Provisional Notes on Ellen Wood's "The Pristine Culture of Capitalism"
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Provisional Notes on Ellen Wood's "The Pristine Culture of Capitalism"

Provisional Notes on Ellen Wood's "The Pristine Culture of Capitalism"

The Pristine Culture of Capitalism Wood's refers to in her title is the idealised notion of capitalism which is all that English capitalism has failed to achieve. This ideal capitalism is the idea of a true capitalism, an urban and bourgeois capitalism in which all that is rural, agrarian and  that is aristocratic or emanates from the peasantry appears as underdeveloped and backwards. Against this, English capitalism which began precisely in the countryside and was dominated by an agrarian aristocracy has always appeared as a "bastard capitalism" which maintained its ancient traditions and pre-modern origins.

Central then to Wood's investigation is the relationship between capitalism and modernity and the question of whether capitalism is fundamentally linked to modernism or whether or not modernism can be realised outside of the pristine notion of capitalism. This is fundamental today to debates surrounding authoritarian capitalism and conservative modernisation.

For Wood in the context of debates over British capitalism such a question necessarily implies a critique of what is commonly known as the Nairn-Anderson Thesis which emerged out of the writings in the New Left Review of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn on the crisis of British capitalism in the 1960's and 70's. For Narin and Anderson the crisis had its origins in the underdeveloped nature of British capitalism, it was, they argued, prematurely born and incompletely developed leading both to a focus upon primitive commercial and financial capitalism and to the maintenance of archaic institutions and cultural forms and thus a failure of the middle classes to full realise the capitalist ideal. Fundamental here to Nairn and Anderson was the British state and the entire superstructure of British life which supposedly restrained the advance of capitalist modernisation.

The British state, according to the ‘Nairn-Anderson theses’, has hardly evolved beyond its peak of development in 1688. Never swept away by the complete series of ‘bourgeois revolutions’ that modernized the other major states of Europe, the dead hand of antiquity, and especially a backward state and dominant culture, left the British economy without resources of renovation when its first precocious spurt of growth and early leadership had been exhausted.

In short then what appeared to hold back the advance of modernity within Britain was the failure of a bourgeois revolution to revolutionise the state-form and, as happened on the continent, to rationalize its key institutions.(It has always seemed to me that at the heart of this thesis was a very typical wish of the British left to have the French experience of politics which appears more revolutionary and directly antagonistic).

As Arno Mayer would argue in "The Persistence of the Old Regime", in truth the maintenance of ancien regimes in the face of bourgeois revolutions wasn't merely a British experience but was fundamentally a European problem which became increasingly exposed with the crisis of global capitalism within the 1970s. As Wood argues this global crisis which particularly hit American and European capital quickly undermined the unique nature of Britain's economic decline and exposed more universal questions about the relationship between capitalism and modernity.

As the Nairn-Anderson thesis began to grapple with problems of capitalist crisis two dominant theses began to emerge.

Thesis 1: English capitalism as stunted by its precocious origins and held back by its "agrarian and aristocratic origins".

Thesis 2: Rather than English capitalism being held back by external forces imposed upon it, it has been held back by its own immanent development, which being essentially organic and slow in progression meant that it didn't face the obstacles faced by other developing states in particular the need to stimulate and manage short-term capitalist development which implied state rationalisation. Here the very advantage of English capitalism in its early stages in the long term comes to weaken its ability to handle the onset of decline.

As Woods then argues if Thesis 1 posits a progressive modernizing capitalism restrained from expansion by the archaic and constituted then Thesis 2 is able to explain the way in which "archaic forms are not necessarily incompatible with a dynamic capitalism" as many other states have shown. Here the archaic doesn't function as a restraint to captalist development but appears as immanent to its development and integral to its functioning.

Within this topology Thesis 1 views British decline as the failure of capitalism to overcome its external limitations whilst Thesis 2 views this decline on the basis of contradictions of capitalism itself which produces within itself its own conditions of underdevelopment which appear necessary up until the onset of crisis at which point it capital finds itself having to do its own uneven form of development.

Far then from British capitalism being under the yolk of an archaic state, the history of modern Britain is one of intense capitalist development which if it wasn't present in political discourse was present in lived reality. Paradoxically for all of its attachment to pre-capitalist culture,

Britain may even be the most thoroughly capitalist culture in Europe

The British State

What relationship was there then between the state form and capitalist modernization?

Where as the continental absolutist state was required as a mechanism for the appropriation of surplus labour, in which sense it played the same role as the feudal lord, in England where capitalist relations were more developed this appropriation of surplus labour occurred in the economic sphere where the English ruling class were able to appropriate labour through economic relations without the political intervention of the state. Whilst Old Corruption certainly took the form of an appropriation of surplus as Wood maintains this wasn't the primary means of appropriation but was rather a method of creaming off surpluses made within the private sphere. In this sense for Wood the English state has historically been defined by  the domination of the state by civil society. Yet in this case the failure to develop an absolutist state in the continental sense wasn't a failure of modernizing capitalism, but was an outcome of its very development.

Fundamental argues Wood is the differential experiences of feudalism which governed the transition to capitalism. Thus whilst the French absolutist state emerged as an opposition to the Feudal parcelisation of sovereignty and as a positing of a single overriding authority English feudalism developed along different lines. When French capitalism began to develop in response to developments in England, the Napoleonic state took up as its duty the destruction of the parcelized remnants of French feudalism which allied the centralized nation-state to capitalist development. Yet in England a different model prevailed, feudal parcelization was never so extreme with the imposition of a unitary political class during the Norman conquest and from early on formed national institutions in particular a Parliament whilst the relative weakness of the Aristocracy ensured that they reverted to economic power as against the local sovereignty of French lords.When the State then entered into English vocabulary its European absolute ideal was quickly quashed in the revolutions of the 17th centuries and terms such as civil society or commonwealth appeared more common. The centralization of the British state was then a far more drawn out and older process than those realised on the continent.

It was then out  of this tradition Wood argues that a different form of British nationalism emerged. Where as within the French model nationalism was mobilised by the centralising state, within Britain it became mobilised in the interest of the crown and established order. Equally insofar as British nationalism couldn't rely on the identity of a single ethnic group or regional identity its only real identity became an identity with state structures and the monarchy who came to symbolise British culture through their associated traditions. What this produced then wasn't an egalitarian form of nationalism which emphasised the equally of rights and status but rather a traditional nationalism which imposed back upon society a heirarchical pre-modern class system which was in stark contrast to the understandings of class that emerged in continental states.

What Wood then calls the "cult of the monarchy" in Britain is the combination of a weak state with an "artificial symbol" of statehood which stands in its place. The monarchy becomes the source of national unity and identity because the state is unable to, thus where as in France the identity with the absolutist state has remained strong within Britain it was the monarchy and it traditions which provided British society with its self-understanding.

As Wood argues,  British politics has been suffused not only then with a economic struggle between classes but also a cultural politics between classes based upon language and style. What this has meant in the end is that what appears as politics within the UK, its formal institutions and the State have more often than not been overcoded with the symbolism and traditionalism of British national identity. Thus whilst the Left have always assumed that at the heart of government they were engaged within a struggle over power, what they have often failed to realise is that more than anything they were participating in a symbolic economy in which the problems of class, language, style and tradition were just as important as political considerations. When they have then thought that they were simply doing politics is has more often than not turned out that they were particpating in the unpolitical and restrained under the sheer weight of tradition.

