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- The Integration Of Economy And Culture
- Classical Theory: Analyzing The Emergence Of Capitalist Civilization
- Twentieth Century Thought: Capitalism And Civilization
- The Civilization Of Capitalism In The Information Age
‘‘The economy’’ is a social institution that is constructed and reproduced through human action, as human beings collectively produce their conditions of survival and well being. In sociological perspective, ‘‘the economy’’ is not reified as a thing or mechanism apart from human actions, interaction, and relationships.
This definition of the economy guides socio logical analysis of relationships between economic institutions and civilization – culture, ideology, art, law, religion, and prevailing forms of thought, feeling, and discourse.
The Integration Of Economy And Culture
One sociological distinction is that between non market societies and market societies as two broad categories of civilization. In the former, economic activities are embedded in cultural, social, and political institutions and limited by them. In market societies, the economy is clearly differentiated from such cultural, social, and political institutions, while at the same time it has powerful effects on them, creating a distinct form of civilization.
In non market societies, market institutions are secondary or absent, and production and distribution are primarily embedded in kinship and/or hierarchical power relationships among status groups. Economic activities are limited or ‘‘hedged in’’ by norms of institutions in which they are embedded.
In early human societies, and still today in smaller societies, economic activities are inextricably linked with kinship, and roles associated with economic activities are kinship and gender roles (as suggested by the derivation of ‘‘economy’’ from Greek oikos, ‘‘household’’).
Societies of surplus extraction and redistribution emerged from kinship based economies in the regions that produced ‘‘civilizations’’ in the traditional sense of the term – stratified, state level societies. As subsistence activities became more productive and a surplus became available, ruling groups appropriated this surplus and used it not only to enrich themselves but also to build armies, organize large projects, and construct elite cultural and religious institutions. Kinship based economic activities persisted at the local, micro level, but at the macro level civilizations became stratified. Slavery, tribute collection, and feudal serfdom are examples of stratification systems associated with surplus appropriation. These types of articulation can be seen, for instance, in classical antiquity, ancient China and India, Mesoamerican civilizations, African kingdoms, and European and Japanese feudalism. In these civilizations, production and distribution were closely tied to differential power between groups such as lords and serfs, slave-owners and slaves, tribute collectors and tribute bearers. In many instances, stratified groups (clans, castes, and distinct ethnic groups) were defined by ascribed characteristics, stable membership, and differentiated honor as well as power differences. These unequal groups were status groups, quite different from economically de fined classes in market society. While many of these civilizations included market exchanges, the market remained a secondary or supplementary form of organizing distribution and had only a limited impact on production decisions; it was highly circumscribed by traditional rules, roles, and obligations.
Another type of society is comprised of market societies in which ‘‘the economy’’ is clearly differentiated from other social institutions. In market societies, decisions about production and distribution are linked to exchanges between buyers and sellers of products and services. These commodified, market relationships have a strong impact on non economic institutions, relationships, norms, and culture. They shape a civilization organized around profit and commodification, as well as constant, rapid flux in social relationships, technology, and the human impact on the natural environment.
The modern era, after the European Middle Ages, saw the rise of market or capitalist societies in which markets became the major institutional form of economic activity. Production was increasingly for markets, not for household use nor for power-holders capable of extracting and redistributing goods. Market exchange for profit became the driving force of economic activity and accrued to private firms and individuals that owned productive property. Labor power was not organized through coercion as in slavery, corvee, and tribute collection, nor was it mobilized by traditional obligations; instead, it became a commodity traded in labor markets. Market institutions were closely linked with rational calculation and monetized or commodified relationships among individuals and groups. Status groups and traditional forms of authority declined in importance. Class inequality based on economic standing and market position replaced status group distinctions as the dominant form of social differentiation. Legal systems shifted toward juridical equality of individuals, at the same time that individuals’ economic positions were highly unequal.
In the twentieth century there were attempts, most notably in the Soviet Union and China, to establish command or planned economies in which political institutions and decision making in a centralized state organized production and distribution in lieu of market mechanisms. These forms of society not only are structurally different, but also constitute different civilizations, distinct in their culture and the values, discourses, ideas, and consciousness shared by their members. In the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959), there are differences in the ‘‘varieties of men and women that prevail in this society.’’ In this respect, one can identify a general link between economy and civilization.
