From Tue Feb 20 14:40:48 2001
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 14:40:40 -0500
From: <>
Subject: Re: cj,rn> * RKM's 2001 Manifesto *

RKM's 2001 Manifesto—a comment

By Haines Brown, 20 February 2001


I'll throw caution to the winds and allow myself to reflect upon this “manifesto.”

>Evolution, models, and episodic events

It seem that the manifesto suggests a parallel, perhaps even a connection, between episodic evolution in biology and periodization in the course of human history.

“Episodic” is so abstract a term as to be almost meaningless, but it at least seems to imply a relatively sudden empirical change. Some (by no means all) evolutionary biologists have suggested that evolution is episodic in that the increase in biomass is irregular or that speciation events are much more common in some times than in others. But they do not suggest that there is an overall pattern in these changes, that the episodes are cyclic or regular, or that there's a dialectical relation between past and future. Sudden changes in biomass or in the frequency of speciation events cannot be represented as being at all relevant to human history unless there is an explicit shared or similar causal mechanism, and no one has suggested that.

I find that world systems people naturally hesitate to expose their axioms to the world's critical gaze. But when I probed them, I discovered that there's an assumption that periodicity (as opposed, for example, to mere episodes) proves to them the existence of “system,” and system implies a regime of covering laws that allows some prediction, and that historiography represents the discovery of these laws and the subsumption of particulars under them.

This seems naive in terms of general systems theory. For example, empirical periodicity is not necessarily evidence of a system; law-governed systems are not necessarily predictable; there's a profound difference between periodicity and revolution; no emergent system is sui generis, but must be driven by the thermodynamic engine of a dissipating system (the sphere of production, which world systems tends to ignore). It also seems naive in terms of historiography, for it has been a very long time since historians have ventured to explain particular events by reference to covering laws.

Originally the word “revolution” did imply a cycle (a revolving wheel of fortune) and thus usually a periodization. However, since least the French Revolution the word “revolution” has come to mean a secular progress that irreversibly breaks with the past, not a return to a past. Furthermore, most progressives now seek a revolution that will end a regime of periodicity altogether.

> The evolution of human societies has been similarly
> episodic. The models that apply to hunter-gatherer
> societies are fundamentally different than the models that
> apply to agricultural societies. With hunter-gatherers, the
> primary factors are the distribution of naturally-occuring
> food sources, and the development of some simple tools. In
> settled agricultural societies, with their storable
> surpluses, political and economic structures become of
> primary interest, and technological developments play a more
> central and dynamic role.

I presume “episode” refers to rapid empirical change, but what we really should be talking about in human history is not empirical change, but structural change. Why abandon the conventional term, “revolution,” for such a structural change? Further, in history the relation between empirical and structural change is subtle and not at all obvious. For example, in some older versions of Marxism, it was assumed that technological growth was the precursor of revolution; but one could just as well argue that technological growth was the result of revolution, or that this relation depends on what historical stage we are talking about. However, my basic point here is that “episode” and “revolution” are two quite different things, and to reduce the latter to the former is to abandon the notion of revolution through class struggle.

The word “model” is a bit challenging, but I'd suggest that conventionally it includes how things are put together (their structure), and so a change in model does not necessarily imply an episode in the sense of rapid empirical change. That is, talk of episodes tends to be empiricist and at the expense of a grasp of revolutions in history (which is one reason 1492 can't be spoken of as a revolution).

As for the specific historical content in this passage, I'll only suggest that its presumptions are open to question. For example, it is no longer at all clear that farming depends on a more developed technology than hunting/gathering. It is also not certain that farming is historically progressive in the sense of human improvement. It is not clear that hunting/gathering and farming stand as logical opposites (contradictory ideal types) or were generally incompatible in practice. Finally, hunter/gatherers do seem to have been capable of political structures. Recent studies the Calusa of S. Florida, the mesolithic cultures of the Ukraine (Olga Soffer), etc., suggest otherwise. Also, we have a much more nuanced appreciation of the capabilities of pastoral societies than in the past.

Capitalist ideology privileged agriculture over hunting/gathering or pastoralism because it seemed to lend itself to a primitive accumulation. But from a modern working-class perspective, the issue is whether accumulation is social or private, and for it the engine of development is not mere accumulation, but the far more dynamic self-expansion of capital. The current issue is now to harness capital's self-expansion to social needs, and so we look to a future that is unrelated to the past. We must be careful about appealing to the past in justification of our positions.

