Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 9, 2011

Was the plantation slave a proletarian?

Filed under: economics,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 2:08 pm

Generally I don’t find Facebook useful for much else besides clever repartee and birthday greetings but on Richard Seymour’s FB page there was a very useful discussion about whether the plantation slave was a proletarian that benefited from the participation of Charles Post whose PhD thesis that applied the Brenner thesis to the American civil war has been turned into a book. I tried to debate Post on his analysis some years ago to no avail. He did not even respond to my emails. This time around he did manage to refer to me once, calling my attention to the fact that Ashley Smith was a man, not a woman. That’s better than nothing, I suppose. I  particularly recommend the last entry in this log by Richard Drayton. Drayton is a brilliant historian who wrote “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World”, a book about how the British navy of the 18th century combined scientific exploration with colonialism.

A slightly edited transcription of the discussion follows:

Richard Seymour
So, question: was the plantation slave a proletarian? (Charles Charlie Post says no, as does Eugene Genovese and John Ashworth), but I believe this chap says yes. (The chap is Sidney Mintz, whose article can be read here: http://marxmail.org/slave_proletarian.pdf)

Sebastian Wright
Surely they are the ultimate proletarians? How could one be more proletarian than a slave labourer?!

Matthijs Krul
Marx certainly didn’t think so.

Richard Seymour
It’s a question of whether slave labour is a capitalist or precapitalist form. If you read Charles Post’s latest book, building on insights first developed in the New Left Review, you’ll see he takes the argument, siding with Eugene Genovese, that antebellum slavery was a non-capitalist form of production with very low productivity, which could only expand by territorial augmentations – thus driving some of the competition with mercantile capital and petty commodity production in the North, and the colonisation of Indian Country. Personally, I have some reservations about this line of argument, but it’s worth thinking about in light of the articulation of modes of production and its relation to concrete social formations.

Matthijs Krul
But surely capitalism subsumes all sorts of non-proletarian labor under it anyway? From peasant quasi-subsistence labor to slavery to non value-producing work, there’s always a considerable amount of non-proletarian labor that nonetheless is pushed along a capitalist logic.

Sebastian Wright
Ah ok, well in Marxist terms its different, but in the generic sense of the word they certainly are.

Michael McCarthy
We had a long discussion of this at NYU recently with Charlie Post. If you are interested it was recorded and is available here: Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652)

Paul Levi Bryant
It’s difficult to see how slaves can be proletarians given that they don’t sell their labor for a wage. “Proletarian” doesn’t mean “manual labor” but someone who sells their labor as a commodity. Perhaps slavery would be a form of “primitive accumulation”?

Richard Seymour
Well, their labour power was certainly bought and sold as a commodity, even if not by the actual slaves themselves…

Michael McCarthy
But what distinguished the capitalist mode of production from earlier forms is most centrally the separation of the economic from the political. Labor has to be “free” for the theory of relative surplus value to make any sense at all. And that, capitalist competition, is the heart of capitalism, no?

Richard Brenner
Ok so they have some characteristics of the proletariat but not others. I think Marx says somewhere that the value of the slave’s labour-power is not zero, ie the capitalist pays the cost of the reproduction of slaves’ ability to work; but the distinction between the modern proletarian and the slave or indeed the bonded labourer is their freedom to contract with the employer (a strictly formal freedom if course) but one which means the worker presents as a commodity (labour power) owner in the wage labour-capital relation. This contradictory freedom makes the modern class struggle both difficult and uniquely promising, because it conceals the reality of exploitation beneath the wage form, while at the same time creating a universal class bearing no new future form of class division in its basic makeup.

Jim Farmelant
I think that the plantation system combined both pre-capitalist and capitalist aspects in a contradictory manner. Slavery was essentially a pre-capitalist mode of production, but plantations functioned within a global economy that was predominantly capitalist. Planters therefore had function on a profit-or-loss basis. I think that Genovese was correct in arguing slavery as a mode of production imposed intrinsic limits as to how far planters could improve labor productivity, whcih forced planters to turn towards territorial expansion in order to keep the system going.

So in that sense, slaves were not proletarians. On the other hand, many planters did pay some of their slaves wages in order to get extra work out of them. These slaves still had to perform all their normal duties, for which they were not compensated in the form of wages, but some planters would, nevertheless, pay some of their slaves wages in turn for their performing extra assignments that went beyond their normal duties as slaves. So, at this point one can see how slave labor being eventually superseded by wage labor. To this extent, some slaves were ALSO proletarians too.

Matthijs Krul
Yeah I think what Jim Farmelant said is basically right. Although I don’t think slave labor need ‘necessarily’ disappear from actual capitalism. Proletarian labor is at the heart of capitalist reproduction and in its pure form only proletarian labor would exist, but of course there is not and never will be a pure capitalism of that kind. In reality, all sorts of pre-capitalist formations persist subsumed under capitalism, and often this subsumption makes it stronger than it would be if there were only wage labor. E.g., the quasi-subsistence peasants in India are probably in the colloquial sense more exploited than the fully proletarian wage labor in that country.

Michael Rosen
Thus the distinction between ‘wage-slave’ and ‘slave’ – a distinction he must have made in German – a German speaker here will tell us what it is, in order to make clear that the working class were being exploited in a way which involved the exchange of their labour-power at a negotiated price below the value of what they produced. The trickier question is re ‘indentured labour’ which was, as it sounds, a kind of hybrid between slavery and wage-slavery.

Michael Rosen
re paying for the cost of the reproduction of the slaves’ labour-power…hmmm, yes, they provided the most rudimentary of housing, the house-slaves got some food, but the field slaves where the major part of the exploitation went on – often had the ‘right’ (!) to grow their own food. (Thus the ‘retention’ of African foods in the Americas.) In other words, the outlay in terms of reproduction of that labour-power was minimal.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
It’s pretty dodgy to define slaves in exact same terms as wage labourers. But it’s worth noting that capitalism, in periods of very rapid expansion has made use of slave labour more than once- especially if you include indentured servitude- I’m thinking not only of the American westwward expansion, but also of Stalinist Russias militarisation of labour, Jewish and political slaves in Nazi Germany…I know there’s another one but I can’t quite remmember what it is.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Oh yeah, everyday commen or garden PRISON LABOUR. Are prison labourers “proletarian”? There are a lot of them in America.

Richard Brenner
You may be thinking of the Khmer Rouge (if you’re a state capitalist)

Michael Rosen
See also the Nazis’ use of both ‘slave’ labour and what was in fact ‘pressed’ labour. Millions of workers were employed forcibly by the Nazi state and German industry. Some of this was effectively slave labour eg (the work details from the concentration camps – though many of these didn’t actually produce much of value) others were forced labour, minimally paid and fed. Some of this was crucial for the system eg the arms manufacture.

Michael Rosen
And talking of ‘pressed’ labour, of course the idea of the ‘press’ was behind the employment of seamen in Britain for several hundred years. Again, for minimal pay and food.

Louis N. Proyect
I dealt with Post’s thesis here:


Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 1 (Engerman-Fogel and Genovese)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 2 (Class and racial oppression prior to Reconstruction)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 3 (Reconstruction)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 4 (Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists)

Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 5 (Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican)

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Maybe the problem is the way the question is posed- that is to say “can slaves be proletarians”. I mean, we don’t expect capitalism to be everywhere a pure model of the “two great classes”, so maybe its various incidences don’t need to be that simple either- perhaps there are degrees of proletarianisation. So the real question is to what extent does coercion exist in “free” loabour.

Michael Rosen
Indeed, RJDM – Marx was writing in the tradition of the natural scientists (Boyle et al) who dealt in ‘ideal’ laws eg Boyle’s law which never prevails but all cases tend towards it, and it’s law which is ruling the main process of the relations between volume, pressure and heat. The capitalism that Marx is describing in the first instance is the ‘ideal’ model and what actually takes place are many variations on that theme, with exploitations at different moments going on in different ways and within different structures. After all, it was the ‘state capitalist’ theory which posited the notion that the Soviet ruling class extracted surplus labour from the Soviet working class and used it and controlled it as a class. But the conditions of labour were very different from eg a Detroit car worker.

Louis N. Proyect
I have written more than a hundred thousand words on the “origin” debate including a number of articles prompted by Richard’s defense of the Brenner thesis on his blog. All of it is contained under the URL I posted above. Put briefly, the confusion stems primarily from differing interpretations of the term ‘capitalism’. As a mode of production, it undoubtedly entails free labor. As a system, it combines free and unfree labor. I obviously lean toward the latter definition.

Jamie Allinson
Enforced labour definitely exists under capitalism and large-scale plantation slavery (as opposed to personal slavery) isn’t actually that common in history so it’s difficult to see slavery as a mode of production in the sense of a historical epoch – there is a section in the collection ‘Precapitalist formations’ where Marx describes slavery as an auxiliary form. I haven’t read Charlie Post’s book but I think plantation can be described as ‘pre’ or at least ‘non’ capitalist for the reasons others have given above. The particular position of the slave – who is herself a commodity – means a different kind of class struggle for the mode. As CLR James shows in ‘The Black Jacobins’, masters employ savage violence against slaves’ bodies in a way that would not do to ordinary means of production nor be able to do to free labourers who could leave easily. This is because the slave is a conscious means of production, whose consciousness must be continually terrorised to maintain this status. For the slave on the other hand, resistance usually took the form of flight or rebellion that would permit large-scale flight (I know that the role of slaves in the US civil war is different here, which is why it’s interesting as a kind of permanent revolution)

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Yeah, I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. Marx calls it the “capitalist system” because the capitalist mode of production is dominant within the system, and because capitalist productive relations determine the shape of other modes of production to which they are connected- not because the system is uniform in it’s modes of production.

Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Sorry, that last post was aimed at Louis.

Jamie Allinson
The most interesting thing is the combination/ articulation of modes of production, though. The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians. But uneven and combined development suggests that we can see this link to the world market as actually strengthening pre-capitalist forms, and that the resultant political tensions bring about revolutionary situations – I wonder if this is a way to read the US civil war?

Louis N. Proyect
Speaking of sugar plantations, the topic of Sidney Mintz’s article I made available (as well as his book “Sweetness and Power”), I recommend a new book titled “The Sugar Barons” that appears very much in the Mintz, Eric Williams, CLR James tradition:


Charlie Pottins
tricky. Insofar as the plantation produced for the capitalist market, the slave and the Lancashire mill worker were part of the same workforce. But because the slave was actually owned by the master they were also a form of capital and subject to depreciation. And as property slaves could not choose their place of exploitation or even keep their family together. But taking the minimum definition of proletarian as that class which owns no share of the means of production; in the slave’s case does not even control the means of reproduction. the slave was surely a proletarian , what else? cf also the slaves in the Nazi camps who unlike those in ancient times perhaps could be scrapped and replaced when they were not productive enough.

Louis N. Proyect
It is not just slavery that exists outside of the parameters of the Brenner-Wood thesis. It is all forced labor. So, based on that definition, there was no capitalism in apartheid South Africa outside of the mostly white skilled sector. This makes no sense–at least to me.

Louis N. Proyect
I should add that Laclau’s articles on Latin America adhere to this strict definition of capitalism as a mode of production and lead to all sorts of questionable applications. For example, most of these countries relied on debt peonage in the 19th century (just read Traven’s jungle novels for a literary treatment). That was the form that capitalism assumed in places like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico and so on.

Charlie Post
On the substantive issue. I argue that the “second slavery”– 19th century slavery in the US South, Cuba and Brazil– were non-capitalist forms subordinated to industrial capitalism on a world-scale (the 17th and 18th century slave plantations were, with the exception of the English colonies, subordinate to pre-capitalist/Absolutist social formations like France). While the slave-owning planters were compelled to “sell to survive,” they responded to the demands of the capitalist world market in distinctly non-capitalist ways. While there was accumulation of land and slaves, there was no specialization of output or labor-saving technical innovation.

This was the result of the non-capitalist social property relations of slavery. What made the master-slave relation non-capitalist was NOT the juridical unfreedom of the slave (I have a lengthy review of Jairus Banaji’s THEORY AS HISTORY that I have submitted to HISTORICAL MATERIALISM and will e-mail to anyone who contacts me on FB mail with their e-mail address that deals with the distinction between slavery and legally coerced forms of wage-labor). Instead, it is the fact that under slavery, masters’ do not purchase LABOR-POWER for a set period of time, but buy the LABORER as a “means of production in human form” (DuBois).This has two important results. First, the slave laborer must be maintained whether or not their labor in order to preserve their value as fixed capital (thus the need for physical coercion in the organization of the labor-process). Combined with the disjuncture between production and labor time in agriculture (the existence of a “slave season”), this leads planters to seek to keep their slaves busy “year round”– including producing their own subsistence, undermining productive specialization. Second, labor cannot be easily expelled from production in order to introduce labor-saving tools/machinery. Thus the most rational way for planters to increase output/cut costs was geographic expansion–moving slaves to new/more fertile lands. In the specific conjuncture of the US after c. 1840– after the completion of the subordination of rural households/family farmers to market coercion– creates a situation in which the expanded reproduction of capitalism and slavery become incompatible. It is this incompatibility that underlies the class struggles that culminate in the US Civil War.

Sorry for the multiple entries and going on for so long. But again, thanks for the discussion of my work. If you want to be updated on reviews, book launches, etc., please “like” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652?ref=ts. Again, many thanks!

Gary McNally
@Jamie Allinson “The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians.”That seems a bit of a jump. Capitalism to this day contains many vestiges from previous modes of production. The monarchy in the UK being one example. They are clearly a product of fuedal superstructure that have survived to live side by side with capitalist relations of production.

Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.

James Fiorentino

Gary McNally
Slaves aren’t proletarian in any Marxist sense I know of. Hence, as Michael Rosen pointed out, Marx makes use of the term wage-slave to describe proletarians. Labour Power is the commodity sold by the proletariat to the capitalist. Whereas a Slave is a commodity that is sold to a capitalist.

I think Gramsci’s term Subaltern is better for describing slaves.

Michael Rosen ‎
…and capitalism isn’t capitalism because of the value extracted (crudely expressed as price and profit) but because of the exact composition of the process of exploitation. Most post-hunter-gatherer systems accrue value and surplus, but aren’t necessarily capitalist.

Gary McNally
Exactly, there is a huge qualitive difference in the process of exploitation.

Richard Seymour
“Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.” That’s a strange sort of argument. If it was only the product of feudalism, one would expect it to wane under capitalism, rather than expand as it in fact did. The specific form of colonial slavery that produced the antebellum system in the US surely owes itself to the capitalist imperatives dominant in England and increasingly North America at the time.

Aaron Hess
Ashley Smith’s review of Charlie’s book is on the ISR website– it references Banaji’s new book “Theory as History,” which is the best theoretical treatment of hybrid labor forms I’ve yet come across. http://isreview.org/issues/78/featrev-amcapitalism.shtml

Louis N. Proyect
I recommend Robert Miles’s “Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or Necessity?”, fortunately available for under $4 on amazon.com–as well as university libraries of course.

Louis N. Proyect
Ashley Smith’s review is quite on target but I don’t know where he picked up the term “political Marxist” which is used in a fairly dismissive fashion. Odd…

Richard Seymour
The term “political marxism” was coined by Ellen Wood, I believe.

Aaron Hess
According to Paul Blackledge, Guy Bois actually came up with the term in an article critiquing Brenner, but Ellen Wood and Robert Brenner have both embraced it.

Charlie Pottins
Slavery in the USA was actually intensified by the development of industrial capitalism in Europe, increasing demand for cotton. Something similar had happened with serfdom in eastern Europe as market for grain grew in western towns. But the South’s backwardness which geared it to Europe became an obstacle to the rise of US capitalism. The civil war was the second American revolution. But this raises another difference -the proletariat is not only exploited but contains in its struggle the seed of a classless society, based not on reverting to small proprietorship but on collective ownership and control.

Sayan Bhattacharyya
See CLR James on the Haitian revolution, on this topic. In “The Black Jacobins”, he had interesting things to say on this topic.

Penny McCall Howard
See also Jairus Banaji

Richard Brenner
Charlie Post: you say the distinction is *NOT* the juridical form of freedom but that in the one case the capitalist buys labour power and in the other buys the labourer. But these two things are different aspects of the same concrete phenomenon: the slave is purchased as labourer, the wage slave”s labour power is purchased by the capitalist…AND SOLD by the ‘free labourer’, the owner and seller if the commodity labour power.

Robert Wood
Obviously, slavery is defined by a set of forms of coercion, domination, and violence that make it without analogy to wage labor at the experiential level, but it clearly operates within the commodity system. Additionally, the cotton gin was clearly a significant labor saving device, and Roediger amongst others has pointed out that the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.

Louis N. Proyect
“the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.”


Well, it’s not just that. Ellen Wood describes John Locke as the ultimate philosopher of the early capitalist system but he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas that defined slavery as a fundamental property right.

Matthijs Krul
I find this an interesting discussion and thanks particularly to Louis Proyect and Charlie Post for their efforts. I’m worried though we might have reached the point where we are fruitlessly arguing about definitions. If we all agree 19th century slavery was subject to capitalist logic but not a form of labor intrinsic to capitalism (in the sense it has no part in a ‘pure’ capitalism), then surely that suffices?

Ganesh Trichur
This article by Sidney Mintz in “Review” (Fernand Braudel Center) is not accessible. The simultaneous presence of slavery in one space (Caribbean, southern North America, and South America) and wage-labor relations in other spaces (whether in England or in the northern New England states) is probably not all that contradictory. Why can’t coerced labor and free-wage-labor coexist as complementary labor-systems organized by agencies of capitalist accumulation

Duncan Brown
What puzzles me is that is if the slave was a proletarian, then it would seem that there lived proletarian labour pre capitalism. France was feudal and yet had a sysytem similar to the slave system that existed whithin capitalist England.

Richard Seymour
I think the claim would be that this form of labour was, under capitalism, subordinate to capitalist imperatives, and that slavery in the plantation was quite different in terms of work patterns etc to, say, Ancient slavery.

Jim Farmelant
Wouldn’t the Althusserian notion of social formations in which different modes of production exist side by side, sometimes symbiotically, sometimes antagonistically, be useful here for understanding slavery in the modern era? Then slavery could be regarded as a pre-capitalist mode of production that was able to exist symbiotically with capitalism (which was already the dominant mode of production) during periods of primitive accumulation.

Charlie Post
A couple of quick points. It is absolutely true that New World slave plantations– especially the “second slavery” of the 19th century (cotton in US south, sugar in Cuba, coffee in Brazil)- prefigured features of the capitalist factory. In response to the necessity of “selling to survive,” planters organized a labor-process with a detailed division of labor, closely supervised and coordinated work gangs, and the like. In fact, one neo-classical economic historian (Fleisig) argued that the origins of Taylorism/Scientific Management could be found in the plantations of the Americas.

However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION. While the plantation, at any given point, resembled the capitalist factory, we do not see the relatively continuous introduction of labor-saving technology (limited to new frontiers and new crops). What Blackburn, in his latest book, describes as the planters’ “addiction to absolute surplus labor” was not a choice/pathology, but inscribed into the rules of reproduction of the master-slave relation.

The master-slave relation also produced the non-capitalist anomaly of plantation self-sufficiency, which had profound impact on the trajectory of the slaves’ class struggle. The need for planters to keep slaves laboring year round led them to put slaves to work, in gangs (cotton plantations growing corn) or universally on small garden plots growing food stuffs. The slaves not only supplemented their rations through their own independent production, but were generally allowed to market their own surplus. Thus plantation slavery combined a centralized labor-process under the masters’ command producing commodities for the world-market AND independent household production that included marketing of physical surpluses under the slaves’ (usually the eldest male) control.

On the one hand, the centralized labor-process gave rise to forms of class struggle on the plantations that were similar to those in a capitalist factory: struggles over the collective pace of work, length of the working day, gender/generational composition of work force, etc. On the other, the division of the work week/day between the masters’ plantation and the slaves’ garden plots gave the slaves’ struggles a distinctively non-capitalist bent. Much of the struggle over the length of the working day/week was framed as a means of allowing more time for independent household production (this division of work-time also shaped slave parents’ struggle to control their children and their labor, with slave parents’ wanting children to be available for work on the garden plots rather than the plantation). As a result, the slaves equated SLAVERY with growing commodities and working in gangs and equated FREEDOM with independent household production–producing their own subsistence (and a small marketable surplus to enhance their consumption) under their own (patriarchal) control. Thus it is not surprising that at the high points of slaves’ REVOLUTIONARY struggle (St. Domingue, post-Civil War South, post-emancipation Jamaica, etc.), the slaves sought to become PEASANT producers rather than collective control of the plantation.

Louis N. Proyect
“However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION.”

As if the abolition of slavery introduced relative surplus labor extraction. The plain fact is that the plantation system continued well into the 20th century, abetted by Jim Crow which effectively chained Blacks to their shacks. The notion of a “capitalist revolution” has to be closely examined in light of a mountain of contrary evidence. The Northern big bourgeoisie, as opposed to the middle-class base of the radical wing of the Republican Party, had no interest in a truly emancipated Black population. If you want documentation on that, just read the fucking Nation Magazine of the 1880s that railed against anti-Klan legislation. And if you want to see the limitations of the “radical” Republicans, check my article on Henry Villard, who became publisher of the Nation after founder E.L. Godkin died.

On his own initiative, Villard became the foreign agent of the Wisconsin Central Railroad and persuaded German bankers to buy bonds, out of which he pocketed a handsome commission. It was this sort of entrepreneurial spirit that eventually recommended him to Ben Holladay, the founder of the Oregon and Western Railroad. Although Villard was originally hired to raise capital from European investors, he took over the company from Holladay, as well as the Oregon Steamship Company and a few other Oregon companies in 1876, just one year before the North washed its hands of Reconstruction. Pleased with his takeover of the railroad and assorted assets, Villard wrote his wife Fanny, who was becoming ever more enthusiastic about his business success, that “I knew you would be mad at me for not returning to-day, but I am sure that the wrath of my little wife will be appeased when I tell her that her great ‘schemer’ has now in his pocket nine thousand Dollars clear profit made this week and that he expects his labors to be eventually rewarded by more than as much more!” His pet name for Fanny was “darling greediness”.

Charlie Post
Given that there is no necessary sequence of modes/forms of production– no direction to history given by the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces– it is not surprising that the class struggles in the Reconstruction period created new, non-capitalist forms in the south. No question the Radical Republicans de-radicalized significantly after 1868– under the impact of growing northern working class struggles in the north. I agree that the notion of the “bourgeois revolution”– in particular it’s bastard child the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”– needs to be seriously reconsidered. It was Brenner, Wood, Cominel and other “political Marxist” who have initiated that process…

Louis N. Proyect
On bourgeois revolutions:



Duncan Brown
Yes of course I know ancient slavery was fundamentally different from modern slavery.

My question is, what difference was there between the slavery on French plantations at a time when France was feudal and English plantations at a time when England was capitalist ie for most of the 18th Century?

Was an English slave a proletarian? If so, did that make a French slave one as well? If not why not?

Louis N. Proyect
I don’t think there was much difference between sugar plantations in Haiti and in Jamaica. They were both distinguished by chattel slavery. Precapitalist slavery was not about commodity production. It was about extending the power of potentates through conquest. The Ottoman Janissaries were typical. In Ethiopia, slaves carried guns for their masters during hunting expeditions. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Mississippi in the 1850s.

Richard Brenner
Thanks Charlie Post for fascinating observations

Charlie Post
Richard– you are welcome!

Charlie Post
The difference between plantation slavery in St. Domingue did not result in different class relations and labor-processes on those islands. Instead, the differences showed up in the origins and impact of plantation slavery on the “metropolis.” Only the English slave colonies settlement/development were the work of “new merchants” who did not enjoy exclusive royal monopolies on the sale of slaves or importation of sugar. As Brenner argues in MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION the emergence of the new merchants was directly tied to the breakthrough to agrarian capitalism in England. By contrast, French colonialism was fueled by the crisis of revenues of the French absolutist state (limits to taxing the peasantry), and was organized by “royal” merchants who enjoyed monopolies for the importation of slaves/marketing of sugar. Even more marked it the effects of slavery/slave trade on France and England. In England, the expansion of colonial markets and profits from the slave/sugar trade promoted capitalist industrialization. In France, the profits of slavery went into buying offices (tax farming) in the pre-capitalist Absolutist state.

Duncan Brown
I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed. So the hand loom weavers had more than ‘nothing but their labour power’ to sell, but actually owned the means of production. The creation of the factories mechanised and removed from them the means of production, thus transforming them into the proletariat.

The fact that England was capitalist and France was not, really doesn’t determine whether the slaves were proletariat. In England, itself the proletariat didn’t really come in to existence until over 100 years of capitalism.
If we take Marx’s definition then the slaves were not proletarian.

Louis N. Proyect
“I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed.”

You have to understand that with the Brenner thesis, you can have capitalism without a proletariat. What matters is that landlords began to compete with each other in the 16th century British countryside, which led to technological innovation. Meanwhile, the existence of the largest concentration of workers in the world–Potosi, Bolivia–in the same period is of no interest to Brenner since landlords operated on a “feudal” basis. If you scour through the writings of Wood, Brenner and all others that are part of this current, I doubt if you will find more than a thousand words on Latin America.

Richard Brenner
Charlie – I meant your comments on absolute surplus value. But I should say I don’t agree about the non-directional impulse of capitalist development or your comment on the utility of the term ‘bourgeois revolution.

Richard Drayton
For many Caribbean historians, by which I mean those who are both from the region as well as students of it, there is in the organisation of plantation slave labour a form of proletarianization. I think here in particular of the marxists C.L.R James of Trinidad and Richard Hart of Jamaica, and those they influenced including Eric Williams of Trinidad, and a generation later the American anthropologist Sid Mintz.

It is a theme I turn to myself in my essay: “The Collaboration of Labour: Slaves, Empires, and Globalizations in the Atlantic World, c. 1600-1850”, in A.G. Hopkins, ed., GLOBALISATION IN WORLD HISTORY (2002). The key issue for us is that labour is organised by a modern division of labour and bought and sold as a commodity.

They/we note on the sugar plantations of the 17th century: labour is not given as part of a system of mutual obligation but is instead sold as a commodity; work units much larger than the family, subjection to strict time discipline and spatial constraint; task specialisation; alienation of worker from tools; production for non‑local markets; dependence on long distance markets for food and subsistence. By these criteria the plantations were the avantgarde of the process of capitalist market modes of production, as Mintz put it “The plantation as a synthesis of factory and field. . . was really quite unlike anything known in mainland Europe at the time . . . [it was] probably the closest thing to industry that was typical of the Seventeenth century.” Plantation sugar production was large‑scale, capital‑intensive, and machine‑dependent like no other industry in the world in its time.

By the late 18th and 19th century also, there is in urban slavery (eg. Trinidad or Rio), the phenomenon of slaves being hired on day wage rates, and by the nineteenth century being used as factory workers in Richmond Virginia.

The comparison of modern plantation slavery with ancient slavery is entirely false. The correct comparison is the with other forms of unfree or semifree labour operating in the early modern world from press ganged sailors and soldiers, to apprentices and journeymen, to workers selling their labour in the shadow of factory owners on whom they depended for housing etc. We need to keep sight always of the modernity of the plantation.


  1. The biggest flaw I see in Post’s argument is that he considers the social relations of slavery in the U.S. south in isolation from its relationship to the world market that the plantation owners operated within. Marxism’s starting point is the totality and context of whatever is being examined. I don’t think this is really about how one defines capitalism. Calling it non-capitalist isn’t very useful either. Capitalism and socialism are both “non-feudal” but really, what does that tell us? Not much.

    Comment by Binh — September 9, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  2. “We sometimes don’t immediately think of the history of slavery as labor history”, whichever side of the argument about characterization we come down on, it’s worth recalling the struggle.

    You may find these people unrepentant liberals, but the previous post, Labor Violence in Longview And Why That’s Not Necessarily Bad seemed worth a look at too.

    Comment by skidmarx — September 9, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  3. I like the work of Walter Johnson on this question. His Soul by Soul is a brilliant book about the slave as a capitalist commodity and the slave market as a capitalist market. His ‘The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question’ can be accessed here http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/3226474 and does a good job of challenging some interpretations of the small amount Marx wrote directly about slavery in Capital. I tend to agree with him quite a bit.

    Comment by Rustbelt Radical — September 9, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  4. it might be worth reading wallerstein’s review of engerman and fogel’s Time on a Cross vs. genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll:

    i think he has some interesting insights there…

    Comment by dermokrat — September 9, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Check out Steve Stern, “Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World System in the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean,” American Historical Review 1988. It’s an attack on world-systems theory, and a pissy debate with Wallerstein ensued. Worth reading.

    Comment by Ismael — September 9, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  6. I like Stern but I took Wallerstein’s side in this debate, not that I don’t have problems with him as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 9, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

  7. Thanks for posting this up, Louis. I didn’t get the opportunity to contribute to the debate on facebook so I hope you don’t mind me posting a few thoughts on the matter here.

    1) From my reading of Marx a proletarian is someone who doesn’t direct their labour power themselves. It would be fair to say then that most post neolithic societies have included proletarians amongst their populations. What a proletarian looks like obviously depends on how labour and technology are organized in any given society. Slaves in antiquity did a variety of jobs from administrators to gladiators. In the deep South slaves worked in both field and factories. (Slaves were also owned by some native American tribes).The one thing all of these people had in common was that they didn’t direct their labour power themselves.

    2) The slave is an historical form of the proletarian, in much the same way as the serf was. But labels can be deceptive. Just because the proletarian was a slave, doesn’t mean the serf was necessarily a proletarian. As Russian history demonstrates, the serf could also be a capitalist. The Demidov’s and Morozov’s were serf capitalists par excellence. While retaining there legal status as serfs, many of these serf capitalists owned and employed other serfs to work in their factories and mills, many eventually becoming millionaires and buying there legal freedom from their lords. (I’ve yet to hear of a slave capitalist, but no doubt someone will surprise me).

    What this means to the wider debate over “capitalism” I’m not sure. I’d like to think it would help proletarians the world over to identify who their class enemies really are, be they owners of capital or otherwise. And maybe help to end all this naval gazing over the origins of capitalism (some hope).

    Comment by Viktor — September 9, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  8. I would classify a slave as a prisoner and not necessarily a proletariat.

    Slavery goes beyond not being in direct control of your labor. They couldn’t leave where they were or make personal decisions or face harsh consequences.

    They were captives being held against their will.

    I do agree that slavery was a precursor to the proletariat oppression that would affect future generations in America.

    What we have now is a metaphoric slavery which includes exploiting labor and sweatshop conditions in American businesses.

    Exploited laborers are not literally being held against their will as slaves were, but the conditions they work under and the exploitation represents a metaphoric slavery.

    I have always been outspoken in saying that as proletarians we are all slaves and the bourgeois is our master

    I just think to call slavery a labor issue in early America makes slavery sound less inhumane and dehumanizing than it actually was.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 9, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

  9. The pertinent question to ask is: were the slave owners (early modern) landlord *capitalists*? I think the answer is yes: historically they were capitalists engaged in sustained primitive accumulation (a constant feature of capitalism continuing today), past mere plunder; rather than lease their lands to capitalist tenant farmers as in the classic English case, they mined their lands for tobacco or sugar just as they mined Africa for its “natural human resources”.

