Reports of the death of grand narratives, ambitious frameworks that seek to sketch out the entire social field, have been greatly exaggerated since the 1980s. The last decade alone has witnessed the publication of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Making of Global Capitalism by Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. And now Kojin Karatani has produced The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke 2014), which covers more ground than even Graeber’s 5,000 years, and arrives with blurbs from Graeber and Fredric Jameson. Although deeply indebted to Marx and Marxists, Karatani prefers the concept of mode of exchange to mode of production, on the grounds that the latter assumes a determinant base in production on which a less significant superstructure hangs. He instead believes the mode of exchange should focus on the terrain of circulation, what sorts of exchanges are stimulated, and what political and ideological structures facilitate the exchanges. I will leave it to marxologists to quarrel with this formulation. I am more concerned with how much light can be shed by a theoretical perspective. In this case, I would say a good deal.
For Karatani, there are four, or perhaps four and a half modes of exchange. In Mode A, the means of circulation is the gift. It is exemplified by what is called clan society, the first settled forms of human life. Vendettas, in which competing clans repeatedly take revenge on each other, are part of this “gift giving” form of exchange. In this mode, although there is inequality, social classes do not emerge and reproduce themselves. That occurs only in Mode B. Mode B is the state form, in which security is exchanged for goods and loyalty to the state. The law is the signature political achievement of Mode B. Vendettas, a form of “gift” exchange, are ended, replaced with the law of an eye for eye. Mode C is defined by money mediating commodity exchange. Mode D constitutes the utopian return of repressed Mode A to the the more complex class societies of Modes B and C. Since Mode D is a utopian return, it lacks the concreteness of the other modes. The half mode referenced above is the nomadic hunter gatherer mode that precedes Mode A. Karatani notes the extreme difficulties in understanding much about this earliest mode, and that what seem like people who have survived with this form of life may actually be people who have opted out of Modes A or B. For Karatani, the modes generally coexist, although one is likely to be dominant in particular times and places. His exploration of the ways these modes interact and are reinstatiated at a higher level is particularly potent for the modern world, as exemplified by the Capital-Nation-State knot, described below.
The book is loosely organized chronologically, dashing through the emergence of the different modes of exchange before focusing on the modern world in a little more detail. Several themes recur. One is the role of political structures in propelling the transition from one mode of exchange to another. While it is sometimes claimed, in line with notions of an economic base and a political-ideological superstructure, that empires were built atop complex forms of irrigation agriculture, Karatani argues the opposite--that it was the existence of states, endowed with a religious and military apparatus, that were capable of organizing the labor needed for such agriculture. Similarly, the transition to capitalism is usually attributed either to the outcome of class struggles or the growth of trade in cities, while Karatani instead highlights two crucial roles states played. The absolutist states eliminated “feudal” elements that combined political and economic power, including the power of both lords and churches, creating a more even terrain for the functioning of mode C. And far from being a laissez-faire “night-watchmen,” the British state should be seen as playing a crucial role for creating the conditions for the emergence of industrialization, both in its external role in the world and internally in facilitating transformed class relations and a powerful driver of demand. The British state thus resembles so-called “late industrializers” like South Korea, whose use of the state to facilitate the growth of industry is more often highlighted .
Another key theme is the importance of margins, or the “submargins,” Karatani’s term for the more far off portions of empires. The greek city states were at the submargins of world-empires of the ancient world. Western Europe was in the submargin as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved its capital to Byzantium. Although Karatani doesn’t put it this way, this remained the case throughout the modern period. The Dutch Republic, the United Kingdom, the United States and now China were all fairly marginal not long before their precipitous ascents.
The role of religion is also highlighted throughout, particularly the transition from animism, where the spirit is endowed in all sorts of objects during mode A, to the centralization of power and religion in a priestly caste, with the ruler a fusion of king and god, in mode B. In turn, the world religions, which break a pattern of exchange in which worship of a god is premised on receiving favors from that god, are seen as a Mode D bid to restore mode A in the context of mode B: “in the process of empire formation, there is a moment when, under the sway of mode of exchange B, mode of exchange C dismantles mode of exchange A; it is at this moment, and in resistance to it, that universal religion appears, taking the form of mode of exchange D.” Eventually the world religions are captured by empire forces: “what we now call “world religions” rarely extended beyond the former domain of a single world empire.” Even so, the critique remains, in the rhetoric of asserting a “true Christianity” against the failure of the existing church centered order. Later Karatani highlights the utopian heresies of the middle ages, noting they had largely been repressed before Luther led a successful reformation that called for the repression of the peasantry.
He misses one crucial aspect of the world religions. That is their historic role of fostering economic development, combining capital, land, and labor in monastic institutions, as noted by Randall Collins in his underappreciated contribution to the transition to capitalism debate. To put it in Karatani’s framework, they ironically propel societies towards mode C. Such a perspective might highlight the role of Protestants in privatizing church lands, opposing the Catholic order in which saints paralleled the power of the feudal lords, and undermining the corporate structures in the cities, in which guilds were protected from free markets in labor and goods. I was also a little disappointed that he did not historicize Marxism as a secular faith, although he does make the very suggestive comment that it was adopted by the persistent Russian and Chinese empires because its class ideology could help hold together multinational empires otherwise threatened by the rise of nationalism.
Although the work is not a detailed history (how could it be?) striking notions abound. He draws attention to Ionia, rather than Athens, as the birthplace of liberatory philosophy. “(In Ionia) the colonists broke with their clan and tribal traditions, abandoning both the constraints and privileges that these had entailed, to create a new community by covenant. By contrast, Athens, Sparta, and other poleis were established as confederations (by covenant) of existing tribes and were more strongly colored by earlier clan traditions.... If Athenian democracy is the forerunner of todays bourgeois democracy.. Ionian isonomy provides the key to a system that can supersede it.” He sees the innovation of Judaism not in the unification of the twelve tribes under a single god, according to him fairly typical of Mode A transitioning to Mode B, but in the fact that the Jews remained loyal to their god after they had been defeated and found themselves in the “Bablyonian captivity”, paving the way for the claim that theirs was the only legitimate God. When the Mongols under Ghengis Khan not only unified a massive portion of the known world under the direct rule of empire, but also created a viable international framework in the context of reciprocal gift giving, this was the return of the clan approach of Mode A (from which the Mongols emerged) reinstantiated at a higher level.
Ultimately the theoretical framework culminates in a description of the modern world, and, here, Karatani’s outline should be productively modified. For Karatani, the key to understanding capitalism is the creation of labor as a commodity. In turn, capitalism is distinct because labor purchases the goods that it produces, in distinction to other modes of exchange. Capitalism emerges in the context of absolutist states, Mode B, that, as they become stronger, seek to eliminate all in-between vestiges between themselves and citizens (the powers of feudal lords, clergy, etc), creating the context for the triumph of Mode C. But as they do, the monarch himself becomes vestigial, and the Nation emerges as a reassertion of the reciprocity of Mode A. And so the “Borromean knot”, a Lacanian term for a set of intertwined rings, of capital-nation-state is constituted as the central political form of the modern world economy. Karatani insists on the reality of each element of the triad. States are not simply an expression of capitalist power. They continue to function in Mode B, exchanging security for citizens for tribute, and engaged in a power struggle with other states that cannot be reduced to capitalist interests. As the reassertion of a horizontal community of Mode A, the nation cannot be dismissed as false consciousness, as Marxists often have. The Borromean knot helps explain why revolutions have changed the world less than hoped. Just because socialist revolutionaries might appropriate the capitalists does not change the fact that the state continues to exist in a larger state system, and indeed, pressure from outside states on the revolutionary state intensifies, distorting its development. Meanwhile, fascism is conceptualized as a struggle of the nation against the state, and Karatani provides intriguing evidence for an affinity between fascist movements and anarchist thinkers. He also highlights the concept, drawn from Marx, of bonapartism. When the state suffers a crisis of legitimacy, and these are not infrequent, a quasi-monarchical figure often emerges to act as the unifier of national interests. This process has most recently been repeated in Egypt.
Influenced by Wallerstein, Karatani identifies a pattern of hegemonic states--the Dutch, the British, and the United States. Each state is associated with the predominance of different commodities--woolens, textiles, durable consumer goods (cars, etc). Karatani says information is next. When hegemonic states are strong, they advocate increased free trade. As they decline, geopolitical competition and protectionism becomes the norm. Notwithstanding all the talk about neoliberalism, Karatani claims we are in a new period of geopolitical competition. However, he offers no real evidence for this assertion, beyond that it fits the pattern he has outlined.
Karatani grounds the philosophical underpinnings of the struggle for a better world in the modern era not in Marx, or even Rousseau, but in Kant. This is likely to be dismaying for Marxists, but is not entirely surprising, as Karatani is a scholar of Kant. Kant’s assertion of the singularity of people cannot be reconciled with the homogenizing impact of the transformation of labor power into a commodity. Karatani writes sympathetically of Marx, but, to some degree, as a stick to poke at Marxists. Although some evidence for locating the revolutionary tradition epitomized by Lenin and Trotsky can be found in Marx, according to Karatani, Marx later repudiated these formulations. He sees Marx as an advocate of producer owned cooperatives rather than a state controlled economy. Karatani emphasizes the limits of the struggles of labor unions and revolutionary governments. Regarding the former, although they are fiercely resisted at first, capitalists, or at least the state managers acting in capitalists’ interests, allegedly come to realize that they are a productive element in guaranteeing that the demand for commodities remain robust. This may be news to American readers, since private sector unionization is now below 10%, yet a substantial portion of the ruling class appears to be devoted to wiping out unions altogether, and, even when the liberal wing of politicians epitomized by Obama is in charge, there is little pushback from the state. The October revolution led by Lenin is depicted as a betrayal of democratic principles, since the Bolsheviks represented a minority within the Soviets. As it failed to become a world revolution, the descent into dictatorship was sealed. Karatani does concede that there was a certain logic to revolutionary state leaders substituting themselves for the nationalist capitalists these states lacked, but this is something altogether different from liberation from capitalism. Karatani asserts the need for world revolution to break the logic of capital-state-nation, and talks a bit about 1848 and 1968, but is vague on specifics. He does see the UN, particularly the aspects of it devoted to fostering discussion of the environment, women’s rights, etc, as a positive development. He recommends consumer boycotts as a key tactic, arguing that consumers, rather than workers, can take a holistic view and act in the general interest, while workers are likely to be limited by the interests of their particular enterprises. So as not to repeat the logic by which revolutionary states get sucked into the interstate competition, he calls for a transformation of the state system into a global federation defined by a gift economy, for example, technology transfers from wealthier states to poorer ones.
Three crucial elements are missing from Karatani’s discussion of the modern world--first, the core/periphery divide, and its ideological justifications, race and orientalism, second, the centrality of modern science to the ideological framework of the world system, and third, a theory of system-wide social change that would include both a broader conceptualization of world revolutions and the role of world hegemonies in consolidating change. I believe adding these to the discussion can produce a richer understanding of where we are and might go.
Regarding the first element, the absence of any systematic treatment of the core-periphery divide and in particular its ideological elements, it is a little surprising and dismaying. This is usually a central theme of world historical theorizing of this sort. Karatani seems to make too much of the unequal power generated by seemingly equal exchanges (for example, labor power of a worker for wages from a capitalist) to recognize that these exchanges are not the only form that labor is secured in the modern world. Perhaps the most telling example here is that Atlantic slavery, a sui generis product of the modern world, and increasingly central to histories of American capitalism, is not mentioned in the work.
Up to the present, the model that labor is paid to consume the products it makes does not fit well with peripheral states and peoples. Recall that until the recent crash,US demand was driving the world economy. There simply was not sufficient demand in China, increasingly the “workshop of the world”, let alone in South Asia or Subsaharan Africa, to absorb the goods being produced. This tremendous inequality in spending power should make us sober about the limits of consumer boycott strategies. Some have much more potential to carry these out than others. And those who can have more of a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Even in the present, quite a bit of labor in the periphery hovers around slavery, indentured servitude, and other coercive forms, with immigration enforcement and incarceration often providing a means to limit workers’ rights and force them into unequal exchanges. Furthermore, while the modern world economy has the character of a decentralized system of competitive states, it has also always had a character of being composed of a handful of empires as well. It was only about forty years ago that the last (also practically the first) of the formal modern colonial empires, Portugal, collapsed. Since World War II, the US has played the role of a neo-colonial empire, maintaining a relatively small (albeit real) collection of colonies, but using military force, intelligence agencies, bribery and more to try to do what formal empires have always done--reproduce a subordinate periphery. His claim that core periphery relations are maintained through “equal exchanges” of commodities for money should thus be taken with a large grain of salt.
The ideological justifications of empire, both formal and informal, have been the same. The world population is divided into races, and all are found wanting compared to the white race. Although the history of the modern world has been a history of competing states and empires, race has lent a certain solidarity to the European project. A similar role has been played by Orientalism, in which different cultures, particularly once powerful non-European empires, are compared to Europe and found inferior. As our present world evolves into one characterized by a division between “the planet of slums” and “the gated communities”, both within core and peripheral countries (with the latter simply containing many more slums, as well as still substantial if declining rural populations), these discourses continue to organize governmental and individual interactions, notwithstanding the blurriness of racial and cultural categories in the present. Virtually all the contemporary wars involving major powers amount to the US and whatever allies are at hand attacking some territory on the other side of the race/orientalism/core/periphery divide. Race and orientalism both bisect any constitution of national working classes and expand beyond national borders to envelope the globe. In Karatani’s framework, one should note the way racial and culturally subordinate groups try to revive discourses of Modes A and B to counter their subordination in the context of the dominance of Mode C.
Regarding the ideological foundations of the modern world, Karatani overemphasizes nationalism at the expense of everything else.This is particularly unfortunate, because in the premodern context he offers many provocative insights into the evolution and uses of religion. The key point here about the modern world is that the chaos triggered by the religious wars of the sixteenth century opened up space for the emergence of atheism, the permanent demotion of the clergy as a leading force, and the triumph of science and the invigoration and legitimation of science-based status groups, namely professionals. The particular form of science that was legitimized is mechanical, reductionist, quantitative, ahistorical, decontextual. It marginalized both traditional religious perspectives in which a patriarchal god was responsible for the world as it is and other versions of science that are non-reductionist, organic rather than mechanical, complex. Just as the king needed to be beheaded for the modern state as a full fledged, abstract, total institution to emerge, so God, even as a presence, needs to be waved away in favor of a panopticon reducing the world to quantitative phenomena mechanically interacting, what James Scott called “seeing like a state.” The process of eliminating kings and expelling god was slow, uneven and never entirely complete, but it was real nevertheless.
It was in the context of the rising prominence of secularism that marxism emerged in ways that parallel the earlier great religions. As with the earlier religions, the context was also defined by the increasing pervasiveness of money, this time in the context of the rise of industrial capitalism. First thinkers appeared, using scientific and secular rhetoric to condemn the ruling order of their time, just as earlier prophets had turned the authority of god against the ruling order of their times. Marxism was first and foremost a faith of intellectuals, much more unevenly penetrating the “proletariat” it idealized as subject. Eventually, it was adopted as the ideology of persistent empires, namely Russia and China, as Karatani notes, as well as certain post-colonial states, in the context of revolutionary wars where the celebration of the proletariat was shelved in favor of an alliance of whatever discontented groups could be found. As Collins might add, the ideology also fueled combinations of land, labor and capital, i.e. “building communism,” “socialism in one country,” “the great leap forward...” These created a larger proletariat and infrastructure, deepening the penetration of Mode C when they were eventually privatized. Marxism became part of, and further accelerated, the dominance of technocratic science, now promising economic growth which would benefit everyone. When the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed, the church structures of Marxism--existing communism, and the Third International, and even related strands of “Marxist-Leninism” largely collapsed with it. However, as with the great religions, the insistence on the prospect of “true Marxism” constituting a critique of Marxism in power allows it to continue as a field of thought and perhaps even reconstruct itself as an ideology. The empires whose revivals were once midwifed by Marxism, Russia and China, are now increasingly confident about shedding Eurocentric ideology, heterogeneously melding modern tactics to older ideological structures (Iran and India are also moving in a similar direction).
Meanwhile, the technocratic dream continued largely unscathed, although there was now a greater emphasis on attaining the consumer paradise through private enterprises and engagement with the world market. This is the case notwithstanding all the critical forces unleashed from 1968 onward, that have pointed out that the technocratic dream is one dimensional, stifling of cultural diversity, ecologically suicidal, etc. This is, more or less, the ideological impasse we are at.
Karatani is correct that transformation of the nation-state is a dead end given the global status of the state system. He embraces the concept of world revolution, and references, following Wallerstein and others, the events of 1848 and 1968. While it is useful to think in terms of global, rather than national change, these year-long “world revolutions” are only a part of a larger picture. Instead, one should see fairly lengthy periods of political instability as “world revolutions.” Both 1848 and 1968 were of great importance. But they were also a distinct sort of phenomena, a series of interrelated nationally based revolts. In 1848, these revolts were largely confined to Europe, making the “world revolution” phrase particularly misleading. In 1968, they were more genuinely global, crossing through the “three worlds” divide. In both cases, they produced nothing resembling a durable revolutionary seizure of state power anywhere. Both were turning points of sorts, where one sort of left was ending its dominance, and another was emerging. In 1848, it was Republicanism that was producing its last hurrah, while proletarian revolt was just starting to emerge. In 1968, Communism and related national liberation ideologies were exhausting themselves, while leaderless, culturally diverse, ecological and feminist lefts were just starting to emerge.
It would be better to define a longer period for world revolution, perhaps between 1917 and roughly 1979. Arguably there was an earlier one between 1776 and 1848, but the most prominent forces gaining power at that time were the European propertied classes, although there were incipient efforts to create a Mode D renewal of the classless society in the most intense period of the French revolution and the slave revolts of the time. Although most of the revolts that take place in these periods are contained within capital-nation-state spaces, their significance bursts the bounds of the state and resonated throughout the system. It might be more accurate to characterize the world revolt of the twentieth century as “refolution,” combining reform and revolution, since some aspects of it involved reformist projects like the American New Deal or Indian independence, while others were more revolutionary, involving the overthrow of traditional ruling classes in Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam, among others. It was as much inspired by geopolitical conflict as by capitalism. For example, mobilizations for world wars tended to lead to increased rights for the working class, who were needed to fight, and the loss of the war destroyed the legitimacy of the Russian ruling class. African Americans were able to throw off Jim Crow first in the context of WWII, when the US agreed to desegregate defense industries to keep domestic peace during war time, and then in the context of the Cold War, when the segregated South had become a huge liability worldwide. The chaos of WWII fatally wounded the colonial empires of France and Great Britain. In a tense and competitive working relationship with the Soviet Union, the US was able to keep chaos in the periphery within the bounds of capital-nation-state. At the same time, a formal international institutional framework (the UN, IMF, World Bank, etc) was consolidated, including military security aspects, finance, but also a number of social features such as UN agencies devoted to health, labor, etc. The US also sought greater global economic integration, but slowly, aware of the strength of working classes and state-led developmental aspirations world wide. In the fifties and sixties, there were notable, if unsuccessful, efforts to break the bonds of the capital-nation-state, such as Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, and the non-aligned movement.
The world refolution left the world in some ways dramatically changed. Formal colonialism was mostly ended, and protections from the deprivations of the market enjoyed greater legitimacy than at any time in the history of the modern world. These gains have to some degree even survived the neoliberal counterrevolution. Furthermore, old empires, including Russia and China, also Iran and India, have been able to regain their footing, and this transformation has probably been permanent, regardless of the fate of the Marxist ideology which midwifed this development but then exhausted itself. At the same time, the capital-nation-state knot survived this entire revolution, as did the core-periphery divide and the technocratic ideology. Changes to the global ruling structure--the liquidation of landed classes, the shift to American power, the loosening of racial boundaries--were reformist rather than revolutionary. Notwithstanding all the international organizations, the principle of state sovereignty remained intact.
As indicated in this brief description of the world refolution of the twentieth century, the accomplishments of world revolutions are consolidated by world hegemons, in this case the United States. Unfortunately, Karatani adapts a fairly conventional view of world hegemons as the most powerful and economically prosperous states of their time. He misreads and dismisses Giovanni Arrighi’s perspective, which is more dynamic, seeing hegemons, in Gramscian terms, as leading new class blocs and perhaps institutions to consolidate their power. Hegemonies build on the strength of emergent classes and their struggles. The US attempted to embody universal demands for development, facilitating the globalization of state system to largely vanquish colonialism, and creating the institutional framework of the UN and related agencies. In this perspective, any future hegemony would build its power on the absorption of demands generated from below, by newer movements.
The context for such movements would be the neoliberal counter-revolution of the last forty years and the declining capacity of the US to maintain its hegemony. Neoliberals seized on the contradictions generated by this system, using debt to try to resubordinate peripheral states, capital flight to undo the power of working classes, and promoting an ideology that suggested everyone must turn themselves into competitive human capital. Even before the financial crash in 2008 which seemed to signal the eclipse of US world power, this situation was producing pushback. The mobilizations between 1999 and 2001 against international institutions--the IMF/World Bank, WTO, etc suggested the prospect of networking together forces around or across the confines of the capital-nation-state. These forces, epitomized by the Zapatistas, often revived Mode A style non-hierarchical exchange internally, even as they networked globally. The consolidation of these forces in the World Social Forum both engaged with the social elements of the UN system and critiqued them. The World Social Forum and similar institutions have been productive sites for the launching of global demands on the most powerful states, such as mobilizations for a debt jubilee, or, more recently, global warming. If the competitive state system is to be transformed into the gift economy Karatani hopes for, it is likely to be in the context of these sorts of mobilizations.
The mobilizations of 2011, perhaps another year-long “world revolution” (the Arab Spring, the Greek and Spanish movements of the squares, the Occupy movement in the US, and more), in dramatic contrast to those of 1999-2001, were all addressed to particular national situations. The main players were members of a middle class in crisis. Deeply integrated into Mode C, they had little memory of Mode A forms of integration outside of the market, and these had to be invented from scratch in the often troubled context of “the general assembly.” Typically defeated in the short term, it is hard not to imagine they will return in new forms over the next few decades, perhaps adopting ideas about producer cooperatives, as did the similar movement in Argentina in 2001. That this movement recurred the next year in Brazil and Turkey, countries not typically imagined as being in crises of either scelrotic authoritarians or economic decline, demonstrated that the struggles tapped a deep and pervasive vein of discontent. Less heralded have been major strike waves in East and South Asia, and signs of the renewal of class struggle in the global north as well. These are likely to be major elements in struggles over the next few decades--demands for global change interacting with the proto-world federation institutions of the United Nations, revival of surviving Mode A and B formations, and the reinvention of Mode A relations by global middle,working, and slum-dwelling classes. Interstate struggle may intensify, but it is not clear that the era of drone warfare and cyber attacks will provide a similar dynamic of creating spaces for popular struggles as the mass armies of the previous period. Whether a new hegemon might emerge to construct an order out of these elements, or whether such an order might emerge without a center (and whether either of these might result in something worth describing as Mode D, the classless Mode A reinstantiated on a global scale), or whether the global order might disintegrate into chaos cannot be determined in advance.
Karatani’s work is immensely valuable for fully thinking through the present. The rigid break between the modern and that which came before, so central to Marxism and most modernist social theory, is blurred. And this is crucial for a moment when it is apparent that many memories of Modes A and B are likely to continue to shape and constrain action. If I find weakness in his evasion of the core-periphery divide of the modern world, his failure to theorize the role of science in the ideology of modernity, and undertheorization of world revolution, it is only to be expected that one work won’t include everything. But there is a lot to build on here.