Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2014

The Poverty of Political Marxism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

The poverty of Political Marxism

The debate regarding the potential merits and limits of Political Marxism initiated by Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch in the pages of the International Socialist Review (ISR #90, July 2013) and the responses it has provoked from Neil Davidson (ISR #91, Winter 2013–14) and Charlie Post (ISR #92, Spring 2014) are very welcome developments. The relationship between Marxist theory and historical analysis is, of course, an incredibly important issue—one that goes far beyond the more limited question of explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism to which Political Marxist or Capital-centric scholars have, so to speak, staked their claim to fame. Indeed, despite his very critical analysis of the pitfalls of Political Marxist theory, Neil Davidson points out the many significant works Political Marxists have produced, which stand as invaluable studies irrespective of one’s opinion as to the broader merits of Political Marxist theory. From Brenner’s own Merchants and Revolutions to Charlie Post’s The American Road to Capitalism to John Eric Marot’s The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect to Hannes Lacher and Benno Teschke’s recent interventions into International Relations theory, one finds an array of impressive and historically rich works of immense value.1

Yet, as we examine below, such works have proven invaluable in spite of—not because of—their adherence to the Brenner thesis in particular and the theoretical and methodological precepts of Political Marxism more generally. Indeed, as our title suggests, despite the significant works produced from within the Political Marxist camp, the perspective is replete with what we see as crippling theoretical weaknesses resulting in a persistent, gnawing gap between theory and history. In demonstrating these problems, we shall begin by detailing and then critiquing the infamous Brenner Thesis, before turning to a critical examination of Political Marxist approaches to the contemporary issues of war and imperialism. We must state at the outset, however, that notwithstanding our very strong criticisms of Political Marxism we do not believe the theory is as inimical to the International Socialist tradition as Davidson makes it out nor, even if it were, that this would necessarily be a problem. For the great merit of any thriving theoretical tradition is its ability to critically reflect upon its own assumptions and, when appropriate, to draw upon and absorb significant elements from other theoretical traditions.

read full article

October 12, 2014

The tide turns against Political Marxism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Robert Brenner

One of the upcoming featured articles in the ISO’s International Socialist Review is titled “The poverty of Political Marxism”. Written by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, it will obviously be a polemic directed against the academic trend dedicated to applying the “Brenner thesis” to various historical events, including the American Civil War.

Briefly summarized, the Brenner thesis claims that capitalism developed originally in the British countryside in the 17th century as a result of the introduction of tenant farming that put a premium on competition. Once it took hold in Britain, it diffused to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, Political Marxism has a fairly strict definition of capitalism. Without free labor, it simply does not exist. So, in the case of the Southern slave states, you had something called “precapitalism”, according to Charles Post. Needless to say, this category was not very prevalent in a Marxism that continued to stress the need for identifying social relations more exactly. Wouldn’t there be a need to distinguish 19th century plantations in Alabama from slave labor during Nero’s age?

Although Brenner never wrote much about the bourgeois revolution—as far as I know—his followers developed a theory that no such thing existed, especially in France in 1789 when, according to Brennerite George Comninel, the monarchy was toppled by aristocrats rather than the bourgeoisie.

I first learned about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut in the mid-90s when he showed up on the mailing list preceding Marxmail urging people to read “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that was a reply in part to Robert Brenner. After reading it, I was motivated to begin writing my own articles on the Brenner thesis but from a somewhat different angle than Jim’s. As someone who remained very much committed to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, I wanted to try to evaluate the Brenner thesis in terms of my own education in the SWP. I might have rejected the group’s sectarianism but continued to value the emphasis it put on Trotsky’s writings that saw the tendency for feudal social relations and modern capitalist property relations to co-exist as they did in Czarist Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

Starting in the late 90s, I wrote 32 articles on the Brenner thesis that can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm. Most were written after Jim had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. At the risk of sounding either self-important or—more likely—like a crank, there was practically nobody criticizing the Brenner thesis except me. For the most part, this was a function of the thesis enjoying a kind of hegemony on the academic left. If you spent any amount of time on JSTOR as I did courtesy of my employment at Columbia University, you will discover dozens of articles paying tribute to Robert Brenner in the most glowing terms. What was the explanation for that? Jim Blaut tried to provide one in an essay on Brenner that was included in his follow-up to the Colonizer’s Model titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians”:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2 These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.

Over the past few years I have been gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to prove that the lease farming analysis was false and second, to reestablish the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. Heller is also the author of “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815”, a book whose title obviously indicates its theoretical orientation just as much as Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, another rebuttal to George Comninel and the Political Marxists.

I was also encouraged to see the Deutscher Prize awarded to Jairus Banaji in 2011 for his collection of essays “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. It came out the same year as Heller’s and was chosen over Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. To my knowledge, Banaji has never referred to Brenner specifically in his writings but given his commitment to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it was inevitable that he would implicitly challenge some of the basic precepts of Political Marxism by referring, for example, in one essay to the theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, where the colonial commission spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies on feudal foundations.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the new initiatives taken by younger scholars in the field, symbolized by the article by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu that will appear in the next ISR. Some time invested in a Google search revealed quite a rich vein of scholarly research carried out by these two and other like-minded critics of Political Marxism and that is available online. Let me review them now in the hope that you will dig in to this important theoretical question: how did capitalism arise?

1. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2013 42: 78

Interestingly, the article is a defense of combined and uneven development from the charge of Eurocentrism mounted by Indian scholars and by John M. Hobson, the author of “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” and the great grandson of the man whose ideas on imperialism influenced Lenin.

The authors seek to resolve the contradiction between the “internal” explanation of capitalism defended by Brenner and the “external” (Italian city-state trade, Spanish plunder of the New World, etc.) defended by Sweezy and Wallerstein on a higher level. The article shows that the Ottoman Empire had a major role in creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism in Europe by undermining the possibility of European unity under the grip of an absolutist state:

Aside from these new commercial privileges, the effects of the Ottoman geopolitical buffer were especially pronounced in English intra-lord class relations and the peculiar development of the English state. A variety of authors have stressed the significance of England’s lack of involvement in continental geopolitical conflicts from 1450 onwards as a fundamental factor in its peculiar development of capitalism.

It also stresses the importance of the New World plunder that served as kind of supercharger for capitalist development internally:

In the first instance, the bullion confiscated in the Americas lubricated the circuits of capital accumulation within Europe as a whole, providing the liquid specie for Europe’s vibrant trade with the East. By 1650, the flow of precious metals from the Americas reaching Europe is estimated to have amounted to at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver. Between 1561 and 1580, about 85 per cent of the entire world’s production of silver came from the Americas. This provided the capital for European merchants’ profitable trade with Asia and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices.

2. Kerem Nisancioglu, “Before the Deluge: The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism”, a paper presented to a Millennium conference in 2012

This paper expands on the findings in the article cited above. I was particularly interested in this question since in prior discussions I have had with people on the Turkish left, including my wife, I always had the impression that the Ottoman Empire was certainly not capitalist, even if it was not exactly like European feudalism. What was it exactly? Nisancioglu characterizes it as being based on the tributary mode of production, a more general category that includes European feudalism. In the Ottoman Empire, the state was much more powerful than it was in Western Europe and hence far more capable of achieving control over a vast territory through internal financing for a standing army. In its confrontations with Europe, the Ottomans inadvertently created the conditions for the rise of capitalism that would eventually be their undoing:

The Euro-Ottoman relation was therefore marked by the relative backwardness of the European ruling classes, and the comparative weakness in its form of social reproduction. These European ‘privileges of backwardness’ encouraged and compelled its people – both ruling and ruled classes – to develop and adopt new ways of securing their social reproduction. At the same time, the relative strength of the Ottoman social form entailed a ‘disadvantage of progressiveness’, wherein the stability of social reproduction provided no immanent impulse for change or development. This relation of unevenness goes some way to explaining why the so- called miracle of capitalism would occur in Europe, and why it would not be repeated in Ottoman territories. That this divergence was a product of Ottoman progressiveness and European backwardness suggests that Eurocentric assumptions of historical priority need to be reconsidered.

3. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the international’: Beyond Political Marxism”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs

I suspect that this article anticipates some of the same criticisms that Anievas and Nisancioglu make in the upcoming ISR article, although given the venue it was obviously less polemical than what we can expect to see. As was the case with the previous articles, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is invoked as a corrective to Political Marxism’s tendency to draw a sharp distinction between social relations dictated by the market and “extra-economic” coercion of the kind that existed under both feudalism and the absolutist states of the early modern era. That being said, I do find the article making concessions to Political Marxism that I would not have made. For example, they write:

Only under capitalist property relations do we see the structured differentiation of the political and economic into distinct institutional spheres as methods of surplus-extraction become uncoupled from ‘extra-economic’ coercive means. In other words, under capitalism extra-economic coercion (that is, state power) and economic coercion (the compulsion to sell one’s labour in order to access the means of production) are necessarily separate. ‘As in every other exploitative system’, Wood (2006, 15) writes, ‘there are two “moments” of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that sustains it. In capitalism, however these two “moments”: are uniquely separate from each other’.

Unless I misunderstand them, they would put the plantation system of the old South outside the sphere of capitalist property relations since it rests almost exclusively on “extra-economic” coercive means. As I shall explain later, the most recent research demonstrates rather conclusively that the plantation system was fully integrated into the world capitalist system, thus restoring Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery”, an analysis based on the combined and uneven development principles Williams learned from CLR James, to its rightful place in the arsenal of Marxism.

4. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “The Uneven and Combined Development of the Meiji Restoration: A Passive Revolutionary Road to Capitalist Modernity”, Capital and Class

If free labor is a sine qua non for Political Marxism, how does it explain the Meiji Restoration in which feudal relations in the countryside were used to reinforce capitalist property relations in the city? Easy…it ignores it.

Thanks to Allinson and Anievas, we get some insights into what happened in Japan and as it turns out Junkers Germany as well. They write:

This combined formation is not, however, to be grasped in a mechanical way but rather as emerging in the crises and responses of the actors in Japanese society. The Meiji reforms abolished the legal and economic basis of the samurai class and prebendal power over the direct producers. However, the abolition of the dues of the samurai class was achieved at the expense of the peasants, rendered notionally free but in fact still subject to ‘semi-servile’ agrarian relations (Hirano, 1948: 4). By this time, ‘Japan’s uneven development had produced a highly concentrated urban capitalist sector, contrasting sharply with conditions in the countryside that many Marxists came to see as vestiges of feudalism’ (Hoston, 1986: 9). The origins of Japan’s agrarian class crisis, which intertwined with industrial class struggle in the 1920s and to which ‘imperial fascism’ was a response, lay in this ramified social structure.

Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I wrote my first article on the Brenner thesis in which I came to similar conclusions:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

It is hard for me to understand why the Political Marxists are so little motivated to look closely at what might be called “capitalism from above”. Isn’t it about time that we concluded that even though Marx had good reasons to chronicle the origins of capitalism in Britain as it was the “purest form”, resting as it did on market forces rather than extra-economic coercion, this particular historical example was in many ways unique? After all, Marx told the Russian populists that Capital was not intended as a universal schema for social development.

A free market in labor developed in Britain because there was a surplus of labor generated by the enclosure acts that forced self-husbanding farmers to seek employment as wage workers. In the colonies, the Indians could not be relied upon since they would run away from a plantation and subsist as they always had through hunting and fishing. Naturally you would import slaves from Africa and keep them disciplined by the whip and the noose.

Two books came out recently that set a high bar for Political Marxists like Charles Post. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes trying to answer Walter Johnson and Edward E. Baptist who carried out rigorous research of primary material in order to make the case that slavery in the Old South was capitalist, even if it didn’t correspond to a schema wrenched out of V. 1 of Capital. I have Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” and Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” and can’t wait to sit down and work my way through them.

While there may be excerpts from Johnson’s book online somewhere, I think your best bet is to read Gilbert Winant’s review in N+1, a Marxist journal of the new generation. Winant writes:

For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.

I would only add that I found it most odd that Ellen Meiksins Wood regarded John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of the emerging capitalist system since he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony that enshrined slavery as a natural right. That contradiction is, of course, for her and other Political Marxists to unravel.

If anything, Edward E. Baptist is even more emphatic on classifying slavery as part of the American capitalist system. I would refer you to Charles Larson’s CounterPunch review:

The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. “The coffle chained the early American republic together.” Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn’t an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a “pattern of political compromise” between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.

Well, of course. Slave-owners led the American Revolution that Lenin considered to be an exemplary “revolution from below”. They were certainly the most consistent defenders of bourgeois prerogatives, including the right to own men and women as if they were beasts of burden. And after the Northern bourgeoisie reconciled with its Southern former enemies in 1876, “extra-economic” coercion was restored in the South and continued through most of the 20th century until Blacks mobilized to end Jim Crow just as they had in the 1860s to end slavery. And during slavery, Jim Crow and modern ‘free labor’ conditions (excluding the profit-making penitentiary system), it has remained capitalism all along. I will conclude with this thought. Capitalism is about commodity production for the purposes of gaining what Piketty calls “capital”—wealth in other words. Whether the labor that produces the wealth is in chains or “free” to be sold to the highest bidder makes hardly any difference at all, least of all to the bastards who rule the world.

June 28, 2013

Alan Knight: Brennerite Subalternist

Filed under: Mexico,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Alan Knight

Although I picked up volume one (From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest) of Alan Knight’s 3-volume history of Mexico mainly to get some background information on the Aztec ruins I visited there last month, I was intrigued to discover that he—like Adolfo Gilly, another leftist authority on Mexican history—had no problem tipping his hat to subaltern studies, supposedly something shunts you off into the vaporous world of postcolonialism and all the other trendy nonsense at odds with the muscular analysis Marxists learn in the weight rooms of dialectical materialism. If you’ve been listening to Vivek Chibber, you’ll know that subaltern studies is an entry level drug that might lead to more heavy stuff.

From Knight’s introduction:

I have tried to give a good deal of attention to ‘subalterns’ even though I have not used the term, at least not systematically. So I think I write ‘subaltern history’ just as I write prose, but I do not make an issue of it. At any rate, there is a fair amount of ‘bottom-up’ (popular) history in these pages, not least because ‘top down’ (elite) history cannot be understood in isolation; the two are dialectically related. It is true, however, and quite deliberate, that my ‘subalterns’ are seen more at work than at play, more in acts of protest than in moments of recreation, more on the streets and in the fields than in their own homes.

But as I skimmed through Knight’s book, I discovered—believe it or not—that his embrace of subaltern studies does not prevent him from also embracing the rock-ribbed “Political Marxism” analysis of the social system that existed in colonial Mexico, namely that there was no capitalism in colonial Mexico—not even in an embryonic form:

Nevertheless, the key determinants of Mexican development were to be found within the colony itself, and the character of colonial society was formed, above all, by the economic structures which underpinned it, by the labour systems which it engendered and by the forms whereby surplus was extracted from producers, be they miners or artisans, peasants, peons or slaves. Structures, systems, forms were all varied and mutating. We will examine and categorize them in due course. But the initial point to make is this: if such varied forms are to be given a single, encompassing title, it would be wrong to term them ‘capitalist’. Conversely, the only justified umbrella term – to be found within the conventional repertoire – would have to be ‘feudal’. Returning to the initial division of scholarly opinion, therefore, we prefer to conceptualize colonial Mexico as a feudal creation of a feudal Spain.

I suppose that we should be thankful to Knight for coming out and using the term feudal that I find much more useful than the “precapitalism” favored by most of the people who swear by their Robert Brenner. 1789 France? Precapitalist, of course. The United States in 1776? Same thing, silly.

As an old-fashioned kind of Marxist, I tend to go by what the classics stated, namely that feudalism rested on the production of use-values rather than commodities. Marx is fairly clear about this in the very first chapter of volume one of Capital:

A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.)

Putting it in more succinct terms, the feudal estate involved peasants turning over a portion of their product to the lord. If they grew crops, the knights would eat them, etc. Right? I guess others can use the term feudal as they like. It is a free country after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that feudalism was a fetter on production. I always refer back to Michael Perelman’s description of peasant life before there was capitalism, from his “Invention of Capitalism”:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Any resemblance between this state of affairs and colonial Mexico is purely coincidental. I tend to agree with John Cockcroft’s take in chapter one of “Mexico”, a world in which I doubt that Indians enjoyed a “great deal of free time”:

Merchant capital in New Spain, as in Europe, was a key agent in the development of capitalist institutions: if mining was the economic motor, merchant capital was the grease. By 1604 it had helped establish some 25 textile mills (obrajes) in Mexico City alone, plus many others in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Queretero. One of the largest employed 120 workers, while others employed from 50 to 100—sizable figures for any manufacturing enterprise at the time. Producing mainly cotton and wool textiles (silk manufacture prospered for a century but gave way to competition from the Orient), the obrajes concentrated laborers in sweat-shop conditions. Some obrajes used the “putting out” system, permitting nearby Indian villagers to do the initial spinning. Trapiches (one or two loom producers) were common and, though partly competitive with obrajes, were generally subordinated to them in the network of marketing, credits, and supplies. Some weavers and spinners were able to continue to work at home, but the tendency in most places was toward the concentration of production under one roof (manufacture) and toward centralized control by obraje owners or the merchant bourgeoisie, often one and the same.

Odd to see that there were sweatshops in Mexico City in 1604. Not much has changed.

Of course, Political Marxists deny that Merchant Capital has anything to do with capitalism. For them, it is a “precapitalist” social formation that amounts to buying cheap and selling dear, like the Indians selling Manhattan for some beads.

Long before I read Cockcroft, I had come around to the same analysis. Referring to Perelman’s description of feudal life, I wrote:

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the ‘encomienda’ or ‘repartamiento’ (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’ The ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. In “Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640,” Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to prevent confusion. He writes, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”3

The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or ‘obraje’ (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce through his own labor. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work, just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Marx had an entirely different take on Merchant Capital, one that is much closer to my own reading and that of Cockcroft’s. This is from chapter twenty of volume three of Capital, “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

Maybe the Political Marxists need to write a book on how Marx was so badly mistaken to believe that merchant capital contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. I am sure that it would go over big at some academic conference, even if it is totally bogus.

June 12, 2013

Robert Fogel, co-author of “Time on the Cross”, dead at 86

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:41 pm

Robert Fogel

Today the NY Times reported on the death of economist Robert Fogel at the age of 86. He is best known for his collaboration with Stanley Engerman on “Time on the Cross”, a book described by the Times:

They contended that slavery had not been, as widely portrayed, an inefficient system destined for collapse, with slaves living in virtual concentration camps and worked to death.

Rather, after studying medical records, cotton yields and other data, the authors argued that slavery had been highly efficient in utilizing economies of scale and that plantation owners had regarded workers as economic assets whom they were inclined to treat at least as well as livestock. This tended to limit exploitation, Professor Fogel and his colleague found, declaring, in fact, that slave life in the South was generally better than that of industrial workers in the North.

An intellectual firestorm resulted. Some critics accused Professor Fogel, who was married to an African-American woman, of being an apologist for slavery, though he and Professor Engerman had been explicit in acknowledging that slaves had been exploited in ways not captured by statistical data.

In a series of posts on Charles Post’s “political Marxism” take on the American civil war written 10 years ago, I dealt with the Engerman-Fogel thesis as well as Eugene Genovese’s analysis that slavery was a pre-capitalist social relation. Post took great pains to distinguish himself from Genovese both for theoretical reasons as well as a need to draw a clear line with a theory that was as controversial as Engerman-Fogel in its own way. Genovese had what might be described as a paternalistic take on slavery, finding it if not exactly cozy at least systematically coherent in its own way. Ironically, despite the clash between the two approaches, Engerman and Genovese had more in common than initially meets the eye. Indeed, as I point out in the original article I posted, Genovese once stated that his own work could “absorb” that of Engerman and Fogel’s.

 Engerman and Fogel

Written on August 23, 2003 as part of a series of articles in reply to Charles Post

A couple of months ago when the Marxism list was debating whether chattel slavery was capitalist, Rakesh Bhandari called my attention to an article by Charles Post in the July 2003 Journal of Agrarian Change that applied the Brenner thesis to the “peculiar institution” and its abolition. I want to thank Rakesh for that reference and give credit to him as one of the most well informed people on the left in such matters. Although Rakesh is one of the legions of people I have offended in the past, I am glad that he has forgiven me to the extent that I can depend on him for scholarly references and insight.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the article itself (or to be more exact, issues raised by the article), it would be useful to provide some background on the Brenner thesis, which is essentially an attempt to explain the origins of capitalism in changed property relations in the English countryside beginning in the late middle ages as feudal tribute gave way to tenant farming based on rent.

Virtually everybody, Brenner included, sees his thesis as an outgrowth of the work of Maurice Dobb, who was part of the CP school of historians in Great Britain along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and other luminaries. Shortly after Dobb came out with his groundbreaking “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in 1947, Paul Sweezy wrote a critical review in Science and Society that led to the famous Dobb-Sweezy debate (sometimes called “the transition debate”) that pitted contrary interpretations of capitalist origins against each other. Dobb placed great weight on changes in the English countryside such as the Enclosure Acts, while Sweezy looked to urban trade in cities such as Flanders and Genoa.

Sweezy tended to rely a lot on Henri Pirenne, the French historian who emphasized the importance of Mediterranean trade routes in the end of feudalism. Although much of Pirenne’s research has come under attack in recent years, there was something that Paul Sweezy was putting his finger on and that the “agrarian capitalism” current might have trouble explaining–namely the underlying economic factors that drove the Enclosure Acts and the transformation of class relations in the English countryside forward. It does not seem to make a lot of sense that landlords would force such potentially violent changes on the peasantry without good reasons.

