Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Conservative Praxis of Postmodernism.

“That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.” — Jean Baudrillard (1)

In the post-May 68 intellectual climate postmodernism ascended from an emergent philosophy to a mainstay in university humanities faculties. These stars of the French intellectual scene set out to critique and deconstruct the enlightenment tradition. But as Foucault informed us we should not ‘blackmail’ a thinker into being either for or against the enlightenment. Therefore following this line it is not as simply to say that because a postmodernist critiques the enlightenment that the theorist represents a revolt of unreason against rationality in social life. Jacques-Benigne Bossuet and Thomas Hobbes both advocated political absolutism, but the philosophical system backed by Hobbes shifted the justification of government from divinity of the sovereign to practicality and utility for its constituents. Enlightenment philosophers took Hobbes’ naturalistic approach and built onto it while removing other elements, concluding in favour of democratic and republican ideals which Hobbes had hoped to fight. The political and philosophical systems put forward by Enlightenment philosophers though were not monolithic, having contained within their ambiguous definitions many differences of opinion. But one can assured they favoured relatively progressive forms of political activity with their naturalistic methods and notions of progress, truth and justice.

Postmodernists have sought to challenge all notion of universality, hierarchy of values, binary opposition and grand-narratives. Through challenging traditional notions of the subject and society, post-modernists have been associated with left-wing politics. However, their philosophical systems do nothing but create a problematic foundation for the engagement in critique.

The concept of practical criticism or critique implies two parts, negative and positive. Critical negativity finds the object of criticism deficient in some form. The negativity leads to the positive which is the affirmation of a value or attribute found deficient in the object criticised. In Praxis, negativity manifests itself in negation and the positive manifests itself in the product of transformation. Transformative politics necessarily implies criticism of current political establishment, both in its theoretical foundation and its institutions and theoretical foundations and hypothetical institutions to replace the negated. Post-modern criticism is Deconstructionist in that it seeks to critique forms of hegemony, but unlike practical criticism does not seek an alternative hegemony. Derrida defined this though not as a nihilism but rather openness to an unknown ‘other’. The absence of a signified transformative goal undermines the ability to produce practical critique in the pursuit of progressive change, a quintessential quality of left-wing politics.

To take a literary example, Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” features a gang of youths who systematically deconstruct a house, at first superficially, until they remove the very foundations which hold the structure together; the day after, the house falls over. The gang’s act of deconstruction renders the house a pile of rubble; they have destroyed and created anew with new possibilities of creation. Our lead on the gang’s story breaks off at that point. Deconstructionist criticism echoes this story of an East London gang in that they are anti-‘what is’ but have no ‘to be,’ and thus their deconstruction doesn’t necessarily follow to progressive developments.

In all probability, deconstruction could lead to reactionary, even fascist developments in that, for example, human rights are a Universalist ideal system, and therefore a hegemonic construct. If we approach human rights from a radical subjectivist position we undermine the hegemonic concept and thus render it useless.

The nomothetic discourses which construct the notions of human rights and justice stand between postmodernists and the further degradation of human dignity. For as we know human rights are not universally respected by all, particularly Western governments who claim positive universal values as they push forward their own national and corporate interests under the guise of a false cosmopolitanism. To infer from this situation that ‘Western Civilization’ and philosophy are oppressive at a fundamental level, i.e. it’s championing of rationality and hierarchy of values is a misapprehension of modernity’s challenges.

The crisis in Western Civilization is not caused by the application of rationality but the misuse of rationality. It’s the creation of ‘Rational-choice theories’ whose logic is based on a series of assumptions eventually divorcing itself from actuality when it fails to adapt. A prime example of this process is the discipline of economics, an underlying principle of which is the presumption of scarcity and thus the necessity of a market. Scarcity in resources has marred human society since time immemorial, till recent times when technological developments have increased the production levels of essential commodities to the point that scarcity is now artificially created. Sustaining an illogical price system serves not the ‘unlimited wants’ of the people but rather the sectional interest of power elites and corporations. This construct of principles breaks with the idea of a rational-choice theory which should be aimed at satisfying human needs on a Utilitarian basis.

This failure of the Western establishment and global economy should not be combated by undercutting our ability to make rational-choices and values in the pursuit of progressive enlightenment ideals. Postmodernist have pushed in the face of such challenges theories of cultural relativism, that values are cultural constructions and therefore to say that one value superior to another is foolhardy and even racist when involving inter-cultural discourse. Therefore we cannot declare the universality of the right to life because that creates a hierarchy of values; one which is in contradiction to other cultures i.e. death penalties in the USA or public beheadings in Saudi Arabia.

This denial of ones ability to choose one value over another serve only to sustain the value currently entrenched. Therefore by virtue of logical necessity postmodernism’s ultra-radical break with ‘convention’ becomes rather conservative. Left-wing politics and affirmation of value are firmly based on the enlightenment/modernist worldview, in the words of Marshall Berman:

“I have been arguing that those of us who are most critical of modern life need modernism most, to show us where we are and where we can begin to change our circumstances and ourselves. In search of a place to begin, I have gone back to one of the first and greatest of modernists, Karl Marx. I have gone to him not so much for his answers as for his questions. The great gift he can give us today, it seems to me, is not a way out of the contradictions of modern life but a surer and deeper way into these contradictions. He knew that the way beyond the contradictions would have to lead through modernity, not out of it.”(2)

We cannot go to ‘post-modernity’, we can only engage in the modernist project of shaping our world, of ‘taking our epoch on our shoulders paying for it today and forever’.

Written by Mathew Toll.


1) "Continental Drift: Questions for Jean Baudrillard," Deborah Salomon, New York Times Magazine, November 2005.
2) All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman (Verso, London 1997) pp. 128–9.

(Written late 2005 or early 2006)

Justified True Belief and Critical Rationalism.

During his trial Socrates argued that human wisdom came from the acknowledgment of human ignorance (Plato, 1969, P. 52), a position arrived at via the traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief. Because of such conclusions this account, which leaves us without a useful “knowledge”, is not without its detractors. Therefore the traditional theory of knowledge as justified true belief will be outlined. Its success, strengths and weakness as an account of knowledge will be assessed in relation to competing theories such as “critical rationalism”, where knowledge is not infallible but merely the best available theory (Popper, 1984, p. 26-7).

The question of demarcation between belief and knowledge has been a central debate in epistemology. The traditional account of knowledge considered belief to be an essential component of knowledge. For the purpose of argument, the proposition ‘time is a dimension in relation to other dimensions’ is true. But if the individual does not believe it to be so then they don’t know it. This is the first condition of the traditional theory of knowledge, the belief condition. A belief may be true or false, but knowledge must be true. The second condition of knowledge is the Truth condition.

A proposition that meets the first two conditions of the traditional epistemological theory is not necessarily considered knowledge, as it still has to satisfy the evidence condition. According to this position, a propositions status as knowledge is not based on belief or accidental truth, but must be justified to the point of infallibility in order to be considered knowledge.

The infallibility of knowledge has been a controversial point for epistemologists. The truth condition, according to the traditional theory has to be satisfied in order for a proposition to be considered knowledge. But the truth or falsity of a proposition is determined by the justification. A proposition can be considered true and justified on the basis of all available evidence, but a contrary observation can disprove a long held piece of knowledge, this is the “problem of induction” (Popper, 1984, p. 42). This is not the only problem with the evidence condition. The infinite regress of reasons that one proposition is justified with another, is a problem for the traditional account of knowledge. If one proposition is supported by another and so forth until there is a whole system of propositions, it becomes self-referring without finding a foundation that justifies the totality of propositions.

Foundational and fallibility issues have been central weakness of the traditional account of knowledge. There have been varied attempts to solve the problem of knowledge, either in proposing foundations in an attempt to solve the infinite regress of reasons, or by weakening the idea of infallibility of knowledge. Theses philosophers opt to define knowledge as the best available theory on the basis of all current evidence to avoid scepticism, the position that we have no knowledge.

Epistemological foundationalism, in both its empiricist and rationalist variants has attempted to ground knowledge and thus save the justified true belief account of knowledge from both the infinite regress of reasons and scepticism. These problems left unsolved would invalidate any synthetic propositions claim to knowledge. Empiricist conceived that all knowledge was grounded in the senses. John Locke expressed the idea in his phrase “Tabula Rasa” that the human mind is like a blank canvas getting filled in by experience (Teichman, Evens, 1991 p.246). This foundational theory, which does not weaken the evidence condition, is still subject to the infinite regress of reasons, the problem of induction, the fallibility of sense-observations and thus all the problems associated with the traditional account of knowledge.

Perceptual information can lead to false propositions; Descartes recognising this fact chose to doubt his ability to know the external world (Descartes, 1984, p.96). Retaining the evidence condition as proposed by the traditional account of knowledge Descartes looked for foundational propositions that are self-evident and therefore indubitable. Synthetic propositions, which are contingent upon empirical verification, are fallible, but analytical propositions, which are true by necessity of meaning, are candidates for epistemological foundations. The distinction between analytical and synthetic propositions can be illustrated with two examples of the different types of propositions. The proposition ‘all triangles have three sides’ is an analytical proposition. Its truth-value is not determined by empirical evidence but by the meaning of the word triangle, a shape with three sides. Synthetic propositions make claims about the world; ‘all rabbits are white’ is an example. Its truth-value is contingent upon the state of the world, whether or not all rabbits are white. Descartes in his argument from dreaming held that true analytical propositions are knowledge by the standard of justified true belief (Descartes, 1984, p. 98). The usefulness of analytical propositions, and hence knowledge found within the paradigm of the traditional account is considered a major of weakness of the theory.

Competing theories of epistemology have contested the conditions under which knowledge is traditionally defined. The critical rationalism of Karl Popper has contested the infallibility clause in the evidence condition and thus paradoxically the truth condition of knowledge. The truth-value of a proposition is therefore not the determining factor of its value as knowledge but rather its truth-argument being able to account for all available evidence better than all other propositions. For Popper knowledge was not static, but a developing project, “the advance of knowledge consists, mainly, in the modification of earlier knowledge” (Popper, 1984, p. 28). Accordingly by this theory the replacement of one set of ideas by another that constituted a better explanation of all available evidence, is not an occasion to morn our inability to gain knowledge, but rather a moment of increasing knowledge. This theory also provides a demarcation between knowledge and belief, which preferences knowledge over belief in a workable manner. If according to the traditional account, knowledge were infallible it would not be useful because only analytical propositions can meet such criteria. Belief then would be more useful then knowledge, invalidating any attempt by traditional account epistemologists to give us practical reasons to preference knowledge over belief

For the critical rationalist knowledge is a process of development based around a method of trial and error (Popper, 1984, p. 56). Therefore along with the truth and evidence condition, the belief condition is challenged. Because we do not have to believe our current theories to be true, they might be true, while falsified theories are believed to be untrue (Popper, 1984, p.56). The weakness of this theory is that it overturns all the three conditions that make knowledge definite and solid. It finds strength in circumventing the problems (infinite regress of reasons, foundations and infallibility issues) associated with the traditional account of knowledge. Hence synthetic propositions, both useful and informative are considered knowledge according to critical rationalism. This constitutes a functional rather than dysfunctional system of knowledge, because it makes allowances for adaptability that the traditional account does not.

The traditional account of knowledge as justified true belief, aims to make knowledge a concrete concept, giving us a clear cut method for discerning between what we know and don’t know. But the conclusion of this method leads to a situation where knowledge is either non-existent (scepticism) or useless (rationalist) Socrates himself concluded the former (Plato, 1969, P. 52). The critical rationalists and best available theory epistemologists allow for a working concept of knowledge by weakening the criterion for something to be known. The traditional theory of knowledge is ultimately unsuccessful because while it considers knowledge more justified than belief, it gives no practical reason to preference knowledge over forms of information such as a mere belief, which while not being certainly true can be informative and useful. Hence the traditional account does not provide a functional theory of knowledge.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Descartes, R. (1984), Discourse on Method and The Meditations, Penguin, Bungay.

Plato, (1969), The Last Days of Socrates, Trans Tredennick, H. Penguin, London.

Popper, K. R. (1984), Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

(Written mid 2006).

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Nation-State, Core and Periphery: A Brief sketch of Imperialism in the 20th century.

At the dawn of the 20th century large colonial powers had carved up the world between themselves. ‘Core’ zones were marked by their level of economic development and the ‘peripheral’ zones their level of economic underdevelopment. The political organization of economic dependencies in the form of colonies and semi-colonies was established by a small number of nation-states. This domination of the periphery by the core nations is known as Imperialism. Imperialism in this overt political form, with directly administered peripheral zones is a salient feature of the first half of the 20th century. By the second half of the 20th century there began a process of decolonisation, whereby the direct political control of peripheral zones became problematic and untenable because of increasing political opposition in the form of national-liberation movements. Even though the formal political control of peripheral zones has been alleviated, many contend that the economic domination and relations of dependency persist. This represents one concern for evaluating the continuing relevance of imperialism in the mid to late 20th century. Another issue in evaluating the persistence of imperialism is the role of the nation state. Imperialism saw intra-imperialist conflict between different national-bourgeois over the division and re-division of the world. A leading organ of this conflict was the respective national-bourgeoisie’s nation-state. Some Neo-Marxists have argued that given the ostensive decline of the nation-state, imperial sovereignty is increasingly being replaced by a new form of sovereignty and economic organisation that transcends the nation as a unit of political and economic organization. These two issues: the persistence of unequal relations between the core and periphery and place of the nation-state within global capitalism are central to understanding the applicability of imperialism to the 20th century as a whole.

The Locus of Self: Youth Culture and Commodification

 ‘Youth’ is a concept used to demarcate a particular stage in the life-span development of an individual. This period in a person’s life is considered formative in the creation of their identity. Interdependence and independence are essential to an individual’s sense of self and place within social groups. Consequently the sub-cultures and peer groups which youths involve themselves in are a shaping influence on their sense of identity. The sociology of youth culture has sought to understand the nature of this collective sense of identity, its relation to adult culture and societal structures. Youth culture can often seem permeated with oppositional defiance, youth defining their identity in contradistinction to adult culture. The issue arising from this phenomenon is whether youth culture challenges the dominant structures of society. Or can youth culture be viewed as hedonistic and an expression of superficial rebellion and political conservatism. To address these issues this paper will first define ‘youth’ and ‘culture’, further elucidating the formation of youth identity through their particular consumption patterns and the effect of this consumption on society’s dominant structures. In answering the question, the paper will ascertain whether Youth culture represents resistance to the status quo or commodified compliance.

It has been argued that ‘youth’ is an invented category imagined after World-War Two (Nilan, 2007, p. 113). Currently youth has come to represent a specific demographic, roughly those individuals between the ages of ten and their late twenties (Nilan, 2007, p. 113). The exact nature of this transformation from childhood to adulthood is highly culturally specific and differs between societies (Nilan, 2007, p.113). There are numerous factors which influence the dynamic of youth within high income economies situated in Australia, North America and Western Europe. Lengthening of the human life span and structural changes in the labour-force that require a greater skill set and therefore more education have all influenced the nature of youth transition (Nilan, 2007, pp. 113-4). Erikson (1968, p. 165) postulated that adolescence is a crisis point, the stage in an individual’s life when they start to form an identity via their ability to deal with this crisis. As a specific demographic ‘youth’ has been associated with particular cultural and consumption practices. The surfing youth sub-culture exemplifies this, having particular consumption patterns. Their culture is associated with bright colours and casual clothing expressing a “laid back” identity and cultural dynamic (Morgan, 2006, p 143).

Culture is a system of collectively held values and norms (Nilan, 2007, pp. 113-4). Youth in their struggle to define themselves for themselves, help to forge a generation gap, forming a particular system of values and norms. ‘Youth culture’ has become a term to denote this difference, but even within this ‘culture’ differentiated from adult culture there are many sub-cultures and stratums of youth (Clarke, Hall, Jefferson, Roberts, 1993). The patterns of consumption have become an increasingly important determinant in the construction of youth identities (Croghan, Griffin, Hunter, Phoenix, 2006, p.463). Exemplifying this phenomenon, Gilbert (2007, p. 9) argued that young Australian women practice smoking as a means to project their individuality and self-determination. This projection of identity to another is accompanied by the individual’s re-statement of their own identity for themselves. The process whereby individuals construct their identity through consumption of commodities is the commodification of the self (Woodward, 2007, p.162).

The notion “I am what I consume” is the defining characteristic of the commodified self (Woodward, 2007, p. 162). This is an expansion of Marx’s (1986) notion of commodity fetishism, that within capitalist society the commodity becomes the locus of social value. A commodity’s use-value becomes “a reality only by use or consumption” (Marx, 1986, p. 44). The value of commodities within identity construction is their value as signs. The sign is a concept utilised by Barthes (1993, p. 109) to denote an association between an object (signifier) and its message (signified), where the object is used to communicate a culturally recognisable meaning. Subsequently inanimate objects encoded with meaning are used to communicate an individual’s ‘self’ and identity to others (Woodward, 2007, p. 159).

Baudrillard (1981, pp. 123-4) held a similar conception, that the commodities which one consumes have a “sign value”, created in a “system of differentiation”. A hierarchy of signs is used to form a social logic of differentiation, as these signs mediate relations within and between groups (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 123-4). In an ethnographic analysis of youth culture, the importance of authentic consumption, of choosing the right brand to belong to a social group and delineate between other groups, was a reoccurring theme (Croghan, et al. 2006, p.474-5). One youth commented on another youths attempt at fitting into the group by buying counterfeit Nikes with an inverted tick. This kind of consumption was deemed inadequate and fostered a negative social identity among the young people studied (Croghan, et al. 2006, pp. 469-470). As consumption practices have become an important marker of a person’s individuality and social status, consumerism has become an integral feature of youth culture. Furthermore, consumption acts to demarcate between sub-cultures and social groups.

Hip-hop sub-culture is a distinctive identity within the broader youth culture with its particular set of signs and consumption patterns. This global ‘homogenous’ phenomenon though has particular interpretations within different localities and subgroups (Arthur, 2006, p. 140). In Australia, an example of this is the reinterpretation of the brand name FUBU to signify concerns of a local aboriginal community. Originally the brand name was utilised by the African American community to denote autonomy and independence (Arthur, 2006, pp. 140-1). This shows that signs can be co-opted and re-negotiated but the use of particular consumption patterns to promote collective identity is still present. Hip-hop culture is often thought of as anti-establishment in sentiment, but consumerism and the commodification of the self, which are defining aspects of wider culture and social structures, are maintained within the sub-culture. Debord (1983) postulated that the commodification of dissent is a technique by which rebellion is co-opted into the dominant structures of commodity culture. The recuperation of underground and deviant cultural movements into the mainstream culture serves to reinvigorate the commodity market with new trends and fashions. The surfing sub-culture demonstrates this process, where a culture that signified a retreat from “suburban materialism”, now has specialised shops that propagate a commodity constructed identity (Morgan, 2006, pp. 143-6).

This cultural dynamism, with its trends and fashions is integral to the maintenance of fundamental social structures. Modern capitalism, according to Keynesian theory requires consumer spending to maintain adequate aggregate demand, to minimise the effects of economic contraction and recession (Wonnacott & Wonnacott, 1982, pp. 142-143). The dissidence of youth constructing their identities through consumption patterns in attempted independence from adult culture performs a conservative function within social organisation of modern society. Some postmodernists have argued that this condition of “hyper-commodification” is an expression of freedom and identity play, emphasising the neoteric nature of commodities and signs breaking through old barriers (Woodward, 2007, pp. 161-2). This argument establishes the hedonistic nature of modern mass culture and the pursuit of self, but neglects economic (and some would argue) ideological function of consumption, and therefore its conservative role.

Marcuse (1972, p. 21) argued that consumption patterns serve a further ideological function in the maintenance of capitalism rather then merely in the economic sphere. Through the development of mass culture there is a levelling out of contrast, when individuals of hostile social groups attain satisfaction through the same cultural products. This superficial “equalization of class distinctions”, as expressed by Marcuse (1972, p. 21) unifies the population in a desire for ‘needs’, which support the continuance of the establishment. Contrasts between different identities and therefore subject positions within society have not been levelled out completely. The ethnographic research mentioned above, on youth culture highlighted the demarcation between social groupings, through varied patterns of consumption and therefore also by access to resources (Croghan, et al. 2006, pp. 474-5). The expression of difference through consumption patterns acts to maintain the basis of commodity culture, and the dominant structures of society. Consequently consumerism is fundamentally politically conservative.

Youth culture, in its hedonistic pursuit of self-construction through symbolic and conspicuous consumption is politically conservative. Conservatism is a nebulous and multifaceted set of ideas, philosophies and practices that aim to maintain the status quo (Heywood, 2002, pp. 46-7). If we accept Marcuse’s conceptualisation of consumerism, any form of resistance within the “one-dimensional” society (where difference is superficial), is inherently futile (Berman, 1997, p. 29). People having become so inured by the cultural hegemony of the establishment that antagonisms are no longer threatening to the status quo (Marcuse, 1972, pp. 11-12). This picture maybe unnecessarily bleak, but consumerism in general and within youth culture in particular serves to sustain the basis of modern capitalism and thus is politically conservative.

The attempt by ‘Youth’ to define themselves in contradiction to adult culture through particular consumption patterns, has established consumerism as an integral part of youth culture. Consumerism is inherently hedonistic with each individual pursuing their own ends in conspicuous symbolic consumption. Commodities used as signs are markers of social status and position within youth culture and therefore function as a system of differentiation between individuals. Deviant and underground cultural movements are highly compromised by identity construction through consumption patterns as these very practices are often co-opted into mainstream youth culture, introducing new trends that reinvigorate the market. Consumerism is politically conservative, on two fronts, economically and ideologically. On the economic level, identity construction through consumption drives aggregate demand. Therefore consumerism supports the continuation of capitalism by minimizing downward spirals in the economic cycle and furthering growth. On the ideological level, identity construction through consumption leads to a unification of the individual’s ‘needs’ with the needs of the establishment. Differences between consumption patterns only equate to different predilections in supporting the establishment. Hence modern Youth culture, in its hedonistic pursuit of self-gratification and identity construction through commodity consumption, is politically conservative.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Arthur, D. (2006), “Authenticity and Consumption in the Australian Hip Hop Culture”, Qualitative Market Research, Vol 9, issue 2, pp. 140-157.

Baudrillard, J. (1981), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Trans Levin, C. USA, Telos Press.

Barthes, R. (1993), Mythologies, Trans Lavers, A. Sydney, Vintage Books

Berman, M. (1997), All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, 9th Ed, London, Verso.

Clarke, J. Hall, S. Jefferson, T. Roberts, B. (1993), “subcultures, cultures and class: A theoretical overview”, Resistance through rituals; youth subcultures post-war Britain, Edited Hall, S. & Jefferson, T. London, Routledge.

Croghan, R. Griffin, C. Hunter, J. Phoenix, A. (2006) “Style Failure: Consumption, Identity and Social Exclusion.”, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 9, issue 4, pp. 463-478.

Debord, G. (1983), Society of the Spectacle, Detroit, Black & Red.

Erikson, E. H. (1968), Identity: Youth and Crisis, New York, Norton and Company.

Gilbert, E. (2007), "Constructing 'fashionable' youth identities: Australian young women cigarette smokers.”, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 10, issue 1, pp. 1-15.

Heywood, A. (2002), Politics, (2ed), China, Palgrave Macmillan.

Marcuse, H. (1972), One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London, Abacus.

Marx, K. (1986), Capital: A critique of political economy, vol 1, Edited Engels, F. Trans, Moore, S. and Aveling, E. Moscow, Progress Publishers.

Morgan, G. (2006). "Work in progress: Narratives of aspiration from the new economy.", Journal of Education and Work, Vol 19, Issue 2, pp. 141-151.

Nilan, P (2007), “Youth Culture”, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, Edited Poole, M. and Germov, J. Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin.

Wonacoot, R. & Wonnacott, P. (1982), Economics, 2nd Ed, Sydney, McGraw-Hill International Book Company.

Woodward, I. (2007), “Consumption and lifestyles”, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, Edited Poole, M. and Germov, J. Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin

(written early 2007).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Zaibatsu Dissolution, Reparations and Administrative Guidance.

During a lecture before the Eugenics Society in 1937, British economist John Maynard Keynes stated that “a greater cumulative increment than 1 per cent per annum in the standard of life has seldom proved practicable”. Moreover, Keynes continued, “generally speaking the rate of improvement seems to have been somewhat less then 1 per cent per annum cumulative”. Of course, Keynes was speaking during the great depression, and therefore his remarks may be tainted with a particular pessimism. But they draw into sharp relief the experience of economic growth in post-war Japan: between 1950 and 1973, GDP growth averaged 10%, a rate of sustained growth never before seen .By 1962, the English publication Economist, with poetic flair, dubbed Japan’s recovery an “economic miracle” . This designation caught on and became a general catch phrase for spectacular economic growth. In the case of Japan, a multitude of explanations have arisen for why Japan underwent an ‘economic miracle’. Crucial to elucidating Japan’s post-war boom is the distinction between, and relative importance of, endogenous and exogenous influences upon the economy and society. International conditions, general post-war prosperity, the Cold War and the Korean War, in particular, all influenced domestic conditions within Japan. An understanding of Government policy and pre-existing economic structures are vital to any assessment of Japan’s economic recovery and expansion. Ethno-economic approaches have highlighted the “uniquely Japanese cultural psychological features” that ostensibly contributed to the re-construction of the economy . This selection of possible factors and influences is only a short-list. Economists and historians alike have propagated various theories to explain the dynamic process of post-war Japanese economic growth. Re-evaluation of the economic, social and political dynamics in the post-war period is necessary to ascertain the reasons for Japan’s economic miracle.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Samurai, Chōnin and the Bakufu: Between Cultures of Frivolity and Frugality.

The emergence and consolidation of the Tokugawa Bakufu between 1600 and 1603 marked the end of continual military conflict, which had engulfed Japan, since the commencement of the Ōnin War in 1467. Without these incessant wartime conditions to justify naked coercion, in ordering the social system, the Bakufu was faced with the predicament of how to maintain and validate a peaceful social compact. In a society marred by the obvious tensions between daimyō, jostling for power and stratification between and within classes, management of these tensions and conflicts became essential for the endurance of the Shogun’s government. Utilizing and organizing institutional structure, spatial order and ideology the Bakufu attempted to attain social stability and ensure its own political hegemony. This effort to integrate divergent societal elements into a functional whole serves as a nexus to evaluate the effectiveness of the Bakufu throughout its reign, from its formation to its eventual collapse in 1867.

During the Tokugawa period sovereignty was exercised through an “integrated yet decentralized state structure” (Eiko, 1995, p. 164). Residing in Edo, the Shogun retained technical ‘proprietorship’ over all domains. But local authority was parceled out to the daimyō functioning as governors, administering their particular locality in lieu of the Shogun himself (Gordon, 2003, pp. 10-12). In return for their semi-autonomy the daimyō were deemed beholden to the Bakufu. Allegiance from the daimyō was expected and certain obligations were often requested. In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu called upon the daimyō to contribute to the venture of leveling Mt. Kanda, for landfill (Yonemoto, 1999, p. 51). This huge project exemplifies the subordinate position of the daimyō to the Bakufu, but also the Bakufu’s attempts to weaken the daimyō financially.

Financial burden undermined the daimyō significantly, functioning as a method of political control. Central to this policy of financial burden was Sankin kōtai or “alternate attendance” instituted by Tokugawa Iemitsu between 1635 and 1642 (Gordon, 2003, p. 13). This required the presence of daimyō within Edo during alternate years. The other year spent within their ‘han’ or domain, forcing the daimyō to maintain two residences and travel between them. Their Edo residence was expected to be maintained at the level of luxury suitable for entertaining the Shogun. While also housing the daimyō’s family, who amounted to pampered hostages. Maintaining and staffing their Edo residence characteristically consumed two-thirds of the daimyō’s tax revenue (Gordon, 2003, p. 14). A financial load which as time progressed through the Edo period the daimyō found harder to bear.

Along with the financial burden placed upon daimyō through alternate attendance and special state projects, the Bakufu manipulated the size and positioning of different domains. Strategically organizing daimyō’s geographic position according to their relationship to the Edo dictatorship, conceptualized in three divisions. Shimpan daimyō relatives of the Tokugawa family and therefore considered the most loyal, were located in key tactical and economic regions. Fudai daimyō were typically subordinates of the Tokugawa house before the battle of Sekigahara (1600), placed in strategic locations to offset former opponents to the regime. Tozama, or outer daimyō, the least trusted were placed in the remotest areas (Hane, 1991, p. 137). Tokugawa Iemitsu, in exercising his ability to modify the domains of the daimyō, redistributed one-fifth of Japan’s arable land (Gordon, 2003, p. 13). These policies combined with others effectively crippled the daimyō, integrating them into the Tokugawa polity and impeding their ability to threaten the central authority in Edo for over two-hundred years.

The Bakufu-daimyō relationship with its lord-vassal, center-periphery structure was repeated within the lower ranks of the Tokugawa polity. A lord-vassal relationship existed between samurai and their daimyō. Samurai were retained on a stipend in return for their loyalty and obligation to the daimyō. During the Edo period this archetypically amounted to administrative duties within castle-towns, the political and organizational center of a daimyō’s domain (Hall, 1968, p. 179). To justify this kind of lord-vassal relation which structured society, there developed many syntheses of Buddhism, Shito and Neo-Confucianism to form ideological rationalizations of social stratification (Gordon, 2003, p.35).

Fundamental to the rationalizations of social stratification from both religious and secular schools of thought, was the notion that hierarchy was natural and moreover just. A Zen priest, Suzuki Shosan argued that the object of an individual’s life was to serve society through satisfying ones obligations to their superiors in accordance with their social station. While neo-Confucian Fujiwara Seika argued a similar position from a metaphysical conception of natural laws which dictated the rationality of social life. In 1630 Seika managed to gain financial support from the Bakufu in order to establish a “sages hall” in honor of Confucius (Gordon, 2003, p.36). Continuing this tread in 1670 the neo-Confucian Hayashi academy was recognized as the official Bakufu University. This brand of neo-Confucianism, while not unchallenged from other traditions, was utilized by the state to rationalize the social stratification and lord-vassal relationships which permeated the Tokugawa polity.

Ideologues associated with the Bakufu conceived of a natural social hierarchy that was divided into four major classes or status groups: samurai, peasant, artisan and merchant. These status groups were ranked in their perceived level of importance to society as a whole (Tipton, 2002, p. 5). This conceptualization of societal roles originated within a culture primarily supported by an agrarian economy. But during the Edo period political, socio-economic and technological transformation increasingly re-structured actual class relations. Rendering the appropriateness of an idealized class hierarchy largely inherited from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s reign in the late Sengoku period highly dubious (Vastos, 1986, pp. 21-23: Hane, 1991, pp. 118-119). When it frequently contributed to social strife as actual social-relations strayed from the ‘natural hierarchy’.

As samurai were declining in significance, merchants, artisans and wealthy peasants considered by conservative ideology to be subordinate were on the ascension. Dismayed by societal developments, neo-Confucian moralist Kaibara Ekken wrote “lowly townsmen who are so ostentatious are criminals who violate moral principles” (quoted in Shively, 1964-1965, p.158). Kaibara represented a segment of hard-line conservative opinion that viewed individuals who act contrary to their class position as morally degenerate. This ethical position was symptomatic of the growing disenfranchisement within the samurai class. Disenfranchisement had taken hold because the samurai had come to see the world as increasingly disjointed, as their own status and importance waned. A situation engendered by developments in urbanization, mercantile enterprise and proto-industrialization (Tipton, 2002, pp. 5-7: Morris-Suzuki, 1994, pp. 20-23).

Bakufu policy affected these transformative processes which furthermore affected the integration of divergent social segments. The forced residence of daimyō in Edo had the immediate and obvious effect of increasing levels of urbanization. Concurrently with forced residence the Bakufu restricted the number of castles in each domain to one which functioned as the administrative and economic hub of the han. By 1720 Edo had reached a population of one million and 5 to 6% of the Tokugawa populace resided within cities larger then a hundred-thousand in population (Gordon, 2003, pp. 21-23). This percentage outstripped the number of Europeans living within comparative urban centers during the same period. Increasing level’s of urbanization in Japan, as with Western Europe, lead to the expansion of the monetary economy and mercantile enterprise.

Mercantile enterprises grew significantly after the integration of divergent domains into the Tokugawa polity. Alternative attendance required the development of road and communication networks throughout the sixty six provinces providing the necessary infrastructure for inter-han trade. Compounding this effect daimyō needed to convert the rice taxed from their domains into money. In order to satisfy obligations to the Bakufu and pay the stipend owed their samurai retainers. This facilitated the growth of large merchant houses, which brought rice from daimyō and sold them on to the urban population (Gordon, 2003, p. 21). Expansion of mercantile interest was therefore guaranteed by Bakufu policy and simultaneously ensured the growth of a monetary economy.

Commercial expansion amplified the importance of the chōnin (‘townspeople’), artisans and merchants, both in the economic and cultural spheres of social life (Tipton, 2002, pp.8-9). The chōnin’s new found prosperity precipitated an enlarged disposable income, which resulted in a culture of conspicuous consumption. Urbanite demand for consumer products drove the development of proto-industrialization, particularly craft industries producing luxury items. By the early 1700s villages located near major cities saw the peasants turn towards the production of high income yielding crops, like silk and cotton (Morris-Suzuki, 1994, p 21). These economic changes saw adaptations in the rural hierarchy and furthered social stratification between different stratums of peasantry. Open conflict between wealthy peasants who had economic power over poorer peasants often resulted (Vlastos, 1986, pp. 86-90). Though there was increased peasant discontentment, protests and rebellions during the Tokugawa period. This in-itself did not greatly endanger the Bakufu, but did contribute to general societal entropy. Economic restructuring within rural areas bolstered directly and indirectly by Bakufu policy gave strength to the processes of urbanization, monetary economics and a culture of conspicuous consumption.

