Blogs > Cliopatria > Kuznicki on Artichokes and States

Jan 30, 2005 10:19 am

Kuznicki on Artichokes and States

Jason Kuznicki's first post at L&P is actually a teaser for a longer essay at his own blog in which he argues that the command economies of modernity are more equivalent to the absolutist regimes of early modernity than usually credited (and he's asking for historians to comment, so here goes). A second thesis -- though he recognizes that he's just exorcising a ghost rather than advancing a truly new concept -- is that the study of material culture and social history can and must be carried out in non-Marxist terms. In Japanese historiography, Japanese language scholarship is so thoroughly Marxist that I'm quite used to the disjunction between Marxist and non-Marxist scholarship on the same subjects. I think Marxist historiography deserves some credit for opening up vistas of social and economic history which might have otherwise gone unexplored, but I also don't see in the English-language scholarship in my field strong continuing allegiance to class analysis or other doctrinaire approaches.

Kuznicki's argument reminds me why World History is so much fun. In comments on his blog I wrote:

One of the themes of my World history course (which came out of the Western Civ courses I taught before) is the increasingly intrusive modern liberal state. In a very real sense, the 19th century is a kind of high point of individualism: the absolutist regimes were falling, but the"nanny" states had not yet been developed (except for the French Revolutionary regime, which passed quickly) (note: I'm a modern American liberal, which is to say that I believe the state is a useful community institution, but even I recognize the absurdities and atrocities of its social reformist projects, and willingly use the"nanny state" designation even for some programs which seem like good ideas to me....), so perhaps it is natural that the strongest expressions of classical liberalism belong to that era.
There's a great deal to be said for disciplinary rigor and focus. And a great deal to be said for intersecting subfields, chronological sweeps, theoretical syncretism (Kuznicki promises to explain how Foucault and classical liberalism work together in the near future, which I assume has a great deal to do with analysis of power functions; that's one of the reasons I love our libertarian blog neighbors so much: their finely honed sense of the functions of state and social power.) and generalizations that force more thought instead of providing epigrammatic glosses on historical process.

I do have one quibble, though, about his argument. The French anti-littering laws which he cites (that's where the artichokes come in) reminds me a great deal of the sumptuary laws of Tokugawa (1600-1868) Japan: frequently repeated, oft-ignored attempts by the state to intervene in social processes though inconsistently applied state power (because the state didn't have the power to apply consistently). These seem like evidence of a will to command absolutism, but not evidence of the ability to anything resembling totalitarian control. Only with the total public participation of the French Revolution do you get anything like totalitarianism before the early 20th century bureaucratic state reaches its various zeniths (and those only work with broad popular support to bolster their substantial applications of terror; after popular support wanes, so does the state's claim to total command and control). The differences are too real to gloss over, but the theories are indeed interestingly consonant.

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/1/2005

It has been a very long time, but I seem to remember similar ideas emerging in Mark Raeff's Well Ordered Police State.

Jason Kuznicki - 1/31/2005

There is certainly a kinship to de Tocqueville here, and if I ever wrote this piece up more formally for submission to a journal, I would want to discuss him in detail. The chief similarity as I see it is in his argument that Old Regime society atomized French politics: All related to one another principally through the central government. The corporate institutions of feudal times essentially all became tools for that government's massive power grab. The centralization of the state meant that would-be reforming forces were too weak to do anything--until, that is, they became so strong as to overwhelm the state itself.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/31/2005

Many of them are, but clearly there were attempts to renew and maintain them which was not merely inertial. And there is a shift from guild/local controls to national ones which also required political will to achieve.

Haven't read de Tocqueville, but I think it would be possible to argue that the idea of equality before the law is a parallel and somewhat independent development from absolutist monarchy.

Greg James Robinson - 1/30/2005

This sounds like a spin-off of Alexis de Tocqueville's brilliant but overstated insight in THE OLD REGIME AND THE REVOLUTION that it was the absolute monarchy, with its process of centralization, that brought about the true social revolution in 18th century France. Certainly, the establishment of a principle that all (apart from the King) are equal under the law is a basic part of liberalism, but my uinderstanding is that many sumptuary laws, price maximums, weights and measures, etc were holdovers from the middle ages.

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