The Transformation of Capitalist Society

Zellig S. Harris

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. March 1997

Reviewed by Bruce E. Nevin

Posted to LINGUIST List 8.350 Tuesday 11 March 1997
Revised 14 February 2015

Six to ten centuries ago, probably no one saw the seeds of revolution in the transactions of burghers, merchants, and moneylenders. Their niche roles within feudal society were construed as supports for the status quo: useful, even necessary, but ancillary. It could scarcely then be imagined, however self-evident it may seem to us in hindsight, that maximization of profit would supplant inherited privilege and obligation as the center pole in the tent of social relations. The transformation of society from feudalism to capitalism was mostly invisible to its participants.

The ability to step aside from the way things "naturally" are, to perceive that their basis is in conventional expectations, and to recognize the seeds of a successor "social reality," is a rare gift indeed. This is the gift that Zellig Harris presents to us in this posthumous book (published March 1997).

Harris is best known as one of the great figures of American linguistics. The originator of transformational grammar, he was instrumental in fostering the work and early career of his most famous student, Noam Chomsky. Some, perhaps recalling Chomsky's comment that he was first attracted to Harris because of his political views, may be curious to learn what those views were.

Harris had a profound understanding of history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. In this, he had much in common with Edward Sapir, who it is said regarded him as his intellectual heir; relevant here is a shared sensitivity to the inadequacies of established social arrangements (inadequacies made especially obvious in the Great Depression) and an interest in the possible shapes of alternatives. He was always an originative thinker. Before undertaking this book, he read and re-read widely, because he did not want to re-do what someone else had already adequately done. Harris does not decry the worth of capitalism, as far as it goes, nor deny the great benefits that it has brought. It is obvious that there have been great advances in culture and in the material standard of living of most people, even in the last 100 or 50 years. Rather, he asks "whether, in spite of its success, the capitalist system will end or change substantially in the foreseeable future. If so, what are the possibilities that the change will foster more equitable socio-economic conditions?" (p. 2).

The ascendancy of capitalism over communism and socialism is commonly seen as a rising tide, but Harris shows us how it is rather more "an advancing wave-front which leaves increasing areas of non-capitalist decision-making behind it" (p. 41). Capitalist endeavors must maximize profit. Yet some of the requirements for its practitioners and their social institutions to survive cannot be met without conflict with (short-term) profit--among them the education, health, and economic viability of the labor force, and indeed of the ecosystems in which enterprises are carried out. And an inherent contradiction, seen most blatently in pyramid schemes and socalled multi-level marketing, is the requirement for an ever expanding domain of operation, which clearly cannot be maintained forever. It is for this reason that markets increasingly must be manufactured in late capitalism. Because of these conflicts, increasingly over time, certain decisions and decision-making mechanisms are either delegated to governments or relinquished to employees.

The most important presently visible precursors to a successor to capitalism are seen in increased employee control and even outright ownership, as in employee stock ownership plans (ESOP). For example, as it became clear that the Reagan-era restructuring of the United States Post Office failed to make it a viable for-profit enterprise, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R. California) proposed an ESOP for postal workers (Wall Street Journal, "Make Every Mailman a Shareholder," March 3 1997). As areas of the economy become less viable for profit maximization, they become more likely candidates for this relinquishment of control. With employee ownership comes a shift of the central motivation of the enterprise from profit maximization to the long-term sustenance of the enterprise itself, and of those who make their livelihoods with it. Interestingly, "it is more likely that the humdrum essentials of life are what will become the less profitable" (p. 4), the staples of existence rather than the "hot" products for which markets must first be created.

"Thus we arrive at a possible basis for non-capitalist production growing inside capitalist society, the more easily because (at least in its early stages) it is not in confrontation with the pure capitalist production, but rather a special-case complement to it. Although employee-owned companies fit into the capitalist economy in that they buy and sell in the market, and have to make a profit, they may not share the capitalist fate in several respects: they do not have to maximize profit; they do not have to accumulate wealth beyond the needs of reinvestment; they have no necessary conflict of interest between owners and workers (so long as they do not employ non-owning workers); their business decisions remain close to their production decisions; and they may be less susceptible to the vagaries of the stock market, depressions, and other features of capitalist conditions" (p. 5).

The penultimate item in that enumeration bears emphasis. Cannibalization of production capacity by venture capital is an example of business decision making distant from production decisions, where the much vaunted 'big picture' amounts to enrichment of a few. The indirect relation between decisions based on profit and the implementation of those decisions in actual production is an essential characteristic of capitalism. This is one source of its tremendous flexibility, but also a weakness. In particular, one might say that fixation on the bottom line is a kind of tunnel vision or selective blindness under which alternative social arrangements may flourish with the appearance of being supports for the status quo: useful, even necessary, but ancillary.

For a more egalitarian system to emerge, rather than a new elite superimposing itself, as in various revolutionary movements, systems of cooperative production governed from below must already occupy these niches neglected by capitalism, established in sufficient measure that they may be extended to the point of becoming the main form of making production decisions. It is in just this way, and not by revolutionary overthrow, that capitalism succeeded feudalism. Some capitalist institutions will survive this transformation, just as vestiges of feudalism remain today (hardly startling news to anyone who is involved with academic institutions). There is a nice parallel here to the findings of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution on the transfer of civil supports from under a despotic regime to more egalitarian successor arrangements.

The foreseen transformation is sociological and economic more than political, amenable to piecemeal and scattered advances, not all of them permanent at first. "[W]hat is most important is to develop social structures—organizations or ways of interacting—enabling people to initiate and control activities relevant to their own life and work. Such structures would have to avoid leaving room for some individuals or groups to control the life and work of others, even via a back door" (p. 229). Conspiratorial methods are not effective, nor are confrontational tactics practicable for those who would build the infrastructure of control-from-below, however useful they may seem for those who effect top-down controlling social structures. "Every cooperative attempt or method needs to be initiated by its participants, upon whom the risk of failure would fall" (p. 232).

The book is well reasoned and its generalizations, methods, and conclusions are supported throughout by evidence, much of it familiar but perhaps cast in a somewhat new light by Harris's treatment. Pervading it is what Wolf Heydebrand in the Foreword calls a "cautious optimism." "[T]he door for change is not closed. Only inaction—apathy, indecision, unreadiness to act—can keep the door shut" (p. 233).