Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2014

The tide turns against Political Marxism

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

Robert Brenner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but the defense of “Political Marxism” against “Productive Forces Marxism” made by Charles Post in the ISR strikes me as rather persuasive. See:http://isreview.org/issue/92/debate-marxism-and-history-what-stake

    Also, the above commentary by Louis and his co-thinkers seems to miss the main thrust of what Ellen Meiksins Wood was trying to prove in her “Political Marxist” book The Origins of Capitalism (2002), that “Capitalism required not a simple extension or expansion of barter and exchange but a complete transformation in the most basic human relations and practices, a rupture in age-old patterns of human interaction with nature” (p. 95). Given how often we hear from capitalism’s apologists that it’s the only economic/social system that truly accords with “human nature” (which is naturally avaricious, etc.), I think this is rather important.

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — October 12, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

  2. Why do you ignore the New Synthesis of Communism by Bob Avakian, which goes further than any Trotskyite revisionism?

    Comment by Josh — October 12, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

  3. You write: “While this is a useful distinction, Wood goes completely overboard by failing to recognize that capitalism can just as easily revolve around non-market relationships when the need arises. For example, fascism was distinguished by an elaborate network of political, legal and military institutions–including slavery–that operated outside the framework of the marketplace.”

    Of course. But the point that Wood, Post et al. repeatedly make is that “capitalism is the first mode of production in human history that does not *require* “extra-economic” (nonmarket) coercion to guarantee the production and appropriation of surplus labor, or the distribution of labor and means of production between branches of production.” (http://isreview.org/issue/92/debate-marxism-and-history-what-stake) It’s market forces themselves that act as the coercive force which guarantees such production and appropriation. Even under fascism there is a separation of the political and the economic — this is why fascism remains capitalist.

    This, BTW, is why Wood forcefully rejects “market socialism,” sentiment with which I know you agree:

    “Once market imperatives set the terms of social reproduction, all economic actors—both appropriators and producers, even if they retain possession, or indeed outright ownership, of the means of production—are subject to the demands of competition, increasing productivity, capital accumulation, and the intense exploitation of labor.

    For that matter, even the absence of a division between appropriators and producers is no guarantee of immunity (and this, by the way, is why “market socialism” is a contradiction in terms): once the market is established as an economic “discipline” or “regulator,” once economic actors become market dependent for the conditions of their own reproduction, even workers who own the means of production, individually or collectively, will be obliged to respond to the market’s imperatives—to compete and accumulate, to let “uncompetitive” enterprises and their workers go to the wall, and to exploit themselves.”


    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — October 12, 2014 @ 9:43 pm

  4. Jason, you are dancing around the real question as does Brenner et al. Was Dixie “precapitalist”? Were Jamaican sugar plantations “precapitalist”?

    Comment by louisproyect — October 12, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

  5. Probably we disagree on what the Real Question is. Regarding Dixie, I think Post gives a pretty definite answer here, on p. 14:


    “Although plantation slavery in the Americas was a creature of the capitalist world-market, its *rules of reproduction* were distinctively *non-capitalist*…”

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — October 12, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

  6. I have no idea what “non-capitalist” is supposed to mean. The Yanomami are “non-capitalist”. The Visigoths were “non-capitalist”. It is a completely useless term, just as much as “pre-capitalist”.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 12, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

  7. Louis, Just a few questions:

    Do you not understand capitalism to have its own rules of exploitation, reproduction and surplus-production? If you reject the concept of “non-capitalist” entirely, then how do you distinguish capitalist modes of production from any other (or do you not believe any other mode of production exists, has existed, or could exist)? Would the ancient slave societies of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, all be capitalist then? What about the modern bureaucratic USSR–capitalist as well? Without a specific historical beginning, and without any particular qualitative features, it seems that capitalism can be simultaneously everything and nothing.

    Comment by Walter — October 13, 2014 @ 11:19 am

  8. Walter, the ancient Greek social system was analyzed in great detail by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix in “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World”. Such societies are based on what John Haldon called the tributary mode of production. I tried to apply his methodology to the Incan Empire: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/indian/incas.htm.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 13, 2014 @ 1:39 pm

  9. Louis,

    If you haven’t done so yet, check out Tom Brass’ Labor Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century (Chapter II in particular). He has a very good discussion of Marx/Engels’ views on unfree labor (e.g. slavery) within capitalism (spoiler alert: Marx was entirely comfortable referring to plantation owners as capitalists).

    I also recommend these articles by Phillip McMichael:

    1)(1987)“Bringing Circulation Back into Agricultural Political Economy: Analyzing the AnteBellum Plantation in its World Market Context,” Rural Sociology, 52, 2
    2)(1988) “The Crisis of the Southern Slaveholder Regime in the World Economy.” In Rethinking the Nineteenth Century: Contradictions and Movements, (ed.) Francisco Ramirez (Westport, Conn: Greenwood).
    3) (1991) “Slavery in the Regime of Wage – Labor: Beyond Paternalism in the U.S. Cotton Culture,” Social Concept, 6, 1.
    4) (1991) “Slavery in Capitalism: The Rise and Demise of the U. S. Ante-Bellum Cotton Culture” Theory and Society Vol. 20, No. 3, Special Issue on Slavery in the New World (Jun., 1991), pp. 321-349 (http://author.cals.cornell.edu/cals/devsoc/research/research-projects/upload/slavery-in-capitalism-T-S-91.pdf)

    You may also be interested in Wilma Dunaway’s The First American Frontier, which examines the incorporation of Appalachia into the capitalist world-system, Tomich’s Through the Prism of Slavery, and David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986.

    Lastly, I think Jason Moore showed just how simplistic the Brenner thesis was re: the transition to capitalism in this long essay for Review:


    But to chime in on the debate above, Post/Brenner have a very simplistic formula capitalism = capitalist mode of production = free wage labor. That simply cannot explain the persistence of unfree labor relations within the US and other advanced economies today. The relations of production under capitalism will be decided by a multitude of factors within any given social formation – the size of the reserve army of labor in particular. And once any given mode of production moves from being one primarily geared toward the production of use values to one exclusively concerned with exchange values, we’ve certainly moved away from “pre-capitalist”…

    Comment by dermokrat — October 14, 2014 @ 4:11 am

  10. The plantation owners were capitalists but the slaves were not proletarians or wage slaves but actual slaves, part of the constant capital investment, the machinery. Their labour was not being exploited for surplus value but for the use value it made available i.e. riches that could be exchanged for cash that could then be invested in capitalist production proper. Slavery in the plantations gave a big boost to capital accumulation before succumbing to it though even today the capitalist will try to enslave people and turn them from wage slaves into capital for some short term gain. Labour camps, concentration camps, the modern US prison system might be examples.

    Comment by David Ellis — October 14, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  11. call me a neophyte but i was under the impression the state was a natural outgrowth of any economic system wherein resources are controlled by a minority. isnt this what marx lenin trotski mean when they call the state “an organ of class control”? how then does one claim there is an objective distinction between extra-economic/state coercion and market coercion? far as i can tell this is little more than right wing dogma perpetuated by the capitalist class to provide themselves a shield against criticism. what am i missing?

    Comment by Pandora — October 14, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

  12. Louis, you don’t really come to terms with Wood’s discussion of imperialism. You’re ignoring her discussion of the state, which is central in what she has written on contemporary global capitalism. See, for example, this essay in the Monthly Review from 1999: http://monthlyreview.org/1999/07/01/unhappy-families/


    “It isn’t just that nation-states have stubbornly held on through the universalization of capitalism. If anything, the universalization of capitalism has also meant, or at least been accompanied by, the universalization of the nation-state. Global capitalism is more than ever a global system of national states, and the universalization of capitalism is presided over by nation-states, especially one hegemonic superpower.

    “This is a point worth emphasizing. The conventional view of “globalization” seems to be based on the assumption that the natural tendency of capitalist development, and specifically its internationalization, is to submerge the nation-state, even if the process is admittedly still far from over. The internationalization of capital, in other words, is apparently in an inverse relation to the development of the nation-state: the more internationalization, the less nation-state. But the historical record suggests something different. The internationalization of capital has been accompanied by the proliferation of capital’s original political form. When capitalism was born, the world was very far from being a world of nation-states. Today, it is just that. And while new multinational institutions have certainly emerged, they have not so much displaced the nation-state as given it new roles —in fact, in some cases, new instruments and powers.


    “It is not insignificant (for instance, in its consequences for oppositional struggles, such as those described by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer in their article on Latin America in this issue) that imperialism today is no longer a matter of direct colonial domination but a relationship between national entities. In a sense, the new forms of imperial domination by means of debt and financial manipulation, or even foreign direct investment, are what they are precisely because they provide a means of penetrating national boundaries, barriers that hardly existed for older forms of colonial domination by direct military means. And, of course, this kind of imperial power, no less than earlier forms, is exercised by nation-states, whether directly or through international agencies.

    “The other side of the new imperialism is a new kind of militarism. This one doesn’t generally have territorial ambitions, and generally leaves nation-states in place. Its objective is not hegemony over specific colonies with identifiable geographic boundaries but boundless hegemony over the global economy. So instead of absorbing or annexing territory, this imperialist militarism typically uses massive displays of violence to assert the dominance of global capital—which really means exercising the military power of specific nation-states to assert the dominance of capital based in a few nation-states, or one in particular, the United States, enforcing its freedom to navigate the global economy without hindrance.

    “There is very little, then, that can be said about the global economy without reference to its national constituent parts, and very little that can be said about global economic processes without reference to relations among national economies and states.


    “To say, as Marx did, that capitalists have no nation is certainly to say that they have no national loyalties and will move wherever the imperatives of profit-maximization take them, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they have no roots in, or no need for, the state or for their own nation-state in particular. The need to maximize profit has always involved certain requirements of organization and enforcement (among other things, to keep the working class in place) which up to now have been, and in the foreseeable future still promise to be, fulfilled above all by nation-states.”

    Comment by Nel — October 15, 2014 @ 11:51 am

  13. Put very simply: you’re missing the fact that it isn’t the state which, from day to day, forces us to work. It’s the market that does this. The market can’t exist without the state, true. But they’re not the exact same thing. Previous modes of production fused “politics” and “economics”; capitalism doesn’t. Under capitalism they are formally separate spheres, though in practice it’s “economics” that dominates “politics.” (Anti-Marxists accuse Marxists of “economic determinism” — in fact, it’s *capitalism* as a social system which is economic determinist!)

    Comment by Jason Schulman (@PartyOfANewType) — October 15, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

  14. I don’t have any major objections to Woods’s definition of imperialism today. My beef is mainly with her analysis of the origins of capitalism. The article you refer to above states: “Capitalism had emerged first in one country.” This is an absurd formulation.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 15, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

  15. The statement “capitalism had emerged first in one country” seems rather uncontroversial–logically and historically. I’m surprised that you find it “absurd.” If capitalism had a historical beginning (that is, if capitalism is not part of nature) then it emerged somewhere first. When it emerged elsewhere, later, it took on different forms. Wood’s work on the origins of capitalism looks at the specific history of this emergence. I take this to be Wood’s point in that passage.

    Comment by Nel — October 15, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

  16. Whether or not it is absurd, it certainly contradicts Marx:

    “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.”

    V. 1 of Capital, chapter 31

    While Perry Anderson is no competition to Marx, I think he got this right as well:

    For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?

    Comment by louisproyect — October 15, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

  17. For what it is worth, Wood responded to the passages you quote in The Origin of Capitalism, which would seem the point of departure for any critique of her argument:

    “We should first take note that Marx, in the passage cited by Anderson, is explaining the ‘genesis of the *industrial* capitalist’, not the origins of *capitalism*, not the emergence of specifically capitalist ‘laws of motion’, nor specifically capitalist social relations, a specifically capitalist form of exploitation, or the imperatives of self-sustaining economic development. Marx is trying to explain how the accumulation of wealth was converted in the right conditions – that is, in already capitalist social conditions (in England) – from simply the unproductive profits of usury and commerce into industrial capital. As for the origins of the capitalist *system*, the ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ – in Marx’s terms, the expropriation of direct producers, in particular peasants – that gave rise to specifically capitalist social property relations and the dynamic associated with them, Marx situates it firmly in England and in the countryside.

    “Here too the conditions emerged for the unprecedented kind of *internal* market that Marx regarded as the sine qua non of industrial capitalism. Like Brenner after him, Marx acknowledges the need to explain the distinctiveness of England’s development. Not the least of England’s specificities, as Brenner points out, is that while other centres of production, even in the medieval period, had experienced export booms, early modem England was unique in maintaining industrial growth even in the context of declining overseas markets; in other words, albeit within a network of international trade, capitalism *indeed* in one country.


    “…It is one thing to say, for example, that English commercial agriculture presupposed the Flemish market for wool. It is quite another to explain how ‘commercial agriculture’ became *capitalist* agriculture, how the *possibility of trade* became not only the *actuality* but the *necessity* of *competitive production*, how market *opportunities* became market *imperatives*, how this specific kind of agriculture set in train the development of a capitalist *system*.

    “We can certainly say that the European trading system was a necessary condition of capitalism, but we cannot just assume that commerce and capitalism are one and the same, or that one passed into the other by a simple process of growth…”

    Comment by Nel — October 15, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

  18. Yeah, well. Answering Anderson is one thing. Answering Marx is another.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 15, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

  19. “For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each.”

    Two things worthy of note: (1) slavery was part of a process of capital accumulation driven by maritime commerce involving Europe, Africa and the Americas with the plantation owners integrated into this global commerce, it is impossible to separate slavery from this process, as if it were a stand alone pre-capitalist, semi-feudal social order; and (2) slavery on the sugar and cotton plantations of the Americas were enormous enterprises, requiring the creation of new, more sophisticated forms of insurance, accounting, managerial methods and instruments for raising funds in capital markets, as well as the development of legal principles to adjudicate disputes associated with them, the plantations were among the largest business operations anywhere on earth at the time, and played a prominent role in development of the administrative, financial and legal apparatus of capitalism.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 15, 2014 @ 11:38 pm

  20. David,

    That interpretation has no foundation in any of Marx’s writings that I’ve read. Marx certainly thought that slavery involved surplus labor (albeit disguised due to the property relation):

    “The wage form thus extinguishes every trace of the division of the working-day into necessary labour and surplus-labour, into paid and unpaid labour. All labour appears as paid labour. In the corvée, the labour of the worker for himself, and his compulsory labour for his lord, differ in space and time in the clearest possible way. In slave labour, even that part of the working-day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, in fact, he works for himself alone, appears as labour for his master. All the slave’s labour appears as unpaid labour (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch19.htm).”

    I think Orlando Patterson offered a pretty good critique of Brenner, Post et al’s line of argument with respect to the “slave as constant capital” formulation (albeit originally made in reply to Hindess and Hirst):

    “[T]here is no slave society in which, in practice, slave-owners are not fully aware of the distinction between the labour input of their slaves and other factors of production, and in which, further, there is not a clear calculation made on the basis of this distinction between the maintenance costs of a slave and the revenue he generates. These distinctions are used by the slave owner to make calculations as to expected rates of profits in exactly the same manner as does a capitalist operating in a ‘free’ labour market.The slave’s maintenance cost is his wage; the worker’s wage is,from the systemic point of view, his maintenance costs. Systemically, there is no qualitative difference between the two. The occasional appearance on the books of the slavemaster-capitalist of slave labour as a fixed capital cost is an accounting procedure resulting from the fact that the slave belongs to an individual capitalist whereas the worker belongs to the capitalist class as a whole. The argument that, with respect to the forces of production there ‘is a contradiction between the slave as a form of property (with a value in circulation) and the slave as direct producer’, simply makes no sense to me. What they are getting at is that the slave is a form of fixed capital, ‘unlike the wage laborer’. This is trivial. A buoyant internal market for slaves usually exists, and is theoretically always possible. The purchase of a slave does involve the risk of the slave dying before his earnings compensate for these costs. But there is absolutely no difference between these risks and those taken, say, by a model capitalist firm such as I.B.M. which invests huge outlays in training graduates to become efficient salesmen of their machines only to find that they quit their jobs before their earnings compensate for the cost of training. As with I.B.M. the risks are always well worth taking if, on average, slaves live long enough for the master to realize the enormous profits to be made by exploiting the slaves in a context where the economies of scale and high labor intensity make a rigidly controlled labour force desirable. Incidentally, it should be noted that there are many highly capitalistic enterprises and entire capitalist formations where the labour force is far more ‘fixed’ than was ever the case in either the proletarianized sectors of the ancient economies or those of American slave capitalism. The case of the relation between labourers and capitalists in most large Japanese firms immediately comes to mind.” (http://newleftreview.org/I/117/h-orlando-patterson-slavery-in-human-history).

    In his essay “Was the Plantation Slave a Proletarian?”, Sidney Mintz reminds us that slaves were very often provisioning themselves and their surrounding communities, which suggests that surplus labor under slavery was likely very high indeed. In fact this is an important aspect of peripheral labor regimes – one that scholars working in the world-systems tradition have taken great pains to analyze. From a theoretical standpoint, capitalists are not keen to have achieve full proletarianization of the workforce, since that leaves them in the position of having to provide wages that fully cover a worker’s reproduction. When analyzing the issue of class, we need to consider not the individual worker but the household that he/she lives in. Within this household you generally have a lot of pooled income from various sources (c.f. Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, pp. 32-38). In a core country these might be wages, state transfers, and possibly petty commodity production. On top of that you have the unremunerated labor of (usually) women performing the tasks necessary for household reproduction. Wilma Dunaway has highlighted this point in several of her books, but summarizes it in her essay “The Double Register of History” in this way:

    “There is a third more deeply hidden way in which women subsidize the commodity chains in which their households are situated. The subsistence inputs of women and households at one node may subsidize other nodes of the commodity chain. In effect, the commodity chain structures a network in which consumer and laborer households at highr nodes actually exploit households and women at lower nodes. Let me provide an historical example from my own research and then an example from the late twentieth century. In the U.S. Mountain South, small Appalachian plantations required slaves to generate half or more of their foodstuffs and all their shoes and clothing. That household subsistence production, primarily generated by women, made it possible for Appalachian masters to maximize their profits. Appalachian slave households reproduced, fed and clothed the surplus laborers exported by their owners. Through their forced migrations, those surplus slaves provided direct labor to produce the cotton that was exported to the world-economy. By externalizing to slave households the costs of their own reproduction and maintenance, mountain masters exported large quantities of food and clothing to provision the slaves who produced Lower South cotton. As a direct result of their hidden inputs into the cotton commodity chain, Appalachian slave households experienced chronic malnutrition, broken families, dangerously high fertility rates, and higher mortality rates. While mountain slave households subsisted on 70 per-cent of the needed survival nutrients, the Lower South slaves who consumed Appalachian surpluses were better fed and clothed, rarely were required to produce their own survival needs, and the women were pregnant only half as often. As a result, black Appalachian women died at a rate twice as high as that experienced by Lower South slave men, and mountain slave children were three times more likely to die than Lower South slave children (http://www.jwsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/jwsr-v7n1-dunaway.pdf).”

    This point is particularly important in the periphery where the workers are generally drawn from rural areas. In other peripheral zones of the capitalist world-economy, capitalists have benefited from a situation of semi-proletarian labor, whereby peasant (originally men, but now increasingly women) are forced (usually by imposition of monetized taxes; e.g. the “hut tax”) to engage in wage labor in a mine, plantation, or factory, while their families (the wife/wives and children) engaged in the labors of social reproduction that made their labor in the capitalist enterprises possible. Criminologist Colin Sumner makes reference to this phenomenon in an a long essay on crime in underdeveloped countries:

    “European capital simply did not draw the whole of the colony’s labor force into its processes of production – unlike back home, where the peasantry and cottage workers were gradually drawn in, only to spat out again as an industry died or ‘rationalized’ its technology. It could produce super-profits without such gradual incorporation. There is no contradiction between the fact that colonial exploitation (producing exceptionally high rates of surplus value) was based on a low organic composition of capital (such as on the plantations or in the mines) and the fact that colonialism did not always convert the whole economic system to the capitalist mode. Colonialism was first and foremost a search for super-profits rather than a ‘civilizing mission’, and these required the payment of exceptionally low wages. Consequently, the preservation of the rural peasantry was functional for imperialism. It removed the need for capital to pay wages which fully covered the cost of reproducing the labor power of the workers. The ‘tribal homelands’ provided some subsistence, sustained workers’ families and provided a social security system when it was needed. [beginning of block quote] ‘It was in these areas that children were to be raised, the sick and disabled were to be nursed, and old men to die. Thus was the white-controlled state of South Africa to be spared in large measure, the welfare costs of housing, pensions, social facilities, and amenities for the non-white majority of the workforce. If during the nineteenth century the tendency of colonial political economy had been towards the expropriation of African land and encouragement of class differentiation among the African population, now these processes were halted. What remained of the indigenous African economy was to be frozen in a static form and harnessed to the needs of white development. And not only social services, but social control, were to be exerted through traditional indigenous institutions. The chiefs, whose powers had generally been undermined in the nineteenth century, found their authority resurrected in subordination to the administrative arm of the white state (Legassick in Palmer, P. and Parsons, N. The Roots of Rural Poverty>, 1977).’ [end of block quote]. … Given that the imperial expansion of capital does not necessarily disintegrate the ‘natural’ rural economy and frequently reorganizes it for its various tasks (provision of social security, extraction of taxes, social control of the reserve army of labor, etc.) the modernization model of development is entirely inadequate.” [Colin Sumner, ed. Crime, Justice, and Underdevelopment, pp. 22-23].

    This phenomenon was particularly prevalent in Tsarist Russia – what the world-systems folks classify as a “semi-periphery” given its combination of core and peripheral production processes – particularly after emancipation and up to the eve of WWI. Here is Sheila Fitzpatrick:

    “While permanent departure from the villages was difficult in the post-Emancipation decades, it was easy to leave the villages temporarily to work for hire in agriculture, construction, mining, or in the towns. In fact such work was necessary for many peasant families: the money was needed for taxes and redemption payments. The peasants who worked as seasonal laborers (otkhodniki) were often away for months of the year, leaving their families to till their land in the villages. If the journeys were long – as in the case of peasants from the central Russian villages who went to work in the Donbass mines – the otkhodniki might return only for the harvest and perhaps spring sowing. The practice of departing for seasonal work was long-established, especially in the less fertile areas of European Russia where the landlords had exacted payment in money rather than labor from their serfs [incidentally on this score, see Wallerstein, Modern World-System, V. III, pp. 155]. But it was becoming increasingly common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, partly because more work was available in the towns. In the years immediately before the First World World, about nine million peasants took out passports for seasonal work outside their native village each year, and of these half were working outside agriculture. With one in every two peasant households in European Russia including a family member who the village for work – and a higher proportion in the Petersburg and Central Industrial Regions and the western provinces – the impression that old Russia survived almost unchanged in the villages may well have been deceptive. Many peasants were in fact living with one foot in the traditional village world and the other in the quite different world of modern industrial town…it was almost impossible to make a hard-and-fast distinction between permanent urban-dwelling workers and peasants who worked most of the year in the towns.” [Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, p. 18]

    That redounded to the benefit of Russia’s indigenous and foreign capitalists who owned factories there…not least of all the textile manufacturers who had egged on the Russian military and state into Central Asia, especially after the disruption in cotton imports brought on by the Civil War had demonstrated to them the need for a “local” stable supply (c.f. http://tinyurl.com/pq6ftky).

    I could go on, but I grow weary of typing…

    Comment by dermokrat — October 16, 2014 @ 4:30 am

  21. Dermokrat wrote:
    > This point is particularly important in the periphery where the workers
    > are generally drawn from rural areas. In other peripheral zones of the
    > capitalist world-economy, capitalists have benefited from a situation of
    > semi-proletarian labor, whereby peasant (originally men, but now
    > increasingly women) are forced (usually by imposition of monetized
    > taxes; e.g. the “hut tax”) to engage in wage labor in a mine,
    > plantation, or factory, while their families (the wife/wives and
    > children) engaged in the labors of social reproduction that made their
    > labor in the capitalist enterprises possible.

