Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 1, 2007

Robert Brenner and primitive accumulation

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

(This is the first in a series of articles on the Brenner thesis, aka the Transition Debate)

A series of blog entries on Lenin’s Tomb defending the Brenner thesis has inspired and piqued me to return to the transition debate. Richard Seymour, aka Leninology, is a graduate student originally from Ireland and a member of the British SWP. In keeping with “Leninist norms,” the SWP does not have public debates about current campaigns or on the “Russian question”, but members do express a range of opinions about the “transition debate”. For instance, party leader Chris Harman has debated Robert Brenner, defending a position more or less midway between Brenner and Jim Blaut.

For people unfamiliar with this debate, a word or two might be useful. In the 1950s, there was a series of exchanges between Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb over the origins of capitalism prompted by Sweezy’s review of Dobb’s “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in Science and Society. Dobb was seen as explaining the rise of capitalism as a function of the introduction of market mechanisms in the British countryside, while Sweezy emphasized a rise in international trade in the late Middle Ages especially with Asian countries, largely on the basis of research by Henri Pirenne.

The debates simmered on through the 1960s but took on a new intensity after Robert Brenner published a couple of articles in the mid-70’s defending a more extreme version of Dobb’s approach. While Sweezy and Dobb maintained a rather collegial tone with each other (both were admirers of Stalin’s USSR), Brenner was far more polemical. In 1977, he wrote a NLR article titled “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that charged Sweezy with mixing Adam Smith and Karl Marx, a rather amazing achievement. The article summed up Brenner’s scholarly findings on the agrarian origins of capitalism as well as took issue with the “Third Worldism” of Monthly Review authors who had become identified with something called “dependency theory”. In a nutshell, dependency theory can be described in Andre Gunder Frank’s words as “the development of underdevelopment” under imperialism, an idea that always made sense to me in light of my travels in Nicaragua, Zambia and Tanzania more than 25 years ago. Brenner wrote:

Most directly, of course, the notion of the ‘development of underdevelopment’ opens the way to third-worldist ideology. From the conclusion that development occurred only in the absence of links with accumulating capitalism in the metropolis, it can be only a short step to the strategy of semi-autarkic socialist development. Then the utopia of socialism in one country replaces that of the bourgeois revolution—one moreover, which is buttressed by the assertion that the revolution against capitalism can come only from the periphery, since the proletariat of the core has been largely bought off as a consequence of the transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core.

In the next and concluding paragraph of this article, Brenner pins his hopes on “the current economic impasse of capitalism for working-class political action in the advanced industrial countries.” While I have neither the time nor the interest to pull together and analyze all the disparate elements of Brenner’s political thinking, this rather breathless over-projection of the tempo of the class struggle in 1977 suggests a certain affinity with another controversial article he wrote for the NLR 11 years later titled “The Economics of Global Turbulence” that basically predicted a Great Depression type meltdown in terms familiar to those who read the In Defense of Marxism website or the Militant newspaper.

As it turns out, the advanced capitalist countries have not collapsed and the “third world” struggles that Brenner dismissed continue to roil world politics. More recently, Brenner has pulled back a bit from the catastrophism of the 1998 article and has adopted a more cautious outlook, which amounted to calling for a Kerry vote in the last election.

One of the things that caught my eye when reading Richard’s blog was a comment about “primitive accumulation”. Citing Ellen Meiksins Wood, Richard writes:

For Marx’s truly Marxist take, we need to Grundrisse and Capital. In his account of “the so-called primitive accumulation” of capital, Marx moves from a conception of capital as wealth and trade to an understanding of capital as embodying a specific social relation.

Accumulation, whether from imperial theft or commerce, is not sufficient to create capitalism – it is not merely an augmentation of commerce.

A few paragraphs later, citing Robert Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution,” Richard asserts that the East India Company was not part of this “social relation” primitive accumulation but merely another instance of commerce augmenting commerce, so to speak:

If you happen to have this book, and have been desperately flipping through pages of detail about the development of commerce, the rise of the merchant opposition, the East India company, the colonies and so on in search of the heuristic, here’s a tip: it’s in the postscript. Brenner goes to great labours to show that the merchant class was not a revolutionary class devoted to the overthrow of feudalism.

I scratched my head when I read this and wondered why it didn’t sit right with me. I then googled “East India Company” and “Karl Marx” and came up with a link to chapter 31 in volume one of Capital (“The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”) that referred to the East India Company as an example of “primitive accumulation . . .without the advance of a shilling.” Reading further, I discovered that chapter 31 was riddled with reference to colonies and various forms of non-market activity as expressions of primitive accumulation:

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.

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.

In order to understand where Wood got her ideas on primitive accumulation, you can turn to Brenner’s 1977 NLR article, where there’s also an attempt to define primitive accumulation strictly in terms of the British peasants being separated from their means of production. It is based on what Marx wrote in chapter 26 (“The Secret of Primitive Accumulation”) of Capital:

As Marx puts it [in chapter 26], ‘There can therefore be nothing more ridiculous than to conceive this original formation of capital as if capital had stockpiled and created the objective conditions of production—necessaries, raw materials, instruments—and then offered them to the worker, who was bare of these possessions.’ (Marx’s emphasis). At the same time, ‘In themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means of production and subsistence are. They need to be transformed into capital . . . So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.’

Well, that’s true–as far as it goes. If Marx had never written chapter 31 with all those references to colonization, slavery and trading monopolies being necessary for the birth of industrial capitalism, then Brenner and Wood would have a more convincing case.

But it is not just chapter 31 of Capital. While the “nothing else” quote from chapter 26 offered up by Brenner like a lawyer summarizing his case is quite convincing, there are contradictory, even neo-Smithian presentations of the problem by Marx and Engels, to use Brenner’s terminology. Take for example the Communist Manifesto, which is about as central to the Marxist literature as you can get. The first section on “Bourgeois and Proletarians” deals with the origins of the bourgeoisie:

From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

This seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? The bourgeoisie came from the towns, not the countryside, and “trade with the colonies” (plunder, in actuality) gave an impulse to the “revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society“. If, according to Richard, “Brenner goes to great labours to show that the merchant class was not a revolutionary class devoted to the overthrow of feudalism,” why didn’t he take the additional step to explain why Marx came up with all these “neo-Smithian” formulations in volume one of Capital and the Communist Manifesto? It doesn’t really require “great labours” to do so, only access to a personal computer and a knowledge of how to use google. Now I understand that google didn’t exist in 1977, but surely somebody with Brenner’s reputation as a world-class Marxist scholar would have taken the trouble to check the index of volume one of Capital for all occurrences of “primitive accumulation,” not just ones cherry-picked to support his own thesis.

It is also worth considering whether or not the chapter 26 definition of primitive accumulation (internal; market-oriented; agrarian) makes sense in Marx’s own terms. Keep in mind that Marx was trying to refute Adam Smith, who believed that thrift could explain the original capital that was used to fund manufacturing and industry. If this is the case, what does the Enclosure Acts, etc. really have to do with making capital available? Creating market conditions in the British countryside does not necessarily lead to a pool of capital. It seems much more likely that piracy, slavery, and colonialism will do the trick.

In my own view, the fact that Marx contradicts himself in chapters 26 and 31 simply points to a weakness in his approach to the problem of how capitalism arose. While most of his efforts were focused on identifying its origins within Western European countries, and Great Britain in particular, there was never that much attention paid to Africa, Latin America or Asia. And when he did turn his attention to Asia, he was wrong as the “Asiatic Mode of Production” would indicate. Despite his references to the East India Company, slavery and silver mining, you cannot really find a fully developed analysis of the mode of production in the colonial world. And the one reference that does exist–chapter 33 of Capital, v. 1, titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”–is curiously silent on the topic of slavery and indigenous peoples. Over the summer as I blog on these topics, I will try to sketch out an approach that does justice to colonial capitalism.

I want to conclude with a discussion of what Maurice Dobb had to say about non-market forces in the early stages of capitalism. Despite Robert Brenner’s efforts to represent himself as carrying on the tradition of Maurice Dobb, there are ample signs that the British historian believed that “extra-economic” factors were critical to the development of capitalism in Great Britain. His arguments can be found in chapter 5 of “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” (aptly titled “Capital Accumulation and Mercantilism”) and can be summarized in his own words as follows:

In short, the Mercantile System was a system of State-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry: it was essentially the economic policy of primitive accumulation.

In trying to explain the origins of capitalism, Dobb takes exactly the opposite approach from Robert Brenner: “Least of all was it [capital accumulation] likely to happen under conditions approximating to free markets and perfect competition.” Indeed, in order for capitalism to take root in Great Britain, it was necessary to resort to the practices described in chapter 31 of Capital. Specifically, “there was a great deal of seizure of property and simple plunder” in order for the new bourgeoisie to assert itself. Not only was plunder necessary, an influx of precious metals in the sixteenth century created the price-inflation that could result into the transfer of land into bourgeois hands.

For Dobb, the Tudor age (1485-1603) was all about plowing colonial profits into new enterprises:

Moreover, there were indirect ways in which the prosperity of foreign trade in the Tudor Age aided industrial development in the ensuing century. Some of the fortunes made by foreign adventurers no doubt eventually found their way into industrial enterprise; while, as we shall presently see, the expansion of overseas markets, especially colonial markets, in the seventeenth century, to some extent acted as a lever to the profitability of manufacture at home.

Finally, in sharp opposition to Robert Brenner, Maurice Dobb believed that in the early days of capitalism, the British bourgeoisie sought to curtail competition. Until the labor-saving devices of the industrial revolution became available to them, they would find ways to avoid direct competition with other emerging capitalist powers. This is why trading monopolies like the East India Company were crucial for the subsequent development of free trade policies. Dobb writes, “But until the vast potentialities of the new mechanical age, and of the new division of labour introduced by machinery, had become apparent, it was understandable that even the most enterprising of the bourgeoisie should look to trade regulation and political privilege for the assurance that his enterprise would prove profitable.”

In this period, when Great Britain sought to sell its products overseas, it took full advantage of what Brenner calls “extra-economic” forces. In other words, it sought to avoid competition through political pressure just as any aspiring capitalist power does in the early stages of its development. Dobb writes:

This political pressure often sufficed, indeed, to make colonial trade forced trading and the profit from it indistinguishable from plunder. Tudor voyages of discovery (in Sombart’s words) “were often nothing more than well-organized raiding expeditions to plunder lands beyond the seas.”

In other words, Dobb agreed with Karl Marx that:

The system of protection was an artificial means of manufacturing manufacturers, of expropriating independent labourers, of capitalising the national means of production and subsistence, of forcibly abbreviating the transition from the medieval to the modern mode of production. The European states tore one another to pieces about the patent of this invention, and, once entered into the service of the surplus-value makers, did not merely lay under contribution in the pursuit of this purpose their own people, indirectly through protective duties, directly through export premiums.

As Michael Lebowitz put it in a comment on PEN-L, ” As for Brenner/Wood, they are certainly welcome to use any definition they want of capitalism— trying to pass it off as Marx’s understanding of capitalism and its tendencies is another matter, though.”

In my next post, I will explain why Robert Brenner gets it wrong in trying to apply the template of the free-market industrial revolution period to a much earlier age.

18 Comments »

  1. As I see it, agricultural improvements (enclosures, farming machinery), and colonial activities, were both necessary developments enabling the introduction of capitalist production; the first produces the labour required to interact with the capital provided by the second. Additionally, the freed up labour provides the necessary markets for industrial production.

    Colonialism can be seen to have created surplus value from unorganised labour – manufactured trade goods – value that couldn’t be created by the individuals producing the goods. Further, colonialism ‘plundered’ raw materials that went to feed industrial production in the home market. Both – the creation of surplus value through trade and the plundering of raw materials – contributed towards the accumulation required to establish industrial production in the home market.

    Simple, but a contribution.

    SImon Ward

    Comment by Simon Ward — June 1, 2007 @ 7:06 pm

  2. Some years ago, I outlined Alan Carling’s attempt to reconcile the opposing positions of Brenner and Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism through the use of a selectionist interpretation of historical materialism. See:

    http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/1999w41/msg00017.htm

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — June 4, 2007 @ 2:09 am

  3. When did Brenner call for a Kerry vote? Last I checked, he’s a member of Solidarity.

    Comment by Poulod — June 4, 2007 @ 11:01 pm

  4. Elections & the Democrats
    — Joel Jordan & Robert Brenner

    Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”

    http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/379

    Comment by louisproyect — June 4, 2007 @ 11:17 pm

  5. Wow–not his finest moment. Was that Solidarity’s official position?

    Comment by Poulod — June 5, 2007 @ 12:24 am

  6. Poulod, what does it matter if that’s Solidarity’s official position if they aren’t a disciplined (gasp: Leninist) organization that has a “party line”? This is the problem with having catch-all-everyone-who-is-for-socialism-in-one-big-group, it doesn’t matter if or what “the line” on something is.

    Keep up on this topic Mr. Proyect, interesting stuff.

    Comment by Binh — June 5, 2007 @ 4:17 pm

  7. I guess Bob Brenner’s 1998 predictions are looking pretty darn prescient, right about now, don’t you think?

    Comment by Stav — January 15, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  8. Plunder, slavery, super-exploitation, hoarding of basically stolen or forcibly-extracted booty and tribute pre-date and post-date capitalism.

    In addition, all the structural elements of the capitalist mode of production, strictu sensu, have been present at the same time and place before and after the advent of capitalism, without capitalism ‘materializing’ and reproducing itself.

    The views that Bob Brenner called inelegantly “Smithian” are akin to arguing that the crucial antecedent causal factors for the development of the internal combustion engine were the discovery and economical extraction and distillation of petroleum OR the development of the physics, chemistry and engineering, and materials to build internal combustion engines. It is obvious that none of the above were necessary and sufficient conditions.

    The separation of the means of subsistence AND production from non-market, generally ascriptive ties to individual or collective agents and their transformation into commodities, and the separation of direct producers from direct and/or non-market-mediated access to means of subsistence AND means of production (directly of their means of subsistence or of that which procures for them the means of subsistence, through exchange, tribute, etc) are necessary but insufficient conditions for the development/establishment and reproduction of capitalist social property relations, relations of production, and relations in production.

    If anyone is interested in a thorough, quite exegetical, presentation of Brenner’s ‘critique’ of ‘early’ or ‘Smithian’ Marx (and subsequent Marxist or marxisant authors on theoretical/conceptual grounds), critique thereof and analysis of the relevant Marxian texts, please let me know and I will provide it to you via e-mail.

    Comment by Stav — January 15, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  9. Plunder, slavery, super-exploitation, hoarding of basically stolen or forcibly-extracted booty and tribute pre-date and post-date capitalism.

    That’s true but there is a difference between what existed during the Roman Empire and on Jamaican plantations or Bolivian silver mines. In the first instance, you are dealing with what Kautsky called “the natural economy” which revolves around the production of use values and in the second, you are dealing with commodity production characteristic of what Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation”. Brenner limits primitive accumulation strictly to the British countryside while Marx himself includes Jamaican plantations, Bolivian silver mines et al as part of this process. The bottom line is that Brenner’s argument is not with Wallerstein, but with Marx.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 15, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  10. I am not sure you’re as “on safe ground” in re what Marx called “primary” or “prior” accumulation as you claim you are. You’re preaching to the choir wrt to Bob’s forcing the Marxian texts to ‘yield’ to his scheme of a Smithian, techno-functionalist and economic determinist early Marx and a ‘mature’, social-property relations and class-struggle determinist Marx. OTOH, Brenner’s argument against Wallerstein and Sweezy (and Frank) is sound, both substantively and ‘Marxologically’, in that they pick and choose the more ‘Smithian’ and ‘property-rights school of economics’ elements from Marx and ignore the rest. Wallerstein is not even properly Polanyian, in that he doesn’t appear to get the distinction between markets, price-making markets, and an economy integrated by a system of price-making markets.

    One can produce and accumulate commodities and money-capital without the use of commodities. But, accumulated tools, instruments, (or titles thereto) and money capital do not become capital ‘proper’ until they enter the full circuit of capital. Producing grain based on forced labor and selling it to a capitalist market doesn’t render the former ‘capitalist production of grain with the use of forced labor’.

