Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2015

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu on the Brenner thesis

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

(From pages 22 to 27 of the above new book.)

The Brenner Thesis: Explanation and Critique

In what has become one of the most influential theorisations of capitalism’s emergence, Robert Brenner mobilised Marx’s emphasis on changing relations of production (for Brenner, reconceptualised as ‘social property relations'”) in order to historicise the origins of capitalism in terms of class struggles specific to feudalism.” These struggles were determined by relations based on the appropriation of surplus from the peasantry by lords through extra-economic means: lords would habitually ‘squeeze’ agricultural productivity by imposing fines, extending work hours and extracting higher proportions of surpluses. In the 15th century, this sparked class conflicts in the English countryside, where serfs rebelled against their worsening conditions and won formal enfranchisement. The liberation of serfs from ties and obligations to the lord’s demesne in turn initiated a rise in tenant farming and led to increased market dependence, as peasants were turned away from their land and forced into wage-labour as an alternative means of subsistence. Although peasant expulsions were met with significant resistance, the strength and unity of the English state ensured victory for the landed ruling class.” This concentrated land in the private possession of landlords, who leased it to free peasants, unintentionally giving rise to ‘the classical landlord—capitalist tenant—wage labour structure’.79

By contrast, in France, the freeing of the peasants and their ability to retain the land was bound up with the development of a centralised monarchical state that came to take on a ‘class-like’ character as an independent extractor of surpluses through the taxing of land. The French absolutist state consequently had an interest in securing and protecting peasant landowning as a source of revenue against the re-encroachments of the lordly classes. The ability of the peasants to hold on to the land in turn prevented the systematic emergence of wage-labour in France, hampering the transition to capitalism.80

For Brenner, the differential outcomes of the class struggles in England and France are explained by the divergent evolution of the English and French states. Curiously, in explaining these divergent state trajectories Brenner explicitly evokes ‘international’ factors: the Normandy invasions for England, and the political-military pressures of the English state on the French. The ‘precocious English feudal centralization … owed its strength in large part to the level of feudal “political” organization already achieved by the Normans in Normandy before the Conquest, which was probably unparalleled elsewhere in Europe’.81 As Brenner notes:

the English feudal class self-government appears to have been ‘ahead’ of the French in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, not only because its starting point was different, but because it was built upon advances in this sphere already achieved on the Continent, especially in Normandy. In turn, when French centralization accelerated somewhat later it was influenced by English development, and was indeed, in part, a response to direct English politico-military pressure. Thus the development of the mechanisms of feudal accumulation tended to be not only `uneven’ but also ‘combined’, in the sense that later developers could build on previous advances made elsewhere in feudal class organizations.82

Although evoking the concept of ‘uneven and combined development’ here, Brenner’s analysis proceeds within the confines of a comparative historical analysis whereby ‘the international’ remains an ad-hoc addendum to an essentially ‘internalise analysis of the changing balance of class forces and state formation. Nowhere does ‘the international’ enter into Brenner’s theoretical presuppositions centred, as they are, around his concept of ‘social property relations’. Yet, as Neil Davidson argues, ‘[b]y focusing almost exclusively on what [Political Marxists] call social property relations, they “have no terms” to explain events that lie outside these relationships’.” This is particularly problematic for Brenner and his followers, who explicitly reject any conception of the origins of capitalism as immanently developing from the contradictions of feudal society.” Rather, feudalism is conceived as a ‘self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions’.”

Hence, in spite of an extensive and informative historical explanation, Brenner’s conception of the origins of capitalism based on shifting social property relations is conceptually too narrow and too simple; Brenner ultimately tries to explain too much with too little. In Brenner’s schema, Marx’s master concept, the ‘mode of production’ — conceived as the composite totality of relations encapsulating the economic, legal, ideological, cultural and political spheres — is reduced to the much thinner ‘social properly relations’ concept, which is itself reduced to a form of exploitation. Brenner’s error is to take the singular relation of exploitation between lord and peasant as the most fundamental and axiomatic component of the mode of production, which in turn constitutes the foundational ontology and analytical building block upon which ensuing theoretical and historical investigation is constructed. Yet, as Ricardo Duchesne argues, this stretches the concept of the ‘relations of production’ too far, as it seeks to incorporate under the logic of ‘class struggle’ all military, political and economic factors, while reducing military, political and legal relations — conceptualised as ‘political accumulation’ by Brenner — to functions of this singular relation.”

