Normblog’s writer’s choice feature has thrown up an intriguing item. The distinguished political sociologist, Andrei Markovits, has chosen to write about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I too read the book when it first came out and was engaged by its argument that the rise of capitalism and the dominance of the West were based on geographic and biological factors. I was surprised too that, though the classic explanations still dominated the academic curriculum, there was not even a small place for this best-selling account. Was it too accessible? Was its explanation poorly academically grounded, something that would not be easily apparent to a non-scientists such as myself? Markovits is similarly bemused and refuses to speculate, though he has suspicions. I think that one of the main reasons for Diamond’s exclusion, outside the innate conservatism of the academy, is that the book is hard to categorise.
However, Markovits has now given us a category: ‘deep materialism’,
‘… a materialist framework … that explained why, for example, certain forms of agriculture arose in one place and not in another by dint of climate, earth formation, geography and ecological factors apart from and – most important – preceding human interaction and the establishment of what we have come to call societies.’
I like this category and Markovits sees it as an analytical tool to further explore his own interest in historical materialism, and especially his belief in the continued significance of Marx.
Exploring this interface between science, sociology and history is one of the hidden corners of intellectual history. In my own field of Anarchism, thinkers such as Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes, who were natural scientists by training and profession, all tried, with varying degrees of success, to explain human society in the light of evolutionary science.
There seems to be a growing interest in this type of writing, which goes beyond the Green paradigm of nature and is increasingly sophisticated. One recent book, The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life by Paul Seabright, is similarly intriguing. This tries to explain the question of the unique features of human collaboration – why are we the only animals to co-operate with others outside their immediate kin networks - through the development of markets. I read the book in the context of the early 19th Century understanding of markets as systems of co-operation, rather than purely of competition and domination, that influenced left thinkers, such as the Ricardian Socialists, from whom Marx took much, and eventually produced Proudhon’s mutualism. Seabright’s study emphasises the natural factors that make market economics work and also render it vulnerable. In many ways, it is a classic study in the ‘deep materialism’ of markets.
Markovits ended his post by saying that it was ‘already far-too-lengthy’. For me it was frustratingly short. I hope he will publish more in the future to elaborate on this important concept.