In The Structure of World History (2014), Kojin Karatani fields his innovative idea to switch “from modes of production to modes of exchange” as a way “to rethink the history of social formations” from a Marxist perspective. Accordingly (see charts), “There are four types of mode of exchange: mode A, which consists of the reciprocity of the gift; mode B, which consists of ruling and protection; mode C, which consists of commodity exchange; and mode D, which transcends the other three.” He further observes that “These four types coexist in all social formations. They differ only on which of the modes is dominant” (2014, pp. ix-x).
Elaboration: Karatani’s framework results in a familiar evolutionary progression: Mode A characterized the rise of fixed-settlement agricultural communities, as their clans and tribes turned to reciprocal gift exchanges (including through arranged marriages) to assure mutual respect, solidarity, and security, both within and between settlements. These settlements were preceded historically by nomadic bands that depended on communal pooling and sharing to survive — not as “gift exchange” but rather as “pure gift” that Karatani denotes “nomadism U” and equates to Marx’s idea of “primitive communism”. What happens with the formation of fixed settlements, however, is that exchange principles take hold for the first time. Thus, “reciprocity is not so much a principle of community as it is a principle for forming larger, stratified communities” (2014, p. 5).
Centuries later, Mode B would take hold with the rise of the state, as it provided people with protection in exchange for obedience. As the state form grew, Mode B gained became even more manifest in centralized bureaucracies, public works, and codifications of law. As Karatani notes, the state arose originally through its power to plunder and redistribute; this endures in the modern era through the state’s power of taxation. Next, still more centuries later, Mode C became foremost, as commodity exchange became the key dynamic behind the development of the market system and capitalism — the realms of money, credit, trade, and class relations.
These three modes enable Karatani, drawing on Hegel and Kant as well as Marx, to propose shifting from Capital to Capital-Nation-State as the object of inquiry, the real force in society. Marxism has traditionally identified Capital as the decisive force, claiming that the material base of a society, i.e., its economic base and mode of production, determines its ideational superstructure, i.e., culture, politics, and religion — in Marx’s view, state and nation belong to this ideational superstructure. However, Karatani sees that the modes of exchange he identifies are all both material and ideational in nature, and that they operate with relative autonomy from each other. Indeed, “ideational superstructures such as religion are not just passively determined by the economic base, but rather have the power to actively alter the latter” (2017, p. 2). Thus, while Capital expresses Mode C, the Nation and the State express the enduring power of Modes A and B, respectively — and they are all knotted together. Hence, it’s the capital-nation-state as a triplex system that defines the modern era, not simply the Capital of traditional Marxism, nor the nation-state of common parlance. In light of this, once capitalism ends, then, contrary to traditional Marxism, the state won’t wither away, neither will the nation. Instead, they will be transformed and transcended through the rise of Mode D.
Mode D is difficult to describe (for me anyway). According to Karatani, Mode D will prevail in the future — as a future mode of exchange that partly spells a return of the spirit of gift exchange (Mode A), but even more so, a return to the older spirit of nomadism’s U form and its emphasis on pooling and sharing, before exchange became a requisite principle:
“Mode of exchange D is not simply the restoration of mode A — it is not, that is, the restoration of community. Mode of exchange D, as the restoration of A in a higher dimension, is in fact only possible with the negation of A. D is, in sum, the restoration of nomadic society. Yet this too does not appear as the result of human desire or intention, but rather emerges as a duty issued by God or heaven or as a regulative idea. In concrete terms, D arrives in the form of universal religion, which negates religions grounded in magic or reciprocity.” (2014, pp. xi-xii)
“Strictly speaking, D is not one of the modes of exchange. It is a drive that seeks to negate and sublate ‘exchange’ (whether of mode A, B, or C). It appears in the form of an ideational/religious power. Nonetheless, it is deeply connected to the economic base — that is, to exchange. It is precisely for this reason that D is able to oppose the various powers that arise from A, B, and C. It is not some imaginary being created through human desire or intention; to the contrary, it possesses its own ‘power’ of compulsion over humans.” (2017, p. 21)
“Mode D is not the return of mode A; it is the return of U.” (2017, p. 25)Karatani affirms that, while Modes A, B, and C have their own religious aspects, Mode D is “undoubtedly religious in nature” (2017, p. 21). Indeed, its best early instances “are found in the communistic groups that existed in the earliest stages of universal religions such as Christianity and Buddhism” (2014, p. 8). He mentions “heretical movements” in particular, such as Thomas Muntzer’s. Hence, Karatani forecast sthat Mode D will probably arrive in the form of a universal religion.
Yet, partly because the effects of Mode D seem so uncertain and unclear compared to the other modes, Karatani sometimes refers to the social formation it may generate as “X” or as “associationism.” One book reviewer (Gemma Masson) characterized Mode D “as an amalgamation of the best parts of what has gone before” — interesting, but I haven’t been able to confirm that’s Karatani’s belief.
What Karatani does proclaim is that Mode D will result in the arrival of communism. Marx said that future communism would restore the bygone pooling, sharing, and gifting — “primitive communism” — that Marx associated with ancient clans and tribes living in fixed settlements. Karatani corrects Marx’s view by associating primitive communism instead with the even older nomadic bands, then heralds its return “in a higher dimension” represented by Mode D.
But Marxism and communism are not Karatani’s only reference points for Mode D. He is even more insistent that the rise of this final Mode would mark the end of the capital-nation-state and realize Kant’s hopes for a global “federation of nations”, a “world republic”, “the kingdom of ends”, and “perpetual peace.” Mode D is thus set to become a globally integrative mode.
Throughout, Karatani maintains that the four modes of exchange always co-exist and work together in relation to each other, inasmuch as each mode “produces its own unique form of power” (2014. p. 14). He clarifies that, while societies vary mainly according to which mode is dominant, they also vary within that frame according to the relative strengths and details — both material and ideational — of the other modes in the mix at the time. For these modes "do not exist independent of one another. Social formations are produced as assemblages of all of them. Accordingly, it is impossible to take up any one of them in isolation; one has to consider each together with the other modes of exchange” (2017, p. 14). He goes on to observe that,
“Accordingly, the history of social formations should be seen in terms of hybrid forms that include multiple modes of exchange. But the various modes of exchange themselves also undergo transformations within the transformations of social formations. The first social formation arises with clan society, in which mode A is dominant. Even at this stage, however, the germs of modes B and C are present, albeit to a barely noticeable degree. In state society, mode B becomes dominant, but this does not mean that mode A disappeared. It persists in the form of the agricultural community that submits to state rule. … [Later,] together with the establishment of a global market, mode C undergoes an explosive expansion. At this time, the modern social formation comes into being.” (2017, p. 14-15)This leads to yet another significant observation: “Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that we need to see transformations in social forms not simply along the temporal axis, but also along the spatial axis” (2017, p. 15). Accordingly, the progression across the ages in dominance from Mode A, to B, to C, and ultimately to D is also a progression in territorial expansion — from localized “mini world systems” built by clans and tribes (à la mode A), to world empires built by states (à la mode B), to the modern world-economy system built by the rise of capital-nation-states (à la mode C), and onward next to a world republic grounded on a universal religion (à la mode D). Each mode of exchange facilitates a greater expansion of organized relationships.
There’s undoubtedly more that I should learn and heed about Karatani’s framework. But I’ve not read his entire book, only the first sections. That’s all I can handle right now. And it seems adequate for my immediate purposes.
Comparison to TIMN: Wow, what remarkable parallels to TIMN! With even more to P2P. We all seem to be moving in similar directions, though on different wavelengths. I find that quite reassuring.
Karatani’s four modes of exchange match TIMN’s four forms of organization pretty well (but see below). Other features of his framework — notably, that each mode has both material and ideational properties, that all four modes have existed since societies first took shape, that all societies contain mixes and combinations of all four modes, that societies vary according to which mode dominates when, that societies also vary according to the strength of the other modes, that the rise of a new/next mode modified the natures of the other modes, and that an historical progression can be identified from ancient through modern times — are embedded in TIMN as well. That makes for quite an overlap in framework design and system dynamics.
The similarities and disparities between our two frameworks are much like those I discerned between P2P and TIMN (see my prior post in this series). The best correspondence is between Karatani’s Modes B and C vis à vis TIMN’s Institutions and Markets forms. The correspondence between his Mode A and my Tribes form is pretty good as well. But my Tribes form is broader — in particular, its emphasis on kinship dynamics embraces the communalism he associates with nomadic bands (what he terms “U”) as well as the gift exchanges that define Mode A’s dominance in fixed settlements.
Even so, I appreciate his finding that Mode A endures in the formation of nations — that’s consistent with TIMN theory about how the tribal form endures through mutations across the ages. However, I’m dubious that Mode A, as he currently defines it, offers the best explanation for the rise of spirited nationalisms in the past, or the mean reversions to political tribalism we see in today’s world. What’s happened to communal kinship-like dynamics provides a better explanation than gift-exchange dynamics — that’s what I presently deduce from TIMN. In any case, Karatani’s capital-nation-state concept (reflecting Modes C, A, and B, respectively) aligns very well with TIMN’s concept of triform (T+I+M) societies — they’re both good concepts for capturing an essence of the modern era.
The biggest disparity is between his Mode D and TIMN’s Networks form. We’re both uncertain, indeed rather vague, about the exact future nature of our respective mode/form. He says the result will be “X” or “associationism” if not communism. It will suffuse and “sublate” all other modes and activities. It will also be the final form. My understanding of TIMN does not accord much with that. What I identify as the information-age networks form (+N) may be somewhat like associationism. Yet, TIMN’s dynamics indicate that, as a new form grows and spreads, it generates a distinct sector of activity. Best known for decades, if not centuries, are the public sector (from +I) and the private sector (from +M). My current sense is that +N will generate a new commons sector; P2P theory has long expressed a similar expectation (discussed in other posts). In contrast, Karatani never considers that Modes A, B, C, or D may generate a distinct sector, and I find no mention of a commons sector in his future vision. So, our frameworks are disparate on that score, organizationally. In contrast, Bauwens and other P2P theorists seem so attracted to Karatani’s vision that they identify more closely with it, philosophically.
What I find most engaging about Mode D is Karatani’s emphasis on X’s likely religious nature. He points out that all the Modes have religious properties, though none so much as D. This fits with TIMN (as well as P2P theory). I have long noted, but never fully elaborated, that each of TIMN’s forms has religious consequences: the T form in ancient pagan religions, the +I form in hierarchical Catholicism and the Papacy, the +M form in competitive varieties of Protestantism — plus a future implication that +N may favor the rise of a new interfaith approach, perhaps drawing largely on Buddhism. Bauwens has a rather similar but more detailed analysis of how various religions have expressed P2P’s four relational modalities. Beyond that, it occurs to me that Karatani’s vision for Mode D and outcome X resembles the partly-spiritual concept of the “noosphere” — globe-circling realm of the mind — fielded by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Edouard Le Roy, and Vladimir Vernadsky decades ago. It’s still a significant concept about the future (see Ronfeldt, 2018, cited below), and I should think it would interest Karatani.
A couple more comparisons to TIMN: Karatani shows how each mode in turn enables larger empire-building — from clan-based mini systems based on Mode A, through a global republic and universal religion based on Mode D. That observation overlaps with TIMN. I’ve observed, but don’t recall where I may have mentioned, that each form in the TIMN progression enables more expansive loose-knit systems to be built, from local to global levels in ways similar to Karatani’s layout of stages. Bauwens has observed this as well, based on his framework.
Furthermore, TIMN provides a reason for this: The rise and spread of each TIMN form is enabled by a different information and communications technology revolution. The rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, their vast administrative structures — rested on a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are especially empowering for civil-society associations around the world and across the political spectrum. I should add that each successive information and communications technology revolution also modifies each of the older forms.
P2P theory likewise recognizes the importance of this technology for the rise of each of its relational modalities, in ways rather parallel to TIMN. Karatani seems not to recognize this. I’ve not read all the way through his book, but browsing it deliberately for mentions of such technology and its effects on modes of exchange, I find nothing. This, in my view, is a significant shortcoming of his analysis.
In closing, an exhortation: Until Karatani appeared, Bauwens and I were alone in proposing quadriform frameworks about social evolution that have future implications. Now there are three of us — four if Raworth or someone else (George Monbiot?) adds more evolutionary theory to her doughnut-economics framework. Even though there are significant differences among our frameworks, and even though readers may prefer one over another, my grander point is that we are all quadriformists. I (we?) hope you will become one too. It’s a new way to break free and move beyond the aging gridlocked ever-more-tribalized triform frameworks that are presently failing us.
I will argue for TIMN’s advantages in the next post
Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Duke University Press, 2014.
Kojin Karatani, “An Introduction to Modes of Exchange,” unpublished draft article, 2017.
David Ronfeldt, In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First and Forever Form, RAND, WR-433, 2007.
David Ronfeldt, “Updated notes about the noosphere and noopolitik: draft of Section I for new paper,” Materials for Two Theories Blog, July 8, 2018.
Plus various reviews and summaries of Karatani’s book.