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Marx was not a Marxist

Bruce McFarling, Shortland

Its important to keep in mind that Marx was not a Marxist, just as Keynes was not a Keynesian and Ricardo was not a Ricardian. Marx elaborated the Classical model of the economy, and in his hands it led to vastly different conclusions than it did in the hands of Ricardo, Mill, and company. As is well known, he predicted that Capitalism was prone to crises, and would lurch from one to another in an escalating series until it collapsed from its own internal contradictions. Less well known is that he made very few predictions about what would, could, or should happen next. This is not really surprising: whether a good or bad student, he was a student of Capitalism—not Post-Capitalism.

So, when so-called ‘Marxist’ political parties took power and adopted Marx’s work as some odd kind of holy writ, Marx’s sloganeering about the triumph of the working class and predictions about the withering away of the capitalist state were used to fill the void in Marx’s serious work. Of course, the triumph of the working class may well have been fighting words, akin to brave words I might utter about the damage that my local soccer team, the Breakers (#10 out of 15) are going to visit upon South Melbourne (#1 out of 15) when they visit town. And the withering away of the capitalist state is just a direct implication of whatever it would be to be a capitalist state: just as the medieval state withered when cut off from the material support of the manor system.

What Marx got *right* was that Capitalism as he studied it was not a sustainable long term proposition. It could not persist indefinitely. Of course, in his theory of economic history, status quo meets its opposite, is eventually destroyed in the conflict, but is replaced by a new status quo that represented a synthesis between the two antagonists. Yet in applying his theory of economic history to Capitalism, this was going to be the conclusion of the process: the collapse of Capitalism would be the unalloyed victory of the antagonist ‘working class’ interests, and we would be at the end of history.

That’s the infamous Marxist ‘dialectic’ that a century of political slogans and ideological constructions and reconstruction had obscured: an argument between status quo and antagonist leading to a new synthesis. Its internal logic doesn’t really point to any end in the process. Indeed, as far as using it for prediction, it’s like a neo-Darwinian theory. Will a specific species go on to found a whole new Order, or will it be driven to extinction? The neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory predicts that its impossible to predict this kind of thing. It seems to me that if Marx’s cheering for one side in the then-current conflict is taken out of his theory, then (1) there really shouldn’t be any way to predict how the new synthesis will shake out and (2) there isn’t any reason to believe that the ‘next’ synthesis will actually be the ‘final victory’.

In fact, history tells us that the great age of Individual Capitalism did lurch from crisis to crisis. Look at any graph which guesses what total domestic product was in an industrial or industrializing country between 1820 and 1940. The turn of the century crisis was clearly outclassed by the Great Depression. Individual Capitalism as the dominant economic system collapsed in the Great Depression. So in terms of predicting the evolution of the system that he actually studied, Marx was spot on. In terms of speculation about what would happen next, he was dead wrong—which is a plausible prediction of the theory he worked with.

Instead we saw the rise of Corporate Capitalism. What happened was that the stock market played the role that the stock market plays. There is a widespread and mistaken impression that the stock market exists as a mechanism for raising capital—but any examination of new stock issue as a proportion of existing stock trades and as a proportion of new financial capital in any given year can put that misconception to rest. The role that the stock market plays is to let the sons of the founders of corporations hand over control of the assets of the business *before* they drive a business into bankruptcy, rather than *after*. That process was going on in the 20’s, and continued into the 30’s. And what we have as a result is the ‘collectivization of Capital’. Of course, the collective of corporate management and financial interests isn’t the collective that Marx saw, but all his *theory* says in terms of prediction is: firstly, that the new synthesis will be just that, a new system built out of elements and subsystems from the two antagonists; and secondly, that it will catch people used to the old system and its antagonist by surprise.

Historical analogy also suggests that economic theory which is suitable for the one system won’t be fully worked out until a new system is well on its way in. The fact that the new system shares substantial bits from the previous system gets developing a theory of the new system, since it makes it possible to focus on what has not changed, and ignore what has. And sure enough, we have a fine theory of how individual capitalism works when it does, in standard neoclassical economics, and a fine theory of how its breaks down as it eventually must, in Marx’s theory of capitalism, but precious little on how our system of Corporate Capitalism actually works.

Marx and Marxists were wrong about the end of history, as everyone who has predicted the end of history has been so far. Marx’s theory of the dialectic seems better than Marx’s use of it, and far superior to the obscure mumbo jumbo that results when ‘dialectic’ is defined and redefined in order to justify the current policy position of a political party, whether in or out of power.

And a lot of economists are like a lot of generals: much better at preparing to fight the last war than preparing to fight the next one.


Bruce McFarling, Shortland, NSW

Possibly. Marx was a founder of the Communist International, and he did have some ideas about “the specter” that was haunting Europe. As you say he was cheering for one side in the ‘class war’, and it’s often hard to separate that from his economic analysis.

Some of his analysis is plain silly, like the “labor theory of value’. Fortunately that’s not required for his major analytical thought, because if it were a necessary assumption then Marx’s thought would be as unread as pre-Lavoisier theories of oxidation. In fact, though, the ‘labor theory of value’ was part of what you rightly call cheering, and unrelated to any objective analysis.

Marx did not understand production, and particularly had no notion of the power of technology. He thought anyone could operate the “tools” and “means of production” and that the control and ownership of the power plants and big machine tools was terribly important. That’s to some extent what misled Stalin and Mao, of course. They ought to have known better. Marx wasn’t imaginative enough to see that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t stop with massive centralized machine shops (made necessary because energy distribution was difficult and expensive); but Stalin and Mao ought to have known that there was a Second Industrial Revolution characterized by the hand-carried quarter inch electric drill that made distributed production possible. Now we have the Third brought on by the small computer and once again all is changed. Marx foresaw none of this, and his economic analysis is based on a very obsolete theory of industrial production.

As in the computer business, hardware often trumps software. Ownership of the means of production is no longer an automatic key to wealth, nor is it all that hard to acquire the means of production. Particularly in the computer/intellectual property field, the means of production are available to almost anyone.

So much for the fundamental flaws in Marx.

Even so, Marx was certainly influential among German economic theorists, and through them Asian including Japanese; Karl Wittfogel being one of the more important. Wittfogel almost single-handedly converted an entire generation of Japanese economists to Marxism, which meant Communism, until his break with the Party over the Hitler/Stalin Pact. He later used his great familiarity with Marx’s theories to see a major contradiction in them.

One of the major attractions of Communism was being on the inevitably winning side. Communism claimed to be scientific, and its adherents were marching in step with the flywheel of history. That’s a powerfully attractive argument to some.

But in Oriental Despotism, Wittfogel pointed out that Marx himself was horrified to see a contradiction: that state capitalism, modeled after the old hydraulic societies (Egypt, Babylon, etc) could be eternal, not evolving, because it had no internal contradictions as Marx claimed everything except the classless society would have. Marx called this “the Asiatic Mode of Production” and was intellectually honest enough to leave the speculation in Das Kapital, but not honest enough to pursue the implications: that there could be eternal states, never changing much, never evolving, with utterly despotic governments. Such states are vulnerable, but ONLY to OUTSIDE pressures; as an example, the Great Mogul Empire lasted until a handful of Europeans pushed it over. Wittfogel also showed that the USSR was very nearly such an Oriental Despotism, and that China always was one: it was when it ceased to be such under Sun Yat Sen that it became vulnerable, and Sun Yat Sen was able to bring about partial revolution in China only with outside help.

Wittfogel is important to understanding Marx because he took Marx seriously and dealt with Marx’s arguments. David McCord Wright does much the same. His book “The Trouble With Marx” was originally a scholarly work much unread, and because of that was something of a failure as a Conservative Book Club selection since many buyers through that club didn’t know what to make of an economist who took Marx seriously as an economic theorist: the were looking for an anti-Communist tract.

Lester Thurow of MIT sometimes takes Marx seriously, but not often. He is a great lecturer, and it’s always worthwhile listening to him, but his analyses tend to be trendy and topical; I am not sure I have heard much from or about him since Hillary Clinton’s attempt to “reform” American health care, a subject about which Thurow knows more than most, although I strongly question his assumptions.

Wright believed that the American anti-trust laws were the major defense against the kind of destruction that pure capitalism can bring. And of course Schumpeter looked into the face of the capitalist abyss and withdrew in horror.

One attempt to mitigate the effects of unrelieved capitalism is economic nationalism, as well as local control of institutions. By local control, I mean using zoning laws to prevent WalMart from coming in and displacing all the local merchants. I won’t get into the desirability for a local community of placing large barriers in the way of WalMart; I do question the sanity of national laws that prevent the local community from having a say in the matter.

Similarly for economic nationalism: while a global economy is inevitable in the long run, as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead; what matters are the living; and a nation that allows a skilled worker with 25 years investment in a particular company to suddenly be put on the street while his job is exported to a foreign country may well enjoy cheap jockey shorts, but may also have created a disaffected class from among those formerly the most patriotic. “For a man to love his country, his country ought to be lovely,” said Burke; and a country that is more concerned with cheap goods than the employment stability of its work force, and which goes out of its way to make it easy to export jobs, may be in trouble.

Couple that with an education system almost guaranteed to produce many graduates with no skills whatever and not even the learning skills of acquiring skills, so that they must now compete for menial jobs not merely with local menials but with the entire world including a single mother in Thailand, and you have an even more interesting situation. It is an experiment I would not care to have run, but we are running it here.

A world economy is probably inevitable in the long run, but I am not convinced that marching in step with the flywheel of history is always the right idea; and I am certain that Marx had some deep insights into what unrestrained capitalism can and will do.

I always thought David McCord Wright and Wilhelm Roepke to be economic theorists worthy of far more attention than they receive, because I always thought one ought, a Schumpeter and those two did, to take Marx quite seriously.

State capitalism is every whit as able to pave the road to serfdom as is communism. One may say it won’t happen here, but the one who says that isn’t reading newspapers.

All of which points us back to Roepke’s Humane Economy; and I am out of time just now.


Fascinating to see Wittfogel discussed in this context; a very original thinker.

Wittfogel had some very interesting ideas, but I don’t think one can fairly call the Mogul Empire in India an “Oriental Despotism” in the sense he meant.

Particularly, it didn’t last until the Europeans overthrew it from without; the Emperor Aurangzeb (regnabat 1658-1707), its last great monarch, managed to wreck it rather thoroughly from within.

He did that essentially by reversing the policy of religious toleration towards Hindus that most of his ancestors had followed (reinstating the poll tax on non-Muslims, for instance, and denying their aristocrats careers in the Imperial service), and by reckless expansionism in the Deccan that overstrained the Empire’s resources. Together those policies goaded whole regions and communities (the Sikhs, for instance) into becoming implacable enemies of the Moghul power. Aurangzeb’s own personal competence and force of will ensured that he stayed on the throne long enough for the disaster to become irreversible. None of his successors had any real authority beyond a couple of day’s march from their capital.

