Monday, September 20, 2010

James Scott: Adam Smith or Karl Marx?

I can't escape James Scott right now.  Jacob Levy has contributed his two cents to the discussion of Seeing Like a State over at Cato Unbound.  There's a lot to talk about in Jacob's contribution, but I just want to point to one thing for now.  Jacob writes:
I suspect that Scott has been mildly embarrassed by the libertarian enthusiasm for Seeing Like a State, and since its publication he’s been at pains to be clearer than he was in the book that the market can also be a force of high-modernist social flattening. But he has not (that I’m aware of) pushed the thought very far, or told his readers much about when the market is that kind of force on its own, and when it is so when joined to state power
My Marxist self jumps up and down and yells: when have there been extensive markets that were not joined to state power!?!?!?!?!?!



Jacob draws a connection between Scott's concerns and Adam Smith's discussions of the state.  Fair enough. But one of the greatest thinkers to take up Smith's insights into the function of taxation, colonialism, national debt, etc., was Karl Marx.  Chapter 31 of Capital, "The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist," discusses the systematic interrelation among the various aspects of what he calls "primitive accumulation."  Marx writes: 
The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order.  These different moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.  These methods depend in part on brute force, for instance the colonial system.  But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized power of society, to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten its transition.
The punchline:
Tantae molis erat [so great was the effort] to unleash the 'eternal natural laws' of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the separation between the workers and the conditions of their labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, and at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage-labourers, into the free 'labouring poor,' that artificial product of modern history.
I take Marx's point to be this: the free market admired by Smith, Hayek, Levy, etc., is constituted by massive state action.  It is not just that capitalism was caused in the past by massive state actions, but that massive state action must persist for so long as the market in labor power, and hence capitalism, is to exist.  The fact that the modern market and the modern state are coincident historically is no accident -- they, in fact, have the most intimate bond with one another.   

3 comments:

Jacob T. Levy said...

I actually had your Marxist self, and your interest in primitive accumulation, in mind when writing what I wrote. (And I submitted the essay under the title "Seeing like a capitalist state," but they stripped that off in publishing it as a letter.)

Of course, I deny your penultimate sentence. And even if the answer to your jumpy question were "never," I still think my point to Scott is fair-- since his claim about markets' homogenizing force isn't yours.

But this is me trying, in part, to introduce primitive accumulation and the idea in your last sentence to libertarian audiences!

Will Roberts said...

And I appreciate your good work on that front! And I'm unsurprised they removed your title! And you're right, vis-a-vis Scott, your point is fair. And, finally, my penultimate sentence is certainly the big pill to swallow.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I just want to repeat here what I said there, to make clear that I really do agree with an important part (though only part!) of what you're saying:

"'Truck, barter, and exchange,' in Smith’s words, are everywhere; but the modern commercial economy is coeval with the modern state, and has always in part been a tool of state purposes. Libertarians need to better understand such entanglements of market and state."