Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Global modes: Europe and the People Without History

The late Eric Wolf produced (including a revised edition before his death) a notable study on the response and interaction of non-European peoples to the rise of European dominance, Europe and the People Without History. It is a fine piece of global historical anthropology (if a little dated in some aspects due to the way understanding of global interactions has progressed).

Wolf uses concepts from Marx in his analysis, though he is clearly attempting to do so in a thoughtful and considered, rather than dogmatic, way. Despite my qualms about the mode of production concept, I like Wolf’s delineation of the kinship mode of production and of the tributary mode of production, the latter having a continuum from highly centralised to highly decentralised forms. It is a striking way of thinking about social differences (although I do not think Wolf entirely grasps how much of the tribute exchange is a “deal” of service-for-public-goods—notably protection). Nevertheless, one can see how distortions to thinking get smuggled in at the “ground floor”, something which is particularly obvious when he attempts to describe the capitalist mode of production (Pp 77ff).

I generally find the notion of class too “hard-edged” and simple a social grouping for analytical utility. I prefer to talk about social roles, understanding that folk have several different social roles and different ones can be salient at different times.
Thus, it is important to grasp that, in an industrial society, average wages are set by the capital/labour ratio. But when it comes to actual people, sellers of labour can also be owners of capital. Moreover, neither group acts as a unified historical actor. If the class-centred unequal-bargaining-power notion was correct, the larger the capital share of the economy, the more “powerful” would be the “capitalists” and the lower wages would be. In fact, the opposite is the case—the greater the level of capital, the higher wages are because the more relatively scarce labour is, as owners of capital “bid” for the use of relatively scarce labour. The (patently false) immiseration thesis flows from a false view of class which also means not grasping the nature of factors of production.

Thus Wolf clearly does not notice that wages are set by capital/labour ratio: so capitalists’ gains are treated as if they are automatically worker-losses. In the capitalist mode of production concept, wages are, by implication, controlled by capitalists (e.g. pp 354ff). Similarly Wolf doesn’t really grasp that economic surpluses are produced by labour applied to land or capital, not by labour. Workers without a factory produce nothing. Workers with factory without contacts produce nothing effective. The false understanding of capital, labour and value in the concept of the capitalist mode of production is a bit of a problem.

The existence of gains from trade are only dimly grasped.

But the biggest problem for his analysis is that the notion of the operation of risk is missing from the mode of production concept. Enterprises do not automatically make profits. A lot of economic behaviour makes so much more sense—including trading behaviour Wolf is particularly concerned with—if one considers the existence of risk. But that is rather difficult to do if labour, treated as being what determines value (I have discussed why this is not so), is the only “real” factor of production.

It is also very conspicuous that Wolf’s language treats the tribute mode of production much more benignly than the capitalist mode. Similarly, his tone is different in writing about non-Europeans behaving exactly the same way as Europeans (buying low, selling high; using war as an adjunct to trade …) as when he writes about Europeans doing such things. Capitalism is bad, so has to make things worse. This makes, therefore, the abolition of slavery a bit of a puzzle for him. Rising prosperity and dispersion of political power under capitalism also do not get mentioned. It is a rather selective view of European society and civilisation we are presented with—European experience except as exploiters and rulers barely get mentioned.

While I agree the systems do have logics to them, and there are patterns in history, I am not comfortable with Wolf’s official notion of historical agency—social action in aggregate being directed “by capitalism”.

There is nowadays little Left economics of any intellectual seriousness (as distinct from economics by folk on the left)—just frustrated whining about liberal economics. Considering the above problems, it is not hard to see why.

I do not wish, however, to give the impression that Wolf has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is a very enlightening book. It contains a mass of information on interaction between Europeans and non-European societies, with enormous coverage across geography, ethnicity, social forms and networks. Wolf is persistently too serious a scholar to let his flawed theoretical schema get too much in the way of his historical anthropology. And he grapples quite intelligently with issues of methodology, particularly regarding action and thought about action.

His discussion of why structures based on tribute will tend to find merchants a worrying group (pp84-85) is particularly enlightening. As is his discussion of the operation of Iberian models of officialdom where control (including pay-off jobs) operates as a substitute for consent (pp142ff). While too “systemic” in his approach, though he does not put it like this, he also has some grasp of the difference between capital as the produced means of production and as fully-exchangeable produced means of production. As well as that circumstances are very different once the capital/population ratio has overtaken the land/population ratio as the determinant of living standards (p.298). Besides, he is surely correct to see much of the interaction between Europeans and non-Europeans—whose range, complexity, variety and development he discusses so lucidly, with a mass of revealing details—as being cases (in part) of social systems and sub-systems with different logics interacting (pp 354ff).

A book whose intelligence and empirical value, conveyed in lucid prose, more than compensates for difficulties in its theoretical gloss.

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