Classical Theory: Analyzing The Emergence Of Capitalist Civilization
The systematic analysis of the relationship between ‘‘economy’’ and ‘‘civilization’’ began with the Enlightenment and the rise of modern nation states interested in increasing their wealth and power by specific economic policies. The merits of mercantile and laissez faire mod els of development intrigued theorists of this period, culminating in Adam Smith’s thesis that self regulating markets were the best way to enhance the wealth of nations. But even Smith warned of the deleterious social effects of the division of labor and specialization of skill: monotonous labor routines dull the workers’ senses and alienate workers from their work.
Almost 75 years later, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1948 ) provided a detailed, comprehensive, and critical look at the historical sequence of modes of production, each characterized by distinct economic activities, technical knowledge, and class relationships. Technology and economy are not conceptualized as reified ‘‘determining forces’’ but are themselves created in the context of interactions among human beings. In all historical societies, these interactions are patterned as class relationships. Corresponding to each mode of production are compatible political and ideological institutions that function to repro duce the class relationships associated with production. Each type of society constituted by a mode of production plus political and ideological institutions is a distinct social formation.
For Marx and Engels, there was an evolutionary sequence of social formations from primitive communism (no classes, no state, no literate culture), to slave societies and despotic kingdoms, and then, in some regions such as Western Europe and Japan, to feudal societies based on serfdom. Capitalism emerged from class struggles within feudal society. The capitalist ruling class, the bourgeoisie, oversaw an organization of social and economic life in which ‘‘the cash nexus’’ dominated all forms of social interaction. Marx and Engels envisioned the overthrow of capitalism by its exploited masses and the creation of a future society in which social relations and activities would no longer be driven by the logic of commercialization. In communist societies, class inequalities and the state would disappear, and thanks to a very high level of economic production and technical knowledge, human beings would be liberated from the division of labor and fixed economic roles. These fixed roles would be replaced by pleasurable activities in fluid accord with individual talents and changing dispositions (1970 [1845–6]).
Each social formation is characterized by ideas, values, discourses, art forms, ways of thinking, and ways of interacting – in short, a compact civilization – which mesh with the economic base. In the case of capitalism, we find commodification of human relationships, rapid social change, emergence of global culture, disintegration of traditional forms of authority, and an ideology of freedom and individualism.
The complex Marxist model, with its evolutionary sequence, dialectic of agency and structure, and emphasis on the strong but never reified role of the mode of production in shaping the civilization as a whole, has left an indelible mark on subsequent analysis of the relationships between economy and culture. Later theorists were often in ‘‘a debate with Marx’s ghost’’ (Zeitlin 1997).
Three great classical sociologists of the beginning of the twentieth century – Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and E ? mile Durkheim – also focused on the role of economic activity in society. Like Marx and Engels, they show a deep ambivalence about the effects of capital ism on civilization, decrying its oppressive monetization of human relationships, yet recognizing that it swept away superstition, magical beliefs, caste like status inequalities, and feudal oppression.
For Durkheim, even more than for Marx and Engels, ‘‘the economy’’ is not a separate reified structure but inextricably linked with the overall social order. He emphasized, for example, that capitalism’s exchange relationships, in which each party at all times seeks to maximize gain, would be altogether socially unstable without a non contractual base of contracts – the shared norm or value of the inviolability of contract. Like Marx and Engels, Durkheim was interested in the changing forms of the division of labor; he linked them to changing forms of social control and social cohesion, noting that as the division of labor became more complex, the normative order and collective conscience became less harsh, punitive, and undifferentiated. An advanced, complex division of labor, itself arising due to the material force of greater social density, can create a higher type of social cohesion. In advanced market societies, organic solidarity based on differentiation of functions and mutual dependency can replace mechanical solidarity, based on similarity and conformity. The resulting civilization is potentially a higher, more complex form in which diversity, individuation, and moral autonomy are more respected and highly developed, but in this evolution, there is always the risk of anomie, a pathological loosening of normative regulation, as well as the disintegration of social bonds (Durkheim 1964 ).
