Is it Bedrock All the Way Down?

I was only a few pages into Max Weber’s influential 1930 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, when I came across this sentence:

“The modern rational organisation of the capitalistic enterprise would not have been possible without two other important factors in its development: the separation of business from the household, which completely dominates modern economic life, and closely connected with it, rational book-keeping.”

Anyone who’s been following along with my blog for the last month will have noticed that I’ve been becoming more and more interested in the notion of the medieval or early modern household, and its implication in the shift to wage labour under capitalism. Komlosy relies on it. Illich insists it’s the birth of the gendered division of labour. Arendt argues that it was at the heart of Plato and Aristotle’s worldview. And now I find out that Weber made the same point in 1930, and without a citation, which means that even back then it was bleedingly obvious.

It’s not that I thought I was the first to have ever read these four scholars together, but somewhere, deep down, I felt like maybe I was the first to notice they had all made the same point. This is sort of like an academic Dunning-Kruger effect: when you embark upon an intellectual project of any heft – or at least whenever I have – it’s easy to assume that your thoughts are original, because the material is new to you. It’s even more so when one strays out of one’s disciplinary comfort zone. I’m reading sociologists, anthropologists, and the sort of boundary-crossing cultural critics who achieve infamy rather than fame. I’m off the charts and recognise none of the stars I can see.

This might be why my first supervisor used to say to me, “if you’ve read it before, you’ve read enough”. Most historians would just treat it as an accepted truth; meaning it would become a sort of conceptual anchor for the rest of your argument. Why would you try to dig through bedrock? You need a place to stand. Besides, it’s bedrock all the way down.

Just before I left academic work, I had become ensnared by the late 20th century French poststructuralists and their American followers, who would argue that the right reaction to hitting bedrock is to find a new tool that could break it up. The point isn’t to find out what’s under the bedrock, either – it’s to see what happens when you destabilise everything. The idea, Foucault might argue, is to remove all absolute points, to reveal the contingency of everything, so as to force change. You can’t choose what the change will be, either. All you can do is to make the unappetising present impossible. What comes next is unknowable until it’s arrived.

If the book I’m writing is one intended to connect a lay audience with academic work, this isn’t necessarily a problem. The notion of a leaving of the household is esoteric enough that after nearly 15 years reading, researching and writing as an academic historian, I’ve never come across it before. It is almost certainly going to be novel to others without my experience and training. In this case, academic originality doesn’t matter as much as intellectual novelty.

But I have higher standards for myself. I don’t want this just to be a novelty. If I’m going to make an argument about the leaving of the household, I want it to destabilise rather than reinforce the accepted Marxist/Weberian/Structuralist framework that dominates writing about work. The idea that there is something called ‘the economy’ that just exists in some nebulous, abstract and yet very much real place, and we are all and have all always been subject to its machinations – that gives us no way out.

That is a future in which we all labour endlessly and fruitlessly to oblivion, because it can no more be changed than the laws of physics. I do not believe for a second that this is true. The feudal household was not just an ‘economic unit’ waiting in the wings for capitalism to arrive. The establishment of ‘the market’ as the sole available mechanism for managing our collective endeavours took centuries, and was the result of interested and deliberate action by many, many people. I have to believe it can be undone.

The very fact that Komlosy’s chapter on the household is so sparse is – to my eyes – not evidence of a lack of sources, but evidence that asking industrial capitalist questions of pre-industrial capitalist sources does not produce meaningful answers. There are already examples of scholars asking different questions of the same sources and getting more interesting answers. But if I’m going to escape the lure of easy structural answers, I have much, much more reading to do.

Time to take a break

I feel like I’m running out of ideas. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’m not reading fast enough to generate anything particularly new from week to week. There’s also the essential ‘percolation time’ required for new ideas to bounce around inside your head and interact with al the old ones. I’m not giving myself time to do that.

So I’m going to take a break from updating this blog until the end of January. I’ll spend my normal writing time reading instead. Hopefully by the end of a month of reading I’ll have some new ideas.

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