Friday, June 10, 2016

Is historical materialism fit for the Pacific?

[I was recently asked what dialectical materialism was, and whether I defined myself as a dialectical materialist. This was my fumbling reply, which was intended to start a discussion rather than provide any definitive answer. Read the discussion that has grown under the post...]

Dialectical materialism is not a term that Karl Marx used, though it has become identified in many minds with Marx. Stalin popularised the term in the thirties, and it has been used positively by Stalinists and Maoists.
Historical materialism is a term that Friedrich Engels used often to describe Marx's theory of history, but it is also employed by many non-Marxists.

Historical materialists often use an architectural metaphor to explain their theory. They believe that the ‘superstructure’ of a society – that is, its ideas,  culture, and legal and political institutions – are ultimately determined by and explicable in terms of the ‘base’ of that society, which Marx and Engels define as the forces and relations of production ( the economy, and the way we work together to make things). When the base of a society changes, then the superstructure changes too. Marx thought that a society's base  could change in two important ways – through technological innovations, and through struggles between classes.
Non-Marxist historical materialists employ the base-superstructure model, but define the base differently. Hence Jared Diamond in his book Guns Germs and Steel focuses on the geographical, botanical, zoological bases of different societies to explain why they changed or didn’t change over time, and to explain their unique cultural traits. Diamond explains the persistence of the hunter gatherer mode of production in Aboriginal Australia, for example, by arguing that the botany and climate and isolation of that continent made the development of agriculture very difficult, and then goes on to understand Aboriginal culture in relation to the unique conditions of Australia.
I should warn you that Marxism is a fissiparous creed, and that not all its adherents would accept the account of historical materialism I am offering here. I wrote a book about EP Thompson, a great historian and sometime Marxist who loudly rejected the whole notion of analysing societies in terms of a base and superstructure. Thompson thought Marx had made a ‘bad metaphor’ when he came up with base and superstructure, and that the ways in which ideas and economics interact are far more fluid and mysterious than the metaphor can allow. 
I used to consider myself an historical materialist, but I don’t see how the base-superstructure framework can explain many of the Pacific societies I’ve been trying to understand in recent years.

Consider, for example, the Kingdom of Tonga. Multinational now have claws in that country and cash flows continually around its islands but, much to the displeasure of visiting officials of the International Monetary Fund and palangi owners of restaurants and resorts, the Tongan people refuse to give up their pre-capitalist ways of life and work. They share money rather than save it and turn up to work when they feel like it, rather than when the boss wants. 
I think that in Tonga the remnant of what I call the kainga mode of production is stronger than the capitalist mode of production, despite the almost infinitely greater resources of the capitalist mode, and that this strength comes from the idea of fatonia (duty) that pervades Tongan life. According to orthodox historical materialist theory, the culture of Tongans should have changed when the economic base of their society was substantially altered by the arrival of capitalism. Instead, attitudes and behaviours inimical to capitalism have been strengthened, and have acted as blocks to the final victory of capitalism in the kingdom. The same phenomenon can be found in numerous Pacific societies, where patterns of distribution rooted in pre-capitalist life take care of wealth generated in the capitalist economy, frustrating efforts to promote saving and investment and capital accumulation. 
And I used to agree, broadly at least, with Diamond’s geographically flavoured historical determinism, but I don’t know to reconcile it with the revelation that the peoples of the New Guinea highlands had developed agriculture as long ago as the Sumerians and Egyptians, yet never created the sort of centralised, hierarchical, surplus-producing societies as the ancient peoples of the Middle East. I don’t see how we can explain the different paths that New Guinea and Sumer took except with reference to the determining influence of ideas and culture. 
Sumer and ancient Egypt created massive surpluses of food and used them to support kings and armies and scribes. Papuan agriculture remained a small-scale affair. Diamond has attempted to explain the 'failure' of the Papuans to centralise and expand their society by pointing to the vertiginous terrain of New Guinea. I don't find his explanation convincing, though, because the Sumerians and Egyptians had their own environmental handicaps - they were raising crops on strips of irrigated land surrounded by desert - and because New Guinea's highlands are full of large, deep, fertile valleys.  
There’s no need to go to the Middle East or Europe, of course, to find a centralised and complex society developing out of the discovery of agriculture: we could look to the Americas, but also to our own region, where the Tongans, Hawai’ians, and Tahitians created complicated societies. Cook was astonished by the agricultural achievement of the Tongans, and likened the island of Tongatapu to Holland. He also described the amazingly ornate culture of the Tongans, with its dances and intricately painted barkcloth, and the endless ranks into which people were divided. But I would have preferred to be an ordinary person on a small and relatively egalitarian Polynesian atoll rather than a commoner in the great Tongan empire, just as I would have preferred to be a free farmer in New Guinea than a serf in Sumer or Egypt. 
I think the great work of historical materialism from our region is Patrick Vinton Kirch’s The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, which attempts to explain why Polynesian societies like Tonga became so hierarchical while others remained relatively egalitarian. Kirch is essentially an environmental determinist: he argues that as the relatively small islands of the Polynesian Pacific filled with people and plantations conflicts appeared and armies grew. Relatively poor societies adjacent to rich ones invaded and ‘swallowed’ them, creating state-like structures. Isolated and resource-poor islands, like the Chathams, Pukapuka, and Takuu, remained egalitarian (the Chathams actually got more egalitarian over time, as Moriori culture developed).
I very much admire the sweep and panache of Kirch’s book, but I think that its argument has been  undermined by recent data that suggests East Polynesia was settled later and faster than previously thought. If the Polynesians spread right through extensive island groups like the Marquesas and the Cooks in only a few hundred years, as now seems possible, then the kind of environmental overloading Kirch talks about seems less likely to have prompted the settlement and establishment of centralised societies on island after island. We might have to turn to cultural, and therefore superstructural, factors for explanations. But I'm rambling... 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Since you invited me to debate this point: I am no great fan of absolutist materialism of the kind that ends up trying to hammer empirical reality into shape when it doesn’t conform to the model. It seems to me that what you are describing are both reasonable exceptions to the general rule – humanity is messy, human science is not exact – and reminders of the fact that economic and social systems don’t establish themselves in a uniform way at the same time and place or with the same speed. Italy invented the modern banking system, but was remarkably late in developing industrial capitalism, and harboured deeply feudal social and labour relations well into the twentieth century.

There is another side to Marxist materialism as a historical phenomenon, though, and it’s its ordering of history into a line of progress. Marx said it himself, that history until the advent of socialism – therefore including up to the present day – would eventually be seen as a prehistory. The imagery of the ‘dawn of the sun of socialism’ widely adopted by Marxist movements is a nice visual illustration of this idea, a leading us out into the light after the long night of humanity’s birth and childhood.

The resistance of Tongan society to the wholesale adoption of capitalist relations may not be something that greatly invalidates the ability of historical materialism to explain the development of most societies, but it usefully undercuts the notion that a teleology exists, leading towards a predictable evolutionary endpoint. Socialist movements have often embodied a contradiction in this regard, between working for a better tomorrow and a world after capitalism – whose existence, if not exact character, is more or less assured – and the desire to slow down or render capitalism inoperative in the present, even if it might mean deferring that future.

What we do have in the Pacific which Europe has traditionally lacked are accessible alternative models of society. If an Italian socialist looks into our agrarian, feudal, pre-capitalist past, she won’t find the tools to wage a resistance against capitalism or trace progressive alternative historical lineages and paths. When Lombards such as myself construct the image of their indigenous selves, they build an a-historical, reactionary and deeply racist simulacrum. It has no truth in it – there is no colonial ‘other’ making the Lombard mana whenua – and neither does the imagined society from which it supposedly harks.

In this country, which until the Europeans arrived wasn’t ‘working towards’ capitalism, there is a very near, lived memory of a society that conceived of property and social relations in radically different ways. This model has a great usefulness for an anti-imperialist, decolonial and anti-capitalist discourse and practice, and it if also counsels against a universalist, doctrinarian application of historical materialism, so much the better.

2:13 pm  
Anonymous whats the matamata-rialism with you said...

I do not understand the logic of the arguments you have presented.

If the kainga mode of propduction is stronger than the capitalist mode of production; then is it not logical that the associated culture has strengthened?

How do you reconcile your assertion that the "kainga mode of production is stronger than the capitalist mode of production" with "economic base of their society was substantially altered by the arrival of capitalism"?

What is your evidence that the economic base of Tonga has changed, seems on the face of it (ref:wikipedia) that it remains agricultural and handicraft?

Regarding comparisons between the Middle East and the Papuan Highland, I think you've missed the big difference between growing a few crops and the neolithic revolution.

I would recommend Atholl Anderson's chapters in Tangata Whenua to you, environmental determinism and historical materialism is a big part of his reconsideration of Polynesian exploration and Maori history.

3:08 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Marvellously interesting comments Gio and Mata: will reply soon! I was really hoping for some discussion on this subject!

6:14 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

The growth of capitalism radically reduced the amount of collective labour that members of kainga did on the land. Many family members were working in the city for capitalist businesses, and others were too busy with their own indebted farms to pitch in for their toko'ua and foha. So capitalism at away at the productive capacities of the kainga mode. Tongans increasingly farmed in isolation, and increasingly sold their produce for cash. Many gave up farming altogether for wage labour.

And yet what we might call the redistributive remnant of the kainga mode has survived all this change. Even though they may have produced crops without the help of their extended families, and sold these crops for cash, Tongans will religiously redistribute the proceeds from the sale of the produce to the kainga. And Tongans who work in Nuku'alofa, or in Auckland or LA or Salt Lake City, will redistribute a very considerable chunk of their income to the kainga. Despite the collapse of the productive component of the kainga mode, the redistributive component persists, and perhaps even grows stronger. It does so because of the power of ideas about fatonia (duty), ideas which are promulgated in church and in kava circles and on a thousand internet fora. And the continuing Tongan fondness for redistributing rather than saving and investing wealth frustrates attempts to grow the capitalist sector of the economy, because it stymies capital formation.

That's what I mean when I say that the superstructure seems to be defeating the base in Tonga.

