The “Big Bang” of Modernity
Innovation through Firearms, Expansion through War: A Look back to the Origins of Abstract Labor
The Enlightenment myth that the modern commodity-producing system sprang forth from a “Civilizing Process” (Norbert Elias) as the product of peaceful trade and development, bourgeois industry, scientific curiosity, inventions that raised the standard of living, and daring discoveries in opposition to the brutal culture of the so-called Middle Ages has proven tenacious. As the bearer of all these beautiful things is named the modern “autonomous subject,” which supposedly freed itself from feudal-agrarian bonds in favor of the “freedom of the individual.” What a shame then that the form of production that arose from this mass of pure virtues and progress is characterized by mass poverty, global pauperization, world wars, crises and destruction.
The truly destructive and murderous results of modernization point to a different origin than that of the official ideological fairytale. Since Max Weber pointed out the ideological connection between Protestantism and capitalism the history of modernity's origins has only been crudely, and in no way critically, classified.
With a certain degree of “bourgeois shrewdness” the motives and developments that brought forth the modern world have been largely obscured, so that the rosy dawn of bourgeois freedom and the unleashing of the system of commodity production shine in false immaculateness.
There is an opposing approach to the official historical narrative, however, one that reveals that the origins of capitalism in the early Modern period were in no way due to the peaceful expansion of markets, but rather were essentially military-economic in nature. It is true that from as early as antiquity there were money and commodity relations, trade routes and markets of greater or lesser scale, but all without the possibility that a totalitarian monetary/market system like the modern one would ever arise. These were always, as Marx had recognized, economic “niches,” positioned on the edge of agrarian economies. The idea that the origins of a system, in which money as an “automatic subject” (Marx) is fed back to itself, is not to be found in the Protestant revolution alone, but also in the innovation of firearms in early-modern militaries, appears even in Max Weber's research.
But Weber, as a notorious ideologue of the old German imperialism, obviously had no interest in pursuing and systematizing these thoughts. The social and economic historian Werner Sombart had already explicitly drawn attention to the military-economic roots of modernity in his work “War and Capitalism” in 1913. But he, too, pursued this avenue no further, as a short time later he joined the ranks of the leading warmongers and was eventually led by his anti-semitism to join the Nazis. More than half a century passed before the connection between capitalist genesis and the “political economy of firearms” was taken up again, by the economist Karl Georg Zinn (“Canons and Plague,” 1989) in Germany and the modern historian Geoffrey Parker (“The Military Revolution,” 1990) in the anglophonic world. Although these studies contain damning evidence, they are not free of apologetic elements. The rosy view of modernization passed down from the Englightenment has been allowed to continue clouding our vision.
The Failings of Historical Materialism
It must be admitted that even in this depiction the military-economic origin of the logic of capital remains underemphasized. Marxism following Marx's death also failed to take up this point again: the history of the pre-industrial development of the system of commodity production was troubling because, in terms of Marxist doctrine, it was peculiarly ambiguous.
There is, in fact, a reason in the theory of Marx why this connection, which was so uncomfortable for bourgeois apologists, had to be suppressed even by Marxists themselves. A central component of historical materialism is the depiction of history as a series of “necessary” stages of development in which capitalism also has a place and to which is even ascribed a “civilizing mission” (Marx). A fully anti-civilizing foundational history in which capital-in Marx's words-is born “with blood and dirt coming out of every pore” poorly suits this construction, which has been passed on to us by Enlightenment philosophy and Hegel, and has only been applied materialistically and renewed through socialism.
If the logic of exploitation and abstract labor were not born “from the womb” of the pre-modern agrarian society through the development of increased productive power, but was instead a sheer “development of destructive power,” one which imposed itself upon and smothered the natural economy from outside as a foreign principle instead of developing it beyond its narrow bounds, this would seriously contradict the premise of historical materialism.
In order to preserve the metatheoretical, historical and philosophical paradigm, the Marxists also left out the early developmental history of capitalism or classified it counterfactually. Clearly the chief motivation was the fear of abetting reactionary thinking, but this is a false alternative, one that arises constantly out of the contradictions of bourgeois ideology. An Enlightenment-era mythology of progress on one hand, reactionary cultural pessimism and agrarian romanticism on the other are merely two sides of the same coin. A longing for a positive ontology forms the basis of both mindsets.
If the negative impulse prevails to “overthrow all relations in which man is a debased being,” however, no ontological construct is necessary. One could conclude from this that the essentials of historical materialism apply only to one social form, namely the capitalist one. Aside from that, the question arises exactly how the capitalist system of production evolved from the “political economy of firearms.”
With that the “firearm” was born, to present day the most common murder weapon. This fundamental innovation of modernity brought about first a “military revolution” (Parker), which marked the historical rise of the west. In the Middle Ages the consequences of effective distance weapons for the traditional social order had already been recognized. Ideological fears of this sort were realized around the year 1000, when the newfangled crossbow was imported from the orient. The second Lateran Council forbade the use of this instrument of war in 1129 as an “unchivalrous weapon.” It was not for nothing that the crossbow became the primary weapon of thieves, outlaws and rebels.
Firearms made the proud, heavily armoured knightly class fully ridiculous, militarily speaking. Grimmelshausen [17th century German author-translator's note], writing during the Thirty Years' War about the career from backwoods farmboy to military officer, had this to say in his Simplicissimus: “What has made me into so great a man is the fact that the lowliest stableboy can shoot dead the most courageous of world's heroes; had gunpowder never been discovered, however, I would have been forced to mind my p's and q's.”
The “firetubes” were certainly no longer to found in the hands of outsiders. For as soon as the possibilities of the new technology were demonstrated there was no holding it back. Fearing that they would fall behind lords great and small scrambled around the explosive weapons. No council would help now; the know-how of the new weapons of annihilation spread like wildfire. In the Renaissance cities of northern Italy, with their relatively advanced craftsmanship, the technology of firearms progressed especially quickly. All achievements and discoveries during this birth period were adapted from the art of building and using cannons.
The north-italian theorist Antonio Cornazano described the decisive role of firearms at the beginning of the 16th century, practically singing the praises of cannons and designating them quite affectionately as “Madama la bombarda, whose son is the rifle. This diabolical art has superseded all others and opens fortified cities to their enemies, making whole armies tremble with their roar.” (Cited in Zur Lippe, 1988, pp. 37)
Ever better rifles were built and above all ever larger cannons, which could fire ever farther. The largest field artillery even earned their own individual names. In response new fortifying techniques were developed. Thus the first push for modernization was at the same time an arms race and this process has repeated itself periodically until the present days, making it something of a trademark of modernity. The larger and more technologically developed cannons and bullwarks became, the more pronounced the society-altering character of the “military revolution” became.
The Military Machine Isolated
The decisive difference lies in the problem of equipment. Pre-modern warriors brought their weapons with them and wore them on their person daily, or kept them at home. Helmets, shields and swords could be produced by most any village blacksmith, and every sheperdboy knew how to use a bow and arrow or a sling. The entire logistics of war could be organized in a decentralized fashion. This corresponded entirely to the decentralized relations of a highly-developed agrarian society. The central authority, even a despotic one, had limits to its influence and its reach barely extended into daily life.
With modern military innovation, however, that was all a thing of the past. Muskets and especially cannons could not be produced in just any village and then stored at home, or even carried on one's person. The instruments of death had suddenly reached a higher order and broke the boundaries of human relations. In some respects we find the archetype for modernity in the cannon: it is namely a tool that begins to control its maker. A new industry of armament and death arose, which was a protoype for later industrialization and whose stench of corpses modern society, including the global market-democracies, have never been able to wash away.
The military apparatus began to tear itself free from the civil organization of society. The handiwork of war became a specialized occupational field and armies became permanent institutions that began to dominate the rest of society, as Geoffrey Parker shows in his research: “Associated with this development were a marked growth in army size right across Europe (with the armed forces of several states increasing tenfold between 1500 an 1700), and the adoption of more ambitious and complex strategies designed to bring these larger armies into action. (…) finally, [the] military revolution dramatically accentuated the impact of war on society: the greater costs incurred, the greater damage inflicted, and the greater administrative challenges posed by the augmented armies.” (Parker 1988, 2)
In this way social resources were redirected to military purposes to an unheard of degree. On occasion there had been a sort of squandering militarism, but never for this long or involving such a large portion of social production. The new armament and military complex rapidly developed into an insatiable Moloch that swallowed up monstrous amounts of material and to which the best social possibilities were sacrificed. Despite, or perhaps because of their many heroic songs and war-like demeanor the pre-modern cultures consumed relatively little in terms of armaments; their wars could almost seem like harmless brawls.
As regards this point, Karl Georg Zinn makes a comparison that is an even less flattering for modernity: “Measured by the development of weapons technology in the 14th century, the Middle Ages (...) had only a relatively weak military force at its disposal. War and armament burdened Medieval society far less than in the modern period. The proportion of agricultural surplus used for the purpose of destruction remained relatively slight during the Middle Ages; otherwise there would not have been enough to invest in necessary agricultural advancement, nor would there have been so many cathedrals, new cities or fortresses erected. The most pronounced difference between the Middle Ages and the modern period lies in the fundamentally different quality of technical progress: agricultural advances in the Middle Ages, urban armament and luxury technology with neglect of agriculture in Modernity.” (Zinn 1989, 58)
“Madama la bombarda” devoured not only a disproportionate part of social production, but also gave the monetized economy a decisive boost, which had been rather limited until that point. By dint of the rising agricultural and cottage-industrial productivity alone the breakthrough of money as the anonymous ruling power would never have been possible. Over the millenia there had always been technical advances, but people generally preferred to apply the profits of increased productivity for greater leisure or sensual enjoyment rather than the accumulation of monetary capital. Such a mad form of productive development could only be imposed from outside, and the socially detached armament and military complex offered the best prospects for achieving it.
Because the production of firearms could no longer be carried out decentrally within the bounds of agrarian natural and household production, it had to be concentrated. The same applied for the standing armies and military apparatuses, whose members were now professional killers and could not sustain themselves from household production. The only medium of reproduction for the unhinged military machine was money. The abstraction of the firearms-based military apparatus from the material needs of society corresponded to the money-form as an adequate medium. The permanent arms-economy of the canon and the structurally independent armies of scale translated, socially speaking, into a similar expansion of social mediation by money. It may have sustained itself from various sources, but all sprang forth as consequences of the “military revolution.”
War Financiers, Condottieri and Lansquenets
In the analyses of the cultural historian Rudolf zur Lippe it becomes clear how the new, bloody “craftsmen of death” transformed into the template of modern wage labor and its management: “The planning of military actions ... had to submit to the primacy of profit calculation. Chivalric notions of honor and fearlessness befitting one's rank was no longer in demand. (...)The unfunctionalized remains of feudal bearing, that is to say, the direct relations to the people and things for which one fights, gradually disappeared with one generation of “last knights” after another. (...) Indeed, the great mass of warriors had transformed into soldiers, recipients of guerdon or pay, and their leaders were paid out of the treasuries of states and offices. The first technological discovery of decisive practical importance was introduced to a field where things like abstract labor and replaceable wage workers had long been in existence: cannons were commensurate to the goal of wars in which the aim was something as abstract as the accumulation prospects of mercantile capital. (...) Since the number of lansquenets in an armed force represented nothing more than the number of people that the contractor could pay, the abstract composition of martial strength in cannons as machines of destruction was the logical consequence.” (zur Lippe 1988, 37)
The old mercantile capital was not the logical causa prima for this relationship between abstract labor and the innovation of firearms, as it was claimed here in the sense of an ontology of historical materialism. It wasn't the abstract killing machine, the cannon, that answered to mercantile capital with an already abstract interest in accumulation, but the reverse; the genesis of this interest-form itself was due to the “military revolution” and its social consequences.
At this point historical materialism would have to go a little crazy, as its assumption of an “economic basis,” in this case early modern mercantile capital, doesn't conform with a dialectic of “productive power and productive relations” that in truth was itself a late-coming result of the capitalist mode of production. What productive powers called the abstract accumulative interest of early modern merchant capital into being? The compass or the discovery of eye glasses? The alleged causal nexus doesn't exist.
In truth the abstract interest of accumulation and the free entrepreneurs of modern monetized economy couldn't have arisen immediately out of the medieval urban merchants and craftsmen. These groups, positioned in the niches of agrarian society, remained bound by guilds and trade associations to a narrow-minded system of mutual obligations and traditions. Their markets were not characterized by free competition and even less by the abstract logic of accumulation. Not until clans of merchants-such as the infamous Fuggers-rose to become war financiers under the regime of firearms did interest shift to sheer monetary accumulation. As the guarantors of princes these financiers had a stake in obtaining the most exorbitant monetizable plunder possible. This profit calculation, free of all social bonds, was reflected in the mercenary captains. The abstract rationale of modern business management sprang from the muzzles of rifles and canons in the hands of professional murderers and arsonits, not an interest in the general welfare.
The use of muskets and canons was to a certain degree an early form of “abstract labor.” Even today most people stop short when faced with this term, although it's not difficult to understand what is meant by it. “Abstract labor” is any activity carried out for money where the money is the deciding factor, that is to say, the content of the work is relatively unimportant. Modern monetary subjectivity in its original form carried this indifference to the point of obliteration, even risking one’s own. The objectification of the world for the purpose of indifferent profiteering included self-objectification through mortal risk. Entrepreneurs and workers of death were prototypically in equal parts the identical subject-object of history, the mercenary captain a.k.a manager just as much as the soldiers a.k.a wage workers. It doesn't matter against who or for what one fights, in what branch of production money is invested, what sort of work one does; so long as the price is right it doesn't matter how many worlds burn to the ground.
The nihilism of money disguised itself at first with images of farming life. “Hay” was the first slang expression for money, and one sought “to make money like hay” [used in German for “to make pots of money”-translator's note], regardless of all else, as one lansquenet song reveals:
The Monetization of Society
The unsatiable hunger for money under the firearms-regime came to dominate social life. According to recent calculations the tax burden rose by no less that 2,200% between the 15th and 18th centuries. That forcing the monetary form upon the people caused demoralization is attested to in numerous sources.
Even Rousseau tells in his autobiographical Confessions of how he learned of the sufferings of the weakened rural population during the vagabondage of his youth: “After several hours...I called at a peasant's home, weary and almost dying of hunger and thirst. I bid the farmer provide me with a midday meal for payment. He offered me skimmed milk and rough barley bread and told me it was all he had. ... The farmer, who had questioned me thoroughly, concluded from my appetite that my story was true. After he explained that he could see that I was a good, honest young man and not come to swindle him, he opened a small trapdoor next to his kitchen, climbed in and came back a moment later with a fairly thick pancake. ... When it came to payment he was gripped again by agitation and fear; he wanted no money, but refused it with extraordinary embarrassment...and I could not think of what he feared. Finally, trembling, he brought forth the terrible words: 'Commissar' and 'Cellar Rats.' He informed me that he hid his wine on account of the officials and his bread on account of the tax, and that he would be lost if suspicions arose that he was not dying of hunger. ...I left his house equal parts outraged and touched, and lamented the lot of such beautiful areas on whom nature had wasted her blessings to make them into plunder for tax agents.”
These tax agents represented, alongside war financiers and condottieri, another prototype of free marketeers in that they purchased in one lump-sum from the state the right to collect taxes. And if necessary those who couldn't pay would have their last cow or their tools confiscated by the bailiff, so that money might be squeezed out of it.
But the conversion of nature's fruits into tax money and its exorbitant rise was also unable to satisfy the money-hunger of the war machines. The military despots of modernization moved on to founding their own productive enterprises outside of the guilds and trade associations; the aim of these enterprises was no longer fulfilling needs but solely the acquisition of money. These state manufactories and plantations produced for the first time for a large, anonymous market, which was to finally become the precondition for free competition. And because no one volunteered themselves as cheap wage laborers, convicts, mentally-ill prisoners and on the periphery slaves were used. Special crimes were even invented so that forced labor could be obtained en masse. The directors of the new penitentiaries and workhouses for the free market, which developed during the forced monetization of society, completed the illustrious collection of free enterprise prototypes.
War for State-Building
Once set into motion by the self-perpetuating dynamic of the “military revolution,” the newly-minted early-modern state entities clashed with each other in a wave of expansion. In bloodbaths that at the time were without parallel they tested their strengths, which for the first time were grounded in large-scale technology, in order to battle for supremacy in Europe. The liberal-conservative Swiss historian Jacob Burckhard hit the mark when he spoke of the “State-building war” of the early modern period, for it was then that the foundations of today's still-existing power structures were laid and when what we term politics, the flip-side of monetized production, came into being.
This dynamic was accelerated by the discovery of the Americas. In the same manner that the development of modern military technology was set into motion, colonial expansion in both parts of the Americas (unthinkable without firearms) developed out of the military machines' hunger for money. As is well known, adventurers like Pizarro slaughtered entire Indian nations with a few canons and a handful of musketeers. The arms economy and colonialism pushed each other to new heights. The continuous traffic across the Atlantic demanded huge fleet-building programmes, which once again could only be carried out with an abstract monetary economy. The “State-building War” took on transcontinental dimensions. Behind the logic of cannons lurked the hubris of world domination. Thus the Seven-Years'-War (known as the “French and Indian War” in the United States) from 1756 to 1763 between Prussia and England on one side and Austria, Russia and France on the other was the first world war, because it took place simultaneously in Europe and the colonies of the New World.
History now comprised an ever-accelerating sequence of military conflicts. According to Geoffrey Parker modernity has been the least peaceful period in the whole of human history, both in terms of the frequency as well as the length and scale of wars. This concentration of warfare and the militarization of the economy accompanied a necessary centralization of society. The big fish ate the little fish not only outward among states, but also inwardly domination was formed anew in the cannon-defined states. Until the 16th century there had been no organized administration stretching from above to below. The common people had to pay taxes in the form of natural produce or labor corvees, but were otherwise left to their own devices. Most affairs were managed by institutions that were both autonomous and limited in their authority. There were even large regions with free farmers and craftsmen that were armed and knew no feudalism; the repressive character of structures here arose from the narrowness of affairs predicated upon blood-relation.
Modernization meant at first nothing other than the destruction of these forms of “narrow-minded autonomy” from above and outside so that the people could be subjected to the “political economy of firearms” in the form of monetary taxation and finally be turned into into money-producing units of abstract labor. From the peasant wars of the 15th and 16th centuries to the “Luddites” of the 19th century, independent producers defended themselves in desperate rebellion against their being hammered into fodder for the war machine and its abstract monetary economy. This resistance was bloodily suppressed. The absolutist state apparatus, built on the foundation of firearms-innovations, implemented its imperatives by force.
The Economy Isolated
This form of total competition bears the mark of Cain that bespeaks its origins in total war, even down to its terminology. It is no coincidence that Thomas Hobbes, founder of modern liberal state theory, declared the “war of all against all” as the natural human state. It was the proponents of the so-called Englightenment who translated the imperatives of the “isolated economy” into an abstract philosophical ontology of the “autonomous subject” in the 18th century, which had nevertheless been predefined by the totalitarian value form. Socialism, on the other hand, merely laid claim to the state as a transcendental subject as the opposing pole of the same bourgeois ontology and thereby inherited the war-economic origins of the modern world. The Marxism of the workers' movement had a reason for unselfconsciously adopting the phrase “Armies of Labor.”
For the global-market democracies of the present the “detached” end-in-itself of valorization of value and abstract labor has long since been internalized and is accepted as natural. They have carried both the monetization of all areas of life as well as the attendant bureaucratic human administration to extremes. All rights and freedoms, all supposed self-determination and responsibility, all politics and all party programmes are always subject to this mute apriori.
A radical critique of capitalism will be blocked so long as it shares the ontological fundament of bourgeois subjectivity. Most leftist critics of bourgeois ontologists are themselves proponents of bourgeois ontology. Implicitly or explicitly they wish to reassure themselves with the ontological constructs of bourgeois enlightenment and adopt an agnostic stance towards the real origins of modernity by asserting counterfactually that capitalism emerged directly out of agrarian society.
An opposed and emancipated anti-modernity will not foster a backwards-looking ideology, but rather proceed seriously with the “negative dialectic” beyond Adorno and historical materialism; in short, it will break with the enlightenment subject-ontology once and for all. That includes a new evaluation of history, one that will no longer ignore the origin of modernity in the “political economy of firearms.”
Translated from German by John Carroll