We have dual natures, you and I. On the one hand we are supremely social animals. Unlike pike or tigers or black widow spiders, who associate only to mate or commit internecine violence, we need one another. Ill equipped for solo survival we must engage collectively with nature to feed and shield ourselves from the elements. But we are also standalones. If a brick drops on your toe it’s you, not me, who dances around like a demented dervish. Your suffering may even, for one reason or another, make my day. Indeed, I may have intentionally caused it since not only are we separate, you and I, but at times play zero sum games. Some are choiceless, others of exquisite perversity.
Our dual nature creates tensions whose imperfect resolution has required the development over millennia of morality and etiquette, religious and legal stricture. Had we evolved for either unambiguously solitary survival or as purely social beings, such codes would be irrelevant. In the first scenario conflicting interests would be settled by undisguised force, or its threat, while in the second there’d be no conflict at all since your interests would be mine. It’s fair to say our ideas of right and wrong, good manners and bad, are all by way of managing – not always successfully, far less equitably – fault lines arising from our nature as social but individuated beings.
But back to that collective engagement with nature to produce and reproduce the material conditions of existence. This engagement is ongoing, so the ways we come together take the relatively stable forms we call societies. It was Marx’s most basic discovery, and the one most challenging to the idealist outlook, that the ways humans organise themselves to create wealth – their modes and social relations of production – offer the most dependable vantage points for understanding not just their technologies and wisdoms but their legal, moral, martial, spiritual and aesthetic world views as well. We can therefore place Marxism, epistemologically, as a subset of materialism. But who is this “we”?
Homo sapiens sapiens (doubly wise in that we know that we know) is the only extant species of the genus, hominid. Like its long gone australopithecus branch, and the more recently departed homo neanderthalis species, we are cousins (not descendants!) of the great apes, and a johnny come lately at that. Just how lately is a moot question. So high is the ratio of informed guess to hard fact that finding a few hominid bones – like those of the 3,200,000 year old Lucy, east of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia – can wreak paleontological havoc and trash scholarly reputations overnight. There is nevertheless a broad consensus that we first walked the earth a hundred thousand years ago.  For the next ninety thousand we hunted and gathered wild plants, a mode of production whose inefficient extraction of natural resources had two primary implications. One is that populations were commensurate with land yields, which is to say low. The other is that these societies were pre surplus. Windfalls aside they produced barely enough for immediate survival, a situation with secondary consequences no less profound. Such societies were classless, ‘primitive communism’ in the words of Marx and Engels. They also featured only the most rudimentary division of labour, along the lines of age and gender.
Then, some 12,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolutions began in places too far flung for their relative synchronicity to be explained by direct contact and influence. National Geographic:
There was no single factor, or combination of factors, that led people to take up farming in different parts of the world. In the Near East, for example, it’s thought that climatic changes at the end of the last ice age brought seasonal conditions that favored annual plants like wild cereals. Elsewhere, such as in East Asia, increased pressure on natural food resources may have forced people to find homegrown solutions. But whatever the reasons for its independent origins, farming sowed the seeds for the modern age.
Serendipity will have played its part too. Gatherers of wild grasses and berries would surely find that a little watering and weeding made for a better yield on the next visit, while the virtues of faecally enriching the soil couldn’t have taken much longer to reveal themselves. But however agriculture arose, it changed everything. The land could now support higher populations, while dependable surpluses allowed greater division of labour, opening a virtuous circle wherein new skills created more wealth which in turn allowed further specialisation.
The other big consequences are private property (hence marriage, the concept of bastardy and prizing of female chastity) and the advent of groups with differential wealth and status. While growing social complexity required managerialism, material surplus enabled it. The early high status groups would be warriors and priests: the first for obvious reasons, the second by its exclusive access to another consequence of material surplus; the written word.
The surpluses generated by farming support social divisions which crystallise as rulers – by way of monopoly of a resource vital to wealth production; typically land, irrigation or slaves – and ruled. For Marxists class is less about difference, even when accompanied by oppression and inequality, than opposition. The distinction matters. Confusion arises when one person means social class – dentists and dinner ladies, say – while another means economic class in the oppositional sense of slave owner/slave, land owner/serf , capitalist/labour-seller. It isn’t that Marxists are blind to social class divisions, which can play historically decisive roles, but that they see them as secondary.