I'm not sure what you mean about Papuans never experiencing a 'Neolithic revolution'. Papuan agriculture was certainly extremely efficient: as Diamond points out, it served as a model for early agricultural development in parts of colonial Australia. But the Papuans never built up a big agricultural surplus, and I think this 'failure' was as much the result of superstructural factors, like culture and ideas, as environment.

I haven't read Atholl Anderson's contribution to Tangata Whenua, but I think it could be argued that his studies of the people of Murihiku depend on a rejection, or at least a temporary putting aside, of the base-superstructure distinction. Anderson shows how southern Maori retained a hierarchical society even though they became hunter gatherers, and attributes this partly to the influence of ancestral tropical Polynesian culture.

8:52 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for those fascinating comments about the impossibility of reviving old modes of production in Italy, Giovanni. I have heard similar arguments from British Marxist about the quixotry of Celtic nationalists, though I suspect that the Celts ave more in common with Maori than the Lombards. Certainly I was impressed when the crofters of Scotland, who include many distant relatives of mine, recently asked the EU to deem them an indigenous people, and compared their situation inside the UK to that of Maori inside NZ.

I think it is not only pre-contact pre-capitalist modes of production but post-contact hybrid modes that inspire both Maori and some Pakeha critics of capitalism in NZ. The Waikato Kingdom created a successful economy by matching collective land ownership and labour to sales of crops to the capitalists of Auckland, and its spirit has lived on various forms. The ironsand mining town of Taharoa on the King Country coast was a seldom-visited laboratory for a hybrid economy for much of the second half of the twentieth century, as a state eager to exploit minerals made many concessions to Maori.

9:36 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I think the base-superstructure model and the teleology you complain about are very much connected. In his dense and meticulous book Karl marx and the Origins of Dialectical Materialism James D White tries to show, using unpublished research notes, that Marx tried and failed to find evidence of the dynamism of capitalism in Russia during the 1860s and '70s. Instead of being some sort of juggernaut that laid waste to everything in its course, capitalism required continual assistance from the law and from politicians - from the superstructure - to expand. Capitalist development was dependent on ideological commitment, not economic performance. White argues that marx was crushed by this discovery, and was wholly unable to finish Capital. A set of scholars, including most famously Teodor Shanin, author of the very fine book Late Marx and the Russian Road, have made a similar argument.

I'm interested in Vanuatu, because that country was founded on Walter Lini's notion of a Melanesian socialism that would draw on pre-capitalist modes of production, and has been a site of repeated experiments in non-capitalist development. Ralph Regenvanu's pig bank is a relatively recent example:

The Vanuatu Cultural Centre has also been an unparalleled experiment in the appropriation and making over of Western scholarship of an indigenous society:

I'm hoping to check all this out when I visit Vanuatu in August.

9:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NZ Business commentator sounds like Marx

10:49 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Damn: my first reply to Matamata seems to have gone missing. I had said that the kainga mode of production came into its own after Tupou I, founder of modern Tonga, emancipated the peasantry in the middle of the nineteenth century. Tonga developed into a society of small farmers, who used the collective labour of extended families to plant and harvest on each other's plantations.

But the growth of capitalism in the twentieth century, which was spurred by the American 'invasion' during World War Two and by Australasian-backed reforms in the late '60s and '70s, encouraged many farmers into cash cropping and sent others to Nuku'alofa or abroad to work for wages in the capitalist economy. And yet even though the productive aspects of the kainga mode withered, as the use of the labour of the extended family decline, the redistributive features persisted, because of superstructural factors like religious ideology.

7:02 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

One of the most sophisticated attempts to analyse the prehistory and history of capitalism in New Zealand using modes of production and other tools from Marx's arsenal is Dave Bedggood and John McRae's The Development of Capitalism in New Zealand: Towards a Marxist Analysis, which was first published at the end of the '70s and has been put online by Dave:

7:08 am  
Anonymous William said...

To compare Marx theory with Polynesians is totally different in a sense Polynesia still exists. As for Communism is slowly deteriorating to a point it is not the Utopia they thought would get. Democracy is probably the more better for society today compared to centuries of centralised monarchs and rule. The history books have proven time and time again that centralised authorities are getting more isolated. Even in democracy you still get centralised like Tonga's new elected Government hhhhhh

7:48 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I quite agree with William about the moribund nature of societies like North Korea. I'd hate to live in these places. But these societies arguably have little to do with Marx's writings, which are almost all attempts to analyse how capitalism and also pre-capitalist societies like traditional Polynesia actually work. the question I was asking was whether Marx's theory of historical materialism, and in particular his claim that societies can be analysed as having a determining economic base and a less important superstructure of ideas, religion, law and so on, can make sense of the Pacific. Although I produce some examples of societies that I don't think can be understood very well with the base-superstructure model, like contemporary Tonga and also Papua New Guinea, I note that Marxists, both palangi and Pasifika, have created some of the very finest analyses of Pacific societies. For instance I think Paul van der Grijp's 1993 essay 'After on the Vanilla Harvest' is one of the best accounts of the coming of capitalism, banking to Tonga, and the conversion of the Tongan nobility into a capitalist class:

7:50 am  
Blogger Morgan Godfery said...

Thanks, Scott, wonderfully informative – as always!

Writers, this one included, love to quote the old dictum about how people don’t make their history as they’d like, but under “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Sometimes we’re guilty of placing too little emphasis on the first part of that statement – “men make their own history” – preferring the apparent certainty of economic determinism or base and superstructure.

If historical materialism is a kind of scientific truth, as opposed to a particularly useful social theory, this might be justified. But even Marx was wary here, consistently denying that he was just a crude economic determinist (“all I know is that I am not a Marxist”). This isn’t to say that I disagree with your analysis – I think you’re right – but it seems more sensible to treat historical materialism as a tool for helping us make sense of the world rather than an incorrigible truth.

On that note, I second Matamata: Atholl Anderson’s work in Tangata Whenua is gripping. I’m sure he’d be horrified to see me referring to him as a historical materialist, but his work examining changes in kumara production and its impact on technology and culture strikes me as, well, materialist. Of course, the analysis wouldn’t transfer to every aspect of Te Ao Maori, but that doesn’t render it a useless tool for helping us make some sense of the world.

3:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Bible which Marx had studied in his high school years... says that the devil will be bound by an angel and cast into the bottomless pit (abyssos in Greek: see Revelation 20:3). Marx wishes to draw the whole of mankind into this pit reserved for the devil and his angels....[pp.12-13]
Marx had loved the words of Mephistopheles in Faust, “Everything in existence is worth being destroyed.” Everything — including the proletariat and the comrades. Marx quoted these words.... Stalin acted on them and destroyed even his own family. [p.13]
The Satanist sect is not materialistic. It believes in eternal life. Oulanem, the person for whom Marx speaks, does not contest eternal life. He asserts it, but as a life of hate magnified to its extreme. It is worth noting that eternity for the devils means 'torment.” Thus Jesus was reproached by the demons: “Art you come hither to torment us before our time?” (Matthew 8:29)....
[Marx'] correspondence with his father testifies to his squandering great sums of money on pleasures and his constant quarreling with parental authority about this and other matters. Then he might have fallen in with the tenets of the highly secret Satanist church and received the rites of initiation. Satan, whom his worshippers see in their hallucinatory orgies, speaks through them. Thus Marx is only Satan’s mouthpiece when he utters in his poem Invocation of One in Despair the words, “I wish to avenge myself against the One who rules above.”
Listen to the end of Oulanem:
If there is a Something which devours,
I’ll leap within it, though I bring the world to ruins—
The world which bulks between me and the abyss
I will smash to pieces with my enduring curses....
In Oulanem Marx does what the devil does: he consigns the entire human race to damnation. Oulanem is probably the only drama in the world in which all the characters are aware of their own corruption, which they flaunt and celebrate with conviction. In this drama there is no black and white... All are satanic, corrupt, and doomed.[p.15]

When he wrote these things, Marx... was eighteen. His life’s program had already been established. There was no word about serving mankind, the proletariat, or socialism. He wished to bring the world to ruin. He wished to build for himself a throne whose bulwark should be human shudder.[p.16]

6:03 pm  
Anonymous matamata-rialism said...

Thanks for your response Scott, however, I still think you are misdescribing what historical materialism is.

Historical materialism doesn't say that the superstructure will reflect or mirror the base (as you seem to be arguing), but rather that the base determines the limits of the superstructure and the trajectories of its growth. As soil and topography below determine the flora and fauna above, economy determines society, being determines consciousness.

Just as Marx pointed out that the development of capitalism leads workers to form combinations to keep up the rate of wages, perhaps you can see the logic of the development of Tongan capitalism actually strengthening the redistributive networks of Fijian society, a form of financial self-defence.

But more importantly, I think you are overstating the extent to which the Tongan base has changed. From Wikipedia - "The majority of the population engages in some form of subsistence production of food, with approximately half producing almost all of their basic food needs through farming, sea harvesting, and animal husbandry."

Consider too that the rise of British capitalism required the enclosure of the commons, as New Zealand capitalism required raupatu, and perhaps reflect on the fact that Tongan land law remains essentially, as far as I understand it, pre-capitalist.

Apropos Marx, "the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat."

11:48 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Malo aupito for the interesting comments folks. I agree with Morgan and Matamata that a looser understanding of historical materialism's base and superstructure model seems preferable - Morgan suggests treating the model as a tool, and forswearing strict science, and Matamata suggests assuming that the economic base of a society only determines the limits of its superstructure - but I wonder whether such a loose definition has much analytical power.

I doubt whether even the most ferocious opponents of Marx would disagree with the proposition that a hunter gatherer society is incapable of creating state institutions, because the sort of political and legal superstructure that a state represents is beyond the limits of what is possible on the economic base hunting and gathering provides. Nor would almost any scholar deny that a capitalist society could exist without a state and a legal system. It's when historical materialism tries to make much more specific claims, like Marx's early claim that capitalism would revolutionise Asia or Kirch's claim that Polynesia was explored and settled for environmental reasons, that trouble arises.

But I think the same sort of problems follow all attempts to create ambitious models for understanding history. I don't think Heidegger's notion of history as the loss of being or Toynbee's theory of societies rising and falling like biological organisms would do any better, when applied to a region like the Pacific.

