In a reply to Owen White’s comment on my last post I claimed that English Toryism worthy of the name suffered its final defeat in 1846 with the triumph of the free trade movement and the abolition of the Corn Laws. To explain what I meant I want to consider the account of the anti-conservative nature of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels point out that bourgeois capitalism has dissolved the feudal ties that used to tie men to their ‘natural superiors,’ and that it has stripped human relations down to ‘egotistical calculation,’ and reduced human values to ‘exchange value.’ But they think that this was in a way necessary (one might almost say good) because it has enabled the rise of a revolutionary class who know that they are being oppressed: «for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.» (p. 16) But what if the religious and political institutions that founded pre-capitalist society in Western Europe were not illusions? What would become of their argument then? If one thinks that earthly societies ought to reflect the hierarchical order of the cosmos, then one might indeed think that ‘feudal’ society may have been more defensible then Marx and Engels thought, and that the rise of bourgeois capitalism was not a necessary unveiling of exploitation at all, but just an unmitigated disaster.
It is worth recalling some of the basic points that Marx makes about capitalism and its exploitative character in order to contrast it with pre-capitalist society. (The following paragraphs are taken from a longer writing project of mine, and involve a bit of ‘technical detail’).
The the most fundamental insight of Marxian economics is the distinction between use value and exchange value, and the most basic Marxian critique of capitalism is that it subordinates the former to the later. But in so-called ‘feudal society’ such a subordination had not taken place. The Aristotelian-Marxist Scott Meikle makes a similar point with respect to ancient ‘economy’:
In order to capture the difference between capitalist economy and pre-capitalist ‘economy’ the distinction required is that between use-value and exchange-value. The most fundamental question to be asked about a society is which of these predominates in it. A capitalist society is predominantly a system or exchange-value; economics is the study of the developed forms of exchange-value and of the regularities in its movement, or ‘actual market mechanisms,’ and it can come into being only with the appearance of full-blown market economy, that is, with markets in labour and capital, Antiquity was predominantly a system of use-value, partially administered, and if it had regularities, these were nothing like the cycles, laws, and trends which characterize a system of exchange-value. (p. 167)
Meikle is talking about ancient Greek society, but a similar point could be made about feudal society.
As Meikle shows, Marx’s theory of value is largely a development of the account of exchange offered by Aristotle. Marx himself notes that Aristotle was the first thinker to distinguish between use value and exchange value. Although Aristotle did not use a word equivalent to “value,” he recognized that external (i.e. material) things possessed by human beings could be used in two different ways. The first and original way that they could be used, the reason why people first begin to take or to make things in the first place, was to fulfill some human need (chreia).
Now, while neither Aristotle nor Marx developed this point much, I think it is important to point out that the relevant kind of need here is what Aristotle calls “hypothetical necessity”: if persons are to live they require food and shelter, if they are to live well they will need certain kinds of things of a certain quality. What things in particular they need depends on the hypothesis— that is, on their conception of the good life. If, for example, the good life is seen as requiring conviviality they will require wine, pleasant tasting food, musical instruments and other things useful for celebrating feasts. If it is conceived of as requiring the contemplation of beauty the will need statues, pictures, beautiful buildings, and so on.
Things thus have a value that comes from their ability to satisfy needs, and this is what Marx (following classical political economists) calls ‘use value.’
The second use of things that Aristotle distinguishes is their use in exchange. Aristotle uses the example of a shoe to explain this:
A shoe is used for wear, and is used for exchange; both are uses of the shoe. He who gives a shoe in exchange for money or food to him who wants one, does indeed use the shoe as a shoe, but this is not its proper use, for a shoe is not made to be an object of barter. (Politics I.9 1257a6-13)
Things thus have a value that comes from their ability to be exchanged, and this is what Marx calls ‘exchange value.’
For an exchange to be just the things exchanged must be of equal value. But this raises a problem, because exchange comes about between people with different needs and with different things to exchange: «it is not two doctors that associate for exchange, but a doctor and a farmer, or in general people who are different and unequal.» (Nicomachean Ethics, V.5 1133a16-18) How can things as different as a farmer’s crops and a physician’s medicine and treatment be equal? What is the common measure between them in virtue of which they can be said to be equal? As Meikle puts it:
The essence of Aristotle’s problem is to explain the capacity products have to exchange in non-arbitrary proportions; to discover the dimension in which products that are incommensurable by nature can become commensurable…
Aristotle tries different hypotheses for explaining exchange value. First money, but this will not do since one would still have to explain what makes money commensurable with other things, and then need, but need is an accident of the persons exchanging, not of the things, and does not therefore explain the ability of the things to be equated in an arbitrary way. Aristotle therefore concludes that there is no scientifically satisfactory explanation for the commensurability of such widely different things, but that must be assumed to be commensurable for practical reasons. Marx argues that in a fully capitalist economy there is indeed a common measure underlying the exchange value of different products: the ‘socially necessary’ labor time needed for their production. What is socially necessary is determined by competition and can be changed by innovation, but it is stable enough to enable commodities to be exchanged in non-arbitrary proportions.
Aristotle argues that exchange arose naturally from the fact that some have too little and others too much of certain needed goods, and that first form of exchange was simply one good for another. Marx represents this form C–C (C stands for ‘commodity’). Then money is interposed to make exchange easier, yielding the form C–M–C [(commodity)–(money)–(commodity)]. Historically, this view is almost certainly false, as David Graeber as shown, early economies depended on distribution rather than exchange, and that systems of impersonal exchange arose after the invention of money. Nevertheless, Marx and Aristotle are right about the way money functions in an already developed exchange market. Aristotle saw the form C–M–C as natural, and as being part of the art of managing a family or a city. Since the family or the city need certain external things to live, and to live well, there is a natural art of wealth getting, which is concerned with satisfying those needs—that is, in Marxist terms, with the acquisition of use values.
But, Aristotle goes on to argue, there is a second kind of wealth-getting that is not natural, because it is not ordered to acquiring necessary instruments (use values), but rather to getting as much money (i.e. as much exchange value) as possible. This second form of wealth-getting is most clearly seen in retail trade, in which someone takes money to the market rather than goods, buys goods with the money, and then exchanges them for more money. Marx would represent this form M–C–M´. This form of wealth-getting has no natural limit, since it is not ordered to getting certain needed goods, but just to increasing the quantity of money (that is, of the exchange value measured by money). Thus, there is no reason why M´ should not be again invested to yield M´´.
On Meikle’s reading, Aristotle thinks that this kind of wealth-getting can take over and corrupt almost any kind of human activity:
Aristotle’s deeper criticism [..] is not primarily of kapelike [trade] at all, but of its aim, the getting of wealth as exchange-value, and this is a more general thing (1257b40–1258a 14). People may pursue that aim by means of kapelike […] but they may pursue it by other means too, Aristotle instances the military and the medical arts, but he means that almost anything people do, and every faculty they have, can be put to the pursuit of exchange-value (1258a8—10). All these human activities, medicine, philosophy or sport, have a point for the sake of which they are pursued, and they can all be pursued for the sake of exchange-value as well or instead. When that happens, their own real point becomes a means to the end of exchange-value, which, being something quite different, transforms the activity and can threaten the real point and even destroy it. Aristotle is concerned, not only about the invasion by exchange-value of chrematistike, but about its invasion of ethical and political life as a whole. (pp. 178-179)
So we can now understand what I have called the most basic Marxian critique of capitalism— in capitalism the form of wealth getting that is ordered to increasing the quantity of exchange value has become dominant, subordinating the natural pursuit of use values to itself. As a result the concrete, useful labor naturally ordered to the creation of use-value, is subordinated to the abstract homogenous labor, which is the basis of exchange value. (I’m grateful to David Pederson for explaining this point to me). In such an economy competition ensures that forms of economic activity that do not do everything to maximize the increase of exchange value are quickly driven out of business. This also means that the conceptions of the good life promoted in a capitalist society are subordinated to selling goods. Instead of determining a-priori what is a good life, and then making things that help achieve it, capitalists invent and propagates any idea of the good life that will help them sell their products. Thus TV commercials are usually about how such and such a product is necessary to be ‘cool’ or ‘patriotic’ or ‘old-school’ or ‘up to date’ or whatever fake conception of the good life will induce people to buy the product.
But now let us compare this with pre-capitalist society. In an 1843 speech against repealing the Corn Laws Benjamin Disraeli argued as follows:
Now, what is the fundamental principle of the feudal system, gentlemen? It is that the tenure of all property shall be the performance of its duties. Why, when [William] the Conqueror carved out parts of the land, and introduced the feudal system, he said to the recipient, “You shall have that estate, but you shall do something for it: you shall feed the poor; you shall endow the Church; you shall defend the land in case of war; and you shall execute justice and maintain truth to the poor for nothing.” […] Why, when I hear a political economist, or an Anti-Corn-Law Leaguer, or some conceited Liberal reviewer come forward and tell us, as a grand discovery of modern science, twitting and taunting, perhaps, some unhappy squire who cannot respond to the alleged discovery — when I hear them say, as the great discovery of modern science, that “Property has its duties as well as its rights,” my answer is that that is but a feeble plagiarism of the very principle of that feudal system which you are always reviling. Let me next tell those gentlemen who are so fond of telling us that property has its duties as well as its rights, that labour also has rights as well as its duties; and when I see masses of property raised in this country which do not recognize that principle; when I find men making fortunes by a method which permits them (very often in a very few years) to purchase the lands of the old territorial aristocracy of the country, I cannot help remembering that those millions are accumulated by a mode which does not recognize it as a duty “to endow the Church, to feed the poor, to guard the land, and to execute justice for nothing.” And I cannot help asking myself, when I hear of all this misery, and of all this suffering; when I know that evidence exists in our Parliament of a state of demoralisation in the once happy population of this land, which is not equalled in the most barbarous countries, which we suppose the more rude and uncivilised in Asia are — I cannot help suspecting that this has arisen because property has been permitted to be created and held without the performance of its duties.
Clearly the economic system that Disraeli is here describing is one in which use value predominated over exchange value. In fact, it was primarily a system of distribution rather than of exchange. Goods were produced for the land owners, and then distributed by them according to an aristocratic, hierarchical conception of distributive justice. Now, Disraeli’s vision of the feudal system was certainly an idealized one, but it was a vision of a system of which strong traces were still left in his day. But those traces were about to be erased, and the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws was a key step in that erasure. Of course, the victory of capitalism over ‘feudal’ society had begun much earlier with the dissolution of the monasteries and the ‘primitive accumulation’ and agricultural revolution that the dissolution enabled. But there was still a landed aristocracy that carried on something of the old form of life. The history of England from the Reformation to 1846 was largely determined by the struggle between capitalists and landed gentry with the Civil War being an early climax. But I would argue that in England the scale did not tip irrevocably toward the capitalist side till 1846.
Disraeli certainly predicted such a shift:
I want to ask the gentlemen who are members of the Anti-Corn-Law League, the gentlemen who are pressing on the Government of the country, on the present occasion, the total repeal and abolition of the Corn Laws […] I want them to consider this most important point […] how far the present law of succession and inheritance in land will survive the whole change of your agricultural policy? If that does not survive—if that falls—if we recur to the Continental system of parcelling out landed estates— I want to know how long you can maintain the political system of the country ? That estate of the Church which I mentioned; that estate of the poor to which I referred; that great fabric of judicial rights to which I made allusion; those traditionary manners and associations which spring out of the land, which form the national character, which form part of the possession of the poor not to be despised, and which is one of the most important elements of political power— they will tell you ‘Let it go!’ My answer to that is, ‘If it goes, it is a revolution, a great, a destructive revolution,’ and it is not my taste to live in an age of destructive revolution. (pp. 52-53)
Sixty years later, with the advantage of hindsight, Lord Cantilupe, the fictional High Tory in G. Lowes Dickinson’s A Modern Symposium makes the same argument:
Even after the first Reform Act—which, in my opinion was conceived upon the wrong lines—the landed gentry still governed England; and if I could have had my way they would have continued to do so. It wasn’t really parliamentary reform that was wanted; it was better and more intelligent government. And such government the then ruling class was capable of supplying, as is shown by the series of measures passed in the thirties and forties, the new Poor Law and the Public Health Acts and the rest. Even the repeal of the Corn Laws shows at least how capable they were of sacrificing their own interests to the nation; though otherwise I consider that measure the greatest of their blunders. I don’t profess to be a political economist, and I am ready to take it from those whose business it is to know that our wealth has been increased by Free Trade. But no one has ever convinced me, though many people have tried, that the increase of wealth ought to be the sole object of a nation’s policy. And it is surely as clear as day that the policy of Free Trade has dislocated the whole structure of our society. It has substituted a miserable city-proletariat for healthy labourers on the soil; it has transferred the great bulk of wealth from the country-gentleman to the traders; and in so doing it has more and more transferred power from those who had the tradition of using it to those who have no tradition at all except that of accumulation. The very thing which I should have thought must be the main business of a statesman—the determination of the proper relations of classes to one another—we have handed over to the chances of competition. We have abandoned the problem in despair, instead of attempting to solve it; with the result, that our population—so it seems to me—is daily degenerating before our eyes, in physique, in morals, in taste, in everything that matters; while we console ourselves with the increasing aggregate of our wealth. (pp. 10-11)
Cantilupe is in favor of an aristocratic society, and unlike Marx he doesn’t think it exploitative; he admires the peasants who work for him, and laments the fact that capitalism is abolishing their way of life:
There will be fewer of the kind of people in whom I take pleasure, whom I like to regard as peculiarly English, and who are the products of the countryside; fellows who grow like vegetables, and, without knowing how, put on sense as they put on flesh by an unconscious process of assimilation; who will stand for an hour at a time watching a horse or a pig, with stolid moon-faces as motionless as a pond; the sort of men that visitors from town imagine to be stupid because they take five minutes to answer a question, and then probably answer by asking another; but who have stored up in them a wealth of experience far too extensive and complicated for them ever to have taken account of it. They live by their instincts not their brains; but their instincts are the slow deposit of long years of practical dealings with nature. That is the kind of man I like. And I like to live among them in the way I do—in a traditional relation which it never occurs to them to resent, any more than it does to me to abuse it. That sort of relation you can’t create; it has to grow, and to be handed down from father to son. (pp. 13-14)
He loves hierarchical order:
I like a society properly ordered in ranks and classes. I like my butcher or my gardener to take off his hat to me, and I like, myself, to stand bareheaded in the presence of the Queen. I don’t know that I’m better or worse than the village carpenter; but I’m different; and I like him to recognize that fact, and to recognize it myself. (p 7-8)
And therefore he is against the rule of shopkeepers:
I believe that the pursuit of wealth tends to unfit men for the service of the state. And I sympathize with the somewhat extreme view of the ancient world that those who are engaged in trade ought to be excluded from public functions. I believe in government by gentlemen; and the word gentleman I understand in the proper, old-fashioned English sense, as a man of independent means, brought up from his boyhood in the atmosphere of public life, and destined either for the army, the navy, the Church, or Parliament. It was that kind of man that made Rome great, and that made England great in the past; and I don’t believe that a country will ever be great which is governed by merchants and shopkeepers and artisans. (p 9)
Cantilupe’s Toryism is indeed a far cry from the modern variety, whose heroine, Margaret Thatcher, was literally a grocer’s daughter. I find Cantilupe’s politics highly sympathetic, but in England his cause has now been a lost cause for a very long time. He laments that his way of life is dying out, and in the 20th century it did indeed die out almost completely. For a time some English aristocrats were able to replicate it in the colonies. Evelyn Waugh describes such replication in Kenya:
It is not big business enterprise which induces the Kenya settlers to hang on to their houses and lands, but the more gentle motive of love for a very beautiful country that they have come to regard as their home, and the wish to transplant and perpetuate a habit of life traditional to them, which England has ceased to accommodate— the traditional life of the English squirearchy, which, while it was still dominant, formed the natural target for satirists of every shade of opinion, but to which now that it has become a rare and exotic survival, deprived of the normality which was one of its determining characteristics, we can as a race look back with unaffected esteem and regret. I am sure that, if any of them read this book, they will deny with some embarrassment this sentimental interpretation of their motives. It is part of the very vitality of their character that they should do so. They themselves will say simply that farming was impossible in England, so they came to Kenya, where they understood that things were better; they will then grouse a little about the government, and remark that after all, bad as things are, it is still possible to keep a horse or two and get excellent shooting— things only possible at home for those who spend the week in an office. That would be their way of saying what I have just said above. (Waugh Abroad, p. 323)
The Kenyan squirearchy was beautiful described by Elspeth Huxley in The Flame Trees of Thika, but it too soon perished.
Cantilupe’s way of life is now thoroughly lost, and there is no political force trying to restore it. There is however a certain amount of nostalgia for that way of life. Witness the extremely popular ITV costume drama Downton Abbey. I find it darkly funny that in our day the first thing that springs to mind to illustrate the longing for the days of Cantilupe is a TV show. In the ‘iron cage’ of capitalism (to use Max Weber’s expression) even nostalgia for a pre-capitalist society is exploited by capitalist TV companies to make money.