How do societies develop and change over time?
There is no shortage of what Germaine Greer (in a highly enjoyable column for the Guardian) once called “big idea books”: books which attempt to identify the one single factor which, above all others, has directed the course of human history and determined the rise and fall of nations and empires, etc.
Authors including Thomas Friedman, Jared Diamond and Malcolm Gladwell have all done very nicely out of such books in recent years. A few years before that there was a fashion for identifying cod or nutmeg or coffee as the commodity that was responsible for the modern world as we know it. The granddaddy of “big idea books”, though, may be the Communist Manifesto, with its ringing declaration that:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
David Harvey, in his book The Enigma of Capital (which I wrote about on my politics blog last month), describes these as “dangerously oversimplistic monocausal explanations”. Instead, he argues that society develops through “co-evolutionary” processes across a number of distinct, though interrelated, spheres:
- Technological and organisational forms.
- Social relations.
- Institutional and administrative arrangements (such as property rights and forms of government).
- Production and labour processes.
- Relations to nature.
- The reproduction of daily life and of the species.
- “Mental conceptions of the world” (ethical and moral standards, cultural norms, belief systems and people’s understanding of the world).
Each of these is related to, and influenced by, the others, but none can be entirely explained in terms of the others. Instead, “complex flows of influence … move between the spheres[,] … perpetually reshaping all of them”.
So, for example, the development of modern capitalist societies had technological aspects, and new technologies then had a major impact on social relations, relations to nature and how we look at the world. In turn, the development of new organisational forms (such as the factory) then encouraged new forms of technological development.
This seems to provide a framework for assessing each “big idea” book that comes along. One reason the “big idea” will seem convincing is that the writer almost certainly has identified genuine processes at work in the world. However, these processes probably relate only to one or two of the spheres of activity set out above. By placing the “big idea” within that context, we can hang on to what is good and helpful about it, without accepting the “totalising” claims that may be made.