Friday, October 16, 2009

Marx, Smith & the Ages of Man: Capitalism & Progress

In a comment to the post on Gavin Kennedy's blog Adam Smith's Lost Legacy (reposted here Gavin Kennedy responds I made the open admission that while I at one point possessed copies of Smith's 'Wealth of Nations" and Marx's "Capital" I read neither in full, nor am I in a position to see how much Marx drew directly on Smith but clearly they share a certain worldview in common.

In particular both share a belief in a kind of progress where civilization develops through a series of stages largely marked by their mode of production. In this view man starts out as a hunter-gatherer, progresses to nomadism as men follow than domesticate the herds, then to settled agriculture, which leads to the village and then the 'civis', the city, which is the literal basis of civilization. Per Mr. Kennedy Smith identified 'shepherding' and 'agriculture' as the 2nd and 3rd Ages of Man. These ideas cannot be separated from the idea of Progress and Civilization in the moral sense, a civil society being less violent and more devoted to the principle of Liberty which Kennedy following Smith seems to find inseparable from the notion of Private Property.

Certainly this overall framework has become almost dominant in Anglo-American thought, it is what lead Friedman to identify Capitalism and Freedom and Greenspan to conclude that Capitalism and hence capitalists were inherently moral and that cheating and gaming were outliers to the capitalist norm.

Well unfortunately I reject this whole historical framework, it seems to me just another version of the strain of thought which brought us the White Man's Burden and Manifest Destiny so common in 19th century thought but which by rights should have been blown away with the Guns of August 1914. In light of the events of 1914-1918 this from Mr. Kennedy is deeply ironic.
The group and individual violence common in many such primitive regimes of ‘tribal’ property is well documented in anthropological studies. Marxists idealise the ‘forest’ mode of subsistence as “primitive communism”, but it certainly had a bloody record among populations over hundreds of millennia, with women mainly suffering as victims and ‘war’ booty, and men suffering early and violent deaths (proportionally greater than well-known, so-called “murder capitals” in modern times).
Because whether we look forward from 1914 to WWII or backwards to the American Civil War and the Peninsular and Continental Wars that accompanied the development of 'civilized capitalist' society the idea these decades had a less "bloody record" than those of the hundreds of millennia before seems pretty unfounded by evidence.

Equally unfounded is the notion that modern 'opulence' is a product of private property and the associated idea that this opulance spread with civilization from North to South
Societies with individual property forms developed fairly high forms of civic society, at least for short periods, and while the annual distribution of “the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life” remained skewed, the long accumulations of stone-civilisations spread across Europe and the north Asian landmass, while not much changed elsewhere.
Well this would come as somewhat of a surprise to the builders of Timbuktu, Anghor Wat, Chichen Itza, Babylon, and Memphis (Egypt). And perhaps Kublai Khan might have wondered why his fabled Pleasure Dome in Xanadu didn't make the cut.

World History is studded with instances where there were major centers of concumption that could fairly be describe as 'opulent' that were not directly linked to the concept of private property. In fact I would think that in most cases that opulence was more often a matter of having control of three major sources of direct income: taxation, tribute, and trade tariffs. The English monarchy is not quite unique in its ability to draw large portions of its historic income in land rent but largely so, on the Continent the wealth of Princes and Kings was more often drawn from controlling trade, hence the series of very rich states on either side of the Rhine and the relative wealth of the cities around the Baltic and North Seas.

Plus there is a more fundamental misunderstanding built into the whole concept of the Ages of Men. Back in my own college days, and ironically from a Professor named Smith, I took a course that focused on the Nomads of Central Asia from the Huns on down to the modern day Basseri of Northern Iran. Contrary to the opinion shared by Smith and Marx nomadism is not an intermediate mode of production between hunter-gathering and agriculture, the romantic idea of shepherds following their sheep wherever they wandered is a historical, economic, and ecological fantasy. A nomadic existence is only possible if the nomads know to a near certainty that where they end up for the night has sufficient grazing and water for the herds, and just as importantly that you won't have to fight to gain access. A stable nomadic society relies on its own variety of private property that establishes its rights to the resources at each stage of its migration path at the time the group reaches it. In many cases multiple groups will have rights to the same path, only time shifted so as to maintain the carrying capacity of the soil which in general is exactly the kind of soil that won't support settled agriculture to start with.

In fact nomadic society is largely dependent on an existing system of settled agriculture. The nomads stock in trade is wool, cheese, meat and skins which are traded for necessities and luxuries with village and townspeople in the form of grain, vegetables, tea, tobacco, rugs, and jewelry, none of which are readily produceable under mobile conditions. In Central Asia generally nomadic groups are functionally separated from townsfolk though they might share the same tribal identity while in the Mediterranean nomadism is more often directly attached to the village with the boys and young men taking the flocks to the hills in the summer, but either way there is an indispensable interaction between shepherd and farmer.

Similarly the notion that hunter-gathering societies are inherently less opulent than 'civilized' city dwelling ones is to ignore some other historical realities. The Tribes of the Pacific Northwest led fairly comfortable lives prior to the arrival first of the fur hunters and then the farmers, loggers and most destructively white fishermen. Previously the salmon and the steeltrout and the smelt and the herring literally ran like clockwork, with each month and season having its own run of fish up the rivers. This coupled with the unlimited mollusk production of the tidelands allowed for a very comfortable and cultured and peaceful lifestyle punctured only occassionally by a raid by the more warlike Makahs or tribes from what is now Canada.

So depending on the eco-system (a concept foreign to Smith and Marx) either hunter-gathering or nomadism might represent the highest and best use of the property and settled agriculture as measured either by leisure or life-style often a step downwards. In fact if we take a quick overview of world civilization we can see that the development of agriculture often was marked by explicit exploitation of agricultural workers by their 'civilized' masters. Certainly in Western Europe the development of large scale agriculture from Roman latifundia or villa to Medieval Estates to British Enclosures were always marked by higher levels of labor exploitation where the previous pattern of a free Greek or Roman farmer was replaced by one marked by slavery and further north a mix of servile and free peasants (the former an inheritance from Rome) were over time reduced to pure tenants at will who could and were ultimately ejected from their lands.

Kennedy assures us that: "The distant past is, well, distant." Well that is the problem, it is distant enough that modern controllers of property have been able to define Liberty as the Right to Defend Private Property while distancing themselves from the actual history of how that property was acquired. Is it fair to tax you extra because your great-grandfather was a Robber Baron? Well maybe. Is it fair to tax you extra because your many, many great-grandfather was an actual robber baron in 1215?

1215 was the year that the Great Charter, the Magna Carta was first issued, which Kennedy cites as the point to which the development of political liberty can be traced. And there is a sense in which the liberty of free Englishmen was affirmed in the Charter. In practice though this liberty was restricted to the land lords who were protected from arbitrary demands of the King but by that same token freed to use the new legal innovations imported by the Plantagenet Kings to impose what was in origin Roman land law on an English system built on entirely different roots. Kennedy explains Smith's views as follows:
In Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-63) he gives a very clear account of the very ‘slow and gradual’ political evolution of liberty: Magna Carta, trial by jury, independent judiciary, rule of law, Habeas Corpus, through the absolute monarchies of the ‘allodial’ and ‘feudal’ disorders of Europe from the fall of Rome in the 5th century to the Constitutional Monarchies after the English civil war, 1740-60 {bcw-typo for '1640-60}, and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, 1688.
From the standpoint of the once free peasant and the semi-free serf, that period of 'Liberty' is EXACTLY the same period in which his own property rights were extirpated. Something that apparently didn't bother Adam Smith or his lawyer contemporary William Blackstone a bit. In fact something that they couldn't even see.


coberly said...


here is a thought/question from a complete ignoramus:

to what extent were the agricultural societies ruled by previously nomadic conquerors?

