Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: Meiksins Wood

Comment* on Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing historical materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Ellen Meiksins Wood examines capitalism as a specific type of social and political system that, over time, is characterized by variable but definite restrictions on democratic participation. She finds that “the defining characteristic of capitalism as a political terrain is the formal ‘separation of the economic and the social.’”[1] Her historicization of capitalism takes place within a materialist framework. Post-modernist approaches, in her view, cannot adequately address critical aspects of capitalism’s form.

Her criticism of post-modernism as a line of inquiry argues that the ‘knowledge effects’ it generates with respect to capitalism are limited and limiting. She cites the concept of ‘the market’ as an example of unacknowledged paradox at work within postmodernism. She notes that post-modernist practice is dedicated to demonstrating that contingencies, fragmentations, and heterogeneities render attempts to delineate and construct unified categories of, and for, analysis misleading. But, post-modernists have not devised a language that supplies ways and means to describe the market in all its complexity. It has been left as an unexamined, hence unexplainable, abstract whole. The end result is that discussion of the market as a factor in capitalism can only allude to ‘economic power’—a practice that differs little from resorting to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ In contrast to post-modernists, Wood is interested not only in outlining what capitalism does—basically, she suggests it thrives on a ‘divide and conquer’ basis—but how this pattern is instituted and transmuted over time. She moves beyond the question of how capitalism is known, to ask instead about what needs to be known and why.

Wood begins by examining a cue from Marx: that “the ultimate secret of capitalist production is a political one” [italics in source].[2] At the core, capitalist production is “a process of class struggle and coercive intervention by the state on behalf of the expropriating classes.”[3] The object of the struggle is control of the means of production —a control that is wrested from the producer. The economic sphere is therefore not separate from the political sphere, and, both exist as a “set of social relations.”[4] Thus, the economic, the political, and the social are not only interconnected but also co-extensive. Wood therefore sets out to demonstrate that, historically, differentiation of the economic from the political in Western societies is indicative of activity within the political sphere that, whether initially intentioned or not, effectively enabled and continues to enable, the exploitation of one sector of a society by another. Class is thus reinstated as a central tenet.

That much is relatively easy to say with respect to Wood’s work. However, the manner in which she presents her argument and the range of evidence she accesses make for a complex mix. She ties together theoretical aspects of Marxism, Thompsonian historical materialism, capitalism, democracy, and the history of western European development. In addition she points to the significance of agrarianism as a foundational determinant of historical development (in terms of cultural proclivity), and makes allusions that suggest the dynamics of empire (again culturally supported) are equally important.[5] The basic framework that Wood organizes opens possibilities for establishing additional connections and extending inquiry. For example, tying-in Harold Innis’ work on empire would allow the area of communication to be expanded to include how and why cultural predispositions channel enthusiasms within a capitalist societal system—a question central to the debate on agency, consciousness, and mass motivation.[6]

Although she touches on consciousness (primarily to describe Thompson’s conception of it as it relates to class) and motivation (principally to dismiss Weberian ‘rationality’), agency is not prominent in Wood’s discussion.[7] In isolating and examining essential characteristics of capitalism, she employs a relatively high level of abstraction. While Wood’s analytical style is well-suited to describing her theoretical vantage point, it cannot account for the contingent and untidy variables of lived history that range beyond her immediate concern—to delineate general features of capitalism that serve to undermine the attainment of democracy. While it is it unfair to expect that Wood’s analysis must account for more than what she sets out to do, she allows stylistic abstraction to drift towards conceptual closure. Because the vagaries of lived responses to the capitalist system are not fully accommodated, her argument displays a pronounced tendency towards suggesting economic determinism—perhaps to a degree not intended. The promise of Wood’s framework is that it need not be regarded as a collection of orthodoxies welded into a ‘totalizing meta-narrative.’ Rather, working from a Thompsonian perspective it can be regarded as “historical discourse” about historical process that, though it brings to bear “expectations,” does not foreclose on possibilities. The framework allows ‘problematics’ to be confronted by way of applying “historical logic.”[8] That being said, there are three points that Wood makes regarding capitalism about which I have reservations. One point I find too vague, a second I suspect imposes too rigid a constraint. The third strikes me as made in contradistinction to her objection to over-reliance on theoretical constructs.

The first point constitutes a gap that I find common to theorizations about capitalism generally. Wood references militarism as connected to economic expansion. However, to my disappointment, she characterizes this as an “‘extra-economic’ logic of a war economy, the logic of coercive appropriation and pillage” and goes no further.[9] She does not, for example, treat soldiering as a variation of paid work in a feudal—or any other—economic system (Noam Chomsky in contrast has spent considerable energy delineating the ways in which ‘war economy’ can be seen as the defining feature of the U.S. system of empire and capitalist “expansionary logic”).[10] Wood does not supply the means to extrapolate on the idea that the state has protected coercive ways of expanding capital accumulation (by commissioning buccaneers for example), to enlarge discussion of extra-legal economic activity and so to include the clandestine, illegal side of capitalist economy (gun-running or covert arms dealing for example). To be fair, I am not aware of any historian who has supplied a systematic treatment of this issue. Scholars in other disciplines have done so in ways that suggest the idea of intentional and unintentional outcomes might be extended to include historical analysis of the relation of the state to economic illegality.[11] There have been historical studies of relevant concepts (and philosophical treatises devoted to tying them to political economics) but, if Wood can be taken as indicative, direct connections have yet to be made within historical materialism.[12] As far as I know, although ‘official corruption’ is treated as a fixture in capitalist systems, most often, ‘crime’ and ‘organized crime’ are regarded as indicative of an ‘informal’ and/or parallel economic system (or, there is the post-modernist tendency to focus on how crime is a construction—without supplying an explanation as to why activities taking place in the region of capitalism’s under-interrogated underside and targeted as ‘criminal’ exist in the first place).[13] Such treatment does not unambiguously acknowledge the ‘legitimate’ status of the capitalist actors (often situated at the highest levels of the formal system), the (known) illegality either of the transactions, or of the commodities involved. It seems to me that the capitalist impetus as an outcome of participatory behavior cannot be understood without ‘illegal’ aspects of economic activity being taken into account.

The point that Wood makes that strikes me as overly constraining is about class. She agrees with Thompson that “class struggle precedes class” in that “class formations presuppose an experience of conflict and struggle arising out of production relations” [italics in source]; that “Class … is a phenomenon which is visible only in process”; and that “there are conflicts and struggles structured in ‘class ways’.”[14] Class is therefore not just a “category of stratification,” it is a relation in which there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ in contest, experiencing an “antagonism of interests.”[15] But, I do not find compelling her subsequent argument that inequalities levied on the basis of ‘race’ and gender (and I would include age, religion, intelligence, and physical capacity), are qualitatively unlike ‘class.’[16] I do not believe she has adequately demonstrated these inequalities do not represent variations of class conflict because I do not think she has described the nature capitalism’s complex of internal dependencies in its entirety.[17]

If, for the sake of argument, a capitalist system is imagined as a hierarchical, pyramidal arrangement that cannot function without a proportionately large number of people occupying non-wage positions (such as children, the elderly, infirm, slaves, homemakers, and those without formal education), or marginal-wage positions (among whom transients, migrants, and geographically removed ‘others’ might also figure) at its base, then, just because ‘race’ appears dispensable at one point in time it does not necessarily follow that some other socially constructed category is not invented or expanded to maintain ‘balance’—to ensure the proportion of people relegated to the lowest level in the of socio-political-economic structure remains constant.[18] If “the very base of the economy’ is regarded as “in the organization of labour itself” only insofar as that organization includes—along with “producers” and “means of production”—the “underclass” as the necessary aspect, then the “market’s ultimate discipline” would be to create the underclass.[19]

Although Wood regards class as a relation not a thing, her failure to extend that consideration to other categories is restrictive. It risks disallowing the acceptance of a much wider range of people as “active historical beings, who are ‘subject’ and ‘object’ at once.”[20] It risks denying social being shaped by experience giving rise to social consciousness in a wider range of groups simply because they have avowed, or been ascribed, an identity in a fashion that may well obscure an underlying contest with a material basis—a contest that relegates one group to a subordinate position by purposely denying its members equal opportunity to access the means of production. It also ignores the possibility that a ‘fear factor’—fear of falling, or remaining trapped, in the lowest echelon of society—renders “the drive for capitalist accumulation” entirely rational (meaning reasoned).[21] If historical inquiry is to be open-ended (as Thompson maintains it must be), I find it unfortunate that—as discussed in my third point below—Wood’s argument does not allow concerns such as mine to be entertained, because, resting on a hypothesis, they necessarily introduce working assumptions.

