Manuel De Landa on Sun, 17 Nov 96 22:12 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

No Subject

   hi there. I am sending this to NetTime, but since I am not sure of the
right address I am sending it to several addresses at once. Hope you can
distribute it along with the rest of the debate.

                      Response to Richard Barbrook.

To begin with let me say that the real debate between Richard and me has
not yet begun. The reason is that the essay of mine he was responding to in
Budapest was about the Internet and not a coherent defense of my ideas
about economics. This defense occupies one full chapter of my new book and
even there is still rather sketchy. That chapter (soon to appear) will at
least give my side of the argument with enough meat to provide the
beginning of a real debate. Nevertheless, Richard's response to my "Net
economics" paper contains enough misconceptions about economic history that
a brief response at this time is in order.

Let me begin with the charge that I am "romanticizing" small town markets.
I completly agree with him that in some Western  medieval markets (he is
quoting Edward Thompson's book called 'Customs in Common') demand and
supply did not govern prices. It is true that strong Guilds did interfere
speculatively with the prices of their products, and that food riots may
have had an effect on the prices of food. The concept of "market" as I use
it refers to an idealized situation in which decentralized decision-making
dominates over centralized decision-making (Bureaucracies would be the
opposite case). Now, in reality (whether medieval or modern) neither one of
these "pure"cases obtains and all we get to observe are complex mixtures.
(markets have, from ancient times, depended on central states for the
enforcement of certain standards for weights and measures, for protection
against robbery and fraud etc). But the idea that only in England (late
eighteenth century) the conditions were created for supply/demand driven
"markets" is wrong in several respects.

1) as some economic historians have shown, even in ancient times, certain
areas outside the strict domination of central states, called "emporia",
already had opened temporary spaces for demand/supply to play a role
(again, always in complex mixtures with price-setting by monopolists etc).
On this see:
Richard Hodges. Primitive and Peasant Markets. (Basil Blackwell, Oxford,
UK, 1988).

2) To pretend that we can have a history of markets by showing examples of
"pre-modern" and "modern" Europe is extremely eurocentric. As Braudel and
many other historians have shown, China, India, Islam and many other
regions of the planet had a quite complex market economy (again, not a pure
supply/demand situation, but one in which markets played a key role). What
they did not have were large accumulations of money (since central states
would kill or dispossess any rich merchant that became too influential). On
the arbitrariness of viewing economic history from a eurocentric point of
view see:
Fernand Braudel. The Perspective of the World. (Harper and Row, New
York, 1986). chapter 5.

3) It is crucial too, not to sneak through the back door certain
distinctions which are at stake. For example,  one may decide to use the
word "industry" only for the type of industrial production that became
common in England after 1750. But why? Medieval historians talk of an 11th.
century "industrial revolution" based on water and wind power. Braudel
documents in detail Italian and German efforts at big-industry in the 15th
and 16th centuries (and indeed, of English industrial espionage in these
areas prior to its own industrial take-off). Now clearly, prior to 1750
agriculture was much more important than manufacture, but that does not
mean industry was non-existent. Additionally, certain European cities which
did not have an agricultural base (Venice, Genoa) quickly specialized on
"service economies" (much as non-european "emporia" in the past had done).
Here's a little quote from Braudel about 13th. century Venice (but places
like it existed outside Europe too):

"Like Amalfi in its hollow among the mountains, Venice, scattered over
sixty or so islands and islets, was a strange world, a refuge perhaps but
hardly a convenient one: there was no fresh water, no food supply -only
salt in abundance...Is this an example of the town reduced to bare
essentials, stripped of everything not strictly urban, and condemned, in
order to survive, to obtain everything from trade: wheat or millet, rye,
meat on the hoof, cheese, vegetables, wine, oil, timber, stone -and even
drinking water? Venice's entire population lived outside the 'primary
sector'...[her] activities all fell into the sectors which economists would
nowadays describe as secondary and tertiary: industry, commerce,

3) Besides getting rid of our eurocentrism, we need to get rid of the idea
that societies form "totalities" which go through a sequence of
developmental stages (e.g. a linear progression of modes of production).
This is crucial here because I can agree with Richard that in some medieval
towns prices were "customary" and that in 18th. century England they became
more tuned to supply/demand, without also granting him that this is a
temporal development form one to the other. First of all, there is no such
thing as the "typical" medieval market. You cannot compare markets in
cities like Florence (where guilds had extraordinary power) with small
towns where guilds were weak. Also, there were those enormous fairs (like
13th, century Champagne fairs) which did not fit the pattern. To believe
that "possibility of food riots" was the way food prices across Europe were
set is much to simplistic, and reduces a highly heterogeneous situation to
an artificially homogeneous,  monolithic explanation. Only if one has
previously bought the idea that societies are monolithic, and that history
forms a sequence, could we possibly feel that such oversimplifications give
us a true account of what happened.

It should be a rule of debate that, when the very conceptual foundations of
a particular view (in this case classical economics) are in question one
should not be allowed to use "evidence" from historians that operate
complexly within the paradigm one is criticizing. To give just one example,
there was a debate not long ago between Braudel and Wallerstein over the
correct way of conceptualizing those areas of economic coherence called
"world-economies". Because Wallerstein is a committed marxist, he takes the
historical data (which he basically takes from Braudel) and massages it
until it fits with the dogma. He argues, for instance, that world-economies
could not have started until the Hapsburg empire collapsed and "capitalism"
truly got started. He also argues that neither China nor India had such
world-economies (he calls them world-empires). Now, both points are
strongly refuted by Braudel who shows the European world economy to be in
place by the 14th. century and China/india to have had full-fledged
world-economies. The point here is that in a debate over the merits of the
marxist view, quoting Wallerstein as evidence would be clearly circular.

4) One final point. Once we get rid of the idea that societies are
monolithic and move through developmental stages (which only Europe has
gone through) one frees oneself to view societies as complex, heterogeneous
"institutional ecologies" which interact in equally complex ways. One can
then recognize that 18th. century England was indeed a very special place
(it witnessed the conjunction of a stable financial system based on the
Bank of England, an Agricultural Revolution, and Industrial one, the
creation of the first national market etc) without for that reason blind
ourselves to what was going on elsewhere (in military arsenals in France,
for example), or pretending that "society" crossed a special stage in that

As I said at the start, this is just a small taste of a debate that must go
on given the importance of what is at stake. All I can ask at this time is
not to close the questions prematurely by placing all our faith on the
three dead white man (Smith, Ricardo, Marx). Doing so would be to attack an
"americo-centric" California Ideology with an equally poor, equally
homogenizing eurocentric Socialist ideology.

Manuel DeLanda

Manuel DeLanda

*  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
*  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
*  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
*  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
*  URL:  contact: