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Henry C. Carey on Law and Civilization (Part 2) April 5, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology, Philosophy of Law.
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In my previous post on the 19th century political economist Henry C. Carey I underscored some of his methodological suppositions (his Newtonianism, his Baconianism and his dependence upon William Whewell). I made two further points: first, that Carey’s system-building and his emphasis on man and nature being under the rule of law was typically of social theory penned during the nineteenth century. One finds the same flavor of contention in the work of John William Draper and Henry Buckle, where both authors attempted to bring diverse sorts of information ranging from facts concerning the course of civilization to the laws and regularities of human psychology under one kind of generality, where facts and the laws which they illustrated were exemplars of a well-ordered universe.  This is more or less the purpose too of later sociological reasoning.4a29884r

Depending upon the writer involved, this mammoth reductionism and systems-building, with its consequent determinism, was to differing degrees rhetorical, heuristic, deadly serious, and inconsistent. As importantly, these efforts at system-building and reduction often obscures digressions and departures which form intriguing sub-arguments and sub-systems.

An example of this would be Henry Buckle’s Ricardian economics and his leaning upon James Mill’s magisterial History of British India (1818) for his understanding of the causes behind India’s wrenching poverty and economic stagnation. I have argued elsewhere that Buckle was a sensitive reader of Ricardo as well as somewhat of an acolyte of Justus von Liebig, whom was committed to a study of the importance of geographical causes in the development of ‘savage’ civilization  while also pointing to the crucial role played by intellectual development as races through the process of civilization became nations.  Buckle’s ‘determinism’ in the latter chapters of his work, drops out. Buckle has still not really recovered from the slander dealt him by Lord Acton, which is still endlessly and without much evidence repeated by present-day treatments.

Like Buckle being described as contributing to a ‘science of history’, so too does the account of Carey as a ‘political economist’ function as an escape mechanism for intellectual historians to simplify many of his arguments, or to not read certain texts. Now, I do not think such simplification is willful or malicious but an unconscious attempt to reduce the foreignness of arguments for modern readers and as a way of clarifying questions of relevancy. So, too with Carey’s “Comtean” leanings. If Carey is a “sociologist” and is also a political economist, preaching a philosophy of social harmony, to boot, then it is very easy to explain his relevance to modern readers (and academic publishers).

Of course, the reality of 19th century intellectual history (and 20th century intellectual history as well) is that intellectual output is a mess. I have spent much time attempting to outline the distinctions and connections between biosocial anthropology and sociobiology. My conclusion is that sometimes these distinct inquiries play along and advance along similar lines, papering over real differences; at other times, Robin Fox especially is content to burn bridges. More on this later. Carey, like many other political economists, knew that economy was but one subject of many worthy of his pen. What then was Carey’s actual object of study?  This becomes clearer in his later works, by which time, age and fame had broadened his ambitions:  namely a synoptic account of the past history and future progress of nations.

We must understand whether we are moving towards “civilization, wealth, and power, or toward barbarism, poverty, and weakness….” (The Unity of Law, v). An important part of this understanding was furnished by a “correct” understanding of value.   Value was re-conceptualized as the cost of reproduction (italics mine) which produced for Carey a subsequent law of distribution, which contrary to the received wisdom of one man’s gain being another’s loss,  underscored that “both capitalist and laborer profited by every measure tending to render labor more productive…and thus establishing a perfect harmony of interests.” (More technically, Carey brings about this flourish of the harmony of interests by arguing that if wages remain low so do prices for the goods that labor produces.  All individuals, as consumers, reap the benefit of these low prices, while the capitalist retains his profit) (see vii-viii).  There are many leaps here.

This law of distribution was especially important since it was an exemplar of how in human society “each department of the social relations there was a perfect unity; and, that the whole were as much subjected to law, absolute and inflexible, as were those of inorganic matter” (viii).  Equally immutable laws underscored that with man’s ever-increasing technology and farming prowess, the land grows ever more fruitful and productive and that population, rather than being the great doom of society, aided greatly in the production of the supply of food, contra Thomas Malthus (ix).

For Carey, the dismal economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus was nothing but a system of fallacies resultant for the deductive method.  Rather a true science, covering both man and nature “develops from within and never from without; that the tree of science grows for the roots upward….” (xix). Science as with man and the land he tills are all striving towards one goal “that of giving man the increased power for control of the great natural forces, and for the development of those facilities, mental and moral, whose germs have been incorporated into the system of every individual of the race” (xix).

Of course, we can marvel at the scope of Carey’s claims and, perhaps too, at the ease with which Carey reaches these conclusions. However, the point is to say that the laws of political economy were an exemplar of the unity of natural and social laws. Political economy was moreover, not simply economic science, but a key case study of the harmonious interconnection between nature and society, the mental and the moral, the individual and the national.

What is also remarkable-and this shows how far we are from a thorough understanding of Carey, his world and the complex workings of his system—is that Carey’s stance is explicitly anti-Darwinian. He believed that the wretched poverty experienced in the world by millions was the direct result of materialism and the idea of the survival of the fittest.  Of course, this is its own kind of slander and here Carey misrepresents Darwin willfully in order to contend that nature and Deity have willed otherwise (xviii).

Carey’s Unity of Law began much like his Harmony of Interests or any one of his more targeted economic tracts.  He very rapidly undertakes a discussion of deeper matters, such as the nature of man, and of matter and mind.  And here, in his discussions of human nature, we find a far more complex picture of an intellect than what has been rendered by historians of economic thought in antebellum, Reconstruction and Gilded Age America. Like Buckle, Carey was dependent upon Mill’s division of the laws of mind and matter.  He considers this dichotomy to be deeply problematic.

His task is also that of Buckle and that of William Draper, to unify what later sociologists would call the subjective and the objective, the mental and the physical.  In both mental and physical terms, mind and matter, individual and society was tending towards ever greater association and harmonization (161). Physical, natural and moral laws, subjective, objective and natural all consul one kind of social organization which has many natural examples, that of a pyramid or mountain shape.

The earth according to Carey afforded in nature many examples of this, the Himalayas.  In the same way, commercial crises are precipitated on transactions being built with great elaboration on an insecure foundation. Likewise in moral laws “there is no single one whose violation excites so general detestation as does that of patricide or matricide.”  Thus, the “pyramidal form…is that of the greatest strength and permanence, the law applying to each and every form of edifice, as well as to the societary one….” In order for a people or nation to progress, “the foundation must be broad and deep….” (167).

The progress of society is moreover more and more the progression from free action to the governance of law where “mind acquires new power over matter; mere brute force tends to yield force to law; the power of habit and association become more and more confirmed….” (174)  Each societal atom was bound within a greater and greater field of force into “the place for which it had been fitted.”  This is in contrast to the “warrior…representing mere material force” and creating an “inverted pyramid” (175). Throughout, as is only very gently hinted in these quotations, there is a consistent search for order and harmony which comes across much more strongly than in his economics (and to modern readers) much more idiosyncratically. We can marvel, slightly, at the exemplar of the pyramid and his account of morals, mind and matter, but all of this is part of a staunchly articulated metaphysics. I suspect that part of the reason (perhaps even the entirety) of the rather selective discussion of Carey is due to the strangeness of much of his writing

This strangeness all has important points (many of which I can only begin to point out). As noted, Carey has an fully articulated morals and metaphysics. As importantly, he has an account of not only the progress of civilization but of social evolution.  Darwin looms. Buckle and Francois Guizot loom as well. Carey is working within a system where physical and geographic causes were beginning to be understood and cataloged (in a mid-nineteenth century way, of course). The social and natural world, the individual and the national are interlinked in a determined way. What is important as well is not that Carey’s worldview is determined, but how that determinism functions. Determinism, when deployed and when a sincerely held belief, is often an aide to the construction of metaphysical and societal systems.

Carey too has a fully articulated account of how his system works in the course and future progress of civilization.  But, like many other social theorists, he defines his system—determinism and all—as against other systems. He does this by critiquing Buckle. He accuses Buckle of not being sufficiently inductive and of working from overly deductive premises (pg. 347ff). As noted previously, civilization for Carey is not merely a particular kind of material refinement, but the advancement of a moral sensibility.  He concluded, sweepingly, that civilization consists in that “self-respect” which comes about as a “necessary consequence of growing power to command the great natural forces” (373).

Civilization, further, was the decline in barbarism, which was nothing but “self-indulgence.” The course of the advancement of civilization was a narrative of technological progress and the possession  of nature.  Civilization was also the greater and greater development of the principle of association, which contrary to some critics, did not subsume  individuality, but allowed the personal characteristics of each individual its greatest development: “the greater becomes his control of the powers of nature, and the more perfect his own power for self-direction.”  The advance of all nations was the result of “mental force thus more and more obtaining over that which is material, the labors of the present over the accumulations of the past.” (374) Individuals, both men and women, would, contrary to Darwinian accounts of the world, become more and more similar in their abilities and attributes, or in his felicitous phrasing, “more and more to meet on terms of strict equality” (375).

There is much at work here. The late Cynthia Russett in her elegant study The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought makes no mention of Carey. Such a omission is a pity (and a bit surprising.) Carey in his account of the “harmony of interests” and of the ever-advancing equality among individuals (and therefore nations, by extension) was nothing but an application of the idea of equilibrium. He used the existence of equilibrium in the physical sciences to contend for its extension into the social and mental spheres. Carey’s account of equilibrium and the advancing harmony and equality which was resultant from the advancement of civilization was also an explicitly anti-Darwinian premise. Carey’s anti-Darwinism, which privileged a view of that biological science being materialistic and emphasizing violent competition, the “struggle for existence” flowed from his notion of equilibrium.

Other elements of Carey’s work were among those which used an explicitly Darwinian framework, including many individuals who later wrote about social selection. Among the most important was the supposition that while the initial and primeval evolution of mankind was biological, physical and material, that the recent progression of mankind was of his mental faculties. Carey and later evolutionary thinkers also understood that not only was the advancement of evolution a primarily mental event, but that the rise of mind over that of body was a consequence of the progression of civilization. What Carey and other evolutionary thinkers shared was this progressive tenor about the advancement of mental faculties. With evolutionary thinkers as well (including many sociologist in Britain and the United States) association and civic mindedness was one of the many virtues brought about through the work of the social “selection” of some traits over others. Sociability and fairness were among those traits selected, while asocial behavior was frowned upon, with disastrous consequences for the asocial party.

Both evolutionary writers and Carey believed in the emergence of virtue and a utopia of freedom being a necessary consequence of the development of an advanced industrial state, which means of course that optimism about the modification of mankind’s psychological nature was limited to neither Darwinians nor their opponents.  This means, of course, that neither evolutionism nor its opposite, was more conducive to the construction of a robust ethics; indeed, both could lead to a moral ontology of an advanced state.

This is all to say that we understand very little of writers like Buckle, Draper and Carey. Buckle and Carey in particular were interested in political economy. Buckle was never considered a political economist (but he should be).  Carey’s ambitions were of course far wider, as this post demonstrates.  The resolution of class conflict was among his designs, but his system was far greater and more complex in its ambitions. We shall continue to unravel these ambitions in subsequent posts. 


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