Sunday, 27 January 2013

The structure of world history

Marxists have often been said to view the economy as the material ”base” governing the superstructure of culture and politics. Instead of that, imagine history as an interweaving of four different strands of equally fundamental logics. Then imagine a book that attempts to sketch world-history in its entirety based on this idea. That, more or less, is what Karatani Kôjin attempts to do in Sekaishi no kôzô (The structure of world history, 2010).

Sekaishi no kôzô is an ambitious work, comparable in its grand scope to such philosophically informed attempts to grasp world history as Hegel’s Phenomenology or, more recently, David Graeber’s Debt. In many sections Karatani enters anthropological territory, familiar to readers of Graeber, Pierre Clastres, Marshall Sahlins or James Scott. Karatani’s book could well be read along the work of such anarchist or anarchist-leaning anthropologists, as a work that brings them into dialogue with Marxist historiography and world-systems analysis.

What are the four logics? According to Karatani, state, economy and nation have their own specific modes of exchange, none of which is more basic or “material” than the others. The first of the four types is the reciprocal exchange of gifts, the second is the coercive appropriation coupled with redistribution which is typical of states, the third is the exchange of commodities on the market; and the forth is associationism, a free mutual exchange that represents a resurrection on a higher, less locally bound plane of the first type of gift-exchange. The forth type has been foreshadowed in religion, millenarian movements and Utopian imagination, but never yet been dominant in any historical society.

In what follows, I will concentrate on two discussions that I found especially interesting: firstly, the relation between gift-economies and the emergence of states, and, secondly, Karatani’s use of Wittfogel’s notions of core, margin and submargin. Along the way, I will also try to trace Karatani’s (sometimes submerged) dialogue with writers like Clastres, Sahlins, Amino Yoshihiko, Wittfogel or Wallerstein.

Gift economies

As Karatani points out, Marcel Mauss never clearly distinguishes mutual gift exchange from the communism of bands of hunter-gatherers or families where everything is simply shared without regard for reciprocity (Karatani 2010:52). That, however, is a crucial distinction. Gift-economies proper are regulated by a principle of reciprocity, and are neither “primitive” nor the most original form of economy. They develop at a certain stage, when communities start to engage in systematic exchanges or intercourse with other communities.
Pierre Clastres
The first important step in this process was the development of permanent settlements. Contrary to what is posited in the idea of the “Neolithic revolution”, Karatani argues that settlement had nothing to do with agriculture. The first settlers were not farmers but fishermen, and the first settlements were along rivers or close to river-mouths - a pattern that could be seen, for instance, among North American Indians or the Ainu of Hokkaido (ibid. 64). Incidentally, this claim is also supported by Lewis Mumford, who describes the first human permanent settlements as "based on the use of shellfish and fish" (Mumford 1961:10).

I find it easy to hear echoes of Clastres in the criticism of the idea of the “Neolithic Revolution”. As Clastres points out, settlement can occur among hunters who do not practice agriculture and settled populations can abandon agriculture (Clastres 1987:201f). This argument is part of the famous Clastrean claim that most so-called primitive people are not primitive at all, since they have opted out of agriculture, usually in a conscious choice to avoid a development towards centralized power or statehood.
Hence, it is the Political break… that is decisive, and not the economic transformation. The true revolution in man’s protohistory is not the Neolithic (…); it is the political revolution, that mysterical emergence – irreversible, fatal to primitive societies – of the thing we know by the name of the State. (Clastres 1987:202)
Like Clastres, Karatani is concerned to explain the emergence of the State, and like Clastres he stresses that settlement as such is not the origin of the state. Settlement does, however, promote inequality, a serious problem which communities tried to counter-act through the emergence of gift-economies of the type analyzed by Mauss, a peculiar effect of which was to prevent the concentration of wealth. That gift-economies had an economically leveling effect was obvious in the case of ritual competitive gift exchanges like the potlatch, which encouraged chiefs to squander their wealth. As many anthropologists have pointed out, chiefs in these non-state societies are often forced to practice an obligatory generosity which often leaves them in striking poverty – often poorer than other villagers (Clastres 1987:206; Lévi-Strauss 1968; Sahlins 2004:131-136; White 1991:37f, 494ff). Gift-economies thus tended to produce relatively egalitarian clan-societies without any strong central authority or power. Chiefs were seldom more than primus inter pares in the collectivity of elders who jointly made all important decisions. As Clastres writes, “the tribal chief does not prefigure the chief of State” since he was unable to command (Clastres 1987:206). Seizing on this point, Karatani emphasizes that gift exchanges and clan society were not stations on the road to the state, but rather ways to avoid the state (Karatani 2010:70, 80).

