Interview with Brill author, Hans Derks

    9 June 2022

New Books in Asian Studies
Hans Derks, "The Market and the Oikos, Vol. II", (Brill 2022)

1. The Market and the Oikos, Vol. II: The Peasant and the Nomad in History is your fourth book published by Brill. Congratulations! If you could consider one theme or event that you’ve previously written on and update it, what would you revisit?

The dominant theme in most of my studies is the relationship between town and country. I was inspired by the most famous 19th century scholars like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, J. Stuart Mill, etc. [Marx said:] “The basis of all developed division of labor, made possible through the exchange of products, is the separation between town and country… the whole economic history of society can be summarized in the movement of this contradiction.” This worked as a wake-up call, because Marx confessed that he did not study this enough or in a sufficient way.

I jumped not only into this intellectual gap, but did not hesitate to combine this with typical 20th century results of heavy and long European and American scholarly debates about the market - oikos contradictions (although mostly not under this heading). They were mainly inspired by ancient Greek economic theories, Aristotle and others.

Max Weber’s interpretations were the most dominant and fruitful in this dossier. His house-family-household-state or oikos analyses hided a bunch of ideological notions about a “patrimonial” and “national state” founded on an agricultural, static and religious basis and perceived as antagonistic to all sorts of movable, urban, non-religious market features. Still, he as well as Marx, acknowledged that “he had no time” to detail his allegations at issue.

The town-country antagonisms concerned mainly basic economic and production contradictions, the other concerned largely basic anthropological, cultural and sociological antagonisms. Therefore, I decided to study this highly complicated combination in a specific interdisciplinary way and through long term historical comparisons on a global canvas. It took a life-long scholarly study, and its aim was, and is, to provide a framework for a brand new global socio-economic history in which the elements of Chinese history become the main focus, simply because this is the most important [area of study] today.

In the course of time, this combination (town-country, plus market-oikos antagonisms) became more articulated in the sense that internally this combination had the strongest oikoïdal character (combination 1), whereas influential market elements [were employed for] external use in imperialistic constellations (combination 2).

2. Over the course of your career. How has your work on development projects in South America and Africa informed your academic research and understanding of sociological and economic issues in general?

My publications were always written on a global canvas, inspired first by Hannah Arendt’s principal perception: “the world is my home” (see Jew, Nomad or Pariah: Studies on Hannah Arendt’s Choice (Aksant Academic Publishers, 2004)). The subjects covered in both volumes of The Market and the Oikos were anticipated in my Dutch dissertation (Stad en Land, 1986) and also detailed in the voluminous study about a specific problem: History of the Opium Problem: The Assault on the East, ca. 1600-1950 (Brill, 2012).

[For me] the personal and geographic [distinctions] between urban and rural environments in the world could not be avoided. Apart from the usual touristic trips, we had an extra busy family life, switching consciously between urban and village ways of life in several countries, in different periods, and in different environmental surroundings. Therefore, teaching in academic institutions and writing scholarly books and articles alternated with all kinds of practical work in urban and rural locations and on related development projects.

In the Netherlands, we went from a six-year period (in the 1960s) of intensive factory work, and history study with well-known historians of different historical periods, in the southern city of Maastricht to (in the 1970s) a long stay in a typical Frisian peasant village. This was followed by several years of university study and teaching) in Amsterdam in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, I had a long stay in South American with Paramaribo’s Central Planning Office, then several years of work on another corner of the globe: the coast of the Lake Victoria in Kenya (in the late 1980- early1990s). It was from about 1996 onward that I became more or less a sedentary in Amsterdam to write and study.

3. Besides Marx, Weber, and Arendt, which other scholars and intellectuals have you engaged with in your work?

In many Western countries a standing theme in the academic debates in the Roaring Sixties and Seventies, in which I was involved as well, was the relationship between theory and practice (or praxis). In particular, the German critical scholars (Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse, etc.) who were dominant in all debates knew “everything” of/from this relationship.

Written as brilliant abstract studies, however, they demonstrated very well that they never saw a modern factory from inside, or peasants working in the fields, fishermen on sea, let alone nomads in their desert-life, and they seldom worried about (the legitimation of) imperialism and colonialism, apart that they often misunderstood even concepts as “capital” and “capitalism” as discussed in The Market and the Oikos, Vol. I.

That lead to much suspicion and criticism from my side, and only misunderstandings (and even disdain) from their many supporters. [Jügen] Habermas did not go abroad or work in a factory or on the fields. A good demonstration of this “existential” problem is detailed in History of the Opium Problem.

[I discovered in] archives the largely unknown history of Dutch initiatives in the 17th century that paved the way for opium in Asia, with serious current repercussions. This rather spectacular publication received only excellent discussions (and sales) abroad for its innovative view on Dutch history, but in the Netherlands it was perceived as a kind of unlawful fouling of one’s own nest for my demythologizing of the Dutch Golden Age myth, with the many horrific parts of that history not smoothed away.

But let’s go back to the earthbound parts of my professional work. In hindsight it was good luck that a special part of it also concerns typical agricultural and fisheries problems. In Surinam, I worked on shrimp projects and rice farms with canals that fueled small-scale hydroelectric power plants. In Kenya, I did Nile perch, tilapia and water-pump projects, along with designing national development plans, making cost-benefit analyses of projects, etc. All this made me more or less familiar with practical agricultural and similar work as analyzed in The Market and the Oikos, Vol. II.

One has to understand and acknowledge that the main elements of the concrete problems at hand and their interconnections were not derived from some theory or model, the copying of work and/or ideas of wise white men (and few wise women), but came largely from the classical Western imperialism and colonialism, supported by their militaries. For the (Western) researcher this had the serious consequences that he/she had to reproduce or even largely renew their effects on the indigenous social relations or economy. Even the anthropological research on indigenous customs, traditions and so on, was derived from Western prejudices, points of view or values and largely aimed at a new phase of Western occupation: exploitative missionary work.

There are, however, new and irreversible developments in these fields. First, there is, the most spectacular example of China in the last decade or so, who are, for example, constructing railways [and other infrastructure] in the old Western colonies but without the classical oikoïdal (and genocidal) interventions, but based on (until now) pure market deals. It leads to much hypocritical gnashing of one’s teeth on the Western side.

The North American Indians are the other side of this coin: the Hollywood productions made them out as “enemies” who should be killed at will by heroic and pious white Christian immigrants. Also, the American perception of Black human beings and their unalterable negative attitude. All this belongs to the new realities of Western researcher who are losing not only the new competitions from the Chinese or other Asian competitors, it also seems to have become a kind of basic global dynamic in the history of colonialism and imperialism that what once was done to “them” is now bounced back on a soft or very hard way. The snake bites in its own tail, a rather stinking cigar from its own; that was the conclusion of my research on the opium problem.

4. But how do you see the possibilities and opportunities of new (and young) scholars for working in a global setting which is as full of tensions as today?

For many this is asking: how does one find ways to start from scratch? Answer: one has to find a new language, words forming meanings, relevant words with which one can work within a reasonable context on relevant subjects. Which are relevant? The words and concepts related to “the market and the oikos” in combination with “town and country” are relevant and tested in the environment, and they provide as well a relevant methodology for making these combinations.

The easiest way to find them is not so much looking in newspapers, and not so much on superficial screens, or in street demonstrations but in studying etymological lexicons like the OED. Word-decoding should be repeated often with corresponding words so that a reasonable detailing and interrelations can be arrived at (see The Market and the Oikos, Vol. I, preface, x-xvi).

Second, instead of the interesting but abstract and possible negligible studies in the West directed to mine profitable resources and to extend the classical Western power-policies, come work and study in developing countries, which are seldom based on either Western values and interests or Christianity. They are first and foremost concerned with food issues and other concrete problems, and that is where issues concerning agriculture, husbandry, nomadism, and specific industrial activities come to the fore.

Third, after the local concerns, one can focus on the global elements of the landscape of the problem. Much more knowledge of world history is received thanks to practical experiences and deep felt forms of interrelations. Take here the subject “the role of all sorts of nomads in world history,” one of the most neglected and misunderstood issues. With these experiences, important broad insight into the long-term European and Western mismanagement and exploitation of a very large part of the worlds can be gained. Through the Western (including tsarist Russian) colonialism, imperialism or the accompanying conversion and racist practices, one immediately gains a much more realistic view on the unfounded Western arrogance and, more important, on the issues of safety, peace, and war. And the reverse of this: a much more realistic judgment on “white superiority” and the real sources of the sometimes appalling violence in former colonies.

Fourth, a specific case in point is the world-wide, complicated drug problem and its global dialectic. The historical knowledge that it is an original result of Dutch and English colonialism which received a new beginning after World War II, from home-bred Western problem in the East it became a world problem as a home-bred Eastern problem in the West. This perception is hidden behind the typical inadequate “war on drugs” in the United States, in other Western countries, and the widespread policy of blaming the victims to avoid realistic measures against the perpetrators.

Fifth, entering brand new subjects has interesting “trickle-down effects” which were purposely neglected by the old immobile white colonists and their settler populations. I’ve already the study of the mobile populations: nomads, pastoralists and their animal cultures. A large part of both volumes of The Market and the Oikos are devoted to their practical elements and complicated historical environments. Now, we can discover how the classical biases of the European (Western) civilizations should be fully rewritten, with all possible consequences. In both volumes of The Market and the Oikos in-depths analyzes of related subjects are given.

