Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Lateness of Capitalism, Part 1

I've not yet finished the new wave of books on American Empire, which was to be the next topic in The Next Republic. Clearly William Appleman Williams has had a profound effect on recent thinking and writing about imperialism (see, e.g., Andrew Bacevich's bracing, debunking book of the same title as Neil Smith's gargantuan study of Isaiah Bowman)--at least we can all now live with the juxtaposition of the two words. Well, OK, John Lewis Gaddis and Niall Ferguson go further than that: they want us to get all comfortable with Empire. Their reasons are different than those offered by the Project for a New American Century crowd (Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al.), but they nonetheless permit a political and intellectual posture that is foreign to the post-imperial purposes and principles of American foreign policy in the 20th century. For the original architects of American empire, ca. 1898-1919, assumed that it was a provisional means to larger ends, that is, a device by which imperialism as such could eventually be adjourned. Until very late in the 20th century, when the end of the Cold War opened up new lines of historical and strategic inquiry, U.S. foreign policy-makers typically made the same assumption. Gaddis, Ferguson, and, it seems, contemporary policy-makers assume something else. That change of assumptions is the key to understanding both the continuity between Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, AND the radical departure proposed and enacted by the latter. More later, when I finish that pile of books. See you in Central Park on the 29th, in any case.

Meanwhile, however, I want to talk about the "lateness" of capitalism, in two senses. First, as a way of emphasizing its transience, its brevity, and second, as a way of suggesting that at this moment in history, it may be more appropriate to discuss the decomposition of capitalism than to mourn the death of socialism. Please note that in this space socialism does not mean the abolition of the market, that is, the eradication of civil society, by the state, as in the communist and fascist experiments of the 120th century; here socialism instead appears as the heir to liberalism (pace Bernstein) because, like liberalism, it specifies society as the site of self-discovery and self-government as against the polis and political action. Which is to say as against the communitarians who keep citing classical republicanism as the only possible model of politics as such.
Most of what I have to say is part of a larger complaint about the periodization and characterization of capitalism found in Jameson's Postmodernism, Hardt & Negri's Empire, and in several books from the other shore, including Mandelbaum's Ideas that Conquered the World, de Soto's Mystery of Capital, Zakaria's Future of Freedom, Lindsey's Against the Dead Hand--and on and on.
Let's start at the front end, as it were. No matter whose position you take for granted, whether Marx or Weber or Polanyi, you know that capitalism arrived very late on the scene of civilization. You also know that, according to the the canonical social historians of our time (Thompson, Rude, Hobsbawm, Davis, Gutman, Montgomery, and their myriad students), the working class, that unique product of capitalism, doesn't take shape until very late in the 18th century, even at the cutting edges of western civilization; in the U.S., for example, it happens much later than that, beginning in the 1830s and 40s. In the Anglo-American world, the farthest outpost of bourgeois society, the category of class does not become the regulative principle of social organization and political discourse until the 19th century. Perhaps that is why the OED's first recorded reference to "capitalism" occurs in 1854--in a novel (by Thackery).
I am suggesting of course that the creation of a world market or "system" in the 16th and 17th centuries is not the evidence of the rise of capitalism, and so I am siding with Polanyi and Weber as against Marx and Dobb (although we will return to and retrieve the latter in what follows). But shoot, Marx is, as always, more ambiguous than that--see Kerr ed. of Capital Vol. I, p. 189 n. 1: "The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently becomes wage labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity."
The creation of a world market was indeed the dawn of modern bourgeois society and the heyday of merchant capital. But bourgeois society is NOT the same thing as capitalism--see my Radical History Review piece on Genovese and comments following, esp. the trenchant critique by James Oakes--and merchant capital is, practically speaking, a trans-historical phenomenon that flourished in the Hellenistic world as well as under late feudalism, and that invariably opposed what Marx called he "revolutionary road" to industrial capitalism.
Most simple market (or "proto-industrial") societies, of which bourgeois society is the enduring prototype, did not make the transition to capitalism in the early modern period. Witness the remarkable lateness of capitalism in Western Civilization--that is, in Germany, Italy, France, oh, and North America. When these simple market, proto-indusrial societies did make this transition in the 19th century, it was the result of manic state-building, of extraordinary political upheaval and innovation: the Bismarckian Leviathan, the Risorgimento, the French "revolutions" of 1830, 1848, 1870, and, meanwhile, the Civil War and Reconstruction in these once disunited states. The Russian reforms of the 1860s and after compose, I think, a separate case, although they did consolidate the Tsarist state by making it the agent of modernization. The Populists (in Russia) were wrong--Lenin and the "legal Marxists" of the 1890s were right to claim that the development of capitalism was specific to the late-19th century, that it accelerated with the adpotion of the gold standard in 1894, and that it could not have happened if serfdom had not been abolished in 1861.
Again, the creation of a world market or "system" 350-odd years ago did not signify and did not cause the emergence of capitalism. In most of Europe, esp. east of the Elbe, and in all of the Americas, it created an insatiable demand NOT for "free labor"--that is wage labor--but for an IMMOBILIZED labor force, for a second serdom in Eastern Europe and for indentured servitude and finally chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Logically at least, it should follow that the "globalization" of our time does not signify the triumph of capitalism ansd will not cause the triumph of freedom in the world.
More to follow.