Concluding Reflections on Part Two
Of late it has become fashionable among historical investigators to assert that the social explanation of economic ideologies is inappropriately reductionist because it necessarily treats intellectual ideas as a reflection of underlying social conditions. The new cultural history has emphasized instead that changes in the social environment make themselves felt—indeed, come into being—only through the medium of language, which operates with the power and within the constraints of its own logic and own history. Michael Agnatieff formulated this issue for the history of economics some time ago by contesting the assumption that agents spontaneously adopt the language of economics by participating in capitalist development. "Our reflexive, unthinking tendency to assume that the past speaks the same language as our own," he reminded us, "has led us, quite wrongly, to assume that as 'commercial society' takes shape, in their daily experience and in their reading, a language of 'markets', 'classes', and 'social relations' is there at hand to guide them cognitively." Agnatieff and others have suggested that we examine the development of the categories of capitalist thought as an autonomous process, guided as much by the discursive resources and constraints of language as by the imputed economic facts of life. By this line of reasoning, when the economic surroundings change the process of "generating language adequate to one's conception of social reality" poses a challenge whose accomplishment is unpredictable.
In raising culture to the status of an independent object of study, however, this variety of cultural history may inadvertently divide language from the economy. It assumes that the categories of economic analysis belong to the realm of the discursive, outside of which lies "commercial society" proper, whose transactions language tries to grasp. The present study, by contrast, emphasizes above all that commercial practice was itself struc-
tured by categories that communicated the form of the labor transaction. Language did not establish discursive rules for conduct which agents then attempted to follow as a norm: such a viewpoint makes the symbolic order external to practice, insofar as each of the customs of the factory derives its meaning by conforming to "ideal" rules articulated by intellectuals, literate workers, or managers. Instead, practice itself embodied symbolic principles, and the constellation of material instrumentalities on the shop floor served as the elements that conveyed messages independently of verbal analyses. The capitalist economy is a realm of symbolic practice that already contains a language of political economy appropriate for the analysis of social life. The concepts of labor as a commodity did not "reflect" or "express" economic conditions in the two countries—they were part and parcel of those conditions. The political economists' reflections on labor as a commodity, which were debated and discussed outside the shop floor, developed in tandem with the emergence of labor's commodity form as the principle that organized the humblest details of everyday life. In the lived experience of their individual transfers of labor, workers and marketeers sustained the principle of the exchange of abstract labor which, behind their backs, united their society into a functioning whole.