Contrary to ostentatious consumption of wealthy individuals, neo-Confucianism placed high esteem in the virtue of frugality. Chōnin culture for conservatives symbolized frivolous consumption and moral deterioration. Hence urban culture became a sight of contention and anxiety about the general state of society. In particular Edo’s red-light district Yoshiwara drew the attention of neo-Confucian commentators and Bakufu administrators as representing moral and cultural decay. To limit the influence of Yoshiwara’s hedonistic culture the Bakufu built a wall around the district and forbade samurai to enter (Gordon, 2003, p. 40). In this vain, “sumptuary laws” were increasingly enacted from the mid-seventieth century. Restricting forms of consumption, dress and entertainment according to social class and thereby attempting to maintain clear demarcation between classes (Shively, 1964-1965, p. 124). These laws were largely ineffective in regulating consumption and ‘realigning’ the ‘natural hierarchy’ ascribed to by conservative neo-Confucians.

“Popular cravings for fashions were thus” according to Eiko Ikegami (2005, p. 285) “partly responsible for the eroding of the foundation of the Tokugawa state”. Transforming the rural economy and undermining the economic income gained by daimyō from rice productivity. Taxes upon the peasantry did not significantly increase after the mid-1600s and no new productivity surveys were conducted after 1700, which informed taxation levels (Tipton, 2002, pp. 11-12). Causing financial stress upon the daimyō and samurai, when coupled with increased costs in living, and the burdens emplaced through alternative attendance. This financial stress and weakening of the daimyo and samurai, in conjunction with the threat posed by foreign power, would eventually lead to the downfall of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1867.

The record of the Tokugawa Bakufu’s effectiveness in integrating divergent elements of Japanese society is varied. An outstanding achievement of the Bakufu was the absence of military conflict from 1600 to 1860s; which had been a chronic affliction of the warring states period, immediately preceding it. The Bakufu’s main method of achieving this objective was an interconnected but decentralized state structure, where sovereignty was parceled out to subordinates. While the Shogun retained absolute authority over all domains, local authority was exercised by the daimyō. Owing their allegiance to the Bakufu, the Daimyō were required to submit to certain obligations. Key among them was the alternate attendance system, designed to weaken the daimyō financially. This effectively ended their ability to mount opposition to the Shogun and wage war for over two-hundred years. But the alternative attendance system bolstered a number of pre-existing tendencies which were to restructure the economy of Japan and re-align the class system. Urbanization enhanced by the enforced residence of daimyō and samurai lead to the rise of the chōnin and the development of a monetary economy. Eventually providing impetus to proto-industrialization within rural areas and furthermore the development of cash crops. These trends coalesced into an increased level of social stratification and developed a culture of conspicuous consumption associated with the chōnin. Urban culture was therefore developing in stark contrast to the neo-Confucian class system and cultural values. Though neo-Confucianism formed the ideological rationalization of the Bakufu, it increasingly became a tool to critique the Bakufu. As the idealized neo-Confucian model could no longer be applied to actual social relations, when the samurai underwent decline and ‘inferior’ classes increased their wealth and power. Thus on both a socio-economic and ideological level, the Tokugawa era was undergoing substantial changes, leading to social disintegration. Disintegration strengthened by the Bakufu policies enacted to ensure its own political hegemony.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Eiko, I. (2005), Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Eiko, I. (1995), Taming the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Gordon, A. (2003), A Modern History of Japan: from Tokugawa times to the present, Oxford University Press, New York.

Hall, J.W. (1968), “Castle Town and Modern Urbanization”, Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan, Ed. Hall, J.W. and Jansen, M.B. Princeton University press, New York.

Hane, M. (1991), Pre-Modern Japan: A Historical Survey, Westview press, Boulder.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (1994), The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge University Press, Hong Kong.

Shively, D.H. (1964-1965), “Sumptuary Regulation and Status in Early Tokugawa Jpan”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, no. 25, pp 123-164.

Tipton, E.K. (2004), Modern Japan: A Social and Political History, Routledge, London.

Vlastos, S. (1986), Peasant Protests and Uprising in Tokugawa Japan, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Yonemoto, M. (1999). "Nihonbashi: Edo's Contested Center.", East Asian History Vol 6, pp. 49-70.

Consciousness of Consciousness

Time is a dimension in relation to other dimensions - if a non-physical consciousness existed within a void would there be time? Would metal events in succession count as distinct objects? Hegel said that consciousness is always consciousness of an object - therefore consciousness is a verb and not a noun. If it's not a noun and only exists in relation to an object, how can there be consciousness of consciousness? The nature of our linier existence means that the ever present instant is forever upon us and that which is has passed, our essence is invariablely undefinable and defined in the nothingness of its existence. In our void how would the first thought accrue? If there are no external objects at which to grasp an awareness of and consciousness itself, being nothing but an active response to objects there can be no consciousness within a void (1).


1)If there can be no consciousness within a void, can there be a god before the big bang? Maybe there was never nothing and always something even the existence of a void at least semantically implies an inner and an outer - a barrier and something which contains the nothingness.