By the end of his reign, the Europeans were still an exceedingly minor factor; but the Mahrattha rebellion was bleeding the Empire white, the revenue collecting service had broken down, and regional commanders were setting themselves up as de facto independent princes. By the time the Europeans _did_ start to be a real political-military presence in India, the Moghul Empire had become as much of a shadow as the West Roman Empire was in the time of Theodoric. The Persians had sacked and burned their way through the Khyber Pass to Dehli and back, carrying off the Peacock Throne; Afghans and Mahratthas and Pindaris and warlords and adventurers of every stripe were ripping the subcontinent up in a chaotic war of all against all, with the Emperor in Delhi merely the puppet of the nearest man with a sword.

As an aside, the founding of the British Raj was as much a stumble into a vacuum and a reaction against the intrigues of the French as anything else; the Directors of the East India Company were always reluctant to dabble in local politics. Men on the spot, at the end of a communications line with a minimum of ten weeks between letter and reply, took the initiative themselves. The Directors in London were left uttering weak bleats of protest and confirming what had been done in their name; particularly as it was so profitable.

One interesting aspect is the absence of any real technological gap between the Europeans and their Indian opponents. Both sides fought with pretty much the same weapons; smoothbore muskets, muzzle-loading cannon, and cold steel.

India had had gunpowder and cannon as long as Europe, and had a tradition of craftsmanship which enabled it to duplicate European weapons up to and through the main period of British conquest. As late as the 1840’s, the Sikh arsenals in the Punjab easily matched British infantry weapons and artillery—in fact the artillery park of the Khasla, the Sikh army of Ranjit Singh’s Punjabi kingdom, was superior to that of the Company’s armed forces. And the guns were well served, since Ranjit Singh employed some very capable European mercenaries to drill his forces.

Yet not even the well-armed, splendidly disciplined and courageous Sikhs were really able to fight British troops and British-trained and officered sepoys on equal terms; close but no cigar. Other Indian opponents couldn’t even come close; the forces of the Raj repeatedly thrashed them at odds of 15 to 1 and better.

This goes to show that the really crucial advantages lie in the “software”— organization, drill, doctrine, esprit—rather than the weapons _per se_. Although it’s nice to have the best ‘stuff’, no question of that. (Steve Stirling)

Surely that was my point? The old despotisms did not evolve; they staggered on until pushed over by a handful of outsiders. And that was Wittfogel’s point as well. Marx said that his laws of evolution were as immutable as Darwin’s. Apparently not.


The amusing thing about the discussion is that Marx was a journalist, not a scientist (even though he was one of the founders of American anthropology). He also believed in classical 19th century economics, which is like being a classical Darwinist. On the other hand, his use of Hegelian dialectic was a precursor to the modern use of non-linear dynamics in similar problems.

Rather than discussing ‘hydraulic societies’ (yet another obsolescent concept), look at what characterizes relatively stable urban cultures during their histories. Here’s a very incomplete list:

1. Tokugawa Japan

2. Early Egypt

3. Rome to Diocletian

4. Minoan Crete

5. The Mayans (twice)

6. etc. (I can go on quite a while…)

These societies were generally not faced with problems that required a creative or non-linear response for a good while. But look what happened—their social systems lost the mechanisms that allowed them to respond to non-linear challenges. Meanwhile, long term dynamics gradually degraded their ecological environment, eventually resulting in non-linear challenges (the term Iain Banks uses is ‘outside context problems’) that they couldn’t handle. Many of these cultures didn’t need outsiders to push them over—insiders could do the job just as well.

I did a paper on this for an archaeology conference about ten years ago, where I noted that the result was theoretically chaotic social system dynamics. Tain’t deterministic by any measure.


Harry Erwin, Internet:, Web Page: Senior Software Analyst, PhD candidate modeling how bats echolocate and lecturer in data structures and advanced C++.

Marx made a living as a journalist, but he had plenty of academic credentials as a philosopher and economist. Parkinson characterizes him as a professor without an academy and that is pretty close to the truth. As Parkinson says, he needed people around him as bright as he to poke holes in his theories: but he had none.

Your examples may be relevant, but many of them are explicitly dealt with in Marx’s work and the decline and fall of Rome was of course precisely one of the examples he used of internal contradictions.

Early Egypt was a hydraulic society. Minoan Crete is not an example at all: we don’t know a lot about it, but we do know it was ended by volcanoes and invasions, and ended up being taken over by Mycenaeans. The Lion House conquered the House of the Ax, and I don’t see how it is an example of non-evolving societies. I am not greatly familiar with Tokugawa Japan, but do not think it serves as an example of a society that endures but does not evolve. As to the Mayans, if you know what brought about their collapse you know more than I do. I have seen many mutually contradictory theories. None compelling, and certainly none universally accepted.

Wittfogel was important because he used Marx’s analysis to demonstrate that Marx, on his own terms, was wrong; and marx himself was afraid of the “Asiatic mode of production” because he could see it was an exception to his universal theory of evolution of societies. A universal theory admits of no exceptions.

Do not confuse Marx with Wittfogel. Marx argued that every society brings about internal contradictions, and those cause that society to move to a new phase. The Western example was examined in a great deal more detail than others, of course, and particularly how Feudalism generated the seeds of its own destruction, to become capitalism; now capitalism is generating the seeds of its own destruction, namely the proletariat, a powerful class that does not own the means of production, but must work for wages. Competition will force the capitalists to pay lower and lower wages (it isn’t that the capitalists are evil; they have no choice but to pay the lowest possible wage and downsize throwing workers out of work, because they must be as efficient as the next capitalist or someone will produce at lower cost and sell at lower cost). Wages will fall, there will be employment instability, people will become more and more disaffected with the social order; meanwhile wealth will be concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, there will be a growing discrepancy between have and have not, and there will be fewer and fewer firms controlling more and more of the economic power. Those firms will transcend national boundaries.