Here is the place for my first objection. I am not wholly convinced by Karatani’s and Clastres’ (1987:11, 28) claim that these non-state societies or associations have a built-in barrier to the formation of states or stable hierarchies. Gift-economies may well serve to prevent the accumulation of wealth, but they do not prevent the accumulation of prestige and power. Prestige and honor are what the potlatches are about. Nor is the obligatory generosity of chiefs necessarily a guarantee for their powerlessness. As Georges Duby has pointed out, the same obligatory generosity applied to the early Frankish kings, who had to be generous and pass on their wealth as soon as it arrived in their hands, but who can hardly be described as powerless. “As for these kings, their prestige was a reflection of their liberality; they would plunder with seemingly insatiable greed only to give more generously” (Duby 1974: 51f). As John Keay (2000:219) points out, the same held true of the Chola kings of the early 11th century. The very ability to pass on wealth was, in fact, a precondition of exercising power for these kings, not something that prevented it.

Furthermore, as Graeber points out, gift-economies can produce hierarchies since the inability of one part to repay his or her “debt” makes reciprocity impossible. What starts out as an exchange between equals can thus turn into a relationship in which one part assumes the role of a “client”, “follower” or “dependent”. To talk of a barrier against hierarchies or state-formation in associations clearly runs the risk of idealization.

The mysterious emergence of the State

So how about the emergence of the state then? Why does a mode of exchange based on equality and “reciprocity” become replaced by one based on hierarchy and “appropriation-redistribution”?

Let me start by returning to Clastres’ discucssion of this near the end of his Society against the State, which is remarkably confused – the idea of a barrier to state formation in non-state societies is practically dropped, and the possibility of endogeneous tendencies to state formation admitted. In the final chapter, he discusses three possible triggers of state-formation: war, demography, and religious prophets. Firstly, warfare would bring about an exception to the situation of the normally powerless chief. Sometimes chiefs tried to bolster their prestige and power by continually organizing martial expeditions. “But it never works” (Clastres 1987:209). Clastres illustrates by the Yanomami war leader Fousiwe and by the famous Apache chief Geronimo, who were both deserted by their men. “The Apaches who, owing to the circumstances, accepted Geronimo’s leadership because of his fighting skill, would regularly turn their backs on him whenever he wanted to wage his personal war” (ibid. 211f). Similar things happened to other famous chiefs, like Pontiac (see White 1991).
Tupi-Guarani (ill. Theodor De Bry)
Secondly, Clastres discusses the possibility that demographic growth can set off a process towards state-creation. He admits that such a tendency could be observed among the Tupi-Guarani, but he argues that such tendencies are always checked when society “awakens to its own nature as primitive society”. The Tupi-Guarani shows that this awakening happens through religious fervor and prophetic speech. Against the chiefs prophets would arise, warning about the evil of the state (Clastres 1987:214f).

Finally, however, on the very last page of the book, Clastres suggests that this prophetic speech itself may be the seed of the state. In the discourse of the prophets, “the exalted features of the mover of men, the one who tells them of their desire, the silent figure of the Despot may be hiding” (ibid. 218). Clastres thus seems to admit that, given population increase, tendencies towards state-formation are likely to emerge, whether these processes will be completed by warrior-kings or by prophets. After all, then, he seems to admit that there is no reliable barrier to state-formation in these non-state societies. This is a rather bewildering and disconcerting end to Clastres’ book, the ostensible aim of which is demonstrate that there is no necessity, no historical law, behind the development of the state. One of his main arguments is that there are examples of whole populations that have opted out of this development, thus showing that non-state societies are a real possibility, a real historical choice that was once open, and not just a sign of their “primitive” level of development. Despite this overall thrust of his book, on the last page his conclusion appears to be that, with time and population increase, non-state societies will move towards state-formation.

