Strategies of economic adaptation

Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin made a powerful case for there being alternative institutional forms through which modern economic development could have taken place in their 1985 article, “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization” (link). In an important volume in 1997, World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, they take the argument two steps further: first, that institutional variations were not merely hypothetical, but in fact had an extended history in a variety of industries well into the twentieth century; and second, that the current situation of pervading uncertainty about our most basic economic institutions was characteristic of the earlier periods as well.  The volume represents the work of an intensive seminar in economic history sponsored by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.  Contributors include a broad swath of researchers in economic history across Europe (not Asia!).  Chapters take up the processes of mechanization, specialization, and mass manufacture in a variety of industries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — silk, cutlery, watch-making, metal-working, and ship-building.  (Here is part of the very good introduction to the volume provided by Sabel and Zeitlin; link.)

Sabel and Zeitlin take the view that the history of business and technology can in fact shed quite a bit of light on the economic situation we face today — from brand new sectors (Google, Facebook, Amazon) to the abrupt decline of old industries (the US auto industry) to speculation about the next big area of business growth (biotech, alternative energy).  They highlight a couple of features of the business and economic climate in the late 1990s that seem equally applicable today — an acute sense of economic fragility and institutional plasticity.  They argue that these features were also the hallmarks of earlier periods of economic change as well.  So they argue that we can learn a great deal for today’s challenges by considering the situation of industries like glass-making or watch-making in 1880 or 1920.

The sense of fragility goes to the once commonsensical idea that progress would lead to the gradual consolidation of particular forms of economic organization, and hence to an ever more certain sense of how best to deploy technology, allocate labor and capital, and link supply of particular products to demand. Today … it is commonsensical to believe that the way many of these things are done depends on constantly shifting background conditions whose almost insensible mutation can produce abrupt redefinitions of the appropriate way to organize economic activity.

The second experience is one of the recombinability and interpenetration of different forms of economic organization: the rigid and the flexible, the putatively archaic and the certifiably modern, the hierarchical and the market-conforming, the trusting and the mistrustful.

The central theme of this book is that the experience of fragility and mutability which seemed so novel and disorienting today has been, in fact, the definitive experience of the economic actors in many sectors, countries, and epochs in the history of industrial capitalism.

But this double perception of mutability and fragility … has not led them to exalt catch-as-catch-can muddling through as the organizing principle of reflection and action. What we find instead is an extraordinarily judicious, well-informed and continuing debate within firms, and between them and public authorities, as to the appropriate responses to an economy whose future is uncertain, but whose boundary conditions at lease in the middle term are taken to be clear.

Our purpose here is to show that most firms in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States, neither mired in tradition nor blinded by the prospect of a radiant future, carefully weighed the choices between mass production and what we would now call flexible specialization. (2-3)

One of Sabel and Zeitlin’s most basic arguments is the idea that firms are strategic and adaptive as they deal with a current set of business challenges. Rather than an inevitable logic of new technologies and their organizational needs, we see a highly adaptive and selective process in which firms pick and choose among alternatives, often mixing the choices to hedge against failure.  They consider carefully a range of possible changes on the horizon, a set of possible strategic adaptations that might be selected; and they frequently hedge their bets by investing in both the old and the new technology. “Economic agents, we found again and again in the course of the seminar’s work, do not maximize so much as they strategize” (5).

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the silk merchants and weavers of Lyons carefully monitored but did not imitate the policies of design routinization, subdivision of labor and price competition pursued by their Spitalfields counterparts, preferring alternative strategies based on rapid style change, increasingly flexible machinery and the skillful exploitation of fashionable markets for high-value products. … Much as they admired the efficiency of American methods, detailed accounts of the American system in trade journals and technical society proceedings typically emphasized that this efficiency depended on standardization of the product which was wholly incompatible with the current or expected organizations of their respective markets. (12)

In other words, specialized firms did not “resist change;” rather, they carefully assessed the full implications of one form of organization and one use of technology against another, and selected those innovations that represented the best match to their own business realities. 
An interesting case study of an alternative way of organizing production is provided in the chapter by Peer Hull Kristensen and Charles Sabel, “The small-holder economy in Denmark.”  It was an example of cooperative-based agriculture and small-scale production that provided a durable alternative to private capitalism farming and manufacture:

Denmark was the exception.  There in the decades before World War I peasant small holders built a technologically innovative cooperative movement that outcompeted estate-owners and urban financiers in virtually every segment of the dairy, egg and pork products industries.  In so doing they created demand for particular kinds of capital goods that contributed to the modernization of the small-shop sector of industry as well. (345)

Alongside the agrarian republic there was another estate of small holders, the artisans and craftsmen.  Their property was the knowledge of tools, materials, and techniques which made them independent of any one market or employer. By the outbreak of the First World War, they too had built institutions — particularly a network of technical schools — which allowed them to defend their place in Danish society by constantly renewing it. (365)

The history these activities in Denmark demonstrate that it was possible for voluntary producers’ cooperatives to manage the provision of specialized services, marketing services, and economies of scale to farmers and artisans that we sometimes believe can only be provided by the market.  This system did not last forever — though it proved economically durable for half a century, and it demonstrated much of the flexibility and organizational innovativeness that Sabel and Zeitlin emphasize in their introduction.

But some fifty years later, in the late 1950s, the cooperative core of this small-holder economy was coming visibly undone.  First cooperative dairies, then the cooperative slaughterhouses began to combine into larger and larger units abandoning in the process many of their original constitutional features and becoming in fact and law corporations. The corporations in turn fought with one another and the remaining cooperative for control of their respective markets. (374)

I find the contributions to this volume interesting in exactly the way predicted by Sabel and Zeitlin in the introduction: for the models they illustrate of deft navigation of uncertain economic environments by firms, cooperatives, and individuals.  The economic and business environment in the region where I live is unforgiving for a wide range of industries; for example, job shops and tool and die shops have largely disappeared in the Detroit metropolitan area.  However, there are a number of mid-sized adaptable businesses that have continued to thrive, through exactly the kinds of intelligent, forward-scanning adaptation to new opportunities described by contributors to this volume.  These businesses are in the engineering and advanced services sector, and they are innovative in two ways: they are constantly looking for new opportunities to apply existing and new technologies to new applications; and they are looking for customers in developing countries, including especially the Middle East from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.  Energy, solar power, building control systems, urban parking systems, and aviation maintenance can be found within the portfolio; and the leaders of these companies are systematically and strategically developing the relations abroad that are necessary to secure the next wave of contracts.

It is interesting to consider whether there is a difference between economic history and business history. One might say that the former has to do with the large features of economic organization, social regulation, and logistics that constitute an economic system, whereas business history has to do with the tactical maneuvering and small-scale adaptations that individual firms undertake within the general framework of the existing economic structure.  But I think Sabel and Zeitlin’s answer would be a fairly decisive one: there is no fundamental distinction between the two levels of analysis.  They frame the distinction in terms of the ideas of “epochs” and “crises”; this language distinguishes between long periods of institutional stability, and short periods of dislocation and change — something like the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  But Sabel and Zeitlin doubt the validity of this distinction.  “The solution, we think, is to relax the distinction between periods of stability and periods of transition in the same way and for the same reasons that we relaxed the distinction between maximizing actor and constraining context” (29).  Or, in other words, when we look closely, almost every period of economic activity is also a period that mixes elements of stability with deep and unpredictable change.

Marx’s relevance as a social scientist

What was Karl Marx’s enduring contribution to the social sciences?  Does he deserve the status of being one of the founders of sociology, along with Durkheim and Weber?  Did he put forward substantive hypotheses about the workings of the modern world that continue to illuminate our social world?  Is there anything important for sociologists, political scientists, or economists of the current generation to absorb from Marx as they construct their own hypotheses about social processes and organizations?

Below are the concluding paragraphs of my 1986 book, The Scientific Marx.  Here I tried to assess whether the theories and frameworks that Marx advanced in Capital and his other scientific writings were of continuing relevance today.  The question for me in 1986 was this: does Marx still have important scientific and theoretical insights into the structures, institutions, and behavior of modern capitalism?  And I came to a tentative conclusion: that Marx’s most important insights were about the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism (not a formal economic theory), and that these insights continue to have some validity and importance today.  Here is the conclusion:

Throughout this work I have examined the logical features of Marx’s social science, not its correctness as an analysis of capitalism. In discussing Marx’s use of empirical evidence, for example, I have not been concerned to discover whether the available evidence confirms or falsifies Marx’s account, but rather the logical question, namely, whether Marx uses evidence in such a way as to permit him to empirically evaluate his account. Thus my primary endeavor has been to examine Marx’s practice as a scientist and to determine whether his efforts at explanation, inquiry, and justification are reasonable ones within social science. It may be appropriate in closing, however, to offer a view of the status of Capital as a body of theory about a social and economic system that continues to dominate our lives in the West. Is Capital still capable of offering scientific insights into the nature of twentieth-century capitalism?

There is a sense in which Marx’s own views would make him suspicious of the claim that an investigation of the social relations of production of nineteenth-century capitalism should remain valid for the social system that emerges from that mode of production over a century later. For Marx is insistent on the historical specificity of the relations that define any mode of production. He raises this point in connection with cross-modal judgments of timelessness (for example, the idea that precapitalist modes of production must “really” have been based on bourgeois exchange relations). But the point is equally valid in application to the development of a single mode of production over time. To the extent that the social relations of production that define twentieth-century capitalism are significantly different from those that defined nineteenth-century capitalism, Marx’s analysis must be modified before it can offer relevant commentary on the present.

There are unmistakable differences between capitalist property relations in 1850 and in the mid-1980s. On the side of capital, at least these changes have occurred: the accelerated separation of ownership and management, the increasing role of finance and credit within capitalist enterprises, the creation of the modem multinational corporation as the basic unit of capital, and the increased involvement of the state in the affairs of capitalist enterprises. Changes have emerged on the side of labor power as well: increasing government regulation of work conditions, the shift from industrial to service employment, the creation of effective units of organized labor in all capitalist countries, the rise of mass-based socialist parties with proletarian support in Western Europe, and the emergence of much more extensive social welfare systems in all capitalist systems.  All these factors potentially may influence the dynamics of modem capitalism, and they all were of only minor importance in the economic structure Marx investigated.

At the same time there are substantial continuities between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century capitalism. (It is these continuities that justify our identification of the modern American or Western European economies as “capitalist.”) The fundamental requirements of capitalist property still exist, namely, the effective separation between a minority class that owns and controls the vast majority of all productive wealth and a majority class that possesses no productive wealth and is obliged to sell its labor power. Capitalism remains a system of class power and privilege — witness the uninterrupted power and influence of the minority class that owns and directs the productive wealth in each capitalist nation. Capitalism remains a system in which class power and privilege derive from ownership of wealth — witness the sharp inequalities of wealth and income that persist to the present day. Moreover capitalism continues to depend on the accumulation of capital, and it continues to reflect a deep conflict of interest between owners and workers in the productive process. Finally — in Marx’s technical meaning of the term — capitalism remains an exploitative system: The social surplus is still expropriated from the class of immediate producers by the class of owner of productive wealth.

Given these important similarities and differences between the property relations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism, it becomes a problem of continuing research — of the sort Marx provided so extensively in Capital — to determine whether the fundamental dynamic of contemporary capitalism should be predicted to resemble that of nineteenth-century capitalism. Only detailed empirical and theoretical analysis will permit us to determine whether the continuities are sufficiently fundamental to offset the alterations introduced by changes in the social relations of property and class. For we have seen that Marx’s arguments for the “laws of motion” of capitalism depend essentially on assumptions about the details of capitalist relations of production, and those relations have not remained fixed.

This finding suggests that the application of the findings of Capital to contemporary capitalism must be somewhat tentative; it is surely not possible to derive particular laws of motion of contemporary capitalism from Marx’s analysis alone. Rather, Marxist social scientists and political economists must provide the sort of detailed account of modem property relations and economic institutions that Marx provides for nineteenth-century relations and institutions. This is not to say that Marxist social science must begin de novo. The continuities between modern capitalism and nineteenth-century capitalism are crucial to understanding modem capitalist phenomena, and Marx’s analysis of those basic features of capitalism remains profoundly illuminating. But it is necessary to supplement, modify, and extend his account to draw particular conclusions about the course of modem capitalism.

Significantly, contemporary Marxist social science conforms to this view of the relevance of Capital today. Thus Marxist political economists have put forward detailed studies of modem capitalist relations of production–e.g. Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism and James O’Connor’s The Fiscal Crisis of the State. Other Marxist social scientists have offered analyses of particular post-capitalist modes of production — Rudolph Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern Europe or Donald Hodges’s The Bureaucratization of Socialism, to name two. And Marxist political sociologists have refined and extended his treatment of class, property, and politics, for instance, Erik Olin Wright’s Class Crisis & the State and Ralph Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society. What these works have in common is not pious deference to Marx’s texts — in Capital or elsewhere. Rather, they are unified in being vigorous attempts, using extensive contemporary data, to offer theoretical accounts of modem social institutions within a framework of analysis that is greatly indebted to Marx’s treatment of capitalism. Contemporary Marxist social science is rooted in Marx’s insights, but it is not confined to his conclusions or to the particular features he singled out for fine-grained analysis. Thus Marx’s Capital established a research program for twentieth-century social science, and it is a program that has borne fine fruit indeed. 

So how does Marx hold up in the first decade of the twenty-first century?  And how does this assessment of my own, written almost twenty-five years ago, hold up as well?

Rawls on Marx; December 1973

John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University.  The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx.  The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  I served as graduate assistant in Rawls’s lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course.  Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls’s treatment of Marx’s ideas about economic justice.  This lecture demonstrates Rawls’s understanding of the fundamentals of Marx’s economic theories and the labor theory of value.  (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx’s economics, though I can’t at this moment confirm this.)  This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of “analytical Marxism” announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, “The Marxian Critique of Justice” in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).

MARX’S ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE THEORY OF JUSTICE 

John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls’s formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn’t make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just.  Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as “preaching”.

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn’t want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists’ program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn’t do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn’t judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period — where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:

To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40) 

Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production.  (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like “slavery is always unjust.” There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn’t mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let’s now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental — as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.

Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. … This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)

The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one’s labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn’t deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common — exchange of equivalents for equivalents — but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian’s argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx’s criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx’s analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx’s analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.

Fair prices?


We live in a society that embraces the market in a pretty broad way. We accept that virtually all goods and services are priced through the market at prices set competitively. We accept that sellers are looking to maximize profits through the prices, quantities, and quality of the goods and services that they sell us. We accept, though a bit less fully, the idea that wages are determined by the market — a person’s income is determined by what competing employers are willing to pay. And we have some level of trust that competition protects us against price-gouging, adulteration, exploitation, and other predatory practices. A prior posting questioned this logic when it comes to healthcare. Here I’d like to see whether there are other areas of dissent within American society over prices.

Because of course it wasn’t always so. E. P. Thompson’s work on early modern Britain reminds us that there was a “moral economy of the crowd” that profoundly challenged the legitimacy of the market; that these popular moral ideas specifically and deeply challenged the idea of market-defined prices for life’s necessities; and that the crowd demanded “fair prices” for food and housing (Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture). The moral economy of the crowd focused on the poor — it assumed a minimum standard of living and demanded that the millers, merchants, and officials respect this standard by charging prices the poor could afford. And the rioting that took place in Poland in 1988 over meat prices or rice riots in Indonesia in 2008 are reminders that this kind of moral reasoning isn’t merely part of a pre-modern sensibility.  (For some quotes collected by E. P. Thompson from “moral economy” participants on the subject of fair prices see an earlier posting on anonymity.)

So where do contemporary Americans show a degree of moral discomfort with prices and the market? Where does the moral appeal of the principles of market justice begin to break down — principles such as “things are worth exactly what people are willing to pay for them” and “to each what his/her market-determined purchasing power permit him to buy”?

There are a couple of obvious exceptions in contemporary acceptance of the market. One is the public outrage about executive compensation in banking and other corporations that we’ve seen in the past year. People seem to be morally offended at the idea that CEOs are taking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation — even in companies approaching bankruptcy. Part of the outrage stems from the perception that the CEO can’t have brought a commensurate gain to the company or its stockholders, witness the failing condition of many of these banks and companies. Part is a suspicion that there must be some kind of corrupt collusion going on in the background between corporate boards and CEOs. But the bottom line moral intuition seems to be something like this: nothing could justify a salary of $100 million, and executive compensation in that range is inherently unfair. And no argument proceeding simply along the lines of fair market competition — “these are competitive rational firms that are offering these salaries, and therefore whatever they arrive at is fair” — cuts much ice with the public.

