Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Citizens to Lords

Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Citizens to Lords [Verso 2007], is intended in part as a demonstration of “the social history of political theory.” Although Wood does not, for the most part, concern herself explicitly with the historiographical context of her wide subject, we do find a methodological orientation in the introduction. She ranges her manner of proceeding against Straussian textualism and Skinnerean historicism. It is not unreasonable to put Straussians on the right, Skinnerians in the middle, and Wood on the left. Citizens to Lords sets itself the task of understanding the classic texts of political theory through, or along side, the dynamics and meanings of social conflicts underway when these texts were written. Wood agrees, this is to say, up to a point with Skinner’s attention to locutionary force. For her, however, Skinner and those who share his method tend to build their contexts entirely out of other texts. Wood focuses rather on social structure and conflict.

After the methodological introduction, the book is divided into three long chapters: ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. Her argument embraces many of the classic works of political theory, and is sensitive enough to contingency and multiplicity summary does not do it justice. We may, however, set out the basic social conditions that, for her, underlie the political theory of each period. Political Theory, she says, was born in the special conditions of the Greek polis, in which the disciplinary apparatus of the state was dislodged from the exclusive control of the wealthy. In most pre-modern situations, Woods argues, the wealthy classes control the means of coercion and protection, and use them to expropriate wealth from the laboring and productive classes. In Greece, for contingent reasons, the productive classes were sufficiently strong that at a certain point it was not possible for the wealthy to remain wealthy without, so to speak, a modicum of consent. The polis is thus a state in which the numerous and poor have access to a political space of equality with the wealthy. Political theory (Plato and Aristotle in particular) is an intellectual response and as attempt to control the situation on the part of the elites. The writings of Plato and Aristotle are then read very much in terms of the political problems each one faced, and the side that they were on. Neither of these thinkers is pro-democracy, but they can also not ignore its existence and power. They are conditioned by it. For Wood, then, the rhetoric of equality began, almost immediately, to be used to justify inequality. This is to saw that where the classical political philosophers (as opposed to classical political praxis) allow a realm of equality, it is strictly circumscribed.

Wood does not go into very much detail about the transition of political philosophy from Greece to Rome. Indeed, this may be the moment to point out that if her materialist method sounds radical, it at no point and in no sense questions the existence or utility of the canon of political theory. It does not even seem to be the case, at least in this book, that this different method ranks the thinkers in a new way, or forces a re-evaluation of who is in and who is out of the canon. The book-list is fixed, only some of the questions and many of the answers change.

So we make the fairly radical leap from Greece to Rome, from Aristotle to Cicero (this isn’t entirely fair—there are other Greeks). The important thing about Rome, for Wood, is the relationship of property and government—dominium and imperium. Imperial power existed in large measure to allow the growth of personal and family wealth. It enabled massive profiteering and created great disparities. Wood, however, insists on the distinction between Rome, in which the state was one way to make money, but also depended to a great deal on the support of those with money, and China, in which the state was, she says, the only secure path to wealth. The point here is that if in Greece political theory had to deal with the space of politics as a contest between the wealthy and the poor on a field of equality, in Rome the difficulty is rather to adjudicate between different forms of possession.

The title of the book suggests what the next step will be. Feudalism in Europe did not grow from the still-warm embers of Rome, it did not ride in on the backs of the Teutons. Rather, as the central imperial authority of Rome itself waned, more and more responsibility was taken up by the local wealthy people on whom the Empire had always, anyway, depended for administration. These local rulers became feudal lords, and the tangled webs of property and obligation that bound them together as individuals and corporations are indeed the very definition of feudalism. Of course, things happened differently in different places. Parcellized sovereignty (the phrase is Perry Anderson’s, but heartily endorsed by Wood), was the rule in what would be France and Italy, but in the later the Roman municipal system had remained strong, and the city-state was a primary (but everywhere internally riven) unit. In England, on the other hand, the Roman system collapsed quickly and totally—central authority, if on a feudal model, was rapidly established there and never seriously questioned. This, for Wood, is what made England special. Before anywhere else, individuals were understood to be in direct relation with a distant central authority. This opened the way for a commercial and entrepreneurial property regime not yet possible in the same way in France or even Italy (here, I think it is clear that trade and banking work according to different principles than industrial or agro-industrial activity, and are consonant with feudal property obligations in ways that the later are not).

Since I am very unfamiliar with this material, I have few substantive objections to make. Methodologically I am sympathetic with Wood, but it does seem to me that the value-judgments that she assumes may validly be made about the canon of political theory are not so easily reconciled with the mode in which she analyzes the texts. “Productive” is a word she uses often in order to say “valuable”—but this is only a displacement. Why valuable? Her level of analysis is too sophisticated, in my opinion, to accept ‘productive’ in its usual and banal academic sense. On another level, and this is no doubt something that she has dealt with elsewhere, it does make me wince a bit to hear such confident assertions about the unique value of Europe and the Greek philosophical heritage without any kind of comparative perspective. I think, ultimately, that this is related to her unwillingness to challenge the content of the canon of political theory.

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