Agrarian Civilisation and Modern World Society

In D. Olson and M. Cole Editors Technology, Literacy and the Evolution of Society: Implications of the work of Jack Goody, Lawrence Erlbaum, Los Angeles, 2005

The historical context of Jack Goody’s thought

To my mind, the most revealing summary of Jack Goody’s intellectual motives is to be found in the Preface to Production and Reproduction, the book that launched the series of large-scale comparative investigations for which he is now best known. I take as the text for this article the opening paragraphs and closing sentence of that Preface.

When I first took a berth on a boat to West Africa, I did not do so with the sole purpose of getting to know something about an African society or, more generally, the ‘savage mind’. I was certainly very involved with the problems of getting to know another culture, another way of looking at the world. But other concerns were present too. What I knew about the medieval literature and history of Europe whetted my appetite to learn more about pre-industrial societies, their beliefs as well as their economic and productive systems. A period in the eastern Mediterranean had extended these interests in time and in space.

Secondly, there was the immediate situation in which I found myself in West Africa. Events were moving fast in Ghana during the period I was first there and the Convention People’s Party, to the Birifu branch of which I was inscribed, were well on their way to power. However it was not only the links between local ‘tribe’ and national politics that concerned me, but the earlier links, with long-distance trade, with Islam, with neighbouring states. It was on these historical subjects that I wrote when I first returned, and it was these subjects, in a wider context, that I pursued when trying to ask what it was that writers meant when they used terms like feudal to describe African states. How did the states and local communities in Ghana resemble and differ from those of Europe, Asia and the Middle East with which they were so often compared and contrasted? How could we best understand the differences between a village in the Italian Abruzzi and a settlement in Northern Ghana? What made people think the adjectives ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’, ‘savage’ appropriate to one set of cultures and not to the other? Were there no better ways of assessing similarity and difference than by means of a pair of crude binary oppositions?

Thirdly, my interest in the Third World, in ‘other cultures’, had been stimulated by personal, political and social encounters in Africa and Europe during and after the Second World War. How could one bring a wider range of knowledge about these other societies to bear on an understanding of our own situation? How could we provide historical, sociological and humanistic studies generally with a more universalistic base, with a less European-centred framework?

To such very general questions, this book provides little by way of answers. What could? I introduce this personal note only by way of explaining an undertaking that may be thought to fall between a number of stools, those representing different academic fields of enquiry, different techniques of investigation and different ways of understanding.


It is time we tried to fit together the numerous detailed investigations of social life in different parts of the world with the larger speculations on the development of human culture.

(Goody 1976:ix-x; italics added)

Here Goody tells us that ethnography, the aspiration to write about a people considered as a natural unit and studied intensively through fieldwork, never defined his intellectual horizons. His subject is historical comparison and beyond that “the development of human culture”. He deliberately sets himself at odds with his greatest contemporary, Claude Lévi-Strauss, as being uninterested in binary opposition between the modern and the primitive, “the savage mind”. Rather he writes as an actor in a historical period, coming of age in the second world war, encountering the Eastern Mediterranean, escaping from a prison camp into the mountains of the Abruzzi, entering Africa at the decisive moment of its anti-colonial revolution and in its epicentre, Ghana. With European empires collapsing everywhere (“events were moving fast”), he rejects the euro-centric idea that the West is somehow special, looking instead for forms of knowledge that are more truly universal, better suited to the new world society launched by the war..

As a former student of English literature, he knows something about medieval European society and culture. He wants to connect a newly independent West Africa to the Islamic civilization he encountered briefly during the war. His subject will therefore be the comparison of pre-industrial societies, both past and present, an ethnographically informed juxtaposition of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, perhaps Asia more generally. Above all, this enquiry is an extension of his own personal experience, fueled by social interactions and political engagement. The ultimate historical question is whither human civilization, but the key to that lies in the similarities and divergence of regions that have shared an agrarian past. Only a series of books could begin to address this question and the present volume is the first of them. It is worth recalling its title, Production and Reproduction: a comparative study of the domestic domain. The focus is to be on how human beings produce their livelihood within families and how this influences their attempts to project themselves into the future.

Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa (1971) could be said to have been the trailer for this enterprise; just as the publication of The East in the West (1996), twenty years and almost a dozen books later, represents its partial culmination. The autobiographical memoir that Jack Goody wrote for Annual Review of Anthropology (1991) is a more elaborate document, specifically tying together his achievements as an ethnographer and as a comparative historian through Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962) which remains the key volume of his oeuvre. The three themes of the title — how we seek to transcend death materially and spiritually — come together in Goody’s main preoccupation, with writing itself, the form of production in which he has himself engaged so persistently.

The time from the second world war to the millennium was an extraordinary one, being the period when humanity formed a society, a single interactive network, for the first time. This was the cosmopolitan society that Kant (1795) envisaged two centuries earlier but did not witness. It was massively unequal and riddled with conflict, but now at last there was a universe of communications to give concrete expression to universal ideas. In the next century anthropologists will want to study this emerging human society and they will look to us for antecedents. They will mostly be disappointed by the fragmented narrowness of our anthropological vision. For we have been slow to emancipate ourselves from the ethnographic project of studying exotic cultures conceived of in isolation. In this essay, I will argue that Jack Goody, alone among his contemporaries, devised and carried out an anthropological project on a scale adequate to the world society being formed in his day. The Preface reproduced above indicates why this should have been so. Here I will take the project further than his modesty has allowed him to pursue in print. I ask, How does Goody’s project of historical comparison, especially the principal books of 1976-98, illuminate the world society emerging in our time? What is his anthropological vision of the development of human culture, past, present and future? This will inevitably be a product as much of my imagination as his, but reproduction was always so.

The formation of world society 1945-2000

As late as 1950, some New Guinea Highlanders thought that they were the only people in the world. Mutual ignorance is still commonplace, but social isolation of this kind has been ended. The period 1914-1945 has been described as a second thirty years war: two world wars separated by economic catastrophe and inhuman politics. Economy and society were still more national than international at this time. The space between nations was filled by war. The European empires were fatally undermined by the war, as Asia moved towards independence immediately afterwards, with Africa following a decade later. Having granted Stalin the European territory he wanted in return for destroying Hitler’s armies, Roosevelt’s vision of an integrated world economy led by America through the United Nations was soon put into practice. At home, the leading industrial nations installed more effective welfare states and this coordinated public investment fueled the long economic boom of the 1950s and 60s. At the same time the rivalry between America and Russia led to the nuclear nightmare of the Cold War interspersed with not-so-little hot wars in Korea, Vietnam and almost in Cuba.

The Vietnam war broke up the international currency system, forcing the USA off the gold standard and ushering in wild exchange rate fluctuations that triggered off the invention of money futures and with them the global money markets we know today. The OPEC oil price rise deflated the western economies and set in train a spiral of Third World debt. Ever since the 1970s, the world economy has been at the same time more integrated as a circuit of capital, increasingly polarized between rich and poor countries and in broad terms stagnant. But human society and demography were irreversibly transformed in the half century following the war.

World population doubled between 1960 and 2000 (from 3 bn to 6 bn). Countries like France, Japan and Italy were still half peasant in 1945, but by the millennium agriculture accounted for less than 10% of the workforce in most of the industrial countries. The proportion of the global population living in cities rose from 1 in 40 in 1800 to around 50% in 2000, most of the increase after 1945 taking place in the poor countries. Food production was fully mechanized for the first time and most of the world now ate the produce of a few heavily subsidized western farmers. By the end of the century half of the 100 largest economic units on the planet were business corporations, 35 of whom had an annual turnover ($30-50 bn) greater than the GNP of all but eight countries. If the world became a single interactive network in this period, it was mainly as a network of markets on which everyone’s livelihood now depended in some degree.

There were more international migrants before the first world war than at the end of the twentieth century. But the gross discrepancy between economic opportunities in the rich and poor countries has led to a new, more cosmopolitan mixture of peoples in the main cities of the West. A transport revolution built on the car and the airplane gave people everywhere a restless mobility. Even more striking was a communications revolution culminating during the 1990s in the digital convergence of three technologies — telephones, television and computers. This revolution’s great symbol is the rise of the internet, the network of networks; but equally important for the development of a shared human consciousness is the size of global TV audiences, 2-3 bn for some major sporting events (more people watching the same thing than were alive in 1945!). Above all, this was the time that we saw the earth from the outside for the first time, having discovered space travel.

At the same time as we all participate in these developments, disparities of life experience on the planet remain vast. The rich countries, the OECD club that includes North America, Western Europe and Japan, accounts for about 15% of the world’s population. The rest must reconcile their relative poverty with an unfinished history of racism, a hangover from nineteenth century imperialism when westerners used their new machines to take over the globe. Over one third of humanity still works in the fields with their hands; a similar number have never made a phone call in their life. Africa stands out as both the symbol and reality of this contrast. When the Europeans divided it between themselves not much more than a century ago, Africa had very few people compared with any region of similar size; a minute proportion of its inhabitants lived in cities. The products of its agriculture and mines were then indispensable to western manufactures. Today up to 40% of its people live in cities and African migrants overcome routine obstacles to move freely around the globe; but production there is only lightly mechanized and the continent is less securely integrated into the world economy than in 1900.

At the same time, identification of modern capitalism with the West, specifically with the economic leadership of first Britain and then Germany and the USA, has been undermined by the rise of Asian economies in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1980s and since, American and European dominance has been challenged by Japan, followed by the Southeast Asian tigers (newly industrialized countries), with China and India lumbering into high gear behind. (China accounted for 40% of global economic growth last year.) Asia has long been where the majority of human beings live and now much of manufacturing production is being relocated there. Here, only two centuries after the first stirrings of machine revolution, is a profound test for the assumption that the world’s future lies with capitalism’s pioneers, even as Africa’s exclusion from mainstream development seems more profound than ever.

It is possible to minimize the epoch-making significance of these changes, to claim that globalization is centuries old, nothing new. It is largely a question of quantity being transformed into quality; and perhaps judgment is inevitably subjective in these matters. I do not claim that the formation of world society has been completed in our time nor that it lacked antecedents; but I would ask readers to think of what the human condition was like before the second world war and what it is now. Something tremendous has happened in between. Humanity has been brought closer together in dramatic ways and, if anything, has become more unequal. We have difficulty imagining the processes involved, not least because of the grip of a national consciousness fed by our own country’s news every day, leaving the rest a blur. Anthropologists too, in sticking with their ethnographic method, have not risen to the challenge of documenting this huge shift in civilization. Instead we have continued to parrot the nationalist ideology of Versailles — that all cultures are entitled to their differences, however barbaric.

Jack Goody could not settle for just “getting to know another culture”. In reaching for a more universal conception of human history, he knew that he was doing so as an active participant in the making of a new world. But, even as he inserted himself into contemporary society, he chose to step back from the modern age. By focusing on pre-industrial societies in Europe, Asia and Africa, he left out any direct consideration of two centuries of machine revolution, the capitalist world economy, the New World in its entirety. But his topic is nevertheless “the development of human culture” and, as we will see, his inquiries do reflect a consistent position on the social priorities of his own time.

Africa and Eurasia compared

Jack Goody left England to spend much of the second world war in the Mediterranean basin, in North Africa and Italy. A few years later, he carried out research in West Africa, a region connected to the Mediterranean by Islamic civilization long before it was colonized by Europeans. He was impressed by the similarities and the differences between all these places. He did after all join a political party in Ghana, even as he was struck by the distinctive way of life there. It took him three decades to formalize the terms of comparison; but, when he did, it turned out like this T-bar:


W ——————– E







In other words, Europe may be opposed to Asia as West to East, but the two come to be seen as a single entity, Eurasia, when they are opposed to Africa South of the Sahara. This model is itself contrasted to the dominant imperialist stereotype:

The West





The Rest

(Africa, Asia etc)

Moreover, Goody was anxious to avoid implicit hierarchy in his scheme, above all any hint of racial hierarchy. Yet he was forced to conclude that African societies were fundamentally different from the others in important ways and he wanted to explain why.

As a British social anthropologist of a certain time and place, he started with kinship and marriage, the domestic relations though which people manage their own reproduction and participate in the wider society. His own fieldwork among the LoDagaa of Northwestern Ghana revealed major differences in kinship organization within a narrowly circumscribed area. These were the subject of his great synthesis of ethnography and comparative sociology, Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962). In this work, he concluded that the key to variations in kinship organization lay in the transmission of property, the material link between generations constituted by patterns of inheritance, manifested also in such religious observances as the ancestor cult. The book drew extensively on the classic sources of British comparative jurisprudence, such as Maine and Maitland; but Goody balked for now at making a systematic comparison of Africa and Europe. He first approached this directly in Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa (1971) and particularly in the essay “Feudalism in Africa?”.

There he questioned the appropriateness of transferring categories from European history to the study of pre-colonial states in Africa. Once again his focus was on property forms and this time he speculated about the material reasons for divergence between the two regions. European feudalism was based on private property in land and this form was absent from traditional West Africa. Why? Because land was scarce in Western Europe, but not in Subsaharan Africa, where the scarce factor was people; and control over them was exercised through monopolies of the “means of destruction” (horses, guns etc.), not the means of production. The region’s peoples were divided along a continuum from centralized to decentralized polities, the former carrying out slave raids on the latter for the purpose of acquiring manpower by force. Shifting agriculture employing a hoe technology was the norm, with the bulk of this manual labour being performed by women. In both types of society they were hoarded as wives by polygamous older men and their children recruited to exclusive descent groups. The key to major differences in social organization, as revealed by property forms, thus lay in the conditions of production and specifically in demography, in the ratio of people to the land.

Production and Reproduction (1976) takes off from this initial speculation into a global survey of the incidence of different types of kinship, marriage and property transmission, using the data compiled by The Ethnographic Atlas (Murdock 1967). Goody was aware of the limitations of this material, but he wanted to generalize his working hypotheses. As always in his later work, getting the framework for the questions right mattered more than the empirical sources. His basic observation was this. Kin groups in the major societies of Eurasia frequently pass on property through both sexes, a process of “diverging devolution” (including bilateral inheritance and women’s dowry at marriage) that is virtually unknown in Subsaharan Africa, where inheritance follows the line of one sex only, either men or women. Diverging devolution was found in 52% of the societies of Eurasia and the circum-Mediterranean, in only 6% of African societies. It was also present in a significant minority (27%) of American and Pacific societies.

Under ‘diverging devolution’, the property that an individual disposes is not retained within the unilineal descent group of which he is a member but is distributed to children of both sexes and hence diffused outside the clan or lineage. (Goody 1976:7).

Particularly when women’s property includes the means of production, land in agricultural societies, attempts will be made to control these heiresses, banning premarital sex and making arranged marriages for them, often within the same group and with a strong preference for monogamy. Direct inheritance by women is also associated with the isolation of the nuclear family in kinship terminology, where a distinction is drawn between one’s own parents and siblings and other relatives of the same generation, unlike in lineage systems. All of this reflects a class society. “Diverging devolution (especially dowry) [is] the main mechanism by which familial status was maintained in an economically differentiated society” (ibid:19). But now for the big question.

Why should the African and Eurasian patterns be so different? I suggest that the scarcer productive resources become and the more intensively they are used, then the greater the tendency for the retention of these resources within the basic productive and reproductive unit, which in the large majority of cases is the nuclear family… Advanced agriculture, whether by plough or irrigation, permits an individual to produce much more than he can consume….[T]he greater volume of production can maintain an elaborate division of labour and a stratification based upon different ‘styles of life’. An important means of maintaining one’s style of life, and that of one’s progeny, is by marriage with persons of the same or higher qualifications….Direct vertical transmission (i.e. from parents to children) tends to make provision for women as well as men. The position of women in the world has to be maintained by means of property, either in dowry or in inheritance — otherwise the honour of the family suffers a setback in the eyes of itself and others….

The other aspect of advanced agriculture bearing upon the conditions for the emergence of diverging devolution is the expansion of population it allows, another factor making for scarcity of land. Where such agriculture is dependent upon the plough, the increase in production is partly a result of the greater area a man can cultivate; once again land becomes more valuable… (Ibid:20)

All the major Eurasian civilizations practiced diverging devolution of property and conformed to the family patterns Goody highlights here. Their agrarian economies were organized of course through large states run by literate elites whose lifestyle embraced both the city and the countryside. In other words, what we have here is Gordon Childe’s (1954) ‘urban revolution’ in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, where

…an elaborate bureaucracy, a complex division of labour, a stratified society based on ecclesiastical landlordism…[were] made possible by intensive agriculture where title to landed property was of supreme importance.” (Ibid:24)

The leading societies of Europe, the circum-Mediterranean and Asia all grew out of this invention of agrarian civilization and took its original form. This, for example, is where the nuclear family came from. It had nothing to do with the uniqueness of the West or its industrial revolution. Africa South of the Sahara apparently missed out on these developments, even though the continent’s Northern fringe was one of the first areas to adopt the new institutional package. Jack Goody would never countenance the standard racist explanation for this, the cultural backwardness of black people. He had already posited low population density as an explanation. Here he adds the possibility that tropical soils were an inferior basis for intensive agriculture. Whatever the explanation, he demonstrates in this first of his grand historical comparisons the broad material foundation for strikingly different institutional patterns in the two main regions. Starting from the relationship between types of property transmission and forms of kinship and marriage, he arrives at a new synthesis of the agricultural roots of civilization.

I propose now to summarize the main works of the next two decades or so, to indicate briefly how Jack Goody elaborated this vision. In Bridewealth and Dowry (Goody and Tambiah 1972), he had already focused on the marriage payments typical of Africa and Eurasia, the one securing progeny for the descent group, the other keeping property within the nuclear family. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (1983) takes the battle into the western heartlands, showing that the European nuclear family form was shared with other civilizations of the Mediterranean basin and that any distinctive features, such as a low rate of adoption, were the result of the early Church’s strategy to accumulate landed property in its own right. Next, Goody deconstructed the binary oppositions supporting The Great Divide between the West and the Rest in The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: systems of marriage and the family in the pre-industrial societies of Eurasia (1990), this time leaving out Africa. The racial premises of nineteenth century imperialism required the conceptual separation of Western Europe from its neighbours and this was achieved largely by detaching the achievements of Greek civilization from its obvious links to Egypt and the Middle East. Here Jack Goody, echoing Martin Bernal’s project in Black Athena (1987), shows how little historical foundation there is for any such enterprise.

In three more books Goody argued that what are often taken to be “cultural” questions are best understood in terms of class systems that are in turn an expression of forms of production and property. Thus Cooking, Cuisine and Class: a study in comparative sociology (1982) explored the contrast between the elaboration of a high cuisine and low cooking in stratified societies and the homogeneous food regime found in African societies; while The Culture of Flowers (1993) took off from the absence of flowers in Africa into a compendious historical analysis of their uses in Eurasian societies up to the present. It is of course possible to approach such topics exclusively within the framework of a cultural analysis, as ideas detached from any logic of material development. And this is indeed the academic fashion, not least within contemporary anthropology. While he clearly enjoyed writing about food and flowers for their own sake, Jack Goody’s message is that culturology is at best superficial and at worst a mystification of class rule. Nor is he finished with these themes, as the recent publication of Food and Love: a cultural history of East and West (1998) shows.

When the Victorians took over the world, they needed an explanation for how easy it was to dominate other peoples. We might say that they were aided by the selective incidence of a recent revolution in machine technology; but they wanted a more inclusive rationale for subordination. They concluded that human beings were biologically plural, forming separate branches of the species that belonged to different regions and were identifiable by physical markers, such as skin colour and head size or shape. This racial typology was given a rank order with Northwestern Europeans and their American offshoots at the top and Africans at the bottom. It accounted for grades of culture or civilization, for why the ‘mind’ of the white male was superior to that of women, savages and the darker races in general. All of this served to justify why ‘we’ were in charge of ‘them’. By the time Jack Goody began his work as an anthropologist, colonial empire was rapidly being replaced by an American-dominated United Nations and societies explicitly based on racial discrimination, like apartheid South Africa, were considered to be exceptional. Yet he knew that the intellectual legacy of imperialism still underpinned the anthropology of his day. So he chose to attack the lingering opposition of ‘modern’ and ‘primitive’ cultures by studying the chief activity of literate elites, of which he was himself a leading example — writing.

Jack Goody believed, on an analogy with his approach to kinship and property institutions, that much of what has been taken as evidence for different mentalities should rather be seen as an effect of different means of communication. Of these the most important are speech and writing, orality and literacy. Once again, most African cultures are predominantly oral, whereas the ruling classes of Eurasian civilization have relied from the beginning on literate records. Goody approached this topic originally in a famous paper written with Ian Watt, ‘The consequences of literacy’ (1963), where they placed heavy emphasis on the discovery of alphabetic writing; and he followed it up with an edited volume, Literacy in Traditional Societies (1968). His great contribution to the study of African oral traditions is The Myth of the Bagre (1972), documenting the spontaneous flexibility of ritual story-telling in the absence of writing (even as it now took on the form of a book).

The year after Production and Reproduction, he published his most general assault on the habit of opposing ‘us’ and ‘them’, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977). This was a pointed repudiation of La Pensée Sauvage of Lévi-Strauss (1962), suggesting that the latter’s penchant for lists linking ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies to other pairs, such as history and myth, science and magic, far from being an instance of universal reason, was itself a parochial product of mental habits induced by the specific practice of writing. This polemic led to a double expansion of the general approach in The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (1986) and The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (1987). Writing emerged in a specific time and place and became essential to the reproduction of Eurasian civilization, reducing to subordinate status those oral means of communication that still inform African cultures and the works of art they have given to the rest of the world. Literacy is one more element in the institutional complex of the urban revolution.

In The East in the West (1996), Jack Goody sought to refute the claim, derived from the founders of modern social theory, Marx, Weber and others, that the West’s economic ascendancy, driven by capitalism and its machine revolution, could be attributed to a unique type of rationality missing from the less fortunate societies of Asia. He repudiates his own previous flirtation with western exceptionalism, the superiority of the Greek alphabet, tackles such hoary topics of economic history as double entry book-keeping and examines the forms of family and labour, particularly in relation to Indian commerce. Goody shows first that Europe’s distinctiveness is in most cases either non-existent or has been exaggerated; and second, in response to the line that ‘we initiate and they imitate’, he argues that the rate of adoption of western industrial techniques by India and Japan was faster than it took for the innovations of the Italian renaissance to diffuse to Northwestern Europe. He concludes that eurocentrism obscures Asia’s current economic performance and potential, while misrepresenting western history. It makes more sense to see Eurasia as a single entity in which the temporary advantage of particular regions is highly unstable. This volume, bringing the cycle up to the present, could be said to be a conclusion of sorts to the project begun two decades earlier. Africa, whose exceptional character has remained unchallenged throughout the series, is largely missing from here.

The anthropology of unequal society

By any standards, the more than a dozen books reviewed above constitute an intellectual undertaking of unusual scope. There seems little doubt that Jack Goody was trying to lift his profession out of a myopic ethnography into a concern with the movement of world history that went out of fashion with the passing of the Victorian founders of anthropology. In Britain, this shift is conventionally represented as Malinowski’s ousting of Frazer from national leadership. And Goody has left his own idiosyncratic memoir of that transition: The Expansive Moment: the rise of social anthropology in Britain and Africa, 1918-70 (1995). He started out as Meyer Fortes’s protégé at Cambridge, working as an ethnographer in the same region of Northern Ghana, and Cambridge, specifically his college, St.John’s, has provided him with a base to this day. He kept up an active research interest in Ghana for a number of decades, much of that time in partnership with Esther Goody. But from the 1960s he sought to integrate anthropology into history and the social sciences more generally. Whereas Fortes, his predecessor as head of the Cambridge department, had been keen to establish the disciplinary limits of anthropology, Goody reveled in its potential as an anti-discipline. He cared less about the boundaries between “academic fields of enquiry” than about the freedom to pursue important questions wherever they took the investigator.

In this process, he developed a unique personal style that has more than an echo of the great Victorians in it. We know that he read and enjoyed Frazer’s The Golden Bough as an Italian prisoner of war; and “the development of human culture” is reminiscent of E.B. Tylor who made the concept the centre-piece of his anthropology. Both men wrote compendious books of some literary merit using documentary sources drawn from all over the world. And why not? Their subject was after all the history of world society; but their approach was idealist. Goody’s was drawn from Childe’s materialist synthesis of the two great revolutions — the ‘neolithic’ 10,000 years ago and the ‘urban’ 5,000 years ago — which, with the industrial revolution, marked definitive stages in the history of human production and society. Childe (e.g. 1954) got the basic framework from L.H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877) which some have seen as the origin of modern anthropology; this was made more widely accessible by Engels as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). But they got it in turn from Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754) could be said to be the source for an ‘anthropology of unequal society’ whose leading protagonist for half a century has been Jack Goody.

The Second Discourse (as it is often called) deserves to be seen as the first great work of modern anthropology. Rousseau was concerned, not with individual variations in natural endowments, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience which he derived from social convention. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls “nascent society”, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. Why leave the state of nature at all? He speculates that disasters and economic shortage must have been involved. In any case, this second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.

The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. (1984:109)

The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all marked by the absence of law. The key difference from Hobbes, of course, lay in Rousseau’s insistence that such conflict was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. He believed that this new social contract to abide by the law was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages.

The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy.” (Ibid:131).

One-man-rule closes the circle.

It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master… (Ibid:134).

For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. This subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world.

It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities. (Ibid:137)

Surely the stale odour of corruption that so revolted Rousseau is just as pervasive today. Dictatorship in one form or another has been normal for too long in many parts of the world and we are all compromised by intolerable inequalities of wealth and power. Something has got to give; but our intellectual task today is to envisage a revolution that is universal, not just limited to individual states.

Marx and Engels made fertile use of this precedent in their own critique of the state and capitalism, while Morgan’s legacy as Rousseau’s principal successor in modern anthropology has not been absent from American anthropology in the twentieth century. In the postwar period, Leslie White at Michigan and Julian Steward at Columbia led teams, including Wolf, Sahlins, Service and Harris who took the economic and political basis for the development of class society as their chief focus. But one man tried to redo Morgan in a single book and that was Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). We have seen how Jack Goody takes potshots at Lévi-Strauss for his somewhat atavistic version of variations in mentality; but perhaps he should rather be seen as a predecessor whose heroic attempt at synthesis failed, even as he revived the project that Goody would take further. It is worth recalling that, in Tristes Tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss acknowledged Rousseau as his master.

The aim of Elementary Structures is to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, “the Siberia-Assam axis” and all points southeast as far as the Australian desert. Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy. The ‘restricted reciprocity’ of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of ‘generalized reciprocity’ typical of the Highland Burma tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to a logic of endogamy, to the reproduction of class differences and the negation of social reciprocity. Lévi-Strauss makes extensive comments on African patterns of lineage exogamy which do not fit into this evolutionary scheme. The argument is bold, but its scope is regional, not global. Evidently, the author was not encouraged to universalize the model, since he subsequently abandoned any pretension to embrace human reproduction in a dialectical account of social development, preferring to analyze the structures of the human mind as revealed in stories and similar cultural fabrications.