The problem of the Left has then been that is has perceived the field as politics as no different to that in other continental states and as amenable to modernist and modernizing tendencies. Yet when John Major argued that Britain was a Conservative country which voted Labour from time to time he was of course correct, the "sheer weight" of tradition continues to crush political action in Britain today which is more often than not obsessed with precedent, history, procedure and the politics of appearance over all else. What the British Left then has to grapple with is the legacy of a developmental process which produced a particularly unique form of national politics and this would imply I think a critique of all of the existing institutions and political culture that survives today.

Whilst it might also appear that this problem has in the post-War years given way to real processes of modernization which has broken up traditional culture and the class system in fact this problem is more contemporary than ever. If there was a crisis of the pillars the British state-system it emerged in the 1970s when a global capitalist crisis was confronted by both increased labour radicalisation and a neo-liberal policy response. In this scenario out and out class struggle came to over turn the traditional codings of the British class hierarchy, whilst the deindustrialisation of the British economy led to a break up of traditional forms of work and thus a break up of traditional class hierarchies. Similarly capital became increasingly freed from this system, and with the rise of yuppie culture and the globalization of economic life alongside an ideology of equality of opportunity led to the idea of the breakdown of class. Similarly Thatcherism with its modernizing tendency began to attack many of the institutions of the State from the House of Lords to the judiciary and the Church of England. Not surprisingly then under the sustained against British identity it was the monarchy that came increasingly under attack and appeared as an increasingly archaic and parasitic institution. After the death of Princess Diana it was severely under attack  and yet emerged in the next decade to become the symbol of a newly emergent British or rather English identity which was once again in touch with its past, in which a newly emerging class system whose ideals are represented by the British Bakeoff, Downton Abbey, the family values of Wills & Kate and the British Army.

Today then this very symbol of Britain's very conservative modernity has once again become resurgent and is reconstituting itself again on the basis of a politics of culture, language and status. Unless the Left in Britain is able to confront this new order then the rain of Conservatism will go on unchallenged and the traditional structure of British capitalism will continue to operate.

An Absence of Sovereignty

What has marked then Britain's problematic relationship with modernization has been the absence of any clear idea of sovereignty, or of any absolute and indivisible notion of political authority within its political discourse. Britain is, Wood argues, a place of mixed constitutions and mixed monarchies which have eventually coalesced into something like a coherent ruling order. The early emergence of an assertive Parliament ensured that within English discourse there was never any single and absolute source of legislative power.

Yet as Wood argues, paradoxically the French development of an absolutist notion of sovereignty was a response to the very absence of a unified and consolidated form of power within the French experience. On the other hand the very fact that within England and centralised and organised state arose far earlier, it required to a much lesser degree this idealisation of absolute sovereignty. In England it was rather the experience of real and lived forms of power which coalesced into something like a stable political order, in France it was necessary to overcome the real and lived forms of feudal fragmented power in order to realise such a political order.

This distinction is also capable of being made in relation to English and French approaches to the law. If for the French, the creation of a centralized state entailed the overcoming of medieval law, the return to Roman law and the idea of sovereignty as law making based on the will of a sovereign then for the English law still remained largely customary law. The common law system wasn't however fragmented, it was universal insofar as it was applicable all over the realm but it wasn't united from above but formed through a process of translation and evolution. Importantly this meant that whereas in France the centralization of law was antagonistic to the parcelization of sovereignty in England monarchical and feudal power could coexist side by side because if in France feudal lords had little direct control over land and required their public jurisdictional powers to extract surplus English lords who possessed more direct control tended to be less antagonistic to royal power whilst the development of Parliament produced a point of mediation between these two forces.

Its wrong then to merely see, argues Wood, common law as a form of customary law or as a preservation of tradition, it may rely upon precedent but it was equally able to mobilise this precedent to override customary rights as it would with the enclosure of common land. Common law is in this sense not the reign of traditionalism but merely a particular form of mediation a particular way of solving legal problems which was equally as capable of adapting to capitalism.

Malaysia's Post-Colonial Capitalism

The above couldn't however merely be restricted to the development of British capitalism, whilst there is a element of this in all capitalist polities, it appears particular evident in the colonial and post-Colonial states of the developing world. Thus if colonialism tended to operate through the imposition of capitalist relations, a weak notion of sovereignty, a mixed constitution, a confusion between the political, economic and social domains and the maintenance of traditional and pre-capitalist forms of political and social life then post-Colonial states who attempted to navigate paths of capitalist modernization found themselves confronted by weak states, pre-capitalist social forms and cultures and weak or non-existent middle classes. The post-Colonial state has then nearly always been an anathema to the "pristine culture of capitalism" which is said to be modernist, bourgeois and urban, and it has been the constant call of modernization theory that in order to achieve full capitalist development it would have to overcome all of these so called deficiencies.

The problem then of conservative modernization or authoritarian capitalism is central to the post-Colonial state today particularly in states such as India and China. Yet it is equally as apparent in the development and contemporary politics of Malaysia a country which starkly represents the political and economic make-up which was the object of critique by the Nairn-Anderson theses.

Thus on the one hand  displays many of the landmarks of conservative modernization critiqued by Anderson and Nairn, it has maintained its monarchical system and many of the signifiers of feudal culture particularly in the political domain, it functions as both a consociational democracy or as William Case calls it a "semi-democracy" in which the rule by a grand coalition of elites prevails, supposedly pre-modern notions of race and religion reign, whilst traditionally the urban and mostly Chinese middle class found itself within a system which provided more power to rural constituencies and government bureaucracy. Yet within this make-up Malaysia still manage high level of economic growth and development in the years after the end of British colonisation.

Today however this development is increasingly seen as under threat and there is increasingly talk of a crisis or decline in what was once a Southeast Asian power-house. Within these co-ordinates then Malaysia appears today to share the same problems which Nairn and Anderson sought to diagnose in British post-War decline. For Malaysia this crisis appears more than anything rooted in a long term failure to recover from the 1997 financial crisis and the failure to return to the days of 8-9% growth and increasing living standards. Whilst the worry is now that Malaysia is being out-competed by other local economies such as Indonesia and Vietnam and thus faces falling behind or being stuck in a "middle income trap" which prevents the realisation of "high income status" and generalised prosperity.

In relation to this a discourse has emerged in Malaysia which mirrors the narrow version of the Nairn-Anderson thesis as represented by Wood. Here there is a dichotomy between on the one hand capitalist modernization and on the other the inertia of institutions and traditions in which it is argued that Malaysia's race and religious based politics, its corruption and lack of transparency, its "feudal values" and one party-rule, all restrain the good  kind of dynamic and urbanising middle-class capitalism. Similarly then to Nairn and Anderson they argue that what Malaysia has lacked is a bourgeois revolution capable of sweeping aside its traditional baggage and ensuring the reign of middle-class and secular European values, which is to say modern values which would enable and not restrain capitalist modernisation. Such a view then leads into a series of narratives of Malaysian development and its contemporary crisis:

  1. Colonial capitalism: for some the contemporary crisis  begins with the very nature of capitalist development under British colonialism, here it is argued that British colonialism insofar as it, through policies of divide and rule, held the Malay's outside of the sphere of capitalist development, and purposefully produced forms of traditionalism which produced a distinctly anti-modernist outlook and propped up the monarchy, aristocratic rule and other forms of authority (the best book here is Donna Harraway's "Traditionalism and the Ascendency of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya"). In the post-War years it was the Putera-AMCJA coalition who sought to resist divide and rule policies of the British and support of aristocratic elites in favour of a multi-racial democratic coalition who demanded a popularly elected government and equality of citizenship as the basis for a modern Malayan nation-state. Yet it was the British plans initially for a Malayan Union and later for the Federation of Malaya which won through and key within such arrangements was the maintainence of the "traditional" Malay ruling class, the development of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) as the aristocratic point of mediations between the Malay rulers and monarchs and the development of the Alliance system as a means of mediations between the elites of the different ethnic groups which maintained the ethnic divisions within Malayan nationalism. From the very beginning then it is argued that Malayan and later Malaysian capitalism was burdened with this particular state-form which enabled predatory and corrupt elite practices and subordinated capitalst development to the conservatism of tradition and religion and racial divisions.
  2. New Economic Policy & Mahathir: for others the crisis emerged with the advent of the New Economic Policy in the 1970s which through a programme of affirmative action sought to reduce rural poverty and sought to increase the participation of Malay's in business through the preferential opportunities in employment and in the ownership of share capital. Whilst under Mahathir Mohamad it is argued that the combination of the preferential policies of the NEP mixed with mass privatisation produced a symbiotic relationship between politics and business. Here it is argued that the preferential policies of the NEP restrained capitalist modernization insofar as it limited the place of competition and meritocracy within the economy, because it rewarded individuals on the basis of race and connections, because it cemented racial divisions,  because it enabled elite corruption and the extension of political power into the economy and finally because it entailed a redistribution of wealth not in favour of capital but in favour of particular groups.
  3.  Post-1997 & Najib - A more short term perspective sees  Malaysia's contemporary crisis as having more recent roots in the fallout from the Asian Financial Crisis and the increasing tendency on the one hand for Malaysian capitalists to consolidate their control over the economy in the form of increasing corruption and exploitation of links to government, and on the other hand for the ruling coalition to maintain itself in power through the exploitation of religious and ethnic divisions and increasing manipulation of the electoral system and the rural poor through patronage. Here  we find a system which combines an increased exposure to global capitalism with the doctrine of Ketuanan Melayu and one party rule

Against this there today is a dominant liberal critique of Malaysian capitalism which argues that for Malaysia to become fully developed the restraining forces of authoritarianism, race, religion and corruption have to overcome in favour of a modernization which will render middle-class values hegemonic and thus open up new spheres to competition  etc.

Yet what if as Wood argues that problem isn't one of restraint, what if rather than an opposition between capital accumulation and pre-modern notions of tradition and authority, there is in fact a functional coherence between the two which makes it impossible to posit an opposition between a good, liberal, urban, bourgeois, meritocratic capitalism on the one hand and an authoritarian and corrupt capitalism on the other hand. What if in fact this liberal critique which draws on the "pristine culture of capitalism" draws upon an ideal which if undesirable is also perhaps unrealistic and that rather than in the end choosing capitalism as modernisation will be forced to choose between capitalism or modernisation.

To give the example then of the New Economic Policy we find that far from it opposing to raw capital accumulation the values of affirmative action and poverty reduction, these values were the engine through which capitalist relations were expanded into new areas. Thus if you take Gomez and Saravanamuttu's volume "The New Economic Policy in Malaysia: Affirmative Action, Ethnic Inequalities and Social Justice" you find that whilst the New Economic Policy did have a positive effect on poverty reduction and the reduction of "horizontal inequalities" you find it mode of development was particularly uneven, this has led to the emergence of new spatial inequalities such as between urban and rural spaces, new vertical inequalities particularly between those elite beneficiaries of the NEP and the rural poor and inequalities of political function in which certain forms of industrialisation and rural development particularly export oriented electronics manufacturing in the Free Economic Zones and oil production were were privileged over others. In this sense we find that many poor rural Malays, Indians, Orang Asli and Indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak lost out under the NEP because of the kind of land distribution and urban industrialisation promoted, whilst insofar as it generally reduced poverty it also allowed some to accrue vast amounts of wealth and power and to spread relations of capital into the rural areas. Thus as Maznah Mohamad argues in her article if the NEP enabled development and poverty reduction it was equally the harbinger of dislocation, dispossession and dystopia as proletarianized individuals were subjected to the uneven development of capitalist accumulation.

