Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 4, 2019

Answering some questions about Robert Brenner

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Robert Brenner

Recently a dissertation student in Brazil asked me I’d be willing to answer some questions he had about Robert Brenner. I replied that I would be happy to but would like to do so on my blog since others might be interested in my replies.

So here goes:

1) Could you delineate a little biographical trajectory of Brenner, i.e., his main influences from the 1st and 2nd Internationals, his contemporary intellectual influences, allies and “groups”, his opponents and political participation, including in newspapers and journals in general?

I am not sure about the First and Second Internationals but I have heard experts on him claim that his main theoretical influence is Analytical Marxism. It is worth pointing out that Brenner contributed an article to the 1986 collection titled “Analytical Marxism” edited by John Roemer, a key AM’er. Brenner’s article is titled “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that can be downloaded from https://www.scribd.com/document/359014165/Robert-Brenner-The-Social-Basis-of-Economic-Development. (Be careful of scribd. They ask you to take out a free trial subscription but unless you forget to cancel it, the monthly charges can mount up as I once learned.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my friend Henry Heller’s book on the Brenner thesis but a review of it in Against the Current is worth quoting:

As Heller argues, analytic philosophy was a “politically disengaged professional discipline preoccupied with constituting a formal model of knowledge. Born in the midst of the waning of Marxism in the 1980s, Analytical Marxism purported to salvage whatever could be saved by applying the same techniques of formal logic to Marxism. Committed to positivist logic, this approach rejected a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction to its own cost. Brenner’s view of the transition is fundamentally weakened by this constraining methodology.”

The Political Marxist tradition argues that feudalism did not develop the forces of production, but instead was characterized by stagnation. They therefore reject the idea that development created the possibility for rising yeoman farmers, urban craftsmen, and new merchants to establish new capitalist relations of production.

Instead, they argue that capitalism developed as the unintended consequence of the class struggle between feudal lords and peasants only in England. Peasant resistance forced the end of serfdom, but the lords still retained control of the land. In this exceptional situation, the lords transformed themselves into capitalists who rented their land out to richer peasants who in turn hired poorer peasants as new wage laborers.

I have written a series of articles about the AM school that no longer has the following it had 20 years ago when I wrote about it. I did not cover Brenner in the series but would say that one of the key “contributions” of AM is its rejection of Marxist dialectics and  consequently a strong commitment to the kind of “stagism” that was endemic to the Second International. I have written in the past that Brenner’s chief influence on his own stagism comes from the British Marxist Historians School that was made up of CP members like Eric Hobsbawm but in writing this, it seems entirely possible that Brenner got more from the AM school than from them. In a nutshell, the CPers and the AM school are averse to the insights Trotsky provided in the theory of combined and uneven development. My article on AM’er Gerald Cohen might give you some idea of how this overlaps with Brenner’s theory that posts capitalism as a system that is absolutely distinct from feudalism and that began in England in the 14th century:

In the twentieth century, a “stagist” conception of Marxism drawn from the same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the 2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky’s conception of Permanent Revolution was a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas but even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen’s desire to return Marxism to some sort of “orthodoxy” is a misbegotten project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas on history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.

As to Brenner’s affiliations, he has a group of academics strongly committed to his theories. The most prominent of them have been Charles Post, Vivek Chibber, Mike Zmolek, and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood. Brenner, who is now a professor emeritus, no longer writes articles defending his ideas. Post and Chibber, who at one time were like tag team partners defending Political Marxism, had a falling out over Chibber’s embrace of neo-Kautskyism. This was around the same time Chibber removed Brenner from the editorial position he held at Catalyst magazine, which led to a bitter fight. So, as you can gather, PM does not lend itself to fraternal theoretical bonding. They make Trotskyists look like unity-mongers by comparison.


2) What do you think is the extent of Perry Anderson’s influence over Brenner’s formation?

None really. In fact, Anderson wrote a widely quoted take-down of Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653” in the London Review of Books. The book itself is not really about the core Brennerite idea of capitalism beginning in the British countryside but Anderson pokes holes in it, nonetheless. The review is behind a paywall but if you’d like a copy drop me a line. Here’s the relevant passage:

One side of Brenner’s polemic was aimed at neo-Malthusian orthodoxies, stressing the primacy of demography in Early Modern economic history, the other at neo-Smithian accounts that gave priority to cities and commerce – unwisely adopted, in Brenner’s view, by too many Marxists. He went on to draw the conclusion that the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’, lodged in the Marxist tradition, was misplaced: no bourgeoisie was needed to overthrow a feudal aristocracy, since the latter had changed itself and got to capitalism first anyway. The break with feudalism came not from any accumulation in trade or assault on absolute monarchy, but through an agrarian catharsis. Beside the self-conversion of the English landlords, every other strand in the emergence of capitalism was marginal.

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?


3) Brenner focuses his historical materialist approach around the idea that the primary factor behind the consolidation of a mode of production results from the importance of the relations of production, in detriment of the forces of production. Do you see his choice as a direct effort to eradicate the Soviet Stalinist version of the HM approach, mainly that exposed in “on dialectical materialism and historical materialism”? Or do you believe his main “target” is another one?