The result of this ontological singularity is a dual tunnelling — both temporal and spatial — of our empirical field of enquiry. Temporally, the history of capitalism’s origins is reduced to the historical manifestation of one conceptual moment — the freeing of labour — and in turn explained by it. Spatially, the genesis of capitalism is confined to a single geographical region — the English countryside — immune from wider intersocietal developments. Such tunnelling cannot explain why the extensive presence of formally free wage-labour prior to the 16th century (both inside and outside England) did not give rise to capitalism.” Nor can it explain subsequent social developments, by obliterating the histories of colonialism, slavery and imperialism, Brenner ‘freezes’ capitalism’s history.”

This substantially narrows Marx’s more robust conception of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ to which Brenner and his students give so much analytical weight In explaining capitalism’s origins. In a famous passage, Marx wrote:

the discovery of gold and silver in America, the expiration, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterized the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation …. The different moments of primitive simulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England, in more or less chronological order. These moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection.89

In Marx’s temporally and spatially more expansive view, capitalism’s genesis was not a national phenomenon, but rather an intersocietal one. It therefore makes sense to follow Perry Anderson in viewing the origins of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites’.90

In contrast, Brenner spatially reduces capitalism’s origins to processes that obtained solely in the English countryside; towns and cities are omitted, Europe-wide dynamics are analytically active only as comparative cases, and the world outside Europe does not figure at all. Similarly excluded are the numerous technological, cultural, institutional and social-relational discoveries and developments originating outside Europe that were appropriated by Europe in the course of its capitalist development.91 In short, Brenner neglects the determinations and conditions that arose from the social interactions between societies, since ‘political community’, in his conception, is subordinated to ‘class’, while classes themselves are conceptualised within the spatial limits of the political community in question.92 This leads to the various moments of Eurocentrism outlined in the Introduction. Temporal tunnelling gives rise to the notion of historical priority; spatial tunnelling gives rise to a methodologically internalist analysis. For Brenner’s followers these problems are only compounded, as the possibility of the development of early capitalisms outside of the English countryside that Brenner allows for is rejected.93 The notion of the origins of ‘capitalism in one country’94 is thus taken literally.

This Eurocentrism of Political Marxist analyses is further reinforced by their conception of pre-capitalist societies as generally incapable of significant technological innovations by either the direct producers or exploiters. For in the absence of the market compulsions that are unique to capitalist property relations, Political Marxists claim that there was no equivalent systemic ‘imperative’ to increase labour productivity and generalise technical improvements across different economic sectors.” Under feudalism, the consequence of this systemic inability was that ‘real [economic] growth’ could only be achieved `by opening up new land for cultivation’.96 Moreover, the ‘cross-cultural’ diffusions of technologies and organisational forms which could facilitate modal transformations in recipient societies is explicitly rejected by Brenner since, as he writes, ‘new forces of production were readily assimilable by already existing social classes’.97

In short, Political Marxists deny the development of the productive forces any causal role in explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism, since doing otherwise would inevitably run the risk of ‘technological determinism’, emptying human agency in the process.98 To counter this common charge of `techno-determinism’, it is important to note that the concept of ‘productive forces’ not only took on different meanings relating to different historical contexts in Marx’s writings (at one point it was identified with early social communities),99 but, moreover, should not be conflated with mere ‘technologies’. Rather, the forces of production refer to both the means of production — including ‘nature itself, the capacity to labour, the skills brought to the process, the tools used, and the techniques with which these tools are set to work’ — and the labour process — ‘the way in which the different means of production are combined in the act of production itself”.100

As this definition indicates, the forces of production (or ‘productive powers’) cannot be subsumed under any ‘techno-determinist’ interpretation. They are simultaneously material and social: for example, the ways in which tools are used involve both accumulated collective knowledge and a particular socio-historical context in which they operate. To say that there is a tendency for the forces of production to develop over time is simply to say that humans have been motivated to change them, and have done so in ways that have increased the social productivity of labour. Human agency is thus crucial to the process.101

What is more, the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as relatively stagnant social formations, incapable of either endogenous or exogenously driven technological advances, has been challenged by a wealth of more recent studies of economic growth in pre-capitalist epochs.102 Indeed, sustained technological and organisational innovations, and thus agrarian productivity, were important features of late Medieval and early modern ‘European’ societies (see Chapters 3 to 6). Denying productive forces any explanatory significance prior to capitalism also generates a pervasive Eurocentrism, since it situates their development exclusively in modern Europe, as the harbinger of capitalist property relations. This obscures from view the extensive development of productive forces in non-European contexts, such as with the early modern tributary empires of the Ottomans and Mughals (see Chapters 4 and 8) and the dynamic colonial plantation systems in the Americas over the 16th to 18th centuries. In so doing, it occludes from the outset the possibility that productive forces transmitted from these extra-European sources to Europe contributed to the formation of capitalism in Europe itself (see Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 8).

So the Political Marxist conception of pre-capitalist societies as essentially developmental dead-ends is an historical claim that is both Eurocentric and difficult to sustain empirically. This should force us to reconsider the significance of productive forces historically, and re-evaluate the possibility of reincorporating their study into our theoretical explanations of the transition to capitalism.

June 5, 2015

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor,Pekar,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
The Tide is Turning

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism


Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

read full article

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

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.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.

December 11, 2014

Slavery and Capitalism

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

A passage from this extraordinary book:

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote half a century ago and many scholars, such as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman, are today confirming, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” The expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West was still years away, but slavery as it then existed in the southern states was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves’ lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities, and botanical gardens.

The use of slave labor in the North was ending by the time Amasa was building his Perseverance, but throughout New England there were merchant families and port towns—Salem, Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, and New London among them—that thrived on the trade. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts a Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, which were boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Other New Englanders benefited indirectly, building the slave ships, weaving the “negro cloth” and cobbling the shoes to dress slaves, or catching and salting the fish used to feed them in the southern states and Caribbean islands. Haiti’s plantations purchased 63 percent of their dried fish and 80 percent of their pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seamen, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”


December 8, 2014

A response to an Ellen Meiksins Wood article in Jacobin

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

In a New Left Review interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, the 25-year-old founder of Jacobin magazine, we learn that the contributors are drawn partially from a pool of “grad students, young adjunct professors or tenured professors”. That being the case, I wonder what they make of a 4700 word article by Ellen Meiksins Wood that appears on the Jacobin website titled “Capitalism’s Gravediggers”. Despite its focus on ostensibly economic matters, it is distinguished by a breathtaking lack of economic data. I wonder if any of those “young adjunct professors” would have the brass to submit an article to a JSTOR type journal so bereft of evidence unless of course it was targeted to those categorized as philosophy.

I should add this is not the first time I have noticed such an absence from Wood. She seems to be allergic to statistics, an odd disorder for one specializing in political economy.

This article, which has appeared in various permutations over the years, tends to make assertions such as this:

A substantial class of English agricultural producers, mainly tenant farmers, had emerged on the ruins of the peasantry, which had seen its land expropriated. Separated from their means of subsistence, these agrarian capitalists were dependent on the market, and whatever their own consumption needs, were therefore required to meet those imperatives.

You would think that Wood might have taken the trouble to substantiate the claim that market relations were unique to the period in question since it is not only the basis for British exceptionalism but the “big bang” that got the capitalist system going. Without tenant farming based on short-term leases—literally—there would be no industrial revolution, no imperialism, and no commercials for auto insurance 5 times an hour on prime-time television.

By contrast, I just read a 65-page article by Eric Mielants titled “Perspectives on the Origins of Merchant Capitalism in Europe” that appeared in the Fall 2000 Review, a journal put out by the Fernand Braudel Center. Mielants, a critic of the Brenner thesis, writes:

After investigating data available in the Domesday book, the economic historian Snooks estimates that 40% of the economy in eleventh-century England was involved in market activities (the market being the sector where “all the major economic decisions in England were made”) and 60% in subsistence.

Mielants adds in a footnote: “Snooks estimates that 32.3 % of the English market sector in 1086 was rural and 7.8% was urban, hereby arriving at a total of 40.1% (1995: 40).” And that’s a good three centuries before Brenner’s big bang occurred. You would have had to assume that market relations only deepened over three centuries but prior to the introduction of tenant farming.

I should add that the References section (see below) of Mielants’s article is 19 pages long. Given what I have seen in the article, I am positive that he has immersed himself in this material over his relatively brief career. That is what I call scholarship as opposed to the sort of vaporous theorizing that Ellen Meiksins Woods is so good at.

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In the 33 articles I have written about the Brenner thesis (aka Political Marxism) over the years, I have tried to be scrupulous about providing evidence even though my articles were written for popular consumption on the Internet. For example, in an article titled “British Farming and Market Imperatives”, I wrote:

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

It might be useful to see how Karl Marx wrote about these issues in volume one of Capital. In chapter 29, titled “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”, he supports his arguments with three rather meaty footnotes and that was not even to cover his ass if he intended to submit it for peer review.

Marx’s main interest in fact is the impact it had on the creation of dispossessed farmers now available for wage labor. In the preceding chapter (“Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament”), he hones in on this:

A tariff of wages was fixed by law for town and country, for piece work and day work. The agricultural labourers were to hire themselves out by the year, the town ones “in open market.” It was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment, to pay higher wages than those fixed by the statute, but the taking of higher wages was more severely punished than the giving them. [So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices of Elizabeth, ten days’ imprisonment is decreed for him that pays the higher wages, but twenty-one days for him that receives them.]

Compare this description of the conditions facing the dispossessed with Woods’s assertion about the primacy of market relations: “Capitalism is a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life.” That is true to some extent. The lash of the market coerces modern workers to accept minimum wages and to work in unsafe conditions. If you are a high school dropout, that’s what the market dictates. But in the early stages of capitalism, it was not the market that ruled. It was “extra-economic” forces that set wages. Leaving aside the debate with the “Political Marxists” over the exact nature of chattel slavery, we should never forget that the 16th century worker was literally forced by the gun to accept a below-market wage.

In chapter 30, titled “Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital”, Marx acknowledges that the emergence of large-scale farming brought about improvements: “the soil brought forth as much or more produce, after as before, because the revolution in the conditions of landed property was accompanied by improved methods of culture, greater co-operation, concentration of the means of production.”

However, the real breakthrough was the creation of a class of wage workers who could now be made available for industry: “The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, must buy their value in the form of wages, from his new master, the industrial capitalist. That which holds good of the means of subsistence holds with the raw materials of industry dependent upon home agriculture. They were transformed into an element of constant capital.“

If according to Marx the creation of a proletariat was a critical element—a sine qua non in some ways—for the origins of capitalism, it is almost besides the point for Wood and Brenner. In a Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism”, she writes that the term “agrarian capitalism” has no role for the nascent industrial proletariat that Marx dwells upon. She says, “This requires some explanation.” I would say so.

She concurs with Marx that: “Without that dispossessed non-agrarian work force, there would have been no mass consumer market for the cheap everyday goods—such as food and textiles—that drove the process of industrialization in England.”

But what separates Marx from Wood and Brenner was his laser-like focus on the evolution of the modern industrial system out of the handicrafts and manufacturing that preceded it historically. Chapter 15 of Capital is titled “Machinery and Modern Industry”. It puts this process under a microscope. While Britain always had a textile sector, it was only through the simultaneous development of labor-saving devices, including the windmills and watermills that could drive machinery, that the industrial revolution became possible. Wageworkers driven from their land became part of the early manufacturing system that eventually turned into the modern factory system.

