LINGUIST List 8.350

Tue Mar 11 1997

Review: Z. Harris book on Politics

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at


  1. Bruce Nevin, Zellig Harris, _The Transformation of Capitalist Society_

Message 1: Zellig Harris, _The Transformation of Capitalist Society_

Date: Wed, 05 Mar 1997 14:23:35 +0000
From: Bruce Nevin <>
Subject: Zellig Harris, _The Transformation of Capitalist Society_

_The Transformation of Capitalist Society_. Zellig S. Harris. Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers, Inc. March 1997.

Six to ten centuries ago, probably no one saw the seeds of revolution in the
transactions of burghers, merchants, and moneylenders. Their niche roles
within feudal society were construed as supports for the status quo: useful,
even necessary, but ancillary. It could scarcely then be imagined, however
self-evident it may seem to us in hindsight, that maximization of profit
would supplant inherited privilege and obligation as the center pole in the
tent of social relations. The transformation of society from feudalism to
capitalism was mostly invisible to its participants.

The ability to step aside from the way things "naturally" are, to perceive
that their basis is in conventional expectations, and to recognize the seeds
of a successor "social reality," is a rare gift indeed. This is the gift
that Zellig Harris presents to us in this posthumous book, due out in
mid-March 1997.

Several of his friends collaborated in preparing the 1992 manuscript for
publication, among them Bill Evan (the Wharton School of the University of
Pennsylvania), who asked me to prepare a brief description for linguists in
this venue. Although this book is not about linguistics or language, it is
of interest to linguists (aside from its intrinsic interest to anyone)
because of its author's role in the development of a science of language.
Harris was a president of the LSA, founded the first linguistics department
in the United States, and made many original contributions to linguistics,
among them phonemic long components (independently with partly similar work
by Firth and others), discontinuous morphemes, string analysis (basis of
important computational work, and leading to tree-adjoining grammars),
transformational syntax, operator grammar, and analysis of information
structures in discourse and in sublanguages, and of course he was
instrumental in fostering the work and early career of his most famous
student, Noam Chomsky. Some, perhaps recalling Chomsky's comment that he was
first attracted to Harris because of his political views, may be curious to
learn what those views were.

Harris had a profound understanding of history, economics, sociology, and
anthropology. In this, he had much in common with Sapir, who it is said
regarded him as his intellectual heir; in particular in his sensitivity to
the inadequacies of established social arrangements (inadequacies made
especially obvious in the Great Depression) and in his interest in the
possible shapes of alternatives. Before undertaking this book, he read and
re-read widely, because he did not want to re-do what someone else had
already adequately done.

Harris does not decry the worth of capitalism, as far as it goes, nor deny
the great benefits that it has brought. It is obvious that there have been
great advances in culture and in the material standard of living of most
people, even in the last 100 or 50 years. Rather, he asks "whether, in spite
of its success, the capitalist system will end or change substantially in
the foreseeable future. If so, what are the possibilities that the change
will foster more equitable socio-economic conditions?" (p. 2).

The ascendancy of capitalism over communism and socialism is commonly seen
as a rising tide, but Harris shows us how it is rather more "an advancing
wave-front which leaves increasing areas of non-capitalist decision-making
behind it" (p. 41). Capitalist endeavors must maximize profit. Yet some of
the requirements for its practitioners and their social institutions to
survive cannot be met without conflict with (short-term) profit--among them
the education, health, and economic viability of the labor force, and indeed
of the ecosystems in which enterprises are carried out. And an inherent
contradiction (seen most blatently in pyramid schemes, and somewhat less so
in socalled multi-level marketing) is the requirement for an ever expanding
domain of operation, which clearly cannot be maintained forever. (This is
the reason markets increasingly must be manufactured in late capitalism.)
Because of these conflicts, certain decisions and decision-making
mechanisms, increasingly over time, are either delegated to governments or
relinquished to employees. 

The most important presently visible precursors to a successor to capitalism
are seen in increased employee control and even outright ownership, as in
employee stock ownership plans (ESOP). For example, the Reagan-era
restructuring of the United States Post Office has not succeeded in making
it a viable for-profit enterprise, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R
California) has now proposed an ESOP for postal workers (Wall Street
Journal, "Make Every Mailman a Shareholder," March 3 1997). As areas of the
economy become less viable for profit maximization, they become more likely
candidates for this relinquishment of control. With employee ownership comes
a shift of the central motivation of the enterprise from profit maximization
to the long-term sustenance of the enterprise itself, and of those who make
their livelihoods with it. Interestingly, "it is more likely that the
humdrum essentials of life are what will become the less profitable" (p. 4),
the staples of existence rather than the "hot" products for which markets
must first be created.

"Thus we arrive at a possible basis for non-capitalist production growing
inside capitalist society, the more easily because (at least in its early
stages) it is not in confrontation with the pure capitalist production, but
rather a special-case complement to it. Although employee-owned companies
fit into the capitalist economy in that they buy and sell in the market, and
have to make a profit, they may not share the capitalist fate in several
respects: they do not have to maximize profit; they do not have to
accumulate wealth beyond the needs of reinvestment; they have no necessary
conflict of interest between owners and workers (so long as they do not
employ non-owning workers); their business decisions remain close to their
production decisions; and they may be less susceptible to the vagaries of
the stock market, depressions, and other features of capitalist conditions"
(p. 5). 

For a more egalitarian system to emerge, rather than the superimposition of
a new elite as in various revolutionary movements, systems of cooperative
production governed from below must already be established, in these niches
neglected by capitalism, in sufficient measure that they may be extended to
the point of becoming the main form of making production decisions. It is in
just this way, and not by revolutionary overthrow, that capitalism succeeded
feudalism. Some capitalist institutions will survive, just as vestiges of
feudalism remain today (hardly startling news to people involved with
academic institutions).

Another essential characteristic of capitalism is the indirect relation
between decisions based on profit and their implementation in actual
production. This is one source of its tremendous flexibility, but also a
weakness. In particular, one might say that fixation on the bottom line is a
kind of tunnel vision or selective blindness under which alternative social
arrangements may flourish as supports for the status quo: useful, even
necessary, but ancillary.

The foreseen transformation is sociological and economic more than
political, amenable to piecemeal and scattered advances, not all of them
permanent at first. "[W]hat is most important is to develop social
structures -- organizations or ways of interacting -- enabling people to
initiate and control activities relevant to their own life and work. Such
structures would have to avoid leaving room for some individuals or groups
to control the life and work of others, even via a back door" (p. 229).
Conspiratorial methods are not effective, nor are confrontational tactics
practicable for those who would build the infrastructure of
control-from-below, however useful they may seem for those who effect
top-down controlling social structures. "Every cooperative attempt or method
needs to be initiated by its participants, upon whom the risk of failure
would fall" (p. 232).

The book is well reasoned and its generalizations, methods, and conclusions
are supported throughout by evidence, much of it familiar but perhaps cast
in a somewhat new light by Harris's treatment. Pervading it is what Wolf
Heydebrand in the Foreword calls a "cautious optimism." "[T]he door for
change is not closed. Only inaction -- apathy, indecision, unreadiness to
act -- can keep the door shut" (p. 233).

- ----- End of Forwarded Message
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue