M I Finley on the dynamics of the Roman Empire

One of the books I found influential in graduate school in philosophy was M. I. Finley’s The Ancient Economy, which appeared in 1973. Finley’s book sought to explain important parts of the Roman world by piecing together the best knowledge available about the economic relations that defined its socioeconomic foundation. And the book proposes to consider economic history in a new way:

There is a fundamental question of method. The economic language and concepts we are all familiar with, even the laymen among us, the “principles”, whether they are Alfred Marshall’s or Paul Samuelson’s, the models we employ, tend to draw us into a false account. For example, wage rates and interest rates in the Greek and Roman worlds were both fairly stable locally over long periods … , so that to speak of a “labour market” or a “money market” is immediately to falsify the situation. (23)

Finley’s point here is that we need to conceptualize the ancient economy in terms that are not drawn from current understandings of capitalist market economies; these economic concepts do not adequately capture the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world. Finley argues that the concepts and categories of modern market society fit the socioeconomic realities of the ancient world very poorly. (In this his approach resembles that of Karl Polanyi, who was indeed an important influence on Finley.) One thing that is interesting in this approach is that it is neither neo-classical nor Marxist.

Finley addresses a question that is particularly important in the human sciences, the problem of how to handle heterogeneity within a social whole.

Is it legitimate, then, to speak of the “ancient economy”? Must it not be broken down by further eliminations…? Walbank, following in the steps of Rostovtzeff, has recently called the Empire of the first century “a single economic unit”, one that was “knit together by the intensive exchange of all types of primary commodities and manufactured articles, including the four fundamental articles of trade — grain, wine, oil, and slaves”. (33)

This is to take a regionalist perspective on defining an economic region: we emphasize not homogeneity and self-similarity, but rather systemic interconnections among the parts. But to conclude a set of places fall in a single “economic region”, Finley argues something else is needed:

To be meaningful, “world market”, “a single economic unit” must embrace something considerably more than the exchange of some goods over long distances…. One must show the existence of interlocking behaviour and responses over wide areas. (34)

So what distinguishes the “interlocking behaviour and responses” of the ancient world? Finley’s view is that the dominant ethos of the ancient world is not one of producing for accumulation, but rather maintaining status and the social order. And these imply a society sharply divided between haves and have-nots — nobility and the poor. Finley takes issue with the “individualist” view (43) as applied to the ancient world, according to which each person is equally able to strive for success based on his/her own merits. What he calls the prevailing ideology is one of the moral legitimacy of inequalities, social and economic. Hierarchy is normal in the order of things, in the world view of the ancients. Even the heterodox insistence in the modern world on the concepts of class and exploitation, according to Finley, have little grip on the ideologies and values of the ancients. The idea of the working class fails to illuminate social realities of the ancient world because it necessarily conflates free and bonded labor (49). (Finley quotes Lukács on this point: “status-consciousness … masks class consciousness” (50).)

There are only a few “structural” factors in Finley’s account of the ancient economy. The structure and social reality of property is one — the ownership of land and labor in the form of estates, small farms, and slaves conditions much of productive activity. Another is the availability of roads and water transport. Production largely took place within one day’s transport from the consumers of that production. “Towns could not safely outgrow the food production of their own immediate hinterlands unless they had direct access to waterways” (126). Finley summarizes the “balance of payments” through which towns and cities supported themselves under four categories: local agricultural production, the availability of special resources like silver; the availability of trade and tourism; and income from land ownership and empire (139).

It is interesting to compare Finley’s intellectual style in The Ancient Economy with his writing in an earlier book, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies, published in 1968. Here Finley takes up many topics in a broadly chronological order. And he is more declaratory in his analysis of the broad dynamics of social development. One chapter in particular is an interesting counterpoint to The Ancient Economy, “Manpower and the Fall of Rome”. The time is the late fourth century, and the circumstances are the impending military collapse of Rome. Finley estimates the population of the empire at about 60 million, noting that it is impossible to provide anything like a precise estimate. This population supported an army of about 300,000 in the time of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180), and rising to perhaps 600,000 in in the coming century. But increasingly this army was incapable of protecting the Empire from the encroaching Germanic tribes.

Roman armies still fought well most of the time. In any straight fight they could, and they usually did, defeat superior numbers of Germans, because they were better trained, better equipped, better led. What they could not do was cope indefinitely with this kind of enemy [migratory tribes]. (150)

Finley offers what is essentially a demographic and technological explanation for Rome’s failure to defend itself: it simply could not sustain the substantially greater manpower needs that the Germanic warfare required, given the nature of the agrarian economy.

With the stabilization of the empire and the establishment of the pax Romana under Augustus, a sort of social equilibrium was created. Most of the population, free or unfree, produced just enough for themselves to exist on, at a minimum standard of living, and enough to maintain a very rich and high-living aristocracy and urban upper class, the courts with its palace and administrative staffs, and the modest army of some 300,000. Any change in any of the elements making up the equilibrium — for example, an increase in the army or other non-producing sectors of the population, or an increase in the bite taken out of the producers through increased rents and taxes — had to be balanced elsewhere if the equilibrium were to be maintained. Otherwise something was bound to break. (151)

And this leads to a general causal conclusion:

In the later Roman Empire manpower was part of an interrelated complex of social conditions, which, together with the barbarian invasions, brought an end to the empire in the west…. It was the inflexible institutional underpinning, in the end, which failed: it could not support the perpetual strains of an empire of such magnitude within a hostile world. (152,153)

This is perhaps a sober reminder of the limits of imperial power for the contemporary world.

(For readers interested in the ancient world, here is a related post on agrarian history in Weber’s scholarship. And here is a video interview of M. I. Finley that touches on the key influences in his development as an historian.)

Merchant capital

Karl Marx was very interested in capital — an abstract concept referring to society’s wealth. And he was interested in the persons who owned and controlled capital — the capitalists. But the primary focus of his lifelong analysis was upon one particular species of capital, what he referred to as “industrial capital.” This is the form of wealth involved in the production process — factories, mines, railroads.  He had less to say about the aspect of capital that designated the exchange process — what he referred to as “merchant capital” and finance capital. This selective focus reflected one of Marx’s main historical opinions — the idea that history moves forward through the development of the “productive forces,” and that industrial capitalists (as well as the industrial proletariat) are the agents of this kind of economic change. Here is a brief description from Capital of the role of merchant’s capital in his analysis.

The reason is now therefore plain why, in analysing the standard form of capital, the form under which it determines the economic organisation of modern society, we entirely left out of consideration its most popular, and, so to say, antediluvian forms, merchants’ capital and money-lenders’ capital. The circuit M-C-M, buying in order to sell dearer, is seen most clearly in genuine merchants’ capital. But the movement takes place entirely within the sphere of circulation. Since, however, it is impossible, by circulation alone, to account for the conversion of money into capital, for the formation of surplus-value, it would appear, that merchants’ capital is an impossibility, so long as equivalents are exchanged; that, therefore, it can only have its origin in the two-fold advantage gained, over both the selling and the buying producers, by the merchant who parasitically shoves himself in between them. It is in this sense that Franklin says, “war is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” If the transformation of merchants’ money into capital is to be explained otherwise than by the producers being simply cheated, a long series of intermediate steps would be necessary, which, at present, when the simple circulation of commodities forms our only assumption, are entirely wanting. (Capital I, Chapter 5)

According to the labor theory of value, only the expenditure of living labor into the production process of a commodity can create new value; so only industrial capital includes a process that creates new wealth. Merchant capital plays no role in the production process, and it is therefore historically unimportant — or so is Marx’s view in Capital.

If we now look back on European history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, this assessment seems badly wrong as an historical observation. Merchants and their companies played key roles in the establishment of a world trading system; they actively facilitated the race for colonies by the European powers; and often they played a quasi-military role in suppressing resistance by locals in distant parts of the world. So “merchant capital” and companies established for the purpose of international trade seem to have played a key role in the creation of the modern world system.

Robert Brenner undertook to provide a detailed historical account of the role of merchants and their organizations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993). This is a departure from Brenner’s important contributions to the agrarian changes associated with England’s agricultural revolution in the sixteenth century (link), and it is also a much more detailed historical study than his previous works. Brenner is interested primarily in two topics: first, how did commerce evolve in the sixteenth century in England, both nationally and internationally; what were the institutions, organizations, and individuals that emerged as vehicles for pursuing individual and corporate interests by large merchants? And second, how did the emergence of large merchant fortunes and companies interact with the politics of the English state during this early modern period?

To offer a historical analysis of commerce, it is necessary to have extensive commercial data. Appropriately, Brenner’s research depends heavily on good information about imports and exports throughout the period. Here is his compilation of London cloth exports 1488-1614:

So aggregation of voluminous historical economic data represents one important portion of Brenner’s historical research here. The other important part, however, is at the other end of the scale — detailed information about many of the individuals who played leadership roles in the commercial and political developments of the period.

Fundamentally the book is about the political power of the merchant class. Brenner makes the point that English commercial interests were deeply dependent upon English political and military strength in the competition for import and export markets.

English merchants found it feasible to establish the new trades in large part because of the weakening hold of Portugal and Spain over their commercial empires, as well as certain other favorable political shifts in the new areas of commercial penetration. Even so, they could successfully capitalize on the openings presented to them only because of the growing political, as well as economic, strength of English commerce and shipping in this period. (5)

The development of England’s colonies was particularly important for English merchants:

During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, English traders, for the first time, sought systematically to establish commerce with the Americas. Important City merchants had opened up the new trades with Russia, Turkey, Venice, the Levant, and the East Indies that highlighted the Elizabethan expansion, and in each case, had had recourse to their favorite commercial instrument, the Crown-chartered monopoly company. (92)

This meant, in turn, that great merchants had great political interests, both in terms of military policies of the Crown and in terms of the privileges and monopolies upon which their profits depended.  And much of Brenner’s narrative is a careful parsing-out of the deliberate and purposive political alignments sought out by the great merchants and their companies.

The Levant Company’s privileges were indispensable for its elaborate system of trade regulation and, in turn, for the reservation of the profits of the trade to a restricted circle of merchants. As members of a regulated company, the individual Levant Company merchants traded for themselves with their own capital, but were required to adhere to rules and policies set by the corporation’s general court. (66)

Political alignments were especially important during the century of conflict leading to civil war and revolution.

The political activities and alignments of London’s merchant community both expressed and helped determine the character of City and national conflict in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. From November 1640, London politics and national politics became ever more inextricably intertwined, and ovesears merchants played key roles at both levels…. Civil war became inevitable when City and parliamentary conflicts became fully merged through the consolidation of alliances between the City radical movement and the opposition in Parliament, on the one hand, and the City conservative movement and the Crown, on the other. (316)

An overwhelming majority of company merchants ultimately fell into one of these two allied political categories [of royalist supporters]. But it is difficult to be sure how they were distributed between them … because surviving evidence on the political orientation of large numbers of citizens is available only for the period beginning in July 1641. (317)

But on the other side:

The traders of the colonial-interloping leadership stood at the head of the City popular movement and played a critical role in connecting that movement to the national parliamentary opposition.  The new merchants’ continuing intimate ties with London’s domestic trading community (from which many of them had come) put them closely in touch with a City parliamentary movement that was overwhelmingly composed of nonmerchants. Meanwhile, their activities in the colonial field gave them pivotal links with those Puritan colonizing aristocrats who constituted a key component of the national parliamentary leadership. (317)

If we wanted a single phrase to summarize Brenner’s task in this work, it is the idea that much of England’s politics in the early modern period were influenced or determined by the demands of the commercial sector. The great merchants wielded great political power. And so we need to have a fine-grained understanding of these companies and their networks if we are to understand the coalitions and policies of the period. Contrary to the view put forward by Marx above, merchant capital and its associated actors and organizations were indeed a potent historical factor in modern history.

A recent book by Stephen Bown, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, picks up the story of merchant capital from a different angle and with a very different level of resolution. Bown is particularly interested in demonstrating the active (and often violent) role that large merchant companies played in the development of the world trading system and the colonial relationships that emerged from the seventeenth century forward. Bown’s central focus is on the individuals and the companies that created the colonial world: Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive and the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov and the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.

Bown opens his book with the story of the Dutch efforts in the early seventeenth century to push English and Portuguese traders out of the East Indies (Indonesia).  The central actor of this story is an employee of the Dutch East India Company and an experienced naval admiral, Pieter Verhoeven. The narrative of Verhoeven’s assault on the Moluccas is a good place for Bown to begin, because it brings together the themes of armed violence and commercial interest that are the core of his book. Verhoeven’s instructions from the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company were explicit:

We draw your special attention to the islands in which grow the cloves and nutmeg, and we instruct you to srive after winning them for the company either by treaty or by force. (10-11)

Bown draws out a story of global competition between nations and trading companies that illustrates the brutality and self-interestedness of colonialism throughout the three-century period he traces. And the chief victims of this violence are non-European peoples from Indonesia to Alaska to South Africa. What the book doesn’t provide is what is so evident in Brenner’s book — a detailed understanding of the political and organizational relationships that underlay these military and commercial adventures.

Both books have something to add to our own efforts to understand big business in the twenty-first century. On the evidence offered here, business organizations — corporations and companies — have their own interests and agendas, and states have a great deal of difficulty in constraining them to the public good. This is obvious in the failures of large financial institutions to safeguard the interests of the public in 2008 — the harmful conduct of finance capital, but it was equally evident in the behavior of the Dutch East India Company or Brenner’s opening example, the Company of Merchant Adventurers. The hidden hand does not assure us that markets, commerce, and private interest will bring about the common good.

Sociology of knowledge: Mannheim

The sociology of knowledge is an interesting but somewhat specialized field of research in sociology. Basically the idea is thatknowledge — by which I mean roughly “evidence-based representations of the natural, social, and behavioral world” — is socially conditioned, and it is feasible and important to uncover some of the major social and institutional processes through which these representations are created. There is a cognitive side of the field as well — the idea that our cognitive frameworks and conceptual schemes are influenced by social conditions and our own social locations. So presuppositions, concepts, and explanatory scripts have social antecedents that become psychologically real. And, often enough, these presuppositions work to obscure the world even as they provide frameworks for representing the world. So one of the by-products of the sociology is to uncover some of these misleading aspects of our thoughts about the world. Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities expresses this function of theory very clearly.