    Yes, I have commented on the same tendency:


    Was the mode of production in colonial Africa precapitalist or capitalist? To begin with, we face something of the same problem that we encountered with Spanish colonialism. In Africa, the Europeans insisted on borrowing from the feudal lexicon, despite a clear capitalist agenda. For example, the French counted on corvée labor to lay railway track or perform other tasks associated with colonial infrastructure. Without reliable rail lines, crops and minerals destined for the seaports would languish at their source. Regardless of the label, such forced labor was not only integral to the colonial capitalist system, it had the same devastating impact on the local population as Spanish practices had three centuries earlier. Colonial administrator Emile Baillaud reported in 1905 that:

    “At this moment in West Africa, the necessary hands . . . are easy to be had; and also at the coast the towns overflow with men going about looking for work. The captives having listened to our advice, and finding the way to freedom without dying from hunger, have come in numbers towards our enterprises, wherever it was possible to find work with the Europeans. They not only leave their masters, but also their countries.”12

    Without extra-economic compulsion, primitive accumulation would have not taken place. The indigenous peoples would have subsisted through the means available to them outside of the cash economy. If the colonial powers had relied exclusively on market competition, the local population would have found ways to ignore them.

    One of the most infamous colonists, King Leopold of Belgium, saw himself as following in the footsteps of Spanish colonialism. At the age of twenty-seven, he visited Seville in March 1862 in order to study court records preserved in the Casa Lonja, or Old Exchange Building. According to Adam Hochschild:

    “For two centuries Seville was the port through which colonial gold, silver, and other riches had flowed back to Spain; some eighty years before Leopold’s visit, King Carlos III had ordered that there be gathered in this building, from throughout the country, all decrees, government and court records, correspondence, maps and architectural drawings, having to do with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Collected under one roof, these eighty-six million handwritten pages, among them the supply manifest for one of Columbus’s ships, have made the General Archive of the Indies one of the great repositories of the world. Indifferent to his schoolwork as a boy, with no interest whatever in art, music, or literature, Leopold was nonetheless a dedicated scholar when it came to one subject, profits.”13

    When he wrote home to a friend, the monarch demonstrated that he understood the goal was profit, not traditional values: “I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies.” For Hochschild, the monarch is a “man whose future empire would be intertwined with the twentieth-century multinational corporation began by studying the records of the conquistadors.”

    For all of its devotion to British exceptionalism, the Brenner thesis would seem ill equipped to explain why British rule failed to abolish extra-economic forms of coercion in its most important colonial holding: South Africa. Indeed, it was here where non-market forms of exploitation helped to successfully propel the nation into the front ranks of capitalism on the continent.

    In keeping with laws already enacted in the rest of the British Empire, slavery was abolished in 1834. But the devotion to freedom was only lukewarm. Great Britain soon found ways to reintroduce other forms of labor conscription.14

    Bristling at the abolition of slavery, Boer farmers withdrew into the east and northeast, where they would be allowed to pursue religious freedom while trafficking in human beings. Their KhoiKhoi slaves could be relied on for the dirty work on their farms. According to Bernard Magubane, “the Boers stood for outdated slavery on a petty scale, the foundation of their patriarchal peasant economy, the British colonist represented large-scale capitalist exploitation of the land and Africans.”15

    For the British, abolitionism was not entirely altruistic. The Reverend Thomas Farrell Buxton, a prominent abolitionist, explained his goals in a letter to the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa:

    “We determined to form two associations, perfectly distinct from each other, but having one common object in view, putting an end to the slave trade. One of these associations to be exclusively philanthropic in character, and designed mainly to diffuse among the African tribes the light of Christianity, and the blessing of civilization and free-labour-the other to have a commercial character, and to unite with the above objects the pursuit of private enterprise and profit.”16

    Emulating the old masters of the Spanish empire, British colonial administrators in South Africa employed indigenous feudal institutions on behalf of capitalist exploitation. The Spaniards made cunning use of the Incan ‘mi’ita’ while the British co-opted local chiefs to supply labor gangs. Peter Lionel Wickins writes:

    “Some justification for the use of forced labour was found in tribal custom, which allowed for service to a chief (tribute labour) or to the community (communal labour). The purpose of tribute labour was to support the chief in his office and to enable him to perform his public duties, such as hospitality to strangers and the relief of the hungry in time of dearth. But with the spread of a money economy chiefs became acquisitive and the system was abused. Tribesmen found themselves compelled to cultivate their chief’s land, not in the tribal interest, but purely for his personal gain; or even sent off to work as contract labourers on the, mines, either individually or, as was sometimes the case in South Africa, in age-regiments.”17

    Just one year after abolishing slavery, the British colonial government in South Africa passed an ordinance in 1835 requiring ex-slaves to become apprentices to their previous owners. The blacks reacted by deserting or damaging property. The British followed up with a new ordinance in 1841 that established criminal sanctions for breach of contract, but this solution proved short-lived as well. The ruling class next toyed with the idea of importing convicts from England, a practice that had succeeded in Australia. Finally, they passed an 1853 ordinance that provided means of subsistence and a small cash wage based on contract. Violations of the contract were punishable by a stiff prison sentence.

