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According to this universal Orient-centrism, it turns out that the ‘West’ (in its totality) took off largely thanks to the knowledge of the ‘East’ (in the aggregate). The ‘East’ generously made its ‘knowledge portfolio’ available to the ‘West’; the ‘West’ used this precious portfolio in order to industrialize and capitalize (which amount to the same thing); and then, Power 35 There was no alternative. The agricultural cycle was slow, productivity low and innovation shunned. There wasn’t any growth. The only way to get ahead was to deprive someone else.2 Appropriately, the rulers’ worldview was static and circular. It glorified the past and idealized the present. Happiness, riches and glory, it claimed, depended on miracle and magic. Any change – for better or worse – was to come from outside society, delivered by extra-terrestrial envoys (such as the Persian-Jewish-Christian Messiah), supercharged emissaries (like the JewishMuslim-Christian Satan/Devil), or resurrected dead (another Persian technology).
In order to legitimize their naked violence, the rulers needed a mediating factor, an external force that would justify and conceal their inherent conflict with their subjects. This external force usually appeared as an awe-inspiring, superhuman entity – Baal, El, Aton, Zeus, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Inti, Itzamna. In due course, the rituals associated with these deities would develop into ruthless, centralized religions that sanctified the status quo and punished deviations. Although often wrapped in a language of blessing, compassion and generosity, these religions served to terrorize and oppress the peasants and slaves. Their promise to the laity was surprisingly uniform: suffer and pay in this world, get reimbursed in the next. No wonder insurance companies found this scheme inspiring.
The tillers of the land were left with little choice. Faced with rulers who owned not only the land and the weapons, but also the keys to Heaven and Hell, what else could they do but obey?3 toward the end of the process, the ‘West’ turned back to take over, oppress and eviscerate the ‘East’.
There is no doubt. Albania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Baltic countries and other such ‘Western’ states grew and prospered largely due to the scientific methods and knowledge given to them by Genghis Khan, the Indian Mughals and the enlightened Ottoman tribesmen that took over Asia Minor, Greece and Hungary. Similarly, it is crystal clear that the Indian caste system, much like the abject poverty that debilitated much of South and East Asia for generations, is all due to the oppression imposed by the ‘West’. Finally, it needs no mentioning that the ‘East’ – and particularly ‘Islam’ – developed pristinely. There was no oppression, indoctrination, confiscation, robbery, looting and mass murder. There were no armies and there was no centralized power. The tolerant Islamic culture emerged just like that, out of nowhere, to bring democracy, science and freedom to one quarter of the world.
2 For more on the early emergence of stratification and redistribution, see the debate in Gilman et al. (1981).
3 These patterns seem to cut across the monotheistic religions. The word ‘Islam’, for example, denotes acceptance of and surrender to God’s power as administered by his exclusive representatives. Refusal is blasphemy, leading to punishment, humiliation and subjugation.
The contemporary rabbinate church may seem less demanding, but that wasn’t always the case. During its early phase of kingship in the first millennium BCE, the Judaic religion held a rather uncompromising position, demanding exclusivity backed by force. This position was modified after the destruction of Judah and Israel in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE.
Having lost the institutionalized backing of state violence, the rabbinate church could no 36 Dilemmas of political economy The new cosmology The binary structure of the land–labour regime was first broken in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A new social formation had emerged. The hallmark of this new formation was a third ‘factor of production’ – the industrial machine – and a new class of owners – the capitalists.
The owners and their factories marked the beginning of a new political order – the regime of capital.
The new capitalist order was an outgrowth of a triple revolution: the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and the French revolution. The forbearers of this revolution were Nicolò Machiavelli, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Gottfried Leibnitz and, most importantly, Isaac Newton. These thinkers offered a totally novel staring point: a mechanical worldview. The cosmos, they argued, is like a machine. In order to understand it – kosmeo in ancient Greek means to ‘order’ and to ‘organize’ – you need to take it apart, identify its elementary particles and discover the mechanical forces that hold these particles together and regulate their interaction. For the first time there emerged a secular understanding of force, one that stood in sharp contrast to the earlier, religious manifestations of force.4 This secular cosmology developed hand in hand with a new vision of society. Human consciousness, says Friedrich Hegel (1807: 183–88), cannot grasp force in the abstract. Force is not an isolated thing, but a relationship, and as such it can be understood only through its actual, concrete manifestations. The main relationship is negation: we comprehend force through its specific contradictions and forms of resistance. Perhaps the most important of these is the negation of subject and object. Stated simply and without sounding pompous, we can say that human beings understand themselves as subjects by investigating the world around them. And as they discover/create longer use force to keep the laity in line and instead had to resort to indirect manipulations and virtual threats (a subject on which Spinoza’s 1690 Theological-Political Treatise remains unparalleled). But the statist void did not last forever. After the establishment of Israel, the rabbinate church, realigned with its former Zionist enemy, showed little hesitation in resurrecting its original version of violent ethno-tribalism.
Similarly with Christendom. Christianity began as a submissive oriental religion in the Roman Empire. Three centuries later it already operated as a full-fledged imperial church, complete with violent diplomacy, deceit and mass murder. During the millennium of the so-called Middle Ages, Christian priests and monks helped ensure that European peasants accepted the rule of their kings and princes – or risk the wrath of God and his servicemen.
The lot of the indigenous peoples of the Americas wasn’t much better. Beginning in the sixteenth century, they were compelled to abandon their local deities in favour of the Christian Lord, whose superior power was convincingly demonstrated by the lethal efficiency of his Catholic soldiers. The massacres committed by these soldiers of faith surpassed anything previously seen in the empires of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas.
4 The mechanical worldview, its history and heroes are examined with great imagination by Arthur Koestler in The Sleepwalkers (1959).
Power 37 their own social being, they articulate nature based on the power relations of their own society. In this sense, their cosmology is the politicization of nature.
The power relations that organize their society also order their universe.5 Thus, in pre-statist societies force took the form of naming natural objects and phenomena – moon, thunder, birth, flood. In ‘anarchic’ cultures, these objects and phenomena got embedded in a plethora of rituals and gods.
Hellenic legends speak of relatively egalitarian cities, some with popular, communal rule. Pre-historical hunters and gatherers lived in similarly flat structures. In such societies, the gods tended to be relatively equal, more familial, often matriarchal, and not particularly vengeful. They were neither all-knowing nor terribly rational. They were more like capricious bullies who demanded respect and occasional appeasement.6 The transition to centralized, statist societies brought a new cosmology of force. Hierarchical political rule introduced a rigid pantheon of god-kings and, eventually, an omnipotent god-emperor. Multiplicity gave rise to singularity and the rituals became centralized and exclusionary. Nature was increasingly objectified and the gods grew alien. Although their logic was still mysterious, the gods now began to plan and calculate. They threatened, blamed and retaliated. They demanded complete obedience and punished with unforgiving violence.
The emerging scientific approach of the sixteenth century, along with its new creature – later to be named ‘scientist’ – challenged this religious cosmology.7 Although many of the new scientists continued to believe in the guiding hand of God, that guidance was considered a singular event. When Laplace presented Napoleon with his magnum opus on celestial mechanics, System of the World, the emperor inquired why it did not mention God.
Laplace replied: ‘Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis’. God may have invented the universe, but once the blueprint was finished and the cosmos assembled, he locked the plans and threw away the key.
For the new scientists, God was universal force. This force – whether embedded in Machiavelli’s secular Prince, in Hobbes’ Leviathan or in the celestial movements of Galileo and Newton – is concentrated, deterministic and balanced. It never disappears. It is embedded in the mutual attraction and repulsion of all bodies. As universal force, God has no interest in princely politics and statist diplomacy. It doesn’t care about the church and needs no representatives on earth or elsewhere. It has no quirks and doesn’t act on impulse. God is permanent rationality and eternal order – or simply law. The 5 We prefer to bypass in silence here Louis Althusser’s post-Stalinist interpretation of the dialectical method of Hegel and Marx, as well as his writings on power institutions and political organizations.
6 A feminist interpretation of the archeological evidence is given in Stone (1976). The myths are narrated and analysed in Graves (1944; 1957).
7 The term ‘scientist’ was coined only in the 1830s, by William Whewell, but the early scientists understood the novelty of their position well before it was given a special name.
38 Dilemmas of political economy purpose of science is to discover this abstract rationality and order, to uncover the universal ‘laws of nature’. And since the harmony of natural laws is the invention of God, the best society is the one that reproduces those laws in its own politics.8 The new science of capitalism The science that articulated this new society was political economy. The term itself had already been coined in the early seventeenth century, but it was only in the late eighteenth century that political economy came into its own.9 Its founding text, The Wealth of Nations, was written in 1776 by Adam Smith. It is easy to discover Newton in this text. Smith treats human beings as isolated bodies. They relate to one another not organically, but mechanically, through force and counter-force. The process is energized by scarcity, the gravitational force of the social universe, and is mediated through the mechanical functions of demand and supply – the earthly manifestations of Newton’s attraction and repulsion. To the naked eye, the interaction seems accidental, a matter of chance for better or worse. But in fact, there is logic, and indeed order, in the chaos.
The hierarchical, dependent structure of the ancien régime is replaced here by the flat mechanism of inter-dependence. Social order, which previously had been imposed by God through the clergy and the royalty, is now created by the ‘invisible hand’ of competition. It is just like in nature. The anarchic interaction of natural bodies leads not to chaos but to equilibrium, and the same holds true in society. In the natural state of things, human beings constantly collide and act on each other through production and consumption. Like natural bodies, they, too, are numerous and relatively small, and therefore none can take over and swallow the others. There is no visible guidance, and none is called for. The system functions like clockwork, on its own.
Indeed, it is outside intervention – particularly by monarchs and commercial monopolies – which upsets the spontaneous social order. And since this spontaneous order is the ultimate source of wealth, government intervention and 8 This notion that there exists an external rationality – and that human beings can merely discover this external rationality – was expressed, somewhat tongue in cheek, by the number theorist Paul Erdös. A Hungarian Jew, Erdös did not like God, whom he nicknamed SF (the supreme fascist). But God, whether likable or not, predetermined everything. In mathematics, God set not only the rules, but also the ultimate proofs of those rules. These proofs are written, so to speak, in ‘The Book’, and the mathematician’s role is simply to decipher its pages (Hoffman 1998). Most of the great philosopher-scientists – from Kepler and Descartes to Newton and Einstein – shared this view. They all assumed that the principles they looked for – be they the ‘laws of nature’ or the ‘language of God’ – were primordial and that their task was simply to ‘find’ them (Agassi 1990).
9 The term ‘political economy’ first appeared in 1611 in a work on government by Louis de Mayerne-Tuquet, and again in 1615 as part of the title of a French book by Antoine de Montchretién (see King 1948).
Power 39 other restrictions are necessarily harmful and should be minimized. The best system is one of laissez faire.