Far then from the NEP appearing as a socialist restraint on capitalist development, we find that affirmative action and poverty reduction were able to function through capitalist development and that the NEP was able to provide for these alongside forms of proletarianization, uneven development and increasing forms of inequality. In this way the attempt of the NEP to assert Malay power and culture within the economic domain hasn't taken the form of imposing on capital a set of external norms but of reproducing these norms in ways which conform to the needs of capital accumulation.

In this sense it would be important to outline the ways in which the categories of race and religion have themselves been remodelled in response to changes in processes of capitalist accumulation. Historically for example ideas of Malayness emerged not only out of things such as British census classification and the construction of a bumiputera population, but through the construction of presupposed attributes of such a race, principally their refusal of labour and commerce which where also effects of the colonial economy which sought to reduce competition with colonial capitalism through the organisation of local Malays as small land owners and farmers organised within a Kampung economy. Through this process non-urban, cosmopolitan and commercial  ideas of Malayness became excluded. Similarly with the emergence of the NEP the typical distinctions of race were displaced and reformed along new lines as the narrative of the underdeveloped and helpless Malay was increasingly utilised to justify an alliance between Malay supremacy and capitalist development.

Similarly the processes of Islamisation of Malaysian society weren't simply the expression of the religious expression of the Malay-Muslim majority it was just as much a political and economic response to the dislocations of capitalist development. Increased Islamic consciousness emerged then with the growth of a Malay middle class and particularly on the university campuses through student movements. Equally as Aihwah Ong has argued, the increased regulation of womens bodies and the imposition of Islamic regulations of dress emerged out of the movement of women from the family life of the Kampung to the independence of the factories and the anxieties this produced over immoral behaviour. Similarly the governmental driven Islamisation of the 1980s wasn't simply the reflection of an already existing Islamic culture but was just as much the imposition of a particular form of Islam which promoted development initiatives. It should be remembered then that the first two major expressions of this state Islamisation project were the development of an Islamic University (International Islamic University Malaysia) and an Islamic Bank (Bank Islam Malaysia), whilst as Khoo Boo Teik argues the type of Islam promoted by Mahathir Mohamad was one which emphasised values such as hard work, enterprise and obedience.

We have to then read these forms of race and religion and not being constituted essences outside of capitalism but contested fields which have often evolved in relation to trends within capitalist development itself. In this sense the contemporary critique in Malaysia which opposes an "old politics" of race, religion and authoritarianism to a "new politics" which is democratic, liberal, middle class and secular, appears problematic. The argument that Malaysia is itself held back by the imposition of this old politics and traditional structures on its dynamic economy ignores the very way in which this dynamic economy reproduces and needs these factors to survive. Malaysia might, to paraphrase Wood, be the most thoroughly capitalist culture in Southeast Asia.

The cry you constantly hear, that the fundamental problem of Malaysia is the use of race and religion appears false. The problem of Malaysia isn't race and religion but its particular form of capitalist development which has often been uncritically accepted. Today then in what many Malaysians see as the prolonged crisis of the Malaysian state and economy it isn't sufficient to call for a modernization of Malaysian politics and society to coincide with its modern capitalist economy as Nairn and Anderson bemoaned the lack of a bourgois revolution in Great Britain. What has to be problematised is rather the very relationship between capitalist development and an autocratic, corrupt state which relies upon particular racial and religious doctrines. Here the aim has to be  but the politicization and the economy,  culture and the category of modernity itself, to encourage new conceptions of modernity and economic life which no longer reproduce this dichotomy between the weight of tradition and the dynamism of modernity, with its demand for liberalization which as Malaysia shows, in no way threatens authortarianism. This is rather a story that needs to be overcome.

Put simply what has to be challenged is the idea that it remains possible to produce a link between liberal democracy and capitalism. Rather what has to be exposed are the darker tendencies inherent in modern day capitalism which opens up the interdependencies between the economy, culture and modernization, which will require a move beyond the critique of liberalism.