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Asiatic mode of production

  A mode of production involving a form of \'communal appropriation\' which Marx and Engels believed to be especially characteristic of \'Asiatic societies\'. In the most general terms it was supposed to be characterized by three absences:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } the absence of private property (especially in land, which was owned by a grossly engorged state); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } the absence of a bourgeoisie, whose role was replaced by a state apparatus that was able to appropriate a surplus from direct producers in the form of rents and taxes, by virtue of its centralized and often \'despotic\' control over large-scale irrigation works on which communal subsistence depended (so-called \'hydraulic society\'); and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } the absence of a generative city: direct producers lived in village communities which were \'self-sustaining\' and \'compact wholes\' with no developed social division of labour between them; any cities which did exist were essentially \'parasitic\' creatures of the state with no direct involvement in production.The primary purpose of this scheme was to account for the genesis of capitalism in Europe. If these absences could explain what Marx and Engels (and many subsequent scholars) took to be the \'unchangeability\' of non-capitalist societies in the East then it was assumed that their presence would explain the dynamism of capitalist societies in the West.

The key to the supposed stasis of the Asiatic mode of production was the relation between the state and the local community: between the self-reproducing villages \'below\' and the hypertrophied state \'above\' dwelt no intermediate forces. The impact of the state on the mosaic of villages beneath it was purely external and tributary; its consolidation or destruction alike left rural society untouched (Anderson, 1974, p. 483).

Hence, as Marx himself wrote : \'The structure of the economic elements of society remains untouched by the storm clouds of the political sky\'. Theoretically, however, a major problem is precisely the place this accords to the state, for it presupposes yet does not explain \'a state which already exists and the imposition of state rule on a hitherto stateless people\' (Hindess and Hirst, 1975, p. 201). But in his later writings Marx shifted his emphasis from \'above\' to \'below\', from the state to the local community, and in doing so sought to extend the concept of the Asiatic mode of production beyond the confines of Asia (Anderson, 1974). Empirically, even so, its application there is every bit as questionable as on its original terrain: \'The image of Asia stagnating for millennia in an unfinished transition from classless to class society, from barbarism to civilisation, has not stood up to the findings of archaeology and history in the East and the New World\' (Godelier, 1978, p. 214).

Marx was right to emphasize the specificity of non-western societies, and hence in some part to qualify the unilinear view of social evolution which some commentators have seen in his work. But it is also clear that Marx\'s scheme was constructed on the ground-plan of Eurocentrism, and that his characterization of eastern societies as not merely different from western societies but as lacking something — as a mirror image of the positivities of western societies — was entirely typical of nineteenth-century Orientalism. (DG)

References Anderson, P. 1974: Lineages of the absolutist state. London: Verso. Godelier, M. 1978: The concept of the \'Asiatic mode of production\' and Marxist models of social evolution. In D. Seddon, ed., Relations of production: Marxist approaches to economic anthropology. London: Cass, 209-5 7. Hindess, B. and Hirst, P.Q. 1975: Pre-capitalist modes of production. London: Routledge, ch. 4.

Suggested Reading Anderson (1974), 462-549.



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