To make such a transformation complete, capital was needed. A primitive accumulation that swept the self-sustaining farmer off his land was accompanied by another form of primitive accumulation that yielded the financial wherewithal to create the factories where they toiled. As the ultimate rebuttal to Political Marxism, Marx made it clear where the capital came from in chapter 31, titled appropriately enough “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. None of it was based on market relations. It was based on the gun and the ball-and-chain, the ultimate forms of “extra-economic” coercion that made all the rest possible. This was the real big bang, not lease farming in the 15th century British countryside:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.


December 4, 2014

When slaves were paid wages

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

(This is an excerpt from Greg Grandin’s beautifully written and mind-blowing “The Empire of Necessity”, a book that digs into the history that Herman Melville fictionalized in “Benito Cereno”. I had a suspicion from what I had read that the book would address the slavery-as-capitalism debate that is part of the broader debate around the Brenner thesis. The excerpt focuses on the role of slavery in Latin America, where it became instrumental in the development of capitalism on the continent but even more interestingly a particular form of the “peculiar institution” where slaves were paid wages.)

Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution, though not exactly in the same way it was in plantation zones of the Caribbean, coastal Brazil, or, later, the U.S. South. As in those areas, Africans and African-descendant peoples might be used to produce commercial exports for Europe, mining gold, for instance, diving for pearls in the Caribbean and the Pacific, drying hides, or cutting cane.” But a large number, per-haps even most, of Africans arriving under the new “free trade in blacks” system were put to work creating goods traded among the colonies.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside of Bogota. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used to carry Chilean wheat to Lima markets. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brickmakers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants. Others, like Montevideo’s doleful itinerants, took to the streets, peddling goods they either made themselves or sold on commission.

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland, across the continent, the opening up of new slave roads and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fixed but fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin of a new commercialized one. Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money, at least in a way. It wasn’t so much that the value of indi-vidual slaves was standardized in relation to currency. Slaves were the standard: when appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, slaves usually accounted for over half its worth, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.

The world was changing fast, old lines of rank and status were blurring, and slaves, along with livestock and land, often appeared to be the last substantial things. Slaves didn’t just create wealth: as items of conspicuous consumption for a rising merchant class, they displayed wealth. And since some slaves in Spanish America, especially those in cities like Montevideo and Buenos Aires, were paid wages, they were also consumers, spending their money on items that arrived in ships with other slaves or maybe even, in a few instances, with themselves.12

Endnote 12. My understanding of the importance of slavery to South America’s market revolution is indebted to Adelman’s Sovereignty and Revolution. The deregulation the slave trade was a central component in Spain’s efforts to adapt the colonial system to the “pressures of ramped-up inter-imperial competition.” But, according to Adelman, unlike the large-scale, export-focused plantations found in the U.S. South and the Caribbean, slavery in South America linked together “ever more diverse and decentralized commercial hubs” throughout the whole of the continent. “It could be argued,” Adelman writes, “drawing on Ira Berlin, that South America’s expanding hinterlands were slave societies (not simply societies with slaves) where slaves were central to productive processes. Plantations existed, but they were embedded in more diversified social systems,” with smaller establishments and hybrid forms of wage and coerced labor. “Slavery helped support rapidly commercialized, relatively diffused and adaptive production in the South American hinterlands integrated by the flow of merchant capital. And as it did so, it helped colonies become increasingly autonomous economically and socially, from metropolitan Spanish and Portuguese command.” In other words, what became American freedom—independence from Spain—was made possible by American slavery (p. 59). Such an approach opens up new ways to compare U.S. and Spanish American slavery and allows for consideration of the economic importance of slavery without reproducing old debates about whether slavery was capitalist or compatible with capitalism. In the United States, historians have recently returned to an older scholarly tradition emphasizing the importance of slavery to the making of modern capitalism examining slavery not just as a system of labor or a generator of profit but as a driver of finance capital and real estate speculation, as well as looking at how plantations served as organizational models for “innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management,” as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman write, in “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” in Bloomberg, January 24, 2012 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-24/how-slavery-led-to-modern-capitalism-echoes.html). See also Beckert and Rockman’s forthcoming edited collection “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development,” to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press, as well as earlier work, including Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944, and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking, 1985; Sidney Mintz, “Slavery and Emergent Capitalism,” in Slavery in the New World, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. See also Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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”.

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