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Historical materialism in a new key

April 29th, 2014 · No Comments

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx%27s_theory_of_history

In Last and First Men I have tried to both challenge historical materialism and yet leave it, as is. The essence of the theory can be restated inside a different historical framework, so it can be counterproductive to try and refute it. But I think that the place of economic systems in history is confused by the attempts to generalize stages of history. In the process slavery claims a phase or stage in the list of stages. But I think this approach misfires. Slavery is not a stage of history and arises as a degeneration in the wake of the emergence of higher civilization. There is good evidence the pyramids were not, at first, created with slave labor, but by the efforts of a social ‘corvee’ that was animated by a patriotic duty and religious elements. Like all such drafts the danger of exploitation turning into slavery was always a factor in the process. The point is that possibly the greatest engineering feat in world history, the one case where you would think slavery would be fundamental, was conducted without slavery. I think we need to reexamine the history of slavery and try to create its full history in a more detailed fashion. Egypt was a special case, in many ways. It resembles American civilization in the way that it created one of the most prosperous civilizations, the envy of its surrounding worlds. This prosperity is reflected in the Old Testament sagas of Israelites/Canaanites entering that sphere as an ambiguous refuge. And that prosperity seems to have endured, with some ups and downs, for many centuries.
In any case, the world system would soon be done with this kind of exemplar civilization as the economics of slavery came to the fore, corrupting everything. We see the decline even in places where the idea of freedom is finding an emergence zone, ancient Greece, and the paradox of Greece is the way its economics of slavery and incipient capitalism/imperialism was able to coexist with the birth of democracy, which was like a prophecy of a future to come. By the time of the Roman Empire the factor of slavery was terminal, in many ways: a civilization entering a kind of dead zone of high barbarism unable to progress beyond its basic axioms of slave economy. I don’t see a stage of historical economy here. Rather the foundations of civilization in Sumer and Egypt were cast without slave economics, but rapidly overtaken by that social disease (and immensely profitable delusion of the ‘normal’). We need to be wary here, and not indulge in sentimentality. But I think the point is clear from the evidence of the early forms of slavery unwittingly emergent from such factors war captives. This was not slavery, but no doubt soon created the foundation for that worm in the apple. In any case we can see that feudalism, while undoubtedly a successor stage in some sense to the era of slavery was to a closer look another form of decline, and the slow transformation of slave society in a period of medieval decay into a variant, one where the elements of reciprocal obligations could set the stage for the claims of ‘rights’, that would eventually lead to abolition.

All these examples should warn us of the probable fallacy of capitalism taken as a stage of history. It looks more like an ad hoc phase of industrial production and an artificially created form of economy able to stoke economic growth with a set of easy rules requiring no real understanding of economics, the ‘laissez-faire’ mythology. There was a claim to a lesson learned, in the determination of leave markets alone, But this is the same claim made for slavery: it leads to growth and is very profitable! Le plus ca change. We should learn the lesson of slavery in history to be forewarned of succumbing too easily to a potentially aberrant social economic form that will if left unchecked wreck a whole phase of civilization, as did slavery in the ancient world. With Ayn Rand we can see that delusive economic ideology mutating into malevolent form. In fact the works of Dickens seem to show Ayn Rand to have been present all along. We must be vigilant to not let this false stage of economic history become all powerful and beyond our control after the fashion of antiquity. Once slavery took hold it was to be not centuries but millennia before the correction could emerge.
This view will allow us to move toward some form of postcapitalism: we now realize there is nothing inevitable in the capitalist pseudo-phase.

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