Karatani’s take on the question of the origin of states is different from Clastres. This origin too – just like the origin of settlement – is dissociated from agriculture and the idea of a “Neolithic revolution”. The earliest states, he argues, were cities, and cities arose before agriculture. As mentioned, the first cities emerged along the rivers or near river-mouths. That was not because such places were suitable for agriculture, but because of fishing and because rivers were good for communication and exchange. Only afterwards did the populations of these early settlements start raising cattle and cultivating the earth (Karatani 2010:87-95). Far from the cities or the state originating in agriculture, then, agriculture originated in the cities or the state. Following Jane Jacobs, Karatani argues that agriculture did not originate spontaneously from hunting bands who settled down. Instead, it required access to the information, irrigation technologies, materials and not least man-power. All these resources were concentrated in the “proto-cities” of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley or China, where the river civilizations later sprung up. Only there had structures of power developed that were capable of mobilizing and coordinating labor in the manner necessary for what Wittfogel termed “hydraulic civilization”.

This is an interesting and provocative argument. However, we can see that Karatani sees cities and states as being born from the same fishing communities which he previously linked to clan-society and gift-economies. The development of a state was what he claimed that these gift-economies and clan-structures were designed to prevent. Why did this attempt to stop the centralization of power and wealth fail? Does Karatani ever really explain why the early settlements by-passed the “barrier” to state-formation and developed into city states? In fact, he does briefly return later in the book to the question of the origin of the state, pointing out that the development of the state cannot be understood as arising only from internal causes within the community. Within the community, gift and redistribution are sufficient to prevent the rise of the state. The state, however, originates in the “exterior” of the community – namely in the conquest of one community by another (Karatani 2010:103). So despite his seeming affinity to Clastres, Karatani in the end rejects the Clastrean suggestion that “prophetic speech” is the seed of state power. Instead, he opts for the hypothesis that Clastres discarded, namely that states are the fruit of war. The state’s origin, then, is when a structure comes into being in which people are treated as a subjugated, colonial population. When one community is subordinated to another, the principle of reciprocal exchange breaks down and that of coercive appropriation-redistribution takes over.

The Asiatic mode of production and the rise of capitalism

Another attractive idea presented in the book is that of core, margin and sub-margin, which Karatani derives from Wittvogel in connection with a discussion of the latter’s notion of the “hydraulic” empires of the Orient (Karatani 2010:160). Karatani identifies these empires with what Wallerstein called “world empires”: polities where one community dominates other communities. Following Wittfogel, he sees the dominant “cores” of these empires as surrounded by subservient “margins” that are politically dependent and culturally dominated by the core. Further away are the “sub-margins” that retain their political independence and their own social structures – usually because they are militarily out of reach of the empires, being protected by seas, steppes or mountains – but which are nevertheless sufficiently close to adopt selected features of the empires’ superior civilization, such as literacy, religion, and technology. Japan, of course, is a good example of a sub-margin in relation to China.

Like Wittfogel, Karatani also links these empires to what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production. One of the most interesting moves that Karatani makes is that he resurrects this old Marxist notion and shows its usefulness in understanding historical dynamics and even solving some of the classical problems which Marxist historiography has been wrestling with, such as the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”. To do this, however, he first delinks the Asiatic mode of production from any specific geographic area. Secondly, he breaks it out of its place in the succession of “stages” in the Marxian theory, where it has usually been rather awkwardly inserted as subsequent to “primitive communism” but temporally prior to the slave-economies of the classical antique, feudalism, and capitalism. Instead of seeing these stages as temporally ordered, Karatani argues that they are better understood as designating spatial positions in relation to world-empires (ibid. 184).

Thus the Greek city states, for instance, existed in the “submargin” of the great world-empires of the Middle East, maintaining their political independence but taking part in the cultural fruits of the latter. That democracy developed in Greece was not because it was more civilized or advanced than the empires, but because political independence had helped preserve the legacy of the old clan-society (ibid. 34, 37f, 167-175). Later, European feudalism developed in the barbarous “sub-marginal” areas of the Roman and Islamic world-empires (ibid. 38, 179-187).

The historical irony here is that the political fragmentation of the feudal society favored the growth of capitalist markets. Backward as they may have seemed, they gave rise to the aggressive modern capitalist states which, during the age of imperialism, overpowered the old empires. The development of democracy too was helped by the lingering legacy of the Germanic clan society. From the hindsight of this attained “modernity”, feudalism was retrospectively revalued as more advanced than the Asiatic empires because of the failure of the latter to develop capitalism.