If you look at them in the context of the kind of “primitive accumulation” taking place in Chiapas and elsewhere today, they begin to make sense. English landlords were following the imperatives of international trade just as multinational corporations in Mexico are today. When wool became profitable, it made economic sense to throw peasants off the land and turn their land into grazing pasture. Despite the fact that A.L. Morton was a member in good standing of the CP historian’s school in Great Britain, he had no trouble pointing that out:

The first and most important field that merchant capital found for its operations in England was the wool trade. From quite early times wool was exported from this country to be woven in Ghent, Bruges, Ypres and other towns in Flanders. By the thirteenth century this trade had grown to large proportions, easily exceeding in bulk and value all other exports combined. In some respects England assumed a position with regard to Flanders comparable to that of Australia and the West Riding today. (People’s History of England, p. 73)

Although it would be a mistake to infer too much from this, it is noteworthy that Dobb’s book contains a scant 5 references to slavery in the index and 2 of them refer to the medieval era or earlier. Just three years prior to the publication of Dobb’s book, another important book appeared. Originally a doctoral dissertation, Eric Williams’ “Capitalism and Slavery” argued that without slavery British capitalism would have never triumphed. Much of the work is a detailed analysis of how the rising bourgeoisie in cities like Liverpool owed their fortunes to the slave trade or plantations operated by slave labor. This dimension is utterly lacking in Dobb’s book. For example, there is no reference to Jamaica whatsoever in the index. That Eric Williams was a black Trinidadian partially explains his sensitivity to the role of slaves in Great Britain’s take-off.

Also keep in mind the indirect influence of Trotskyism on Eric Williams. In Kent Worcester’s biography of CLR James, we learn that the Trotskyist theorist served as a tutor to Williams at Oxford. It seems that James read both drafts of Williams’s dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had the supercharged character that it did.

Although I will have more to say on this in subsequent posts, it appears to me that one of the central failings of the Dobb-Brenner approach is that it cannot account for what Trotsky characterized as combined and uneven development. The tendency to define fixed, mutually exclusive stages of socio-economic development is very much a hallmark of CP intellectual traditions. Although the British CP historians represent the very best example of this, they were never able to escape a tendency toward “stagism”.

Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.

Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.

For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)

Post writes:

A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.

In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:

Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.

For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.

The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.

Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.

Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.

I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.

(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)

Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.

When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)

Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.

Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.

Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.

In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”

Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.

While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.

In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.

Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:

This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.

Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.

The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.

The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”

I want to conclude this article with some brief remarks on Post’s understanding of what was at stake in the confrontation between the Northern industrial bourgeoisie and the Southern slave masters. In the conclusion to his article, he writes:

The growing contradiction between the social conditions of the development of capitalism and of slavery set the stage for the sharp class conflicts over the social character of the expansion of commodity production that dominated political life in the 1840s and 1850s. Put another way, the political conflicts that culminated in the US Civil War were rooted in the contradictory social requirements of the development of industrial capitalism and plantation slavery. The contradictory requirements led to sharpening conflicts between manufacturers, merchants, farmers, planters and slaves over a variety of political policies, but especially the future class structure of westward expansion, in the two decades leading to the Civil War. These sharpening class conflicts produced the political crisis — the collapse of the ‘bi-section’ Whig and Democratic parties, the increasing ‘sectionalization’ of political life, and the ‘secession crisis’ — that culminated in four bloody years of Civil War. The outcome of the war and the nearly dozen years of tumultuous struggles during ‘Reconstruction’ ultimately secured the social and political conditions for industrial capitalist development in the ‘Gilded Age’.

If one is committed to the Brenner thesis as a way of understanding the “sharp class conflicts” that led to civil war in the USA, one must then ask whether the outcome was consistent with what Brenner himself wrote. It would be useful to read his description of the sine qua non for “capitalist property relations” in the article “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that appears in John Roemer’s collection “Analytical Marxism”:

Under what conditions, then, will the economic actors adopt patterns of economic action conducive, in the aggregate, to modern economic growth? In my view, they can be expected to do so, only where all the direct producers are separated from their means of subsistence, above all the land, and where no exploiters are able to maintain themselves through surplus extraction by extra-economic coercion. It is only where the organizers of production and the direct producers (sometimes the same person) have been separated from direct access to the means of subsistence, that they must buy on the market the tools and means of subsistence they need to reproduce themselves. It is only where the producers must buy on the market their means of reproduction, that they must be able to sell competitively on the market, i.e. at the socially necessary rate. It is only in the presence of the necessity of competitive production – and the correlative absence of the possibility of cutting costs, or otherwise raising income, by forcefully squeezing the direct producers – that we can expect the systematic and continual pressure to increase the efficiency of production which is the sine qua non of modern economic growth.

Although Brenner’s prose is a bit abstruse, the statement that capitalism can only exist “where no exploiters are able to maintain themselves through surplus extraction by extra-economic coercion” is simply not confirmed by the historical example of the post-Reconstruction South. That is, if by “extra-economic coercion” we mean debt peonage, convict labor, KKK violence intended to keep people tied to the land and a host of other racist institutions to keep black people in their place and out of competitive labor markets. If the Brenner thesis is about the creation of an agrarian class of property-owners that uses mechanization and wage labor to supply food and other necessities to rapidly industrializing cities, none of this happened in the American South after Reconstruction. Indeed, as we shall learn, Reconstruction itself would go to great lengths to provide just about everything to the emancipated slaves except the forty acres and a mule promised them, the only substantive measure that could have provided the objective basis for a yeoman social formation in Dixie.

In my next post, I plan to examine the exact nature of the “class conflict” between the North and the South and whether the eradication of slavery was a key element of this. While the Civil War no doubt ended ownership of one human being of another, the outcome not only fell short of the standards set by Brenner’s 17th century England, but those presumably dictated by the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”.

May 30, 2013

Post gets pasted

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Charles A. Post

Science and Society, April 2013
The American Path of Bourgeois Development Revisited
by Daniel Gaido

(From the Haymarket author’s page: “Gaido is a researcher at the National Research Council (Conicet) in Argentina. He is the author of The Formative Period of American Capitalism and is currently working on a book on the history of German social democracy.”)

Conclusion

“The American Road to Capitalism” is an attempt to apply to the United Sates Robert Brenner’s model of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England. According to Brenner, English landlords gave birth to capitalism in the countryside by turning their peasants into tenants in the early 16th century. Since in the United States there was no class of feudal landlords to act as prime movers of an “agrarian” capitalist development, Post makes the merchant-turned-land speculator the demiurge of American capitalism, asserting, against all historical evidence, that this class was able to “impose a social monopoly on land” shortly after the American revolution. The rest of Post’s theses on the American revolution, Southern plantation slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction are just elaborations of this fundamentally mistaken interpretation.

What the historical record shows is that the two American bourgeois revolutions — a notion that Brenner, Post and their fellow “political Marxists” reject — actually facilitated access to the land at nominal prices for white settlers. This widespread landownership amounted to a form of land nationalization that created favorable conditions for capitalist development through the abolition of ground rent, which constitutes a precapitalist barrier to the development of the productive forces under capitalism. This, and the absence of an absolutist state bureaucracy, in turn fostered the generalization of commodity production in the countryside, creating a wide home market for the development of industry in the North, which eventually dominated the Union in the aftermath of the Civil War. That is what Lenin showed in his analysis of the American path of bourgeois development,” which remains the foundation of any materialist approach to American history. Due to the weakness of Marxism in the United States, progress in this field has consisted mostly in setting the “American path of bourgeois development” in its peculiar settler colonialist — i.e., white supremacist — context, but the peculiarities of American capitalist development, their impact on class struggles and, through them, the ways in which those peculiarities shaped American political history largely remain to be explored.

