Kausfiles Special

Is Robert Wright a Marxist?

Robert Wright’s book Nonzero claims to unearth the arrow of history, the direction in which life has been moving these past few dozen thousand years. That direction is (drumroll …) greater complexity, specifically the greater complexity that allows humans–and microbes, for that matter–to realize the fruit of “non-zero-sum” cooperation. In a sweeping and surprisingly entertaining narrative, Wright traces this trajectory from the most primitive bacterium to hunter-gatherer tribes to the current threshold at which we stand: the beginning of the age of planetary government.

The overall effect is a bit like the famous Alfred Hitchcock anecdote in which a minor actor makes a fuss over his lines, at which point the great director calls a break and ushers the recalcitrant thespian into his office. There, on the wall, is a giant outline of the entire movie, scene by scene, with different-colored lines depicting the various characters. Hitchcock points to a small, short line about two-thirds of the way down. “See that?” he asks. “That’s you. Don’t give me any s—.”

I happen to find Wright’s grand view very convincing. I will from now on try not to futilely stand in the way of the inevitable march of human complexity and cooperation. But none of the many reviewers of Nonzero has mentioned one specific reason why Wright’s view of history seems so congenial, which is that it echoes the view I was taught (and insisted on being taught) when I attended college in the late ‘60s. Wright, to be blunt, is a Marxist.

Or at least his idea of how history works seems pretty much the Marxist idea, otherwise known as “dialectical materialism.” My sandal-wearing comrades in SDS were right all along! I knew it. Consider the following characteristics of Nonzero’s version of human history:

It’s dialectical! Wright denounces what he calls the “equilibrium fallacy,” the notion that human society is stable until some external shock comes along to change it. History is always unfolding, as mankind learns to realize new non-zero-sum gains–inventing agriculture, pursuing a division of labor, inventing money, writing, the printing press, etc. These developments are ultimately driven, Wright argues, by “internal and intrinsic forces such as social striving and population growth.” In the process of pursuing these goals, societies create “the seeds of their destruction.” The resulting change is not typically a slow accretion of incremental improvements but often a sudden eruption, “radically” altering society in a way that produces a qualitative change, a new level of “social complexity,” which in turn sows the seeds of its destruction, etc. In other words: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

It’s materialist! In Wright’s model, then, social change isn’t produced by ideas about a better or more just world. The revolution is not a dinner party! Social change is produced by developments in technology that “permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction,” which seems a lot like what Marx would call the “forces of production.” Take the transition from feudalism to capitalism:

Basically, a low-tech means of realizing positive sums–feudalism, geared to an age of little money, sparse literacy, and broken down roads–gave way to a high-tech means, radically changing the power structure.

Wright’s technological determinism is softened by the crucial realization that social organization is itself a “technology”–an agricultural chiefdom has a more complex, productive division of labor than a hunter-gatherer band, quite apart from whether it has better tools. Individual liberty (“bourgeois freedom”) in the polity and market is, in this sense, a very “efficient technology,” which is why it wins out.

It says there are inevitable, scientific laws of history. Marxists claimed to have discovered such laws, for which they’ve endured a century and a half of ridicule. But Wright makes a similar claim. The triumph of bourgeois society is, in his view, just one instance of a process of cultural evolution that parallels Darwin’s natural selection. Some societies (those better at realizing the fruits of “non-zero-sum cooperation”) beat out other societies, and are in turn beaten out by more complex, non-zero-sum-realizing social systems. As a result, history has an almost inevitable progression. Chiefdoms beat hunter-gatherers. States beat chiefdoms. Capitalism beats feudalism. The path, if not completely fixed, is pretty clear. You don’t see feudalism following capitalism, over any sort of long run. You don’t see any society saying, “Stop the march to complexity, I want to get off,” and surviving for long in the cultural-evolutionary race. (A society that does this will eventually get conquered, or crowded out, or it will convert.) Barring some sort of planetary extinction, global capitalism, verging on world government, is where humans were destined to end up at some point, which happens to be now. The Marxists were wrong only in predicting two further transformations–into socialism, and then communism–that weren’t in the cards. So they got a few details wrong.

Religion and culture are often reduced to epiphenomena. Marxists, especially the crude, hard-core variety, talk about “substructure” and “superstructure.” The substructure is the economic “mode of production”–feudalism, capitalism, whatever. In the “superstructure” are the other institutions of that culture–religions, music, associations, political institutions, family structures, tastes–that have to either fit in with the substructure, or else. Substitute “technological means of realizing positive sums” for “mode of production,” and you have Wright’s view, too.

This may seem like common sense, but in either its Marxist or Wrightist form, the substructure/superstructure notion has real bite. Three examples illustrate this point:

  1. China: Many people, not least the current rulers of China and some of their American anti-MFN opponents, believe the Chinese can in effect harness modern positive-sum-generating technology while preserving communist political institutions. Wrong, says Wright. A capitalist substructure will generate a bourgeois superstructure.
  2. Religions: If a religion clashes with the productive needs of a given “state of development in the productive facilities of man” (that’s Marx), can the religion survive? Many people, especially ecumenical sorts who believe in the power of faith and ideas, would say yes. A good Marxist–and Wright–would say no. It may be true, as Wright argues, that “one key to Islam’s potency” was that it made a “larger world safe for commerce.” But if, in dialectical fashion, it comes to stand in the way of global productive advance (i.e., competitiveness), Islam as we know it will eventually disappear.
  3. Welfare reform: Jason DeParle of the New York Times reports that the 1996 welfare law succeeded in getting lots of people off the dole and into jobs. But, he argues, this “may end up making less of a difference in the lives of the poor, socially or economically, than much of the public imagined.” Many fathers are still absent, boyfriends still beat up their girlfriends, drug problems persist, etc. A good Marxist/Wrightian would say DeParle’s thesis is crazy–if you change the economic substructure or “mode of production” of inner city life (from being on welfare to being in the labor force), all the other institutions in the lives of the poor will have to change in turn. Women who now have to work will begin to look for men who can help support them, for example. If the poor neighborhoods DeParle looks at still have a lot of absent fathers–well, come back in 10 years and things will look different.

I’m not saying Wright is slyly repackaging Marxist ideas for public consumption. Wright acknowledges the similarities between his view and Marx’s. And Wright’s view is different in important respects. For one, it grounds history in a more realistic, darker, Darwinian view of human nature, with its status-seeking and back-stabbing–none of that mushy Marxian talk about man’s inherent, social “species being.” Nor is it clear that in Wright’s view the disruption produced by the pursuit of non-zero-sum gains always takes the form of conflict between “classes,” as opposed to, say, war between nations (although it often does). And there’s that business about communism.

Wright’s idea–and I know this would sound incredibly presumptuous to my old grad-student teachers, as it may sound to you–is larger than Marx’s. Marx nailed the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but if you read Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, you’ll realize he had trouble extending the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model back to before feudalism. Marx winds up relying on the imperatives of population growth. But Wright adds to this the inherent Darwinian drive for status, which explains a whole lot more. Wright’s dynamic extends back from feudalism to the primordial soup, and ahead, from the Industrial Revolution to … well, there is talk of the “noosphere,” or global mind, which may be the Internet, the “electronically mediated web of thought that had taken crystalline form by the end of the second millennium.”

In this sense, Wright is not a Marxist; Marx is a Wrightist. Wright provides an overarching framework that Marx’s thinking on the feudalism/capitalism transition plugs neatly into. Still, it’s nice to know that Marxist history is being rehabilitated in respectable bourgeois circles. I didn’t waste my youth after all.

Conflict disclosure: Wright is a friend–actually a close friend. You will have to take my word that I wouldn’t have written this unless I really was persuaded by

Nonzero–at least by the first nine tenths, before it enters a cosmic-speculation mode.