Is there a new capitalism?


An earlier post considered Dave Elder-Vass’s very interesting treatment of the contemporary digital economy. In Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy Elder-Vass argues that the vast economic significance of companies like Google, FaceBook, and Amazon in today’s economy is difficult to assimilate within the conceptual framework of Marx’s foundational ideas about capitalism, constructed as they were around manufacturing, labor, and ownership of capital, and that we need some new conceptual tools in order to make sense of the economic system we now confront. (Elder-Vass responded to my earlier post here.)

A new book by Nick Srnicek looks at this problem from a different point of view. In Platform Capitalism Srnicek proposes to understand the realities of our current “digital economy” according to traditional ideas about capitalism and profit. Here is a preliminary statement of his approach:

The simple wager of the book is that we can learn a lot about major tech companies by taking them to be economic actors within a capitalist mode of production. This means abstracting from them as cultural actors defined by the values of the Californian ideology, or as political actors seeking to wield power. By contrast, these actors are compelled to seek out profits in order to fend off competition. This places strict limits on what constitutes possible and predictable expectations of what is likely to occur. Most notably, capitalism demands that firms constantly seek out new avenues for profit, new markets, new commodities, and new means of exploitation. For some, this focus on capital rather than labour may suggest a vulgar econo-mism; but, in a world where the labour movement has been significantly weakened, giving capital a priority of agency seems only to reflect reality. (Kindle Locations 156-162)

In other words, there is not a major break from General Motors, with its assembly lines, corporate management, and vehicles, to IBM, with its products, software, and innovations, to Google, with its purely abstract and information-intensive products. All are similar in their basic corporate navigation systems: make decisions today that will support or increase profits tomorrow. In fact, each of these companies falls within the orbit of the new digital economy, according to Srnicek:

As a preliminary definition, we can say that the digital economy refers to those businesses that increasingly rely upon information technology, data, and the internet for their business models. This is an area that cuts across traditional sectors – including manufacturing, services, transportation, mining, and telecommunications – and is in fact becoming essential to much of the economy today. (Kindle Locations 175-177).

What has changed, according to the economic history constructed by Srnicek, is that the creation and control of data has suddenly become a vast and dynamic source of potential profit, and capitalist firms have adapted quickly to capture these profits.

The restructuring associated with the rise of information-intensive economic activity has greatly changed the nature of work:

Simultaneously, the generalised deindustrialisation of the high-income economies means that the product of work becomes immaterial: cultural content, knowledge, affects, and services. This includes media content like YouTube and blogs, as well as broader contributions in the form of creating websites, participating in online forums, and producing software. (Kindle Locations 556-559)

But equally it takes the form of specialized data-intensive work within traditional companies: design experts, marketing analysis of “big data” on consumer trends, the use of large simulations to guide business decision-making, the use of automatically generated data from vehicles to guide future engineering changes.

In order to capture the profit opportunities associated with the availability of big data, something else was needed: an organizational basis for aggregating and monetizing the data that exist around us. This is the innovation that comes in for Srnicek’s greatest focus of attention: the platform.

This chapter argues that the new business model that eventually emerged is a powerful new type of firm: the 


. Often arising out of internal needs to handle data, platforms became an efficient way to monopolise, extract, analyse, and use the increasingly large amounts of data that were being recorded. Now this model has come to expand across the economy, as numerous companies incorporate platforms: powerful technology companies (Google, Facebook, and Amazon), dynamic start-ups (Uber, Airbnb), industrial leaders (GE, Siemens), and agricultural powerhouses (John Deere, Monsanto), to name just a few. (Kindle Locations 602-607).

What are platforms? At the most general level, platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact. They therefore position themselves as intermediaries that bring together different users: customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects. More often than not, these platforms also come with a series of tools that enable their users to build their own products, services, and marketplaces. Microsoft’s Windows operating system enables software developers to create applications for it and sell them to consumers; Apple’s App Store and its associated ecosystem (XCode and the iOS SDK) enable developers to build and sell new apps to users; Google’s search engine provides a platform for advertisers and content providers to target people searching for information; and Uber’s taxi app enables drivers and passengers to exchange rides for cash. (Kindle Locations 607-616)

Srnicek distinguishes five large types of digital data platforms that have been built out as business models: advertising, cloud, industrial, product, and “lean” platforms (the latter exemplified by Uber).

Srnicek believes that firms organized around digital platforms are subject to several important dynamics and tendencies: “expansion of extraction, positioning as a gatekeeper, convergence of markets, and enclosure of ecosystems” (kl 1298). These tendencies are created by the imperative by the platform-based firm to generate profits. Profits depend upon monetizing data; and data has little value in small volume. So the most fundamental imperative is — mass collection of data from individual consumers.

If data collection is a key task of platforms, analysis is the necessary correlate. The proliferation of data-generating devices creates a vast new repository of data, which requires increasingly large and sophisticated storage and analysis tools, further driving the centralisation of these platforms. (kl 1337-1339)

So privacy threats emerging from the new digital economy are not a bug; they are an inherent feature of design.