November 10, 2012

Jairus Banaji 2012 Deutscher memorial lecture

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

October 3, 2012

The Strange Career of Eugene Genovese

Filed under: American civil war,conservatism,racism,transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Eugene Genovese, who died last week, was one of only two major Marxist academics prominent in the 1960s to become a reactionary ideologue. The other was Ronald Radosh, who has opined in recent years that it was all for the best that fascism triumphed in Spain. For his part, Genovese became infamous for becoming a reactionary in the mold of the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s, a group of poets and novelists that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.

Scott McLemee, a long-time observer of the peregrinations of the academic left, wrote a review of Radosh’s memoir “Commies” that got under his skin. An excerpt should explain why:

In the 1970s, Radosh had made an uneasy alliance with socialist intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington — former protégés of Max Shachtman, men quite capable of holding their own in a political argument. (The Marxist god of History had given them that, mainly, to do.) They saw the radical project in America as a matter of pushing liberal democracy as hard as possible rather than replacing it with some streamlined authoritarian regime. This circle had no illusions about the innocence of the Rosenbergs. But from Commies it is clear that they always harbored serious misgivings about Radosh himself. No doubt they suspected that habits of thought cultivated while rationalizing brutal regimes of one sort are really very helpful when one shifts allegiance to thugs of a different political complexion.

If so, their misgivings were borne out. Radosh soon became a champion of the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, cheering them as a genuine army of the people. More recently, in the course of research on the Spanish Civil War, he has discovered the virtues of General Franco — a fascist dictator, yes, but at least no communist.

At this point, it would be routine to cite the Cold War anthology The God That Failed (1950) — perhaps with a sneer, which is the preferred attitude toward the book adopted by soi-disant leftists who have never actually read it. But there is really very little resemblance between Commies and the essays of ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler or Richard Wright. Something is missing: the element of soul-searching.

Nothing in Radosh’s memoir conveys the painful ordeal of disillusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one’s previous commitments.

Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh’s first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women’s movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. “I now don’t understand why or even how I did such things,” he writes. “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana.” So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist’s fault.

Given his combination of erudition and mocking condescension, one might only hope that McLemee might be inspired to say something about Genovese’s passing. Yes, sports fans, it is all there in the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, where our intrepid public intellectual has at it:

As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South — developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”

Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.

A couple of professor emerituses (emeriti?) on the Marxism list who remain renegades from capitalism and who were familiar with Genovese from the good old days weighed in shortly after his death was announced. Michael A. Lebowitz, who was editor of “Studies on the Left” from 1961 to 1965, said:

I thought he died a long time ago. He started out quite differently politically than he ended up. He was an editor of Science & Society, Studies on the Left, and the editor [I don't recall his nom de guerre] of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, the short-lived theoretical journal of Progressive Labor. He was a Marxist at that time [although one with a curious respect for the aristocracy], thought the university was the vehicle for the revolution and thus was horrified at the actions of students at Sir George Williams [now part of Concordia University in Montreal] against racism, denounced them and never looked back on his march to the right.

This led Jesse Lemisch, another veteran of left academia, to contribute this addendum: “Gene’s remark on the West Indian students at Sir George: ‘every once in a while some grit gets into the machine of the left, and must be wiped out.’”

I had more than a casual interest in Eugene Genovese since he was seen as one of the primary exponents of the view that slavery was not a capitalist institution, an analysis that Charles Post took great pains to distinguish himself from when he began applying the Brenner thesis to the civil war. For those of you who have not been following the academic left, the Brenner thesis falls within the purview of what has been called “the transition debate”, something that had its origins in a series of exchanges between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s. It revolves around the question of how feudalism gave way to capitalism, with those in the Sweezy tradition arguing that slavery belongs to the capitalist stage because of its role in commodity production.

Genovese had some debates around the nature of slavery but not with Brennerites, to my knowledge. Mostly he was anxious to refute the findings of Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, the authors of “Time on the Cross”, a book that made the case that slavery was capitalist but not from a Marxist standpoint. Mostly Engerman and Fogel looked at the plantation in terms of how it matched up against the factory system of the north using conventional microeconomics. Oddly enough, they concluded that the slaves had it better off than the factory workers, dovetailing with Genovese’s paternalistic take on master-slave relations despite their theoretical differences.

In a multi-part critique of Charles Post’s writings on the civil war that I wrote 9 years ago, I started with a discussion of the Genovese/Engerman-Fogel debate that in large part is reproduced below:

Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.

Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.

For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)

Post writes:

A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.

In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:

Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.

For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.

The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.

Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.

Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.

I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.

(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)

Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.

When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)

Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.

Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.

Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.

Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.

In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”

Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.

While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.

In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.

Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:

This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.

Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.

The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.

The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”

April 25, 2012

David Graeber on capitalism and unfree labor

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:14 pm

(From “Debt: the first 5,000 years”)

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery, and “indentured service” — that is the use of contract labor, workers who had received cash in advance and were thus bound for five-, seven-, or ten-year terms to  pay it back. Needless to say, indentured servants were recruited largely from among people who were already debtors. In the 1600s there were at times almost as many white debtors as African slaves working southern plantations, and legally they were at first in almost the same situation, since in the beginning, plantation societies were working within a European legal tradition that assumed slavery did not exist so even Africans in the Carolinas were classified, as contract labour. Of course this later changed when the idea of “race” was introduced. When African slaves were freed, they were replaced, on plantations from Barbados to Mauritius, with contract laborers again: though now ones recruited mainly in India or China.  Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, and Indian “coolies” built the South African mines. The peasants of Russia and Poland, who had been free landholders in the Middle Age, were only made serfs at the dawn of capitalism, when their lords began to sell grain on the new world market to feed the new industrial cities to the West. Colonial regimes in Africa and Southeast Asia regularly demanded forced labour from their conquered subjects, or, alternately, created tax systems designed to force the population into the labor market through debt. British overlords in India, starting with the East India Company but continuing under Her Majesty’s government, institutionalized debt peonage as their primary means of creating products for sale abroad.

This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire, as it did in the Putumayo, but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is— particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom. For the capitalists, this means the freedom of the market place. For most workers, it means free labor. Marxists have questioned whether wage labor is ultimately free in any sense (since someone with nothing to sell but his or her body cannot in any sense be considered a genuinely free agent), but they still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism. And the dominant image in the history of capitalism is the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road. I Ike sweatshops, this is assumed to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.

When one looks at the actual history of wage labor, even in countries like England, that picture begins to melt away. In most of Medieval northern Europe, wage labor had been mainly a lifestyle phenomenon. From roughly the age of twelve or fourteen to roughly twenty-eight or thirty, everyone was expected to be employed as a servant in someone else’s household—usually on a yearly contract basis, for which they received room, board, professional training, and usually a wage of some sort — until they accumulated enough resources to marry and set up a household of their own. The first thing that “proletarianization” came to mean was that millions of young men and women across Europe found themselves effectively stuck in a kind of permanent adolescence. Apprentices and journeymen could never become “masters,” and thus, never actually grow up. Eventually, many began to give up and marry early – to the great scandal of the moralists, who insisted that the new proletariat were starting families they could not possibly support.

There is, and has always been, a curious affinity between wage labor and slavery. This is not just because it was slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations who supplied the quick-energy products that powered much of early wage laborers’ work; not just because of the scientific management techniques applied in factories in industrial revolution can be traced back to those sugar plantations; but also because both the relation between master and slave, and between employer and employee, are in principle impersonal: whether you’ve been sold or you’re simply rented yourself out, the moment  money changes hands, who you are is supposed to be unimportant; all that’s important is that you are capable of understanding orders and doing what you’re told.

This is one reason, perhaps, that in principle, there was always a feeling that both the buying of slaves and the hiring of laborers should really not be on credit, but should employ cash. The problem, as I’ve noted, was that for most of the history of British capitalism, cash simply didn’t exist. Even when the Royal Mint began to produce smaller-denomination silver and copper coins, the supply was sporadic and inadequate. This is how the “truck system” developed to begin with: during the industrial revolution, factory owners would often pay their workers with tickets or vouchers good only in local shops, whose owners they had some sort of informal arrangement, or, in more isolated parts of the country, which they owned themselves. Traditional credit relations with one’s local shopkeeper clearly took on entirely new complexion once the shopkeeper was effectively agent of the boss. Another expedient was to pay workers at least partly in kind—and notice the very richness of the vocabulary for the sorts of things one was assumed to be allowed to appropriate from one’s workplace, particularly from the waste, excess, and side products: cabbage, chips, thrums, sweepings, buggings, gleanings, sweepings, potchings, vails, poake, coltage, knockdowns, tinge. “Cabbage,” for instance, was the cloth left over from tailoring, “chips” the pieces of board that dockworkers had the right to carry from their workplace (any piece of timber less than two feet long), “thrums” were taken from the warping-bars of looms, and so on. And of course we have already heard about payment in the form of cod, or nails.

Employers had a final expedient: wait for the money to show up and in the meantime, don’t pay anything—leaving their employers to get by with only what they could scrounge from their shop floors, or what their families could finagle in outside employment, receive in charity, preserve in savings pools with friends and families, or, when all else failed, acquire on credit from the loan sharks and pawnbrokers, who rapidly came to be seen as the perennial scourge of the working poor. The situation became such that, by the nineteenth century, any time a fire destroyed a London pawnshop, working-class neighborhoods would brace for the wave of domestic violence that would inevitably ensue when many a wife was forced to confess that she’d long since secretly hocked her husband’s Sunday suit.

We are, nowadays, used to associating factories eighteen months in arrears for wages with a nation in economic free-fall, such as occurred during the collapse of the Soviet Union; but owing to the hard-money policies of the British government, who were always concerned above all to ensure that their paper money didn’t float away in another speculative bubble, in the early days of industrial capitalism, such a situation was in no way unusual. Even the government was often unable to find the cash to pay its own employees. In eighteenth-century London, the Royal Admiralty was regularly over a year behind in paying the wages of those who labored at the Deptford docks—one reason that they were willing to tolerate the appropriation of chips, not to mention hemp, canvas, steel bolts, and cordage. In fact, as Linebaugh has shown, the situation only really began to take recognizable form around 1800, when the government stabilized its finances, began paying cash wages (in schedule, and therefore tried to abolish the practice of what was now relabeled “workplace pilfering”—which, meeting outraged resistance on the part of the dockworkers, was made punishable by whipping and imprisonment. Samuel Bentham, the engineer put in charge of reforming the dockyards, had to turn them into a regular police state in order to be able to institute a regime of pure wage labor—to which purpose he ultimately conceived the notion of building a giant tower in the middle to guarantee constant surveillance, an idea that was later borrowed by his brother Jeremy for the famous Panopticon.

December 13, 2011

Hurrah! Jairus Banaji wins 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize

Filed under: Education,Islam,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Jairus Banaji

In mid-October word leaked out that Charlie Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” was on the short list for this year’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, competing with Jairus Banaji’s “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. Perhaps it is a sign that the ideological hegemony of the Brenner thesis is finally breaking down that Banaji was declared the winner. Maybe the jury had a chance to read Henry Heller’s recently published “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book that offers the most devastating critique of Brenner’s Eurocentrism since Jim Blaut’s.

“Theory as History” is a collection of essays written by Banaji over thirty years dealing with the “transition” problem although none of them mention Brenner by name. Unlike Heller or Blaut, who consciously sought to knock him off his pedestal (I am sure that Henry would object to this characterization but my old friend and comrade Jim Blaut, may he rest in peace, would have accepted it gladly), Banaji’s chief goal is to interrogate some of the “stagist” preconceptions of a dogmatic Marxism that have allowed scholars to succumb to Eurocentric tendencies.  I strongly urge people to purchase the paperback edition from Haymarket books.  (I would be remiss if I did not mention that the book can also be read at Scribd.com for free.)

Among the collection is Banaji’s best-known article, the 44 page “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History” that was published in the autumn 1977 Capital and Class and can also be read at www.anti-politics.net/discussion/Jairus_Banaji.pdf. That was the same year that Robert Brenner published “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in the New Left Review. Ironically, despite Brenner’s connections at that time with a state capitalist variety of Trotskyism, his scholarship owed much more to the British Historian’s group whose leading lights—Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill—were committed to a “stagist” conception of history very much influenced by the Stalintern’s cruder version of Engels’s historical materialism. For the British CP historians, history is marked by discrete phases based on distinct modes of production such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Once one phase is finished, another starts sort of like what happens in natural history. First you have the apes, then the Neanderthal, then homo sapiens, etc.

Banaji rejects this model entirely, describing it as Vulgar Marxism:

The tradition of Vulgar Marxism which drew its earliest sources of energy from the Marxism of the Second International, crystallised only under the domination of Stalin. Stalinism uprooted not only the proletarian orientations of Marxism, but its scientific foundations as well. For the dialectic as the principle of rigorous scientific investigation of historical processes – it was, after all, this rational dialectic that was “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Afterword to Second German Edition) – Stalinism substituted the “dialectic” as a cosmological principle prior to, and independent of, science. For the materialist conception of history it substituted a theory of history “in general”, “converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories” (Trotsky, 1932, Appendix I). Finally, this rubber-stamp conception of history it represented as a history deja constituee, open therefore only to the procedures of verification. This lifeless bureaucratic conception, steeped in the methods of formalism, produced a history emptied of any specifically historical content, reduced by the forced march of simple formal abstractions to the meagre ration of a few volatile categories. Within five decades of Marx’s death, the history written by the Stalinists became as opaque and dreamlike, and hardly as exciting, as the fantasies of surrealism.

As should be clear from the reference to Leon Trotsky above, Banaji’s conception of history is much closer to the combined and uneven development model found in Trotsky’s writings on the Russian revolution. For Trotsky, Russia was a clear example that feudalism and capitalism can co-exist in a given society. Moreover, one of the earliest implicit challenges to the “stagist” conceptions of the CP historians was Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a book making the case for the interrelationship between Caribbean slavery and British capitalism that was strongly influenced by CLR James’s “Black Jacobins”.

While Brenner is not specifically targeted in Banaji’s article, it does have plenty to say about Maurice Dobb who clearly paved the way for Brenner. In his debate with Paul Sweezy, Dobb was probably closer to the spirit of Karl Marx’s writings than Sweezy but unfortunately bent the stick too far in the direction of defining “free wage labor” as a sine qua non for the capitalist mode of production—thus leading to many of the dogmatic errors of the Brenner school of historiography. Banaji writes:

Again, in Capital Volume 3, Marx referred to the evolution of merchant capital in the ancient world transforming “a patriarchal slave system devoted to the production of immediate means of subsistence into one devoted to the production of surplus value”. According to an edict of 1721, Peter the Great had allowed the Russian factory-owners to utilise serf-labour. “But if the factory-owner could now carry on his business with the labour of serfs”, wrote Pokrovsky, “who prevented the serf-holder from establishing a factory?” To Pokrovsky the edict was one of the forerunners of “bondage or landlord capitalism”. Analysing the land question in Peru, Mariategui wrote about the technically advanced capitalist latifundia on the coast, owned by US and British business, in which “exploitation still rests on feudal practices and principles”. In its theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress, the colonial commission of the Comintern spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies “on feudal foundations” and developing “in distorted and incomplete transitional forms which give commercial capital predominance. Finally, outside the Marxist tradition, Hobson could refer to industrial profits which “represented the surplus-value of slave or forced labour” and Barrington Moore to “labour-repressive forms of capitalist agriculture”. In all these varied instances – the subordination of the potters of Moscow province to merchant capital, the production of cotton in the slave South, the expansion of landlord capitalism in Rumanian agriculture or Petrine industry, the sugar latifundia of coastal Peru – there was no question of identifying the “mode of production” according to the character of the given forms or relations of exploitation. Nor did any of these instances involve a “coexistence” of modes of production.

Another essay worth singling out is “Islam, the Mediterranean, and the Rise of Capitalism” that appeared originally in the 2007 Historical Materialism. The article makes the case for understanding commercial or merchant capitalism as a much more powerful link in the chain of the system’s history than ever recognized in Marx’s writings. For Banaji, the Dutch and English East India Companies are not simply involved in exchange external to production, a point made as well by Henry Heller. And even before the Dutch and English were involved in capitalist trade, the Portuguese and the Venetians were in the thick of things. Banaji states that by the fourteenth century, Venice was an economy dominated by capital, with the same families controlling trade, transport, finance, and industry.

Of even greater interest is Banaji’s discussion of the Arab trade empire. He states that concepts of profit, capital, and the accumulation of capital are all found in the Arabic sources of the ninth to fourteenth centuries.

Even more startlingly, he uncovers what amounts to a labor theory of value in the writings of Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian scholar who wrote a history of the world that posited the notion that all great civilizations have a kind of life cycle with an inevitable death. Khaldun wrote that “labor is the cause of profit” and that it is “necessary for every profit and capital accumulation”. Gold and silver are the only socially acceptable measures of value “for all capital accumulations” while profit is defined as the “extent by which capital increases” and commerce as the “striving for profit by means of the accumulation of capital”.

The Arab world is not some backwater for Banaji. He asserts that by the seventh century it was a cosmopolitan civilization whose economic resources were unrivaled except by China. The Muslims created a vigorous monetary economy based on the dinar and drew regional areas into their commercial nexus. In Banaji’s words, that economy “was not just some loose ensemble of feudal regimes”. A late 10th century Persian geographer described Cairo as “the wealthiest city in the world, extremely prosperous.” By the second half of the 10th century, Alexandria was exporting well over 5000 to 6000 tons of flax to European countries.

He concludes:

Thus Islam made a powerful contribution to the growth of capitalism in the Mediterranean, in part because it preserved and expanded the monetary economy of late antiquity and innovated business techniques that became the staple of Mediterranean commerce (in particular, partnerships and commenda agreements), and also because the seaports of the Muslim world became a rich source of the plundered money-capital which largely financed the growth of maritime capitalism in Europe. Indeed, [Ernest] Mandel stated this with unabashed bluntness when he wrote: ‘The accumulation of money capital by the Italian merchants who dominated European economic life from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries originated directly from the Crusades, an enormous plundering enterprise if ever there was one’

All of this is a useful corrective not only to the Brenner school but to another brand of Eurocentrism that is far more insidious in that it has received big play in the bourgeois media over the last year or so. Published by the prestigious Princeton University Press, Turkish economist Timur Kuran’s “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle  East” won the admiration of pundits everywhere anxious to blame the people of the Middle East for their own problems, as if British and American ships and warplanes had less impact than verses in the Koran.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in the May 29, 2011 NY Times, Kuran offered his explanation of why Arab states were so backward and repressive:

But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.

Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.

One wonders how much Kuran knows about Arab history if he can make such a claim in the face of Banaji’s research. This is not to speak of Kuran’s obvious inability to appreciate the dynamism of the Anatolian “tigers” who currently rule his native country and who certainly not only have the “concept of the corporation” but a willingness to dump the European Union, the true “sick men”, in favor of trade alliances with a revitalized East.

Jim Blaut died before he had to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrist history. The third volume was to present an alternative way of seeing China, India, the Arab world et al. While this certainly leaves a gap in a crucial area of Marxist scholarship, we can be grateful to Jairus Banaji in his ongoing effort to effectively fulfill Jim’s dream.

October 8, 2011

The Birth of Capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Back sometime in 1998, the year that I created the Marxism mailing list, a University of Illinois at Chicago geography professor named Jim Blaut showed up touting a new book titled “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that I read with great interest since it dovetailed with my own research on American Indians at the time. Blaut maintained that Eurocentrist historians had given Asian, African and New World civilizations short shrift, an analysis I had read before in Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s “Before European hegemony: the world system A.D. 1250-1350”.

Abu-Lughod’s book was filled with fascinating details, such as the fact that all three of Columbus’s ships could have fit on the deck of the largest ship in a Ming Dynasty armada that made frequent trips to the coast of East Africa in the 1400s. Since Abu-Lughod had blurbed Blaut’s book as “absolutely spellbinding”, that was recommendation enough for me.

Soon after Jim made his initial appearance, his attention turned to Robert Brenner, a UCLA professor I had never heard of and who was targeted as a Eurocentrist in his new book. While most of the historians discussed there were non-Marxists, Brenner apparently had the reputation of being a big-time Marxist. I scratched my head trying to figure that out. Marxism and Eurocentrism seemed to be diametrically opposed (this was before I had been exposed to post-colonial scholarship.)

Not long after “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” came out, Jim followed up with “Eight Eurocentric Historians”, the second in a trilogy of books that would have concluded with one on writing non-Eurocentric history. Unfortunately, Jim died of cancer of the pancreas in November 2000 and was not able to complete that book.

One of the eight historians Jim took up was Robert Brenner who he had described as follows in an Antipode article (available online) that was later adapted for the new book:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

I would say that of all the people I grew to respect and admire through the Marxism list, Jim Blaut stood at the top along with Mark Jones, a self-professed Stalinist who died of cancer three years after Blaut’s passing. The passion that Jim directed toward his project has sustained me ever since. I only wish that he had been around to see the publication of Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book put out by the leftwing British Pluto Press, whose chief editor Roger van Zwanenberg was an old friend of Mark Jones. It’s a small world, after all.

Heller’s book is an amazing accomplishment. It serves as a very useful introduction to the “Brenner thesis” debates as well as weighing in with his own perspectives—including a critique of Jim Blaut’s analysis that I find persuasive. I only regret that Jim had not lived to read this book since his response to Heller would have been something to behold, I am sure. If there was one thing that Jim loved more than bird-watching, it was debate.

For me, the book is of particular value since it jibes in so many ways with my own amateur historian’s findings. I always thought I was on the right track but having a professional saying many of the same things I have said gives me a sense of vindication.

