Saturday, April 23, 2016

Daniel Little — Large structures and social change

The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx.…
The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers.….
More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu's How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a "Eurocentric" approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.…
There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We've gotten past the "agent-structure" debate; but perhaps we still have the "large factor, small factor" debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.
My view is that different accounts are useful. The simplest accounts are generally highly abstract and therefore only approximate, but they capture key features. However, they also stand in need of articulation in terms of nuance. Consequently, there might be many levels of account with different degrees of generality and nuance, or different methods of approach appropriate for the same issue.

Each of these levels can be viewed as a different type of tool, or as a microscopic with lenses of different power. There isn't one best explanation or method in an absolute sense but rather a best explanation of method for the task at hand.

For example, one method of attack or defense in debate is to request greater clarification or more granularity. There is no end to satisfying this in the case of perverse questioning.

Understanding Society
Large structures and social change
Daniel Little | Chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Professor of Philosophy at UM-Dearborn and Professor of Sociology at UM-Ann Arbor

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