In examining the on-going relationship between economics and culture, we must first undertake the difficult task of examining what it is we mean by the word “culture”. The Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams once famously described ‘culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language to define” (Williams, 1976, p.76) later offering the provisional definition of culture as “a noun of ‘inner’ process, specialised to its presumed agencies in ‘intellectual life’ and ‘the arts’.” (Williams, 1977, p.17). This definition of culture as exclusively ‘high culture’ is in common usage, but it is one that Williams came to reject and one that will not suffice for the scope of this essay, which is required to examine culture in an economic context.
Later, in his work Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays, Williams came to define the nature of culture as being “a (social and material) productive process” (Williams, 1980, p.243), coining the term ‘cultural materialism’ in the process. This is a theory heavily influenced by the ‘historical materialism’ of Marx, who also viewed culture (even ‘high’ culture) as a process shaped entirely by the means of economic production. For Marx, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time the ruling intellectual force” (Marx, 1970[tr.], p.64). This conflation of material production with intellectual culture may seem extreme, but what is archaeology – after all – if not the study of culture through the surviving artefacts of material production? Febvre and Martin make an even more evocative link between economics and literary culture: “the printer and the bookseller worked above all and from the beginning for profit” (Febvre & Martin, 1976, p.249).
For Marx, the idealism of the Hegelian dialectic – which was the inspiration for his own materialistic dialectic – could not be part of any theory of human history: while culture was developing via a dialectic process, it was not one directed towards an “absolute idea” as Hegel believed. For subsequent sociologists, however, such as the German Max Weber, Marx’s outright dismissal of idealism was “a one-sided materialistic… causal interpretation of culture and history” (Weber, 1930, p.183). While Weber never went so far as to reject Marx’s historical materialism entirely (or, for that matter, embrace Hegel’s historical idealism entirely) he did believe strongly that intellectual culture has impacted on the development of cultural production as much as any economic processes. This came to be known as the “rationalisation thesis”.
For Weber, culture then has the potential to define the nature of economic production as much as economic production has the potential to define the nature of culture. To invoke Weber’s most famous example of this theory, he argues that the “Protestant Ethic” (i.e. the predominant religious culture in Western Europe from the Renaissance onwards) was instrumental in the emergence of capitalistic culture. This will be explored in greater detail in the section concerning the rise of Protestantism.
For the rest of this essay, I shall attempt to apply the theories of Marx and Weber to examples from history and the present day, exploring the extent to which economic production has impacted on the nature of culture, and the extent to which culture has impacted on the nature of economic production.
Ancient Greece: Cultural Materialism in Action?
While we must be mindful not to impose our modern economic sensibilities on those of ancient people, we can still identify several important economic developments during the time of Ancient Greece (circa 1100-146BC) that impacted directly on the trajectory of Greek culture.
Arguably the most important was the emergence of the polis, the Greek city-state. While the reasons behind the development of the poleis are difficult to ascertain with any great certainty, there is a general consensus among historians (e.g. Dover, 1980) that they were formed by alliances made between neighbouring villages, themselves arguably constructed around the economic development of the shared market-place (Cipolla, 1991).
Whether or not we can confidently say that there was any economic rationale behind the construction of the early poleis, we can certainly say that this decidedly cultural development did greatly influence the spread of economic production during this time, with heavy trade occurring between the cities. In time, the common military threat posed by the great Persian empire to the east caused the poleis to band together in a military “league”, in which funds and tributes were paid to a central treasury, paving the way for the formation of the great Athenian state.
Much to the chagrin of many member states, Athenian generals – most notably Pericles (495 - 429BC) – often spent these war-funds on public works, which produced the most spectacular surviving cultural artefacts produced by this ancient civilisation. In a development which lends great empirical support to Marx’s theory about the link between material production and intellectual culture, the investment of funds appropriated by Pericles into cultural production paved the way for everything from the construction of the Parthenon to the emergence of Socratic philosophy during this period.
But this was not a one-way street: economic development may have paved the way for cultural development, but the material production of the culture itself stimulated economic growth. As the Roman historian Plutarch put it:
“With their variety of workmanship and of occasions for service, which summon all arts and trades and require all hands to be employed about them, they do actually put the whole city, in a manner, into state-pay; while at the same time she is both beautiful and maintained by herself.” (Plutarch, 75).
But if this case study of the ancient Greeks seems to lend support to the Marxist idea of economic production and cultural development being inseparable, the developments in subsequent Western cultures may provide a different lesson.
From Rome to the Late Middle Ages: The Rationalisation Thesis in Action?
When discussing Rome and the indelible contribution it has made to Western Civilisation, it is difficult to separate material production from cultural development. Roads, aqueducts and the other large architectural feats accomplished during this time must necessarily be seen as developments in both a cultural and economic sense. However, there are two examples that offer instructive proof of Max Weber’s theory that material production and intellectual culture are not so easily conflated.
The first concerns the nature of money. For Weber, “the cultural element of an economic action has to do with the fact that (1) anything economic is typically viewed as being either positive or negative, and (2) economic phenomena, like all human phenomena, have somehow to be pieced together in the human mind in order to make sense and acquire a distinct Gestalt” (Nee & Swedburg, 2005). In other words, the nature of economic activity is always largely determined by common understandings reached by members of that culture. Money is an example of the second point: “the exchange of pieces of metal only becomes an exchange of money under certain cultural conditions” (ibid).
In Rome, the valuation of money – and therefore the price of goods – was a matter of ongoing concern. During the ‘Years of Anarchy’ (circa 235 – 285), inflation (and the imperial solutions to it) was the cause of great unrest, particularly concerning the payment of wages and provision of armaments to Rome’s military. If the military is the defender of a given culture, then it is not difficult to see how military revolts caused by disputes over the valuation of money could threaten cultural stability. Historian Roger Collins cites inflation (among other financial problems) as a significant contributory factor to the decline of Roman culture (Collins, 1991).
On Weber’s first point (that “anything economic is typically viewed as being either positive or negative”) we can find our second example from Roman history of Weberian conflict between intellectual culture and material production. Rome was ruled by a “patrician” class of senators, land-owners and generals, leaving all the labour to the “plebeian” underclass. This distinction made between culture and material production in Roman society was heavily emphasised, as detailed by the historian Cicero:
“… Vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.” (Cicero, 1913, I.150).
This cultural disparagement of labour and economic enterprise continued long after the Romans. In the Manorial system, which gradually emerged in Europe after the fall of Rome, there was a similarly ingrained cultural aversion to the use of labour for economic gain. As R.H. Tawney puts it:
“To found society upon the assumption that the appetite for economic gain is… to be accepted, like other natural forces… would have appeared to the medieval thinker as hardly less irrational or immoral than to make the promise of social philosophy the unrestrained operation of such necessary human attributes as pugnacity or the sexual instinct.” (Tawney, 1937, p.31-32)
It should be noted that the Roman disparagement of economic enterprise was secular in nature and the medieval disparagement was religious in nature, but both serve as examples of Weber’s theory that the cultural milieu necessarily shapes (in this case, constrains) the nature of economic growth.
In the early medieval period “economic activity is still inextricably linked with social and religious activity”, Heilbroner writes (1968, p.36), due to the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church, which funded most of the major “high-cultural” projects during this period. As the church’s influence began to wane, however, during the Renaissance and the reformation period that marked the end of the medieval period, such cultural impediments to economic enterprise were slowly lifted.
The Rise of Protestantism: A Cultural Chicken or an Economic Egg?
In the centuries after the medieval period, many major cultural and economic changes occurred in Western Europe. In most cases, it is difficult to distinguish between cultural reforms and economic reforms and the extent to which each caused – or was caused by – the other.
From his materialistic perspective, Marx could have argued that the changes which occurred during the Reformation Period were in the first place economic and that the cultural changes were merely a consequence of economic revolution. During this time, the Manorial system of production was slowly supplanted by haphazard systems of mercantile enterprise, and – as was possibly the case in Ancient Greece – towns and eventually cities were founded as central trading-hubs and market-places. This process of economic “urbanisation” gradually paved the way for cultural reform.
In these nascent cities, “there was no way of applying the time-hallowed rule of ‘ancient customs’ in adjudicating disputes, since there were no customs in commercial quarters” (Heilbroner, 1968, p.47). In other words, as a consequence of this socio-economic reform and its attendant moral ambiguities, culture on the level of cities was developed in isolation from the influence of the Catholic Church. This cultural autonomy would have paved the way - in a Marxist conception of cultural progress - for religious autonomy, and thus for the Protestant Reformation.
Weber, as mentioned, was inclined to the opposite view: that it was the cultural shift towards Protestantism (and the “Protestant Ethic”) that made economic reform possible in the first place. As he put it, “religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion [of capitalism]” (Weber, 1930, p.91). Weber saw the cultural ethos of Calvinism – with its emphasis on “giving oneself” to one’s work – as essential to the rise of the market. Under a system still dominated by the morals of Catholic Church – which set itself in unequivocal opposition to usury and gain – the emergence of a market system based on trade and free-enterprise could not have occurred.
Whatever the reasons, these cultural and economic shifts unquestionably paved the way for the rise of modern capitalism.
Conclusion: The Culture of Capitalism?
Many different economic systems today fall under the banner of capitalism and these systems both shape and are shaped by the cultures in which they operate. For Weber, the early capitalism of Western Europe was shaped by the “Protestant Ethic”, for Tocqueville the laissez-faire market system of the US was shaped by a less tangible “spirit of capitalism” (Tocqueville, 1835). In today’s world, many argue from the opposite direction: that the “culture” of global capitalism is shaping the nature of “traditional cultures” around the world. For some, the spread of technology and ideas – and the inevitable impact that this has on once isolated cultures – is something to celebrate; for others, something to bemoan.
Rajani Kanth suggested that “economics has always been a material, practical science of social engineering, not an abstract science inquiring dispassionately into the eternal verities of the economic order” (Kanth, 1992, p.89) and many point to the decline (real or imagined) of local cultures (in the capacity of food, dress, language, etc.) as evidence that ideological imposition of economic liberalisation is having a deleterious effect on cultures around the world. However, in doing this we must recognise that in a capitalistic system cultural production is essentially democratic: at the risk of committing what Marx called “commodity fetishism”, if people wish to continue consuming “traditional” cultural artefacts then market-based capitalism is surely no hindrance to that. Theoretically at least, consumer sovereignty puts economic production – including cultural production - squarely in the hands of the people.
So while global capitalism is having an ostensible effect on the nature of traditional cultures all around the world, there is also strong evidence to suggest that culture is shaping the nature of capitalism as well. We need only look at the variety of capitalistic market systems as evidence that national culture still plays a pre-eminent role in determing the nature of economic production. We might, for instance, contrast the laissez-faire capitalism of the United States with the more socialised capitalist economies of France and Japan and recognise, again, how difficult it is to disentangle culture from economic production both in today’s world and in the ancient past.
As one paper put it, “economic life is deeply embedded in social life, and it cannot be understood apart from the customs, morals, and habits of the society. In short, it cannot be divorced from culture.” (Ryterman, 1997)
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