Mode of production (Anthropology)

Although there were interesting attempts in the eighteenth century to periodize human history according to modes of production (notably Adam Smith’s fourfold scheme: hunting and fishing, pastoral, agricultural and commercial), it is only with the development of Marxism in the later nineteenth century that we find a more rigorous formulation of this concept and its deployment in a philosophy of history. Both the concept itself and the various uses made of it have had considerable appeal among some anthropologists, while attracting the opprobium of others.

In a famous passage Marx summed up his general position as follows:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.

Later in this same passage Marx explains how a dialectic between the material forces and the social relations of production establishes the motor of history: revolutions occur when the latter have come to be ‘fetters’ on the development of the former and ‘With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed’ (p. 182).

It is not difficult to detect inconsistencies in Marx’s discussion of modes of production, and he sometimes uses the phrase in a less exalted sense, to indicate a specific technology. Because Marx was above all concerned with capitalism, he pays relatively little attention to precapitalist modes of production; and even his relatively detailed accounts of the transition from feudalism to capitalism have been much criticized by later historians. Both Marx and Engels paid close attention to anthropological writings in their later years, especially those of L.H. Morgan. The results of this interest were presented by Engels in 1884 (1972) in a work which became the basis of orthodox Marxist research in Russian and Soviet anthropology and Chinese anthropology (its rigid unilinealism later undergoing ingenious modifications). According to this theory, humankind had progressed from primitive communism through slavery and feudalism to capitalism, all three of which featured antagonistic social classes. The communist society of the future would transcend such antagonisms.

The difficulties with this theory are legion. It is at least arguable that twentieth-century anthropological research provides some support for the notion of primitive communism. However, given the information available to him, it is scarcely surprising that Engels’s attempts to generalize from European historical evidence have been shown to be highly unsatisfactory as far as slavery and feudalism are concerned. Attempts to insert an "’Asiatic mode of production’ into the general schema have been similarly flawed. For example, the work of J Goody and others has shown that none of these terms is very helpful in understanding pre-colonial African societies. There is moreover a general danger of ahis-toricism in the application of these labels to non-Western societies.

It is sometimes argued that production was relatively neglected in the early decades of modern economic anthropology (though valuable descriptive accounts were provided by "Firth and also by Malinowski himself). Attempts to remedy matters through an explicit theorization of the concept of mode of production, far more explicit indeed than anything written by Marx and Engels themselves, began during the efflorescence of neo-Marxism in the 1960s. Most of this work took place in France, and the major source of theoretical inspiration was the distinctive structuralism of "Louis Althusser. This work provoked a radical critique of earlier controversies in economic anthropology. Althusser’s invitation to diagnose a plurality of modes of production within the same ‘social formation’ led to some creative and subtle analyses, e.g. of the co-existence of individualized and communitarian production systems, and the transformation of traditional systems by a new, dominant capitalist mode of production.

In less able hands the apparent rigour of these approaches could easily become a straitjacket, as in numerous sterile attempts to rework classic functionalist ethnographies in the newly fashionable jargon. It was not always clear that the neo-Marxist formulations enabled an escape from the wooliness of functionalism, for example, if kinship or religious factors were allowed to enter the material base and ‘function as’ the social relations of production in pre-capitalist societies. Those who developed the concept under the influence of political economy and world-systems theory were still too often inclined to overlook the historicity of non-Western peoples. Within a comparatively short period of time a phrase that initially seemed to promise conceptual breakthrough was generating disputes that seemed increasingly arid. For example, there was controversy over whether there existed a general ‘peasant mode of production’, or only many distinct forms of peasant production (usually relabelled petty commodity production), each compatible with a variety of encompassing modes of production.

With the decline of Marxist anthropology in the 1980s, controversies concerning modes of production have also waned. It is clear that a powerful legacy remains, stronger perhaps in America than in Europe; but it is by no means a straightforward task to disentangle its contradictory elements. At one extreme stands the ‘cultural materialism’ of Marvin Harris, which emphasizes material causation but without the dialectical sophistication central to the Marxist tradition. At the other we might locate the culturalism of Sahlins, whose elaboration of a "’domestic mode of production’ has even less in common with Marxism. But the work of "Eric Wolf (1982) is a noteworthy attempt to overcome the Eurocentrism of the original Marxist categories, while remaining faithful to their radical spirit. Others, such as Scott Cook, have shown how the Marxist framework can help in the analysis of development at various levels, from the global to the petty commodity producing household. Finally, the work of Donham (1985; 1990) shows how the concept of mode of production can be brilliantly deployed in a particular case, with appropriate ethnographic and historical sensitivity.

Next post:

Previous post: