Mark Jones: "Emergence of modernity and normalisation of crisis"

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Tue Jan 2 16:57:04 MST 2001

[ Lou forwarded this piece from Mark Jones, it bounced due to
size. Part I.]

(This important post appeared today on the Crashlist. Subscription
info is at: )

The general crisis of 1917-1919 launched the 'short 20th century', an epoch
of international civil war and generalised, intertwined revolution and
counter-revolution. The specific forms and modalities of capitalist
recuperation and the drive to contain the revolutionary wave which burst
into the open after 1917, determined the entire trajectory of 20th century
capitalism and created the preconditions for the greater convulsions to come.

The baleful landscapes of late capitalism, with its inhuman logics and
exterminist teleologies, obscure the necessity and inevitability of
historical convulsions whose causes and stimuli are rooted in the history
we have lived through, a history which is determinate, entailed by
historical processes of great depth and of very long duration.

These processes fill the temporal niches of the present Interglacial, and
date back at least 8,000 years to the neolithic revolution, agriculture,
settled communities, long-distance trade and emergent divisions of labour.

The period of protocapitalism is sometimes referred to as the "early
modern" world. But did this era even exist? This is partly an empirical
question of history: but it is also a matter of theory. Some world-system
thinkers such as Jack Goldstone, Ken Pomeranz and Andre Gunder Frank now
argue that the whole industrial era is, if not exactly an aberration,
probably a temporary phase in much longer historical sweeps. What Jack
Goldstone, professor of Sociology and International Relations at the
University of California, calls "Advanced Organic Societies" covered parts
Europe, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, China, India, Japan, and the New
World, and existed for centuries and even millennia. They depended on human
and animal power and biomass fuel for energy . These societies either had
their own "early modern" periods, or were part of an "early modern" world.
They were capable of development. But until the Industrial Revolution which
began in England in the 1750s, AOS's never escaped that critical
dependency. According to Goldstone, '"we have fallen into error when we use
the term "early modern" to describe a period which was not in any way
modern and which could easily have developed in wholly different
directions. Somewhat as the Holy Roman Empire, in a famous aphorism, was
neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire ... the "early modern" world was neither
"early," nor "modern."'

Modernity began in Europe in the late eighteenth century and from the first
it was identified with notions of progress, industry science, cultural
freedom and democracy. Within a century, the ideas of the French
Enlightenment had become core values accepted by most people as the
unquestioned foundations of modern civil society. It took imagination to
re-enter the world of medieval obscurantism, patrimonialism and lack of
freedom - unless you travelled outside Europe, when you found little else
in the seemingly-stagnant non-european societies still trapped in the
premodern past.

Modernism was not just the the defining European idea, it shaped the
emergent Eurocentric world order and seemed the destination of all
societies and peoples. In practice it was a synonym for Europeanisation,
whose real meaning was colonial oppression and plunder. European
triumphalism and racism still lurks just below the surface. It coexists in
uneasy stasis with the seemingly contradictory values of humanism and of
equality regardless of gender, race or creed. These are also Enlightenment
products. They served to create large pools of undifferentiated wage
labour, and large and easily-manipulable groups of consumers. These values
fostered and legitimised democracy, without which capitalism could not
survive. They were more than mere hypocrisy or tools of mass repressive
desublimation. Nevertheless what these values actually entrench and support
are precisely European exceptionalism, chauvinism, racism, and the
deepening inequality of wealth and privilege. They do this by above all
legitimating the rights of property. It is these rights, in capitalist
society and where property owenrship also includes the means of production,
which create greater polarities of welath and poverty. Globalism and
neoliberalism are only more recent expressions of this old theme, where
capitalism's untramelled power and reach creates not just private splendour
amid public squalor, but also creates tremendous social crisies. These
crises always result in conflicts that can only be resolved either by wars
or by socialist revolutions. And war always unleashes fantastic and
virulent new forms of racism, chauvinism and dreams of European or
Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Thus racism and the liberal credo of equality and
democracy are like siamese twins, the yin and yang of the fractured
Englightenment consciousness.

Nothing has changed. Even today the peculiar notion that Europe is unique,
is taken for granted. When the USSR collapsed this was an occasion for
celebrating not just victory in the Cold War, but the final triumph of the
Enlightenment. Francis Fukuyama likened civilisation to a wagon train . The
Anglo-Saxons in the lead wagon are guiding leading humankind to the golden
future. Every other society is doomed to follow on behind. There are no

This idea is not only insulting. It is positively stupid (or stupidly
positivist). That didn't stop Fukuyama being hailed as a guru. Not one of
the world civilisations which the Europeans encountered from the time of
Columbus, ever successfully made the transition to modernity; even Japan is
today in crisis. But none of them hung on to what they already had, either.
Contact with Europeans was almost always disastrous. The mutation of
modernity proved fatal to all the Advanced Organic Societies without
exception. It therefore did not take an Einstein to predict in 1991 that
Russia would be destroyed by its final surrender to the West. However,
those of us who did predict such a thing were ignored. In the hubristic
euphoria of the fall of communism even to utter such thoughts was
certifiable. But Russia has indeed been destroyed.

Protocapitalism learnt with childish hands to plunder arsenals of ore and
energy in the earth's mantle, and capitalism reared up through the
expropriation and plunder of premodern social formations. This process of
plunder has not stopped; it is relentless and ongoing. No-one and nothing
is immune or exempt. Even the Europeans themselves, as we shall see. The
twisting, stretching and shearing of the fabric of world civilisation is
speeding up, not slowing down.

150 years ago the theme of modernity proved so bracing that it was shared
by reactionaries and revolutionaries alike. Karl Marx could write in the
Communist Manifesto:

"The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns.. It
has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population
compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the
population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country
dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian
countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations
of bourgeois, the East on the West." [fn]

All seemed agreed, even its worst enemy: Capitalism meant progress. From
right to left across the political spectrum, socialists found it easy to
unite with bourgeois thinkers about another thing: European superiority was
more than a cultural or historical thing. It was racial. Thus, racism was
also part of modernity, although a very contradictory part. Feelings of
superiority about the colonial peoples were almost universal and quite
unchallengeable. From the beginning, class war was overlaid by strong bonds
of chauvinism which went beyond national self-indentification and straight
to the heart of what it was to be human. It wasn't just European
civilisation which was more evolved. It was Europeans themselves, who were
distinct from and superior to all other races. Europe's superiority over
everyone else is quite absolute. The matter was stated baldly at the
beginning of Max Weber's famous essay, written just after the First World
War, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism":

[One who is] a product of modern European civilization, studying any
problem of universal history, is bound to ask himself to what combination
of circumstances the fact should be attributed that in Western
civilization, and in Western civilization only, cultural phenomena have
appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a line of development having
universal significance and value. Only in the West does science exist at a
stage of development which we recognize today as valid...[The] full
development of a systematic theology must be credited to
Christianity...since there were only fragments in Islam and in a few Indian
sects...Indian geometry had no rational proof; that was another product of
the Greek intellect, also the creator of mechanics and physics...The highly
developed historical scholarship of China did not have the method of
Thucydides...[All] Indian political thought was lacking in...rational
concepts...[Rational] harmonious music, both counterpoint and harmony...our
orchestra...our sonatas, symphonies, operas...all these things are known
only in the Occident...In architecture...the rational use of the Gothic
vault...does not occur elsewhere...[The] Orient lacked...that type of
classic rationalization of all art...which the Renaissance created for us.
There was printing in China. But a printed literature...and, above all, the
Press and periodicals, have appeared only in the Occident...[The] feudal
state...has only been known to our culture...In fact the State
known [in the full sense] only in the Occident.And the same is true of the
most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism...[The] concept of the
citizen has not existed outside the Occident.

The uniqueness of the West (according to Weber) requires first of all an
explanation of the unique rise of capitalism in the West. And this in its
turn, calls for an analysis of the sociology of religion, or more precisely
the sociological basis for the "economic ethics" of the world's religions.
Weber suspects that "the most important reason" for the uniqueness of the
West's rationality lies in "differences of heredity." This is self-evident
and Weber does not need to argue it further. As Marxist geographer James
Blaut has pointed out, Weber's misjudgment about non-European civilisations
is not just offensive. It is also wrong on all counts: 'European science,
mathematics, and technology were in no way higher than Chinese and Indian
science prior to early-modern times -- prior to about 1492. After the rise
of Europe, and particularly after the industrial revolution, you can expect
both a flowering of science and an awesome increase in the scale and
opulence of all other accomplishments -- for instance, huge orchestras. But
if comparisons are made for the period before 1492, when many of the
world's civilizations were truly medieval, then Europe in no way stands
out. Not in science, not in art, not in law, not in the development of
capitalism... Weber was just projecting the rather standard prejudice of
the European bourgeois gentleman of c.1920 in his negative judgment about
the art and culture of non-Europeans. He sneers at their theology. Their
music is not "harmonious." He doesn't appreciate or understand their
architecture. Their art is not "rational." Part of this prejudice of course
is ignorance...'