Karl Mannheim (Ideology And Utopia: An Introduction To The Sociology Of Knowledge), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge), and Neil Gross and Charles Camic (Social Knowledge in the Makinglink) have made important and quite different contributions. Mannheim focuses largely on the role that ideology plays in our representations of the workings of the social world within which we live. Berger and Luckmann focus on “ordinary knowledge” and the specific ways in which people acquire and incorporate commonsensical understandings of the world. Gross and Camic, the most recent contributors to this field, look at the institutional settings and processes through which organized academic “knowledge” is created. Here I will discuss Mannheim, and later posts will turn to these other contributions.

It is worth observing that this field asks some of the same questions that the sociology of science poses as well. Robert Merton, for example, wanted to understand more fully how the institutional settings of scientific research conditioned the creation of scientific knowledge (link). And historians and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Peter Galison give substantial attention to the particular features of the social and practical conditions within which scientific concepts and theories emerge.

A complication arises when we turn these analytical questions towards the content of social beliefs and presuppositions. Because here there is a connection between knowledge and interests: beliefs like “fixed rent land tenure is an efficient system for producing agricultural innovation” have definite and different consequences for various actors in society — landlords, sovereigns, peasant proprietors, and tenant farmers. So what appears to be a factual statement about incentives and farming turns out to have different effects on various actors’ interests. This is where Marx’s ideas of ideology and false consciousness come in: various classes have an interest in favoring or disfavoring certain ways of looking at the world. Marx might put the point along these lines: one’s position within the system of property and technology introduces a bias into one’s beliefs about how the world works. 

So let’s look at Mannheim’s theory. Mannheim opens his book with these words in the expanded English edition of 1936:

This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it actually functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action. (1)

The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscure. (2)

The sociology of knowledge seeks to comprehend thought in the concrete setting of an historical-social situation out of which individually differentiated thought only very gradually emerges. (3)

Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. He finds himself in an inherited situation of thought which are appropriate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation. (3)

Many of these statements can be understood in terms of the general problem of beliefs about reality that human beings face in the world: we have perceptions and needs, and we are forced to arrive at concepts and explanatory ideas through which we can organize our perceptions and pursue our needs. Knowledge frameworks do not come to human beings full-blown; instead it is a major historical and cultural task to create such frameworks. And this is just as true for the problem of knowing how social relationships work as it is for understanding the workings of the natural world. The conceptual frameworks and explanatory hypotheses that we form are contingent and historical products, and they have a social history.

Mannheim argues in this 1936 introduction that it takes a certain level of complexity of society to permit us to even begin to notice the specific and controvertible presuppositions of our knowledge frameworks. Essentially, this is the period in which people with different interests and life situations come into communicative interaction with each other. Disagreement raises the possibility of cognitive criticism. Two ideas are particularly core for his sociology of knowledge, ideology and utopia.

The concept “ideology” reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely, that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. (40)

The concept of utopian thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. (40)

The intellectual activity of “unmasking” is an antidote for both of these frames of thought: a revealing of the distortions associated with a certain framework and a revealing of the interests that make these distortions understandable (41). And one needs to subject his/her own position to this same critical method: “As long as one does not call his own position into question but regards it as absolute, while interpreting his opponent’s ideas as a mere function of the social positions they occupy, the decisive step forward has not yet been taken” (77). 

Here is an interesting passage on the historical relativity of conceptual systems:

Our definition of concepts depends upon our position and point of view which, in turn, is influenced by a good many unconscious steps in our thinking. The first reaction of a thinker on being confronted with the limited nature and ambiguity of his notions is to block the way for as long as possible to a systematic and total formulation of the problem. [e.g. Positivism.] (103)

Mannheim’s formulation of the issue, and his use of the concept of ideology, makes his theory appear to be an extension of Marx’s theory of historical materialism and his theory of ideology . He was in fact extensively influenced by Georg Lukacs (link). But I don’t think that Ideology and Utopia is intended to be a faithful development of Marxian concepts. His reasoning seems to have many similarities to that of Weber, and the question he is ultimately interested in is the ways in which human knowledge and belief are themselves contingent, conditioned creative activities. His theory ultimately has much less to do with the burden of class interests on knowledge than would a more orthodox Marxist theory have had.

Bourdieu’s “field”

image: Emile Zola, 1902


How can sociology treat “culture” as an object of study and as an influence on other sociological processes? This is, of course, two separate questions. First, internally, is it possible to treat philosophy or literature as an embedded sociological process (a point raised by Jean-Louis Fabiani in his treatment of French philosophy (link))?  Can we use the apparatus to pull apart the sociology of the fashion industry?

And second, externally, can we give a rigorous and meaningful interpretation of “bringing culture back in” — conceptualizing the ways that thought, experience, and the institutions and mental realities of culture impact other large social processes — e.g. the rise of fascism (link)?

The problem here is to find ways of getting inside “culture” and decomposing it as a set of social, material, and semiotic practices. We need an account of some of the culture mechanisms through which voices develop, acquire validation, and are retransmitted. And we need concrete accounts of how this culture activity influences other socially important processes. Culture cannot be thought of as a monolith if we are to explain its development and trace out its historical influences; rather, we need something like an account of the microfoundations of culture.

One of the fertile voices on this question is that of Pierre Bourdieu.  His core contribution is the idea of cultural life and production being situated in a “field.” So what does Bourdieu mean by a field? Is this concept genuinely useful when we aim at providing a sociology of a literary tradition or a body of ideas like “cultural despair”?

One place where Bourdieu provides extensive analysis and application of this construct is in a collection published in 1993, The Field of Cultural Production, and especially in the title chapter, originally published in 1983. Here Bourdieu is primarily interested in literature and art, but it seems that the approach can be applied fruitfully to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including American conservativism and early twentieth century German colonialism.  (George Steinmetz makes extensive use of this concept of the field in his analysis of the causes of specific features of German colonial regimes; The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.)

The heart of Bourdieu’s approach is “relationality” — the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within “a space of positions and position-takings” (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in’ the field — literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. — is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

This description highlights another characteristic feature of Bourdieu’s approach to social life — an intimate intermixture of objective and subjective factors, or of structure and agency.  (This intermixture is also fundamental to Bourdieu’s theory of practice in Outline of a Theory of Practice.)  Bourdieu typically wants to help us understand a sociological whole as a set of “doings” within “structures and powers.”  The field of the French novel in the 1890s established a set of objective circumstances to which the novelist was forced to adapt; but it also created opportunities for strategy and struggle for aspiring novelists.  This is captured in the final sentence of the passage: a “field of forces” but also a “field of struggles”.  And in fact, Emile Zola, pictured above, did much to redefine aspects of that field, both in ideas and in material institutions.