Bruce Webb said...

Boy that is a tough question.

You would first have to distinguish between situations where whole populations were on the move which would include the migrations of the various Indo-European peoples dating to maybe the third millennia BC. In Europe this would be marked by the ancestors of the Doric Greeks the various Latin people including the Romans, the Celts, and then following them the Germans. To which you could add the Sea People into the Mediterranean and the Vedic people into India. All of these people were marked by their use of horses and chariots and wagons and so put some premium on mobility. Whether that makes them nomadic would take some study, off the top of my head I would think they were always a mixed culture of agriculture and herding. Later waves would include the Huns in the first centuries AD followed some centuries later by the Turks and then the Mongols c.1200 with the groups getting more nomadic based over time. That is the Mongol successor states including Manchu China and Moghul India being more definitively nomadic than their Celtic predesessors 2000 years earlier.

But my thesis maintains you can only have a nomadic takeover of an existing settled agricultural population.

This is all horribly over-simplified. Call it a first cut at totalizng.

Bruce Webb said...

The question turns on the domestication of the horse. If I recall my lecture notes right the horse and chariot preceded the actual entry of the Indo-European peoples into the mid-east and penetrated into areas that were not conquered by Indo-European ot Turkic peoples until a couple of millennia later. But there seems little doubt that the horse was domesticated in the lands north of the Caucusus and north-east of the Black Sea.

coberly said...


your lecture notes conform to my fairy tale of history. which i think is better than gavins.

coberly said...

i guess i'd add something. while "nomadism" may depend on some preexisting system of settled agriculture, the fact that gets overlooked is that people are quite creative and adapt to the resources and technology available (or "creatable") to them at the time and place. you had sheep followers in places where growing a crop was not really possible (yet). whether the sheep followers also developed more warlike cultures, or if it was the farmers who organized themselves and went out and beat up the sheep followers may also be a question of opportunities. i know (i think) of an egyptian pharaoh who went out to beat up the Hittites (i think) and came back with a big story of his success. one which is not supported by the archeolgical evidence.

and do the plains indians count as nomads? and were the Iroquois farmers?

who was it that ate the Anasazi?

not to be too proud of my ignorance here, but even my own favorite historical fantasies always seem to dissolve in the face of more stories about what really happened.

Bruce Webb said...

Well I would like to see a historical example of a sheep follower culture not connected to an agricultural and hence commercial society at one end of their migration path or another. Who buys your fleeces? Who sells you your pots, pans, and teapots? To say nothing of your jewelry. Certain crafts can be carried out on the fly but such things as pot making require supplies of clay and water and relatively large kilns.

I would not count the plains indians as nomads so much as hunter-gatherers liberated by the horse. There seems a difference between being a herder of sheep and goats and following the buffalo, but depending on how regular the annual pattern was it might be close enough in particular cases to blend.

As to the Anasazi you are a little out of my reach, but from my limited knowledge base come hints that the Navajo were not always simple, peaceful blanket weavers.

Anonymous said...

'the eco-system (a concept foreign to Smith and Marx) '

yep, 'foreign' if 'eco-system' is taken to be divorced from social system and how such systems REproduce themselves through the interaction of man and nature which, only within capitalism, has created a large scale artificial nature and metabolic rift.

one example:

much more complete/detailed would be john bellamy foster's book: MARX’S ECOLOGY
Materialism and Nature

nor did i find marx to have made a argument which was rigidly stagist as this would directly contradict the uncertainties flowing from materialist dialectics -- which is not to say that such interpretations do not exist.

marx stated he was not a marxist for good reason.


Anonymous said...

interesting blog - i want to read more

coberly said...


it may not be obvious, but i agree with you. just trying to draw some pictures in the margins, because the abstractions can be deceptive.