This appears to lead us to Srnicek’s most basic conclusion: the new digital economy is just like the old industrial economy in one important respect. Firms are wholly focused on generating profits, and they design intelligent strategies to permit themselves to appropriate ever-larger profits from the raw materials they process. In the case of the digital economy the raw material is data, and the profits come from centralizing and monopolizing access to data, and deploying data to generate profits for other firms (who in turn pay for access to the data). And revenues and profits have no correspondence to the size of the firm’s workforce:

Tech companies are notoriously small. Google has around 60,000 direct employees, Facebook has 12,000, while WhatsApp had 55 employees when it was sold to Facebook for $ 19 billion and Instagram had 13 when it was purchased for $ 1 billion. By comparison, in 1962 the most significant companies employed far larger numbers of workers: AT& T had 564,000 employees, Exxon had 150,000 workers, and GM had 605,000 employees. Thus, when we discuss the digital economy, we should bear in mind that it is something broader than just the tech sector defined according to standard classifications. (Kindle Locations 169-174)

Marx’s theory of capitalism fundamentally originates in a theory of conflict of interest and a theory of exploitation. In Capital that conflict exists between capitalists and workers, and consumers are essentially ignored (except when Marx sometimes refers to the deleterious effects of competition on public health; link). But in Srnicek’s reading of the contemporary digital economy (and Elder-Vass’s as well) the focus shifts away from labor and towards the consumer. The primary conflict in the digital economy is between the platform firm that seeks to acquire our data and the consumers who want the digital services but who are poorly aware of the cost to their privacy. And here it is more difficult to make an argument about exploitation. Are consumers being exploited in this exchange? Or are they getting fair value through extensive and valuable digital services, for the surrender of their privacy in the form of data collection of clicks, purchases, travel, phone usage, and the countless other ways in which individual data winds up in the aggregation engines?

In an unexpected way, this analysis leads us back to a question that seems to belong in the nineteenth century: what after all is the source of value and wealth? And who has a valid claim on a share? What principles of justice should govern the distribution of the wealth of society? The labor theory of value had an answer to the question, but it is an answer that didn’t have a lot of validity in 1850 and has none today. But in that case we need to address the question again. The soaring inequalities of income and wealth that capitalism has produced since 1980 suggest that our economy has lost its control mechanisms for equity; and perhaps this has something to do with the fact that a great deal of the money being generated in capitalism today comes from control of data rather than the adding of value to products through labor. Oddly enough, perhaps Marx’s other big idea is relevant here: social ownership of the means of production. If there were a substantial slice of public-sector ownership of big data firms, including financial institutions, the resulting flow of income and wealth might be expected to begin to correct the hyper-inequalities our economy is currently generating.

Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass

[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his recent book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author as well of The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed here and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]

We need to move on from existing theories of the economy

Let me begin by thanking Dan Little for his very perceptive review of my book Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. As he rightly says, it’s more ambitious than the title might suggest, proposing that we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of “many distinct but interconnected practices”. Neither the traditional economist’s focus on firms in markets nor the Marxist political economist’s focus on exploitation of wage labour by capital is a viable way of understanding the real economy, and the book takes some steps towards an alternative view.

Both of those perspectives have come to narrow our view of the economy in multiple dimensions. Our very concept of the economy has been derived from the tradition that began as political economy with Ricardo and Smith then divided into the Marxist and neoclassical traditions (of course there are also others, but they are less influential). Although these conflict radically in some respects they also share some problematic assumptions, and in particular the assumption that the contemporary economy is essentially a capitalist market economy, characterised by the production of commodities for sale by businesses employing labour and capital. As Gibson-Graham argued brilliantly in their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, ideas seep into the ways in which we frame the world, and when the dominant ideas and the main challengers agree on a particular framing of the world it is particularly difficult for us to think outside of the resulting box. In this case, the consequence is that even critics find it difficult to avoid thinking of the economy in market-saturated terms.

The most striking problem that results from this (and one that Gibson-Graham also identified) is that we come to think that only this form of economy is really viable in our present circumstances. Alternatives are pie in the sky, utopian fantasies, which could never work, and so we must be content with some version of capitalism – until we become so disillusioned that we call for its complete overthrow, and assume that some vague label for a better system can be made real and worthwhile by whoever leads the charge on the Bastille. But we need not go down either of these paths once we recognise that the dominant discourses are wrong about the economy we already have.

To see that, we need to start defining the economy in functional terms: economic practices are those that produce and transfer things that people need, whether or not they are bought and sold. As soon as we do that, it becomes apparent that we are surrounded by non-market economic practices already. The book highlights digital gifts – all those web pages that we load without payment, Wikipedia’s free encyclopaedia pages, and open source software, for example. But in some respects these pale into insignificance next to the household and family economy, in which we constantly produce things for each other and transfer them without payment. Charities, volunteering and in many jurisdictions the donation of blood and organs are other examples.

If we are already surrounded by such practices, and if they are proliferating in the most dynamic new areas of our economy, the idea that they are unworkably utopian becomes rather ridiculous. We can then start to ask questions about what forms of organising are more desirable ethically. Here the dominant traditions are equally warped. Each has a standard argument that is trotted out at every opportunity to answer ethical questions, but in reality both standard arguments operate as means of suppressing ethical discussions about economic questions. And both are derived from an extraordinarily narrow theory of how the economy works.

For the mainstream tradition, there is one central mechanism in the economy: price equilibration in the markets, a process in which prices rise and fall to bring demand and supply into balance. If we add on an enormous list of tenuous assumptions (which economists generally admit are unjustified, and then continue to use anyway), this leads to the theory of Pareto optimality of market outcomes: the argument that if we used some other system for allocating economic benefits some people would necessarily be worse off. This in turn becomes the central justification for leaving allocation to the market (and eliminating ‘interference’ with the market).

