Saturday, February 13, 2010

Where did liberalism come from?

I have recently been surprised to find that many people don't share my (basically Marxist) belief that early liberal societies didn't, as a matter of historical fact, emerge as the result of a groundswell of popular demands for negative rights, liberal ideas, and so on.

Most of my left-liberal colleagues, it turns out, have an anachronistic view of liberalism that floats free from economic and social dynamics. I call the view anachronistic because it attempts, as Raymond Geuss puts it, to "narrate the history of liberalism from an endpoint in the present that is positively valued and assumed teleologically as the natural goal of the historical process". The result of this anachronism is that history itself is reconfigured and reinterpreted retrospectively in light of dominant ideologies today.

OK, so what is this anachronistic view that I'm attributing to many contemporary liberals? The view amounts to a certain understanding of how liberal capitalist societies emerged from feudal social formations. The story goes something like this.

Feudal societies were "totalitarian" and did not respect individuals rights and freedoms. Eventually, "people" (i.e. all of the different classes in late feudal societies?) got really fed up with not having rights and freedoms. And when "the people" couldn't take it any more they rose up, copies of John Locke's Second Treatise in hand, and demanded a tolerant, liberal constitutional state so that they could finally be free.

Now, I concede that this is a caricature. But it's not too far from what people actually say: I think this basically is the story offered by many liberals (see, for instance, Rawls's gloss on this question in the introduction to the 1996 edition of Political Liberalism).

The trouble with this story, of course, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with real history.

The first error to point out in the liberal-anachronistic view is that it mis-characterizes feudal societies. To be sure, they were oppressive, exploitative social formations in which people lacked equality of legal status (and no Marxist would ever say otherwise). But to bring the Cold War notion of "totalitarian" to bear here, is to bring something that has literally zero explanatory value in terms of explaining feudalism.

Feudal societies, like capitalist societies, must be understood in terms of how things like production, social relations, technology, and the relation to the environment were configured in those societies. That is to say, in order to even explain what feudalism is, we need to say something about its economic structure. (Notice, however, that I don't say that the categories of the "economic", narrowly construed, exhaustively explain feudalism).

Here, John Roemer's account (from Free to Lose (1988)) of fedualism is exemplary:
"In feudalism, a lord owned a large amount of land and had the rights to certain amounts of labor provided by serfs or peasants who lived on the Estate. Each serf family had its family plot of land, on which it produced its subsistence needs. In addition to working on the family plot, the serf was required to provide labor to the lord: corvee and demesne labor -working a certain number of days a year on the lord's land. The quid pro quo between serfs and lords was complicated, in the sense that the property rights of the peasant plot were not well-defined from the modern point of view".
He continues:
"The surplus above subsistence consumption was produced by serfs, and almost entirely during the time when they worked for the lord. The huge castles in which the lords lived in and the extravagant consumption they enjoyed were the product of serf labor... A large class of serfs produced the feudal surplus product which was the property of a small class of lords".
This is the sense in which Feudal societies were exploitative (if we wanted to talk in a more general sense about why they were oppressive, we'd need to critique it along different axes as well (e.g. gender)).

But before saying anything about the transition to liberal capitalism, we need to mention a couple of other important features of feudalism. Consider the English case. Fedualism there also included large Commons, which referred to land owned by no individual, but by God (and therefore held in common by everyone). When there were Commons, the yeoman peasant had access to this land and could keep livestock on it and perhaps even a small plot.

But one important precusor to English capitalism was the Enclosure Movement. As Roemer puts it:
The enclosure movement made it impossible for large numbers of disenfranchised peasants to survive without selling their labor power... Most historical episodes of rapid concentration of land in the hands of a few are accomplished either by direct force or at least by deals in which political power is used in unprincipled ways. The history of capitalism is replete with examples of the accumulation of wealth through clearly unethical means.
The Enclosure Movement proceeded by usurping what had been held in common by all, designating it as the private property of certain individuals who, collectively, came to make up the beginnings of a new class.

Eventually, this process of enclosure was intertwined with two other (related) processes: industrialization and urbanization. Eventually, this complex of processes lead to an emerging business/mercantile class (the bourgeoisie) as a center of power in feudal social formations.

For example, consider the period in France just before the French Revolution. There, the bourgeoisie was a particular "legal, political and social group, an Estate or Order, which was distinguished from two others: the feudal aristocracy and the clergy" (see Geuss's Politics and the Imagination, p.169). Traditionally, the aristocracy and clergy were the main elements of the ruling class in feudal societies, but in many late feudal regimes there was also an emerging bourgeoisie being created by the concentration of land and capital, the commodification of land, and industrialization.

Eventually, as the bourgeoisie and industry grew, this configuration became unstable. As Marx might have put it, the forces of production (e.g. industrial techniques, modes of organization, market pressures, etc.) increasingly came into contradiction with the relations of production (i.e. the feudal configuration of class power).

Crudely put, this source of instability caused the breakdown of traditional forms of legitimation and feudal societies crumbled under the weight of the rising bourgeoisie. Now, to be sure, there were working-class or peasant participants in these struggles to bring down monarchy. But we should not assume that these participants understood themselves to be struggling for the same goals as the bourgeoisie (on this point you must read Christopher Hill's incredible The World Turned Upside Down).

Even from a cursory glance, it should be obvious that the tumultuous, early years of liberal capitalism were anything but an era of widespread freedom. For starters, even formal rights such as voting were, in Britain, restricted according to property qualifications. Moreover, even where the working classes were able to get these rights, they were repressed in many other ways, consigned to working long hours, in atrocious conditions, for meager pay, so that they could live in urban squalor. Meanwhile the fruits of industrialization were appropriated by a small class of owners of capital.

Now, as I've said, this wasn't a period of universal freedom. The emergence of this new kind of society, liberal industrial capitalism, wasn't the result of a wide, rational discussion about how to make societies more free than they had been in feudalism. It was brought about as the result of a complex of economic, social, and cultural shifts, none of which can be completely disentangled from industrialization and the emergence of a capitalist class. Power and violence was the deciding factor, not rational argument.

By now it should be clear why I think the liberal-anachronistic view outlined above misses the mark. But I'd like to add one more thing here: contrary to popular (mis)characterizations of Marx, it is not the case that he rejected rights (even merely formal, legal rights) as mere "ideology". Read the Communist Manifesto: there Marx and Engels spend pages praising some of the emancipatory consequences of the bourgeoisie's struggle against the aristocracy. And neither do Marx and Engels completely reject all of the values that animated bourgeois revolutionaries. Rather, Marx's point is that these revolutions did not go far enough. They tore asunder certain kinds of "estates" and legal status restrictions, to be sure, but they did not finish the job. They only went as far as was necessary so that the bourgeosie could throw off the old Aristocrats and clergy in order to be the uncontested ruling class of modern societies. When the Crown, the Church and Fedual property relations became a fetter on the ability of the ever more powerful bourgeoisie to make profits... the bourgeoisie waged a war to crush everything that stood in its way.

Capitalism, we'd do well not to forget, is not about rational, good ideas: it is primarily about profit-making. If the system associates with different sorts of ideologies and configurations in the formal-political realm (e.g. witness contemporary capitalist China, or compare with Pinochet's Friedmanite dictatorship), we shouldn't be surprised: the system itself has no principled views about the State, it merely selects the configuration most conducive to profit-making in any particular circumstance to the extent that it is possible.


Lurko-O said...

Did the Enclosure Movement in England begin after the bourgeoisie's revolution was already well under way, or was it more an early reconfiguration that helped accelerate their revolution? If it was the later, who was pushing it? It couldn't have been very easy to convince the common folk and the clergy that God's land was now suddenly now the landlord's land.

Great post, by the way.

T said...

So far as I know, the Enclosure Movement began in Tudor England, which would place the emergence of Enclosure well before the Bourgeois Revolutions that toppled Monarchy. I don't know a lot about the historical details of the process, but I do know of a couple common folk rhymes from the era that give us hints, e.g.:

The Law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

When I have some more time, I'm going to take a look at the passages in Capital that deal with "Primitive Accumulation".

Interestingly, David Harvey draws an analogy between the process above and certain kinds of urban gentrification, which he calls "accumulation by dispossession".