Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Incipient capitalism

Thanks to Gustaf Sobin’s Luminous Debris I have had to revise my understanding of the origins of capitalist oppression. I had tended to think that it originated in Europe after the introduction of wage slavery, replacing serfdom and actual slavery in Late Antiquity.

But Sobin shows that it all started in the late Iron Age, and that overproduction in the food supply is the point of origin. Looking at the south of France around 700BC, when indigenous people were overtaken by Celts coming from the north, Sobin writes:

Out of small, agropastoral, self-sustaining societies, we witness the emergence of larger and larger ‘microstates,’ with highly fortified villages –oppida—on the spurs, ridges, and rock outcrops in the hinterland above. Practicing for the first time an agrarian economy based on surplus, these societies would come to store that surplus in granaries… within the fortified oppida themselves. That surplus would be exchanged against other goods in the first verifiable market economy in Mediterranean Gaul.

Here the archaeological evidence kicks in with a vengeance: some individuals lived in larger houses than others, warranted larger burial plots, had more stuff buried in their graves, had bigger dolmens on top of them.

What happened in earlier Iron and Bronze Age societies? Law of the Jungle, you’d think, but no, the archaeological evidence suggests rather that tribespeople lived cooperatively and free of class struggle.

An interesting feature of the late Neolithic is that there aren’t any signs of warfare. After the last Ice Age, when Europeans lived like the Inuit, hunting reindeer across the icy plains of Central Europe, wandering tribes were numerically so small that they were perhaps happy to run into each over the vast icy plains, and warfare wasn’t advantageous.

This didn’t set in until land ownership and concomitantly the production of seizable assets. So from earliest history you have the two approaches in human affairs: the cooperation inherent in tribal relations, and then the outbreak of individualism and the subsequent struggle to gain control of production.


I decided that although I read many books, I won't review them on this blog.  After all, who cares what I think about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (It's great.) But I will say without hesitation that the most interesting and useful book I have read so far this year is:

Gustaf Sobin. Luminous Debris. Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc. U.C. Press: 1999.


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