Wood reiterates several times that historians too often make the mistake of “assuming the existence of the very thing whose emergence needs to be explained.”[22] Although this axiom is introduced in order to test other theoretical positions, it is not consistently applied to her own work. In the course of interrogating “how to encompass historical specificity, as well as human agency, while recognizing … the logic of modes of production,” she notes that each mode of production has its own specificity and sets up socialism as the logical antithesis of capitalism.[23] A problem arises when she then moves on to discuss the transitions to and from capitalism. She does not clearly acknowledge that there is not unanimous agreement on the nature of these transitions— they are theorized, not known processes.[24] She does not clearly state whether or not Marx actually ‘proved’ (meaning clearly delineated and supported with compelling evidence) the specificity of capitalism as directly determining its “distinctive laws of motion.”[25] In fact, in noting that “Marx himself never produced a systematic account of the process of transition” her answer appears to be that he did not ‘prove’ transition— what he did do was make the occurrence of a transition ‘possible.’[26] However, having made that observation, Wood proceeds to describe the transition as though it had indeed happened in accord with a Marxist formulation of ‘motion.’[27] The assumed occurrence of transition is then used to confirm the “possibility” of a subsequent transition to socialism.[28] In this instance, then, Wood introduces assumptions that presuppose “the very thing whose emergence needs to be explained” without acknowledging that that she has done so.

None of my reservations detract from Wood’s organization of the defense of her argument that western European expansionist societies (whether all constituents wittingly understood the consequences or not), adopted and adapted ancient socio-political-economic models—particularly Athenian and Roman—because “Capitalism … made it possible to conceive of ‘formal democracy’, a form of civic equality which could coexist with social inequality and leave economic relations between the ‘elite’ and ‘labouring multitude’ in place.”[29] Wood’s formulation would be stronger, in my view, if she presented the determining motivation as a collective (though unequally realizable) desire for individual and social stability, borne of a fear of instability, and based on experience.[30]


*Written c. 2005 in preparation for PH.D. comp. exam; see “bibliography 2: knowing Social History; Field: Comparative Social History: select themes in consciousness and identity” this site.

[1] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 14.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,  21, 23.

[5] The book appears to be the middle section of a trilogy rounded out by: Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: a Longer View (New York: Verso, 2002), and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (New York: Verso, 2003). Richard Biernacki, review of The Origin of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, Contemporary Sociology 29, no. 4 (Jul., 2000): 638-639, points out that Wood’s agrarian thesis is derived from Robert Brenner’s “celebrated model.” The model was outlined in three essays: “Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe,” Past and Present 70 (1976); “The origins of capitalist development: A critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review 104 (1977); and “The agrarian roots of European capitalism,” Past and Present 97 (1982). Wood, in expanding Brenner’s thesis to include extra-European instances, ventures towards answering Brenner’s critics, such as J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), who “in fun” once labeled Brenner a “Neo-Weberian Euro-Marxist.”

[6] E.P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory or An Orrery of Errors (1978),” The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 9: Thompson, in allowing that consciousness may take a form as “unselfconscious culture, or as myth, or as science, or law, or articulated ideology” points directly to a link with communication as Innis articulated it. Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and John Bellamy Foster, eds., Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Information Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), indicates that Meiksins and others—including, Heather Menzies, Noam Chomsky, Michael Dawson, Jill Hills, Edward Herman and Andy Pollack—appreciate the potential for expanding the range of theoretical connections to be made.

[7] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 49, 52, 60, refers to agency briefly: without stating her own position on the issue, she notes that in “Marxist debate” Thompson figures as “a humanist for whom economic laws give way to an arbitrary human will and agency.” The term does not appear in the index.

[8] Ibid., 39-40, 45.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] See ibid., 162, 145.

[11] See for example Daniel Kauffman, “Corruption; The Facts,” Foreign Policy 107 (summer, 1997): 114-131; Bryan W. Husted, “Wealth, Culture and Corruption,” Journal of International Business Studies 30, no. 2 (2d qrt., 1999): 339-359; Shang-Jin Wei, “Local Corruption and Global Capital Flows,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2000, no. 2 (2000): 303-354.

[12] See for example Richard K. Matthews, ed., Virtue, Corruption, and Self-Interest: Political Values in the Eighteenth-Century (Bethlehem PA.: Lehigh University Press, 1994).

[13] See Stuart Henry, “The Political Economy of Informal Economies,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 493, The Informal Economy (Sep., 1987): 137-153. See also Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (summer, 1991): 773-797.

[14] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 80, 83, 81, 2.

[15] Ibid., 94, 95.

[16] See ibid., 259, 266.

[17] Alex Dupuy, review of Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing historical materialism, by Contemporary Sociology 25, no. 4 (Jul., 1996): 567-569, voices a similar objection but argues it differently—and well.

[18] See James W. Wessman, “The Demographic Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico: Some Aspects of Agrarian Capitalism in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Latin American Studies 12, no. 2. (Nov., 1980): 271-289, for the plausibility of assuming a pyramidal demographic distribution of persons in capitalist societies. My conjecture also assumes a reciprocal dependency of the under classes as consumers and debtors as discussed in Harry T. Oshima, “Consumer Asset Formation and the Future of Capitalism,” The Economic Journal 71, no. 281 (Mar., 1961): 20-35; and Wendy Weiss, “Debt and Devaluation: The Burden on Ecuador’s Popular Class,” Latin American Perspectives 24, no. 4, Ecuador, Part 2: Women and Popular Classes in Struggle (Jul., 1997): 9-33. See also Sheldon Danziger, comment on “The Age of Extremes: Concentrated Affluence and Poverty in the Twenty-First Century,” by Douglas S. Massey, Demography 33, no. 4 (Nov., 1996): 413-416, who notes that in instances where race stereotyping has become less a factor in perpetuating inequality among high school graduates, inequalities in skill acquisition rates between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students may have increased. He clearly implicates state policy as a factor in maintaining inequality over time; and Douglas S. Massey, “Response to Danziger, Farley, and Hout et al,” Demography 33, no. 4 (Nov., 1996): 427-428, who notes that Michael Hout et al maintain that “inequality is part of the design of society … that design is political, subject to [state] controls.” Massey disagrees with the observation only in that he believes the transnational character of capitalism takes causality beyond political decisions made at the national level.

[19] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism., 283, 290, 291.

[20] Ibid., 92.

[21] Ibid., 265.

[22] Ibid., 115, marks the third time the statement is made.

[23] Ibid., 59, 133, 145.

[24] J.M. Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time,” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 26, no. 4 (1994): 351-376, cached at <;, notes that, arguments of other theorists aside (which he details), though Marxists may agree that class struggle produced an “insurmountable crisis” that saw feudalism give way to a “new and higher mode of production,” they “are by no means agreed as to when that crisis occurred and how and why transformation took place.”

[25] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 138, 139, 148.

[26] David McNally, review of The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, by Ellen Meiksins Wood, The American Political Science Review 87, no. 3 (Sep., 1993): 779-780, indicates my objection is one that has been leveled against Wood in other work. McNally accuses her of too ready reliance on a “sort of gradualist” Marxist position, effectively ‘begging the question’ of transition to capitalism. Further, he notes that her ambiguity with respect to transition has resulted in two of her students “adopting sharply different positions on the question.” The one—George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the revisionist challenge  (New York: Verso, 1987)—denying that political revolution during periods when the transition to capitalism is reputed to have been taking place is necessarily related to economic change; the other—Colin Peter Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe: absolutism, revolution, and the rise of capitalism in England, France and Germany  (New York: Verso, 1991)—arguing that the political is a direct response to the economic.

[27] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 140.

[28] Ibid., 144.

[29] Ibid., 213.

[30] See ibid., 135, and the discussion of “viability limits.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: Wallach Scott

Comment* on Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (revised edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

As with reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ collection of pieces in The Languages of Class, to read this collection of articles is to observe the working out of ideas; to observe theory as process. Joan Wallach Scott covers a lot of ground, pointing to a number of historiographical inadequacies along the way. There are comments on the non-transparency of documents and the limits of historians. These are not new problems, but her disciplinary critique indicates that new approaches do not necessarily furnish a quick fix, and suggests that Scott, like Stedman Jones, would like to find one. She imparts a sense of wanting some sort of firm and common ground within the discipline. Historiography seems in need of defense against fragmentation, even though, according to Scott, it is not realistic to seek final ‘authority’ or pursue “universal explanation.”[1] The unity she seeks appears to be of a different kind.

With respect to gender history, Scott notes a “powerful resistance” by a ‘ruling elite’ (read men) to changing or complicating established approaches to history on the basis of details newly reported by historians of women. She observes that “New facts might document the existence of women in the past, but they did not necessarily change the importance (or lack of it) attributed to women’s activities. Indeed, the separate treatment of women could serve to confirm their marginal and particularized relationship to those (male) subjects already established as dominant and universal.”[2] The commonality Scott is searching for therefore seems to be one that would see women and men accorded equal merit in a mutually-pursued gender-conscious historiography.

Aware of “the difficulty of establishing clear and fixed definitions,” Scott is careful to explain her conception of gender.[3] She accepts that gender is constructed. The act of gendering in effect claims/ proclaims difference within social organization.[4] In discussing groups involved in dealing with difference and establishing identity (by which she appears to mean that the group’s members express consciousness of the similarity of their condition), Scott focuses primarily on describing women reacting against prevalent, oppressive conditions. By and large she appears to assume that men have already established their identity. It is worth noting that her definitional concern does not extend to clearly explaining what she means by identity. It should. A good deal of her difficulty with the concept likely stems from semantic ambiguity. In any case, people are described as fashioning their identities out of available cultural resources (all manner of symbols, and presumably the body as well). They promote these identities in accord with political understandings and through social organization. In short, they group and act as a group within their society. Interestingly, although the cultural, social, and political spheres of society are included in Scott’s description of her understanding, she does not specifically address economic factors. They are not given an explicit position in her formulation. Economy appears to disappear within the word ‘power.’ Biological factors are similarly skirted. Whatever is biological about gender is subsumed, uninvestigated, within the word ‘sex,’ which does not appear to be considered the basis for determining a real grouping, but functions as a convenient grammatical element, now and then. It is not that economic inequality or biological determinism is taken as understood, quite the opposite. But whatever relation might exist between economy and biology is not outlined. Scott in fact reacts against social history that has “reduced human agency to a function of economic forces and made gender one of its many by-products.”[5] She does not explicitly deny the possibility that proclaiming difference signals a ‘class relation’—in fact she avers that in some “contests for power … identities of class are created.”[6] Inequality is therefore implied to be present and the subject of struggle, where identity is an issue. However, the major inequality according to Scott’s formulation appears to be one of ‘power.’[7] In her discourse, consideration of the material world—and of the material considerations of past actors as having explicit political economic affect—is effaced.

Scott treats power as a prevalent variable, along the lines of a normative given, but, although it infuses everything, she does not provide a concerted examination of what it is. By inference, “power relationships” seems to be a verbal substitute for ‘class relations’ wherever the contest being investigated turns on the issue of gender inequality.[8] Power is presented as “differential control over or access to material and symbolic resources.”[9] It is therefore consistent with ‘ownership.’ But, with respect to gender contests, what is not subjected to questioning is how this ownership is established or enforced—it just is, already, as though power is a latent quality in human beings. Thus, power as Scott uses the word would seem to be more consistent with the nineteenth-century definition, ‘an ability to do work,’ than with a definition that would suggest it was an overt expression of force, the actual doing of work.

Scott works through a definition of politics in various articles. The point, it seems, is that she seeks to reposition gender contests as political, not merely sexual.[10] Politics is “the power relationships”, “the power dynamics.”[11] She notes that Stedman Jones characterizes politics as the attempts to effect “formal participation in the government or state,” and that Thompson defines it as “the form of expression of class consciousness, [it] is a cultural and historical product.”[12]  But Scott appends a caveat, stating that “I mean not contests about formal participation in government … but contests about power and knowledge that dealt variously and often simultaneously with voting, work, family, and gender.”[13]

In Scott’s descriptions of contests about power and knowledge, hierarchy is invariably present. Society is modeled on it. Scott’s academic argument about the relative positions of class, race, and gender as categories of analysis reflects it.[14] Hierarchical organization is obviously regarded as important. In most instances, her pivotal point turns on establishing that hierarchy exists—it is intrinsic to the inequality that power perpetuates.[15] However, throughout Scott’s discussions, there is an unsubstantiated leap made to the conclusion that this “whole system of social relationships” has always, everywhere been historically endemic.[16] Scott observes, “[H]ow this system works” ought to be explored.[17] In my opinion, where it came from and how it has been perpetuated over time ought to as well. I am not suggesting that there is a need to illuminate a pre-historic primordial past. I am objecting that an unbroken trajectory into the present of an unvarying relation fully formed in a primordial past has been assumed. If ‘power relationships’ are not biologically determined, but actively enforced; if people have agency and Stedman Jones is correct in stating that “Social alliances do not simply happen, they are brought into being and re-created by the construction and periodic reconstruction of a common political discourse,” then the assumption of unceasing, invariable transmission of a primordial condition needs critical assessment.[18]

