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Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, and Economic Determinism January 28, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Brooks Adams (1848-1927)

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) noted that Brooks Adams was “an eccentric.” Adams was disgusted with American society in his day and thought inertia was “social death.” He believed the only solution to the ills of society was progress and change, denouncing capitalists and bankers in much the same language as Karl Marx.  Adams, much like Marx, was to Kirk, an “economic determinist,” but unlike Marx, he “detested the very process of change which he urged society to accept,” and “longed hopelessly for the republic of Washington and John Adams,” condemning “democracy” as both “a symptom and cause of social decay.”  Adams’ “detestation” of capitalism stemmed from his aversion to “competition,” enjoining his fellow man to seek stability and order.  According to Kirk, however, Adams’ dream of harmony was subverted by his own understanding of historical laws, as “by the logic of his own economic and historical theories, permanence is never found in the universe.”  Kirk underscored that the persistent theme throughout Adams’ four works — The Law of Civilization and Decay, America’s Economic Supremacy, The New Empire, and The Theory of Social Revolutions — was man’s imprisonment by economic forces and civilization as the product of ceaseless centralization (The Conservative Mind, 367-9)

Kirk reduces the complexity of Adams’ historical logic.  Adams’ pessimism about the course of civilization was not merely based in positivist materialism and economic determinism. Much like Gobineau, Adams considered the rise and fall of civilizations to be determined by “blood” and saw early human history as a narrative of conflict. Along with Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, including Karl Marx, Adams was concerned with the interconnection between material and moral progress. Much like Leslie White,  Adams considered “culture” and material progress to be an effect of the interaction between technology and the energy contained within a civilization.   Adams’ view of history admitted a multiplicity of causal structures: biological, economic, and technological.

Adams’ preface in The Law of Civilization and Decay also appealed to the language of science, the methods of the investigator, and the orderliness of nature.   Adams eschews metaphysics while supposing an interconnection between the physical, mental, and moral — a materialism which Adams presented as a proposition which should command significant though perhaps not universal consent among his intended audience of educated readers.     Adams declared that theories “can be tested only by applying them to facts.”  Facts moreover constitute “thought,” the successive phases of which “constitute history.”  He assumed that intellectual progress, much like material progress, was reducible to a series of laws.  Mind and history, internal states and external reality, were reducible to the interplay between matter and motion.

Society according to Adams “oscillates” between barbarism and civilization and from a “condition of physical dispersion to one of concentration.”  Adams’ Law was based upon “the accepted scientific principle “that the law of force and energy is of universal application in nature,” and that one of the functions of “animal life” is the “dissipation of solar energy.”  Human societies, moreover, as kinds of animal life, have concentrated differing levels of energy.   Social and civilizational change in any community, moreover, is “proportionate to its energy and mass,” with centralization proportionate to the “velocity” of the movement and migration human beings in a particular culture.

In the most primitive stage of society, “fear” being the earliest manifestation of energy in terms of thought, brought scattered communities together.  As primitive individuals were motivated by fear, their imaginations “are vivid” with the social structure of primitive communities dominated by the “social types” of the priest, warrior, and artist.  Adams continued that whenever a race has energy in excess of that dissipated in the “struggle for life,” this energy may be stockpiled in the form of “wealth,” transferable from community to community, either by “conquest or competition.”

It was through the accumulation of surplus energy in the form of commodities and finally money that savage nations moved from the “emotional” stage at the most primitive level, through the “martial” stage, in which conquest determined the life and culture of a people, to the phase of “economic competition.”  Society reaches a stage where the needs of “capital” and of economic competition necessitated that the accumulated energy of  a society “vents itself through those organisms best fitted to give expression to the power of capital.”

It was in this last stage of development, “the economic,” that the artistic, imaginative, and heroic virtues of a society decayed.  The age of capital lead furthermore to ever-increasing competition and “centralization” or urbanization.  This competition and centralization inevitably causes  the “dissipation” of accumulated energies of a civilization, resulting, finally, in the dissolution of society.  When a highly centralized society disintegrates, it was due to the “energy” of a race being “exhausted,” remaining so until an “infusion of barbarian blood” (Law of Civilization and Decay, v-viii, 1895.)

Adams, like Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Karl Marx, dealt with the social and civilizational effects of money and the social crisis of modernity.   For Adams the rise of credit, technology, banking, and the advent of merchants, bankers, and engineers had produced manifold phenomena, among which were an urban proletariat and worldwide economic competition.  Pools of cheap labor and technological advancements had allowed modern, western society to exist longer than it should have.  The longevity and ingenuity of the technologically adept culture of modernity would make its collapse all the more catastrophic.  Adams noted, “By their inventive genius, the western races have attained a velocity of movement so unprecedented, that for more than a century, they have defied the cheap labor of the East.”  Economic competition as well as the increased mobility of hereto historically separate populations had also “brought all down to a common level” (291.)

The modern age, furthermore, had brought about the supremacy of the economic man and of the economic intellect.  Society was controlled, moreover, by an “aristocracy” of “money-lenders” which was “beyond attack.”  Society, due to the rule of credit and economic men, was collapsing.  The family “has disintegrated,” with “imagination” declining due to the supremacy of the locomotive and “electricity.”  This was in stark contrast to medieval times, where aesthetic work was moved by religious fervor and the unity of church and state, and where monetary concerns did not influence artistic production.  Consequently, in medieval times artists understood that “Their art was not chattel to be brought, but an inspired language in which they communed with God….” and for this, and other reasons, “Gothic architecture, in its prime, was spontaneous, elevated, dignified, and pure” (293.)

Poetry, for Adams, the vehicle of sublime beauty and truth, suffered the same fate in the era of the supremacy of credit and technology, and was increasingly supplanted by prose.   Architecture, from the Renaissance forward, reflected “money” and the concentration of the energy of modern civilization in the form of wealth.   For Adams, the decline of art and the imaginative faculty was related to  the immanent exhaustion of a civilizations culture and the collapse of its society.  Adams sourly concluded,

Decade by decade for some four hundred years, these phenomena have grown more sharply marked in Europe, and, as consolidation apparently nears its climax, art seems to presage approaching disintegration. The architecture, the sculpture, and the coinage of London at the close of the nineteenth century, when compared with those of the Paris of Saint Louis, recall the Rome of Caracalla as contrasted with the Athens of Pericles” (294-95.)

As with many nineteenth century social theorists, Adams elucidated strands of argument which mutually enforced the central narrative of decline.  There was first, a philosophical anthropology, tracing the development of the primitive mind to its modern, economic descendant.  There was, second, a narrative tracing the rise of money and its social effects: the decline of  the imagination due to the supremacy of technology and economic competition through cheap labor and the mobility of peoples.

Adams linked the two strands of argument in the following way.  As individuals grouped themselves together, first out of fear, they were better able to pool their resources and concentrate their excess energy in the form of commodities.  Eventually stronger groups overcame weaker groups, some nations vanished, while those that remained were able to accumulate energy through commerce rather than conquest.  Commerce fundamentally changed the mental constitution of individuals, turning their energies to acquisition and invention, and gave rise to the economic man.  This economic man, in turn, oversaw a vast empire of credit and caused the decline of marital and artistic virtue. Modern society, finally, was distinguished by its rapid accumulation and dissipation of energy.  Such a dynamic was inherently unstable and heading towards collapse.

Such an account  superficially resembles John Ruskin’s critique of political economy, Matthew Arnold’s fears over the debasement of belle lettres, Max Weber’s critique of modernity  and bureaucracy, or Robert Michels’ notion of the inevitability of rule by an elite.  Adams work represented, along with many other social thinkers of the period, a deep suspicion of the sustainability of progress, posing instead the inevitability of collapse.  Adams’ theory, utilizing interlocking arguments, while espousing a loose positivism and materialism, strains (and fails perhaps) to be non-reductive, while proposing the uniform applicability of universal laws.  Adams was then a positivist, materialist, and economic determinist, who nonetheless, narrated the role of blood, energy, and psyche in his universal history of the decline and fall of civilizations.


1. cambridgeforecast - July 15, 2011


In what ways might one claim that Brooks Adams was prescient or prophetic or far-seeing as opposed to denunciatory…..?


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