Ruler and ruled have diametrically opposed material interests. The surplus is finite, so whatever is appropriated by one class diminishes what is available to the other. Successful ruling classes downplay and rationalise this opposition – encoding it in moral, legal, philosophical and religious frameworks – because it is less troublesome and more cost effective to do things this way, but in the end it is always underpinned by force of arms.
(The way I’ve expressed things here warrants a note of caution. From Wat Tyler to the present, challengers within feudalism and capitalism sought in the main to change not the modes and social relations of producing wealth but the manner of its distribution. This is understandable but wrongheaded. Neither system generates – the one due to technological constraints, the other to the distorting role of profit – enough wealth for a simple share-out to satisfy even the basic needs of everyone alive. The implications of this will be explored in subsequent essays.)
For all their injustices, class societies have in their formative stages a historic legitimacy. Even slavery, from which we rightly recoil – and which returns in new forms under late capitalism – did its bit to advance productivity. But these golden dawns give way to stagnation and, in due course, to excesses and conspicuous waste as the ruling classes stand in the way of greater productivity and enrage the many. Such stagnation is contested, sometimes violently, as newer and more vigorous modes of production press in. One example is capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism in France. A second is its equally seismic defeat of a reactionarily inefficient mode of production, in the cotton fields of America’s deep south, that had been impeding the flow of labour to northern factories.
This is not to say Robespierre and the Jacobins, Lincoln and the Unionists, saw things that way. Rather, the dialectical materialist view of history sees its more colourful actors as agents moved by sentiments noble and ignoble, visions lofty and warped … flesh and blood men and women of great courage and craven villainy who nevertheless could not have risen to prominence, far less prevailed, had material forces not pointed in a broadly similar direction. Such individuals ride the crests of waves whose very turbulence obscures underlying currents of still greater power.
Dialectical materialist history runs counter to mainstream versions which, for Marxists, have two major flaws. One is idealism; less in the everyday sense of altruism than in the epistemological sense of believing, more or less implicitly, ideas rather than material forces to be the real drivers of history. The other is individualism, with emphasis placed excessively on the role of a few highly visible goodies and baddies as the movers and shakers of social change.
That second objection takes us back to the existential truth set out at start of this essay; our dual nature as both social and individuated beings. It also takes us forward to a mode of production which, more than any other, elevates the individual. Industrial capitalism is the focus of another essay but first we should briefly consider its precursor, mercantile capitalism.
One other key consequence of the surpluses generated by farming is the rise of the commodity. Initially, wealth exchanged within and between post surplus societies is incidental: one group finds it has more wool than it can use; another, more herrings. But as divisions of labour grow, wealth is produced purposefully for exchange; output becomes more predictable. Transactions beyond simple swaps require a master-commodity that satisfies certain criteria. It must be non perishable and of high value (exchange value will be explored in the next essay) to allow adequate purchasing power to be carried on one’s person. It must also be malleable and aliquot, allowing sub-division with no loss of proportional value. Gold, silver and copper – though not, in normal times, precious stones – are the obvious candidates.
Fast-forward a few millennia. The rise of European mercantilism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its expansion in the fifteenth to eighteenth on the back of maritime advance and colonialism, are beyond the scope of this essay. In any case that rise is well known, as is the violence with which England, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain contested sea lanes and markets while asserting their authority on far off lands. Just three short observations are called for here. The first is that mercantile capitalism has seldom if ever been a socially dominant mode of production. It has more typically operated within slavery or feudalism.
The second is that the source of mercantile profit is transparent, and dependent on immature markets. The merchant or syndicate buys and fits out ships which are sent, at no small risk, to buy commodities – silk, slaves, tea etc – in one part of the world for sale in another at prices high enough to exceed all outlays. Simple.
The third is that while there is no inexorable law through which mercantile capitalism must give way to industrial capitalism – indeed, it has more often introduced slavery – the accumulation of vast riches, together with the paper money, bonds, joint stock and credit mechanisms developed along the way, were among the critical mass of key factors favouring Britain as the world’s first industrial power. Extraction of profit from wage labour in the factory – by way of a surplus value appropriation more opaque than the buy cheap; sell dear model of mercantile exchange – and its subsequent reinvestment as venture capital become self perpetuating. But in its infancy the cycle must be kick-started. The necessary seed capital, not just for those dark satanic mills but for the greater and more complex infrastructural projects of canals and rail, was sourced by the buying and selling, in circumstances underwritten by colonialism and Royal Naval command of the high seas, of commodities themselves enabled by the chain of events triggered by the advent of farming. The Neolithic Revolutions had indeed changed everything.