Ernest Gellner, Goody’s successor as William Wyse Professor at Cambridge and perhaps stimulated by his example, produced his own synthesis of agrarian civilization as part of another ‘trinitarian’ model of development with the great divisions provided by the invention of agriculture and the rise of industrial capitalism. The title, Plough, Sword and Book (1988), identifies the economic, political and cultural symbols of what made pre-industrial civilization distinctive; and Gellner takes their modern counterparts in capitalist or liberal society to be the market, democracy and science. Jack Goody’s students, for obvious reasons, have been reluctant to take up his project as their own. But Chris Hann, with the edited volume Property Relations: renewing the anthropological tradition (1998), has made sure that property remains firmly on anthropology’s agenda. I attempted to update the picture of regional development in The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (Hart 1982) and with Money in an Unequal World (2001) began to address the dynamics of contemporary world society by linking the new communications technologies to the changing character of money.

It is fair to say that Jack Goody, if not uniquely among his contemporaries, then with more persistence and range than other anthropologists, has pursued one tradition of investigating the movement of world history that largely fell into abeyance in the twentieth century and has precious few adherents today. I have suggested that he did so largely as an outcome of his personal engagement with the formation of a new world society during and after the second world war. His contribution lies mainly in using the regions of the Old World to show that inequality was global in scope. In the concluding section, I will ask whether his studies of kinship, production and communication in pre-industrial Africa and Eurasia point to some of the salient features of contemporary world society, even if, with the exception of The East in the West, he never made such an issue the explicit object of his inquiries.

Between agrarian civilization and the machine revolution

In the last 200 years, the human population has increased six times and the rate of growth of energy production has been double that of the population. Many human beings work less hard, eat better and live longer today as a result. Whereas about 97% of the world’s people lived in rural settings in 1800 and no region could sustain more than a tenth of its people in towns, half of humanity lives in cities today. This hectic disengagement from the soil as the chief object of work and source of life was made possible by harnessing inanimate energy sources to machines used as converters. Before 1800 almost all the energy at our disposal came from animals, plants and human beings themselves. The benefits of this process have been unequally distributed and, as we have seen, the prime beneficiaries included the pioneers of western imperialism in the nineteenth century. Since uneven development has been continuous during this period, we need markers to support any claim that globalization in the second half of the twentieth century was of a distinct order again from what preceded it.

The1860s saw a transport and communications revolution (steamships, continental railways and the telegraph) that decisively opened up the world economy. At the same time a series of political revolutions gave the leading powers of the coming century the institutional means of organizing industrial capitalism. These were the American civil war, Italy’s Risorgimento, the abolition of serfdom in Russia, Britain’s democratic reforms, Japan’s Meiji Restoration, German unification and the French Third Republic. Karl Marx published Capital (1864) and the First International was formed. The concentration of so many epochal events in such a short time would indicate a degree of integration of world society. But in the 1870s, the share of GNP attributable to international trade has been estimated as nor more than 1% for most countries (Lewis 1978); and the most reliable indicator of Britain’s annual economic performance was still the weather at harvest-time. The ‘great depression’ beginning in 1873 turned out likewise to be an effect of American and German competition on the rate of return of British capital, while the rest of the world’s regions were booming. A century later in 1973, so great was the dependence of all national economies on world trade that the OPEC oil price rise set in train a universal economic depression from which we have still not recovered. Shortly afterwards, money futures markets were invented and by 2000, international trade itself accounted for only a small fraction of the money exchanged globally; and national governments were mostly adrift in a rising tide of money, known simply as ‘the markets’, conveyed at the speed of light over telephone wires as so many electronic bits (Hart 2001).

Capitalism has always rested on an unequal contract between owners of large amounts of money and those who make or buy their products. This contract depends on an effective threat of punishment if workers withhold their labour or buyers fail to pay up. The owners cannot make that threat alone: they need the support of governments, laws, prisons, police, even armies. Perhaps Karl Marx’s most vivid contribution to our understanding of the modern world was his observation that capitalism was actually feudalism in drag, with the owners of the means of production still extracting surplus labour from workers under threat of coercion. By the mid-nineteenth century it became clear that the machine revolution was pulling unprecedented numbers of people into the cities, where they added a wholly new dimension to traditional problems of crowd control. The revolutions of the 1860s were based on a new and explicit alliance between capitalists and the military landlord class to form states capable of managing industrial workforces, that is, to keep the new urban masses to an unequal labour contract. Germany and Japan provided the clearest examples of such an alliance. I call this phase ‘state capitalism’, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation by means of national bureaucracies. It became general as a result of the first world war and it may or may not be decaying in our day.

Despite a consistent barrage of propaganda telling us that we now live in a modern age of science and democracy, our dominant institutions are still those of agrarian civilization — territorial states, embattled cities, landed property, warfare, racism, bureaucratic administration, literacy, impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as a virtue, world religion and the family. This is because the rebellion of the western middle classes against the old regime that gave us the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, as well as the English, American and French democratic revolutions, has been co-opted by state capitalism and, as a result, humanity’s progressive emancipation from unequal society has been reversed in the last century and a half. Nowhere is this more obvious than when we contemplate the shape of world society as a whole today. A remote elite of white, middle-aged, middle-class men, “the men in suits”, rules masses who are predominantly poor, dark, female and young. The rich countries, who can no longer reproduce themselves, frantically erect barriers to stem the inflow of migrants forced to seek economic improvement in their midst. In most respects our world resembles nothing so much as the old regime in France before the revolution, when Rousseau wrote his Second Discourse, in fact. (Hart 2002).

Africa is the most poignant symbol of this unequal world. Having entered the twentieth century with an extremely sparse population and next to no cities, Africans leave it having undergone a population explosion and an urban revolution of unprecedented speed and size. In 1950 Greater Europe (including Soviet Central Asia) had twice the numbers of Africa. Today Africa has a population 120 millions larger than Europe and Central Asia and is projected to be well on the way to double their size by 2010. Although the conventional image of Africa is of starving peasants ravaged by war and AIDS, the new social reality is burgeoning cities full of young people looking for something to do. It is the case that Africa largely missed out on the first and second stages of the machine revolution and is far behind in the present one associated with digitalization. Today development there as likely as not consists of irrigation and ox-plough agriculture. In other words, Africa, especially in the last half-century, has been going through Childe’s urban revolution, erecting state bureaucracies and class society on the basis of surpluses extracted from the countryside. This is not without contradiction, given the pretensions of modern governments, the rapidly expanding population and the widespread failure to mechanize production. (Hart 1982)

This brief sketch throws a new light on Jack Goody’s oeuvre. Simply as an exercise in the comparative history of pre-industrial civilization, his contribution would be enormous; but we should also consider whether he has also been telling us something about the world society that was formed in his lifetime. First, like Bruno Latour (1993), he has been telling us that we have never been modern. The modern project of democracy has as its antithesis the unequal society that ruled the Eurasian landmass for 5,000 years. Goody’s contrast between Eurasia and Africa reminds us of the durable inequalities of our world and suggests that the reasons for them may be less tractable than we like to think. At the same time the rise of India and China underlines his warning against European complacency. The world is now simultaneously more connected than ever and highly unequal. A recent popular scientific text (Barabasi 2002) helps us to understand why this may be so. Left to their own devices, ‘scaled networks’ exhibit a ‘power rule’ in which a few hubs are highly connected and most nodes are only weakly connected. That is, the proliferation of networks, as in world markets today, would normally produce a highly skewed distribution of participants. The reduction of national political controls over global markets in the last two decades seems to have accelerated the gap between the haves and the have-nots everywhere, generating huge regional disparities in the process (Hart 2001). The task of devising institutions capable of redressing this situation seems further away today that it did in 1945, when Jack Goody set out on his post-war journey.

We would do well to take to heart the analytical focus that lends unity to Goody’s compendious work. The key to understanding social forms lies in production and for us that means the uneven spread of machine production. Civilization or human culture is significantly a consequence of the means of communication — once writing, now an array of mechanized forms, but always interacting with oral and written media. The site of social struggles is property. Are nation-states still an effective instrument for enforcing global contracts made by capitalists? Should intellectual property rights be established in numerous fields such as software, music, film and TV, drugs, GMOs, education, the law and so on? And his central issue of reproduction has never been more salient than at a time when the aging citizens of rich countries may have to revise their attitude to the proliferating mass of young people out there. Kinship needs to be reinvented too.

One last thought. As I write (September 2002), the United States and Britain contemplate war against Iraq, for the second time in just over a decade. Iraq is of course another name for Mesopotamia, the heartland of Childe’s urban revolution. It doesn’t seem likely that agrarian civilization’s grip over human minds will be erased by bombing Baghdad. Indeed state capitalism, as practiced by undemocratic rulers everywhere, still poses a deadly threat to our embryonic world society. If human culture is to be rescued from the unequal society of an agrarian civilization strengthened by machines, one indispensable means towards that end would be an anthropological vision of the sort pioneered by Jack Goody.


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