Contrary to the still overriding opinions that ancient Greece now qualifies as stateless, not dominated by a plant, but by an animal culture with clear nomadic and pastoralist elements leads to a new analysis of men-women relations. Present feminists can now be seen as victims of the classical agricultural and religious views of ancient and modern civilizations as fully dominated by men: this was true for the oikoïdal Roman (and therefore later Christian) culture, but not for the Greek market societies and not for the animal cultures. All this brought a direct confrontation with the views of Moses Finley, traditions which were for decades the alpha and omega of classical studies and led to the erroneous perception of this very basis of the European civilization an agricultural (plant) culture with a kind of feudal aristocracy and monarchs as similar to the (Christian) Middle Ages. It leads to a nearly automatic general qualification of the Greek culture as most typical for market-society with strong trade, pirates, fisheries and other mobile characteristic. It turn to the other basis of the Western civilization, the Roman Empire, as a most typical “Super Oikos” with all consequences as analyzed in The Market and the Oikos, Vol. II.

It is clear, that the indicated sequence of steps, can be made only by rather experienced scholars who later can inform others. Besides this, it is preferable that they should be non-partisan, because they have to analyze pros and cons or clearly name a priori their political positions

5. In 2018, Brill published Vol. I, The Market and the Oikos: The Relationship between Religion and Capitalism in Modern China. Would you please summarize what historical and sociological angles are emphasized in this second volume on this topic and how these angles build upon the first volume’s emphasis on religion and capitalism?

In the first volume, I critically analyze Max Weber’s theory of capitalism, concluding that it is necessary to differentiate between the practicalities of the use of something as capital in its several meanings (in industry, real estate, land, savings, etc.) and the -ism formed with that concept.

The former concerns pure market activities and concrete productions of all sorts, the latter pure oikoïdal features and immaterial activities derived from them (laws, orders, services of all sorts). Practically, the latter concern a territorial state, repressively coordinating town and country (therefore located above towns and countries) and combining institutions such as the military, police, and bureaucracy, shaped by a religious or secular legitimation. In the late Middle Ages, not even rudimentary forms of such a state were formed after the Christianized model of the Aristotelian authoritarian-ruled family and household. They functioned, however, not earlier than the European 17th century.

Both meanings could approach each other only in their different monopolistic forms. The capital form, after the competition mechanisms, results in some sole property-power in some production process; the state the allows the development of monopolistic capitalist forms after giving privileges, allowances, licenses and central bank facilities to make monopolies dependent upon state-bureaucratic support and the reverse.

The main fields in which capitalism is active abroad are colonial ventures (from conversion activities aimed at making indigenous peoples fit for the extracting of the resources) and general military imperialism; inside the (European) realm it is taxing, police-interventions and law-making. Therefore, from about 1500 the rudimentary Western states, at the time not more than extended city-states, and their roll-models, like the Catholic church, are already directly responsible also for the genocidal exploitation and military repression in the developing world. Depending on which side one stays, one perceives this as necessary for the benefit of the West, including in tzarist Russia and its successors, or as violent exploitation and impoverishment of “the rest.”

States are now defined, and more or less accepted, as ideologically-legitimated institutions which manage or govern a substantial population based on regular and relevant taxing practices, hierarchic bureaucracy, the police and the military. If these institutions are (in)directly connected to one or more production or financial monopolies, one can define this as capitalism, which developed from French mercantilism. Since the development of capitalism, probably a thousand large and tiny states have perished, disappeared partly, or been swallowed by other states. There are many quasi-states in history (monarchies, churches, empires) which do have a limited amount of the given elements of states. There are also many stateless societies (like ancient Greece) which can be called states thanks only to their successor states, plus some wishful thinking.

States think of themselves as existing eternally and/or as godlike, but, historically, their existence is very limited. Think of the demise of the Soviet Union or the Netherlands which lost colonies collectively as large as the United States! Their European role models are the Catholic Church and Roman Empire. From these sources, states have derived the late-medieval ideas of an economically self-sufficient and self- governed territory (autarky), monarchy, and monotheism. In The Market and the Oikos, Vol. II, I develop these concepts: autarky, monotheism, and monarchy as they relate to the central tensions between the market and oikos.

I also elaborate on Aristotle’s political theory. In the Christian writings of Thomas Aquinas, discussed in the first volume, the typical ideas of Aristotle at stake: christened and sedentary trends led to the oikoïdal: that remained the rather false perception of Aristotle. However, in the second volume, I demonstrate that in Aristotle’s view, autarky exactly points to the market-option of self-deciding over one’s fate. The Christian oikoïdal household perception is replaced by a view of a nomadic/pastoralist society that we find in Aristotle’s texts.