Ultimately I think that good scholarship can be produced with almost any theory, as long as the theory doesn't harden into dogmatism. Just as a Marxist like Paul van der Grijp has done some understanding work in Tonga, so a postmodernist like Nicholas Thomas has illuminated aspects of Fijian history, in between his quotes from Barthes...

11:16 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

How capitalist is Tonga? Matamata asks. I think that we can use the old Althusserian formula, and talk about Tonga as a 'social formation' containing a number of modes of production. In her 1980s Marxist study of Tongan society, which was criticised by some for being too theoretical and too light on data, Christine Gailey argued that the kingdom had two traditional modes of production, the communal, which involved the extended family, and the tributary, which involved gifts to landowning nobles, and that these modes were dominated but not eliminated by capitalism after the nineteenth century. I hadn't read Gailey's book, but I thought along the same lines when I gave a paper at 'Atenisi in 2013.

Wikipedia's talk about Tongans producing for subsistence on their plantations needs to be qualified. Tongans traditionally grow a variety or crops and trees on their small plots of land, with some being for domestic consumption and others for sale. Cash cropping is widespread today, and even on some extremely remote islands it dominates cultivations. Tafahi, a volcano in the far north of Tonga, can only be reached by small boats, because of its complicated, wave-lashed reef, and is so steep that it lacks a single road. And yet most of Tafahi's residents grow kava which they send away for sale.

But I could have made my point about the subversion of capitalism by the redistributive remnant of the old family-based system without looking at Tonga. I could have turned to Port Moresby, one of the largest cities in the Pacific and an undeniable hub of resource-based capitalism, and noted that much of the cash that flows through the city is distributed according to pre-capitalist kinship systems. Michael Goddard's The Unseen City describes in great detail how capitalism is undermined by the old systems:

11:50 am  
Blogger Con said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:26 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I was thinking about the way what some feminists have named the domestic mode of production has been squeezed into the same formation as capitalism in the West, con, when I was searching for analogies for the situation in Tonga. But whereas the domestic mode lacks status in most Western countries, and the women and men who work inside it are very often not only under-recognised but unpaid, the kainga mode in Tonga is esteemed by society, and contrasted positively with the capitalist mode. Thus Nuku'alofa is full of boarded up corner stores, whose Tongan owners went broke after feeling obliged to offer free goods to their numerous relatives! It is Chinese and Indo-Fijian businessmen, who do not face the demands of the kainga mode, who are developing much of Nuku'alofa's retail sector.

8:00 pm  
Blogger Con said...

Every social formation is some kind of mixture of productive modes. Even the actually existing capitalism of contemporary New Zealand includes a great deal which is outside of the capitalism and commodity sphere. Consider domestic, household production in NZ; millions of people do hours of work every day without pay, for their family, and friends (helping out your mate with painting a room, or fixing their computer, or baking them a cake, or looking after their kids). The hegemony of capitalist relations is not absolute, but these relations are in many senses dominant; domestic production is small scale and dependent on the capitalist market for supplies. In Tonga, traditional communal production is even more a substantial part of the system, and so long as it retains this practical importance, I wouldn't be surprised to see the capitalist mode in Tonga still in train to the traditiona lmode, rather than itself being in the driver's seat.

8:28 pm  
Anonymous matamata-rialism said...

Too much poetry and art and kava circles and searching after some new esoteric, South Pacific, post-marxist bohemian-intellectualism.

It's ended with you talking kaka. For instance cash cropping does not equal capitalist relations of production. Who cares about remittances? It's not a new thing, wikipedia tells me Spain, Italy and Ireland were heavily dependent on them in the 19th century. Did that stop capital formation in those countries. Lol no.

But on a broader note what do you think your post-materialist historiographic approach will actually prove? You keep coming back to this issue of Pacific exploration not being caused by environmental overpopulation. So what do you think caused it? The inherent culturally bound desire of Polynesians to explore and navigate. Messages from the gods? Omens from the sea and the birds?

On the contrary I would argue that histomat comes into its own at the level of specific claims. What drove US to invade Iraq in '03? Oil or democracy. What caused the War of the Roses? Economic crisis or chivalric disputes. Etc etc ad nauseum.

Anyway this here comment is the end of my attempt to drag you back to the histomat light. If you decide to continue down this path, you do so with open eyes, and no doubt the results will be very interesting.

8:34 pm  
Blogger Con said...

Sorry, deleted and reposted my earlier comment to correct a typo.

8:35 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Hi matamata,

what I feel I'm doing is following the lead of the evidence, after studying Tonga and certain other Pacific societies quite intensively for several years. If the base-superstructure model is interpreted merely as saying that the base sets very broad limits on its superstructure, and that no idea or institution falls from the sky, then I don't have any trouble assenting to it. But I don't feel the model has any analytical power at such a general level. If we try to use the model to interpret either prehistoric or contemporary societies in the Pacific, though, we soon run into serious difficulties. The failure of Papuans to build centralised and surplus-rich societies after discovering agriculture; the speed with which the Polynesians pushed east in the second millennium AD; and the strengthening of kin-based systems of distribution even as capitalist sectors grow in the economies of Tonga and Papua New Guinea: these phenomena all seem to me difficult to reconcile with the base-superstructure model.

Having said that, I'm not trying to deny that the model might have purchase in other societies at other times, and I'm not deny that valuable work is being done, in the Pacific and elsewhere, by scholars who espouse some version of the historical materialist method.

I don't think you have tested my claims, because you haven't looked at the literature I've referenced about Tonga and the wider Pacific. I mentioned Paul van der Grijp's 1993 essay for the Journal of the Polynesian Society, which is called 'After the Vanilla Harvest: Stains on the Tongan Land Tenure System', and which shows in a great deal of detail how cash cropping can quickly bring about, in Tongan conditions, the growth of a capitalist mode of production. Van der Grijp shows how the very unusual Tongan land distribution system, which relies on nobles acting as de facto state employees to divvy up scarce plots to petitioning commoners, combines with the lengthy time being planting and harvest for a crop like vanilla to turn nobles into de facto rentiers and drive farmers into debt and into ever greater commitment to production for the market. Farmers are forced to bribe nobles for land, and then have to take out loans - Tonga abounds with small-time loan sharks, as well as legitimate banks - to cover the bribe and the costs of living while they wait for their harvest, which can take three years. By the time the harvest arrives it often barely covers the debt accrued.

On Tafahi difficult volcanic terrain has led to cash cropping and exporting. The subsistence crops beloved of most Tongan farmers, like taro and kumala, cannot be grown easily on the island, and yet conditions are almost perfect for kava, and so families devote themselves to that crop, which they market through middlemen in the larger nearby island, Niuatoputapu. They are collectively de facto employees of these middlemen, and use the cash they receive from sales to buy essentials from stores on Niuatoputapu.

9:51 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

cont: If the exploration of eastern Polynesia was not caused by overpopulation and environmental degradation, as Patrick Vinton Kirch claims, this does not necessarily close the door on an historical materialist explanation.

As I've said myself when talking about the new data on settlement dates with Tongan scholars, the speed with which Eastern Polynesia was apparently settled might bring questions of social conflict back into the frame. In the 1960s some Marxist scholars, like Maurice Godelier, tried to argue that ancient Polynesian societies were class-divided, and suggested conflicts between different social groups as spurs to inter-island travel. There's also the fact that the explosion of travel east coincides roughly with the time that Tonga was emerging as a centralised society and beginning to build what would become, in the late medieval period, a maritime empire. On the other hand some of the archaeological digs on very early sites in eastern Polynesia seem to suggest relatively egalitarian societies.

Another possibility might be the influence of what Kirch describes as 'ancestral Polynesian society'. Kirch ascribes the martial quality and obsession with genealogy common to almost all Polynesian societies to this ancestral culture; perhaps the granting of a certain status to navigators and discoverers was another core feature of such a culture.

But I believe we should be led as far as possible by the evidence, not preconceived models. We can't and shouldn't want to abandon all preconceptions and general ideas, of course, but I think we have to be ready to question a model when it doesn't seem to fit with reality.

10:01 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

I was looking for an Asian Development Bank report on Tonga that I read back in 2013 to quote at the bottom of my post, but I can't track it down. The ADB along with the IMF has been critical of the very low savings rate in Tonga an the lack of capital accumulation. Instead of putting money away or (re)investing it, Tongan farmers and small businesspeople and salary earners have tended to circulate the cash through their extended families.

This is one of the reasons* why a series of export booms, like the vanilla boom that Paul van der Grijp describes in the essay I cited earlier, have gone bust, and the complete conquest of the kingdom by capitalism has been perpetually delayed. After the busts overseas businesspeople, who lack responsibilities to their extended families, have stepped in and built on the ruins left behind by Tongans. This pattern has been seen not only in the agricultural sector but also in retail and tourism.

*Another reason for the busts is the great difficulty Tongan farmers have of competing with other exporters, who have efficiency of scale, proximity to markets, and packaging facilities on their side.

On a more theoretical note: I probably haven't emphasised enough the number of scholars who embrace some version of historical materialism and yet reject the base-superstructure distinction, or at least the conventional interpretation of the base-superstructure model. I mentioned EP Thompson, but David Harvey is another example:

10:23 am  
Blogger jamasko said...

Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick and the rest of the post-structualist Marxists who use Althusser are also quite clear in that the dialectical aspect is an epistemological break that is necessary in moving away from a cause and effect relation of the base and superstructure model. It is the last determining instance that in reality, never comes. Or in Stuart Hall's formation, it comes in the "first instance" as Morgan has outlined above.

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3:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Marxism and dialectical materialism are theories only, unlike say, evolution, which has been proven categorically and is thus not actually a theory. That said, any scientifically proven thing (the laws of thermodynamics, relativity (the limitations on the speed of light etc) could in fact change: if by some new means, as yet unkown, these 'laws' etc were found to be false. All this points to the provisional nature of any political or economic theory of development.

Communism hasn't 'failed'. Something that is an idea of system cannot fail. It hasn't existed but it certainly hasn't 'failed'. We can say that examples of the attempt to implement some kind of communism have not worked out, but not that "communism' has failed. In fact this is part of the questions of nominalism etc...

But whatever Marx's complex theories of dialectical and historical development (underpinned by Hegel's interesting idea of thesis, antithesis leading to a synthesis which indeed Mao tse Tung talked about quite a lot, and Lenin) this "spirit" of History is paradoxically based on Idealism (Hegel, is technically an Idealist, Marx a materialist).

It is all very complex. But I think that both Tiso and Scott are on a good tack here as we have to re-evaluate fixed ideas (I had a lot, I couldn't let go certain allegeinces or hopes for progress)...

But my view now is that it is probably NOT the so-called advanced societies that offer any hope (the biggest Capitalist society, the US, is a kind of huge, chaotic, psychotic Island, pretty much out of touch with the world - although I don't mean the American people, perhaps to be fair, that applies pretty much throughout our "wonderful" and great "democracy") any 'progress' of hope may indeed come from smaller scale places with a system of general ethos of the people of mutual cooperation...but it is still complex: Polynesians in NZ are probably corrupted by "Westernization" etc

The map of progress is not teleological as mentioned: for me there are no simplify, both the Christians and those who maintain that a great and continued scientific and technological advance will "solve all", and Marxists who indeed contradict themselves as how is the dialectic to continue (when and if we have "perfection" in heaven or in some egalitarian paradise) then to what are we transforming, when is the next thesis antithesis synthesis?...There maybe a potentiallity to develop a highly 'creative' and interesting and complex and dynamic form of 'communism' and or communalism or something we yet cant conceive: but the situation doesn't look good.

All is not well in the State of Denmark.

And there are no guarantees. All these 'progressive' theories are those of young men. Nature, human beings (of and from nature), are like most things in nature. We may survive, we may progress in various ways, but the 20th Century, and the 21st, seem to be carrying on with their dark businesses as usual, and nothing stops them.

But it is interesting that from these considerations, we can see the Eurocentric arrogance of Marx (or blindness) which in many cases has transpformed into a kind of racist idea that we need a European model of vast industrial suffering and cataclysm before the next stage can be reached and so on. The theory becomes the fact before it has been tested. Not that we can really 'experiment' on the world....

But some interesting ideas floating around.

12:52 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Also, the Marxists made a big mistake in their naive use of materialism. The universe we inhabit is infinitely mysterious. They then attacked the various churches as if religion was the cause of all the ills and much else, like Plato of his Republic they wanted to ban certain kinds of 'untrue' poetry and so on.

What is real? What is material? What is consciousness? What is reality? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a God? What is love? What happens after death if anything? Of God, what nature is such a being? These are and many other questions they evaded. The world is a complex of ideas and actions constantly in process. Not necessarily in progress.

They dangerously simplified, in an ultimately naive way, the human condition: the condition of what might be called Nature (which is all that everything is).

1:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let Scott go get a proper job. His family are suffering from this obsession with blogging. Ask his kids when did they last have quality time with their dad. Time to take this blog down. Its trite trivial and irrelevant and the opinions expressed add nothing to the debate. Before you trash the stuff, read it. Funny how you know whats in the book without reading it, hey Scott. Not checking or doing your research once more...

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6:07 pm  
Blogger Terry Coggan said...

As a late contribution to this discussion, let me say a few words in defense of historical materialism. As a theory, it’s like a condom, if you will excuse the crude analogy: it’s of no use if it only works sometimes. To have scientific validity it must be able to explain the broad lines of development of all human societies, including small ones in the Pacific, in all periods of history.

But that assertion must be immediately qualified by saying that that we cannot expect the theory always to provide instant or automatic connections between the variables it describes. If what goes on in the economic base of any society alone determines its trajectory, or directly shapes the various components of its superstructure, then, as Engels said, “the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” I wonder if Scott is not doing something like that when he writes “According to orthodox historical materialist theory, the culture of Tongans when the economic base of their society was substantially altered by the arrival of capitalism. Instead, attitudes and behaviours inimical to capitalism have been strengthened, and have acted as blocks to the final victory of capitalism in the kingdom.”

Let us see what that excellent historical materialist, V. Gordon Childe, had to say on the subject: “Relations of production must thus be lubricated with sentiment. To provide motives for actions they have to be transformed in the human mind into ideas and ideals. And when thus transmogrified, they acquire a certain independent historical reality. Doubtless no ideology, no system of loyalties nor faith can permanently survive unless it is in harmony with the productive forces and compatible with their development. Otherwise the society will eventually decay and with it will perish the ideals it cherished – as the gods and religions of the Babylonians, Mayas and Incas have now vanished. But the reckoning may be long delayed…..”(History, London, 1947, p. 75.)

Childe then quotes Engels; “We make our own history, but under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are finally decisive(Child’s emphasis); but the political ones, etc., and indeed the very traditions that haunt the human mind play a part, though not the decisive part.” Thus Marx and Engels allowed for a relative autonomy (Childe’s “a certain independent historical reality”) for elements of the superstructure that could see any of them react back onto the economic base, shaping its development in a positive or negative way. Engels gives the example of state economic policies; Scott that of “ideas about fatonia (duty), ideas which are promulgated in church and kava circles, and on a thousand internet fora”.