Georg Simmel, deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s attack on modern civilization, offered a critique of the money economy. Like Marx and Engels, he saw capitalism engendering a civilization in which money takes on a life of its own, infusing all aspects of social, cultural, and psychological life, and accentuating the individual’s alienation from self and others. He concurred with Durkheim that capitalist civilization is characterized by feelings of limitlessness, especially limitless wants. In the money economy, social relationships are subordinated to exchange value and the impersonal calculation of monetary gain. Capitalist civilization produces social types that reflect the abstractness of money, its detachment from use value and specific experience. Among these types are the miser and the spendthrift, who appear to be opposites yet are linked in their exclusive focus on the potentiality of money. Simmel also pointed out that when individuals leave rural communities and enter the urban money economy, they experience a kind of liberation: they enjoy greater personal autonomy (concomitant with the anonymity afforded by the city) and the stimulating, enlightening effect of living in an ever changing milieu (1971 ; 1978 ).
Max Weber, influenced by both Marx and Engels and Nietzsche, brought a new perspective to analysis of economy and civilization. Without rejecting the Marxist interest in effects of the mode of production on culture, he also gave weight to economic consequences of non economic beliefs and activities. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958 [1904–5]), he asserts that Protestant beliefs and values were preconditions of capitalist accumulation. It was the culture and beliefs of the Protestant Reformation – the sense of calling, asceticism, and predestinarian faith – that unintentionally encouraged the behaviors underlying capitalist accumulation in Western Europe. This analysis is part of an even larger perspective on economy and civilization: his argument that the moral demands articulated by the Hebrew prophets set in motion a cultural transformation in the West toward a disenchanted understanding of the world, suppression of magical belief, and insistence on self aware action. This transformation makes possible both modern capitalism and the modern ascendancy of instrumental reason – the rationality of means that accompanies both capitalism and bureaucracy. The conception of the omnipotent God of the Hebrew Bible, emphasized anew in the Protestant Reformation, actually creates an ever growing space of rational action. In western belief, the multitude of weak, immanent, spirit beings that are tolerant of human transgressions and can be compelled by magic gave way to a single, intolerant, transcendent, and demanding God who holds people morally accountable and forces them into constant monitoring of their own actions (Weber 1952; Zeitlin 1997).
To summarize, the classical theorists had highly ambivalent views of capitalism and rationalization, seeing in it both the development of culture beyond magical and mystical views of the world, and the source of intense alienation and new forms of exploitation, now legitimated in the name of reason, accumulation, and efficiency.
Twentieth Century Thought: Capitalism And Civilization
A series of twentieth century social theorists returned to these themes, adding new elements and reinterpreting theories in light of changes in the global economy itself.
Karl Polanyi’s contribution was to insist that over the course of history the market was not the primary economic institution in most societies and that not all societies are market societies. Reciprocity and redistribution, rather than exchange, are the basic relationships of production and distribution in many societies. The extreme marketization and monetization of life in capitalist societies is a recent phenomenon in human history. It has a corrosive effect on the social fabric and reduces human beings to a ‘‘factor of production.’’ Polanyi (2001) developed these influential views on market and non market societies in an analysis of the transition of western European societies into market societies in the early modern period.
The world systems school is interested not only in the transition from precapitalist to capitalist civilization in the West, but also in the expansion of capitalism into the rest of the globe. Influenced both directly by Marxist thought and by the French Annales School of historiography (emphasizing the material basis of culture and the analysis of change over long periods), Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) develops a broad historical perspective on the emergence of a global capitalist social formation. The capitalist world system emerged during European expansion after 1450, with devastating consequences for all other cultures and civilizations. The global capitalist system is composed of three levels, a core of industrialized, developed capitalist nations (basically Western Europe, North America, and Japan), a semi periphery of partially industrialized nations (Eastern Europe, the Southern Cone of Latin America, parts of East Asia), and a periphery of underdeveloped nations and (in the past) colonized regions. As capitalist culture penetrates the periphery and semi periphery, local cultures and traditions are transformed by commodity relations and globalized media. Nationalist and fundamentalist movements in the periphery are responses to the disintegrative effects of western capitalism on traditional civilizations (Wallerstein 2003).
While both Polanyi and world systems theory examined the relationship between non market and market civilizations, other theorists provided insights into key characteristics of capitalism as a civilization with a distinctive culture. In the period between the world wars, the Frankfurt School pioneered the analysis of the relationship between capitalism, which the scholars tended to analyze in Marxist terms, and culture, art, and individual social psychological characteristics, to which they brought Freudian, Hegelian, and even surrealist concepts. Walter Benjamin (1996 ) suggests that the work of art loses its ‘‘aura,’’ its unique and sacred quality, under conditions of capitalist commodity production and mechanical reproduction in industries such as film, music recording, and photography. Commodified, fragmented, subjected to industrial assembly processes, and disseminated to the masses, the work of art ceases to be a cultural treasure. For Benjamin, this is not a loss but a dramatic delegitimation of icons of bourgeois culture, a radical undermining of authority that has revolutionary potential.
Other Frankfurt School theorists, most notably Theodor Adorno (2001), were less optimistic about cultural forms under capitalism, seeing them all – even jazz, for instance – as instruments of domination. This theme has reappeared in contemporary work on capitalism and culture, for example in Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997), an essay about the enormous recuperative power of capitalist culture which is able to capture, incorporate, commodify, and thus nullify every effort at rebellion.
The Civilization Of Capitalism In The Information Age
In the last decades of the twentieth century, the hegemonic expansion of capitalist civilization accelerated as the global political economy shifted under the impact of neoliberal policies and structural adjustment programs. Globalization, with speeded up transnational flows of capital, media, and migrants, weakened local and national cultural institutions and broadened cultural horizons. With globalization came extension of values and behaviors that had previously been found in developed market societies, such as standardization, commodification, the discourse of efficiency, rapid techno logical change, and the triumph of the ‘‘bottom line’’ and instrumental reason. Marx and Engels’s phrase, ‘‘all that is solid melts into air,’’ presciently sums up this rapid penetration of globalized, commodified culture into regions and communities where non market relationships had persisted into the twentieth century.
Manuel Castells (1996), in a massive work on informational capitalism, emphasizes the links between new technologies of production, specifically information technologies, on the one hand, and new global forms of culture in the network society, including the formation of oppositional identities and collective actions against corporate globalization, on the other. Informationalism is a major change within the framework of globalized capitalism that can be seen as constituting a civilization distinctly different from industrial capitalism.
Other theorists emphasized the growing reign of instrumental reason and its penetration into all areas of life. This view of the civilization of our era was already expressed by Jurgen Habermas (1984) and Herbert Marcuse (1992) during the decades of transition from industrial capitalism to globalized, information era capitalism. The triumph of instrumental reason was analyzed more recently and accessibly in George Ritzer’s (2000) McDonaldization thesis, which argues that the giant fast food corporation is now the paradigm of culture and social relationships, governed by efficiency, calculability, predict ability, and technological control.
Fredric Jameson (1992) suggests that there are some genuinely new forms of culture – postmodern culture – associated with advanced capitalism. He proposes a concept, ‘‘the cultural dominant,’’ to express the impersonal mechanism whereby the economic forms of our age shape culture through an invisible and unintentional process, not through conscious molding by the bourgeoisie but through unconscious penetration of all culture by the logic of advanced capitalism – architecture, visual arts, ‘‘style’’ and design in fashion and consumer products, writing, movies, and so on. High and low culture, mass culture and elite culture – all are produced as commodities in the market. Cultural products take on the logic of advanced capitalism: its ephemeral quality; the devaluation of the past which is reduced to ‘‘nostalgia’’ or ‘‘retro’’; the mediated and shallow nature of experience which is expressed through shifting surface intensities. In order to illustrate this shift within capitalist culture, Jameson contrasts Van Gogh’s painting of peasant shoes that express struggle, labor, and class inequality to Andy Warhol’s shiny, empty, decontextualized Diamond Dust Shoes. Advanced capitalism as a civilization replicates the central features of the market economy – commodification, rapid change, evanescence – but in new, heightened forms that seem difficult to challenge by older types of class struggle.
Richard Sennett (1998) develops a similar theme with respect to social character, the forms of relationships and worldviews that emerge with flexible capitalism. He argues that character has been corroded by extreme flexibility in economic production, accompanied by globalization, new technologies, and concentration of economic power. The ‘‘varieties of men and women’’ generated in the culture of flexible capitalism experience their world as fragmented, dislocated, unpredictable, and disconnected from both the individual and the collective past.
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