Here is another example of public divergence from acceptance of pure market outcomes: recent public outcries about college tuition. There is the common complaint that tuition is too high and students can’t afford to attend. (This overlooks the important fact that public and private tuitions are almost an order of magnitude apart — $6,000-12,000 versus $35,00-42,000!) But notice that this is a “fair price” argument that would be nonsensical when applied to the price of an iPod or a Lexus. People don’t generally feel aggrieved because a luxury car or a consumer device is too expensive; they just don’t buy it. It makes sense to express this complaint in application to college tuition because many of us think of college as a necessity of life that cannot fairly be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. (This explains why colleges offer need-based financial aid.) And this is a moral-economy argument.

And what about that other necessity of life — gasoline? Public complaints about $4/gallon gas were certainly loud a year ago. But they seem to have been grounded in something different — the suspicion that the oil companies were manipulating prices and taking predatory profits — rather than an assumption of a fair price determined by the needs of the poor.

Finally, what about salaries and wages? How do we feel about the inequalities of compensation that exist within the American economy and our own places of work? Americans seem to accept a fairly wide range of salaries and wages when they believe that the differences correspond ultimately to the need for firms to recruit the most effective personnel possible — a market justification for high salaries. But they seem to begin to feel morally aggrieved when the inequalities that emerge seem to exceed any possible correspondence to contribution, impact, or productivity. So — we as Americans seem to have a guarded level of acceptance of the emergence of market-driven inequalities when it comes to compensation.

One wonders whether deeper resentment about the workings of market forces will begin to surface in our society, as unemployment and economic recession settle upon us.

Polanyi on the market


Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is a classic statement of a polar position in the issue of the universality of instrumental rationality and market institutions in explaining concrete historical circumstances in the recent and distant past. Polanyi maintains that the concept of economic rationality is a very specific historical construct that applies chiefly to the forms of market society that emerged in Western Europe in the early modern period. Market behavior came to replace other forms of motivation within European society in this period, and individuals came to act more and more on the basis of a calculation of self-interest. However, Polanyi holds that this form of behavior, like the economic institutions of the market within which it emerged, is highly specific to a particular time and place. To make use of this model of action as though it were a universal feature and determinant of human behavior is as unjustified as it would be to extend medieval chivalry to all times and places.

No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. . . . Gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. (Polanyi 1957:43)

While history and ethnography know of various kinds of economies, most of them comprising the institutions of markets, they know of no economy prior to our own, even approximately controlled and regulated by markets. . . . The role played by markets in the internal economy of the various countries . . . was insignificant up to recent times. (Polanyi 1957:44)

Against the idea that it is “natural” for men and women to be motivated primarily by self-interest, Polanyi writes:

For, if one conclusion stands out more clearly than another from the recent study of early societies it is the changelessness of man as a social being. His natural endowments reappear with a remarkable constancy in societies of all times and places; and the necessary preconditions of the survival of human society appear to be immutably the same. (Polanyi 1957:46)

The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. . . . The economic system will be run on non-economic motives. (Polanyi 1957:46)

Thus Polanyi maintains that it is socially motivated behavior — ªbehavior motivated toward the interests of one’s family, clan, or village” — rather than self-interested behavior that is “natural” for human beings; rational self-interest is rather a feature of a highly specific society: market society. Instead, Polanyi’s account urges that the analysis pay primary attention to patterns of reciprocity and redistribution, shared values, traditions, and the determining role of community and politics. And he argues that virtually every society – traditional as well as modern – depends upon these sorts of social motivations.

In place of economic rationality and the market mechanism providing the basis for organization of the premarket economy, Polanyi argues that communitarian patterns of organization are to be found in a range of traditional societies:

The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay. . . . The performance of all acts of exchange as free gifts that are expected to be reciprocated though not necessarily by the same individuals–a procedure minutely articulated and perfectly safeguarded by elaborate methods of publicity, by magic rites, and by the establishment of ‘dualities’ in which groups are linked in mutual obligations–should in itself explain the absence of the notion of gain or even of wealth other than that consisting of objects traditionally enhancing social prestige. . . . But how, then, is order in production and distribution ensured? . . . The answer is provided in the main by two principles of behavior not primarily associated with economics: reciprocity and redistribution. (Polanyi 1957:46-47)

Finally, Polanyi identifies the same element of materialist rationality in common among neoclassical political economists and Marx. Polanyi argues that Marxism analyzes the historical process in terms of individual self-interest, conceived largely in terms of material well-being.

