The double change brought about under capitalism – the creation of wage labor under the regime of industrialization and the introduction of a revamped and quantitatively huge sphere of circulation under the regime of consumerism – is one that particularly effects the place of the clerk. The fictional commodities of land and labor, and the international trade in everyday household and psychoactive commodities – sugar, chocolate, alcohol, coffee - that underlay the great transformation required a new system of description and calculation that opened up a new vocational form – and into that form came the clerk. When Marx speaks of the way the bourgeois economists invert the processes that constitute the nature of the commodity so that it seems like the commodity comes first and constitutes the unsurpassable horizon of the world, what he is really talking about is the codification of the economy from the point of view of its managers in the sphere of circulation – for them, gazing at the world through their maps, spread sheets, instructions, and sales, the exterior world really does seem to be a price-driven market system, a great dualism between demand and supply.
In 1770, a Bordeaux lawyer named Joseph Rousselle published a how to book on management: “Instructions pour les seigneurs et leurs gens d'affaires”. The book divides into what the seigneur should look for in a manager – a gen d’affair – and what the manager should do. Among the latter, listed in the table of contents, is: “state of the domestics, properties and officials on the lands; archives of the seigneur and the state of his property; debts and charges; general knowledge of the lands; archives of the lands; active and passive transfers concerning the fiefs”; etc.
Rousselle begins the book by sounding a note of urgency: “Prudence demands that they [the seigneurs] found their principle existence on their patrimonial properties; yet the greater part of these properties are so badly guided, so badly administered, there reigns such abuses, that the Seigneurs lose considerably, be it by infidelity, be it by the incapacity of their agents.” (3)
What Rousselle is complaining about here has a long reach: we see this among the reformers in England and the novelists in Russia in the 19th century. Eventually, this story is about the end of the ancien regime – but as Thomas Mann puts it in Doctor Faustus, that regime didn’t wholly end until 1917 – until World War I.
In Rousselle’s time, certain among the corps of gens d’affaires were philosophes – including perhaps the most influential, Rousseau.
One can too easily make it seem that production and circulation are spheres that do not intersect because they are spheres that must be separated analytically and have different structures. In reality, these spheres interpenetrate: from the factory to the fashion show, production and circulation are interlocking parts of one whole. It is that interpenetration which gives to class its everyday value as something performed in routines – while everyday class differences are then registered in income differentials, and social positioning. In effect, one of the narratives Marx unfolds, in the Grundrisse and then in Capital, concerns the production of different forms of rationality that correspond to class strategies that dominate in the sphere of circulation and in the sphere of production.
There’s a striking passage in Plutarch’s essay on the Fortune of the Romans in which he considers the meaning of the fact that the Romans built a temple to Fortune centuries before they built a temple to any of the virtues. In a sense, this is a metaphor for the whole pre-capitalist economy in Europe from the time of the Romans to the early modern age. All the virtues – the province of the philosopher, the scientist, the clerk – were subordinate to the warrior class, who saw in Fortune the rationality of the system of war. However, the warriors couldn’t actually live on war – they lived on treasure, they lived on the slavery of those planted on the lands they conquered or were rewarded. Fortune, which provided that final margin which balanced the battle, sealed the alliance of the warrior caste and the Gods. The slave – the man who ‘owed’ his life to his conqueror, redeeming that debt, as David Graeber shows in his Debt: the first 5,000 years, by dedicating his life to enriching the man who spared it. Not, of course, that the slave volunteered for this fate, but along with physically direct coercion there came a morale of defeat.
It would be a huge mistake to equate the slave economy of the Ancients and the economy of the Middle Ages. The Christians, for good reason, fought against Fortune, and it wasn’t simply because Fortune was diabolic – it was because Fortune pitted itself, at the deepest level, against the virtues.