From Nomadism to Empire to Capitalist Nation-States

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Carl Cassegaard:

"Like in his recent book on Yanagita Kunio, Karatani distinguishes two types of nomadism (yûdôsei), which is a clear novelty compared to The Structure of World History. The nomadism of the earliest bands of hunters-gatherers preceded the emergence of settled communities (A), whereas later forms of nomads - such as the pastoral nomads of Central Asia or Arabia - moved between the settled communities, managing the traffic between them and in the process furthering the rise of trade, markets and empires. The latter form of nomadism thus paved the way for the present dominance of capitalist nation-states and in no way acts as a counter-force to them. Unlike some thinkers like Delezue & Guattari or Amino Yoshihiko, Karatani refuses to see anything liberatory about such nomadism, insisting instead on the need to direct attention to the earlier nomadism of hunters-gatherers as a model for the primordial freedom that subsequent religious and social movements have sought to "repeat" in the form of associations (D).

The rise of settled communities is thus an important watershed to Karatani. By itself, however, it didn't lead to an abandonment of the egalitarianism of hunters and gatherers. Settlement created the possibility of concentrating wealth and power, but this was avoided through the system of reciprocal gift-giving which regulated relations between communities. Settlement forced people to conduct exchange in order to get hold of necessities, but this exchange was generally hostile in character. Outright war was avoided through ceremonial gift-giving, which - once peace had been established through the gift - could be accompanied by barter-like exchanges like in the Kula ring. The hostility could also be sublimated and expressed in the exchange itself, as in potlatches. These exchanges prevented inequality within the communities by forcing chiefs to exhaust their wealth through compulsory generosity. Chiefs were therefore unable to become kings. By creating these systems of reciprocal exchange, societies thus preserved the equality of earlier nomadic societies while preventing the rise of the state. By contrast, strict reciprocity had played a much less prominent role among hunters and gatherers, who instead shared or pooled things without regard for reciprocity.

According to Karatani, this means that the origin of the state cannot be found in factors internal to settled communities, such as rising wealth and class differences. The decisive factor must instead be searched in the role of nomads, whose mobility made them the key mediators between communities. Often making their living out of trade, they turned on communities that threatened the trade lines and conquered them, a process that helped them establish huge empires. Wars of conquest were thus crucial in the formation of states. Such wars turned chiefs into kings who were no longer bound by compulsory reciprocity to the conquered subjects. Furthermore, the creation of empires extending over a plurality of communities made laws necessary, since mere custom was no longer sufficient to regulate the relations between them. Standing armies and imperial bureaucracies become possible when people no longer needed to be treated like equals.

To maintain themselves, however, the empires had to embody what Karatani calls the “imperial principle” (teikoku no genri), a Utopian aspect expressed in popular millenarianism as well as in the idea of a universal monarchy. This allowed the empires to transcend boundaries between particular communities, to be cosmopolitan and tolerant of diversity and to receive active support from peoples under its rule. This means that it was not enough for them to simply offer protection in return for submission (B) - they also had to partake to some extent of the utopia of D. Universal religions helped them do this, as he illustrates through a discussion of St Augustine, who argued that the state was not simply an "organization of robbers", since it has had a redeeming side to it, namely its potential to grow into a City of God where people would not be driven by self-interest but by “love of the neighbor” and “love of God” (ibid. 94-100). Helped by this imperial principle, the empires became centres of civilization, whose scripts, laws and religions shaped the cultures of their subject populations as well as their peripheries. The discussion of empire is substantiated in several chapters dealing with the history of China, the Mongols, Russia, the Ottoman empire and the Mogul empire.

However, even while the empires (dominated by B) were flourishing, the nucleus of a "world-economy" (dominated by C) formed in what Wittfogel calls their "submargins". These were distinct from the "margins", i.e. those areas that were geographically closest to the empires and politically dependent on them. Submargins were located far enough from the empires not to be immediately threatened by them but close enough to be exposed to the imperial civilization which could be selectively imported and wedded to a social structure that, in comparison with the empires, was more pluralistic and lacking in a strong central power - factors that were favorable to the rise of trade and a strong merchant class. This could be seen in feudal Europe which became the birth bed of the modern capitalist economy, not because it was more advanced that the Eurasian empires but because it was peripheral to them and (from an imperial perspective) more "barbaric".

The idea of imperial centres and their margins and sub-margins (which plays a prominent role already in Karatani's earlier work) performs a crucial theoretical function to him, helping him make better sense of history than the old classical Marxist stage theory. However, we can also note that Karatani is not so much discarding this theory as rescuing it in a modified form. In his version history is still made to progress from a stage in which A predominates to one where B is dominant until B in turn is supplanted by one in which C is predominant, namely present-day capitalism. This, however, is not a developmental ladder to be climbed by each society in isolation (first the European countries, then the Third World...). Instead, he brings in a spatial dialectics centred on the interplay between the empires, mostly located in Asia, and their margins and sub-margins. Doing so helps him get rid of that old anomaly, the notion of an "Asiatic mode of production", which was the way empires had tended to be conceptualized from the standpoint of the old stage theory.