There is the equally mistaken doctrine of the essentially economic nature of class interests. Though human society is naturally conditioned by economic factors, the motives of human individuals are only exceptionally determined by the needs of material want-satisfaction. That nineteenth century society was organized on the assumption that such a motivation could be made universal was a peculiarity of the age. It was therefore appropriate to allow a comparatively wide scope to the play of economic motives when analyzing that society. (Polanyi 1957:153)

All this should warn us against relying too much on the economic interests of given classes in the explanation of history. Such an approach would tacitly imply the givenness of those classes in a sense in which this is possible only in an indestructible society. (Polanyi 1957:155)

What kind of theory is this? And how should it be evaluated?

First, it is a hypothesis in historical sociology about institutions. Polanyi is asserting that history and ethnography provide a wealth of variety of fundamental economic and social institutions. Market institutions are historically specific — there are periods of time in human history in which market institutions were barely present, and other periods in which they were essentially ubiquitous. And, though Polanyi doesn’t do much with this, there is also the point that market institutions themselves show substantial variation across time and place. That said — trade, artisanship, commodities, and production for the market appear to be activities that have very ancient roots in human societies. These kinds of economic exchanges are well documented in ancient China, Europe, and the Americas, and we can understand very well how they would emerge again and again out of ordinary human activity and interaction. So markets are surely not the nearly unique historical creation that Polanyi maintains them to be. Moreover, we can distinguish among “market” institutions (as Marx and Weber both do) according to whether they are organized around use or around accumulation; consumption or profit. (A neo-Polanyian might put forward a more limited claim: a market system aimed at accumulation is a historically recent institution.)

Second is a hypothesis about “human nature”. Polanyi takes issue with a vulgar economism, according to which the most fundamental human motivation is rational self-interest. On the contrary, Polanyi maintains, this social psychology of “possessive individualism” (as C. B. Macpherson called it in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke) is itself a very specific historical product — not a permanent feature of human nature. In fact, Polanyi goes a step further and argues that the “social motivations” are more fundamental than rational self-interest. But here again, it seems likely that Polanyi puts his case much more absolutely than is justified. Being prudent and goal-directed — paying attention to “costs” and “benefits” of various human activities — is not simply a historical accident of the early modern period; it is a more or less permanent feature of the human species.

How should Polanyi’s theory be assessed? There is an obvious risk of romanticizing human society that is implicit in Polanyi’s reading of pre-modern societies — expressing a moral preference for social cooperation and community, harmony and sharing, over competition, conflict, and self-striving. But romanticizing the past is not the same as understanding it factually and objectively. And it is my impression that anthropologists and historians would now be more inclined to find a mix of social and self-regarding motives in the contexts they study — from contemporary Thai villages to the Greek polis to labor unions or environmental action groups. So Polanyi’s black-and-white distinction between the past — communitarian and social — and the present — egoistic and market-driven — is too stark.

But at the same time, Polanyi’s guiding intuition seems correct: human social behavior is influenced by more than simple self-interest, and human institutions are more varied than the vocabulary of the market would suggest. Human deliberativeness and purposiveness goes beyond maximizing rationality; it includes a broad range of “social” motivations and emotions. And a more adequate social psychology requires that we arrive at a better understanding of the motives that underlie cooperation and reciprocity. This is Amartya Sen’s central conclusion in “Rational Fools” (link), and it is surely correct: “The purely rational economic man is indeed close to being a social moron”.

(The connection between Polanyi’s theories and the terms of the moral economy debate are evident (discussed in prior postings).)

Primitive accumulation



Marx’s treatment of the “so-called ‘primitive accumulation'” is one of the most historically detailed sections in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). And it is one of the most interesting parts of Capital to read as a separate piece. (Here is an electronic text of the section.) It is Marx’s account of the historical processes of change in rural life of the fifteenth through eighteenth century in Britain and Ireland, through which peasants were forced off their land and the commons were enclosed. Marx believes that this separation of the peasantry from the land was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism, in that it created the conditions in which there was a pliable and abundant proletariat. This “free” proletariat was needed for the creation of the factory system and the development of manufacturing cities. So the process of primitive accumulation created the changes in social relations, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth that permitted the creation of the capital-labor relation and factory-based capitalism.