Deeply rooted “patterns of distribution”, “behaviours and attitudes”, and other cultural practices that Scott described among the Tongans need not disappear simultaneously with the “productive component of the kainga mode”. In fact, they usually don’t. As Scott says, “the same phenomenon can be found in numerous Pacific societies”. In nineteenth century New Zealand, Maori traded on the new capitalist market, or worked as wage labourers in capitalist enterprises, but still disposed of the income from these activities in traditional ways. Engels himself gives an example of the same thing in a note to the 1891 edition of Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State where he describes ideas of “fatonia” held onto by Irish peasants: “…everyone in more comfortable circumstances is considered under obligation to help his poorer neighbours whenever they are in distress. Such assistance is not charity; it is what the poor clansman is entitled to by right from his rich fellow clansman or clan chief. This explains why political economists and jurists complain of the impossibility of inculcating the idea of modern bourgeois property into the minds of the Irish peasants. Property that has only rights, but no duties, is absolutely beyond the ken of the Irishman”.

12:04 pm  
Blogger Terry Coggan said...

Indeed, taking the long view of history, we are reminded how relatively short is human experience experience with capitalist, or commodity relations in general. For the great majority of the 150,00 odd years of Home Sapiens’ existence, we lived in socially co-operative groups. Attitudes and behaviours learnt by our species during its long formative period strongly persist in modern capitalist society, “inimical” as they are to its values. That is why people will volunteer to be surf life-savers, or help a neighbour build a shed, without any thought of personal reward.

Having said all that, however, we must not forget that it is present being that determines consciousness. If we could come back in a hypothetical future, say after Tongans had been immersed in capitalist production relations for a hundred years, and find their cultural practices unchanged, we might begin to suspect something was amiss with the theory of historical materialism. But as time goes by, the contradictions between different forms of economic relations (productive and distributive) resolve themselves, and modes of thought and behavior that prevail in the superstructure tend to align themselves with the economic base. This has been the historical experience of all societies after capitalism became the dominant mode of production, including New Zealand, and Ireland, even if we are sometimes surprised by how stubbornly the old ideologies cling to life. It is no accident that the kinds of disharmonies that Scott points to are most common in underdeveloped regions of the world like Tonga where new capitalist economic relations are most recently or least pervasively implanted.

So I could say to Scott, relax, it takes time. But of course we can’t expect a protracted or stable period of capitalist development in Tonga. It is developing in an international context, subject to the law of uneven and combined development, in a world where as a whole capitalism is well past its use-by date. Tonga’s future is very much tied up with a renewed advance or further retardation of the world socialist revolution.

I can’t conclude these comments on the topic of historical materialism without including a favourite quotation from Trotsky. He says, “On the question as to how the economic “base” determines the political, juridical, philosophical, artistic and so on “superstructure” there exists a rich Marxist literature. The opinion that economics presumably determines directly and immediately the creativeness of a composer or even the verdict of a judge, represents a hoary caricature of Marxism which the bourgeois professordom of all countries has circulated time out of end to mask their intellectual impotence”. (In Defence of Marxism, Pathfinder 1973, p.118.)

Actually, the reciprocal interactions between the “base” and the “superstructure” (to retain the quotation marks Trotsky uses), are a secondary aspect of the theory of historical materialism. Its central tenant is that it is tensions inside the economic base of any society, between the forces and relations of production, and the struggle between the classes who are the bearers of those relations, that drive history forward. Marx and Engels formed this theory of history through their their study of the origins of capitalism in Europe. They saw that by the late middle ages the old feudal relations of production had become fetters on the growth of the forces of production, and that a series of bourgeois democratic revolutions had been necessary to open the way to capitalist development. (There was a faint and distorted echo of this process in Tonga in the last decades of the last century when the movement for democracy gathered force. Would-be capitalist entrepreneurs in Tonga were generally supportive of democratic reforms because the king and the nobles, who maintained a, for want of a more accurate term, feudal system of rule, blocked capitalist development, or at least ensured that if it did occur they were its exclusive beneficiaries.).

12:06 pm  
Blogger Terry Coggan said...

One further comment.
What I was somewhat longwindedly trying to say is the phenomenon Scott points to - the superstructure seeming to defeat the base in Tonga - may be real, but it does nor invalidate the theory of historical materialism, indeed is quite consistent with it.

The theory, the scientific understanding of history, is what gives revolutionaries the confidence that history is on their side, but also that it requires something of them: to remove outdated capitalist relations that are preventing all humanity from enjoying the abundance promised by all the scientific and technological progress accumulating among the forces of production. A new world is not only possible, but necessary, as one contemporary Marxist has put .

9:24 am  
Blogger Victor Onrust said...

Hi, lack of time kept me from reading all the details of your post and following discussion. However I think the main base - superstructure interpretation figuring here is "economist" and implies a teleological view on history in general as illustrated by the comment of Terry above this one. Gramsci, as you can read in 'The Gramscian Moment by Peter D Thomas could help towards a more realistic historical materialism.
I came past "Reading the maps" searching for the author of the photo End of the line I guess this is "maps" who doesn't seem very active any more. Perhaps you can help out.
On the side: Would be nice if date of comment shows next to the time.

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