It also provides the theoretical tools for properly grasping the spatio-historical place of feudalism. Feudalism isn't characteristic of all pre-modern societies, but above all of the submargins where the remnants of older clan-based social systems tend to be stronger than in the empires. Thus European feudalism was rooted in the clan-based systems of the peoples that had been sub-marginal to the Roman Empire. Their legacy of was evident in the fact that strong elements of reciprocal relations remained within the ruling stratum. These, however, disappeared with the rise of capitalism and the formation of absolutist states. The absolutist states differed from empires since capitalism was an integral part to them. They formed when the absolutist monarchs allied with the rising bourgeoisie to buttress their power and used this power to protect the flow of capital from interference by feudal lords and the Church. Even later when these absolutist states become imperialist, they didn't become empires in a strict sense. Following Arendt, Karatani argues that imperialism is merely the expansion of the nation-state, the rule of one nation over others. Hence it lacks the universal aspect of the “imperial principle” and invites resistance in the form of national liberation movements.

Karatani demonstrates the fruitfulness of his concepts of empire and submargin in a chapter on Japan, whose history can to a great extent be explained by reference to its submarginal status. Thus Japan's backwardness in relation to the Chinese empire was expressed in its clan-based feudal social system, which persisted despite superficial cultural and organizational imports from China (as seen in the persistence of bilinearity, the ineffectuality of the Ritsuryôsei, etc.). Unlike imperial "margins" like Korea, the "sub-margin" Japan was free from direct military threats from China for most of its history, a fact that encouraged Japan to set up its own "miniature-empire", emulating China instead of subordinating itself to it.

Within Japan, however, there were regional differences. As the historian Amino Yoshihiko has pointed out in a number of works (e.g. Amino 1998), medieval Japan was far from a homogeneously feudal country in the European sense, dominated by a warrior elite ruling over an agricultural peasant population. Although such a portrayal has a measure of truth when applied to eastern Japan, the western parts and especially the capital region around Kyoto was more diverse, involving a separate hierarchical ordering with the emperor at its apex that linked together "non-agriculturalists" such as artisans, performers, traders, religious practitioners and outcasts. Karatani adheres to this portrayal, arguing that feudalism developed mainly in the submarginal east while imported “imperial” elements were more prominent in Kyoto and western Japan (Karatani 2012:239).

Nevertheless, on the whole Karatani believes that Japan's "success" in modernizing was rooted in a feudal past more or less similar to in Europe. This past helped it develop capitalism and achieve a rapid modernization that enabled it to escape colonization by the West. The idea that Japan modernized successfully because of structural similarities to Europe goes back at least to the 1960's when the anthropologist Umesao Tadao argued that Japan resembled Western Europe more than China because of its fringe position on the Eurasian continent and its feudal past (Umesao 2003). Karatani admits that this thesis lost popularity after the capitalist development of China, but he still chooses to adhere to it (ibid. 238).

If Japan is seen as similar to Europe, however, how should one explain the absence in Japan of an absolutist state? Karatani argues that something akin to European absolutism was in fact set up by the warlord Nobunaga, who not only established a form of absolute rule for himself but also actively furthered Japan’s participation in the world-system of capitalist trade. The Tokugawa shogunate, however, was different: although possessing power comparable to that of European absolutist regimes it preferred to set up a facade of feudalism, pulled out of the world-economy and opted out of military and technological development, i.e. it deliberately chose to pursue a policy quite different from the European absolutist states. Of course, the reason that it had the leeway to do this was that it was relatively safe from invasions, unlike the European states. But in the end, it proved impossible for the Tokugawa regime to stop the process of capitalist development and nation-state formation. Japanese capitalism didn't start to develop after the Meiji Restoration, but much earlier despite the efforts of the Tokugawa state to suppress it (ibid. 247-252).

With the rise of the European "world-economy", the old empires went into decline. Although they largely managed to resist being colonized, their old margins - e.g. vassal states like Korea - fell prey to colonization. To Karatani, however, the empires are not simply remnants to be discarded. "They contain something important that is lacking in the modern world-system. Hence, the principle for overcoming the modern nation-state and capitalism must in some way or another resurrect the empire” (ibid. 156). What Karatani refers to here is of course the "imperial principle". This principle, however, can only be resurrected by first negating it, i.e. “sublating” it, as he puts it using the Hegelian term. Such attempts at sublation could be seen for instance in Kang Youwei's attempt to revive the Qing empire by orienting it to the ideal of datong ("great unity"). China's Marxist revolution too, Karatani suggests, can be seen as an attempt to sublate and thereby resurrect the imperial tradition (ibid. 168ff).

Today China rises economically again, but that doesn’t mean the return of the “East” as an empire. Instead it means simply that China is today functioning as part of a pluralist capitalist world-economy like other capitalist nation-states (p. 145). Karatani believes that the resurgence of national liberation movements within China is a sign that it has jettisoned its old "imperial principle" and instead become similar to the "imperialistic" European national states of a century ago. What China needs today, Karatani believes, is not to pursue neoliberal capitalism but to reconstruct empire. If China opts for further neoliberalization, social unrest and ethnic conflicts will exacerbate and it will risk disintegration (p. 171).

In the last part of the book, Karatani repeats his prediction, familiar from previous books, that today's predominance of large regional blocs – of which China is one – in combination with environmental degradation and an intensified struggle for resources will lead to world war, and that the only way to escape this fate is the establishment of a Kantian world-republic. Interesting in this connection is his explicit assertion that the models of such a world-republic found in Kant and Augustine are rooted in the idea of empire (p. 197). Like in previous books, he argues that the traumatic possibility of a new world war will make the formation of such a world-republic inevitable, since it will compel states to voluntarily renouce war and imperialistic ambitions (one of his models here, surely, is Japan and the firm popular support enjoyed today by its "peace constitution"). Powerful states can play a crucial role in creating world-republics, he believes. By voluntarily renouncing war as a “gift” to the world, other states will be compelled to reciprocate the gift, and thus a world-republic of peace can be established (p. 208f)." (

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