    They were a kind of mine owner. Analytically their capital was almost entirely constant – Q ~ infinity – including slaves; their revenue was therefore largely RENT, a free distribution of the total surplus value, and not profit of enterprise. The slaves possessed a labor power whose reproduction corresponded to a real and definite sum of what would otherwise be wage good commodities – the American plantations were famous for substituting home grown “wage goods” with food, etc. commodity imports from, say New York or Philadelphia so as to devote their own lands entirely to “slave mining” crops – but which for the land-slave-mineowner were but an amortization cost on their constant capital. As slaves, whose labor power “exchanged” at zero, they were *absolutely super exploited* (to distinguish from and prevent confusion with the Marxian concept of absolute surplus value, based on *wage* labor), and as Marx noted in Theories of Surplus Value, the additional surplus value that results from wages paid below the value of labor power is a basis for a potential (absolute) rent:

    “Surplus-value can be increased, without the extension of labour-time or the development of the productive power of labour, by forcing wages below their traditional level. And indeed this is the case wherever agricultural production is carried on by capitalist methods. Where it cannot be achieved by means of machinery, it is done by turning the land over to sheep grazing. Here then we already have a potential basis of rent since, in fact, the agricultural labourer’s wage does not equal the average wage. This rent would be feasible quite independent of the price of the product, which is equal to its value.”


    Set agricultural labourer == plantation slave laborer with wage =0, and the picture remains the same (hence the justification for “lifting out of context”).

    Since profits are the form surplus value takes as a result of the exploitation of wage labor, what in fact is the surplus value appropriated by the commodity buying, producing and selling slave owner must appear in distribution as *rent*.

    Clearly slave gold and silver mining was the “optimal” case here, as not only were wages not paid, but the produced commodity was immediately realized as money. Rent money.

    Finally, just as the ancient slave differed from the modern slave, so to did the ancient Roman proletariat differ from the modern. This lowest order of the Roman “citizenry” were defined by the absence of property, not by earning wages; by legend they supposedly sold their children into slavery.

    Comment by Matt — September 9, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  10. Why is it pertinent to ask “were the slave owners landlord capitalists?” Property relations are totally irrelevant. The Roman slave administrator wore better clothes, ate better food, and lived in more salubrious surroundings than the galley slave, but they both shared the condition that their labor power was not their own. What have theories of surplus value got to do with it? Who are proletarians, what is our history, is much more significant for the future of the labour movement than Marx’s now slightly obscure debate with Proudhon over the nature of surplus value.

    Comment by Viktor — September 9, 2011 @ 8:43 pm

  11. Slaves were considered property of their owners like a table or a chair.

    Their work was not in exchange for rent or living expenses. If they didn’t work, they’d be savagely beaten sometimes to death.

    Working in exchange for rent or living expenses is a choice and comparing that to human slavery where the slave has no freedom or choices is absurd.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 9, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

  12. Was slavery a precursor to the great class struggle in America today? Yes. The bourgeois and its I am superior to you or you are the little people position was born out of it.

    Was slavery a labor movement?

    No. To say it was a movement would imply that slaves had choices and since they weren’t free, they didn’t have choices.

    And to say it was a landlord – tenant relationship doesn’t deserve any consideration and is as ludicrous as Michele Bachmann’s comment that blacks had a better chance at having a two parent family with a mother and father in slavery days than under the current Obama administration.

    Other than genocide and torture, one of man’s greatest crimes against humanity is enslaving another human being.

    Slavery is an ugly part of American history and should be treated with seriousness and not pale comparisons.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 9, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

  13. Louis N. Proyect
    It is not just slavery that exists outside of the parameters of the Brenner-Wood thesis. It is all forced labor. So, based on that definition, there was no capitalism in apartheid South Africa outside of the mostly white skilled sector. This makes no sense–at least to me.

    Right, see:

    The System of Accumulation in South Africa: Theories of Imperialism and Capital
    Andy Higginbottom, Kingston University

    Comment by Matt — September 9, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

  14. Deborah, as much as I agree that slavery was an ugly part of American (and world) history, the rest of what you say just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The idea that only slaves suffer serious consequences when they withdraw their labour is incorrect. The history of “free labour” is full of coercion and violence. And even the most cursory reading of the history of slavery shows that slaves did have choices. Or maybe you’ve never seen Spartacus.

    And just to clarify, I didn’t say landlord – tenant relationships didn’t deserve any consideration. I said they were irrelevant in the context of this debate.

    Comment by Viktor — September 9, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

  15. “Who are proletarians, what is our history, is much more significant for the future of the labour movement than Marx’s now slightly obscure debate with Proudhon over the nature of surplus value.” Actually that was a lead up to a critique of Rodbertus theory of rent, but yes, “what is our history, who are we” is precisely the point here, and it so happens that “Atlantic world slavery” was an immediate, and crucial precursor to the modern proletariat – us. Crucial, because without it the capitalist system would not have arisen, and we would not exist. You might say that our very living being consists of the “dead” labors of those long gone slaves – they live in us, and the reality of that particular historical path is inscribed on our being, we experience it every day. Particularly if you are not white, but even if you are. So you might better see it as a necessary bit of social psychology as well.

    And finally, it allows us to see that modern capitalist slavery was but the extreme limiting form of super exploitation by virtue of paying labor power below its value, some that is occurring on a massive scale – indeed on an ever increasing scale, I’d say – today. China, anyone?

    Comment by Matt — September 9, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

  16. “Duncan Brown

    My question is, what difference was there between the slavery on French plantations at a time when France was feudal and English plantations at a time when England was capitalist ie for most of the 18th Century?

    Was an English slave a proletarian? If so, did that make a French slave one as well? If not why not?

    Louis N. Proyect
    I don’t think there was much difference between sugar plantations in Haiti and in Jamaica. They were both distinguished by chattel slavery. Precapitalist slavery was not about commodity production. It was about extending the power of potentates through conquest. The Ottoman Janissaries were typical. In Ethiopia, slaves carried guns for their masters during hunting expeditions. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Mississippi in the 1850s.

    Charlie Post
    The difference between plantation slavery in St. Domingue did not result in different class relations and labor-processes on those islands. Instead, the differences showed up in the origins and impact of plantation slavery on the “metropolis.” Only the English slave colonies settlement/development were the work of “new merchants” who did not enjoy exclusive royal monopolies on the sale of slaves or importation of sugar. As Brenner argues in MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION the emergence of the new merchants was directly tied to the breakthrough to agrarian capitalism in England. By contrast, French colonialism was fueled by the crisis of revenues of the French absolutist state (limits to taxing the peasantry), and was organized by “royal” merchants who enjoyed monopolies for the importation of slaves/marketing of sugar. Even more marked it the effects of slavery/slave trade on France and England. In England, the expansion of colonial markets and profits from the slave/sugar trade promoted capitalist industrialization. In France, the profits of slavery went into buying offices (tax farming) in the pre-capitalist Absolutist state.”

    That part about France – shades of Lineages of the Absolutist State! 😉 But while the English merchant adventurer and landlord gentry might have shared a more fluid boundary, especially in regards to the circulation of their money hoards across that social boundary, the key thing to keep in mind was that the whole colonial periphery was a selective extrusion and deformation of certain of the prevailing relations of production in Europe at that time, regardless of origin in late feudal France or post-feudal England. The general effect was magnify the social weight of the early modern bourgeoisie regardless of exact social formation in Europe, precisely as this same class became hegemonic – not in Europe – but in the colonial periphery, prior to the “bourgeois revolutions”.

    One example of the shoe being on the other foot here was that despite the mercantile restrictions English Navigation acts, the French and Spanish planters had trade with the British American settlers of New York, New England and Pennsylvania, leading to the early growth of “simple commodity production” in these latter places.

    But I was always more with Engel’s view of of Absolutism than with Perry Anderson’s anyway.

    Comment by Matt — September 9, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  17. Slaves had choices? I’m sure the choice they would have preferred most would be to be a free person in their homeland rather than a piece of property sold at auction in the new land of America.

    Also many slaves who had been here for a long time developed stockholm syndrome a condition where the captive develops a relationship with the captor.

    Even if this relationship developed it may appear as though the captive has choices or even enjoys their surroundings.

    This didn’t make them any less of a slave or truly a free person capable of making personal choices.

    Just because you live in the king’s palace doesn’t mean you’re royalty when you’re the maid. You’re still the maid.

    I liked Matt’s past two comments which highlighted what I previously said. It was a precursor to our class divide today.

    Slaves couldn’t go on strike, so it wasn’t a labor movement.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 10, 2011 @ 12:07 am

  18. The tread on Richard Seymour’s FB page was added to since Louis transcribed it here, with one particularly important intervention form Jairus Banaji:

    Richard Drayton:
    Once again we are in Louis’s debt for keeping visible debates and confrontations which would otherwise disappear into the ether. I’d like to make a meta point. It is not helpful to apply too mechanically sociological categories to historical phenomena. It is, for example, absurd to describe France’s economy/society as “feudal” in the 17th and 18th centuries, when its banking and merchant elites in Bordeaux, Paris, Rouen, Nantes, are so tightly linked in the most advanced forms of banking (offshore banking avant le lettre), insurance, trading with their colleagues in Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, and Geneva. ( Sorry for pimping my own stuff again but I did publish an article on this in 2008: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191659908000739 ). Similarly, we need to be less either/or about free and unfree labour– it is a liberal myth that there is ever any kind of labour which is “free” in any simple sense, the compulsion of hunger, debt, obligation, and fear are not qualitatively different in terms of how they discipline labour. The reality of “free labour” in plantation societies was that a combination of vagrancy laws, aggressive policing, a fiscal pressure for cash incomes, planter control over housing etc, served to compel ex=slaves back into collaboration with planter capital. And it is in that opposition to a tyrannical capital, which acquires a human face in the plantation regime, and labour which is alienated from itself and from its own product, that the plantation regime and the new “free labour” regimes of 18th and 19th century Europe may be understood as partners.

    Leo Roque :
    Trying to compartmentalize plantation slavery (or anything really) as pre-capitalist, or capitalist proper, it seems to me, would tend to an abstract illusory dilemma. There isn’t one day in which feudalism became capitalism overnight; the key is rather to see when the “feudalist” forms of bondage start becoming the ‘form’ of capitalist accumulation on a world-scale, the latter being, as it were, the ‘essence’ of the process. Certainly, these ‘forms’ are not, in the manner of “teleological” models, progressive by virtue of being part of capitalist development, and as Louis points out they could remain or become rather more sanguinary, though I doubt very much that Brenner’s point is that “you can have capitalism, without a proletariat”.
    Much as the initial phase of separating producers (coming from societies based on relations of personal dependence) from the conditions of production was a necessity for capital, on a massive scale, in Latin America for example by having to annihilate the indigenous population when it didn’t even serve its purpose, I think one of the keys in the analysis of Marx is that he focuses on what happens to the artisan, the producer who in rough terms is already free, but not yet ‘doubly free’. The necessity for capital to “liberate” these producers also (even if they weren’t the more numerous group) mainly to insert them in the system of cooperation, shows the key of its historical purpose, the socialization of private labor which entails the generalization of private property or appropriation based upon alien labor (instead of, as in the case of artisans, one’s own labor). And this fundamental contradictory form is already hinting at its supersession in that the process of socialization entails the development of the conscious capacity of a collective laborer to increasingly be able to control Nature, as its own conscious organ, as opposed to the automatic mode of organization which lies at the basis of the valorization process of capital, and so also, the end of private property.

    Richard Drayton:
    Exactly. Not only was there not “one day in which feudalism became capitalism”, nor do these sociological ideal types– proletarian, serf etc. ever exist in history in a pure form. The great breakthrough of the 18th Brumaire was to move from theory to an embrace of historical reality in all its messiness. We should go with it. Its quite clear that modern slavery was the partner of modern wage labour in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that needs to be taken seriously, and not as some anomaly that disturbs the purity of our analytical categories.
    17 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Louis N. Proyect:

    I like the work of Walter Johnson on this question. His Soul by Soul is a brilliant book about the slave as a capitalist commodity and the slave market as a capitalist market. His ‘The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question’ can be accessed here http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/3226474 and does a good job of challenging some interpretations of the small amount Marx wrote directly about slavery in Capital. I tend to agree with him quite a bit.

    Comment by Rustbelt Radical — September 9, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question

    Jairus Banaji:
    @‎Richard Seymour, “I think the claim would be that etc.” The work patterns at least certainly weren’t any different in Antiquity. In fact, there’s a whole tradition of historiography that saw precisely slavery in the ancient world as the essential sector of capitalism. Gummerus argued in 1906 ‘In Antiquity capitalism was inextricably bound up with slave economy’ (unauflöslich mit der Sklavenwirtschaft verbunden), and the great Otto Hintze even coined the term ‘slave capitalism’ to describe the ‘unlimited economic exploitation of slave labor on plantations and mines’ in Antiquity. From the conversations above it seems (alas!) that the Anglo-Saxon Left is still largely immersed in primitivism (and thinks historical materialism should be as well), when Italian historians (reputedly Marxist ones) like Carandini and Serrao have moved way beyond those legacies to more sophisticated ways of writing and understanding history.

    Comment by Richard Drayton — September 10, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  19. In the Poverty of Philosophy Marx described Proudhon as a “man in search of formulas”. It seems to me that this is where the debate has gone wrong. Everyone is looking for a formula, derived from Marx, to apply to history, and get a neat definition. So we get arguments like “ownership + coercion = slavery” or “landlord + tenant + competition = capitalism” or “factory + free labour = capitalist mode of production”. All of which ignores transitional forms where different and seemingly contradictory social relations coexist on the basis of more or less the same technology. It is worthwhile remembering why Marx wrote Capital. It was not a list of formulas to apply to history to determine what capitalism is, or who is a proletarian. As Harry Braverman pointed out in Labor and Monopoly Capital, the first volume of Capital was “an essay on how the commodity, in an adequate social and technological setting, matures into the form of capital, and how the social form of capital, driven to incessant accumulation as the condition of its own existence, completely transforms technology.” In other words, he was writing about a historic process with a myriad of social forms. Merely applying a formula to history tells us nothing. As I mentioned in a previous post, in Russia serfs worked in factories, serfs worked in fields, house serfs lived in something like permanent slavery. But serfs also became capitalists, while remaining serfs. How then can one apply a simple formula to determine what a “serf” is. Some would argue that serfs weren’t proletarians (or weren’t capitalists, either) because they were more or less the property of the their lord. But does this mean that when the tsar signed the decree abolishing serfdom they magically went to bed as serfs and woke up the next morning as proletarians?

    I think we need to move away from scholasticism and start thinking historically again. Be more marxist and less like Proudhon.

    Comment by Viktor — September 10, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  20. “It’s an attack on world-systems theory, and a pissy debate with Wallerstein ensued. Worth reading.”

    it’s not. so-called orthodox marxist (SCOM) attacks on wallerstein, wsa and dependency theory are quite tiresome, especially since they revolve around precisely these kinds of issues – i.e. modes of production, exchange vs. production, relative value, surplus extraction/exploitation, etc.

    the best critique of wallerstein and wsa that i have read is by albert bergeson (http://www.jstor.org.mutex.gmu.edu/stable/pdfplus/223354.pdf?acceptTC=true), who simultaneously and rightfully identifies the parochial and narrow-minded nature of brenner’s marxist historiography.

    why SCOMs get in such a tizzy over wsa and dependency theory’s claims that exploitation of colonies was intrinsic to development of capitalism in the core (and left those colonies a complete economic mess – i.e. underdeveloped) is really beyond me. that their arguments echo in fundamental ways those of conservative economic historians should set off alarm bells for any leftist concerned with exploitation in the third world.

    in any event, some of the more interesting work that i have read over the past few years has been written by people influenced by dependency theory and wallerstein’s wsa – i.e. Jason Moore (http://www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/Moore__The_Modern_World-System_as_Environmental_History__Theory___Society__2003_.pdf); John Talbott (http://books.google.com/books?id=kUu4DjBo4WQC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false); Wilma Dunaway (http://jwsr.ucr.edu/archive/vol7/number1/pdf/jwsr-v7n1-dunaway.pdf and http://filebox.vt.edu/users/wdunaway/publications/ecofem03.htm), and many others. i would include Mike Davis’ magisterial Late Victorian Holocausts as well, which is implicitly world-systems analysis/dependency theory influenced even if he never invokes those terms or the scholars associated with them.

    i honesly wonder what is to be gained by all the acrimonious (and at times truly shrill) attacks by SCOMs on dependency theorists and proponents of wsa. it’s just another example of that old saw about leftists and circular firing squards…

    p.s. if you want a good take down on Brenner, read Blaut’s In the Tunnel of History: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.mutex.gmu.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8330.1994.tb00256.x/pdf and

    Comment by dermokrat — September 10, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  21. Deliberately tongue-in cheek title: “In Defense of Abstraction”

    “It was not a list of formulas to apply to history to determine what capitalism is, or who is a proletarian. As Harry Braverman pointed out in Labor and Monopoly Capital, the first volume of Capital was “an essay on how the commodity, in an adequate social and technological setting, matures into the form of capital, and how the social form of capital, driven to incessant accumulation as the condition of its own existence, completely transforms technology.” In other words, he was writing about a historic process with a myriad of social forms. Merely applying a formula to history tells us nothing. As I mentioned in a previous post, in Russia serfs worked in factories, serfs worked in fields, house serfs lived in something like permanent slavery. But serfs also became capitalists, while remaining serfs. How then can one apply a simple formula to determine what a “serf” is. Some would argue that serfs weren’t proletarians (or weren’t capitalists, either) because they were more or less the property of the their lord.”

    Viktor, your point is well taken, but it is not the whole story, it is not simply a matter of the counter-position of one to the other, and I would warn against the ease with which certain quotes can be pulled one-sidedly from the vast corpus of Marxian scribblings. I can quote some now classic lines from the introduction to the Grundrisse on what Marx thought was “the really scientific method” for the task he had placed before himself. There are two basic analytical approaches possible: the abstract-deductive and the empirical-inductive. The first can be seen as “scholastic” – I see it a theoretical science – while the second is “historical” – that is, “applied” science. For me, both approaches have equivalent epistemological status, one is not somehow “superior” to the other. My concept of the Marxist method is as the dialectical combination of these two.

    Now the simple practical problem is that the subject matter of Marxism – human society, including its relation to “nature” – is far too complex to limit itself to a purely historical empirical-inductive method of science, as useful and necessary as that is. That includes the whole area of political economy, and one reason for Marx’s respect for David Ricardo was that he was one of the first to understand the necessity for an abstract-deductive approach to the subject matter as the high road to the rapid development of science, while of course criticizing Ricardo’s one-sided ahistorical conclusions, themselves a precursor to neo-classical economics. And Ricardo was unique in his milieu in that he was entirely a “practical person” and no scholastic at all. And neither am I – I work for a living, am not an academic had have never desired to be one. But then perhaps it is only “practical people” with little time on their hands that appreciate what Marx called “the power of abstraction” and – and despite – its inevitably formulaic form of presentation!

    Therefore I think it is a misapprehension of both Capital and the Braverman quote to state that Marx “was writing about a historic process with a myriad of social forms.” He was certainly writing *about* a historical process, but Marx was certainly *not writing historically*, and certainly not about a myriad of social forms, but about a single abstract form that bore a suspicious resemblance to the conditions of mid-19th century Britain – the “ideal” form of capitalism at that time. That is evidenced by the sudden interspersion of apparent historical digressions on primitive accumulation and so forth, within the general abstract flow. What Braverman is actually saying is that Marx, through the application of the power of abstract deduction, was able to illuminate the road ahead for historical-empirical inductive science, such as his own work. This is the metaphorical description of the dialectical relation of the two, of the total method as praxis.

    I leave with the most shining example of the power of the method of abstract-deduction: the discovery of the exploitation of labor power hidden within the wage labor – capital relation, obscured by the apparent exchange of commodity equivalents. How could this soon be discovered by a purely historical approach? How could we proceed with historical analysis as Marxists without the guiding light of the knowledge of the reality of the capitalist exploitation of wage labor?

    Useful: “From Political Economy to Economics”, Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine 2009

    Comment by Matt — September 10, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

  22. @20: I concur on Moore’s article. It is first-rate. Not familiar with Dunaway but will definitely check her out. Finally, Blaut was a good cyber-pal who got me started on all this stuff. I should mention that he distinguished his own approach from Wallerstein’s. I have my own problems with Wallerstein but his review of Engerman-Fogel/Genovese mentioned above is excellent. I read it yesterday and recommend others take a look (I assume it is one of those Jstor articles now available to the sans culottes.)

    Comment by louisproyect — September 10, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

  23. I don’t argue that the slaves in early America had similarities with the proletariat of today and especially sweatshop slave laborers.
    At that time, they were classified as property and had no power against the powers that be. They would never be allowed to organize or protest conditions as a union today could.

    That’s where the difference lies.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 10, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  24. Matt, Marx didn’t discover “exploitation of labour-power” by sitting in his room thinking about it. He looked at the labour processes in the factories at the time and saw people being directed by capitalists to do tasks which the operatives themselves didn’t think up or choose to produce. He obviously had some knowledge of other labour processes where the workers did have some mental input into what they produced. There is nothing abstract about it. he may have called it abstract-deductive reasoning, but being a Hegelian he would. The above debate just looks like a group of Hegelians butting heads over formulas. And anything which doesn’t fit that their formulas, they reject. As I mentioned previously, how does one explain the existence of serf capitalists? What abstract-deductive process would you use to illuminate us on this phenomenon? Perhaps while you are doing that, you could also illuminate us on the position of slaves owned by native Americans and where they fit into the discussion on slaves as proletarians. I look forward to an answer on these points because you seem to be armed with all the philosophical tools to do this quite easily.

    Comment by Viktor — September 11, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  25. Perhaps while you are doing that, you could also illuminate us on the position of slaves owned by native Americans and where they fit into the discussion on slaves as proletarians.

    Is that really hard to understand? The Cherokees were a “civilized” tribe that had dispensed with hunting and gathering in the South and began to farm. Like most Southern farmers, they used slave labor. This of course did not prevent them from being ethnically cleansed by more powerful plantation-oriented classes represented by Andrew Jackson.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 11, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  26. It’s not hard to understand Louis. But I could be mischievous and ask if they were capitalist farmers, or was there a Cherokee mode of production which mixed farming, hunting and gathering as I presume they didn’t dispense with either of these activities overnight.

    Comment by Viktor — September 11, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  27. No, they were not “capitalist” farmers. They were small proprietors, or petty-bourgeois. They were driven out of the South by capitalist farmers. Hunting and gathering did continue but small farmers from my upstate NY region also hunt for deer and gather blueberries, particularly in a time of economic decline.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 11, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  28. Well I don’t think we’ll agree on methodology – Viktors’ appears more eclectic, so too were Adam Smith, JS Mill and Alfred Marshall, and for that matter, JM Keynes. It’s an honorable bourgeois tradition. Just download and read my reference at the bottom above. But Marxism is not to be confused with Hegelianism; the various abstract formulas are not sacred and immutable, and I hear that Marx – while no doubt having directly experienced the conditions of the mid 19th century proletariat, more likely in Paris in his younger years than in England, that was more Engels early beat – I hear that he spent an awful lot of time sitting on his derriere in the British Museum library. Writing by hand, no computer, no google or nexis, pretty awesome if you think about it.

    Louis did the slave owning Cherokees. Russian serf capitalists? If you could have English tenant capitalist farmers paying rent to hereditary landlords, sure, than why not capitalist serfs in Russia? Especially considering how serfdom persisted in Russia well in to the modern era. It is all *combined and uneven development*, within and between countries. As a serf, this capitalist owed feudal obligations to their lord master; if those obligations were monetized, this constituted modern capitalist rent; if in kind or as labor services, two different kinds of feudal rent. If “labor service”, the serf capitalist likely just hired a manager to tend to business while the serf was out meeting obligations to the lord! Larry Ellison does the same analogously, ostensibly to meet his legal obligations as CEO of Oracle to its board of directors! But as serf capitalist exploiting wage labor for profit, it neatly corresponds to Marx’s extended formula of capital: M-C…….C’-M’, with part of the resulting profits (there’s a standard value formula for that, too) paid out as rent in the first case.

    Comment by Matt — September 11, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

  29. Now back to Charles Post. I have to correct the hasty conclusion above: the petty commodity producer accumulating capital, under the “general formula of capital” M-C-M’, as well as the slave planter, were not capitalists, but were both accumulators of capital. Post is correct here. Now, here is something I was typing up last night, but it went on and on, and so I’ll just put in the first part on the meaning of the “transition question”, the U.S. and Higginsbottom; the rest I am holding for a full blown theoretical article on precisely much of this subject matter, with a focus on some key elements that have gone missing in other commentaries:
    After putting aside the methodological question, the question of the pertinence of the whole “transition to capitalism” issue certainly deserves a justifying answer.

    In my view, the “transition issue” only has meaningful practical pertinence to the extent that it addresses the question of the transition to capitalism in the United States. Why? Because the U.S.is the hegemonic imperialist power, a capitalist state power that reorganized the imperialist states system around its hegemony on a superstructure basis that differed qualitatively from its predecessor, Britain. That qualitative difference – the immediate result of the quantitative difference in relative weight of the U.S. vis-a-vis the other imperialist states in the postwar, compared to that of Britain formerly – is also the result of the different – even opposed, as in the original rebellion against Britain – historical path taken by the U.S. in the transition to capitalism, such that that historical difference, together with the quantitative material difference, is completely inscribed upon the superstructure of imperialism today.

    Therefore if we want to grasp the dynamics of the class struggle against that superstructure of capitalist rule, as well as identify its strengths and weaknesses as a practical matter, then we need to grasp what is concretely historically specific about the United States and its form of capitalist rule. The Marxist analysis of the U.S. has been generally weak, and despite important advances in understanding since the postwar, remains inadequate, precisely along the fluid boundaries comprised by the “transition debate”. Those boundaries we never so fluid and dynamically changeable as in the U.S. of former days, precisely as they stand in unchanging rigidity today.

    As a methodological aside, and as example, it may be that the weakness of Marxian analysis here can be traced to limitations of the abstract-deductive results of classical Marxism, which did not pay much close attention to the U.S. in its time in any case. If the empirical-inductive method is practically limited by the complexity of its subject matter, abstract deduction finds the limits of the theoretical application of its abstractions in the heterogeneity of that same complexity. Those attempts, such as that of Charles Post in “The American Road to Capitalism” that overtly attempt to reconcile the received abstract categories of Marxism with the historical material presented by, in this case, the history of the U.S., should capture our attention. And to repeat again, so to should the efforts of Andy Higginbottom, “The System of Accumulation in South Africa: Theories of Imperialism and Capital”, freely available in .pdf format, via google. So for example Higginbottom

    “…argues that:
    “a) the concept of ground rent as expressed in Capital Volume 3 needs revision to meet the new property relations in mining production, while the origin of ground rent as surplus value transformed to revenue still applied, the rent contributed to monopoly profits of capital rather than a separate landed interest; [Matt: this of course in the case of actual mining, but not necessarily in the case of the surplus transformed into revenue for commodity producing slave plantation landowners, nor for petty commodity producers operating under the law of value, where first the status of this surplus product as surplus *value* must be theorized]

    “b) the notion of continuing violent accumulation by dispossession needs to be reconceptualised, not as ongoing primitive accumulation but as imperialist accumulation combining enforced dispossession and proletarianisation;

    “c) under colonial capitalism the systematic payment of wages to oppressed African workers radically below hitherto accepted European wage levels changes the ontological status of this form of surplus value extraction, from episodic competition to the structural.”

    The point is Higginbottom sees the need from the beginning to re-adapt the original abstract concepts to the realities of gold mining in South Africa, this in a time of fully mature capitalism. And again when reviewing Lenin’s “Imperialism”:

    “We will return to the association between finance capital and colonial conquest in the case study but recognise here, from a deep appreciation of Lenin’s theory, that the necessity of the connection is not ‘deduced’ theoretically from the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, nor established by a re-working of the system-logic through mediated levels of abstraction, as Marx achieved in Capital. Lenin does not theorise imperialism with respect to the rising organic composition of capital or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, as Dussel (2001, 2003) points out. This theoretical incompleteness in the study of imperialism is atypical of Lenin, and stands in marked contrast with his own economic analyses of the development of capitalism on Russia, which are firmly based on the categories of Capital, especially the
    organisation and content of stages of capitalism; and with Lenin’s contemporaneous political writings on national liberation, the formation of a labour aristocracy and the state all of which rely explicitly on the recovery of Marx and Engels’ thought on these topics (as Lenin was wont
    to point out in his sustained polemic against Kautsky after the latter’s abandonment of the socialist revolution).

    “Whatever else, it cannot be argued that Lenin’s Imperialism accomplishes a like synthesis between the categories emerging from the mass of empirical data that he successfully articulates, an enormous achievement of itself, and Marx’s writing on the corresponding topics. The theoretical task is of a different order, beyond the application of Capital to a specific social formation, to the systematic theorization of a stage of capitalism that itself went beyond the stages theorised in Capital.”

    Comment by Matt — September 11, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  30. The South was not fully incorporated into the capitalist system until the 1960’s and the ending of Jim Crow. Incidentally, this is when manufacturing began moving South. Manufacturing interests had long wanted to exploit cheaper Southern labor but had been unable to break the neo-feudal apparatus of the South. This is why folks like Rockefeller were determined to end Jim Crow, destroy the neo-feudal Southern system , and use the tide of cheap Southern ‘free’ labor to break Union power in the Midwest. This is why the ending of Jim Crow did nothing, at least by statistical measures, to end inequality by income – it is actually worse now than in 1960. And why manufacturing production continues to flow into what was formerly Dixie and away from closed shop states.

    Comment by purple — September 12, 2011 @ 4:31 am

  31. Marx writes extensively on sharecropping, which was endemic in the South post Reconstruction. It is not a capitalist mode of production. It was only with the elimination of sharecropping and its assorted political apparatus (i.e. Jim Crow, mentioned above) that the South became sublimated into the ‘free labor’ capitalist mode of production of the North. This is all rather recent.

    Comment by purple — September 12, 2011 @ 4:37 am

  32. Marx writes extensively on sharecropping, which was endemic in the South post Reconstruction.

    Really? Where?

    Comment by louisproyect — September 12, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  33. #19 Agreed. Here in the UK intellectuals are taught that there is one position and there is another position and, whilst fully acknowledging the other position, you must choose one and defend it as the truth. That is how the sectarian ideologies are generated over here around which classes and interest groups can gather in righteous indignation. This country is hostile to reason and thinking except of the most empirical and immediately practical kind having not had to bother with it for so long. For people here the truth is always obvious. The bourgeois politicians for instance are split between austerity and stimulus or rather which to emphasise the most. In actual fact, both will destroy the economy. A synthesis of the two positions however is not to say let’s do a bit of both as two wrongs don’t make a right but an even greater wrong. Eclecticism and the dialectic are irreconcilably opposed. The dialectic strives towards a coherent whole. Synthesis requires combining the elements of truth in the idealised dichotomous thesis and anti-thesis to create something new and holistic that concretely captures the contradictory truth of material reality.

    From the Poverty of Philosophy:

    `Slavery is an economic category like any other. Thus it also has its two sides. Let us leave alone the bad side and talk about the good side of slavery. Needless to say, we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America.

    Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

    Without slavery North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe North America off the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilization. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.[*1]

    Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of the peoples. Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.’

    Engels’s footnote:

    *1. This was perfectly correct for the year 1847. At that time the world trade of the United States was limited mainly to import of immigrants and industrial products, and export of cotton and tobacco, i.e., of the products of southern slave labour. The Northern States produced mainly corn and meat for the slave states. It was only when the North produced corn and meat for export and also became an industrial country, and when the American cotton monopoly had to face powerful competition, in India, Egypt, Brazil, etc., that the abolition of slavery became possible. And even then this led to the ruin of the South, which did not succeed in replacing the open Negro slavery by the disguised slavery of Indian and Chinese coolies, F.E.
    [Note by Frederick Engels, to the 1885 German Edition. For more information, see Marx and Engels on the American Civil War]

    In its youth clearly capitalism utilized the plantation slave to help get it going. In its adult phase wage slavery came to dominate if not completely replace all other forms of exploitation. In its dotage we see the appearance of the industrial concentration camp. Since World War 2 capitalism has been on an American life support system which is now being turned off and no doubt if we are to die with it we will feel the sting of the neutron bomb and suffer the basest forms of exploitation in a new Dark Ages.

    Comment by David Ellis — September 12, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  34. What kind of shit is this. What’s the bottom line for all this minute analysis? “Marxists” trying to find some cover for supporting slavery? Did that renegade Genovese and LaRouche start from “scientific” queries like this?

    Reminds me of an old story, reported in the New York Times in the late 70s, of death squad fascists in Argentina sitting around debating whether the hundreds of “subversive” people they had held prisoner who they are planning on dumping into the sea are “marxists” Zinovievists, Trotskyists or whatever. Sounds like some species of insect one of them comments. Yeah hey, why do we need to figure this stuff out, another interjects, with the boss guy going, hey, they got one thing in common-What’s that? They’re all gonna be fuckin’ dead! to which they all burst out into demonic laughter.

    Are they slaves “proletarians”? As the enterprising soldiers with Sherman’s Army said to the Plantation House dwellers, “You got fire insurance?”

    Comment by Tom Cod — September 13, 2011 @ 6:21 am

  35. Matt,

    I think your answer illustrates one of the problems with this debate: the attempt to substitute formulas for historical analysis. Louis, to his credit, answered the question about native Americans and slaves with an historical answer. Your answer, however, was just a formula and explained nothing. I think formulas have some validity in illustrating certain aspects of reality and the relationship between things, but they cannot explain how serfs become capitalists (In fact they are pretty poor at explaining change in general). You can call my approach empiricist, or bourgeois or whatever, but at the very least it has the merit of being valid for the whole of human history and prehistory. For example, what formula would you use to “explain” economic relationships in paleolithic societies. Or, for that matter, can we apply formulas to prehistory at all?

    Rather than ask was the slave a proletarian, maybe it would be better to ask “Is the proletarian a slave?”

    Comment by Viktor — September 14, 2011 @ 8:54 am

  36. Engels provided a clear and unambiguous answer to the question posed by this article’s title:

    Question: In what way does the proletarian differ from the slave?

    Answer: The slave is sold once and for all, the proletarian has to sell himself by the day and by the hour. The slave is the property of one master and for that very reason has a guaranteed subsistence, however wretched it may be. The proletarian is, so to speak, the slave of the entire bourgeois class, not of one master, and therefore has no guaranteed subsistence, since nobody buys his labour if he does not need it. The slave is accounted a thing and not a member of civil society. The proletarian is recognised as a person, as a member of civil society. The slave may, therefore, have a better subsistence than the proletarian but the latter stands at a higher stage of development. The slave frees himself by becoming a proletarian, abolishing from the totality of property relationships only the relationship of slavery. The proletarian can free himself only by abolishing property in general.

    Now it’s often pointed out that Engels was no Marx, that he was the proverbial Watson to Marx’s Sherlock Holmes. Nevertheless, his word on this is good enough for me.

    Comment by Ross Wolfe — December 25, 2011 @ 6:49 am

  37. It was complex. Slaves did also work for themselves, often having their own private gardens or making goods to be sold. Slaves saved money they made and sometimes bought their own freedom.

    It was also complex for the slave owner. The plantation aristocracy often weren’t capitalists in the sense they had little to no ‘captial’, i.e., fungible wealth. Instead, the plantation economy was debt-based. The wealth plantation owners had was mostly in land and slaves, not capital. Plantation aristocracy were the Big Men in their communities. Along with being a gift economy, it was also a gift economy. Plantation aristocrats commanded prestige by being generious in their hospitality and in what they were able to offer others. This is why they were almost always in debt.

    There is also the relationship between the plantation aristocracy and the free lower class. One of the roles the elite played was as the middlemen in selling the agricultural goods of the yeoman farmers. Their value was their social position and their access to trade connections, not their capitalist wealth. It was a tight-knit community of relations that lacked much in the way of capitalist elements such as economic mobility.

    It has to be kept in mind that capitalism took a long time to take hold in the South. As Joe Bageant points out, there were still Southern farming communities well into the 20th century that were operating according to subsistence farming and barter. When Bageant was a kid, his family had a store tab with no bank account, with no money ever earned or spent. The agricultural goods were traded directly for supplies.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 22, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

  38. The plantation aristocracy often weren’t capitalists in the sense they had little to no ‘captial’, i.e., fungible wealth.

    Southern slave labor made New York City the financial capital of the world. Cotton produced on plantations became the main product of export and a major source of the city’s wealth. Large textile mills gave New York State a booming economy.

    Both cotton and enslaved workers treated as “property” were among the first commodities on the stock market. Cotton trading accounted for the country’s expansive growth for an extended historical period. Profits from the slave trade financed the industrial revolution.

    The Lehman family members were Alabama cotton brokers. In 1850 they founded Lehman Brothers Investments, acquiring their capital and wealth by investing and trading in cotton. Three sons moved to New York City in 1858, where they later helped to establish the New York Cotton Exchange (1870).

    full: http://www.workers.org/2008/us/lehman_1030/

    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

  39. I didn’t claim that the Southern slave economy wasn’t contained in a larger capitalist economy. That is similar to globalized capitalism today. A country doesn’t have to have a capitalist economy internally in order to do trade with foreign capitalist countries and individuals. Supposedly, there are more slaves today than existed in the past.

    Also, my point wasn’t that capitalists couldn’t enter the slave South and operate there. But capitalism wasn’t the economic system that was ordering society in the South. The seeds of capitalism were planted in the South, even as the dominant social order resisted capitalism. It was a long, slow transition.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 22, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

  40. A “slave economy” is not a meaningful term. For example, Nazi Germany made extensive use of slave labor but there is no point distinguishing between a Krupp factory using slave labor and one using wage labor. They were both commodity-producing enterprises operating within a capitalist economy. The first stage of American capitalism revolved around the plantation system. These were not “precapitalist” entities. They did not use wage labor only because it was unavailable. Just because the plantation system was “wasteful” in terms of soil exhaustion, that does not make it any less capitalist than a California pistachio nut plantation that is also exhausting the soil and precious water resources. Marx did not write much about slavery because he was examining the rise of capitalism in Western Europe and the British isles in particular. Just because his focus was on wage labor that is no reason to think that he saw it as a sine qua non for capitalism.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

  41. Many people in the Southern economy lacked ‘capital’, lacked fungible wealth. Many of the slave owners lacked ‘capital’. That is why, technically, it wasn’t capitalism for capitalist economics weren’t dominant. You can’t have capitalism dominating when capitalism itself doesn’t dominate. Most Southerners were still involved in a barter economy. That barter economy was pre-capitalist as it had a continuous lineage going back for centuries. Many of the immigrants in early America came from pre-capitalist societies.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 12:12 am

  42. Many of the slave owners lacked ‘capital’.

    Benjamin, I have no idea what your theoretical framework is. You keep saying that the Southern economy lacked “capital”. Are you using the term in the way that Karl Marx used it or are you using it in a Benjamin Steele sort of way. Plantation owners did not barter. They sold cotton to British or New England manufacturers. It was all part of the system called capitalism. You don’t seem to grasp that capitalism is a world system, with both “free” and coerced labor playing roles.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2014 @ 12:28 am

  43. How dare I offer a perspective that disagrees with the Great Marx! Two of the authors I base my conclusions upon, Eugene D. Genovese and Joe Bageant, have backgrounds in Marxism. There are a wide variety of perspectives even within Marxist-influenced theories.

    You seem to be asking me about how I can know what evidence to trust, what evidence to use or ignore, if I don’t begin with a theory. But that doesn’t sound very scientific to me. I have no theoretical framework, per se. I read various authors who use different theoretical frameworks. But what interests me most is the evidence itself. I prefer to begin with what can be known with a fair amount of certainty, and then from there begin to theorize and compare theories.

    Marx was a smart guy. He was basing his conclusions on the best evidence available to him at that time. But a whole lot of evidence has become available since. Marx didn’t know that subsistence farming and the barter economy would survive in the rural South for long after he was dead. He might not even have known that it existed while he was alive, for I’ve never heard of him having visited the rural South. Likewise, did Marx know that so many slave owners lacked fungible wealth?

    Not only did many of the slave owners lack fungible wealth, but nearly everyone in the South lacked fungible wealth, from slaves to yeoman farmers. Fungible wealth is one of the distinguishing features of capitalism. It is partly the lack of fungible wealth that largely defined earlier economic systems. The defining factor of ‘capital’ is that it is fungible wealth, and the defining factor of capitalism is that it is primarily based on capital.

    However, the Southern economy was partly contained within a larger, increasingly globalized capitalist economy. The boundary between the two economies was permeable, influence going in both directions. It is no different than some of the theocracies and authoritarian states today that are involved in the global capitalist markets. Some of the most oppressive countries in the world with the least free markets (internally), when they have resources capitalists want, will get outside capitalist investments to develop resource procurement. The same happened in the South. Even though many of the slave owners lacked capital, there were those from outside of the South who would lend money to slave owners or invest money in the South, especially land speculation early on.

    By the way, plantation owners did barter. They were often not making money off of their crops because they were rarely out of debt. Instead, the ‘profits’ they made were not unusually instantly transferred to supplies for their plantations and supplies they bartered with the yeoman farmers. Yes, there was also some capital involved, but the internal economy the plantation owners were involved in wasn’t primarily capital-based and so wasn’t primarily capitalist.

    I’m not sure why that is so hard to understand.

    I never claimed capitalism couldn’t have coerced labor. I merely claimed capitalism demands an economy be based on ‘capital’, specifically fungible wealth. Even at the height of the USSR’s power, there were black markets operating and there was also a larger globalized capitalist system. By your argument, the USSR therefore was a capitalist economy. That just seems like a strange argument to make.

    You can argue otherwise, but you’d need to offer evidence, not just a theory.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

  44. I actually don’t care that much about this. It doesn’t matter to me if slavery and the South in general were capitalist or not. I’d say that it isn’t a simple question.

    If capitalism can include slavery, subsistence farming, and barter, then capitalism could include almost anything, even feudalism. You could define capitalism that broadly. I tend to see that too broad of definitions end up being unhelpful.

    I’m reading Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. I found the same problem with is definition of liberalism. It is so broad that it includes people typically considered conservative and even some with strong radical leanings. What I think Losurdo has done is conflate liberalism as a broad category of ideologies and movements with the post-Enlightenment liberal societies. So, almost anything that exists in a liberal society is to Losurdo liberal. Hence, the conservatives and radicals in liberal societies are liberals. But he doesn’t present his argument systematically and so he makes unexplained exceptions and ommissions.

    What is more important to me is understanding what someone means when they use a term. Obviously, Losurdo doesn’t mean what most people mean when they use the word ‘liberal’. I suspect the same thing with your use of ‘capitalism’. If you want to use the term ‘capital’ in a particular way for some particular purpose, that is fine. But I’d recommend anyone using such broad definitions be very careful in explaining what they mean, something Losurdo failed to do.

    So, I’m not doubting that, according to your definition of ‘capitalism’, slavery was capitalist. Just as, according to my definition, it wasn’t. We are simply disagreeing about definitions, which is less interesting to me. It’s quibbling over words.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  45. Thanks for sharing that other article of yours. It is very interesting.

    I was already somewhat aware of his strange career. My interest wasn’t that I necessarily agree with everything Genovese says, certainly not his overall worldview, but that his take forced me to think about Southern history differently. We often forget how foreign to our experience were past societies. They don’t always easily fit into our intellectual constructs.

    My views were shaped by two pieces of evidence.

    First, in reading about Southern history, I kept coming across how a lot of the Southern aristocracy were in debt. Like feudal lords, they were wealthy in terms of possessing lots of land and property. But they didn’t have much capital as fungible wealth. Their wealth was sunk into their property and their lifestyle disallowed them from being able to sell their property in order to reinvest. Also, the slaves of the old plantation families were usually inherited property, not bought on the capitalist market. These elites were cash poor and basically paid for everything with a running tab, not unlike the poor yeoman farmers who kept a store tab. I never learned about this in school, of course.

    The second thing really drove this home. I was surprised to learn, in reading Joe Bageant’s autobiography, that the entire community he grew up in was subsistence farmers who used barter. In the 20th century? That was mind-blowing. These are Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, but it should be kept in mind that many yeoman farmers had slaves back in the day, even if only one or two slaves. Most slave owners weren’t the big plantation aristocrats. These yeoman slave owners worked in the fields with their slaves and never made much, if any, money. They were also cash poor and dependent on barter and store tabs. And, like their wealthier neighbors, their slaves were often inherited.

    There are a number of things that are interesting about these yeoman farmers. Most freemen in the Antebellum South were yeoman farmers and so they were the backbone of the economy, and yet they rarely interacted with the larger capitalist economy that existed outside of the South or in the port cities of the South. They didn’t sell their crops. They bartered them, often using the plantation owners as barter agents similar to the old trade agents who bartered with Native Americans during colonial times.

    That is a totally different world. If that is capitalism, it is entirely outside of what we now think of as capitalism.

    Still, my opinions on this matter are just that, opinions. I’m open to being persuaded.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

  46. I’ll tell you one of my biases. I tend to emphasize culture. Much of my thinking about US regions is influenced by David Hackett Fischer, Colin Woodard, and similar writers.

    There is capitalism as an economic system, but there is also capitalism in more sociological/anthropological terms. Most importantly from my perspective is that the Old South didn’t have a capitalist culture and social order. The Planter aristocrats saw themselves as above business, and when it came to the Civil war Southern rhetoric intentionally was opposed to capitalist rhetoric. These Southerners were incapable of understanding capitalism except as different version of slavery where white people were enslaved to the demands of business and profit. Such things were considered below freemen, especially below these self-styled Cavaliers.

    The ideal of the enlightened aristocracy was popular among the Southern elite. It was what they aspired to. The enlightened aristocracy was an inherited elite who justified their existence through ideals of noblesse oblige. The idea was people who inherited their wealth and social position so that they didn’t have to get their hands dirty with business. Their plantations weren’t run according to the business model in order to accumulate fungible wealth. Instead, their plantations were part of the social order, the crops and such were just there to keep it all going. Essentially, the plantation aristocracy were often just operating a more expensive and fancier form of subsistence farming.

    If you called one of these Old Southern elites a capitalist (or the equivalent term for that era), he’d probably have fought you to the death.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

  47. Benjamin, you really need to expand your reading. You should look at Engermann and Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”. You also need to look at the work of Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian who has made a very convincing case for the capitalist basis of chattel slavery:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

  48. I’m constantly reading from a wide variety of sources. It would be quite difficult for my reading to be any more expanded, for practical reasons. There are only so many hours in the day that I can read. For every book I read, there is another book I can’t be reading at the same time.

    By the way, I own that book by Walter Johnson and have read some of it, but it’s been a while since I looked at it. Also, if you mean Robert William Fogel, I own a book by him as well, although not one on slavery. However, I’m not familiar with Engerman. I did notice that about half of the reviews of Engermann and Fogel’s book were critical of their use of data (too limited, overgeneralized, etc) and there was even a book written to counter it (Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross by Herbert G. Gutman); and so I guess it is a highly contentious work.

    Just because I don’t share your exact opinions doesn’t mean I’m not well read and widely read. I always take book suggestions, but maybe you should consider expanding your own reading as well. Maybe if you were more familiar with cultural history than just economic history, your view would be different.

    One problem is that of categories. Reality rarely fits perfectly into intellectual constructs.

    ‘Capitliasm’ is just a word. There is no such thing as pure capitalism and there are an infinite of degrees between pre-capitalism and capitalism as we know it. I wasn’t arguing that capitalism didn’t exist in the slave South, but that it wasn’t yet the dominant economic, cultural, social, and political system. But determining what was the dominant system is highly subjective. Elements that are capitalist-like have existed for thousands of years. It can be argued endlessly the precise moment when capitalism became dominant in particular regions, countries, the globalized market.

    In centuries past, there was capitalism alongside subsistence farming, barter, various forms of colonial economics, and also indigenous trade systems. Were the natives in South and Central America working in a capitalist market when threatened by death to bring gold to the Spanish Conquistadors? The Spanish Empire was highly profitable. But is profitability the only requirement for something to be called ‘capitalist’? Were the natives in North America involved in capitalism when they traded shells with other natives for goods? Were those shells capitalist fungible wealth or a type of barter? It isn’t all that clear.

    You said that Johnson made a case that you find convincing. Many academics make many arguments that many people find convincing. And yet there is so much disagreement. Obviously, as this long thread of comments proves, debate is far from over. Declaring it over won’t make it over.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 23, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

  49. The reason I keep bringing up Marx with you is to make sure we are speaking the same language. He defines the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism as exactly involving the gold and silver mines of 16th century Latin America, slavery, etc. Here is the passage from the genesis of the industrial capitalist that makes this clear:

    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.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

  50. One thing that really interests me is the debt-based aspects as they relate to subsistence farming, barter, store tabs, and the indebtedness of the plantation aristocracy.

    This indebtedness wasn’t just economic but moreso social. It was a complex web of indebted relationships. This also relates to the Southern generosity and hospitality. The aristocracy prided themselves on their ability to give freely to their guests and everyone who was of the proper class was to be treated as a guest.

    Also, the aristocracy acted as political Big Men in their communities, sort of like the role of Mafia bosses. If you had a problem (your daughter was pregnant, your house burned down, you had a disagreement with a neighbor, etc), you went to the local aristocrat and ask him to take care of your problem. Aristocrats would even give away goods to their neighbors and not require them to pay for it. The aristocrats power and prestige was judged accordingly.

    This reminds me of pre-capitalist social systems. Some Native American tribes and Germanic tribes had gift economies. Part of the point of gift economies were to create a sense of indebtedness. It was one way of ‘saving’ one’s wealth by creating social obligations. It also served the purpose of building and maintaining the social order. Communities were based on those with close ties of indebtedness.

    This debt-based economy is the origin of the sharecropping. Sharecroppers were in a permanent state of indebtedness, but it wasn’t primarily about the money. It was a social order. The social order is pre-capitalist, even if it took on modes that later served within a capitalist system.

    This is more interesting to me than a black/white argument about capitalism or not.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 24, 2014 @ 12:13 am

  51. But what about my example of Native Americans using shells to trade with other Native Americans? That trade system was pre-colonial, but later served in trade with Europeans. Were those shells a form of money or just another commodity? Was that pre-colonial trade capitalism or something else? When does a barter economy become capitalism?

    Or use the Germanic tribes as an example. When did they become capitalist? They had primitive accumulation of wealth in various forms and attained in various ways, long before they were civilized by the Romans. If slaves in Antebellum South were part of a capitalist system, when did the slaves of Germanic tribes become part of a capitalist system? Those German-owned slaves probably were worked on the small farm plots Germanic tribes had.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 24, 2014 @ 12:20 am

  52. I don’t know if you have access to “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism” but in the issue prior to the current one there’s an article I wrote on “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” that deals with their role in 19th century capitalism, particularly as horse raiders and traders. It has more to do with Henry Ford than trading shells or beads.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 24, 2014 @ 12:29 am

  53. I don’t have immediate access to “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. I do, however, live near the University of Iowa. I could go to the main library which is near where I live. I’ll look for your article the next time I go to the university library.

    I’ll also go back Walter Johnson’s book. Maybe he’ll convince me.

    The crux of the matter is terminology. How do we define ‘capitalism’? And why? What are we fundamentally speaking about? Is there an essential character of capitalism that distinguishes it from all other economic systems? Or is it more of a matter of degree and a specific array of factors?

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 24, 2014 @ 1:11 am

  54. You might find it interesting that I just debated this issue with my father who is a strong conservative with a libertarian bent. I laid out all the sides to the argument. He concluded that the Antebellum slave South was capitalist.

    His main point was that there was a market economy that to varying degrees most Southerners had some access to, even if only indirectly and within major constraints. He didn’t see the subsistence farming, barter, and indebtedness as being more significant. As he sees it, the market economy was still the larger framework in which all of this was operating.

    He definitely emphasized the economic aspects over that of culture and social order. Southerners had assets that they accumulated and, one way or another, these assets often made their way to the market. The fungible wealth may have been limited and played a lesser role, but at the point of the market transaction wealth was being made, even when it was immediately paid to debtors.

    I’ll have to ponder this some more.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — March 24, 2014 @ 2:18 am

  55. Maybe the question is if the structure of domination, the power structure, operates and is valid for different economic modes of organization. For example industrial “classic” capitalism like a mode of domination is a variety of slavery (you sell “per hour” your body to work and you earn the mínimum you need to survive, you work all the day in a place where you are in time and space extracted from your “life-space”, stripped off of your human bonds with somebody -family, friends-…). The situation is in the end the same, but inserted in different economic logics. Maybe “slavery” would be better considered as a general mode of domination, and “proletarian” a concept created to put a name to slavery in capitalism economic system (and a new expression must be created to put a name to slavery when we want to define it in relation to the “precapitalist” modes of economic organization).

    Comment by Albert — April 22, 2014 @ 9:43 am

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