A similar pattern could be observed in relation to the big East Asian core empire, China, which was the source of learning disseminated to its barbarian peripheries. While neighboring countries like Korea were absorbed into dependency, sub-marginal countries like Japan remained independent but were still close enough to siphon off the fruits of civilization, such as written language, learning, technology and weaponry. In Japan as in Europe, feudalism developed; the old clan society remained strong and no centralized imperial bureaucracy struck root (ibid. 38f, 160f, 165). Again like in Europe, there were free towns and markets that were relatively unregulated by central bureaucracies. Needless to say, Japan was again very much like Europe in quickly making the transition to modern capitalism and embarking on a spree of imperialist conquest.

Karatani’s deployment of the notions of core and sub-margin helps him shed new light on the old debate between Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy and others on the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”. What Karatani succeeds in showing is that an answer to the question why capitalism developed in Europe can only be found if one looks deeper than merely whether the decisive factors were endogenous to the various European societies, as Dobb thought when he pointed to the class struggles of the late Middle Ages, or exogenous, as Sweezy argued when he pointed to the influx of capital through the Mediterranean trade. Karatani points out that both are partly right since the internal and external background factors form two sides of the same coin, namely Europe’s submarginal status. The traits that had marked Europe as backward in comparison to Rome and Islam – its political fragmentation, strong legacy of the old clan-society and lack of a centralized imperial bureaucracy – were also what fostered both the feudal power structure and its attendant class struggles stressed by Dobb and the free towns and trade Sweezy pointed to (ibid. 238ff).

This solution, I believe, represents a definite advance on the clumsy terminological habit, common among (“vulgar”) Marxists, of referring to almost all premodern societies as feudal. I recall how impressed I was once, in the summer of 2005, when I attended a seminar with Karatani and he used these ideas to diagnose Kamakura Japan – in a manner that reminded me much of Amino Yoshihiko – as split between a Western part with strong elements of the Asiatic mode of production (the relatively strong imperial court, the jinin and the horizontal village communities), and a the Eastern part, which was more obviously feudal and dominated by warriors lording it over the peasant population. 

There is, however, one weakness with his theory of the development of market and capitalism. Karatani often suggests that it sprung up where there was no “world-empire”, e.g. feudal Europe or Japan. But the suggestion that trade couldn’t flourish in the “Asian” empires is wrong. In Islam, merchants were as free as in Europe. China had a flourishing market economy and the emperors often stimulated overseas trade as well as trade along the Inner Asian trade routes. In regard to Japan, Amino Yoshihiko argues that trade and capitalism developed earlier in the western “imperial” part of Japan than in the “feudal” eastern part. As for bureaucratic intervention, Karatani himself points out in his other writings that empires have normally interfered little in the economic arrangements of their subject populations. There is therefore no obvious reason why a plurality of independent states, as in feudal Europe, would be more conducive to capitalism than far-flung empires. This is an ambiguity found also in Wallerstein, who similarly explains the emergence of capitalism in Europe by referring to the absence of any “world-empire” that could interfere forcefully with capital accumulation. Behind these explanations, one senses that Wallerstein and Karatani may have been a little too quick in accepting the crude neoclassical doxa that markets thrive best without the state. Today very few economists would deny that states often play a crucial role in creating and sustaining the “free” market economy and that states often intervene unabashedly to promote their own national economies. Going back to the origins of Western capitalism, it is obvious that it developed thanks to the states and their guns.

One mystery or riddle that remains to be solved, then, is why capitalism developed in backward “feudal” sub-margins. Why didn’t it develop in the empires, with their incomparably greater resources? If war was crucial, not only for the emergence of states but also for the emergence of capitalism, why were the old “world-empires” incapable of using their military might to back capitalism? Part of the answer, as Graeber points out, may be that the empires were simply unwilling to let anything so patently absurd and immoral as capitalism loose. Making a distinction here between market economies and capitalism – as Braudel does – is probably necessary. Near the end of the second volume of his Civilization and Capitalism he writes that many regions in the world – China, Islam, Japan – had indeed developed flourishing market economies. Europe alone, however, developed capitalism, thanks to its world-wide trade network, which in turn rested on its guns. Only in Europe, with its competitive state-system, were states forced to resort systematically to capitalism in order to bolster their war-making capacity. Braudel’s account is of course not celebratory – to him the market is the bright and relatively transparent realm of the economy where transactions take place within a set of shared rules, while capitalism is the realm of great profits and quasi-monopolies, where “the great predators roam” and make the rules (Braudel 1992:229f).

It's time to end. Karatani’s book contains much more that I won’t enter into since it has already been treated in previous books. Near the end he discusses the coming end of capitalism and the need for a Kantian world-republic. In a vertiginous ending, he concludes on a note of what might be black humor, or perhaps a genuine mixture of despair and desperate hope, that unless a world-republic is established there will almost certainly be a world war. Such a catastrophe, however, would only strengthen the movement towards a world-republic, so “there is no reason for pessimism” (Karatani 2010 464f).


Braudel (1992) The Wheels of Commerce, Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Clastres, Pierre (1987) Society Against the State (tr. Robert Hurley), New York: Zone Books.

Duby, Georges (1974) The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.

Karatani, Kôjin (2010) Sekaishi no kôzô (The structure of world history), Tokyo: Iwanami.

Keay, John (2000) India: A History, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Lévy-Strauss, Claude (1968[1955]) Kulturspillror (tr. of Tristes tropiques), Stockholm: Bornniers.

Mumford, Lewis (1961) The City in History, San Diego: Harcourt.

Sahlins, Marshall (2004 [1974]) Stone Age Economics, Oxon: Routledge.

White, Richard (1991) The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittfogel, Karl A. (1957) Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Howl and Alice

Just a brief note on Howl no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle), which I saw for the first time yesterday as we happened to turn on the TV. There's power in many of the images - the staggering steam-punk castle, the briskly walking palanquin bearers of the Witch of the Waste with their pink costumes...

I may be unfair here, but the story was not as powerful as the images. For a story to work, the images must combine into a credible "world". By credible I don't mean realistic, but something that - as Coleredge put it - invites the willing suspension of disbelief. A credible "world" is one you can dream about after having seen the movie. But I felt this never happened in this film, perhaps because of the many sudden magical transformations.

But transformations in themselves cannot really be the reason. Alice in Wonderland, for examples, is a story full of the weirdest transformations, yet which I still think is enormously successful in creating a "world" which it is possible to dream about, expand in your imagination and use as the setting of your own imagined adventures.
What then is the reason for my dissatisfaction with Howl? Perhaps looking closer at the transformations will provide a clue. The deepest impression is created by the film's play with the theme of age - as seen in Sophie's unstable shifts between youth and old age, in the Witch's regression to a harmless old woman, or in Howl to whose childhood world Sophie suddenly gains access through a mysterious door. A double message is delivered up by this play, which seems to say that youth is both important and unimportant. One the one hand, people's age is not important - an old woman can be as charming and lovable as a child or a young girl. But on the other hand, the pure and untainted heart of childhood is the most valuable thing we have, the truly essential thing, a treasure we never ought abandon and which will one day save us.

I can imagine that many viewers of this film associate to Alice in Wonderland. The similarity almost becomes glaring in a scene when the protagonist in her blue dress falls slowly through the air. But the magical transformations the protagonist undergoes in the latter are in body size, not in age, and there is no thematics of salvation in Alice. Howl attempts to build suspension through a thematics of salvation - not in a Christian sense, but in the sense of saving people and the the world from war and magical curses. This salvation comes about through purity of heart. All this is alien to Alice.

Why does the latter work so well as a story despite the many chaotic transformations? Because in Alice chaos is integral to what its main storyline is about. Its main theme is the contest between reason and chaos. Alice's bodily transformations underline the impotence of reason, since she is unable to control even her own body. Reason finds itself constantly frustrated, but the contest is rather friendly. Chaos, reason's "other", is not really terrifying and even reveals itself to be rather delightful. In any case, the transformations are integral to the story's main source of attraction and are not felt to distract from them. The are part of the "world" Alice enters.

In Howl, by contrast, the confrontation is between purity and the curse. There can be no tolerance of the latter, which implies a fearful loss of self. Only purity - the ability to keep one's childhood heart despite all transformations - can conquer the curse. Hence the contest is much more mercyless. The "self" simply must win.

Why do I feel that Alice is so much more free from ideology than Howl?
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