    Despite verbal commitments to transforming South Africa along free market lines, reality somehow fell short of the ideal. As happens almost universally in colonial settings where there is a surplus of arable land and a shortage of labor, the bourgeoisie resorts to extra-economic coercion to extract raw materials for export. In South Africa, this took the form of forced migrant labor, particularly in the gold mining sector. In another volume, Wickins once again unveils the actual practices that evolved despite the British verbal commitment to free labor:

    “In the later nineteenth century, when the shortage of labour for White enterprises was becoming acute, three forms of compulsion were attempted: firstly, taxation – capitation (poll) or hearth (hut) tax – which served a dual purpose of providing revenue and forcing Blacks to earn sufficient cash to meet their obligations; secondly, so-called squatters laws to restrict the number of Africans resident on European farms; and thirdly, attempts to substitute individual tenure for communal title in the reserves. To these forms of coercion must be added the pass laws. These were not conducive to the labour mobility that hard-pressed employers were anxious to foster, but they did give those who had labour a hold on their workers. This control was strengthened by other legislative measures, such as the Masters and Servants Laws and the Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911. The best-known example of a labour tax was the annual poll tax (of 10 shillings) imposed by the Glen Grey Act of 1894 in the Cape on all African men in certain districts who were not freeholders or regular lessees or who had not served a stipulated minimum period in wage labour during the year. The labour tax was in fact ineffective and was repealed in 1905. The Act also authorised the issue of individual title deeds in the Glen Grey district near Queenstown, at least partly with the intention of forcing on to the labour market those unable to acquire and exploit individual plots efficiently. This part of its provisions, too, did not fulfil the hopes placed in it. There was no marked drift from the countryside of people deprived of access to land by the spread of individual tenure.”18

    The stakes were incalculable. According to South African economist, the Witwatersrand would have yielded 6,000 pounds worth of gold if a sufficient labor force had been deployed to dig it from the earth. The reserves and the migrant-labor system made the realization of such a bounty of surplus value possible. Migrant workers were snared in the same web that colonists had set from the very beginning whenever they initiated the process of primitive accumulation: they were forced to seek work in the mines in order to avoid arrest for failure to pay taxes. Ironically, Magubane cites Maurice Dobb, whom Brenner describes as a forerunner, to explain the need for forced labor in South Africa:

    “When the supply of labor for any new enterprise was insufficiently plentiful, for example in mining, it was not uncommon for the Crown to grant the right of impressments to the entrepreneur or to require that convicts be assigned to the work under penalty of hanging if they were refractory or if they absconded.”19

    The development of mining also created opportunities for the capitalist class, especially in light of the inexplicable desire of native Africans to subsist through farming rather than dig for diamonds or gold at a pittance. This led to the establishment of a mixture of wage and forced, contract labor. An 1872 proclamation declared that mine owners were obligated to pay a wage to a miner, while he would be forced to carry a pass when he was not at the site. Since diamonds were extremely valuable, labor conditions became prison-like. All sorts of extra-economic controls were instituted to keep workers in line. These controls were utterly necessary for the growth of capitalism, since free market compulsion would have not sufficed.

    The biggest obstacle to the mine owners’ plans, however, was the relative prosperity of the African peasant who was able to not only subsist on the fertile soil, but sell a surplus in the commercial marketplace. This development was most pronounced in the Cape Colony. Taking pity on the understaffed gold mining companies, the state enacted a migrant labor system in the 1890s. Contracts to work in these prison-like compounds were made more palatable through prostitution and saloons (shebeens). And if an African preferred subsistence farming to mining, legislation could bend his will to the greater good of capitalist development. The Glen Gray Act of 1894 imposed a ten-shilling tax on all men in the Cape colony who could not prove that they had been in wage employment for three months in every year.

    These sorts of laws persisted throughout the twentieth century as South Africa was entering the ranks of the developed world. The vast wealth of South Africa rests on mining and mining, which in turn rested on unfree labor through the 1970s. Workers who quit a contract were characterized as “deserters” by the authorities and subject to arrest. A boycott by American unions finally abolished such “master and servants” acts, but long after the damage had been done.

