photo by SG

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Historical Evolution and Resistances

Crossposted from RevLeft, where I have grudgingly taken up residence again. I'm not saying anything particularly novel here, I just figured I'd put it up because it's an error that I often see committed, particularly by orthodox Marxists. The long quote at the beginning is from one such person.

"What you said above is true to a certain extent but doesn't take into account the fact that, other than in the most 'primitive' societies, exploitation of man by man tends always to exist, and often, if not almost always, exists on a grand scale. Capitalism produces the conditions for the evolution of a society without exploitation and the rule of minorities. In this sense it is 'progressive'. But American Capitalism didn't require the extermination of it's Native population anymore than Japanese Capitalism did. By which I mean, for Capitalism to become the mode of production in America, it didn't neccesarily require the vast genocides of Indigenous peoples, and so there can be no defense for that, even allowing for Capitalism being progressive."

I think you're accidentally committing a kind of idealist error here. Capitalism is not an ideal Platonic Form, which exists out there in the ether as an idea unconnected from reality, and then we humans have gone about and created versions of it that, regrettably, involve massive violence and oppression. Capitalism is a system, complex and contradictory, that presents itself in a variety of different forms in different times and locations. All but the most orthodox leftists would consider China to be functionally capitalist today, but its form of capitalism differs tremendously from that of, say, the United States.

So first, let's take apart the idea the capitalism naturally "progresses" from the past and that it could do without things like genocide.

Some really important works that have emerged from the Marxist milieu in the last 50 years have been precisely the texts which challenge the idea that capitalism is natural and progressive. Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch points out the way that primitive accumulation not only brought about the conditions that allowed modern capitalism to come into being, but that these conditions need to be continually replicated. Primitive accumulation, she argues, isn't an event which happened back in England a couple centuries ago, it's something that is constantly occurring. Primitive accumulation, like that of the land theft and destruction of Native peoples in the Americas, is both the antecendent and the perpetual feature of capitalism. As Marx and basically everyone else has argued, capitalism must expand to stay alive. Primitive accumulation, as a concept, must continually occur for capitalism to create more value. As many in the school of Marxist thought that Federici is usually grouped with, the autonomists, have argued, this primitive accumulation has been expanded to include concepts that we wouldn't normally consider able to be "accumulated," like time and history.

So I would argue that capitalism is indeed impossible, or at least considerably more difficult, in North America had the genocide of Native peoples not occurred.

Second, the idea that capitalism creates the "conditions for the evolution of a society without exploitation and the rule of minorities" is another oft-quoted Marxist truism, but one that is increasingly coming under attack from evidence that resistance to the imposition of capitalism was not simply reactionary, but in some sectors, genuinely progressive. Again, Federici points out that those who organized against the imposition of wage labor were not just artisans or nobles, but those who would become part of the nascent proletariat and/or urban working class. Linebaugh and Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra talks in depth about the struggles of sailors, soldiers and slaves to globalization in the maritime age. These resistances against capitalist work ethic and conditions were not simply a desire to return to a guild-run economy, but were expressed in utopian and millenarian demands for an end to the capitalist economy (centuries before Marx put pen to paper, no less.) A favorite topic in recent years is of course the Diggers, who were certainly anti-capitalist but not pro-feudal.

So I think it's dangerous to say that capitalism is progressive. Yes, under capitalism certain technologies have been developed that can/have made life easier and production more efficient. But it's fallicious to say that these technologies had to occur or only occurred under capitalism and could not occur any other way because there are no other models of society to judge them against (some could argue that socialism does exist or did exist on a widespread level in the 20th century, and I will politely but firmly disagree. Even so, if socialism did exist in the USSR, it only helps my argument.) Did Einstein need to live in a capitalist society to develop his theory of special relativity? Did any other scientist or inventor need to live under the murderous capitalist system to develop what they did? Sure, those who devoted their life's work to destructive technologies like guns and bombs. But I think we can all agree that those aren't the kind of technologies that a communist society would be interested in developing anyway.

What it gets down to is the problem of the error of evolutionist models of history. Positing that the stage of civilization that we're at is the "highest" one or more progressive one currently available is interesting but untestable. Furthermore, it tries to simplify the actual details of human history into small boxes that fit into a model that always points towards the future, thus discarding the complexities of history that don't fit into that box. Like Linebaugh and Rediker's rebellious sailors or Federici's witches. Drawing history as a straight line, or even a not-straight-but-always-ending-in-the-same-place series of lines, is an error because it judges human history as a teleology instead of a series of complex events that led us to where we are today, but could have lead us elsewhere if things had gone differently.

1 comment:

William said...

"Did Einstein need to live in a capitalist society to develop his theory of special relativity?"

I agree emphatically. Insofar as what you're saying challenges the traditional primitivist / anticiv argument that scientific understanding is inherently linked to the apocalyptic horrors of our real existing civilization.

But unfortunately, despite endless decade-long attempts on my part to model functional anarcho-communist alternatives, I strongly suspect that the actual platonic (that is to say mathematical) ideal of MARKETS of some form with lockean property and centralized currency WERE historically necessary to give rise to the advances in modern science and technology we treasure. At least, with any barest degree of efficiency.

Building a telescope or a vacuum chamber much less the chips to a wifi router are rather difficult tasks involving scarce, distributed resources. And market relations inarguably deal with scarcity and distribution FAR, FAR better than any form of communism.

So while we'd all like to get to a world of collaborative/competitive linux-esque mix of social relations, at the very least we're still looking at Market Anarchy as a transitive stage. And I have some dangerous suspicions regarding the necessity of information tech to even that.

It very likely MAY be that we simply cannot go from hunter-gatherers to post-scarcity pre-singularity kiddies with anything near the speed at which we did without a degree of social oppression. Oh well.