It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the left academy. Partially this is a function of the disillusionment with “Third Worldism” that took hold in the early 80s. It can also be traced to the decline of the Marxism that was associated with Paul Sweezy and the “dependency” theorists grouped around the Monthly Review. For the most part, they lacked the interest that someone like a Brenner supporter Ellen Meiksins Wood had in continuing the debate. In numerous articles and several books, she has even surpassed Brenner in carrying his thesis to its logical (or absurd) conclusion. Andre Gunder Frank, one of Brenner’s principal antagonists, had reached the point of abandoning Marxism altogether, arguing in “ReOrient” that the term capitalism had no meaning. I guess that’s one way of resolving the transition problem.

Other scholars who were explicitly or implicitly opposed to Brenner never had any commitment to Marxism to begin with. Most notable among them was Kenneth Pomeranz, a neoclassical econometrician and historian who argued in “The Great Divergence” that China was far more advanced than Britain in the 18th century. One of the best things about Heller’s book is his review of the Brenner-Pomeranz debate that has been focused on quite narrow questions about agrarian class relations in the lower Yangtze River region. As avid as I am to follow the Brenner debate, their articles have not whetted my appetite.

I sometimes felt that I was the only person in the world who cared enough to answer Wood or Brenner’s other acolytes. For some the debate seemed sterile. Who really cared where or when capitalism came into being? For today’s revolutionary, the burning question is how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism not to figure out how feudalism gave way to capitalism. Of course, the “transition” problem of 500 years ago can tell us a lot about how our own transition will take place, as Heller points out in his conclusion:

Writing in 2000 while the neoliberal experiment was still going strong, [medievalist and Brenner critic] Guy Bois saw neoliberalism as a symptom of deepening capitalist crisis. Toward the conclusion of his account of the late medieval feudal crisis, Bois offered a qualified comparison between that crisis and the contemporary crisis of capitalism. In doing so, Bois was able to suggest the gravity of the current situation from a historical perspective. Like the late medieval crisis, the current state of affairs is marked by ongoing large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization. The two eras are likewise characterized by outbursts of the irrational in the realm of culture in which the existing elites are fully complicit. At the same time, Bois hastened to distinguish the sources of crisis in each case: the one engendered by an insufficiency of production in an economy based on petty production, the other rooted in a crisis of over-production in an economy based on industrial capitalism.

Unlike Pomeranz or other anti-Eurocentric historians such as Jack Goody and John M. Hobson (the great grandson of John A. Hobson, who Lenin cited frequently in his article on imperialism), Heller situates himself within the Marxist tradition. He is equally at home discussing the fine details of early modern European history (his specialty is France) and Marxist theory. While his analysis is more “Hellerian” than anything else, it is clear to me that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is a major influence. While Trotsky’s theory was used to explain the contradictory character of a Russian capitalism that mixed feudal social relationships with some of the worlds most advanced industrial production facilities, Heller applies it to the 1500s and 1600s when ostensibly non-capitalist social relations including slavery were becoming essential—serving as midwife in many ways—to the birth of capitalism.

But even more importantly, Heller hones in on the contribution of V.I. Lenin whose groundbreaking 1899 study “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” is critical for understanding how much of a mistake it is to see the “British road” as the only possibility for a transition to capitalism. (Heller correctly points out that the term Eurocentric might not do justice to Brenner; “Anglocentric” is more fitting.)

Heller makes clear that Brenner and his followers view coercive “extra-economic” state interventions into the economy as typically pre-capitalist. So, for example, they assert that the East India Company is feudal even if they might not necessarily use that term–the same thing with Southern slavery, or other forms of forced labor including indentured servitude, debt peonage, etc. It ain’t capitalism if ain’t out of the pages of Adam Smith, in other words.

For Lenin, this distinction does not exist. He wrote about capitalism coming into existence “from above” and “from below”. The best hope for a Russian revolution would have been a transition to capitalism “from below” like the classic yeoman farmer dominated Anglo-American model but it was not excluded that a “Junker” model from above might be imposed. In line with both Lenin and Trotsky, Heller observes:

The Prussian instance demonstrates in turn how the state not only intervened to ensure the survival of its nobility, but aided them in making the transition to capitalism at the expense of the peasant producers. As their historical development has recently been fruitfully explored from the point of view of capitalism from above, the examples of Scotland and Japan are discussed with an eye to developing a comparative under- standing of alternative routes to capitalism. The decisive role of the state is illustrated by applying Trotsky’s conception of combined and uneven development to the Scottish path to capitalism. It illustrates the speed and contradictory nature of capitalist development in states with archaic social relations.

That was the first thing that came to my mind after reading Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that challenged Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and other “Third Worldists”. (It was an open question whether Brenner even considered them to be true Marxists, since Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism was regarded as “neo-Smithian”. It always occurred to me that the same adjective might have been applied to the Brennerites since they were so determined to make an equation between the capitalist mode of production and free markets.)

The words “Junkers” and “Meiji restoration” kept popping into my head. I said to myself, “Louis Proyect, this cannot be right. Capitalism arrived in Germany and Japan through a mixture of state coercion and market relations. Take yourself over to the Columbia University library first chance you get and follow up.”

The net result was the very first article I ever wrote about the Brenner thesis titled aptly enough “The Brenner Thesis”. It has a section with the subheading “The Meiji Restoration” that anticipates what would be written far more elegantly and with more erudition in Heller’s book. I wrote:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship, semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn’t add up here, does it?

There are so many good things in Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism”  that my readers would be foolish not to rush out and buy it at once. You have already been told that it serves as a primer to the Brenner debate and is worth having on you bookshelf as a kind of reference guide. Like a racing form at the track, it helps you know who the players are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

It also helps that despite his adversarial relationship to Brenner and his followers, he is always civil and respectful finding value in their various books and articles where it is appropriate.

Keeping in mind that much of the debate is taken up with relatively arcane matters, Heller writes with a clarity that is missing all too often in works directed toward one’s peers in the academy.

For those who are relatively up to speed on the debate, Heller provides tantalizing references to more specialized works that can open up avenues of further research. For example, he writes:

The deep-seated prejudice that capitalism represented a triumph of free trade over political imperialism goes back to Adam Smith. In fact as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson pointed out long ago, capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination depending on the historical and strategic circumstances.53

This will surely be of use to me in my own research. I did not know Gallagher and Robinson before this and am anxious to see what they have to say. Columbia University might not have the highest-paid programmers in New York (my old employer, the dreadful Goldman-Sachs, beat them on this score) but the library is worth gold to me.

This leads me to my conclusion. As valuable as Henry Heller’s book is, it does not answer all the questions posed by the Brenner thesis, as I am sure that it was not intended to do anyhow.

Gallagher and Robinson’s research on how “capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination” matters to me because it addresses the ideas put forward by Ellen Meiksins Wood in “Empire of Capital”, a book that attempts to extend the Brenner thesis to imperialism. Bent as she is on demonstrating that “capitalist imperialism” operates mostly on the basis of market coercion, Wood misses the reality of international relations today—one that is dramatically illustrated by the gargantuan U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that is nearly as large as the Vatican. In fact, the decline of American economic hegemony can only lead to increasing “extra-economic” factors such as those that marked imperialism in its infancy. With the growing turmoil of a financial crisis that does not seem to show any signs of abating, we can expect the state to play a growing role. This might not amount to “feudalism”, but one cannot avoid the suspicion that Bois was correct when he referred to the current period as one of marked by ongoing “large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization.” With that to look forward to, no wonder young people are mobilizing to realize their hopes that “another world is possible”, the slogan for the transition so necessary in the 21st century.

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