    And so on.

    Comment by Stav — January 16, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  11. Stav, you write: “Producing grain based on forced labor and selling it to a capitalist market doesn’t render the former ‘capitalist production of grain with the use of forced labor’.” But that’s exactly how German and Japanese capitalism arose. You should read Lenin’s book on the development of capitalism in the Russian countryside where he stresses how capitalism can arise in 2 manners, either through a revolution that wipes out feudal remnants or one “from above” that retains aspects of feudalism in order to create a bed for capitalist growth. He contrasted the American system with the German Junkers system and preferred that Russia follow the American path, but understood that Germany had arrived at capitalism without a clean break from the past. I discuss this here:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/brenner_thesis.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2009 @ 1:18 am

  12. This is 4 years later but: I read the piece you linked to above. I failed to detect how it undermined Bob’s thesis or mine. That commodities to be sold in a capitalist commodity market can be, have been, and will continue to be capable of being produced with non-capitalistically produced inputs and with non-capitalist labor and profitably at that is both true in itself and in no way indicative that such production and sale are ‘capitalist’. Furthermore, it does not establish that, somehow, such production is a necessary condition for capitalist production proper elsewhere (literally and figuratively) nor that it amounts to primary accumulation. It is, after all, entirely possible that Marx (yes, Marx) was incorrect when he included such production FOR the capitalist market as examples of primitive or original accumulation. Such pre-capitalist or non-capitalist production for the capitalist market need not, by itself, produce or result in the separation of the means of subsistence and production from the direct producers and their transformation into ‘commodities’, along with the labor power of the direct producers. The latter is what primitive or primary (capitalist) accumulation is for Marx. If the owners/controllers of the inputs to a productive (of commodities) enterprise are not market-dependent for their socio-economic reproduction, if they do not need to sell (the use of) what they own/control to the owner of the above enterprise (not any individual one, obviously) but the latter get to productively consume them through other. non-market mediated means, it is immaterial whether the former is dependent on profitable sale of the commodities they produce in a capitalist market, to other capitalists or to workers, governments, etc: they are not capitalist producers of commodities using pre-capitalist methods of procuring means and conditions of production and labor-power.

    Is it sometimes ‘cheaper’ to procure the inputs to production of commodities for sale in a capitalist market through non-capitalist/pre-capitalist methods? Can a competitive advantage thereby be gained over other capitalists who have to procure the same through capitalist methods? Yes, and yes. Still, the owners/controllers of the material inputs to production and the direct producers are thereby kept OUTSIDE the circuit of capital. THEIR socio-economic reproduction, as well as the material reproduction of what they own/controll and end up contributing to the production of commodities for sale at a profit, remain ‘foreign bodies’ (and foreign processes) vis-a-vis capitalism. In the long run, capitalism cannot long survive if it consumes (productively or otherwise) inputs which are not capitalistically PRODUCED/reproduced. It “over-fishes” those inputs (and ultimately itself) to extinction in that scenario.

    Comment by Stav — July 23, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

  13. It is, after all, entirely possible that Marx (yes, Marx) was incorrect when he included such production FOR the capitalist market as examples of primitive or original accumulation.

    Maybe so, but the problem with the Brennerites is that they act as if Marx never included the East India Company, slavery, etc. as part of primitive accumulation. That is the big frustration with Brenner, Wood, and the rest. They bracket out, for example, how sugar plantations operated in Jamaica or cotton plantations in the slave states. Fundamentally, our differences are over how to define capitalism. You define it as a mode of production circumscribed by a nation-state and probably drilled down to the level of an individual factory or farm. I regard it as a world system that includes both free and coerced labor. When Blacks were forced to tap rubber in the Congo, the raw material ended up in automobile tires in Belgian factories. All of the proletarians in this chain of production were subject to the iron laws of capitalism. If there was no forced labor in the Congo, there would have been no free labor in Belgium.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  14. “All of the proletarians in this chain of production were subject to the iron laws of capitalism. If there was no forced labor in the Congo, there would have been no free labor in Belgium.”

    No, they were not. The reproduction of their labor-power was not “subject to the iron laws of capitalism”. They were not paid a wage for parting with the use of their commodity in order to non-capitalistically reproduce their labor-power anew to once again ‘sell’ the use of to capitalist producers to productively consume.

    A simple way to refute the assertion that forced coerced labor in A was/is a precondition for (not unconnected, this cannot be a philosophical connection) free labor in B is the provision of even one example (there are many more than one) of free labor in B that was not, in any way, shape or form, premised on unfree labor in ANY A.

    Coerced labor is not labor performed by proletarians (“all the proletarians in this chain of production” is verbal prestidigitation; any direct producer involved in the production of any of the inputs to a properly capitalist production process does not that thereby magically turn into a proletarian, as per the definition of the proletariat by Marx, and Marx and Engels.). You may offer and operate with a definition of proletarian that differs from that of Marx and Engels. But you cannot then continue to assert that yours is in any way a Marxian analysis.

    Comment by Stav — July 23, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

  15. They were not paid a wage for parting with the use of their commodity in order to non-capitalistically reproduce their labor-power anew to once again ‘sell’ the use of to capitalist producers to productively consume.

    Nor were the Jews who provided slave labor in Nazi Germany. I suppose that Auschwitz was some kind of feudal estate. I find all this rather amusing in light of the troubles I had with Random House, the publishing company that aborted the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar. It is now a subsidiary of the Bertlesmann Group, a German publisher that used slave labor during WWII–in what capacity I do not know. Was the branch of Bertlesmann that used Jewish slave labor non-capitalist and the branch that used German wage labor capitalist? By the same token, did the coercion of Black labor in apartheid South Africa under the pass law system constitute some kind of feudalism? None of this makes sense to me although I suppose it goes with the Brennerite territory.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

  16. Some sort of something-other-than-capitalism. The branch that used slave labor was not producing anything in a capitalist fashion. It’s not a particularly difficult concept. If you don’t have to BUY one or more of the inputs to your production of commodities, and the owners/controllers of those inputs do not have to reproduce that commodity in order to sell its use again by purchasing and consuming commodities, THAT part of your production is not capitalist.

    That a whole lot of such production and accumulation of money capital took place in such a fashion by folks and entities who were ALSO engaged in capitalist production proper does not mean that 1. the former was a necessary condition for the latter, 2. that the latter caused the former to take place or 3. that the former was capitalist.

    If capitalism meant ‘selling stuff you have somehow produced — no matter how — with an eye to making a profit’ for Marx, he would have said so.

    Every non-capitalist form or component of production of commodities does not equate to ‘some form of feudalism”. I suppose the distinction between feudalism and all other non-capitalist methods of production is also immaterial to you.

    Comment by Stav — July 23, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

  17. It’s not a particularly difficult concept.

    The operative word is absurd. You are essentializing a particular phase of capitalism associated with Britain and the industrial revolution. Marx warned the populists in Russia not to view Capital as some kind of blueprint for social development in which capitalism had to precede socialism. I only wish he were alive today to explain to the Brennerites why he was right about the Southern slave system being part of world capitalism, or why mercantile capitalism laid the framework for the capitalism that followed. I figure that if you read what he has written and decided he was wrong, why would you be persuaded by a blogger like me who has never won a blue ribbon like Vivek Chibber, Charles Post, Ellen Meiksins Wood or Robert Brenner. This is all I am saying on the topic. You can have the last word but I will not be replying.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

  18. I have read Brenner and Wallerstein. I think that both said important things about capitalism. While Brenner was right in asserting that one of the “conditions” for capitalism was the separation of the direct producers from the direct access (extra-market) to the means of production/subsistence, I think that this conditions is not sufficient to explayn the appearance of capitalism. In the first place, what is prior to that structural condition for the appearance of capitalism? I think that when Brenner says that capitalism was the outcome of the UNINTENDED consequences of the feudal lords in defending “feudal social property relations” it implicitly means that he has no theory for, it cannot be explained only by resorting to Marx’s condition, the appearance of capitalism (or a theory of social change at grand scale) and that it can only be settled with historical research. I think that it is a tautology to say that capitalism arose from the structural condition already mentioned. I think that Wallerstein is far more “dialectical” than Brenner, and if you read volume I of “The modern world-system” he incorporates into the picture almost the same elements that Marx said about “primitive accumulation” in volume I of “Capital”: national debts, colonization of the Americas, the “price revolution” promoted with the plunder of the american gold, the mercantilist system, etc.

    By the way, Brenner accused (in his 1977 article) Wallerstein of being ahistorical and for his “homo economicus” account for the rise of capitalism, but when you read Brenner’s “The social basis of economic development” (in the book “Analytical marxism”) he adopts a kind of argument that resembles a “homo economicus” when he says that it was not in the interest of the feudal lord to separate the peasants from the means of production/subsistence because he was first to reproduce himself individually and as a member of a class:

    “Indeed, because there was no class of economic actors devoid of the means of reproduction (subsistence) to take up the lords’ land as exploited tenants or to work the lords’ land as exploited wage workers, the individual lords did not, as a rule, find it in their self-interest to expropriate their own peasants” (1986: 27).

    I don’t have a problem with that kind of assertions, but I think that Brenner’s account on capitalism is, at some times, a tautology because it does not explain what did lead first to the expropriation of the direct producers.

    On the other hand, perhaps Brenner is textually more attached to Marx than Wallerstein, I think that world-systems analysis pays far more attention than Brenner to the consequences in the “longue durée” of the law of accumulation and the increasing appearance of the “laboral/industrial reserve army” because of the “eficience of production” (the increment or productivity of labor expelling labor force from the labor-process). And Wallerstein makes the case in his short text “Cities in socialist theory and capitalist praxis” (1984). He first exposes the typical marxist explanation for the appearance of capitalism

    “The argument seems to be threefold: 1) To have a surplus that may be appropriated by bourgeois owners, there must be workers to be exploited; but workers would only permit themselves to be so exploited if they were compelled by lack of alternative means to provide for their livelihood (that is, if they did not own the means of production for their subsistence). 2) To have a significant total surplus, and through it an ‘industrial revolution’, there must be very large numbers of workers available who are propertyless and thereby dependent upon wage employment. 3) To prevent these propertyless workes from bidding up wages, there must be a greater supply of them than there is demand. That is, there must be an ‘industrial reserve army’ which os created by expropriation and whose existence is thereafter assured by the increasing organic composition of capital” (p. 66-67).

    And then Wallerstein says:

    “The empirical validity of each of these propositions may be challenged. 1) There have always been and continue to be ways of compelling the production of a surplus other than depriving the worker of the ownership of the means of production. 2) It is not clear empirically that the expansion of industrial enterprise -in particular countries or in the world as a whole- has been regularly preceded or even accompanied by the creation of masses of propertyless workers. 3) Members of the industrial reserve army must eat enough to survive, or they are of little use as a weapon of capitalists against wage workers. By what means have they been getting the income that has permitted them to survive? (Marx himself recognizes three varieties of reserve army, two of which are defined as only part-lifetime wage workers). And if they are surviving because of income from sources other than wage income, to what extent is this proposition compatible with proposition 1, that workers would only permit themselves to be exploited if they did not own the means of production?” (p. 67).

    It also has to do with the category of “productive labor”. Only wage-workers perform actually “productive labor” in opposition to other forms of labor? Perhaps “productive” means something else (under capitalism) and not the production of commodities or the appropiation of surplus value (in slavery, feudalism and serfdom, the ruling class also appropiated the surplus value produced by the direct producers, so capitalism in the end is not so different):

    “Is wage labour in fact the cheapest form of labour power in terms of real outlays by the individual enterpreneur for the social labour delivered? To put this in marxist terminology, is the relative surplus value produced by the wage labourer greater than that produced by direct producers operating under other relations of production and garnered directly or indirectly enterpreneurs? (This of course assumes dropping a definition of surplus value as accruing only in situations of the wage labour/capital social relation. To insist on this as part of the definition is more theological than logical)” (p. 68).

    Wallerstein may does not have all the answers to the inconsistencies within the marxist propositions, but I think that his insights about capitalism as a world-system are very fruitful.

    I hope you could understand what I tried to say (english is not my mother language).

    Comment by utopisticapol — May 4, 2014 @ 1:29 pm


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