white bones I hope to add, in my forthcoming analyses of works she published in the decade leading up to her death.
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