Marx pointed out that while we create our future, we do not do so just as we please, but as constrained by the structures we inherit from the past. I wish to suggest that Marx is not proposing here an action model, but a way of seeing things historically.

For two reasons our guide to present action lies in the present, not in the past. First, as everyone agrees, history is an emergent process that necessarily gives rise to new needs and new potentials, and therefore the determinants of action can exist only in the present by definition. Secondly, it is hard not to bend our historical conclusions to fit our ideological commitments, and so it is questionable whether we can base action in the present on our understanding of the past unless our aim is conservative. Our focus must be on the world today, its limits and possibilities, not subtle historical argumentation. I'm not suggesting that all historical knowledge is simply invalid, but only that under present social conditions (class society), it is necessarily one sided.

Nevertheless, historical consciousness does strike us as somehow a foundation of liberty (Karl Marx, Lord Acton), and without a sense of history, we end the prisoner of an eternal present. However, if the constraints upon our actions are entirely in the present and so only visible in the present (present facts are only a partial and distorted reflection of the past that gave rise to them), why look to the distant past to grasp them; if we creatively shape our own future, how can there be any guide to action arising from a study of the past? So how can historical consciousness be liberating? Only, I believe, if we divorce historical knowledge from our action theory. While all parameters of action exist in the present, what is missing is the sense that our circumstances are historical—that history is an open process. A static view of our inherited constraints makes them seem to be unequivocal determinations; to view history as a process makes these inherited structures, not the prison about which Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Ford complained, but the foundation of freedom, its condition, empowering, a discipline requisite for liberty.

Sorry for this long aside, but my conclusion is simply that I’m made a little uncomfortable by specific historical arguments for specific action in the present. At least, any tapping into history requires explicit and reasoned justification for any claimed relation of past and present. In modern times, no one really makes that claim beyond a possible contribution of historical knowledge to self-identity.

> The rise of the West as an episodic event
> I suggest that the rise of the West since 1492 has been
> another episodic event, and here I disagree with the
> discussions that have arisen from Gudner's “ReORIENT”, to
> the effect that we might experience the rise of a dominant
> China.

I'm not sure I know what the “West” is. Kind of reminds me of orientalism in reverse. Yes, I suppose there was an ancient Mediterranean ecumene that shared a common political culture (but was highly diverse at the private level). Yes, I suppose that this political culture (Latinitas) blended with Germanic culture (Germanitas) to give rise to “Europe,” but a more realistic view is that the feudal revolution (the birth of Europe) was simply the rising of private culture to the political level. As a result, Europe was from the start highly diverse in cultural and political terms and very hard to define as a whole, even if there were such a whole. The truth is that the “West” is really an artifact of capitalist ideology.

On the other hand, that 1492 (the Fall of Granada) or any such date represents a historical axis was originally unconventional in capitalist historiography. The conventional (18-mid 19th century) view was that society both before and well after the 15th or 16th century was “feudal.” Only with the collapse of classical political economy was it suggested that value is created in the sphere of circulation, and only then can a leap forward in maritime commerce become historically axial. The argument is circular: trade is hypostatized as a self-contained system, is universalized to be intelligible independently of circumstance, and its sudden development becomes a substitute for revolution. World systems theory is just capitalist historiography catching up to contemporary capitalist macroeconomics. That's why it is not progressive, is un-related to the interests of the working class, and will have little future in intellectual history. For all these reasons, it is best ignored; engaging it in battle seems a waste of time and distracting.

As I've seen in a variety of authors, it seems the world systems approach represents history in terms of a commercial reductionism: people in all times and places have exchanged goods; commercial exchange not only presumes some accumulation, but enhances it; the accumulation of new economic value is the essence of capitalism; because a mounting accumulation of value underwrites development, commercial capitalism is the basis of historical development. In short, the whole of history is at least an incipient capitalism. I suggest that such a reduction of capitalism to accumulation and exchange is at best naive and more likely a product of crude capitalist ideology. We end stumbling about in the belly of the capitalist whale (Wm. McNeil's objection to WST), for capitalism in these terms ends up both universal and inevitable. This counter-revolutionary claptrap is amazingly represented by some as being somehow progressive.

But now, what about the West? McNeil, who may have invented the concept, “Rise of the West,” was always rather foggy about just what the West means, and it was geographically a very elastic term in his mind. How does “Europe” become the “West?” For example, today, to judge by textbooks, “Western Civ” has expanded to include Ancient Egypt, but the specifics of why this was done exposes the blatant racism of Breasted, the grubbing for grants by the Oriental Institute in Chicago, etc. I.e., the “West” is a political fiction, a foundation of capitalist ideology, implicitly racist, and entirely lacking in any historical justification. To reify this figment of the imagination as an historical agent is laughable.

> He points out a ‘dynamism’ in Asian culture which, according
> to the process of natural societal competition, could be
> expected to lead to Asia overtaking the West. I don't

These reified abstractions battling each other reminds me of Marx's critique of Hegel. Good heavens! “Asia” in fact represents an extraordinary diversity of cultures, and to talk about Asian dynamism is as much pure poppy-cock as it was to talk about Asia's inherent stagnation. Certain Asian cultures at certain times may have been relatively dynamic in certain respects, but what validates a universalization of an arbitrary set of particulars to lend substance to a vacuous abstraction?

Yes, there is in capitalist ideology a tradition of Asian lethargy, of oriental despotism, of the heavy traditionalism of a super-refined but stagnant culture, and this is counterpoised to Western capitalist/commercial/technological dynamism, democracy, its protestant ethos, etc., etc., etc. But this contradiction of reified ideas is merely an invention of antiquated capitalist ideology and surely not worth our attention today! Frank's rotating the terms of this capitalist ideology—simply reversing the role of Asia and West, is hardly a Feurbachian transformation and merely adapts capitalist ideology to what is politically correct and the pressure of the facts. His aim is to salvage capitalist historiography, not challenge it.

> In the 1930s, Asian dynamism was again demonstrated by
> Japanese industrialization and expansionism. Japan, with
> their Co-Prosperity Sphere, might well have become the
> world's dominant power. The only thing that prevented that
> was a specific Western intervention, in the form of World
> War II.

I was going to skip over the historical specifics, but this passage nicely illustrates my point. Let's assume that Japan was indeed economically dynamic. First, why is that not simply the result of Japan's history? Japan's development remarkably parallel's that of Europe in many ways, and so why not look here for explanation. Secondly, the whole of Asia here is reduced to Japan. For example, were I to assume that Tibet was particularly rotten and stagnant in the '30s, why couldn't I just as well say: “In the 1930s, Asian stagnation was again demonstrated by Tibet?” World systems theorists are often extraordinarily sloppy in their elementary logic, careless of axioms, and always reductionist. So why engage WST on its own ideological turf? There are more constructive things to do.

> Western power has now superceded other evolutionary forces,
> in the same way that agriculture superceded the natural
> evolutionary process of corn and cattle. Indeed we could

Does the manifesto really mean this? According to its own terms, the movement from hunting/gathering to agriculture represents an irreversible and progressive process. So will any new socialist order also be overcome eventually? The traditional Marxist view was that the future socialist society will transcend (class) contradictions and so begin a process of smooth progressive historical evolution. I wonder if embracing the inevitability of revolution implies the inevitability of class contradictions. I suppose so, for the WST fixation on the sphere of circulation obviates any definition of class based on relations of production, leaving us with the bourgeois definition of class based on empirical distinctions. Since these will always be present (development implies deviation amplification), we must resign ourselves to an eternal capitalist system and periodic revolutions that are merely correctives to it.

Furthermore, just who is “us” and who the enemy? Traditionally one would talk about the capitalist class and the working class and suggest their necessary conflict is the midwife of revolution. But here it seems the enemy is the “West.” Are non-western capitalists then victims? Are western workers the enemy? Is class conflict a thing of the past? Have we abandoned a dialectical view of history by reducing it to evanescent empirical power relations?

> Whatever cycles and forces that world-system analysis holds
> dear, and regardless of how well they have modelled the
> past, they have been superceded by a particular Western
> power-center that has the ability to destroy utterly any

Yes, but then why embrace the world system's presuppositions and terms of debate? Further, world systems theorists have NOT—I repeat, NOT successfully modelled the past. Sometimes a world systems analysis has seemed to fit a situation nicely; sometimes it has generated new insights; but as a whole it remains contested in the historical profession, and is at best a passing fad in decaying capitalist historiography. For most historians, its limitations are transparent. I won't speculate here on why some of the academic left has managed to let itself be sucked in by it.

I won't explore the other issue, which is the extent to which globalization means capital is becoming supra-national. The current evidence seems to be that international relations and internal politics are increasingly defined by the WTO, IMF, WB, FTAA, etc., at the expense of all national governments, both Western and Eastern. Is the recent tendency for transnational capital to take into greater account some protection of labor and the environment the result of Clinton's demands (the dominance of the state) or stepping back a little from the very obvious and self-destructive consequences of unconstrained economic liberalism? It can be argued that the uproar outside the West over the consequences of unfettered exchange has had a significant effect, for it often represents capitalist client regimes. The issue of the extent to which capital frees itself of the state (i.e., the “West”) to become supranational is not a simple one, I would agree, but it seems to me problematic to embrace a view that would represent Daewoo as exploited and Falconbridge workers as the exploiters. To do so would seem to discard the possibility of international working-class solidarity.

> What this anaylsis suggests is that our ongoing bondage, and
> the continued deterioration of the world, cannot be expected
> to change until the regime is confronted directly and
> successfully by some new agent acting outside the
> constraints of the current paradigm. That new agent, I
> suggest, can only be a massive, global, grass-roots movement
> whose express purpose is overcoming the regime and replacing
> it with a fundamentally different world system, both
> politically and economically. That movement must succeed
> particularly in the West, and specifically in the USA.

Of course, but not so easy. The big questions remain unanswered here. We can't even raise these questions if this new international social force is characterized as a “world system,” just as we will be confounded if we call the future economic order, “capitalism.” The term world system presumes that new value arises in the sphere of circulation. That mystification will surely stand in the way of even raising the big questions, no less finding a satisfactory answer to them or “informing” the working class. I need not remind everyone that Marxism and before him the working class have always embraced a labor theory of value. In contrast, WST merely presumes that value spontaneously emerges in the sphere of circulation, which is exactly the position of contemporary capitalist ideology and opposite to working-class ideology.

> The analysis suggests that all activists, academics,
> writers, and organizers who wish to ‘do something’ about the
> state of the world will need to orient their endeavors
> around the problems of creating the necessary movement, and
> informing the movement so as to enable a satisfactory
> outcome. Reform efforts and political intiatives which do

Wow! This makes me wonder. I'm not an academic, a writer nor an organizer (the term “activist” just begs the question). These (Western) elites are called upon to “create” the global movement and “inform” it? If this is the attitude, then indeed the world will surely leave the West in its dust. I’d rather insist that the working class is quite capable of organizing itself and discovering a proper direction. I don't think the international working class will bother too much with world systems theory, however, either to defend or attack it, for it is the darling of a few petite bourgeois academics and wins no broad popular base. The non-professional, Alex Haley, saw his ideas concerning “roots” have a far greater social impact than all world systems theorists put together, and I'm not one to defend Haley's form of capitalist ideology. > In particular, the challenge of constructing a
> post-capitalist society make recruitment difficult. Even
> those who don’t like what capitalism is doing have little
> interest in bringing down the current regime—if chaos and
> mass starvation might be the outcome. For this reason, the

The outcome of overthrowing capitalism surely won't and can't be a return to petty private production, which indeed would bring chaos and mass starvation. The aim, I assume, would be to socialize capital, and indeed, all over the globe, the working class is fighting privatization and de-regulation. This struggle is just beginning at the global level and naturally often looses battles, but the main thing is that the war against capital's mindless self-expansion is now engaged, is truly global, and is working-class based; it does not depend on western elite leadership. The old struggle for national liberation, which characterized the world's progressive struggle after WWII, is now being made obsolete by globalization.

Social democratic regimes in the 20th century tried to impose democratic constraints on capital's anarchic self-expansion, but the effort has finally exhausted itself and proven a failure, whether by Blair, Clinton, or Mbeke. As a result, the veil of bourgeois formal political democracy has been pulled aside, opening the way for working-class real economic democracy. That's what labor has always aimed at, without having to be told what to do by academic theorists, who would better show that the growing hostility to government (the world over) is not properly directed at governance per se, but at capitalist mis-governance. By no stretch of the imagination can democracy be reduced to market place participation (Thomas Frank, One Market under God).

> Section 2.b of the Guidebook, soon to be posted, is called
> “Fundamental principles of a livable world”, and represents
> my own humble attempt to draft an outline for the necessary
> movement agenda. Perhaps members of this list might choose
> to break their ‘Guidebook silence’ and offer some feedback
> on this particular section.

I won't venture to speculate on what the movement agenda will be, no less presume to define it, but I humbly suggest that a world systems analysis is quite irrelevant, whether it is employed by its advocates or by those who, in attacking it, embrace its terms. The fight by the working class is already on; don't betray it by legitimating a Western academic (capitalist) framework.

Haines Brown