    From the standpoint of class relations, contemporary South Africa and colonial Spain have much in common. Capitalism is not about advanced technology. Until relatively recent times, a miner worked with a pick and a shovel. Nor is capitalism about “freedom”. It is about producing surplus value. If a work force is not available to work for a wage, then the capitalist state will pass laws ensuring that various forms of unfree labor keep the system going. It is our job as Marxists to develop a class analysis that can maximize the power of the laboring classes politically. Quibbling over whether the worker is really a worker or not based on the peculiarities of a given country’s history not only constitutes a form of pedantic quibbling, it is a detour from our task as revolutionaries.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 16, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

  22. This is my attempt to come to grips with some of the ideas presented here–no malice intended.

    If you view history from an evolutionary standpoint, no historic social form is intrinsically transitional to anything else–all are adaptive in the environments in which they arise and flourish. So slavery–which perhaps operated somewhere between industrial agriculture (note the necessary mechanisms, labor, capital, and social practices tied up in the cotton gin and steam-powered transport) and mercantile capitalism–was adaptive for quite a long time to the circumstances in which it flourished, which were also, originally, early days for industrial capitalism in the U.S.

    Slavery, very generally, contributed to processes of capital formation and industrialization that–aided by the American Civil War and the development of industrial capitalism in the United States–eventually brought about its replacement by sharecropping. This still resembled slavery, but took a form that corresponded, however roughly, to that oxymoron, “free labor.” (Not “up” enough on Brenner to link this to/contrast with his ideas–not the intention.)

    Without presenting any bar to racism, the sharecropping model could be applied to both black and white (i.e. to any source of agricultural labor), and freed the planters from any vexatious commitment to the sunk capital represented by slaves. This abolished the “evolutionary niche” of slavery, but did it constitute capitalism abolishing an “impure”form or rather an environmental change to which cotton and tobacco farming had to adapt?

    The naked mole rat is clearly a mammal, but it is, practically speaking, cold-blooded, like the “lower” life forms that mammalian evolution presumably surpassed. Does this confusion of stages present any real contradiction? Whereas the bluefin tuna is effectively warm-blooded–does that make it any less a fish?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 16, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

  23. “So slavery–which perhaps operated somewhere between industrial agriculture (note the necessary mechanisms, labor, capital, and social practices tied up in the cotton gin and steam-powered transport) and mercantile capitalism–was adaptive for quite a long time to the circumstances in which it flourished, which were also, originally, early days for industrial capitalism in the U.S.”

    Could it be that scholarship which begins with the slavery experience as the starting point brings this out more effectively than scholarship which starts with Marxist theory and works backwards?

    Both Robin Blackburn’s “The Making of New World Slavery” and Marcus Rediker’s “The Slave Ship” engage this subject effectively, Blackburn in regard to describing how the sugar plantations were enormous enterprises that involved both agricultural production and manufacture, Rediker in regard to how the slave ship itself operated as a model for future industrial organization, with a sophisticated division of labor and a workplace discipline that prefigured proletarian work in places like Manchester.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 16, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

  24. Richard–I lack the erudition to reply to your comment in any depth. I haven’t read the books you recommend and will try to read them.

    In general, I think anybody who takes any concrete situation and just “works backward” to it from some theory is likely to miss her mark.

    I certainly don’t agree with the view that the Dialectic is the key to the “laws of thought” and therefore to all sciences. I think anyone starting from there will be unable to write history, let alone science.

    I think Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) “crude English method” (I believe Engels wrote something like that) was just fine, and I also suspect Lenin was all wet when it came to physics.

    Maybe, though, the theory of combined and unequal development would constitute a valid Marxist approach in this context. Here too I am behind on my reading.

    It’s hard for me to see how a completely non-Marxist historian could get slavery right evolution-wise. But, as I say, I have a lot of homework to do.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 17, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

  25. I find this to be a valuable topic invested with much intelligence and energy, despite my aversion to immersion in the details of capitalist economics. That’s quite a statement for a person who calls himself a Marxist to make, but I have a systemic, ecological approach to capitalism that stresses the big picture generated by the organization of the details. In this “systemic” vein, I have but a couple of observations to make.

    American slavery wasn’t precapitalist: it was a nascent form of capitalist primitive accumulation. But as slaves had no purchasing power, slavery fell into the realm of capitalism’s inherent tendency for demand to fall short of supply, and a civil rights movement was needed to bring blacks more profitably into The System. A similar economic rationality lies behind the gains of women, gays, etc. Everyone and every thing must be maximally exploited in our system of the exploitation of all forms of life.

    I strongly disagree with the statement by Wood that “global capitalism is more than ever a system of national states.” No, no, no! The nation-state has become but one of the major institutions of a triumphant global capitalism. Other such institutions are the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, European Union, NATO, etc. We are all slaves of sorts now on capitalism’s global plantation, and the United States is but capitalism’s political, economic, and military enforcer. The US does not rule the roost, but is the rooster in capitalism’s barnyard. Global capitalism rules. I repeat: global capitalism rules.

    Systemically speaking, we gotta flush this capitalist shit.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 19, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

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