Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2015

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu on the Brenner thesis

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

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

The Brenner Thesis: Explanation and Critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments »

  1. “Rather, feudalism is conceived as a ‘self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions’.””

    If by undermined we mean doomed to extinction we should ask can any system be undermined by its own internal contradictions. Or are all systems doomed to be swallowed up by their own internal contradictions because internal contradictions are a law of the universe, bound up with time and space?

    So in the case of human society social relations are not only contradictory but even technological progress is a contradictory factor, in that technological progress is inevitable and will inevitably change existing society, even if it appears to be external to any single system.

    In that case Brenner would be wrong but this comes to down to how you categorize something. If we just regard social relations as internally contradictory then Brenner may have a point, but if we widen it to include basically everything then we can safely say all systems are doomed to their internal contradictions. Even a spreadsheet is doomed as users will find things they want improved by using it and in the end another, improved release comes out.

    It would appear the scholarly approach is to narrow down the classification but I think this would be a mistake.

    I am tempted to think everything should be included under what is considered ‘contradictory’. I guess that in order to ultimately answer this question some detailed historical body of research is required and I would say doesn’t yet exist. At least Brenner attempts this challenge, rather than simply living in the logical world.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — July 27, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

  2. The problem with Brennerism is that the West “ruled” far before his particular notion of capitalism came to be. But in his schematic the Spanish empire (for instance) was inconsequential.

    One could easily argue capitalism started with the banking dynasties of Italian city states. This also makes sense because the cultural rebirth of Europe occurred first in Italy. “Good” Marxists know that innovations in culture and materialist conditions occur dialectically.

    Specific to capitalism is not “markets” or “free labor”, which have existed forever in some form (i.e. the market scene is Life of Brian https://youtu.be/3n3LL338aGA).

    But capitalism is more about organizing society through large scale banking and finance.

    Comment by jeff — July 31, 2015 @ 6:45 am


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