It was Wittfogel who pointed out that there were exceptions to the Marxist analysis, societies that did not evolve: they were the “hydraulic societies” in which the state owned the means of production. There was an existent example of such an oriental despotism, namely and to wit the USSR, which operated precisely as had the ancient hydraulic societies: and that, Wittfogel argued, was the real end of the communist trail. Not the idyllic pastoral society foreseen by Marx in which a man might be a factory worker one day, a poet the next, and a farmer on Thursdays; but the grim and unrelieved tyranny of Stalin and his successors, with power eventually passing to a privileged class of nomenclatura who kept it.

I do not think you would have won an argument with Marx using your examples, with the possible exception of Egypt. And I would have thought that “outside context” was precisely what Wittfogel meant as the means of destruction of his non-evolving oriental despotisms. As to the concept of hydraulic societies being obsolescent, perhaps, but I wouldn’t have thought so. Seems a useful concept to me.


And now not QUITE on topic but very interesting, my sometime partner and collaborator Steve Stirling:

The whole of the ‘civilized’ premodern world seems to have been locked in a cycle of war, empire, decline, and war. Warring states get incorporated into vast structures of imperial control; the empire gradually undergoes institutional decline, splinters into fragments, and the whole thing starts over again.

The systems weren’t completely uniform over time, of course. Some things did change; there seems to have been a slow increase in the _scale_ of the pre- modern empires, with gradual increases in the effectiveness of the ‘technology of control’. The first empires based on the Iraqi plains barely got north of Baghdad. The last great one, the Abbasaid Caliphate, reached all the way from Spain to India.

The Dark Age periods tended to get shorter and be less absolute; no subsequent collapse in the Middle East was as complete as the one that hit after 1200 BCE, and the same is true of the post-Harrapan recovery in India. Cultural developments like Confucianism, post-Vedic Hinduism, and Judaism- Christianity-Islam did change things. More and more territory previously at a pre-urban/barbarian level became part of the ‘high culture’ zone, with cities and a literate class.

And there was a continual, if very gradual and irregular, decline in the carrying capacity of the original centers of agricultural/urban civilization. Iraq probably never again reached the productivity it had under the Ur III dynasty in the 3rd millenium BC. The Sassanid Persian period came close, but that was in decline even before the Mongols wrecked the area.

But at a fundamental level, things remained very stable. The system got bigger, but didn’t change in its basic structure; villages of peasants, and a state superstructure built on extracting the surplus from the peasants. Areas that had once been rather exceptional — Greece, or the Phoenecian city-states — were incorporated into the mainstream of the empires. Technological change was very gradual, and population always increased to consume the whole of the surplus it created. Once an area had a dense agricultural population, it reached a plateau and fluctuated around that level.

The Americas were evidently following the same path, with a 3000-year lag due to a later start. In fact, I’d say that the rise of Western civilization and its transformation of the world has to be a consequence of a whole series of wildly unlikely historical accidents — political/military, cultural/ideological/religious, and economic/technological. Taken together, they’re vanishingly improbable.

Perhaps that’s the solution to Fermi’s Paradox. There may be thousands of intelligent species out there, but if they get as far as agriculture then they lock themselves into cycles of Oriental-style empires, which continues until something wipes them out. An asteroid impact, or some other natural catastrophe that a pre-scientific culture can’t cope with. [Steve Stirling]

Ever think of writing science fiction?

I tend to agree: history isn’t deterministic and our Western Civilization is unlikely. I put that down to something other than coincidence, of course; as you say, vanishingly small probability which means that perhaps the laws of probability aren’t applying here. That, surely, is for another discussion. Thank you.


Fermi Paradox: given the probability of life on other worlds, which is large if you take the entire size of the universe, and given that it is extremely likely that some intelligent civilization sprang up by accident a million years ago (or ten million) and that generation ships if nothing else can cross the galaxy in hundreds of thousands of years — why are not the aliense here? Enrico Fermi posed his argument and ended “Where are they?” Many answered. Robert Bussard says “They’re here and we’re them,” and means that seriously. I tried an answer in Janissaries. It’s an intriguing question.

Altmail: improbable historical accidents and Psychodynamics

Steve Stirling

One reason I never bought either Marxism or Asimov’s futuristic “Foundation” version of it is the highly _contingent_ nature of history—particularly political/military history, which often determines the outcomes of the other varieties. Individuals and their chance-determined fates do matter.

Eg., Alexander the Great died young, although he was strong as a bull physically and had repeatedly recovered from wounds and illnesses that would have killed most men.

Result: the Hellenistic world immediately fractured as his marshals fought over the corpse of his dominions. He had two posthumous sons; if he’d lived as long as his father Philip, who lead a similarly dangerous life, they’d have been in their 20’s when Alex kicked off, and his empire might have hung together for a century or more. Probably aborting the rise of Rome in the process; or to look at it another way, the Seleucid monarchs nearly did suppress the Maccabees. A stronger Hellenistic state might well have done so… and so Judaism ceases to be an important force, and isn’t there to be the seedbed of Christianity, which in turn remade the world and made our own culture possible.

Or to take another example, Augustus Caesar lived to be an old man, despite being in frail health most of his life. Not only was he an administrative and political genius, but he simply lasted so long that, as a distinguished Roman historian pointed out, by the time he died nobody but a few old men actually remembered living under the Republic. Without him, the Roman hegemony might well have gone down in the same sort of mad-dog scramble that the Hellenistic world did, torn apart by rival warlords. The Triumvirs had already divided it, and shown that you didn’t need Italy to have a workable power-base.

As I pointed out earlier, the rise of Western civilization is full of these wildly improbable events. Despite being haunted by the ghost of Rome, for instance, nobody in the West ever succeeded in re-establishing a Universal State—and this despite the fact that some very able men tried, and that such arrangements are quite common elsewhere. China had an area and population roughly comparable to Europe’s, for instance, and was always stitched back together after an interval of contending states. For that matter, if a camel driver in Medina hadn’t seen visions, Byzantium would probably have been strong enough to retake the Western provinces over the centuries.

I could go on for hundreds of pages—the Reformation, for instance, or the “luck of the English” that enabled them to defeat Habsburg Spain, get rid of the Stuarts, stumble their way into Parliamentary government, get William of Orange as a ruler, which let them beat the French under Louis XIV, virtually by accident develop the institutions which let the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution overcome the resistance of vested interests (historically very rare)… and on and on. America has had the same astonishing run of luck, on a larger scale. (America being to England as Christianity is to Judaism.)

For that matter, look at the way the World Wars and then the Cold War of this century turned out—odds were we’d end up with a world empire run by some very nasty people.

If I believed in Secret Masters, I’d swear that a bunch of super-aliens were hiding under the Himalayas _forcing_ us down a particular historical path.

As it is, I’m forced to conclude that sometimes you just flip ‘heads’ fifty times in a row… 8-). [Steve Stirling]

You argue the case well. The historicists, on the other hand, would say that when it’s empire time empires happen; if Alexander had lived, something else would have fragmented his empire, if not then, then under his grandchildren. Larry Niven has a lecture called “Waldemar the XXIst” on going to space that makes much the same argument: eventually someone will do it.

The counter argument, in other words, is that the times make the heroes, and Carlyle was right only in the necessity of a hero, not in the necessity of THAT particular hero. In due season heroes will appear.

Fletcher Pratt in The Battles That Changed History makes a different point: sometimes there are key events that might have gone either way, and had they done so things would ever after be different. Unlike the earlier so-called crucial battles that Cresy likes to describe (such as Teutoberg Wald) Pratt’s do seem quite decisive, and not determined either: things were different after, but could have gone the other way.

My own view is that the times make the men, but without the men the times would be different. Augustus made the Empire possible, perhaps, but Claudius made it what it became; a dottering old scholar who invented the civil service and made it permanent, so that emperors could come and go — and did — but empire remained. And now that the secret is out, one suspects that it won’t go back in the bottle.

Herman Kahn said that the natural state of man is Empire, and the natural size of Empire is to expand until it runs into another capable of opposing it. We may be running that experiment; the United States seems destined to Empire, with adventures halfway around the world in places our citizens cannot find on a map, our armies involved in extra-constitutional activities that only the President can excuse… If so, we have evolved the nomenclatura; we have a system that will let empire survive any particular emperor. I wonder if that’s where we’re going? I often think so.


A good deal depends on how sensitive you think history is to initial conditions.

Eg., I agree that Alexander’s empire would have split up eventually; the Greeks just weren’t the sort of institution-builders that the Romans were. But an Alexandrian Empire that lasted 120 years—a tiny fraction of Rome’s duration—would have changed everything in unpredictable ways.

And since the outcome that led to us (post-Renaissance Western civilization) was so unlikely, any substantial change would probably have aborted it. That isn’t a question that can be definitively settled, of course, but all my study of history gives me a strong gut feeling that it’s right.

On a collateral issue, I don’t think Americans are good candidates for an imperial role—which, if the power positions were reversed, the Chinese would be, for instance. This isn’t a intended as a slur on Americans, a people I greatly like and admire. It’s just that the national character just doesn’t suit; particularly the lack of patience, and the desire to be liked. As a great power with global interests the US will undoubtedly act to sustain them—maintaining its _de facto_ protectorate of the Gulf while the oil lasts, for instance—but I just can’t see the United States as Universal State.

Now, in terms of cultural and economic hegemony, it’s a different matter. It’s visibly true that the world is more and more forced to imitate the US in order to compete with it—the agonizingly long-drawn-out restructuring of Japan, for one example, or the way the Europeans are reluctantly but inevitably embracing ‘shareholder value’ business methods and downsizing.

And US popular culture is irresistibly seductive, as witness the futile ranting of various mullahs against satellite TV. Or the tormented ambiguity of various tyrants about the Internet, which they must embrace for the sake of economic efficiency but cannot because of the loss of control it implies.

(Which leads to comical situations in places like the Middle East—where Syria is debating whether to allow any Internet nodes, while Microsoft just bought an Israeli software startup for $265 million.)

The US has learned to live with and thrive upon the forces of rampant possessive individualism, cultural chaos, and anything-goes laissez-faire. That gives it a tremendous advantage, in an era when those forces are slurping around the world at the speed of light like an irresistible bath of acidic plastic foam, turning the world into a bath of globalized goo, or a paradise of infinite individual choice, depending on one’s prelidictions. As California is to America, so America is to the world… 8-). {Steve Stirling]

The United States doesn’t have to be good at empire so long as we have politicians who want to be Imperial. Today Albright publicly told the President of Yugoslavia that he MUST receive our emissary who will give him an ultimatum: OR ELSE. The OR ELSE one presumes is that we drop bombs on them and break things and kill people with no declaration of war. This is not the act of a republic, and other times any soldier killing foreigners without a war on would be prosecuted; his commanders hailed before a Congressional Inquiry; etc.

Computers change things a lot, but they don’t much change human nature. I think they do speed things up a good bit. It was quite a while before proscriptions happened in the Roman Republic. I look to see proscriptions in my lifetime. Possibly as the way my life ends. I am not Cicero, but then the BATF weren’t lictors at Waco. Or is this a joke? I don’t know, but I do know that Imperial way require an emperor, and emperors do not lightly withstand lese majeste; it was after all for maiastas that most of August’s victims fell to.

Imperial acts require the soldiers to do things that the constitution prohibits. The soldiers then rightly demand protection from the Congress and the courts. And away we go…


Determinism and Social Evolution

Bruce R. McFarling, Shortland, NSW

I am happy to see that one of the big questions of “world system” theory has come close to the surface in this discussion: Why Europe? Why not China?

I take it as obvious that the detailed outcomes of social evolution are the result of fork-in-the-road events. The question for social evolution, then, is to what extent large scale outcomes are sensitive to the detailed outcomes. And that might depend on the question that is being asked. Are there two nation states in the Iberian peninsula, or one, or three? How should we view a social evolutionary story that gives the reason why we ought to expect two? I’d see it as a case of 5-20 hinsight, seeing far more in retrospect than there is to see.

But at a courser resolution, the case might be more plausible. The crux of one argument, more or less Stephen Sanderson’s in _Social Transformations_ (but radically simplified to fit email) is this: if there are more unstable types of social systems than stable types social systems that can be supported at any particular level of technology, then different peoples developing or adopting that level of technology might at first adopt a wide variety of social systems. After all, the long-term stability of a system doesn’t exert any ‘weight’ in its immediate prospects of being instituted. But the unstable systems are exactly that, and so peoples with those types of systems will see social systems come and go, while those that stumble on stable systems will persist. If neighboring peoples adopt aspects of the stable systems, they may stumble on their own version of that stable type of social system, and gradually (that is, over millenia) become the dominant, ‘normal’ social system over a large number of peoples in contact with each other.

So the sketch of social evolution here is of particular systems which are not necessarily very contagious, but have great staying power. Other systems that are very contagious may rapidly sweep over a large number of peoples in contact with each other, but if they are unstable, will not persist.

The argument here is that, especially in the east-west Eurasian axis after the agricultural revolution, what Marxists call ‘the hydraulic state’ is an example of a very stable system for that level of technology.

But it is not a stable system in all contexts in that range. In particular, it is unstable when there is a rough balance in the importance of land power and sea power. Looking at the map, and population levels over this period, this holds for Peninsular West Asia, which we call Europe, and for an archipelago of large islands unusually close together that we call Japan. These are exactly the areas where feudal systems developed, rather than being supplanted by imperial systems. Because of the difficulty in establishing a universal authority in this context, there are a series of compromises and power sharing arrangements which would never persist in an area where dominance in land power alone could support an imperial structure.

Of course, in the terms of the agricultural age, big whoopydydo. The systems persist in these areas because taking them and holding them keeps on being not worth the trouble. But that is only partly ‘hard to do’: it is also ‘why bother?’. Such fractious area with their complicated power sharing arrangements and mixes of allegiences and personal ties are unlikely to prove a threat to a big empire in any event.

Down to a particular consequence, with substantial differences in details between the two. This piece is due to E.A.J. Johnson’s _Space in Developing Countries_ (referring to geographical space, rather than space programs). In Europe, part of the power base of monarchs dealing with unruly and independent-minding feudal barons, etc., were the free cities. Cities grew up in part because the manor is not a conducive environment for some activities, and they received support and encouragement from feudal kings exactly because they provided a counter – weight that helped the kings retain their own independence from feudal lords. In Japan, under the Tokugawa shogunate, feudal lords were kept in line by forcing them to keep their household in castle towns, rather than on their lands, and to reside at the imperial court in alternate years.

In one case, feudal rulers encouraged cities to engage in lucrative activities to be able to lend support against feudal lords. In another, because of the system which developed to keep feudal lords in check, feudal lords encourage castle towns to engage in lucrative activities to provide a source of finance for the stay in the imperial court. But in either case, the brakes on commercial and manufacturing progress which were a normal part of the stability of an imperial system were removed in the ongoing development of feudal systems. And feudal systems persisted not because they were particularly stable in their own right, but because they were the most stable system in a peculiar environment.

Back to Sanderson. Capitalist systems developed in both Europe and Japan. It’s important to catch a misconception about Japanese economic history here. Capitalist systems developed within feudal systems, in both places, which really needs little argument unless we think they sprang from the forehead of Zeus. The closing of Japanese ports to Europeans was not a closing of trade: trade in the South China sea expanded after the closure. This was a mercentalist action that is in the same spirit as European actions against European trade rivals—especially since at the time a lot of what the Europeans produced were shoddy knockoffs of East Asian manufactures, competing primarily in terms of price.

Now to someone who’s name escapes me, in an article in a book in my office down at Ourimbah. And back to China. As China expanded, it is an interesting little tidbit that each new dynasty began with an expansion in the number of imperial walled cities, but then settled down to a similar number of imperial walled cities as the previous dynasty had. In other words, when the Chinese state expanded to cover new ground, it kept discovering that there was a rough upper limit on the size of the imperial bureaucracy, and pruned down the number of imperial walled cities. Of course, no walled cities were permitted that were not imperial walled cities! So over centuries when the network of cities in both European states and Japan were becoming progressively denser, the network of cities in China was becoming progressively sparser.

Now back to just plain old development economics. An industrial revolution rides on the back of a second agricultural revolution, in which there is an explosion of agricultural productivity. It is this second agricultural revolution which makes it possible to have large industrial workforces to achieve the economies of scale which the industrial revolution must ride to get off the ground. And the spark for this second agricultural revolution is the opportunity offered in the rural market center to exchange rural produce for things which cannot be reproduced back on the farm. The denser the network of cities, the denser the accompanying network of market towns feeding produce to the cities in exchange for imports and the products of the cities, and the more widespread the incentive to generate a marketable surplus is throughout the agricultural population.

So that’s a rough outline of one ‘quasi-deterministic’ story on the industrial revolution. One thing to note is that the determinism is not very strong at all. This story says why not China, why not India, why not Africa, etc. It doesn’t say why Europe instead of Japan: any outcome in an area where a relatively unstable system which provides a favourable climate for urban development would fit inside the story. So it could have been Japan. Or, if neither Europe nor Japan, because of different turns at various forks in the road setting their development back (Mongol invasions are a chief one here) until Eurasia spread out to contact North America via the northwest coast to incorporate MesoAmerica and the Inca empire, then maybe the Great Lakes or the Caribbean / Central America 500 years from now. Maybe ownership of the means of production is in the reach of this particular story—since the industrial revolution seems most likely in an urban environment outside of an imperial system. But whether the initial empire-upsetting capitalist model is the more individualist European early capitalism or the more collective Japanese early capitalism is simply outside the reach. And some of the deterministic things are natural in the original sense: the advantage of a denser network of cities is quite close to the reason that oxygen transport works better with our lungs organised the way they are.


Bruce McFarling, Shortland, NSW

Interesting. Perhaps the most interesting thinker on this subject — certainly the most readable — was C. Northcote Parkinson, who made a reputation as a humorist but who was in fact a serious historian. I used his EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT as a textbook in senior political theory when I taught that at Pepperdine, and his EAST AND WEST is very much to the point on the subject here.

I would submit though that the last industrial revolution, the computer revolution, has made some really fundamental changes in the way things work.


I think the China issue is a little more complicated, if one looks at it in detail.

To begin with, pace Mr. McFarling’s interesting comment, the Chinese did have a quite dense network of urban sites, true commercial cities, as far back as the Sung—certainly the Southern Sung. In some respects, that’s a particularly interesting period of Chinese history; it’s when rural China assumed its “modern” form (the one that more or less lasted down to the early 20th century). Previously it had had something resembling a manorial economy in large parts (in that landlords played a large part in organizing production); after that, it moved to a purely _rentier_ form of landlordism.

China is a good example of what happens if you introduce technological changes gradually. It had many of the crucial Industrial Revolution innovations long before Europe; not only the well-known ones like paper and the compas, but coal-fueled blast furnaces operating on a very large scale, textile machinery, advanced farming, quite sophisticated merchant banking, and a very good internal communications network (the Grand Canal, for instance). Hence the extremely high level of handicraft skills, and the very large cities—all the world’s largest cities were in China until well into the 18th century.

However, leaving aside the negative effects of Imperial unification, the Chinese economy was never _revolutionized_. Population always increased to swallow the entire surplus created by any innovation. The level of productivity was very high for a preindustrial society, but the standard of living was low. An Industrial Revolution requires a positive feedback cycle of rapid increases in surplus production, allowing heavy investment and the prospect of profit through cost reduction and mass production. China had gotten itself into a situation where all the easy, simple innovations—those Europe, and particularly Britain, made in the lead-up to the Industrial Revolution—had _already been done_, and done long ago.

One author called it a “high-level equilibrium trap”. Once you’re in it, there’s no way out without a massive input of technology and resources from the outside to kick-start the stalled balance.

By contrast, the only way to keep your head above water is to paddle at a _continually increasing speed_, which is precisely what a modern market economy forces one to do willy-nilly. You can never _stop_. Or even slow down, much. That means continuous economic revolution, the end of all stability, endless creative destruction. The speed of innovation is a _qualitiative_ as well as a quantitative factor.

I think the failure of China (and Japan, which as Mr. McFarling correctly points out, was much more similar to pre-modern Europe) to make the leap into modernity on their own stems to a large extent from their _intellectual_ and cultural history.

Specifically, they didn’t have the Classical heritage of Greece and Rome, and they’d never been Christians—especially not Latin Christians.

Absent these, neither people—despite their undoubted gifts and brilliant cultural achievements—could develop a true science, or a scientific world-view.

The contribution of the Greeks, I assume, is obvious; but Christianity was important too, particularly in the form it took in the Catholic (and later Protestant) worlds.

The long Christian tutelage of Europe firmly implanted the idea that the entire universe is obedient to one, single, unalterable set of laws. The specifically Western aspect of that was the triumph of Aquinian rationalism in Catholic theology—a similar controversy in Islam came out exactly the other way, with the declaration that further interpretation was banned, an event of considerable consequence. By stating that reason and faith could not conflict, that Catholic theological tradition did a good deal to free reason; it began the “disenchantment” of the world, a process still under way. And it clearly implied, a thread taken up by Bacon quite soon thereafter, that those unalterable, universal Laws could be _determined by observation and logic_. ‘twas only a relatively small step to secularize that outlook, and you end up with guys like Laplace.

On other subjects: In re Albright’s ultimatum to the Serbs… well, you can’t have an Imperial regime without an Empire, I’d think.