There are many reasons why this argument is flawed. Let me mention just one. If even one market is not perfectly competitive, but instead is dominated by a monopolist or partial monopolist, then even by the standards of economists a market system does not deliver Pareto optimality, and an alternative system might be more efficient. And in practice capitalists constantly strive to create monopolies, and frequently succeed! Even the Financial Times recognises this: in today’s issue (Sep 15 2016) Philip Stevens argues, “Once in a while capitalism has to be rescued from the depredations of, well, capitalists. Unconstrained, enterprise curdles into monopoly, innovation into rent-seeking. Today’s swashbuckling “disrupters” set up tomorrow’s cosy cartels. Capitalism works when someone enforces competition; and successful capitalists do not much like competition”.

So the argument for Pareto optimality of real market systems is patently false, but it continues to be trotted out constantly. It is presented as if it provides an ethical justification for the market economy, but its real function is to suppress discussion of economic ethics: if the market is inherently good for everyone then, it seems, we don’t need to worry about the ethics of who gets what any more.

The Marxist tradition likewise sees one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists. Their analysis of this mechanism depends on the labour theory of value, which is no more tenable that mainstream theories of Pareto optimality (for reasons I discuss in the book). Marxists consistently argue as if any such extraction is ethically reprehensible. Marx himself never provides an ethical justification for such a view. On the contrary, he claims that this is a scientific argument and disowns any ethical intent. Yet it functions in just the same way as the argument for Pareto optimality: instead of encouraging ethical debate about who should get what in the economy, Marxists reduce economic ethics to the single question of the need to prevent exploitation (narrowly conceived) of productive workers.

We need to sweep away both of these apologetics, and recognise that questions of who gets what are ethical issues that are fundamental to justice, legitimacy, and political progress in contemporary societies. And that they are questions that don’t have easy ‘one argument fits all’ answers. To make progress on them we will have to make arguments about what people need and deserve that recognise the complexity of their social situations. But it doesn’t take a great deal of ethical sophistication to recognise that the 1% have too much when many in the lower deciles are seriously impoverished, and that the forms of impoverishment extend well beyond underpaying for productive labour.

I’m afraid that I have written much more than I intended to, and still said very little about the steps I’ve taken in the book towards a more open and plausible way of theorising how the economy works. I hope that I’ve at least added some more depth to the reasons Dan picked out for attempting that task.

Capitalism as a heterogeneous set of practices

Image: O. Beauchesnes, “Map of the Geographical Structure of Wikipedia Links” (link)

A key part of understanding society is making sense of the “economy” in which we live. But what is an economy? Existing economic theories attempt to answer this question with simple unified theories. The economy is a profit-driven market system of firms, workers, and consumers. The economy is a property system dependent upon the expropriation of surplus labor. The economy is a system of expropriation more or less designed to create great inequalities of income, wealth, and well-being. The economy is a system of exploitation and domination.

In Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy Dave Elder-Vass argues that these simple theories, largely the product of the nineteenth century, are flawed in several fundamental ways. First, they are all simple and unitary in a heterogeneous world. Economic transactions take a very wide variety of forms in the modern world. But more fundamentally, these existing theories fail completely to provide a theoretical vocabulary for describing what are now enormously important parts of our economic lives. One well-know blindspot is the domestic economy — work and consumption within the household. But even more striking is the inadequacy of existing economic theories to make sense of the new digital world — Google, Apple, Wikipedia, blogging, or YouTube. Elder-Vass’s current book offers a new way of thinking about our economic lives and institutions. And he believes that this new way lays a basis for more productive thinking about a more humane future for all of us than is offered by either neoliberalism or Marxism. 
What E-V offers is the idea of economic life as a jumble of “appropriative” practices — practices that get organized and deployed in different combinations, and that have better and worse implications for human well-being. 

From this perspective it becomes possible to see our economy as a complex ecosystem of competing and interacting economic forms, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a progressive politics that seems to reshape that ecosystem rather than pursuing the imaginary perfection of one single universal economic form. (5)

The argument here is that we can understand the economy better by seeing it as a diverse collection of economic forms, each of which can be characterised as a particular complex of appropriative practices — social practices that influence the allocation of benefits from the process of production. (9)

Economies are not monoliths but diverse mixtures of varying economic forms. To understand and evaluate economic phenomena, then, we need to be able to describe and analyse these varying forms in conjunction with each other. (96)

Capitalism is not a single, unitary “mode of production,” but rather a concatenation of multiple forms and practices. E-V believes that the positions offered here align well with the theories of critical realism that he has helped to elaborate in earlier books (19-20) (link, link). We can be realist in our investigations of the causal properties of the economic practices he identifies.

This way of thinking about economic life is very consistent with several streams of thought in Understanding Society — the idea of social heterogeneity (link), the idea of assemblage (link), and a background mistrust of comprehensive social theories (link). (Here is an earlier post on “Capitalism 2.0” that is also relevant to the perspective and issues Elder-Vass brings forward; link.)


The central new element in contemporary economic life that needs treatment by an adequate political economy is the role that large digital enterprises play in the contemporary world. These enterprises deal in intangible products; they often involve a vast proportion of algorithmic transformation rather than human labor; and to a degree unprecedented in economic history, they depend on “gift” transactions at every level. Internet companies like Google give free search and maps, and bloggers and videographers give free content. And yet these gifts have none of the attributes of traditional gift communities — there is no community, no explicit reciprocity, and little face-to-face interaction. E-V goes into substantial detail on several of these new types of enterprises, and does the work of identifying the “economic practices” upon which they depend.

In particular, E-V considers whether the gift relation familiar from anthropologists like Marcel Mauss and economic sociologists like Karl Polanyi can shed useful light on the digital economy. But the lack of reciprocity and face-to-face community leads him to conclude that the theory is unpersuasive as a way of understanding the digital economy (86).