Marx sometimes puts this point in a fairly teleological way, looking at primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the road to British capitalism. (For example, he refers to this process as “the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production.”) But it is possible, and preferable, to read Marx’s analysis here less teleologically, as simply a detailed account of some of the crucial but contingent changes that took place in rural social relations during these centuries, without importing the idea that these changes were functionally related to the later development of capitalism. And read non-teleologically, the section holds up fairly well in relation to modern historical scholarship.

Marx describes the basic social relations of British rural life in the fifteenth century in these terms, as a freeholding peasantry with access to substantial common lands, pasture, and forest:

The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage-labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage-labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.

And he identifies the crucial turn towards expropriation of the free peasant proprietor:

In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.

(It is interesting to recall that Oliver Goldsmith describes the eighteenth-century version of this process in Ireland in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770):

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied. )

And Marx emphasizes the coercive nature of this expropriation of the yeoman peasant:

Even in the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the country clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. We leave on one side here the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. We deal only with the forcible means employed.

A crucial component of the “primitive accumulation”, in Marx’s interpretation, was the abolition of common property, culminating in the enclosure acts in the seventeenth century:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. Sir F. M. Eden refutes his own crafty special pleading, in which he tries to represent communal property as the private property of the great landlords who have taken the place of the feudal lords, when he, himself, demands a “general Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Commons” (admitting thereby that a parliamentary coup d’état is necessary for its transformation into private property), and moreover calls on the legislature for the indemnification for the expropriated poor.

We even are afforded a glimpse of the economist’s view of the rationality of enclosure. According to John Arbuthnot, enclosure and the creation of private farms is a more productive use of land and labor:

Let us hear for a moment a defender of enclosures and an opponent of Dr. Price. “Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field…. If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation” (to which, of course, the “converted” ones do not belong) “should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.”

And here Marx describes the final stages of the “rationalization” of agriculture, in the expropriation of the Scots:

The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.

Eventually we come to the point where industrial capitalism is feasible and there is a “free” proletariat available for labor:

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance.

And, of course, Engels picks up the story from the perspective of nineteenth-century Manchester and Birmingham, and the conditions of squalor and oppressive factory labor that resulted. (See an earlier posting on Engels’s sociology of the proletarian city.)

The English Marxist historians have devoted a lot of their attention to this period of British social history. (Harvey Kaye gives a very good account of the work of this generation of Marxist historians in The British Marxist Historians.) Maurice Dobb is one of the English socialist historians who has retraced Marx’s steps on this subject in some detail. One of Dobb’s important books, Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (1963), treats this process of the decline of the English peasantry and the rise of the proletariat, making use of the historical scholarship of the first part of the twentieth century. Some of Rodney Hilton’s research on this period can be found in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Rev). Several generations later, Robert Brenner gave a somewhat different interpretation of the history of agrarian change in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; his views were developed in the splendid journal Past & Present and were separately published along with a round of critical reactions in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.

Are there patterns of economic development?


There is an old-fashioned and discredited theory that holds that there are only a small number of development trajectories. Crudely, Western Europe’s experience — agricultural modernization, handicraft manufacture, population growth, urbanization, and large-scale mass manufacturing — is the paradigm and “normal” case, and different processes in other countries are deviations or abnormalities. This is the approach economic historians once took towards Asian economic development; it is substantially refuted by Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience) and Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.).

A somewhat better approach postulates that there are alternative pathways of development, and that English, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian historical experiences of development all illustrate different trajectories. Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin explore this idea (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization). This approach emphasizes path dependence and the salience of institutions in economic development. Thus Robert Brenner maintains that it was differences in the particulars of the social-property relations governing farming that explained English transformation and French stagnation (The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe; see also a short descriptive essay, The Brenner Debate).

But other historians have pushed contingency and variation even deeper. So Pomeranz argues against a nation-based model of development. He argues that China’s processes of development were very different in different regions, north and south, east and west. So instead of analyzing “China,” he picks out one large macro-region, the lower Yangzi region, as the unit possessing enough integration to possess a distinctive pattern of development. Essentially, this is to say that the complex of institutions, crops, population dynamics, and urban patterns are unified but distinct in north China and southeast China, and that each constitutes a system of production with its own dynamics. So this serves to disaggregate China into several important and different regions.

So, with all this disaggregation and differentiation of economic development, let’s ask the question again: are there patterns of economic development? Or is every region, city, or state sui generis?

Here is what seems plausible to me. The best hope we have for generalizations about economic development is not at the level of wholes — regions or nations. Rather, what we can hope to do is to discover a number of recurring processes and mechanisms — political, demographic, technology, institutional, and economic — that can be identified and studied in multiple historical cases. In this category of recurring processes and mechanisms, I would include “proto-industrialization,” “scissors crisis,” “high level equilibrium trap,” “state fiscal crisis,” and “rapid urban growth” — along with dozens of other comparable social and economic processes. These are mid-level social processes and mechanisms that correspond to specific opportunities or situations of persons and groups in a developing society, and they can arguably occur in historically separate cases. And actors will adjust their behavior in relation to these processes in their particular settings, to pursue their goals. Finally, some of these processes will aggregate in particular historical settings — often in novel ways — to give rise to a particular historical trajectory. (Notice that this is methodologically very similar to the picture that McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly paint about the possibility of generalizations about contentious politics; Dynamics of Contention.)

Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society — for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base — the economic structure — and an ensemble of superstructural elements — law, state, ideology, religion, culture –that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good — there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn’t seem misleading to call these “structures.” Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of “proletariat” and “capitalist” are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of “capitalism” and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don’t think Marx would object to this stricture — I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

Alienation and anomie

It is interesting to compare Durkheim and Marx on their ideas about modern consciousness. Durkheim focused on social solidarity as one of the important functions of a social order: individuals had a defined place in the world that was created and reinforced by the social values of morality, religion, and patriotism. He observed that these strands of solidarity are stronger or weaker in different societies, and he also observed that some modern social forces tend to break down these moral strands of social cohesion — the creation of large cities, for example. In his theory of suicide, he highlights the situation of “anomie” to refer to the circumstance of individuals whose relationship to the social whole is weak, and he explains differences in suicide rates across societies as the result of different levels of solidarity and its opposite, anomie.

Marx’s concept of alienation involves a somewhat different kind of separation and breakdown — separation of the person from his/her nature as a free producer and creator, and separation of the person from his/her natural sociality. Marx thinks of affirming social relations as founded on equality and freedom. So modern capitalist society is destructive of true sociality.

What is interesting in this comparison is that both Durkheim and Marx appear to be diagnosing a similar feature of modernity. In Durkheim’s case there is an implicit contrast between a pre-modern world in which individuals have a well-defined social and moral place and the contemporary world in which these strands of solidarity are breaking down. In Marx’s case the contrast is forward-looking. Marx compares the present — the factory — with the future — a society of free, equal, social producers. But in each case the theorist is grappling with an absence in modernity — an absence of a social and moral setting that gives the individual a basis for self-respect and sociable collaboration with others. The social itself is breaking down. (This is a theme with other social theorists as well; for example, in Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Peter Laslett’s title The World We Have Lost, England Before the Industrial Age captures some of the same idea.)

Coming forward to the social theories of the late twentieth century, these issues continue to fascinate some social observers. Robert Putnam’s work on trying to measure the changing density of civic involvement (social capital) is a different perspective on Durkheim’s concept of solidarity. (Another great title — Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community.) Sociologists who focus on disaffected young people are raising similar issues. And the New Left sociology and theory of workers’ alienation from society picks up where Marx left off on this issue.

Is the time right for a new round of thinking about the nature of social consciousness and social solidarity? Do we need some new concepts of how ideas and identities contribute to a social whole? Is the study and theorizing of social subjectivity an important aspect of the challenge of sociology?

Alienation and subjectivity

Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation — interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers’ subjectivity — their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.

What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one’s social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from “species-being” (the worker’s essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.

There are several other concepts in Marx’s work that get some grip on subjectivity — the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity — the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one’s experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are “determined” or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx’s was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.

There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task — that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People’s thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that “the hand mill gives you the feudal lord”. The theory of ideology is one such effort — a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.

Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances — the social relations of production and the factory system — produce a subjective effect — the worker’s alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).

The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to — understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx’s early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.