Shoving Serbia around, or running Bosnia and/or Kosovo, or for that matter Kuwait, is not going to transform the US into a great World Empire. Not with an army of 480,000 men—smallest in 50 years or more—and a public adverse to all expensive committments. A few small protectorates do not an Empire make. There’s a difference between being a Great Power and a Universal State.

Frankly, to me it seems like the same sort of thing Great Powers have always done, not significantly different from Teddy R. bullying the Columbians in the 1890’s, or Great Britain settling the fate of Egypt in 1882, or France forcing Austria to get out of Italy in the 1860’s, or President Polk grabbing Texas and California, or Jefferson buying Louisiana, or whatever.

General Sir Garnet Wolseley, who led the British expeditionary force in Egypt, had blood-curdling fantasies of being another Cromwell and making Liberal politicians like Gladstone clean officers’ boots at bayonet-point. But he kept them private in his diary. If he’d spread them abroad, he would have been _laughed_ out of public life.

The Great Powers have always been jockeying for position, grabbing off this or that titbit, relinquishing it later, competing for a strategic spot or a trade route or a “friendly” local regime in Country X—and it hasn’t turned any of them into the New Rome. In fact, except when a miscalculation made them stumble into a major war, it usually didn’t have more than a trivial impact on their domestic politics.

Empire and Imperialism isn’t necessarily territorial, and in any event the United States hasn’t always been just another Great Power. We have been a self-governing Republic, “the friends of liberty everywhere but the guardian only of our own.” The kind of interventions in Europe that we seem to be making require that we keep a big army, and dictate that we will have enemies: witness the business over the Turkish arrest of a Kurdish nationalist. Why are we hated for that? What business is it of ours?

In 1848 we sent a warship to escort the Hungarian patriot Kossuth out of the reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; we did that in the name of liberty, and we defied the Austrians (easy enough, since they didn’t have a Navy and we had a small one). That was the act of a republic; what we’re doing in Bosnia and Kossovo isn’t. Or so think I.


Dr. Pournelle,

I’ve been reading your “determinism” discussion on alt.mail with interest. At its deepest the debate’s probably unsettleable: it touches on two very hard problems, whether individual human beings really do make large differences in history, and whether what you and I would probably agree constitutes “good” behavior is also “practical over the long run.”

Two notes, though:

1. I think I first saw the hypothesis that morality and practicality may be deeply linked in your first _Jannisaries_ book.

2. The economist Bradford De Long has written what I think is a very thought-provoking essay about this problem, from the perspective of academic economics, but with wit and literacy. The essay is readable at:

De Long’s conclusions, summarized: if you want to have a society that doesn’t end up in a “hydraulic” state, then be lucky [great advice!]

do not expect too much

unite the nation

do what can be done to raise economic growth higher on the list of policy makers’ priorities [De Long grimly comments: "this is hard."]

In any event, I hope you find the essay of interest.

–Erich Schwarz

Well, you have found me out: that was certainly the premise of the Janissaries series….

When Did Japan Fail to Modernise On Its Own?

Bruce McFarling, Shortland

The question of why Japan failed to develop on its own is an easy own to answer. It developed on its own to the same extent that North Atlantic Europe did. Whether that is succeeding or failing to ‘develop on its own’ is only a question of how the phrase is defined.

The roots of Japanese capitalism were in the shogunate; the roots of west Atlantic capitalism in the medieval states. The Meiji Restoration saw a burst of social innovation under the cover of borrowing from Europe and the US; the Enlightenment saw a burst of social innovation under the cover of borrowing from classical Greece and Rome. Neither developed on their own in the sense of developing all their own technology from scratch; both developed on their own in the sense of technological and institutional innovations (defined as the putting into a place changes in the way that things are done).

Attributing the industrial revolution in the West Atlantic to Greek antiquities is a bit like attributing the success of an portrait painter to the paints. In the Enlightenment, the folkviews of the West Atlantic states meant that the antiquities were a legitimate source for social ideas. And as a general rule, when people are pursuing innovations, they try to find a way to dress them up as legitimate.


Bruce McFarling, Shortland, NSW


I think I must be misunderstanding Bruce McFarling’s statement that Japan modernized “on its own”.

Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns remained a static society—a highly advanced preindustrial state, but one that showed absolutely no sign of developing a true science or of generating an Industrial Revolution. Those phenomena have occurred exactly once in all human history.

The Meiji Restoration was the direct result of Western pressure on Japan; the economic and intellectual transformations it launched involved wholesale borrowing from the West.

Japanese technology and science are, quite simply, Japanese technologists and scientists working in a tradition wholly Western; if you take their contemporary examples and trace them back, in the 1860’s they take a right turn and move thousands of miles to the west, to Europe. They have no local roots.

In terms of social organization, post-Meiji Japan represented a compromise, but one which has—in fits and starts—moved steadily in a Western direction; a process which is visibly accelerating in this decade, as the ‘development state’ of post-war Japan collapses under the stress of its own contradictions. [Steve Stirling]

Certainly Commodore Dewey had his part in influencing the opening of Japan to new traffic with the West, and the American Proconsul Douglas MacArthur in restructuring Japanese institutions… I would say the case for outside influences being decisive is pretty clear. Of course the result is Japanese, not Western, but that is hardly astonishing. One doesn’t expect a vigorous culture to transform itself into a copy of another. And science and technology have a unity all their own. It’s pretty hard to have science and technology that isn’t “western”; perhaps it would be better to say that both Japanese and Western science/technology follow the rules for scientific discovery.

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