Daniel Gortz on the Theory of Moral Revolutions as Rooted in Socio-Economic Transformations

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Daniel Gortz:

"* So if I said Britain was the first capitalist society, I may have simplified too much. It's more correct to say, and more in line with conventional economic history, to view renaissance city-states of Northern Italy (with Genoa leading the way) as the first genuinely capitalist societies, run by merchants, with an advanced banking system, at about double the GDP per capita as compared with any other place in the world at that time. Interestingly, it was from these societies that the Renaissance developed, i.e. early modernity: arts and science (and this is hardly a coincidence). This renaissance social structure subsequently established a new center in Holland, and only after that did the connective center move to Britain.

  • Britain was the first major state power to consciously and deliberately develop capitalist market structures. Interestingly, this entailed *expanding* the reach of the state, taking up much higher tax rates than other countries in the 1700s and 1800s. They instituted a central bank and an academy of science.
  • In our upcoming book, my coauthor Emil and I argue that the most coherent way of seeing this historical progression is not from agriculture to industrialism, but from agriculture to capitalism. Agriculture entails the planning and organization of nature over time and space to create surplus value; capitalism is the corresponding practice of coordinating human time and effort for surplus-value: hence, manufacturing plants, joint ventures, bank loans, and the rest of it, represented by the practice of setting up a mechanical clock at the center of the city -- coordinating human agency over clock time (and space, also now mapped in a Cartesian coordinate system). This logic, in turn, drives forward what is known as "enclosure", i.e. the privatization of land and resources, so that they can be coordinated as specified "objects" within this social logic, increasing surplus value.
  • Britain happened to sit on a significant deposit of easily accessible coal ore, which, given a sufficient progression of the capitalist logic, could offer energy to the larger and more complex collaborative processes that the capitalist logic made possible. Hence, industrialization was sparked here, and Britain took a great leap in productivity vis-a-vis all other powers.
  • It is at this time that British colonialism takes place: already a leading naval power, but now with innovations sparked by the mechanization of society (such as onboard clocks that allow for great advantages in navigation), and in a time when armies are increasingly armed and commanded by capital, industrial capitalism supplants the "old game" of the agricultural regime (control more land and population and trade routes, to afford a bigger army, to tax these, and so on). Britain simply coordinates more human agency in more complex ways, and this lets them win at the old game, too -- and other powers scramble to follow suit. This is where Britain takes over a third of the world, and the rest is divided up, more or less, by other rising European colonial powers. The capitalist accumulation cycle requires new markets and resources, and so has an incentive to expand into colonies.
  • It is interesting, then, and seemingly paradoxical, that it should be Britain that bans slave trade first (not France in the wake of the Revolution, or the US after independence): slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the Caribbean colonies and Canada in 1834. In the midst of the urban squalor that arose from the displacement of peasants through enclosure and industrial expansion, the new system was nevertheless based upon contracts between parties. Even if slave trade was profitable, it was less so (on an aggregate societal level) than the smooth functioning of a universal system of laws that regulated exchange on the capitalist market which allowed for the growth of consumers and mobile workers. The state power, and the economy it commanded, was ultimately better off without slavery.
  • This systemic shift laid the ground for moral forces within Christianity to mobilize for abolition; British Protestants and Quakers took the lead, becoming what sociology calls "moral entrepreneurs" of the cause (like William Wilberforce). Christian theology had in fact always been opposed to slavery (you can go back to the 1500s and see Spanish intellectuals arguing for the souls of Indians and against slavery; Christian medieval Europe was not a slave economy as contrasted to the Roman Empire, etc.) -- but the logic of the agricultural regime, particularly in its transitional phases to capitalism (in which cheap slave-made cotton could be brought to Manchester to be refined in fabric factories, etc.), had simply been a stronger behavioral force. Once the economic-behavioral forces went in the opposite direction as a result of the expansion of capitalism (cotton and sugar monopolies were broken up and there was price competition for raw materials, according to a capitalist logic of free trade, which created pressure for innovation and efficiency at all levels of the value chain, not just cheap slave labor) ... the gameboard shifted, and the logic of Christian ethics could gain an upper hand, and successfully call for abolition with moral arguments.


  • An auxiliary point should be made here, and that is the rise of civil society and media. With newspapers and pamphlets easily available, the informational connectivity rises, and thus "public outrage" in wide populations who do not have a direct interest in the exploitation themselves becomes possible. This is also part of the more complex coordination of human agency under capitalism, allowing for movements to build.
  • Indeed, a corresponding dynamic plays out within the United States: the industrialized capitalist North for some reason was ripe for the moral awakening of abolition; the agricultural South was not. Both were Christian societies, but in the first case, economic-behavioral forces undergirded the Christian values.
  • Simply put: Capitalism in its industrial stage created the systemic prerequisites for a cultural change that was already rooted in the morality of society through Christianity (which ascribes equal value to all who believe). However, in its early preindustrial stages, capitalism worked in the opposite direction.
  • The reason I keep bringing up this whole issue is not an interest in economic history and slavery per se (even if those are also interesting). It is to bring to the fore a theory of moral revolutions: that they do indeed rely upon values and the hard work of movements and "moral entrepreneurs", but that these are ultimately only successful when the systemic-economic forces align with their work, simply because these constitute the behavioral dynamics within which people are embedded in their everyday lives. Interestingly, the groups that bring forward the systemic shifts of the economy and those that drive forward the cultural shifts are not the same.
  • To translate this to today's world, there are a number of moral causes that have widespread movements but do not have the economic-behavioral forces working for them: environmentalism, animal rights, and the many strands of social justice (from racial inequality to Global South and postcolonialism, to indigenous rights, to gender equality, to economic inequality in general) as well as generally postmaterialist values. It is, I hold, by shifting the economic systems by driving their own dynamics to their logical conclusions, that we can create the conditions for all of the moral critics of modernity to achieve their respective goals. One has to "beat the old system at its own game" so to speak, just as capitalism beat the agricultural regime of military power-maximation.
  • The economic logic of capitalism is now shifting due primarily to the advent of the Internet; as such, it becomes more profitable for societies at the aggregate level to not enclose information, and to invest in the happiness, inner growth, perspective-taking, and mutual trust among citizens (as well as other markers of the quality of relationships), as this drives the solution of complex problems, which is the great scarcity of our time. Volumes of goods are not the main scarcity; complexity management is. This creates an impetus to develop economic systems such as the commons, to the extent that these can attract greater investments and resolve more complex issues. This all flows from the plain fact that creativity cannot readily be bought: it emerges through relations, play, and inspiration by ideas and purpose. And creativity drives value creation more than anything else in a world that is already postindustrial to a significant extent.
  • In other words, to the extent that we can engender postcapitalist institutions that attract more capital because they genuinely offer more of what people want in the long run, and these can reinvest a larger part of the capital than capitalist companies do (because they are loyal to stakeholders rather than investors), this leads to an accumulation cycle in which postcapitalist institutions can begin to supplant capitalist ones.
  • The key issue here is "by which logic is human agency coordinated over time and space?" -- and the irony is that, under the current technological circumstances, the aggregate profit is higher when people are coordinated by non-monetary means, which in turn allows for more efficient reinvestments of that same profit.
  • At the very core of this latter shift lies the fact that value creation by a few for the many more seldom requires a large capital investment in machinery and real-estate -- and that coordinated financing (crowdfunding etc.) has become much easier. The main value store is in easily copied information.
  • For the moral struggles of our time to be successful, like the abolition of slavery has been (relatively so), more and more people must be moved out of the behavioral dynamics of capitalist logic, so that the moral struggles seem to converge with, rather than contradict, the social logic in which they live their lives and invest their hopes and efforts. For instance: smart solutions for distributed energy distribution disconnect people's interests from large powerplants and thus from large corporations, and thus creates an incentive for smart and fair communal sharing of energy, which in turn incentivizes broad solutions for more efficient urban planning and housing projects, neither of which can be resolved at the level of a one-to-one contract. This, in turn, incentivizes investment in the democratic qualities and capacities of one's fellow citizens, which facilitates a wider commitment to equality across different social spheres.
  • This does not remove any of the importance of the revolutionary glow of the social movements; we just have to change the landscape within which today's "Wilberforce" people work and function. Today, these heroes are all running uphill, but with shifts in the underlying economic dynamics made possible primarily (though far from solely) by new technologies, the movements can find that the landscape they are embedded within works with them and not against them."

Source: the text was posted on the Metamodernism forum plus on Hanzi Freinacht's profile.