It is noteworthy that E-V’s description of appropriative practices is primarily allocative; it pays little attention to the organization of production. It is about “who receives the benefits” (10) but not so much about “how activity and labor are coordinated, managed, and deployed to produce the stuff”. Marx gained the greatest insights in Capital, not from the simple mathematics of the labor theory of value, but from his investigations of the conditions of work and the schemes of management to which labor was subject in the nineteenth-century factory. The ideas of alienation, domination, and exploitation are very easy to understand in that context. But it would seem that there are similar questions to ask about the digital economy shops of today. The New York Times’ reportage of working conditions within the Amazon organization seems to reveal a very similar logic (link).  And how about the high-tech sweat shops described in a 2009 Bloomberg investigation (link)?
Elder-Vass believes that a better understanding of our existing economic practices can give rise to a more effective set of strategies for creating a better future. E-V’s vision for creating a better future depends on a selective pruning of the more destructive practices and cultivation of the more positive practices. He is appreciative of the “real utopias” project (36) (link) and also of the World Social Forum. 

This means growing some progressive alternatives but also cutting back some regressive ones. It entails being open to a wide range of alternatives, including the possibility that there might be some valuable continuing role for some forms of capitalism in a more adequate mixed economy of practices. (15)

Or in other words, E-V advocates for innovative social change — recognizing the potential in new forms and cultivating existing forms of economic activity. Marxism has been the impetus of much thinking about progressive change in the past century; but E-V argues that this perspective too is limited:

Marxism itself has become an obstacle to thinking creatively about the economy, not least because it is complicit in the discourse of the monolithic capitalist market economy that we must now move beyond…. Marx’s labour theory of value … tends to support the obsessive identification of capitalism with wage labour. As a consequence Marxists have failed to recognise that capitalism has developed new forms of making profit that do not fit with the classic Marxist model, including many that have emerged and prospered in the new digital economy. (45)

This is not a wholesale rejection of Marx’s thought; but it is a well-justified critique of the lingering dogmatism of this tradition. Though E-V does not make reference to current British politics in the book, these comments seem very appropriate in appraisal of the approach to change championed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

E-V shows a remarkable range of expertise in this work. His command of recent Marxian thinking about contemporary capitalism is deep. But he has also gone deeply into the actual practices of the digital economy — the ways Google makes profits, the incentives and regulations that sustain wikipedia, the handful of distinctive business practices that have made Apple one of the world’s largest companies. The book is a work of theory and a work of empirical investigation as well.

Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy is a book with a big and important idea — bigger really than the title implies. The book demands a substantial shift in the way that economists think about the institutions and practices through which the global economy works. More fundamentally, it asks that we reconsider the idea of “economy” altogether, and abandon the notion that there is a single unitary economic practice or institution that defines modern capitalism — whether market, wage labor, or trading system. Instead, we should focus on the many distinct but interconnected practices that have been invented and stitched together in the many parts of society to solve particular problems of production, consumption, and appropriation, and that as an aggregate make up “the economy”. The economy is an assemblage, not a designed system, and reforming this agglomeration requires shifting the “ecosystem” of practices in a direction more favorable to human flourishing.

Large structures and social change

The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx. Here is one way that Marx puts the idea in The Poverty of Philosophy:

M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (chapter 2)

The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers. Consider the view offered by Maurice Dobb in 1946 in Studies In The Development Of Capitalism. Dobb offers an account that corresponds closely to the classical Marxian interpretation offered in Capital: the emergence of the great classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), primitive accumulation, the dynamics of industrial revolution in England, and the inexorable logic of capital accumulation. Dobb offers a very classical definition of capitalism:

Thus Capitalism was not simply a system of production for the market — a system of commodity-production as Marx termed it — but a system under which labour-power had “itself become a commodity” and was bought and sold on the market like any other object of exchange. Its historical prerequisite was the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor sector of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labour-power was their only source of livelihood. (7)

Dobb doesn’t much care for the notion that there are “many capitalisms” — many pathways and many institutional variants of market, profit-based economies:

In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general categories which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs. (1)

One thing that is striking about Dobb’s book is how “first-generation” the field of economic history is that he consults. So much has been established about European and Eurasian economic history since 1946 that it is unsurprising that Dobb’s reconstruction feels a bit monochromatic. New thinking about Europe’s population history has emerged (link, link); new ideas about Asian and Chinese economic history have been developed (link, link, link); and a very substantial literature comparing European and Asian economic history has emerged (link, link). So the fairly straight lines that Dobb extends from property relations to technology to capitalist manufacture have a somewhat caricaturist feeling to them. What was schematic and mono-causal in Marx’s hands is now substantially more complex and multi-causal in contemporary world economic history.

More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu’s How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a “Eurocentric” approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. Here is their description of Eurocentrism:

So what exactly is Eurocentrism? At its core, it represents a distinctive mode of inquiry constituted by three interrelated assumptions about the form and nature of modern development. First, it conceives of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe. Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, Eurocentrism locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socioculturally coherent geographical confines of Europe. Thus we find in cultural history that the flowering of the Renaissance was a solely intra-European phenomenon. Analyses of absolutism and the origins of the modern state form are similarly conducted entirely on the terrain of Europe, with non-European cases appearing (if at all) comparatively. Dominant accounts of the rise of capitalism as either an economic form or a social system similarly place its origins squarely in Western Europe, while non-Europe is relegated to an exploited and passive periphery. (4)

The second feature they identify as crucial to Eurocentrism is the idea that “Europe is conceived as the permanent ‘core’ and ‘prime mover’ of history” (5), and the third is the idea that “the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass” (5).

Their globalism and internationalism derives from their rejection of each of these premises. The development of capitalism is not “internal” to Europe, but instead was influenced by forces and influences from many parts of the world. The “core” of capitalist development is not Britain or Europe. And there is nothing universal about the sequence of developments that led from “feudalism” to “capitalism” (a point Marx himself insisted upon in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich (link)).

How the West Came to Rule challenges these assumptions by examining the ‘extra-European’ geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée. (5)

They are open to the idea that there are multiple “capitalisms” rather than a single essence (8); but they argue that there is nonetheless such a thing as capitalism:

We argue that there is a certain unity to its functioning that renders necessary the study of the capitalist mode of production as an intelligible (albeit contradictory) object of analysis. (8)

The core they identify has to do with the “ways in which multiple relations of domination, subordination and exploitation intersect with and reproduce each other”.

From this perspective we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation. (8-9)

Robert Brenner’s treatment of the emergence of English capitalism is particularly instructive (link). (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer considerable criticism of Brenner’s approach.) In two important articles in the 1970s and 1980s Brenner cast doubt on the classic Marxian derivation of capitalism from feudalism; he argued that it was precisely differences in feudal regimes that accounted for the different trajectories taken by English and French capitalism. Ironically, the social power held by French peasants impeded the emergence of managerial farming, which was itself an important step on the way to industrial revolution. As a consequence the proletarianization of English peasants proceeded much more rapidly than French society.

There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We’ve gotten past the “agent-structure” debate; but perhaps we still have the “large factor, small factor” debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.

Do all roads lead to Rome?

Here is a fascinating data visualization experiment by moovel lab testing a piece of ancient wisdom, “All roads lead to Rome” (link). The experiment is discussed in the CityLab blog of the Atlantic. It is not a full map of the auto routes of Europe; instead, it is a construction of the routes that exist from every grid point on the map of Europe to the destination of Rome. So properly speaking, it doesn’t confirm that “all roads lead to Rome”; instead it demonstrates that “you can get to Rome from virtually every point in Europe through a dense system of tributaries”. It’s an amazing representation of the capillaries of transportation throughout the continent.

Imagine what the system would look like if the destination were Stockholm instead. I imagine that the coverage of the map would be equally complete; “you can get to Stockholm from every point in Europe through a dense system of tributaries”. But I also imagine that there would be some important structural differences in the two maps, with a different set of most-travelled primary capillaries.

What about it, moovel lab folks — is this an experiment that could be readily performed?

 Here is a Google map of the Roman Empire prepared by the Pelagios Project demonstrating a much more reduced system of roads (link):

It appears visually that it is possible to align the two maps. Major roads in ancient Europe seem to follow the same course today.

It has sometimes been observed that, for the Romans, it might not have been such a good thing that all roads lead to Rome. This same system of roads served as conduits of invasion by waves of Germanic armies.


Here is a video by Mary Beard on the historical importance of the Roman road system.

Large causes and component causal mechanisms

Image: Yellow River, Qing Dynasty
Image: Free and Slave States, United States 1850

One approach to causal explanation involves seeking out the mechanisms and processes that lead to particular outcomes. McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly illustrate this approach in their treatment of contentious politics in Dynamics of Contention, and the field of contentious politics is in fact highly suitable to the mechanisms approach. There are numerous clear examples of social processes instantiated in groups and organizations that play into a wide range of episodes of contention and resistance — the mechanics of mobilization, the processes that lead to escalation, the communications mechanisms through which information and calls for action are broadcast, the workings of organizations. So when we are interested in discovering explanations of the emergence and course of various episodes of contention and resistance, it is both plausible and helpful to seek out the specific mechanisms of mobilization and resistance that can be discerned in the historical record.

This is a fairly “micro” approach to explanation and analysis. It seeks to understand how a given process works by looking for the causal mechanisms that underlie it. But not all explanatory questions in the social sciences fall at this level of aggregation. Some researchers are less interested in the micro-pathways of particular episodes and more interested in the abiding social forces and arrangements that influence the direction of change in social systems. For example, Marx declared an explanatory hypothesis along these lines in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” And Michael Mann provides more detailed analysis of world history that encompasses Marx’s hypothesis along with several other large structural factors in The Sources of Social Power (link).

Large social factors at this level include things like the inequalities of power and opportunity created by various property systems; the logic of a competitive corporate capitalist economy; the large social consequences of climate change — whether in the Little Ice Age or the current day; the strategic and military interests of various nations; and the social and economic consequences of ubiquitous mobile computation and communication abilities. Researchers as diverse as Karl Marx, Manuel Castells, Carl von Clausewitz, and William McNeill have sought out causal hypotheses that attempt to explain largescale historical change as the consequence, in part, of the particular configurations and variations of macro factors like these. Outcomes like success in war, the ascendancy of one nation or region over others, the configuration of power and advantage across social groups within modern democracies, and the economic rise of one region over another are all largescale outcomes that researchers have sought to explain as the consequence of other largescale social, economic, and political factors.

These approaches are not logically incompatible. If we follow along with William McNeill (Plagues and Peoples – Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History) and consider the idea that the modern distribution of national power across the globe is a consequence of the vulnerability of various regions to disease, we are fully engaged in the idea that macro factors have macro consequences. But it is also open to us to ask the question, how do these macro factors work at the more granular level? What are the local mechanisms that underlay the dynamics of disease in Southeast Asia, West Africa, or South America? So we can always shift focus upwards and downwards, and we can always look for more granular explanations for any form of social causal influence. And in fact, some historical sociologists succeed in combining both approaches; for example, Michael Mann in his study of fascism (Fascists), who gives attention both to largescale regional factors (the effects of demobilization following World War I) and local, individual-level factors (the class and occupational identities of fascist recruits) (link).

That said, the pragmatics of the two approaches are quite different. And the logic of causal research
appears to differ as well. The causal mechanisms theory of explanation suggests close comparative study of individual cases — particular rebellions, particular episodes of population change, particular moments of change of government. The “large social factor” approach to explanation suggests a different level of research, a research method that permits comparison of large outcomes and the co-variance of putative causal factors. Mill’s methods of causal reasoning appear to be more relevant to this type of causal hypothesis. Theda Skocpol’s study of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions is a case in point (link).

The harder question is this: are the large social factors mentioned here legitimate “causes”, or are they simply placeholders for more granular study of particular mechanisms and pathways? Should reference to “capitalism,” “world trading system,” or “modern European reproductive regime” be expected to disappear in the ideal historical sociology of the future? Or is this “large structure” vocabulary an altogether justified and stable level of social analysis on the basis of which to construct historical and social explanations? I am inclined to believe that the latter position is correct, and that it is legitimate to conceive of social research at a range of levels of aggregation (link, link). The impulse towards disaggregation is a scientifically respectable one, but it should not be understood as replacing analysis at a higher level.

(The illustrations above were chosen to provide examples of historical processes (the silting of waterways and patterns of slaveholding) that admit of explanation in terms of largescale historical factors (climate, geography, and political systems).)

Coleman’s house-of-cards theory of structures

image: Henri Bonaventure Monnier, Crowded Restaurant 1860

image: James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, p. 245

James Coleman offers a skeptical position on the question of the reality of social structures in his landmark book, Foundations of Social Theory (1990). Coleman advocates for a view of research and theory in sociology that emphasizes the actions of situated purposive individuals, and he deliberately avoids the idea of persistent social structures within which actors make choices. His focus is on the relations among actors and the higher-level patterns that arise from these relations.

The social environment can be viewed as consisting of two parts. One is the “natural” social environment, growing autonomously as simple social relations develop and expand the structure. A second portion is what may be described as the built, or constructed, social environment, organizations composed of complex social relations. The constructed social environment does not grow naturally through the interests of actors who are parties to relations. Each relation must be constructed by an outsider, and each relation is viable only through its connections to other relations that are part of the same organization…. The structure is like a house of cards, with extensive interdependence among the different relations of which it is composed. (43-44)

This is a fascinating formulation. Essentially Coleman is offering a sketch of how we might conceive of a social ontology that suffices without reference to structures as independent entities. We are advised to think of social structures and norms as no more than coordinated and mutually reinforcing patterns of individual behavior. The emphasis is on individual behavior within the context of the actions of others. As he puts the point later in the book, “The elementary actor is the wellspring of action, no matter how complex are the structures through which action takes place” (503). Essentially there is no place for structures in Coleman’s boat (link).

Coleman takes a similar approach to the topic of social norms, one of the engines through which social structures are generally thought to wield influence on action:

Much sociological theory takes social norms as given and proceeds to examine individual behavior or the behavior of social systems when norms exist. Yet to do this without raising at some point the question of why and how norms come into existence is to forsake the more important sociological problem in order to address the less important. (241)

Coleman offers an example of the house-of-cards interdependence in question here in his discussion of problems arising within bureaucracies as a result of the cost of oversight and policing:

Many kinds of behavior in bureaucracies derive from this fundamental defect: stealing from an employer, loafing on the job, featherbedding (in which two persons do the work of one), padding of expense accounts, use of organizational resources for personal ends, and waste. (79)

These kinds of behavior will swamp the organization, unless there are other actors within the organization who will undertake the costly activity of observing and punishing bad behavior. This might come about because of a formal incentive — people are paid to be auditors. Or it might come about from internalized but informal motives acting in other persons — envy, a sense of fairness, or loyalty to the organization.

The best illustration I can think of in this context is the category of conventional practices of behavior. Let’s say that a study finds that Americans over-tip in small local restaurants. Here is a possible explanation. There is no rule or enforcement mechanism that punishes poor tippers. But because the restaurant is local, the client knows he or she will be returning; and because it is small, he or she knows that today’s behavior will be noted and remembered. Further, the server recognizes the dynamic and reinforces it by providing small non-obligatory extras to the client — a free dessert on a birthday, a good table for a special occasion, a larger pour from the wine bottle. This is an example of social behavior that fits Coleman’s description of a “house of cards” pattern of interdependency between client and server. If the server stops playing his or her role, the client is less inclined to over-tip the next time; and if the supererogatory tip is not forthcoming, the server is less likely to be generous with service at the next visit. The pattern is stable and it can be explained fully in Coleman-like terms. Each party has an interest in continuing the practice, and the pattern is reinforced. (David Lewis does a great job of showing how conventions emerge from intentional behavior at the individual level; Convention: A Philosophical Study.)

Anyone who accepts that social entities and forces rest upon microfoundations must agree that something like Coleman’s recursive story of self-reinforcing patterns of behavior must be correct. But this does not imply that higher-level social structures do not possess stable causal properties nonetheless. The “house-of-cards” pattern of interdependency between auditor and worker, or between server and client, helps to explain how the stable patterns of the organization are maintained; but it does not render superfluous the idea that the structure itself has causal properties or powers. The microfoundations thesis does not entail reductionism (link). (I offered a similar argument in response to John Levi Martin’s parallel arguments in a previous post; link.)

Structures, diagrams, rules, and flows

When we refer to the structure of some complex entity, we often intend to capture one of the following ideas:

  • the parts and their arrangements
  • the parts and their interactions
  • the flow of content — information, money, value, ideas — through a set of interconnected parts

Clouds and monads lack structure — monads because they have no internal parts, and clouds because there are no orderly relations among the constituents (water droplets).

In each case it is significant that there is generally a diagram that serves as a direct and legible way of capturing the claims we want to express. This appears to be a deep fact about the idea of structure: structures have constituent parts that are arranged in significant relationships to each other, and diagrams serve to represent the analysis of part and whole.

Here are some strong examples of the use the idea of structure and associated diagrams.

1. Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures —

Sentences are structures (ordered arrangements of syntactic particles), and grammars are structures (sets of generative rules that dictate how the syntactic particles combine to form sentences).

2. Levi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship —

Levi-Strauss’s ideas too can be represented as diagrams of synchronic relations among individuals in a village or social setting, and Levi-Strauss is also interested in the rules that generate these arrangements, the rules of family formation and kinship.

3. Wassily Leontief’s matrix of input-output relations in a market economy in Input-Output Economics

4. Castell’s model of the The Rise of the Network Society —

5. Freud’s representation of the structure of the human mind in The Ego and the Id

6. Marx’s theory of the class structure of capitalist society in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy

7. G. William Skinner’s analysis of the core-periphery structure of the lower Yangzi region.

These examples are largely synchronic representations of stable arrangements of parts within wholes. There are two associated ideas that need to be incorporated as well. One is the idea of flow or transmission across the notes of a given structure. Income flows from proletarians to the bourgeois class; products of one sector flow through multiple other sectors before emerging as a finished good; ideas and emotions flow from subconscious to conscious levels of the mind. A static diagram can represent a flow among elements of the structure, represented by directional arrows as represented in Charles Minard’s famous nineteenth century maps.

A second feature of complex wholes is the fact of change. Structures are not fixed in time; rather, they sometimes undergo processes of change, evolution, or abrupt alteration. A static diagram doesn’t work well to represent the dynamics of change. But this is an unimportant feature of the printed page. We can represent a structure in a process of dynamic change by introducing time into the representation — by using a simulation or animation that provides a series of snapshots of the state of the relationships among the parts and the changing characteristics of the parts themselves.

Here is a simulation by Burt Simon of the evolution of cooperative groups in extended competition with non-cooperative groups (link). The simulation succeeds in depicting the changing structure of this population of small groups over time, from all groups possessing a high majority of defectors to a large set of groups that have a majority of cooperators.

So perhaps there is a simple heuristic we can bring to bear to the task of interpreting claims about social structures: what is the diagram or animation that corresponds to the claim? If we cannot provide such a sketch, then perhaps the claim is too indefinite to be taken seriously.


Three concepts of social structure

There is an important ambiguity in the idea of social structure that needs to be addressed. The word is sometimes used to refer to functioning entities or units within society. The state is a structure within society; likewise is the system of public education. A corporation is a structure, and so is the feature of the economic organization of society that defines the role and possibilities of a corporation. This aspect of the concept of social structure as persistent entity with causal and functional properties was the subject of an earlier post (link).

There is a second meaning associated with “structure” as well: the idea that society possesses a structure of interconnected parts and systems, and that the parts influence each other in systematic ways. This aspect of the concept is discussed in an earlier post, focusing on Marx’s view that a society possesses a mode of production (link). We might call this “system structure”.

But the term can also be used to refer to the structure of society. Here we have statements like “the age structure of Egypt is X” and “the occupational structure of Great Britain is Y”. In this usage, we are being directed to a descriptive or statistical feature of society — the way that various elements hang together. In this case the structural feature is an outcome, not a functional part. Income stratification is a structural feature; the labor market is a structural entity. Other examples might include the rates of racial segregation that exist in different parts of the country; the wage gaps that exist between male and female workers; and gaps in college attendance rates between white and black students. In each case the structural feature is a statistical pattern that exists across socially meaningful groups, and that is presumably the effect of broad social forces and processes — for example, the sorting mechanisms that influence residence, school, and work by race and gender.

Like the first two interpretations, this third component of the meaning of social structure possesses causal significance, both as effect and as cause. Take wealth stratification. The distribution of wealth in a society is the causal and systemic consequence of other structural features — the rules determining which individuals and groups gain control of which components of the economic surplus. This is the heart of the definition of the field of structuralist economics in the hands of economists like Lance Taylor (Reconstructing Macroeconomics: Structuralist Proposals and Critiques of the Mainstream). Given how the economic structure works (“structure as system”), the current distribution of income and wealth ensues (“structure as outcome”). Structural characteristics in this sense are outcomes of the workings of the other kinds of structures.

But outcome structures have causal consequences of their own. The concentration of wealth in contemporary market democracies creates a group of people with both the means and the interest to influence political decision making. So the concentration of wealth and income that Thomas Piketty describes has a causal consequence for the politics of the democracies of countries like the United States and South Korea. Or take a different example, the age structure of Egypt. The fact that Egypt’s age distribution is substantially skewed to a younger profile than that of the United States has economic and political consequences. There aren’t enough job opportunities for the large population of teenagers and young adults in Egypt, which produces a potential for political instability as young disaffected Egyptians demand change. Or consider the economic consequences of China’s skewed age distribution in the opposite direction: there aren’t enough young workers to support the needs of the elderly population. In each case important social and political consequences are caused by the structural fact of the distribution of demographics or wealth. Consider the dramatically different age structures represented by the demographic pyramids of Egypt, China, and the United States:

These sorts of structural features represent features of society that are analogous to physiological parameters for a biological organism (body temperature, blood pressure, insulin levels). They are outcome parameters that are determined by the workings of other more fundamental forces and processes in society. And, like physiological parameters, there are some clear instances where homeostatic social processes react to correct the outcomes when values of the parameter go too far out of the range of the normal. (For example, extreme wealth inequality may stimulate political forces that lead to higher taxation rates on the rich.) That said, outcome structural features seem to play a less dynamic role in social processes than system and entity structures.

Social structures as entities


Image: first organizational chart (link)


One mark of modernity is the fact that we swim in a sea of structures — states, markets, militaries, employment systems, social networks, taxation systems, and systems of racial and gender disadvantage, to name several. In place of a perhaps mythical pre-modern society in which social life was mediated by personal relationships, the modern world is mediated by institutions, structures, and systems of impersonal rules. Relations of patron and client and the influence of the village priest illustrate the model of pre-modern personalism and particularism. The bureaucratic state that Hegel describes and the impersonal markets that Weber describes illustrate powerful examples of modern impersonal institutions. Essentially this is the story of traditionalists versus modernists — Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, against GWF Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization.

In ordinary thinking, structures have enduring properties that are largely independent of the individuals whom they encompass; they affect the behavior of individuals within them, and they affect the outcomes that individuals achieve through their efforts; and they are causally influential in large processes of social change and social stability. Workers enter a labor market that is largely independent of their own choices and actions. Structures are things with sufficient fixity over time and sufficient firmness to permit them to be regarded as social entities.

The images above illustrate different aspects of the idea of a social structure as an entity. The first represents the ties of authority and information flow that exist within the organization, allowing executives to control the behavior and properties of the organization. The second illustrates the structuring of the labor force that results from the changing environment within which individuals confront the labor market.

These are the ideas of ordinary commonsense about structures — the contents of folk sociology. But how have gifted sociologists theorized this crucial element of the social world? It turns out that things are less simple than commonsense would have it.

First, many sociologists agree on the basic point that social structures exist with reasonably stable properties and that they influence the behavior of individuals. Examples include the government of the state of Michigan, the system of labor organization and representation in the United States, and the vertically organized corporation. In each case the social entity consists of a set of roles, regulations, and actors, along with a set of physical and financial resources, that confront the citizens and consumers who interact with them as objective realities. Developers go to the appropriate agencies for permits and conform to the requirements of state law and state and local inspectors. Criminals conform to the requirements of their organizations as well. Institutions and organizations regulate and constrain the lives of individuals. (For a brief treatment of the Black Panthers as a bureaucratic organization see this post on Mayer Zald’s theories of organizational behavior; link.)

But second, it is evident that structures are populated and constituted by individuals. So whatever causal powers the structures may have and whatever persistent features they possess must somehow be embodied in the actions and states of mind of those individuals. The effects of the structure on individuals and other social entities and processes depend on the coordinated actions of individuals within the structure. Individual actions within the structure are constrained by the meanings, rules, meanings, and enforcement mechanisms that exist within the structure. And external individual actions and social arrangements are affected by the knowledge and representations that these external players have of the workings of the structure. Structures rest upon microfoundations (link). And there must be specific processes of inculcation, coordination, and enforcement through which the required forms of action transpire at the level of the actors. (Research on “institutional logics” helps to fill out this story; link.) Anthony Giddens puts the point this way in Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis:

The term ‘social structure’ thus tends to include two elements, not clearly distinguished from one another: the patterning of interaction, as implying relations between actors or groups; and the continuity of interaction in time. (62)

Third, structures are plastic and frangible (link). Zygmunt Bauman makes this point in a particularly provocative way by insisting the social world is “liquid” (link). The metaphor overstates the case, since many structures have significantly more stability than the image of liquidity implies; but the fundamental notion that social structures and other entities are subject to change is certainly a valid one. We can observe the drift in the functioning and roles of institutions in every aspect of life — political, economic, educational, and ideological.

Several fundamental kinds of questions must be answered when we contemplate the idea of structures and organizations possessing persistent properties over time. First is the question of the conformant behavior of role players within the organization at various points of time. What are the microfoundations of compliance? Individuals do not conform simply because the employee handbook specifies that they should. Rather, they need to be incentivized, trained, motivated, supervised, and disciplined, in order to bring about the forms of orderly behavior that the organization requires. And this means that an organization depends on the existence of roles presenting incentives and constraints for supervisors and trainers as well.

Second is a larger question of accounting for the stability of the rules and roles themselves. What factors work against entropy and the conflicting interests of various internal actors, each of which tends to undermine the stability of the rules and roles? Are there forms of weak homeostasis that work to restore a social structure in face of minor deviations? The “entropic” forces that should be expected to push organizations towards incessant change are fairly obvious; most evidently, individuals in strategic positions within an organization often have interests that are well served by adapting, reconceptualizing, or disregarding the rules. (Michel Crozier makes this point in his analysis of organizations as strategic sites; link.) So a large question for the theory of organizations and institutions is that of stability. What are the features of an organization in an environment that lends stability to its current constitution? Kathleen Thelen considers both aspects of this question in much of her work, including especially How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan and (with James Mahoney) Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power (link).

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