Scott’s, and Bonnie G. Smith’s, writings suggest that such assessment is possible. For example, why not interrogate the numerous allusions to the enthusiasm (particularly evident from the 1400s on) among empire-obsessed European nations for debating the relative merits of emulating either Greek or Roman models of empire and socio-political arrangement (in which slavery and the separation of women from active citizenship were affected)? Why not ask where and when modeling political economic institutions after previous empires was pursued, how it was instituted, by whom, and why? Scott’s comments indicate that such questions raise objections, and not from the ‘ruling elite.’ She complains that answering such questions tends to support contentions that “economic causality takes precedence, and patriarchy always develops and changes as a function of relations of production.”[19] I am mystified as to why that possibility would be regarded as less palatable than the idea of biological determinism. As well, if, on the basis of evidence, historians tend to confirm that a pattern ‘always’ is so, perhaps this is a phenomena worth making note of.

I am sensitive to Scott’s (and other feminist historians’) disinterest in examining the institutionalization of political economic hierarchy in western European societies, in light of my interest in historical process in North American societies. For example, Red River from 1810–1870 was a society organized without the benefit of full-time fundamental state-regulated institutions. There was no consistently state-regulated military, bureaucracy, or system of currency. There was no state representative, just an understanding on the part of settlers that Britain was ‘over there, across the ocean’ and they were among its free-born citizens. There was civil society—in all respects ‘normal’ and relatively modern for the time. The people were gendered. Yet the system of government and social relations were non-hierarchically organized. This quasi-stateless system was not invented on the spot, or modeled after a utopian European conception. It was based on the experience of more that one-half, possibly more than three-quarters, of the people counted among its founders of having grown up within completely stateless systems of social organization (an experience predominantly of women, but of men as well). I am also interested that, aside from an absentee state, the political economy did not have a strong commercial-field-cultivation agrarian base. That form of agrarian support was minimal in the sense that it did not rise far above subsistence levels. Yet, there was development. There were calls for increased development. And in fact, though development in field-crop production was accomplished by the application of force—and invasion—such development did take place. The installation of state structures, of a program of extensive agrarian expansion, and of regulated hierarchical social organization occurred concurrently and by conscious design. The political economic, social, and cultural status of all women and children and a substantial number of men in the Red River region was profoundly altered—downward. These were civilized and sophisticated people. Their ‘domestication’ was a political act with economic repercussions.

Oddly, while suspicious of political-economic historiographical inquiry, another aspect of Scott’s concern with the ‘politics of history’ involves decrying “history’s atheoretical stance.”[20] She expresses alarm that “epistemological turmoil” is upsetting ‘social scientists’ in general.[21] Apparently she believes ‘theory’ is in need of a concerted rescue effort, to prevent a historiographically induced demise. I don’t agree. I do not share what I take to be a predominant assumption in some circles: that theory is somehow distinct from, by way of being vastly superior to, hypothesis. Hypothesis in turn, as an ‘untested guess,’ seems to be equated to conjecture or some set of ‘popular belief.’ I do not regard a historiographical hypothesis as merely conjectural (meaning other peoples’ guesses, probably offered on the basis of somebody’s observation at some point). A hypothesis differs in that it is backed by a historian’s ‘observation’ in the sense that perusing historical sources supports the logic of a hypothesis’ formulation. I regard hypotheses as provisional, but, so do I regard theories. Historiographical theory must always be provisional, because it can never be finally proven. As long as time continues and people remain constrained within its dimension, theory cannot become ‘truth.’ No matter how many historians reach conclusions that accord with a theory, there is no guarantee that another historian will never find evidence that contradicts the theory. No matter what the state of academic consensus, a theory is subject to disproof if even one historian finds one piece of evidence that disagrees with the theory’s predictions/ prescriptions. That a dissenting historian may be ignored by colleagues does not make their orthodoxy any truer. Because every historian brings a set of theoretical constructs to their work, because history has been assembled as a discipline, and because historical method takes place at the level of theory (there is no physical, actual past in the present to experiment on), in my opinion historiography is chock-full of theory. Scott approaches theory as if it is the means of containing and ordering reality. Yet, as her critique of Stedman Jones illustrates, her discussions of theory become discussions in which whatever past is ostensibly referred to is actually an unpeopled, unlived discourse. She poses questions, the answering of which is destined to be forever put off, because she seeks unanimity in agreement as to what, in theory, that discursively established world looks like. For all her optimistic tone, and assertion that ultimately theorists are positioned to “change the world,” I remain skeptical. I would like to know: whose world? where? how?[22]

One multifaceted theoretical bundle that Scott wonders about is identity. She finds it a source of questions: “How do individuals become members of social groups? How are group identities defined and formed? What influences people to act as members of groups? Are processes of group identification common or variable? How do those marked by multiple differences … determine the salience of one or another of these identities? Can these differences, which together constitute the meanings of individual and collective identities, be conceived of historically?”[23] I differ with Scott on how these questions might be addressed within historiography.

As I interpret her argument, Scott would employ gender as an “analytic tool” based on understanding gender as indicative of “the relations between the sexes … [being] a primary aspect of social organization.” This social organization in which gender is engendered is predicated as hierarchical, as is any gender relation. Inspired by Foucault, what Scott seeks to arrive at is a detailed description of what sorts of ‘power relations’ exist(ed?) in all areas of life were gender can be found. I find two problems in this approach. First, stating gender as a primary and hierarchical aspect of social organization introduces a ‘universalizing’ statement at a level that is too far up the socializing ladder of ‘individuals in society as mode of structuring’ to conceptually allow for the possibility of anything other than a western European model of society as representative of the ‘norm.’ Thus, Western European society escapes historicization and is outside of historical process. Her approach is trapped inside a limited model of the possible predicated on an even smaller notion of the probable.[24] Second, embarking on a Foucaultian-led journey to search out and describe the “expanding” historical sites of ‘multiple and mobile power relations” in which gender is a factor can be expected to yield only an ever-expanding—never completed— description of people relating in various ways. If it does allow for an “end … [to] seeming dichotomies,” it does not logically lead to any sort of explanation. It does not necessarily differ significantly from embarking on a project were the goal is to annotate the life of every person ever born, because, everyone is assumed to be gendered after the universal mode set out in the first objection above.[25]

I agree with Scott’s statement that: “[all] normative statements depend on the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities, and sometimes overt contests about them take place (at what moments and under what circumstances ought to be a concern of historians).”[26] I have therefore attempted to formulate a hypothesis that rests on a universalizing and trans-temporal statement that occurs at as low a level on the socializing ladder as I can get: people want to get along with other people (because odds are they will die if they don’t), but people find getting along with each other difficult. My hypothesis is that the getting-along difficulties arise whenever differences are perceived to exist. What this ‘means’ in my estimation, is: first, that consciousness of difference precedes proclamations of ‘identity’; and second, that a contest over something lies at the heart of every difference. The continuities and discontinuities of contests do not lie outside of historical process. Conceiving of identity formation as a signal of a consciously engaged-in contest allows each of Scott’s questions to be answered.

As to her last one: “Can these differences, which together constitute the meanings of individual and collective identities, be conceived of historically?” my conjecture, as of this moment, is yes. If identity is understood as a signal of contest then it should be possible to choose a historical collectivity as a subject, and through research, determine which identities were predominant, in abeyance, or non-existent among what proportion of members of what sorts of groups within that collectivity through time. This would also shed light on what sorts of contests arise in which kinds of contexts. The point would be to determine whether it is possible to isolate specific catalysts as of central importance to generating consciousness of difference—or not. This would be a historiographical project in which limits can be set that do not preclude arriving at a conclusion that at least suggests the viability of a theoretical explanation. The explanation can be arrived at without the reification of ‘power,’ but, I suspect will make recourse to ‘class’ as a relational, historical phenomenon.


*Written c. 2005 in preparation for PH.D. comp. exam; see “bibliography 2: knowing Social History; Field: Comparative Social History: select themes in consciousness and identity” this site.

[1] Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and thePolitics of History, 7.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 22, see also 25.

[6] Ibid., 57, see also 76, 64.

[7] Ibid., 46.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 46.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 3, 10.

[12] Ibid., 57, 76.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid., 30.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] MacKinnon quoted, ibid.,  34.

[17] Ibid., see also 47.

[18] Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class, 253.

[19] Scott, Gender, 35.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 41.

[22] Ibid., 67; 56-66, 77.

[23] Ibid., 25.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] Ibid., 31.

[26] Ibid., 43; 55.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment