Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2012

David Graeber on capitalism and unfree labor

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

(From “Debt: the first 5,000 years”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

70 Comments

  1. David Graeber wrote:

    “. . . they [Marxists] still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism. And the dominant image in the history of capitalism is the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road. I Ike sweatshops, this is assumed to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.”

    Wow.

    As a Marxist, I never knew I was supposed to believe this.

    Trust an anarchist to try play “More Left than Thou” and conflate liberalism with Marxism.

    Comment by Todd — April 26, 2012 @ 12:18 am

  2. A great, mind-expanding book – I quickly read a library copy when it first came out, eagerly awaiting the paperback due in June. Whatever one thinks of Graeber’s anarchist politics – and I find myself surprisingly sympathetic – Debt is a major work of economics and economic history.

    Comment by Fred Murphy — April 26, 2012 @ 12:51 am

  3. But isn’t he missing Marx’s idea of wage labor being free in a double sense? Free to contract with some capitalist but forced to do so because free of any means of production? He doesn’t seem to have read Capital with much care. Plus, while capitalism has been happy to use slaves, etc., it would and does exist in most of the world without them and can exist, in fact it is capitalism’s essential feature that it does exist, on the basis of wage labor. Were there only capitalists and wage workers, capitalism would do just fine.

    Comment by michael yates — April 26, 2012 @ 1:02 am

  4. To Todd – only the part about wage labor being the predominant form of labor under capitalism, was meant to be attributed specifically to Marxists. Sorry if that was unclear. The fact that many Marxists do seem attached to that one idea though seems confirmed, for instance, by the reaction of Michael Yates below

    To Michael Yates – you don’t seem to have read the passage above with much care! I mentioned with approval the common Marxian point that wage labor is not really free in the first paragraph. Saying that capitalism would and does exist in most of the world without unfree labor however is the very point I am challenging – here, in the tradition of Marxist thinkers like Yann Moulier-Boutang who wrote a voluminous book to document exactly how dominant unfree forms have been through most of capitalism’s history. Obviously, unfree labor is not just slavery, it also includes debt peonage, unfree contract labor of various sorts, the exploitation of undocumented workers without legal rights or under apartheid style work immigration agreements, prison or other penal labor, workfare, unpaid labor in family enterprises, etc, etc. In many part of the world the number of laborers with classic free wage labor contracts is a tiny minority (because aside from unfree labor, you also have to count the impoverished but precariously self-employed, which is often the majority of the workforce), and of course, those employed in family farms and so on. Anyway we’re not really talking about individual national economies, we’re talking about a capitalist world system – and on that level, it’s quite clear that wage labor is probably never the predominant form.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 26, 2012 @ 3:59 am

  5. To David Graeber–I take your points. But how do you define capitalism? What are its essential forms? How do you distinguish it from other modes of production? What is the essential difference between say an undocumented immigrant harvesting lettuce in California and the men in my hometown who used to work in the glass factory there? Is it just a matter of the degree of “freedom”? Does the concept of surplus value not apply to both workplaces? And is it impossible to imagine that every worker in the world was like the glass factory workers? Wouldn’t there still be a reserve army? What in Marx would lead anyone to believe that we are headed for a world of upwardly mobile wage laborers? How do you define the condition of the tens of millions of Chinese peasants who can no longer survie from working the land? They do work as wage laborers but retunr to their plots of land when there is no work in the cities. This allows their employers to pay them less than the value of their labor power, no? From the perspective of global capital, are they not wage laborers? These are some questions I have after reading what Louis posted with more care. They are posed in solidarity.

    Comment by michael yates — April 26, 2012 @ 5:41 am

  6. To MY:
    You know, you do have an odd tendency ignore what I actually said. I specifically said that only the first sentence, the assumption that free wage labor is the predominant form of labor under capitalism, applied to Marxism, and thus that the other statements (i.e., about social mobility) did not. Why then do you write a reply to that assuming that I was attributing to Marxists the idea of “upwardly mobile wage laborers” – one of the statements I specifically clarified in my last post that I was _not_ attributing to Marxists?

    So with your other statements. I said the predominant form of labor under capitalism has not been freely contracted wage labor. Why would trying to demonstrate that an unfree contract is still capitalism contradict this? Obviously it would confirm my statement, not contradict it, since it would demonstrate that this was in fact a capitalist relation, even if it was not based on free wage labor.

    I am not making an argument that Marx’s analysis of surplus value is flawed. I am simply pointing out that our assumption that free wage labor has been the typical form of labor contract under capitalism is false. It is the way capitalists like to pretend the system works, but it’s not the way it has really tended to work. As I note in the book, the reason many followers of Marx fall into the trap of buying into certain elements of capitalist ideology like this – as they do something similar, often, when speaking of money – is because they can forget that Marx was not writing a work of politics economy but rather a critique of political economy; that is, he was taking the assumptions of political economy of his day (for instance, that wages were freely contracted) and demonstrating that, even if they were true, they would still lead to profound contradictions, and ultimately the self-destruction of the system. That doesn’t mean he accepted that they were true. He was just saying that even if we grant the bourgeois ideologists their most cherished assumptions, the contradictions would still appear.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 26, 2012 @ 6:02 am

  7. David,

    You didn’t answer one question that Michael posed, which was: how do you define capitalism? And the two accompanying questions: What are its essential forms? How do you distinguish it from other modes of production?

    Now, I’m not really familiar with your work, so for all I know, maybe you dismiss the very concept of “mode of production” as some kind of Marxist shibboleth. But if that’s the case, I’m still curious to know what you understand under “capitalism”. If one doesn’t distinguish between different forms of extracting surplus labor, then I’m not sure what use a concept like “capitalism” is, unless you’re using it in a sense unfamiliar to me, like maybe to denote a historical epoch or something.

    On your other points, I think it is useful here to borrow Poulantzas’ distinction between the capitalist mode of production and capitalist societies. That is, in capitalist societies, the capitalist mode of production becomes the dominant mode of production, but that does not mean that it does not co-exist with other subordinate modes of production. American chattel slavery existed within a capitalist world system dominated by England, whose internal class relations were typically capitalist. Sure, different types of exploitation exist in any society. In capitalism, you also still have family farms and independent proprietors and the like. But it is the wage labor-capital relation, human labor-power taking the form of a commodity, that is characteristic of the capitalist mode of production.

    Comment by negativepotential — April 26, 2012 @ 11:26 am

  8. David, would you mind expanding a bit more on what you mean by “the basis of capitalism”? Sometimes it looks as though you’re arguing that unfree labour is how capitalism gets its money, sometimes it seems as though you’re arguing that unfree labour is how capitalism got its start.

    As for the clarity of your description, yes, it does look a little unclear when you bring in words like “dominant image in the history of capitalism” and “stages” after invoking Marxism then bringing in liberal crap like that last sentence.

    Comment by Todd — April 26, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  9. To Todd: I remember coming across this passage in the book, now; I was confused, but in context I thought Graeber was trying to write: “… this is assumed [incorrectly, by Marxists] to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed [incorrectly, by liberals] that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.” That is, Marxists and liberals both have incorrect assumptions about the development of labor under capitalism–different assumptions, maybe, but both wrong. No, it is not well-written. And, yes, I may be giving Graeber a too-generous read. Oh, and I *do* think, contra Graeber (I think!), that “free” wage labor *is* a stage that industrializing nations must pass through–if for no other reason than it is all but definitional of “industrializing.” There are systemic efficiencies to “free” wage labor, not that (despite what Graeber wrote) there is necessarily some “straight line.” In fact, that’s what bothered me–that “straight line” nonsense.

    Comment by Capitalism or Democracy-Choose one — April 26, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

  10. Interested parties might be interested in looking at Robert Steinfeld’s two [affordable] volumes on the history of wage labor from the aftermath of the black plague through the end of the 19th century; both are magnificent pieces of legal-political-economy scholarship.

    Comment by Eubulides — April 26, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  11. Oops! I see that David did answer my question after all. Pardon me, David. I blame lack of time for not reading your answer to Michael.

    No, I don’t agree with your notion of how outnumbered free labour is and was by unfree labour under capitalism. I suspect what I’m seeing is a very narrow definition of free labour that’s been put forth so as to try to make capitalism look even worse than what it is.

    David wrote:

    “Obviously, unfree labor is not just slavery, it also includes debt peonage, unfree contract labor of various sorts, the exploitation of undocumented workers without legal rights or under apartheid style work immigration agreements, prison or other penal labor, workfare, unpaid labor in family enterprises”

    These various forms of exploitation are, at the very least, open to interpretation as to whether or not they are, in fact, free labour. I’d tend to argue that free labour isn’t so much about whether the labourer has some kind of de jure freedom to leave his place of employment as it’s about whether or not the one who employs that labour is simply exchanging labour power for some kind of recompense or not. That doesn’t happen under slavery, for example: the slave is owned outright by the master (and the master pays someone else ie the slaver for the actual body of the slave, not the slave’s labour), and the master, if he wants to preserve the value of the money he’s paid to own the slave, needs to take care of the slave above and beyond anything resembling a wage. Penal labour and workfare are just ways that are already ensconced within the notion of free labour of reducing the bargaining power of labour and increasing the ability of the user of that labour power, let’s say a capitalist, to squeeze even more surplus value out of the worker. The worker still gets paid for his labour power even though the “socially accepted price” of that labour hasn’t been met; the capitalist just doesn’t concern himself with spending money on the worker beyond the pay. If you seriously believe that something like workfare isn’t free labour, you might as well also believe that free labour has never existed whatsoever because the bourgeois have always tried to pull every stunt possible to try and reduce the money they pay to workers.

    I absolutely agree that the modern ( especially bourgeois) notion of what constitutes “free labour” is intricately mixed up with history, law, and circumstances and such labour can appear in a myriad of different forms, but I think it’s pushing pointlessly to declare that “real” free labour is, somehow, like “real” democracy, something that’s almost non-existant.

    Comment by Todd — April 26, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  12. Things haven’t changed much. Years ago it was slavery and indentured servitude, today it’s sweatshop slave labor and exploitation. Same game, different players. The Capitalist regime just continues and it is as revolting as it’s always been.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 27, 2012 @ 12:43 am

  13. I would only echo what Michael, Todd and negativepotential have argued: what good is a term like capitalism if it is basically indistinct, qualitatively, from the systems of social property relations that came before it? Is the Left to take a simply a moral position on work?

    Then there’s the empirical question of free labor–labor by contract, whatever you want to call it: there is no doubt that today it is the prevailing form of labor. Of course there are extra-economic means that capitalists use to coerce workers into accepting lower wages, but the reality is that–unlike in feudalism, say–workers cannot provide for their own subsistence without selling their labor-power on the market. I would have thought that this is an elemental, and widely accepted–universally accepted, even–idea among political economists on the Left. But I guess not. The idea that workers paid partly in kind somehow discredits the idea of free labor seems a non sequitur: money is, after all, just one of many commodities. The key question is: do workers, by necessity, have to resort to the (labor) market in order to survive? If the answer is yes, we are living in a capitalist system in which the compulsion to work is accomplished through *economic necessity*. I’m baffled that this could be denied as the logic of today’s dominant form of work.

    It seems especially perverse to be arguing that free labor does not prevail today when the central manifestation of the current crisis has been *unemployment* and the growth of precarious and informal work–made possible by technical innovation that lowers the cost of labor for employers, among other factors It seems that indeed the logic of the marketplace–the logic of capitalism–is responsible for today’s crisis. If there ever was a textbook example of the internal contradictions of capitalism, today’s crisis is one. Or would you deny this and simply speak of an apparently moral crisis?

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 3:28 am

  14. Sorry I’ve been away occupying Wall Street and whatnot. In response to the question about what is capitalism, I must say that, rather like Marx actually, I’m not too keen on the word. I do use it I have to admit, it’s hard not to, but I tend to prefer to talk about capital, which can be defined roughly as productive wealth deployed so as to accumulate more wealth through the exploitation, direct or indirect, or labor power, realized through surplus value. It is hardly the only form of value realization that occurs in any society, or “social formation” if you prefer. (I’ve written about other forms extensively in my book on value theory but don’t really want to go into it here.) Sure the world system of today is dominated by capitalist relations of production but it’s never the only form. But for me this is different from the issue of the variety of labor arrangements that capitalist relations of production might entail. And yes, you could make a circular definition and say that capitalist relations are by definition free labor but I’m not sure what is gained by doing this.

    I personally don’t think it’s helpful to make a strict distinction between slaves who are only kept alive and wage laborers who are compensated, since that would mean a lot of slaves aren’t slaves, since often slaves were rented out and received half their wages as a stipend – in fact, this was the primary form of wage labor in the ancient world! But that’s another conversation.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 27, 2012 @ 3:32 am

  15. How is it circular to say that what defines the capitalist mode of production is a set of social relations in which everyone is dependent upon the market–meaning that workers are dependent upon the market to find work (under a condition of economic compulsion: free labor)?

    I don’t think Marx was at all averse to talking about the capitalist mode of production as a historically specific set of social property relations–it is, after all, what he announces as his intention in the first sentence of Capital Vol. I. It seems your critics are asking you to discuss this. You seem to in fact argue that capitalism, and the formation of capital, is not historically specific but rather part of a process that goes back to the ancient world–or perhaps even further than that. Is that really what you are arguing?

    David Graeber wrote: “…capital, which can be defined roughly as productive wealth deployed so as to accumulate more wealth through the exploitation, direct or indirect, or labor power, realized through surplus value.” Here I am very lost. How is wealth “realized through surplus value”? Isn’t surplus value the *result* of value produced via exploitation above the cost of wages? All of what we are talking about here is “wealth” but in different forms. So are you talking about investment–or something else entirely?

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 6:03 am

  16. While it’s true that non-free labor is utilized by capitalists, the prevalence of free labor is something that is distinct in capitalism.

    The destruction of the Jim Crow feudal system led to a shift in manufacturing from North to South that continues to this day. Manufacturing seems to require a type of free labor that forces great masses of people out of pre-capitalist or non-capitalist rural sectors. In China, this has been done by dismantling Maoist era rural reforms and collective or co-operative farmland.

    (A side note of this is that the union power found in the North depended on the South being a closed society just as it depended upon China being walled off from the world, it was a brief moment in time, and not something that can be brought back in some reformist package)

    Comment by purple — April 27, 2012 @ 6:32 am

  17. For instance, consider the distribution of auto production in the United States today as compared to 1955. Here is a probably incomplete list of major automobile plants in ‘Dixie’ as of 2010 (Volkswagon is adding another in Chattanooga). I would argue this could not have occurred in the South in 1955 due to the nature of capitalist development at that time. http://www.mississippi.org/assets/docs/maps/se-auto.pdf

    Comment by purple — April 27, 2012 @ 6:44 am

  18. Well let’s take Jim Crow as an example, since someone mentioned that. Almost as soon as it was abolished, we had the substitution of undocumented Latin American immigrants for most of the same jobs, except on a national basis. In other words, once you eliminate one population reduced to social pariahs with no legal rights, you create another one – which ends up employed in season farm work, lowest-paid service jobs like restaurant work, etc – but now, also, a lot of factory work as well.

    Anyway this talk of the “prevalence” of free labor seems to be based on treating national economies as separate units and then choosing only an unrepresentative few – no one would conceivably make a statement like that about Brazil, or Pakistan, let alone Saipan. Yes, now, capitalists have abandoned indentured servitude and similar institutions on a formal contractual basis, but they use immigration laws to do the same work: everything from the construction industry to the sex trade in large parts of the world are almost entirely based on immigrant debt peonage.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 27, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  19. David, it almost seems as though what interests you is “modes of oppression”; I get that idea from what you’ve written above @4:45 and this from your book:

    “This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire, as it did in the Putumayo, but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is— particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom.”

    Is that right? I mean you bring up various forms of oppression that have been involved with the accumulation of surplus value by ruling classes at various points in history and then, apparently, display these forms to point out that capitalism really has nothing to do with freedom.

    Comment by Todd — April 27, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

  20. David Graeber wrote: “Well let’s take Jim Crow as an example, since someone mentioned that. Almost as soon as it was abolished, we had the substitution of undocumented Latin American immigrants for most of the same jobs…”

    I am searching to understand how this is not a precise example of the logic of the labor market–in fact, if we take NAFTA into account, the attendant destruction of Latin American agriculture due to cheap US agro exports, which drove Latin American farmers into cities, and then on to emigrate out of their countries, it seems to follow the exact pattern one would expect of people who are compelled to sell their labor-power on the market. Migration is a feature of the labor market–workers, who *cannot provide for their own subsistence and who are therefore dependent upon the market for survival* search across national borders for jobs.

    The fact that these jobs are paid below federal minimum wage, or that they are unregulated or that immigrants have no legal rights is separate from the question of whether we are talking about free labor. David Graeber just turns every question about economic development into a moral one it seems, and cannot distinguish between forms of oppression and the systems that give rise to them. Free labor does not mean more rights and/or less oppression. It means that workers are compelled principally by economic necessity to find work.

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

  21. Immigrant workers are subject to all sorts of non-market coercion, starting with “La Migra”. If there was some kind of genuine market relations in the USA, and globally for that matter, workers would ignore borders and go where their labor power can command the highest price. But what happens is that they are forced to work for less because of the threat of being deported. This is not that far from South Africa’s pass laws. If you want to see the fullest expression of economic/racial apartheid for undocumented workers nowadays, see the documentary “9 Star Hotel”:

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

  22. I don’t doubt that Arab workers in Israel face all forms of extra-economic coercion. But are you arguing that this is typical, or, to bring it back to the example David Graeber was using, analogous to the American South today, and immigrants to the US who work off the books for starvation wages? It seems to me that immigrants from Hispanic countries to the US are facing very much the brutal logic of the market, since they cannot afford to stay in their countries of birth.

    As it turns out, the depression and high unemployment rates in the US have, as of this week, reversed the direction of immigration. That would seem to be evidence that it is in fact the logic of the market–“pure” market or not–that is determining the direction of immigration within the Americas.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/for-first-time-since-depression-more-mexicans-leave-us-than-enter/2012/04/23/gIQApyiDdT_story.html

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  23. It seems to me that immigrants from Hispanic countries to the US are facing very much the brutal logic of the market, since they cannot afford to stay in their countries of birth.

    That’s only one side of the equation. In the USA, they are “illegal”. If there’s anything that defines non-market coercion, it is being illegal.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  24. How so? It seems to me that the status of “illegal” simply means that workers have no recourse to the judicial system and are therefore all the more precarious and subject to the whims of their employers. Employers of undocumented immigrants are in effect at the cutting edge of capitalist relations. Perhaps it is something like the relation between capitalist and worker in the very early days of capitalism, before workers had won the 12 hour day in the mid 19th century.

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

  25. JC, I don’t know if you are familiar with the writings of the Robert Brenner school but the capitalist mode of production is pretty much defined as operating on the basis of market coercion. Undocumented workers in the USA are only “subject to the whims of their employers” because the state is intervening in economic relationships. For example, they are forced to accept lower wages because the better-paying jobs are only available to citizens or those workers with green cards. Interestingly enough, some libertarians, like the late Jack Kemp, fought against repressive immigration laws because they interfered with the market.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

  26. Yes, I understand your point. And that is what I am trying to argue, that the logic of migration does in fact operate on the basis of market coercion–that is an accurate term. Of course there are important political elements to this, like threats from the state towards workers–it could not be otherwise–but if we are to talk about capitalist relations of production, I do think we still have to talk about the market as the driving force, for workers and capitalists alike. That is why when the economy is in crisis, or when new avenues of trade are opened up, we see shifts in the direction and intensity of migration.

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  27. JC, the issue is not migration. It is about things like pass laws like in apartheid South Africa, Blacks being prevented by cops from going North during Jim Crow, being undocumented, etc. Anyhow, I don’t see much point in going further with you on this since you appear uninterested in data that does not fit into your schema.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  28. Louis, I take your points, but I am not sure how David Graeber’s argument that free labor is simply a myth can be sustained when, despite instances of extra-economic coercion and state intvervention with which nobody would quarrel, the overall condition of workers today is that of seeking work on the market (workers selling their labor-power on the market). If Graeber is to really make the argument that there is no qualitative distinction between the ancient Roman slave mode of production and today’s capitalism, his burden is to show why there is systemic unemployment today; why migration patterns change according to the demand for labor, and so on. Absent evidence of some world council of manorial lords who are pulling the strings, I don’t see how he could deny free labor as a central feature of capitalism.

    Comment by JC — April 27, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  29. If we assumed that the world conformed perfectly to the forms (commodity, capital, labor power, etc.) that Marx develops in Capital I, I think we would have surplus labor time, surplus value, accumulation of capital, reserve army of labor and the like. Workers could go where they liked and still they would be exploited. Market relationships would be all that there are. Most of us would accept this, as we do now, and as we operated according to the logic of the market, we would reproduce the conditions, over and over again, that would continue the process of capital accumulation. State structures would no doubt be needed both to accommodate accumulation and to contain any serious class conflict. Workers would be unfree and still reduced to a shell of humanity as capital continually reconfigured the labor process to ensure as much control of it as possible.

    Now if we look at actually existing capitalism, we see that there have from the get-go (and in continuation of many of the things that existed in pre-capitalist societies) all sorts of coercion not strictly in conformity with the forms Marx analyzed in Capital (but of which he was obviously aware, at least for what existed then and what he knew about). These make a complete mockery of the rationalizations bourgeois economists, politicians, pundits, etc. make when they say capitalism is the embodiment of freedom. All these hundreds of years of capitalism, and we still have all of this coercively induced misery, the norm in so many places as David Graeber makes clear.

    Maybe the hard part in terms of revolution is having as starting points all of this misery and trying to end it without moving in the direction of conformity to purely market norms. There should be no such thing as undocumented immigrants or apartheid or bonded labor or child labor, but how to end these and still be moving toward emancipation. For example, we live mostly in motels and we know that many of the women who clean the rooms are undocumented. Suppose they were not. This would be very good for them, but they would still be room cleaners. If they unionized, they would still be wage laborers. If their kids moved up in the world, well you can see what I mean.

    (These are some thoughts I had, while sweeping the porch, about what David Graeber said in what Louis posted and the comments people have made). I appreciate the give and take. I am a slow learner sometimes and move in an unsteady path toward understanding.

    Comment by michael yates — April 27, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

  30. Louis,

    It might be the case that Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood bend the stick too far in the direction of emphasizing purely market forms of coercion. If they intend that to mean that empirical reality is always subjected entirely to the laws of the market, then of course that’s wrong.

    For example, I think especially in terms of U.S.-American history, you definitely need some analysis of the working class in terms of racial stratification, of the sort provided by folks like Roediger, Ignatiev, Ted Allen, and their major influences W.E.B. DuBois and CLR James. It’s not possible to fully grasp the history of the American working class applying only the categories from Marx’s Capital.

    That’s because Marx’s intention was not to supply a “history” of capitalism, but rather to work out what makes the capitalist mode of production what it is; what are its defining forms; what distinguishes it from other forms of exploitation. In doing so, he’s not saying every empirically existing society corresponds to the presentation he makes. He’s not even saying that 19th Century England looks like that. Rather, he’s doing what most scientists do: using abstract to point out what are the “essential” features.

    That’s also why we need empirical and historical analyses, because the general laws of motion of capitalism outlined by Marx are just that: general laws of motion.

    BTW, if anyone is interested in pursuing a study of the State, which Marx famously never got around to writing his book on, I would love to participate in an online reading group of Heide Gerstenberger’s Impersonal Power, an English edition of which was published by Haymarket a few years ago.

    Comment by negative potential — April 27, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  31. That is one of the funniest lines I have ever read in these hinter-blogs:
    “Sorry, I have been away occupying Wall Street and whatnot.”
    That has to be someone impersonating a “David Graeber.”
    Nobody could be that revealingly querulous and self-ennobling.
    MY, on the other hand, reveals himself to be less than completely enraptured with his own
    stature in such a debased, threatened, burning world – someone who has maintained his humanity despite being a professor.

    Comment by mjosefw — April 27, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  32. mjosefw, you get points from me for praising Mike Yates, but you also get points deducted for thinking you had to bash DG to do so.

    Seriously, and I don’t mean this as hippy shit, we need less ego in these kinds of discussions. And I’m definitely throwing that stone from a glass house: I know how often the urge to deflate pretensions runs together with the urge to be nasty.

    But I’m reminded of something another comrade said on another discussion forum: these days, snark and gloom almost strike me as luxuries. Most of the time, I’m just consumed with aggressive rage at this fucked up system.*

    * mixed with hope that we might be able to pull the plug on it in the forseeable future. Thank you Wisconsin, Greece, Spain for showing the way.

    Comment by negative potential — April 27, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

  33. That’s because Marx’s intention was not to supply a “history” of capitalism, but rather to work out what makes the capitalist mode of production what it is; what are its defining forms; what distinguishes it from other forms of exploitation.

    I quite agree but you must keep in mind that Marx was also very concerned with the history of capitalism as well. That’s why he deals with primitive accumulation, commercial capitalism and other features of the system in its early stages. My biggest beef with the Brennerites is that despite all their talk about “transition”, what you get is something very close to the “stagist” schema of the British Marxist Historians group with capitalism emerging like Athena out of Zeus’s head–all because of an “accident” in the British countryside in the 15th century.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

  34. Nobody could be that revealingly querulous and self-ennobling.

    We don’t need to have people’s character disparaged here. Maybe I am more sensitive to this question because I got a bucket of spit in my face from Sebastian Budgen of Verso press for no good reason–all to the effect that I have “ressentiment” toward Robert Brenner and Slavoj Zizek just because I criticize them here. Let’s stick with the arguments that people make, not their alleged failings to live up to one’s ideals.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

  35. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Why is it that all these threads manage to do is to retread over old ground, in the process recycling (once again) arguments that have been around for a very long time. So Graeber has now ‘discovered’ that capitalism and unfree labour are perfectly compatible. Um, where have I heard that argument before? Oh gosh, I do in fact know the answer to this: in my book, Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates (1999). And where have I seen the argument that the capitalism/unfreedom link is perfectly compatible with Marxist theory? Ooops, I know the answer to this, too: in my book, Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation (2011).

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 28, 2012 @ 10:33 am

  36. Tom, I was under the impression that the MR dependency school made these points 35 years ago at least. That’s my impression from what I have seen in Wallerstein, AG Frank, Samir Amin et al.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 28, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

  37. Not so. What Wallerstein et al. said was that free labour was found in the centre (i.e., metropolitan capitalism), unfreedom was reproduced on the non-capitalist periphery. In other words, the classic dualism of the time, one that informed much of the 1970s debate about the mode of production and the transition to capitalism in so-called Third World nations. The focus of my argument, made in articles from the 1980s onwards (published in the 1999 book), was on a different dynamic: not the centre/periphery dichotomy, a geographical model, but rather on class formation and class struggle. Because it was the latter that accounted for the presence of unfree labour, such relations were inceasingly found where advanced capitalism was located; namely, the centre which dependency theory thought was the preserve of free labour.

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 28, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  38. (go to link below to see video of immigrant workers)

    http://www.theuptake.org/2012/04/27/report-modern-day-slavery-in-minnesota-retail-cleaning-industry/

    Report: “Modern Day Slavery” In Minnesota Retail Cleaning Industry
    April 27, 2012 by Bill Sorem Economy/Jobs, Immigration No Comments

    Work seven days a week, eight hours a day and no overtime. That plus other abuses of the workers is what, Stephen Phillon, Associate Professor of Sociology, St. Cloud State University, describes in a report as, “modern day slavery.” The report of his study was released April 24, 2012, titled, “Dirty Business: Worker Exploitation in the Retail Janitorial Industry.”

    A lawsuit has been filed against Diversified Industries, the cleaning subcontractor for Kmart, Target, Best Buy and other retail establishments. This report was presented at a rally in front of one of the Kmart stores that is cleaned by Diversified. The report was released and the rally organized by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha/the Center for Workers United in Struggle) a worker’s organization.

    According to the report, department stores and supermarkets contract out their janitorial work seemingly to cut costs and avoid responsibility. There is fierce competition among the janitorial companies for these contracts, with each company trying to underbid the other.

    Since labor is by far the largest and most costly expense in a cleaning contract, the company with the lowest labor costs tends to win the contract.

    Two low-wage jobs not enough to feed a family

    “I held two jobs because of the low wages. We work in a place filled with food and yet we can barely feed our families,” said Mario Colloly Torres who used to clean a supermarket and now works with CTUL.

    The report says that contractors count on the predominantly immigrant workforce not being aware of their rights or being afraid of retaliation if they complain. The report recounts one case where a Philadelphia cleaning company even went so far as to enslave their workers and to threaten the workers and their families with physical violence if they try to escape.

    The suit on behalf of the cleaning workers has been filed against Diversified Maintenance, a national cleaning company headquartered in Tampa, FL. Diversified has been sued a number of times over this same issue and other issues relating to working conditions.

    Michael Healey, the atorney representing the workers, said that Diversified does not like to go to trial so he anticipates a negotiated settlement as has been the case with other similar actions.

    Brian Payne, CTUL organizer, reported that the action last year against Super Valu and Cub demanding better treatment was amicably solved and both parties are pleased.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 28, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

  39. @ Tom Brass – you seem to have some interesting and innovative arguments, but the 3-figure price tags on your books is a large obstacle for those without access to research libraries. Any online essays? Google wasn’t helpful …

    Comment by Fred Murphy — April 28, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  40. This kind of report about ‘Modern day slavery’ in the midst of an advanced metropolitan capitalist economy is not exactly new, and underlines the point I was making above, about how the ‘discovery’ of a link between capitalism and unfree labour is not new either. Claims to the effect that the link is indeed novel are rather like someone nowadays bursting into a crowded room and announcing ‘Hey, guys, I’ve just invented a new way of making travel easier – I’m going to call it the wheel’.

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 28, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

  41. Fred Murphy – I agree absolutely with the point you make about book prices. Unfortunately, I have no control over this. However, paperback copies of my 1999 book do surface on e-bay for small sums, and Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation will be republished as a Haymarket paperback at the end of this year. A summary of my argument, in an essay ‘Capitalism, Primitive Accumulation and Unfree Labour’, can be found in Imperialism, Crisis and Class Struggle: Essays in Honor of James Petras, issued as a Haymarket paperback last year.

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 28, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  42. Although I’m not planning to buy it right now, the price-tags were not 3-figures. Try a search on DealOz and you should find prices within the 2-figure range.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — April 28, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

  43. Thanks, Tom – I’ll look for those. David Graeber can speak for himself and already has in this thread, but I don’t see that he’s reinventing the wheel, just providing further ammunition in the ongoing battle of ideas between radical critics of capitalism (both marxist and anarchist) on the one hand and its liberal apologists on the other. If Graeber’s role in Occupy brings fresh attention to this critique, so much the better. (It can’t hurt either that ‘Debt’ is affordable, even in hardcover.)

    Comment by Fred Murphy — April 28, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

  44. To Fred: thanks. Yes, precisely. Where did I say that I was the first to observe this? Actually I cited a very long book by Moulier-Boutang that I thought makes the same case in great detail (sorry I hadn’t come on Tom Brass’ work at the time I was writing). It does sometimes seem people are just scratching around for reasons to be intemperate. As for occupying Wall Street, well, I have, in fact, had limited time on the internet because I was in fact down in Union Square and Wall Street as well as Mayday meetings (I should be at one right now), I suppose I should not mention such things so as to spare anyone’s delicate sensibilities – for whatever reasons they might take offense at someone noting that they are engaged in political praxis of some kind.

    “Graeber is to really make the argument that there is no qualitative distinction between the ancient Roman slave mode of production and today’s capitalism…” I mean honestly! Where have I said anything like that? I have argued that wage labor regimes resemble slavery rather more than feudalism, since feudal labor relations tend to be based on custom, and therefore don’t really involve the purchase of abstract labor power, whereas both slavery and wage labor often does. But obviously I’ve never suggested it’s the same thing. I honestly don’t know what purpose is served by pretending otherwise.

    I do think the implications of the prevalence of coerced labor under capitalism, and the relation of market coercion and more direct legal or physical coercion, is something we might do well to think about. Is it really true that as M-B suggests, a capitalism which really did operate on free labor (including free movement of labor) would quickly collapse.

    I do agree that Debt is way overpriced. And the paperback isn’t coming out to January! Not much I can really do. Certainly I would never, ever suggest anyone just download the thing from one of those free sites, since, after all, that would be illegal.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 28, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

  45. David Graeber wrote: “I personally don’t think it’s helpful to make a strict distinction between slaves who are only kept alive and wage laborers who are compensated, since that would mean a lot of slaves aren’t slaves, since often slaves were rented out and received half their wages as a stipend – in fact, this was the primary form of wage labor in the ancient world!”

    And

    David Graeber wrote: “I have argued that wage labor regimes resemble slavery rather more than feudalism”

    It seems that David Graeber has indeed, twice on this thread, made the argument that today’s capitalism and the ancient Roman slave mode of production are indeed qualitatively similar, if not identical–it’s not “helpful to make a strict distinction between the two.” Hence the criticism that he does not adequately distinguish between the two modes of production.

    Comment by JC — April 28, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  46. David wrote:

    “I have argued that wage labor regimes resemble slavery rather more than feudalism, since feudal labor relations tend to be based on custom, and therefore don’t really involve the purchase of abstract labor power, whereas both slavery and wage labor often does.”

    No, the difference is that slavery involves purchase of a slave, not abstract labour power. The business-owner doesn’t buy _me_ but my ability to do something that s/he wants done.

    You brought up slaves being let out by their masters for wages, but how does that turn them into workers? They’re still slaves who happen to get paid something. If you’re a worker who happens to be treated as we like to imagine a slave might get treated (and it’d have to be imagination: slaves were treated quite variably), that doesn’t make the worker a slave. If the worker quits the job, s/he’s not going to be hauled back to it by a team of slave-catchers or bounty-hunters.

    “Is it really true that as M-B suggests, a capitalism which really did operate on free labor (including free movement of labor) would quickly collapse. ”

    Why would it collapse, though? Not necessarily I think because of the absence of special coercion.

    Comment by Todd — April 28, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  47. Marx addressed the renting out of slaves in Capital Vol. II: “In the slave system, the money capital laid out on the purchase of labour-power plays the role of fixed capital in the money form, and is only gradually replaced as the active life of the slave comes to an end. This is why in Athens the profit that a slave-owner drew, either directly from the industrial use of his slave or indirectly by renting the slave to other industrial users (e.g. for work in the mines), was simply considered as interest (together with amortization), just as in capitalist production the industrial capitalist puts a portion of his surplus-value down in his accounts together with the wear and tear of his fixed capital…” (Capital Vol. II, 554-555).

    Comment by JC — April 28, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  48. I just cannot grasp why a capitalism with free labor only would quickly collapse. Why would this be so? Workers free to move as they pleased would gravitate toward places with higher wages. Capitalists would be encouraged to find ways to economize on higher wage labor. A reserve army would exist. And so forth. The state would keep workers in line, though if what happens where free labor dominates is any indication, the state wouldn’t have to do this all that often. Maybe someone can explain M-B’s logic to me. Radicals are always going on about capitalism’s collapse, for one reason or another. Maybe environmental catastrophe will do the trick. An end to unfree labor? I can’t see how this will do the trick.I can imagine verious types of unfree labor being continually recreated. And then some would say, well, you see that labor really isn’t free yet. But if it were, things would collapse. by this logic, only unfree labor keeps capitalism ticking. This would sound like the libertarians saying that well, you see, the markets really aren’t free and perfectly competitive. But if they were, then all would be well. Only government interference or labor unions keep capitalism from keeping perfect time.

    Comment by michael yates — April 28, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  49. To Todd – this rather illustrates the pointlessness of this sort of exercise. You objected to two points
    a) I said that capitalist wage labor relations resemble slavery “rather more” than they resemble feudal or manorial relations, because in the first two cases one can purchase the ability to work. In other words, A is more like B than it is like C. Your response would only have made sense if I was saying that if A is more like B than C, then A must equal B. I think if you want to criticize someone else’s ideas, you do owe it to them to do at least do the minimal conceptual work of figuring out what they are arguing.
    b) I mentioned that slaves were rented by owners; you replied “how does that turn them into workers?” Where did I say it did? You know, I have a general principle that if the majority of a response to a criticism has to consist of statements to the effect of “that’s obviously not what I said” then I should just not reply. I’m violating that principle here by even writing this, but no, all I was doing was responding to someone who said that the difference between wage-earners and slaves is that workers are paid, and slaves are merely provisioned. I just remarked that in many slave systems that was not the case, since slaves who were rented out received half the pay themselves as a stipend for their own upkeep, and that in fact the first wage labor contracts we are aware of (and this is true not only in ancient Greece, for instance, but the Malay and Swahili city states, I’ve documented very similar developments in 19th century Madagascar…) do involve workers who are legally slaves.
    c) why would a capitalism based on pure free labor collapse, as Moulier-Boutang suggests? Well, I didn’t say it necessarily would, I offered it as an interesting question. M-B was speaking specifically about labor mobility, a world without borders – since capital, after all, basically exists in a borderless world now, and labor very obviously does not. There must be some reason why they are so determined to control migration, or to allow it only under conditions which render migrant labor heavily coerced. In most of Europe for example most legal African immigrants are there on work contracts where residency is tied to having a certain type of job – a system legally identical to the South Africa apartheid system. He argues basically that a fully free and mobile labor force would drive world wage levels up to a level that profits could no longer be extracted.

    Comment by David Graeber — April 29, 2012 @ 4:53 am

  50. A central point is being missed here: namely, that the reason why labour-power that is free constitutes more of a threat to capitalism is not just economic (wage costs, etc.) but also – and perhaps more importantly – political. That is to say, it concerns the way class formation generates class struggle. Broadly defined, the class struggle argument operates at two interrelated levels, ones that are familiar in Marxist theory. Combining politics and ideology, the first concerns the way in which the deployment of unfree workers reproduces debilitating forms of ‘otherness’ (replacing class identity with that based on ethnicity, gender and nationality) within their own ranks and also the ranks of workers who are free. At the politico-ideological level, therefore, one of the main reasons why capitalist producers employ workers who are not free is the effectiveness of such restructuring in curbing the emergence or – where this has already emerged – the reproduction of a consciousness of class. The second involves economic considerations of two kinds. On the one hand, unfree labour-power is generally easier to control than its free counterpart, and for this reason also cheaper to employ. Ironically, therefore, free markets that are global in scope mean that unfree labour becomes for capitalists not just an option but in some instances a necessity, as competition cuts profit margins which in turn force down labour costs. If nothing else, this underlines the problematic nature of the oft-heard claim about the insignificance of unfree labour for modern capitalism. On the other, class struggle waged ‘from above’ that entails workforce restructuring using labour-power that is unfree also generates a crisis of underconsumption, but not in the form usually invoked. Economic crisis results not from the presence in a particular national context of workers who are unfree, the reason why exponents of the semi-feudal thesis maintain incorrectly that bonded labour is incompatible with accumulation. Rather, the presence of unfree workers in one national context triggers difficulties for free labour in other countries; that is to say, in those national contexts – particularly where accumulation has a long history (Europe, the United States) – where the consumption patterns of workers are affected as a result of loss of employment due to capitalist restructuring. Accordingly, unfree labour is one contributory factor in a specifically capitalist economic crisis. Ironically, although many contemporary observers have until recently had difficulty in recognizing this link, this was not the case historically. During the nineteenth century many commentators who held widely differing political views nevertheless understood the expansionist dynamic informing slavery in the antebellum southern states. Namely, that if not eradicated the ‘peculiar institution’ as it existed on the plantation system would gather momentum and extend beyond the boundaries of the south, eventually threatening to displace free labour throughout the United States.

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 29, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  51. A brief rejoinder to Fred Murphy and David Graeber. My point is quite simple. I used to edit a journal, and a pervading feature of the submissions one had to deal with was the claim by the author than an idea being presented was something no one else had thought of until now. This is a trap into which the young and/or inexperienced fall, and can claim an excuse for having done so; the same latitude does not extend to those more senior and experienced, who ought to know better. The argument that ‘at the time of writing’ one had not come across the work of someone else who has written extensively about the same issue is resolved neither by labelling as ‘intemperate’ those who point this out nor by uttering the word ‘sorry’ – the classic ‘Oops’ word. This is anyway a rather surprising admission to have to make, tantamount to a confession of ignorance about what has been published on one’s own doorstep

    Comment by Tom Brass — April 29, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  52. To Louis Proyect, by way of a post-script. Louis – Now that the others have seemingly fled the field, a few interrelated observations are in order. First, despite what Graeber and Murphy claim – that no attempt was made to present the case about capitalism and unfree labour as new – it is clear that very strong hints to this effect were indeed being dropped. One has to look no further than the hyper-ventillating endorsements plastered all over the dust-cover of the book to see evidence of this (e.g., ‘deeply original political thinker’, etc., etc.). This aspect is compounded by either scant reference to or the absence of any reference to those who have been making the same case for a long time now – not just me, but also Alex Lichtenstein, Moulier-Boutang, et al. (there are others). Although one might dismiss such ‘oversights’ in terms of having a book to sell, there are other – political – issues involved. The most important is the impact on leftist discourse and practice, not a negligible consideration. It is noticeable that a number of books published recently making this kind of claim – first in the field, reinterpreting all known views, etc. – do so with regard to leftist theory. As the case of Banaji on modes of production underlines, this is not merely harmless hype. Apart from being wrong, this kind of reception generates that most problematic of issues facing socialists: the cultivation of personality cult. Rather obviously, those on the receiving end tend not to discourage this adulation. The rest of us should, for reasons that are equally obvious, and here you have a role to play. Instead of heading your transition debate pieces ‘X on mode of production’, ‘Y on capitalism and unfree labour’, why not raise the topic in a different way – anonymously. The subject itself becomes the ‘star’, rather than a text or an author (invariably recycling an argument that has been around a long time). This will enable contributors to the resulting thread themselves to raise not just particular interpretations, but also histories. Most importantly, it will prevent the subject from being presented as a Q&A session round one very recent addition to a long-standing debate, and thus prevent it from becoming a brick in the construction of personality cult. What do you think? In solidarity…

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 1, 2012 @ 8:18 am

  53. One has to look no further than the hyper-ventillating endorsements plastered all over the dust-cover of the book to see evidence of this (e.g., ‘deeply original political thinker’, etc., etc.).

    Since when do dust covers contain anything but hyper-ventilating endorsements?

    Honestly, I am withholding judgement on Graeber’s book until I have had a chance to read it. In terms of the material I scanned and posted here, I doubt that anybody would have interpreted it as some kind of “new” scholarship on capitalism and unfree labor. I was happy to see it since I am a long-standing critic of the Brenner thesis.

    I should mention, speaking of the Brenner thesis, that I am putting together a longish post on whether the American Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”, a view put forward by Vivek Chibber in his capacity as a chair for a Charles Post book party at the Brecht Forum. I will also get into the question of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, etc. in the light of the book “Slavery by another Name” by Douglas Blackmon–or more exactly, the PBS documentary on the book.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 1, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  54. Oh come on! You know very well how dust-cover blurbs are solicited – the person called upon to write an endorsement is asked to look at the text in question and then base his/her opinion on what is there. The idea of ‘new-ness’ is not plucked from the ether but derives from the supposed merits of the book endorsed. Had Graeber thought what the endorsements contained was inappropriate – that is, wrong – he could have asked for them not to appear. He didn’t, so clearly the inference is that such an endorsement (‘deeply original political thinker’) is one that Graeber thinks accurately reflects the content of his book. Claims about the novelty of the case being made structure the view (p. 351), for example, that Marxists ‘still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism…all those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear…we write them off as temporary bumps in the road’. No we don’t, and some Marxists – myself included – have been arguing against this orthodoxy for a very long time (in my case some three decades). The sweeping generalizations of the kind found on the cover of the book and inside it are not only unscholarly (demeaning to others in the same field) but also inaccurate.

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 1, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

  55. David:

    a) I was responding to this point:

    “both slavery and wage labor often does [involve the purchase of abstract labour power].”

    b) You wrote:

    “I just remarked that in many slave systems that [workers are paid, slaves are merely provisioned] was not the case, since slaves who were rented out received half the pay themselves as a stipend for their own upkeep, and that in fact the first wage labor contracts we are aware of (and this is true not only in ancient Greece, for instance, but the Malay and Swahili city states, I’ve documented very similar developments in 19th century Madagascar…) do involve workers who are legally slaves.”

    So you’re telling me you haven’t said slaves are turned into workers, but at the end of your words above, you say there are workers who are legally slaves. It sounds like a distinction without a difference.

    c) I didn’t see a question mark on the end of your sentence and assumed you were making a statement that got garbled.

    “I have a general principle that if the majority of a response to a criticism has to consist of statements to the effect of ‘that’s obviously not what I said’ then I should just not reply.”

    I’m sure that wins you lots of plaudits and influences many of your interlocutors.

    I try to understand the point being made (even if I and others miss it repeatedly).

    Comment by Todd — May 2, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

  56. By now, I think, the answers and silences indicate all too clearly what is going on. It could be said to be a case of an author who perceives himself to be too important to address many of the queries put to him. This, of course, would be wholly unjust. Equally, it might appear that observations pointing out that the book’s central thesis is old hat are embarrassing, but hey – who cares? We’ve missed the point entirely. He has to go and inspect his troops (‘Sorry I’ve been away occupying Wall Street’), and it is necessary for us to appreciate just how important this is. This is the person who is going to lead us, and we ought to be truly appreciative of such selflessness on his part. With such an important leadership role to fulfil, comments other than reputation-stroking ones are understandably not required.

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 3, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  57. Tom, I think that your comments are off the mark here. David Graeber participated in this discussion, but he is not required to answer every response, is he? I took his Occupy comment as humor not arrogance. I mean, he is an activist who puts his body on the line, and he is also a scholar with interesting things to say. I have only read excerpts from his book, but doesn’t it cover a lot more than unfree labor? His life trajectory seems to me to be an admirable one, best I can tell. He doesn’t seem particularly arrogant or egotistic to me. Quite the contrary. I just read something he wrote about NYC police assaulting women protestors and suggesting that this is a planned tactic. His writing is a model of clarity and argument without unnecessary invective. The women assaulted by police are at the center of the essay, not him. It got me enraged nonetheless. We are witnessing growing police insanity in the US and around the world. Brother Graeber is doing good work exposing it and protesting and organizing for a better world. Let’s give some credit where credit is due.

    Comment by michael yates — May 4, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

  58. When will the left cease to want, to need, heroes? As noted above, this issue generates and/or fuels personality cult, whereby certain questions – important for socialism and socialists – become an effect of particular individual, around whom all subsequent debate focuses. What is discussed becomes not the subject itself, but rather the individual’s take on this. Eventually, what we get is the conversion of personality cult into political power, not of a movement but of someone within it. The outcome of this is, again, not unfamiliar. This is a problem that was recognized long ago by the Bolsheviks who argued against the hijacking of socialist ideas/ideals by academics, who then used them for very different ends: either to water them down, thereby making the ideas politically acceptable to the bourgeoisie, or to promote careerism. Either way, the impact was deleterious. ‘Ordinary’ people – and the fact that some are designated as such is a clue to the problem – become alienated, as they see yet another initially promising mobilization converted into a vehicle for individual stardom. No wonder ‘ordinary’ people still regard calls for socialist politics/policies with caution. There is no difficulty with ‘Brother Graeber’ participating in the Occupy movement, but – and this is the crux – this isn’t done in what might be termed exactly an anonymous way. We have been down this route so many times before: participation turns into name recognition, which in turn generates book deals and television series. Why do we keep falling for this same old trick?

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 5, 2012 @ 7:36 am

  59. Tom wrote:

    “When will the left cease to want, to need, heroes? As noted above, this issue generates and/or fuels personality cult,”

    Do you seriously think Graeber’s creating (or becoming the focus of) a cult of personality? Where do you get this idea?

    As for wanting/needing heroes, what’s wrong with that? One can be heroic or considered such and still be a human being, with faults and foibles. (A certain bearded gent who was a bit too interested in tupping his hired help comes to mind.)

    “There is no difficulty with ‘Brother Graeber’ participating in the Occupy movement, but – and this is the crux – this isn’t done in what might be termed exactly an anonymous way.”

    And what if that doesn’t create a problem as you seem to imagine it? Why do think name recognition of Graeber is immediately going to cause _something_ to go to Hell in a handbasket?

    Comment by Todd — May 6, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  60. Nah, this was fun, I was very happy to see Mr. 99% taken down a peg – I don’t think the fate of the known world is going to be changed by fucking clown parades and people’s mic check for Pastor Hedges’ “Where were you when you crucified my lord?” – is this delusion of incipient revolution to be cheered on anew, once more?
    I don’t like intemperate rank-pulling, never have, but only comments section are where the mighty can come to get a comeuppance. I am sure this is some form of churlishness, but the when the state of social reality is such a joke, what other typing pleasure is there?

    Comment by mjosefw — May 7, 2012 @ 12:29 am

  61. Thanks for your observations, mjosefw. I don’t know how old you are, Todd, but I belong to what has been termed the Generation of ’68. We went through all this then (demonstrations, mobilizations, occupations, petitions, etc.), and – lo and behold – certain people with pointy elbows made their way to the head of each and every protest. In our case it was Tariq Ali, who voted himself into the position of ‘the revolutionary representative’. Wherever a television camera and crew was found, there too was he (just look at the press photos from the time; they tell their own story). He and others like him went on to build media careers on the back of the 1968 movement: he is now regarded as a writer of fiction – many of us thought he was that already in 1968. Another example is E.J. Hobsbawm, the media’s “favourite Marxist”, officially recognized by the establishment as a CH (Companion of Honour – a royal bauble) and a member of the Reform Club (shades of P.G. Wodehouse). Hugo Blanco, who was involved in a Peruvian peasant movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s, came out very strongly against the attempts by the bourgeois press to fuel personality cult amongst leftist movements. Those of us still on the left should do the same. The point is very simple: you can either learn from our mistakes, or you can repeat them.

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 7, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

  62. Tom, that’s just a brilliant statement – the details are great. I’m a post-60s child – okay, just barely, but I would take your perspective over a thousand other Names and intoners and speechifiers.

    Comment by mjosefw — May 8, 2012 @ 12:19 am

  63. So, Ali and Hobsbawm are “fake leftists” who have or had nothing of importance to say because they got space in the bourgeois media or have had their books published in mainstream bookstores. And it was all a plot by the bourgeois press to divide (I’m guessing) a formerly united left.

    I think I’m going to need a bit more than heavy breathing to swallow those statements.

    Comment by Todd — May 8, 2012 @ 1:37 am

  64. Thanks again, mjosefw: perhaps we can at least persuade Todd that there is a problem that has to be addressed. In this connection, it’s important to remember that Hobsbawm was in the vanguard of the move by ‘The New Times’ people to dump the working class (= The Forward march of Labour Halted) in favour of a populist multi-class alliance. The object, to emulate Thatcher, was to become as popular as her, and the result we know: embrace the market, and see virtue in ‘popular capitalism’. Hobsbawm himself has come out recently with the view that, in the end, there is no alternative to capitalism (echoing Thatcher’s infamous TINA). In other words, we’ve seen where such ‘leftist heroes’ lead.

    And no, it’s not simply a case of a plot by the bourgeois press to divide the left. This it was going to attempt to do anyway; we, however, do not have to assist the bourgeois press in such an endeavour by providing it with ready-made ‘revolutionary representatives’ who will become the official voice and face of protest. We – all of us – are the voice and face of the movement, and we ought to protect this identity – guard against its usurpation by the upwardly mobile (yes, we have them on the left as well) – more vigorously than at times we do.

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 8, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  65. I just finished reading “Forward March”, and I seriously have to wonder if we read the same article: where in it does he advocate “dumping the working class”?

    “Hobsbawm himself has come out recently with the view that, in the end, there is no alternative to capitalism”

    Really? Given how I’ve found your characterization of “Forward March” to be a bit overstated, I’ll have to ask for some proof.

    “In other words, we’ve seen where such ‘leftist heroes’ lead.”

    I’ve certainly seen where having a bug up one’s ass about “leftist heroes” leads you.

    It’s one thing to maintain that, no matter how revered this or that leftist seems, that person’s statements and ideas aren’t above being ruthlessly critiqued. It’s quite another to display some weird “humbler than thou” attitude, as if you’re terrified of leftists becoming known outside of tiny grouplets.

    “ready-made ‘revolutionary representatives’ who will become the official voice and face of protest”

    Ah. I think I see where this is going: no leaders, no representation, no plan, no programme, no power, etc. Just faux humble-pie eating, prefigurationist crap.

    Comment by Todd — May 8, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

  66. Now, now, Todd, temper, temper.

    So you’ve ‘just finished reading’ Forward March – a bit late in the day, since this suggests that you have been championing Hobsbawm without actually knowing what he advocates. This marks you down as a true worshipper, for whom evidence never disrupts what is in effect a fanzine approach. I recommend you turn to the final chapter of that book, ‘Observations on the Debate’, where Hobsbawm answers the question about a future political direction in the following manner: ‘it has to be done by parties that have moved forward not only as class parties…but as “people’s parties”…as spokesmen for the nation in time of crisis.’ This means, he elaborates, ‘a broad party leading a broad movement’, embodying the diversity of classes and other groups of the population’, one in which ‘both left and right, however embattled, have a right to be there’, etc., etc., etc. As I said, a multi-class alliance uniting everyone from left to right under a nationalist banner – the very essence not just of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ but also David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. As for the view that, in the end, there is no alternative to capitalism, Hobsbawm has written: ‘The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which the public and private are braided together in one way or another’ (The Guardian, 20 April 2009). Nothing to do with Marxism or socialism, but – again – the very essence of Blairite ‘New Labour’.

    I think you’ve missed your vocation, Todd, since a person who so desperately needs to worship someone really ought to be in a church, not a socialist movement. In a church you can worship to your heart’s content, and no one will question the logic of this. Socialists, however, are required to be a little more worldly-wise…

    Comment by Tom Brass — May 9, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  67. Brass wrote:

    “this suggests that you have been championing Hobsbawm”

    Before we continue, would you mind pointing out where I “championed” Hobsbawm?

    There’s a difference between pointing out a critic’s mistakes and “championing” the object of criticism.

    Comment by Todd — May 9, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

  68. This conversation has gotten wildly off-topic and is probably beyond rescue. For what it’s worth, though, I just read this rather lengthy review summarizing Graeber’s argument and offering some refreshingly non-ad hominem criticism –
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n09/benjamin-kunkel/forgive-us-our-debts

    Comment by Fred Murphy — May 9, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

  69. Off-topic? Not at all.
    And if you find that kind of cow-beating review “refreshing,” what could you possibly find “dispiriting” or “tendentious” ?
    There is such a boring tendency to see any criticism as “ad hominem,” trying to shut down actual engagement in favor of pusillanimous windbaggery. Graeber drops in, feigns some sort of tremulous offense, gets one or two acolytes to tremble with fury at the gall at attacking a gen-u-ein Heero, then retreats…
    The anti-war left of the First World War, as depicted in Adam Hochschild’s magnificent “No One Left,” would have read this kind of stuff in jail or on the way to the gallows and given it all up – why bother if this kind of legacy they produced.

    Comment by mjosefw — May 9, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  70. How odd that someone with academic pretensions like Tom Brass can have played such a role in dragging down the level of discussion here. Well, whatever, I’m closing comments now.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 9, 2012 @ 11:28 pm


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