In fact, European science was behind Chinese and Indian science in many
respects until the 18th century: some thinkers (Andre Gunder Frank in
ReOrient for example) do not think there ever was a Scientific Revolution.
Not that it would make much difference to the outcome of the Industrial
Revolution anyway, because science and technology played a marginal role
until the 1870s; things happened m,ater and mroe slowly than people
commonly assume.

Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Later he drastically revised
his ideas about the beneficence and universality of capitalism. But even
earlier, by 1750, many leading intellectuals of Europe were convinced that
there was an ideal of "modern" man -- a man (not yet a woman) who saw
himself as an intellectual and moral individual, believing in the findings
of experimental science, and in the desirability of theological and
political freedom. A century later, with industrial expositions and
railroads spreading across Europe and its colonies, most of the populations
of these countries accepted that they were living in a new, modern age. At
the time, industrial machinery still did not exist. The loudest human-made
noises were church bells -- or cannons. It was still a world of craft
production in households powered and lit by muscle, water, wind, wood,
dung, or tallow. Detail work and a large-scale division of labour was
equally uncommon: there were more large manufactories producing pottery,
metalware and other goods in Roman Gaul, than there were in early 18th
century France. Nevertheless powerful forces were at work to create a
unified world market, to smash up the ossified structures of rural European
feudalism and to trigger intense new demand for products which could not be
brought to market in the old ways.

The high point of European feudalism, with largely independent knights and
manor-lords binding their loyalties to superiors through oaths, a mainly
local non-market economy, and serfs wholly bound to the land, disappeared
well before 1500, in the century-and-a half that followed the slow recovery
from the Black Death. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, market
economies, state-like political structures dominated by a central
government under a King, and abolition of serfdom had spread across most of
Europe west of the Elbe. Yet it was not until well after 1850 that a truly
"modern society," with a work force dominated by an industrial proletariat,
and governments dominated by bourgeois politicians rather than by titled
nobles and aristocrats, was the norm even in Western Europe. The period
from 1500 to 1850 (or perhaps to 1832 in England, 1848 in France and
Germany, and perhaps a bit later in Italy and Spain was thus neither
clearly feudal, nor clearly modern, but an age of transition, or of
revolutions. Although some scholars, noting the consolidation of power by
monarchical central governments, called this the "Age of Absolutism,"
insofar as it was a period of rising bourgeois power, of laying the
foundations for the "modern" world to come, it could with justification be
labelled the "early modern" period, and so it was.

Now the essence of "modernity" in this view lies in the mode of production
of modern society, namely "capitalism." But since industrial capitalism and
the proletariat were not evident on a significant scale before 1850, what
was the mode of production that prevailed from 1500 to 1850, since
classical feudalism, with its local non-market economy, had also passed
from the scene? The answer was that a form of capitalism was growing from
1500 to 1850, namely "merchant capitalism," or "proto-industrial"
production, in which goods were produced for markets, and in which profits
were made by market trading of commodities, and accrued mainly to
non-members of the dominant class, as the latter were still feudal (e.g.
mainly rentier) in their economic outlook and practices. What was defined
as characteristically "early modern, " then, was a form of society in which
markets were an active source of profits to merchants, who ordered their
affairs rationally in order to pursue profits, in a manner different than
the still "feudal" (e.g. concerned with rank and honour) nobility.
Moreover, governance was neither "modern" (e.g. dominated by bourgeois
politicians) nor "feudal," (e.g. decentralised and dominated by independent
lords), but centralised and partly bureaucratised, albeit under the
direction of traditionally-sanctified monarchies and their noble ministers
and officers.

We thus come to one crucial problem in the use of the term "early modern"
and its application to world history. "Early Modern" derives from a
particular sociological theory of history that privileges modes of
production in characterising and powering history, not from any "natural"
historical periodisation, such as the rise and fall of major political
units, or changes in styles of cultures, which are commonly used to
periodicize history for other periods and societies than post-1500 Europe.
Moreover, there is a second problem that arises because this particular
sociological theory defines "early modern" primarily through
contradistinction from a "feudal" mode of production that had no exact
analogue (or even close analogue except perhaps in Japan outside of Europe.

Thus if we apply the term "early modern" to regions outside of Europe, we
are doing one of two things:

(1) We are simply using the term -- without regard to meaning or content --
to label a particular span of years, roughly 1500 to 1850. Thus we could
say the "EM" period in world history is just shorthand for a particular
segment in historical time of 3.5 centuries, like "Eocene" denotes a period
in geological time. However, when we do this, what is the justification for
cutting world history, or the histories of various world nations and
regions, at 1500 and 1850? This use of the term would ignore all of the
usual markers taken for historical periodisation in history, such as
changes in regimes or dominant cultures, for all global societies except
that of Western Europe.

[end Part I.]

More information about the Marxism mailing list