Fundamental to Bourdieu’s view is that we can’t understand the work of art or literature (or philosophy or science, by implication) purely in reference to itself.  Rather, it is necessary to situate the work in terms of other points of reference in meaning and practice. So he writes that we can’t understand the history of philosophy as a grand summit conference among the great philosophers (32); instead, it is necessary to situate Descartes within his specific intellectual and practical context, and likewise Leibniz. And the meaning of the work changes as its points of reference shift. “It follows from this, for example, that a position-taking changes, even when the position remains identical, whenever there is change in the universe of options that are simultaneously offered for producers and consumers to choose from.  The meaning of a work (artistic, literary, philosophical, etc.) changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader” (30).

This fact of relationality and embeddedness raises serious issues of interpretation for later readers:

One of the major difficulties of the social history of philosophy, art or literature is that it has to reconstruct these spaces of original possibles which, because they were part of the self-evident givens of the situation, remained unremarked and are therefore unlikely to be mentioned in contemporary accounts, chronicles or memoirs. (31)

Here is how Bourdieu describes the intellectual field within which philosophy proceeds in a time and place:

In fact, what circulates between contemporary philosophers, or those of different epochs, are not only canonical texts, but a whole philosophical doxa carried along by intellectual rumour — labels of schools, truncated quotations, functioning as slogans in celebration or polemics — by academic routine and perhaps above all by school manuals (an unmentionable reference), which perhaps do more than anything else to constitute the ‘common sense’ of an intellectual generation. (32)

This background information is not merely semiotic; it is institutional and material as well.  It includes “information about institutions — e.g. academies, journals, magazines, galleries, publishers, etc. — and about persons, their relationships, liaisons and quarrels, information about the ideas and problems which are ‘in the air’ and circulate orally in gossip and rumour” (32).  So the literary product is created by the author; but also by the field of knowledge and institutions into which it is offered.

Another duality that Bourdieu rejects is that of internal versus external readings of a work of literature or art.  We can approach the work of art from both perspectives — the qualities of the work, and the social embeddedness that its production and reception reveal.

In defining the literary and artistic field as, inseparably, a field of positions and a field of position-takings we also escape from the usual dilemma of internal (‘tautegorical’) reading of the work (taken in isolation or within the system of works to which it belongs) and external (or ‘allegorical’) analysis, i.e. analysis of the social conditions of production of the producers and consumers which is based on the — generally tacit — hypothesis of the spontaneous correspondence or deliberate matching of production to demand or commissions. (34)

A key aspect of Bourdieu’s conception of a field of cultural production is the material facts of power and capital.  Capital here refers to the variety of resources, tangible and intangible, through which a writer or artist can further his/her artistic aspirations and achieve “success” in the field (“book sales, number of theatrical performances, etc. or honours, appointments, etc.” (38)).  And power in the cultural field is “heteronomous” — it is both internal to the institutions of the culture field and external, through the influence of the surrounding field of power within which the culture field is located.  Here is an intriguing diagram that Bourdieu introduces to represent the complex location of art activity within the broader field of social power and the market.


These comments give us a better idea of what a “field” encompasses.  It is a zone of social activity in which there are “creators” who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product.  The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience — not simply the creator.  The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public.  And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions — galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of “culture.”  It is also important to observe that we could have begun this inventory of components at any point; the creator does not define the field any more than the critic, the audience, or the marketplace.

I see some similarities between Bourdieu’s conception of a field and the broad ideas of paradigm and research tradition in the history and sociology of science. Both ideas encompass a range of different kinds of things — laboratories, journals, audiences, critics, and writers and scientists. Here Lakatos and Kuhn are relevant, but so are Bruno Latour and Wiebe Bijker. In each case there is some notion of rules of assessment — explicit or tacit. And in each case we are given breadth enough to consider the social “determinants” of the cultural product at one end — economy, institutions of training and criticism — and some notion of the relative autonomy of the text or object at the other (truth and warrant, beauty and impact).

The point mentioned above about the validity and compatibility of both internal and external analysis of a work of art is equally important in the sociology of science: to identify some of the social conditions surrounding the process of scientific research does not mean that we cannot arrive at judgments of truth and warrant for the products of scientific research. (This point has come up previously in a discussion of Robert Merton’s sociology of science (link).)

This is a very incomplete analysis of Bourdieu’s concept of the field; but it should give an idea of the leverage that Bourdieu provides in framing a scheme of analysis for culture and ideas as concrete sociological factors and objects of study.  Certainly Bourdieu’s writings on these subjects — especially in The Field of Cultural Production — repay close reading by sociologists interested in broadening their frameworks for thinking about culture.  (Jeremy Lane’s Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction is a good introduction to Bourdieu’s sociology, though it doesn’t give much attention to this particular topic.)



The concept of proto-industrialization became an influential one in economic history in the 1970s and 1980s. The term refers to a system of rural manufacture that was intermediate between autarchic feudal production and modern urban factory production. Variously described as rural manufacturing, domestic manufacture, cottage industry, and a “putting-out” system, it was a dispersed system of production that used traditional methods of production and extensive low-paid rural labor to produce goods for the market, both domestic and international. Unlike modern capitalist manufacturing, proto-industrialization did not depend on rising labor productivity as a source of higher profits; instead, merchants increased the scale of their businesses by extending production to additional households and workers.

One of the first to use the term was Franklin Mendels in 1970 (link), who applied the concept to extra-urban manufacturing in Flanders in the eighteenth century.  Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jurgen Schlumbohm’s Industrialization Before Industrialization provided an extensive historical and theoretical treatment of the phenomenon in 1977.

It has long been known that industrial commodity production in the countryside for large inter-regional and international markets was of considerable importance during the formative period of capitalism. (1)

What are the chief economic characteristics of a stylized proto-industrialization system of production?

  • Rural labor, often sideline activities beside agricultural work
  • Production for a market, often through urban-based merchants
  • Extremely low returns to labor — squeezed labor
  • Low technology, very low rate of technological change
  • Extensive rather than intensive growth
In order for rural industry to develop on a large scale in a region, several factors needed to be present: extensive demand for manufactured goods by concentrated populations and developed patterns of trade; a concentration of merchant wealth; and a population of under-employed rural householders who could be recruited into sideline manufacturing employment.  Peter Kriedte explained the regional pattern of emergence of proto-industrialization in terms of the different forms of power possessed by lords in different parts of Europe:

The power-constellations and their impact on the spatial expansion of industrial commodity production were different in east-central and eastern Europe.  Peasants were more directly and more firmly dominated by their lords, and there was little room for the development of rural industries….

But whether a region developed rural industries or not was determined not so much by the extent of feudal charges as by the form in which peasants paid them. And the form of payment was determined not only by the social relationship in the narrow sense between the feudal lord and his dependent peasants but also by the overall relations of production. (18)

This argument is similar to that offered by Robert Brenner in his explanation of different courses that agricultural development took in different parts of Europe (link).

The regions where proto-industrialization developed earliest, according to Kriedte, were in western Europe:

The first regions of relatively dense rural industry had developed in England, the southern Low Countries, and southern Germany in the late Middle Ages. The decisive thrust which brought about the phase of proto-industrialization came at the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries…. Quantitative changes in supply and demand combined to produce a cumulative process which led to a new phase. (23)

Generally speaking, a region that has made the transition to commercial agriculture is barren soil for rural manufacturing, for the simple reason that commercial farmers earn a sufficient income through farming.  However, some areas of commercial agriculture also became significant concentrations of rural manufacturing:

When proto-industrialization gained a foothold in a region of commercial agriculture despite these basic assumptions, special circumstances are usually responsible.  First of all, commercial agriculture, generally, could only develop in a highly urbanized region.  The concentrated demand of a large town or a whole network of towns was necessary in order to induce the self-sufficient peasant family holding to enter on the path of specialization. (27)

Hans Medick emphasizes the micro-side of the equation — the economics of the peasant household in the late Middle Ages.

The central feature of the ‘rationality’ underlying the family economy is the fact that its productive activity was not giverned primarily by the objective of maximizing profit and achieving a monetary surplus.  The maximization of the gross produce rather than the net profit is the goal of family labour. (41)

In other words, the peasant household is governed by the dynamic that leads to “self-exploitation” in the sense described by Chayanov — use of family labor to the point approaching a marginal product of zero (The Theory of Peasant Economy). Under these circumstances, it is economically rational to expend some family labor on sideline manufacturing if there is some income associated with this activity — no matter how low the wage.

PI is described as transitional because its economic possibility was created by the political situation of feudal cities — specialized manufacture in cities under a regulated guild system, self-production in the countryside.  And, it is sometimes claimed, proto-industrialization prepared the ground for a full modern systems of capitalist industry.  The “transition” scenario might be framed along these lines:

But it is also possible that proto-industrialization was an alternative to capitalist development — a cousin rather than a grandparent.  Here the diagram would look differently:

Proto-industrialization is a significant historical phenomenon, we might say, because it represented a large and marked change in the organization and volume of production of goods from the medieval period to the early modern period.  Towns and cities were already economically active locations, representing both concentrated demand and concentrated production.  But the rural population was almost entirely involved in farming and sideline production for home use.  The emergence of a significant level of production in rural hinterlands was a shift, and so it is worth asking why this change occurred in the circumstances in which it did.  The change dynamics Kriedte, Medick, and Schlumbohm describe include population change; urban economic regulations; incentives for feudal rights-holders to transition to cash obligations; and the existence of inter-regional trade and markets that extend beyond the local village.

Several questions are especially pertinent to the study of this phenomenon.

  • Was proto-industrialization indeed a step on the path to modern manufacturing and capitalism?
  • What were the factors that led to the regional spread of rural manufacturing in parts of Europe?
  • What factors explain the geographical distribution of rural industry in the early modern period in Europe?
  • How did the economic and political institutions of the feudal order set the stage for the emergence of proto-industrialization?
  • What role did demographic factors play in this period of economic development?
  • Was PI a distinctive “system” or simply a predictable economic adaptation to rising demand for finished goods?
  • What is the connection between PI and the “modern world system” of trade?

Here are some relevant causal factors that might be invoked in formulating answers to these questions:

  • Rising population and population density
  • Rising volumes of inter-regional trade
  • Shifts in the political power of various collective actors
  • Changes in political institutions — central state, local civic arrangements
  • Improvements in agricultural productivity
  • Emergence of new technologies
  • Persistence/change of the guild system

It is tempting to frame this problem in the terms offered by Thunen and early economic geographers in “modeling” the economic changes that would be predicted on a featureless plane populated by economically rational agents (VON THUNEN’S ISOLATED STATE an English Edition of Der Isolierte Staat). Imagine a sort of “SimCity” simulation that begins with a sprinkling of mid-sized towns and cities with given levels of production and trade regulated by guilds, located within a countryside consisting of manors with serfs and small peasant farms.  There is trade between town and country, since the towns must import food for the urban population, and there are some goods needed in the countryside that cannot be produced there.  But trade is limited, labor mobility is limited, and the market economy is only a small fraction of all economic production.  The actors in this story are merchants, lords, bonded serfs, free peasants, and officials.  Now postulate that the actors respond rationally to some set of changing circumstances.  Which of various initial scenarios lead to a proliferation of rural manufacture?

We might postulate that merchants have only a few accessible strategies for achieving a return on their wealth.  Investing in production and trade is one such strategy.  Town-based production was heavily regulated, however, and the opportunities for profits were limited.  A large under-employed labor force was available in the rural periphery of the towns.  So a strategy of “putting-out” materials and paying low wages to rural producers was an attractive one.

This discussion relies heavily on a very specific set of historical and institutional characteristics — the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe in the early modern period. But it is interesting to compare these developments with some similar patterns in China’s economic history. For example, consider Mark Elvin’s description of merchant-based manufacturing in Ming China in The Pattern of the Chinese Past.  It is also interesting to compare the very different analysis in Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin’s World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization. Sabel and Zeitlin describe a different alternative to factory production: high wage, high return artisanal production, surviving well into the era of modern factory production.

Farms in historical materialism

Materialist explanations in history generally attempt to discover fundamental features of technology and labor that impose a very deep imprint on the rest of society. Farming is almost always fundamental in this respect; the forces and relations of production are particularly visible, and the products of the farm system are fundamental to the survival of society. The standard of living of a traditional society is largely determined by agricultural productivity and the nature of the farming system — nutrition, for example, is essentially determined by the ratio of total grain output to population. Finally, virtually all traditional economies are primarily rural; so farm life defines the conditions of ordinary social existence for the majority of the population. So let us consider a brief analysis of the farm. (A. V. Chayanov’s classic treatment of the peasant economy, The Theory of Peasant Economy, written in the 1920s, remains highly valuable. Robert Allen’s lifetime of research on the English farm economy is highly insightful (Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850), as is Bozhong Li’s work on the farm economy of the Lower Yangzi (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).)

A farm is the basic unit of agricultural production. It represents the coordinated application of diverse factors of production in order to produce crops. The factors of production include labor; land; tools, implements, and machinery; fertilizers; and water resources and irrigation techniques. Crops include both foods (e.g., rice, wheat, millet) and raw materials (e.g., cotton, soya beans). And farms may be organized for a variety of purposes: to satisfy a family’s subsistence needs, to create a profit within a market system, or to provide employment for the greatest number of rural people.

Farms in different agrarian regimes may be characterized in terms of a set of technical and social features. On the technical side we need to know what the scale of cultivation is (farm size); what techniques of cultivation are employed; what varieties of crops and seeds are available; what types of farm tools and machines are used; what types of irrigation, if any, are in use; what varieties and skills of labor are employed; what types of fertilizers are used; and what forms of agronomic knowledge are available to the farmer. (We might reduce this variety of technical features to a spectrum ranging from low-technology to high-technology farming systems.) On the social side we need to know the purpose of cultivation (family subsistence or commercial profitability); the form of land tenure in place (fixed rent, sharecropping, smallholding, etc.); the forms of labor employed (slave, serf, family labor, hired labor); the forms of supervision employed; and the processes of income distribution embodied in the agricultural system.

These features are the primary subject of research for agricultural historians such as Allen and Li. These features essentially determine the most important economic characteristics of the agricultural system. First, they determine the productivity of the farming system, whether measured in terms of land efficiency (output per hectare) or labor efficiency (output per man-day). For once we know the techniques of cultivation in a given ecological setting, it is possible to form relatively accurate estimates of output for a given input of land, labor, and capital. This set of considerations also determines what we might describe as the net rural product–the total agricultural product over and above the replacement cost of the factors of production. On this basis, Chinese historians such as Dwight Perkins attempt to estimate the overall wealth and income of late Imperial China, including estimates of quality of life for the majority of rural people (Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968).

Second, the full description of the farming system as indicated above will allow us to infer the system of surplus extraction in place; it will be possible to indicate with adequate precision how much surplus is generated and where it goes. Victor Lippit attempts to arrive at such an estimate for traditional China (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance). This in turn permits us to describe the system of rural class relations that correspond to a given farming regime.

Within this framework we can now indicate a variety of types of farms; and as a working premise, we may postulate that agrarian regimes in which different farm types are dominant will have distinctive patterns of organization and development. The following are advanced as ideal types; variants and mixed examples are possible as well. However, these types are selected as being particularly central in the development of both Asian and European traditional economies. And, significantly for the historian of social change, each farming system creates a distinctive pattern of incentives, barriers, social relations, and modes of behavior that have important consequences for historical change.

  • The peasant farm. The peasant farm is small (1-10 hectares), and is organized to satisfy consumption needs of the family. It is managed and run by a peasant family using family labor. Cultivation is divided between subsistence crops and commercial crops with some risk-aversive preference for subsistence crops. There is a very low level of capital available to the peasant farmer, and cultivation is oriented towards labor-intensive techniques. Low-cost traditional techniques and tools are employed in cultivation. The peasant cultivator typically pays rent on the land he cultivates, though smallholding with clear title to the land is also possible.
  • The manor. This farm is of medium size (100 hectares). It is managed by a resident lord whose aims are (1) to satisfy the consumption needs of his household, and (2) to produce a marketable surplus to generate cash income. The manor employs a sizable number of bonded laborers (serfs or slaves); it uses traditional techniques of cultivation but benefits from some economies of scale; and it employs foremen as supervisors. Part of the estate is farmed by individual families in circumstances of peasant farming.
  • The capitalist farm. This farm is medium to large (50-150 hectares) and is organized to produce a profit. It is therefore located within a commercialized rural economy within which crops may be readily marketed. The farm is organized and directed by the capitalist farmer, who may either own or rent the land. The capitalist farmer has the fiscal resources needed to make capital investments in the process of cultivation; and he is oriented towards cost-cutting in considering various alternative techniques. The capitalist farm employs wage labor, where the wage is determined by local economic circumstances and the minimal cost of subsistence. The capitalist farm represents a rationalization of available techniques aimed at maximizing the profitability of the unit.
  • The cooperative farm. The cooperative farm is a large unit (100-400 hectares) owned by the cultivators (75 families). This farm is oriented towards profitability; it uses the labor of the cultivators; and it is organized by a council of the cultivators. The collective has access to investment funds, and is therefore able to invest in new techniques; moreover, the collective farm benefits from economies of scale.

Significantly, this typology of farming units corresponds broadly to the classical Marxist taxonomy of modes of production: feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The peasant farm, however, represents a form of organization of the productive forces of rural society that is overlooked in Marxist theory: call it the “peasant mode of production.” The peasant mode of production may be defined as a system in which agriculture is performed on peasant farms; the bulk of the population consists of free peasant cultivators; and agricultural surpluses are extracted through rent, interest, and taxation.

In short, careful analysis of the circumstances of farming is crucial for large-scale history, including especially the history of economic development, the history of urbanization, and the history of human well-being. And, of course, the twentieth century demonstrated the centrality of peasants in the great political movements of revolution and anti-colonialism.

Marx’s historical thinking

Marx’s theories are deeply historical, in that he wants to explain the dynamics of change of large historical formations such as capitalism or feudalism, and he insists on putting social events into historical context. And, of course, Marx is most celebrated for developing a general approach to historical explanation, the theory of historical materialism. But how does Marx do when he treats concrete historical events? How is Marx as an historian?

There are surprisingly few extended examples of detailed historical analysis in Marx’s writings. There is Marx’s account of “primitive accumulation” in English agrarian history in the 17th and 18th centuries in Capital. There are occasional references to the Roman Empire and classical slavery throughout his work. And there are his important writings about the French urban uprisings during 1848 and its aftermath (The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France). These essays include quite a bit of historical detail — personalities, events, parties, speeches. But they are closer to political journalism than to careful historical analysis. They are based primarily upon Marx’s personal contemporary observations — not on the usual historian’s studies in archives and secondary sources. They come closer to personal recollections and observations than to a typical historical research product.

If there is a unifying theme of interpretation in these articles, it is the idea that the parties and factions pursue programs that are based on class interests. The party of order defends property and privilege, and the party of progress expresses and defends the interests of the underclasses — urban workers and artisans. Theorists such as Nicos Poulantzas have used these texts as a basis for propounding theories of political consciousness and action and the “relative autonomy” of politics. The essays illustrate Marxist theories of politics. But considered solely from the point of view of historiography and historical knowledge, the articles aren’t particularly distinguished.

Let’s make an unfair but informative contrast: a comparison between Marx’s writings and those of some of the great twentieth-century historians whom his ideas inspired. I’m thinking of scholars like Albert Soboul, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, or Gene Genovese. Each of these scholars borrowed deeply from Marx’s social theories — class, power, consciousness, resistance, economic structure, property systems, labor. But each of these historians does something else as well: he digs deeply into the gnarly, special, and resistant reality of historical events and groups — peasant movements, churches and manifestoes, parties and conspiracies, slave quarters. These historians try to discover the particular and peculiar graininess of history; they allow theory to rest lightly on their narratives.

So what does Marx have to teach us about the craft of historical writing and reasoning? I’m inclined to say that Marx uses history but doesn’t really write history. His writings are historically oriented, but they are almost never works of primary historical discovery and explanation. Marx is a theorist of historical processes; but he is not really a working historian, and his writings don’t really offer much by way of innovative historical reasoning. It remained for Marxist historians of the twentieth century to bring together Marx’s theoretical insights with rigorous methods of historical research and discovery.

What is a peasant?

Quite a bit of China’s history has been framed in terms of the role of the “peasant” in Chinese society. Historians consider the features of the peasant economy; they examine the occurrence and dynamics of peasant rebellions and peasant mobilization; they ask about peasant culture and consciousness. What is a peasant? Is it a sociologically useful concept?

To start, we might consider a simple definition. A peasant is a smallholding farmer, producing crops for family consumption and for market exchange, using family labor throughout the farming cycle. Peasants live in villages; they engage in face-to-face relations with neighboring farmers; they possess a diverse range of cultural and religious beliefs and practices; they fall within a diverse range of social networks and local organizations (kinship organizations, temples, labor-sharing networks). (Robert Netting’s Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture provides a particularly astute analysis of peasant life.)

So peasants are farmers. But even within a society that is largely rural with a high percentage of smallholding farmers, there is still substantial social diversity within local society. Small traders, necromancers, martial arts instructors, bandits, minor officials, priests, moneylenders, elites, scholars, and large land owners all play roles within a peasant society — but they are not peasants. Their incomes derive ultimately from the farm economy, but their lifestyles, standards of living, values, and social status are all distinct from those of peasant farmers. So there is occupational diversity within rural society in almost every part of China, and a “peasant society” consists of many people who are not themselves “peasants”.

The definition of the peasant just offered focuses on the occupational or material situation of the individual. It is not surprising, then, that materialist social theory has given particular emphasis to the category of “peasant society” as a potentially explanatory social category. Marxist analysis gives substantial importance to the situation of peasants and workers, and other non-Marxist materialist thinkers have done so as well.

But we can reasonably ask whether this set of “existential” facts have very much to do with a person’s mentality and political behavior. Recall the very great range of social environments in which farming takes place in China — from the rice paddies and deltas of the lower Yangzi, to the wheat farms of Hebei and Shandong in the north, to the mountainous plots of Yunnan in the southwest. Recall as well the cultural diversity that occurs across this range — different ethnic groups, different local traditions, different religious and lineage practices. So it is worth asking the question, to what extent do members of village society share a peasant consciousness, simply in virtue of their social position as farmers? Is there any reason to believe that the material factors that define one’s status as “peasant” are more fundamental to consciousness than the cultural or ethnic factors having to do with one’s immediate social milieu? Does the peasantry constitute a distinct social group?

There are some shared features of peasant experience that would provide a partial answer to this question. First is the common experience of insecurity. Farmers are more vulnerable than most economic groups to the vagaries of weather, water, and soil. Second is the fact of surplus extraction. Because they are the most numerous group in most traditional societies, the state and other powerful agents in society have an interest in extracting part of the peasant’s surplus from him/her. This occurs through rent, interest, and taxation. And it is a commonplace that the peasant’s life is often held hostage to predatory surplus extraction. Peasants are close to be bottom of the ladder when it comes to power, status, and influence — so they are vulnerable to exploitation.

These considerations suggest that there is in fact an important basis of group mobilization that is associated with one’s status as “peasant”. Farmers share an interest in famine relief, drought assistance, and collective action against predatory taxation or rent increases; so their status as peasants may contribute to deliberate efforts aimed at the development of class consciousness and group identity formation. Peasant organizations may emerge that deliberately cultivate political action and consciousness around peasant issues. And this in turn suggests a more complicated answer to the primary question here: one’s status as a peasant may not determine one’s outlook on the social world or one’s mentality; but the struggles associated with making a life within the context of rents, taxation, drought, and famine may lead to the forging of a peasant consciousness that does in fact influence political behavior and solidarity.

Engels’ sociology of the city

Friedrich Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was one of the earliest “sociological” descriptions of the emerging working class in industrial Europe. Engels is a good subject for this blog, because this book is a very interesting effort to “understand society” at a time when the changes that Britain was undergoing were perplexing and rapid. Like other nineteenth century thinkers — such as Thomas Carlyle, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Alexander Herzen — Engels was trying to find language, concepts, theories, and metaphors in terms of which to comprehend the rapid processes of urbanization and industrialization that he observed. This is a place where the “sociological imagination” is most critical — the ability of talented observers to begin to make sense of the complex social reality surrounding them, and to find language and theory adequate to expressing that reality.

Published in German in 1845, Conditions represents Engels’ attempt to offer a detailed and systematic description of the emerging industrial system in England, largely based on his experience as a young man in the textile firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. (Steven Marcus’s book, Engels, Manchester & the Working Class, provides a good description.) The book is one of the classics of radical thought in the nineteenth century, and substantiates Engels’ stature as a thinker whose perceptions and critiques developed independently from Marx’s, in his early years anyway.

My question here is, what are some of the characteristics of this book as a work of social science? To what extent does the book serve to provide one of the founding sources of modern sociology? And, of course, we need to avoid anachronism when we ask this question; the book was published only two years later than John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843) — one of the earliest efforts to frame an answer to the question of “social science”, and the question of how best to understand the emerging world of industrial capitalism was a profoundly challenging one.

The book has several key features. First, Engels gives a great deal of effort to the task of observing and describing the facts of urban industrial life in the 1840s in Manchester and Birmingham. He is interested in recording the conditions of life that workers experienced; the nature and cost of their daily subsistence; the conditions of health and safety that they experienced; and the nature and size of the population of the towns, neighborhoods, and cities that he describes. Engels relies upon his own observations, but he also makes extensive use of the growing body of official reports that were being produced by English governmental agencies as well as travelers’ reports, coroners’ reports, and newspapers. He refers especially to investigations by the health authorities following the cholera epidemic of 1831-32.

Second, Engels does not attempt to assume the posture of a disinterested observer. He is plainly on the side of the worker and a radical critic of the bourgeois owner; he is making a case about exploitation and indifference against the emerging class of owners whose factories he describes.

Third, he is interested in resistance and mobilization, and he devotes chapters to strikes and other forms of organized efforts by workers and their families to improve their conditions. This is especially true in Chapter IX (Working-Class Movements), but these topics recur in many places in the book.

Fourth, quite a bit of the book might be classified as “ethnography” today: detailed, first-person description of conditions of life of a particular group of people, based on direct interaction with them by the observer.

Fifth, the book certainly falls in the category of descriptive urban sociology. Engels is very interested in describing living conditions, including crowding, squalor, and deprivation. He offers detailed description of the state of the environment — rivers, waterways, roads, and buildings — in the cities he describes, including the famous River Irk in Manchester. And there are numerous drawings of the layout of streets and neighborhoods, so that Engels can document his points about crowding and squalor. Here is a quick description of a neighborhood in Manchester:

Some four thousand people, mostly Irish, inhabit this slum. The cottages are very small, old and dirty, while the streets are uneven, partly unpaved, not properly drained and full of ruts. Heaps of refuse, offal and sickening filth are everywhere interspersed with pools of stagnant liquid. The atmosphere is polluted by the stench and is darkened by the thick smoke of a dozen factory chimneys. … The creatures who inhabit these dwellings and even their dark, wet cellars, and who live confined amidst all this filth and foul air — which cannot be dissipated because of the surrounding lofty buildings — must surely have sunk to the lowest leel of humanity. (71)

The organization of the book reveals an effort by Engels to engage in sociological classification. For example, he distinguishes among several groups of proletarians: industrial workers, miners, farm laborers, and the Irish workers (chapter II). Within industrial workers he further distinguishes workers by sector and division of labor. And he believes that the classification is explanatory: “the closer the wage earners are associated with industry the more advanced they are”.

There are several large sociological processes that Engels articulates. The book puts forward an account of the dynamics of class formation through the development of the industrial system — the process of centralization and increase of scale of production leading to the consolidation of a class of owners and a large class of proletarians. But the book also advances an analysis of urbanization and the growth of towns and cities, based on the dynamics of factory production and the need for larger volumes of labor. “Industry and commerce attain their highest stage of development in the big towns, so that it is here that the effects of industrialisation on the wage earners can be most clearly seen” (28). Consider his description of the slums of London:

It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)

And consider his commentary on the effects that slum life has:

In the circumstances it is to be expected that it is in this region that the inevitable consequences of industrialisation in so far as they affect the working classes are most strikingly evident. Nowhere else can the life and conditions of the industrial proletariat be studied in all their aspects as in South Lanacashire. Here can be seen most clearly the degradation into which the worker sinks owing to the introduction of steam power, machinery and the division of labour. Here, too, can be seen most the strenuous efforts of the proletariat to raise themselves from their degraded situation. (50)

And Engels makes some astute observations about the design of industrial towns:

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter r coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct. (54)

These descriptions offer two things: a hypothesis about urban growth and the creation of slums, and an ethnographic interpretation of the lived experience of people who find themselves trapped in modern cities. (Notice how similar this description of the slum dweller’s life is to the description that Marx offers in his elaboration of the theory of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.)

Finally, there is plainly an effort to provide an explanation of the phenomena Engels describes, based on an analysis of an underlying causal process: the rapid development of a capitalist system of property ownership and factory production. Engels brings almost every aspect of the degrading social circumstances that he chronicles back to exploitation and the insatiable appetite of capital for profits at the expense of workers. This is a single-factor explanation of a process that was surely multi-dimensional. But it illustrates an important aspect of sociological explanation: the need to discover some of the underlying processes that give rise to the phenomena that have been discovered.

So — is it sociology or is it radical propaganda? It’s a mix of both. The sociology is of course only partially formed; the next century still had a lot of work to do in conceptualizing how a scientific perspective might be brought to the analysis of society. (And of course that work isn’t finished yet.) But Engels’ efforts here are noteworthy. And of course it is also a document of political advocacy, in line with writings of liberal and radical reformers elsewhere in Britain and Europe. It is also very interesting to me that the book is written by Engels largely prior to his substantial collaboration with Marx. And this goes some ways towards validating the idea that Engels himself was an important thinker and theorist of society.

(The documentary photography of the slums of New York by Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York) seems to have much of the same motivation as Engels’ in Condition of the Working Class in England when it comes to a morally inspired desire to reveal the social reality of slums. See Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom’s Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs for a book that is getting some justified attention.)

What is materialism?

Karl Marx was a materialist thinker. But what does this amount to? What is materialism as a way of thinking about historical and social reality? Is materialism an empirical theory, a philosophical theory, or perhaps part of a social-science paradigm?

Here is a statement of Marx’s materialism from the German Ideology, written in 1845-46:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.

To start, Marx’s words here are directed against “philosophy”, and the Young Hegelians in particular. So Marx is advocating for a different form of reasoning — not speculative philosophical reflection, but concrete analysis grounded in knowledge of the circumstances of human life. Marx is saying that we can understand certain important things — for example, the development of ideas or religion — by examining the “material” circumstances of life in which they emerge. And what are those circumstances? They are circumstances of material need and human labor: the fact that human beings satisfy their material needs on the basis of the transformation of nature through labor. So what is “material” in this setting is two characteristics: the material needs that human beings have (food, shelter, warmth) and the material-physical properties of the world in which human beings find themselves. Human beings as “producers” — intelligent transformers of nature through individual and social labor — this is the fundamental material fact in this passage.

History comes into this account through Marx’s reference to the “nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence”, because this is the social history of technology. Human beings create new tools and techniques over time. So materialism, when applied to human beings, has an inherently historical character; men and women transform the tools and knowledge they use in order to transform nature and satisfy needs. And, as the following paragraphs make clear, the social relations through which production takes place are themselves historical products, in a regular process of change and development. Social relationships are “material” insofar as they are the forms of cooperation through which labor and production take place; central among these material social relationships are the property relations of a given level of society.

These comments focus primarily on the conditions of production as a foundation for materialism. A related line of thought in Marx’s writings is the idea of the social relations of production as the material foundation of society. Here is a famous passage from Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish 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, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

Here the emphasis is on the social relations of production, not just the forces of production (tools, materials, technical knowledge). And on this approach, study of the class relations of a given society is a “materialist” study — even though class relations are abstract and intangible. And we provide a materialist analysis of a circumstance when we show how that circumstance corresponds to or emerges from certain features of the social relations of production.

So far, then, we seem to have two things going on: first, an approach to the history of ideas (“place systems of ideas into the roles they play in the social arrangements through which human populations satisfy material needs”), and an approach to the unfolding of history more generally (“attempt to understand historical developments in terms of the role they play in production and the satisfaction of needs”). So materialism is a theory about historical causation: what kinds of circumstances cause what other kinds of circumstances. And, perhaps, it is a theory about knowledge: that knowledge proceeds from analysis of material facts, not pure philosophical speculation or imagination.

There seem to be several hazards built into this approach. One is the temptation of reductionism that the approach seems to invite: the impulse to reduce thought, theory, and philosophy to some compound of the “needs of the social system of production”. But is it really compelling to imagine that the Young Hegelians were simply working out some of the contradictions of the system of property and factory manufacturing? No; Marx’s rhetoric seems to be getting away from him here — in ways in which later thinkers such as Mannheim perhaps allowed the sociology of knowledge to spin out of control as well. And the hazard of reductionism also raises the worry of a blindspot when it comes to the relative autonomy of politics or culture: human beings seem to be better at imagining and extending political or cultural inventions than a crude materialism would permit.

So a defensible contemporary materialism can’t be as simple as this: “Material conditions determine the content of culture, politics, and thought.” Rather, we might hold more modestly: “Material conditions constrain, influence, and stimulate the content of culture, politics, and thought.” We can understand Aristotle’s philosophy better when we understand something of its material and historical setting; but the fact remains that Aristotle was a creative and imaginative philosopher who transcended his time in a variety of ways.

So, once again, what sort of theory is materialism? Perhaps we could say this: it is a “meta” – framework, a philosophical premise about how the world works. In this respect it functions as a substantive metaphysical theory. And it is a premise about how a style of thinking, a recommendation about how we should reason about the world and what factors to subject to careful analysis. Here materialism serves as something like an applied epistemology — a theory about how and what to investigate in order to arrive at valuable, justified knowledge. It falls in the general category of ideas such as idealism, monism, atomism, physicalism, or dualism: organizing ideas about the nature of reality, within the context of which more specific theorizing and investigating can take place.

There are many questions that remain. Do these two aspects of materialism hang together? Could one accept the metaphysics but reject the epistemology, or vice versa? Once we have rejected the reductionism associated with vulgar materialism, how much remains of the theory? And is there a continuing role for materialist thinking in the twenty-first century world?

(Courbet’s Stonebreakers is a suitable companion to this topic. Painted in 1849-50, the painting illustrates several aspects of a materialist perspective on the world: an interest in conditions of life and work, an interest in the situation of ordinary working people, and, of course, the depiction of concrete labor — all of these aspects of the painting complement the mentality of Marx’s materialism. T. J. Clark’s brilliant book on Courbet and his social context is well worth reading (Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution).)

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