As I said before, my initial take on the Brenner thesis was that it derived from the British CP’s Historical Materialism School. Keep in mind that many scholars see it as round two of the Maurice Dobb/Paul Sweezy debate of the 1950s. While Sweezy came out of the CP himself, his approach to the origins of capitalism debate came from a “world systems” framework that would eventually be the hallmark of MR writers such as the recently deceased Immanuel Wallerstein. Dobb, like Brenner, saw the origins primarily as based in the British countryside but did allow colonialism and slavery to be part of the process.

With respect to the affinity that Brenner had with the CP historians, you can read what I wrote here for a fuller explanation.


4) Do you see any trace of an Althusserian influence on Brenner’s division of the two kinds of historical materialisms, between the young Marx’s one and old Marx’s one (as in Brenner’s Marx’s first model of the transition to capitalism [1985])?

I am not up to speed on Althusser’s distinction between the two kinds of historical materialism so I will take a pass on this.


5) Do you think Brenner’s work on transition and, more recently, on the world capitalist crisis, can be seen as one that promotes “methodological nationalism”, since his definition of a mode of production as a result of social-property relations is always referenced at the national level, matching his notion of (national) development patterns?

Quite honestly, I did not see much of a connection between the two Brenner theses, both of which appeared in the NLR. The first one was the 1977 article attacking the Monthly Review authors as “neo-Smithian”. The other was the 1998 special issue devoted entirely to his article “The Economics of Global Turbulence”. This is the only thing I have ever written about Brenner’s views on capitalist crisis in the current epoch. I am not sure how much it relates to his 1998 article but you might find it useful.


6) Do you think Brenner’s focus on the unparalleled promotion of economic development by the capitalist mode of production, and his recent critique of the supply side economics in his recent works, can be seen as a sign that Brenner is closer to Keynesianism or developmentalism than to Marxism in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (despite the thesis on the decline of the profit rate)?

I haven’t been keeping track of those articles but I don’t find anything particularly revolutionary about Brenner’s most recent reflections on the capitalist political crisis. In 2004, Brenner called for a vote for John Kerry in clear defiance of Marxist principles on class independence. Here’s the final paragraph of the article  he co-wrote with Joel Jordan:

The bottom line is this: It is understandable that many leftists are revolted by the thought of calling for a vote for the Democrats.  But we appeal to them also to consider the anguish that the tens of millions of people around the world who have taken up the struggle against U.S. imperialism over the past four years will feel should Bush win again…and the fury if Nader once more enables it to happen.


7) Brenner talks little about revolution or socialism in his most famous works. What do you think is Brenner’s conception about the process of revolution in a capitalist society and what would a socialist mode of production “look like” to him? Do you think the focus on national social-property relations and national patterns of development are compatible with something other thank the strategy of taking state power and promoting change from top to bottom?

As might be obvious from what I wrote just above, Brenner, who is only a couple of years older than me, lost his revolutionary zeal many years ago. I suspect that this has a lot to do with being based in the academy. Keep in mind that Perry Anderson, who taught at UCLA alongside him, wrote a deeply pessimistic article in NLR in 2000 titled “Renewals” that stated:

For the Left, the lesson of the past century is one taught by Marx. Its first task is to attend to the actual development of capitalism as a complex machinery of production and profit, in constant motion. Robert Brenner’s ‘Economics of Global Turbulence’, taking up an issue of NLR, sets the appropriate example.footnote6 No collective agency able    to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive. But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism of capital itself. We cannot turn away from it. Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one.


8) Brenner has been accused of developing a Eurocentric approach to history. What do you think of this charge?

Yes, it is accurate. How does someone spend his entire academic career on the left without ever writing a single article about developments in Latin America or Africa? For that matter, neither do any of his acolytes. Just below is a part of a critique of Brenner that was written by my dear friend and comrade Jim Blaut. Reading it led me to write all the others that are collected here.

Jim Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time”:

Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism that is as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. I cannot here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a tradition within one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political doctrines yet a tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical superiority (or priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over another, non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even prejudiced, although most of them believe that Europeans have always been the leaders in the forward march of history; that Europe is the fountainhead of civilization, the main source of innovative social change. For these scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. Capitalism’s further development consisted of an internally generated process of improvement within its classic homeland, the European world. The impact of capitalism on the rest of the world has been, on balance, progressive. Colonialism and (today) neocolonialism are not significant for capitalism, are rather a marginal process, a temporary aberration or diversion or side-show, not a vital need of the system as a whole, which evolves in response to internal laws of motion.

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

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.1


9) Do you think Brenner’s work is part of what is criticized in Kurz’s collapse of modernity thesis? What is your view about this debate?

Sorry, haven’t followed that at all.

March 10, 2019

The Primitive Accumulation debate

Filed under: Political Marxism,primitive accumulation,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

I want to alert my readers, especially those living in Europe, to a conference being held on May 9-11, 2019 at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam on the topic of “Toward a Global History of Primitive Accumulation”. Among the speakers are people I have a strong affinity with, including Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Edward Baptist, and Dale Tomich. They are scholars who tend to identify with the definition of primitive accumulation in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist):

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.

While I doubt that any of the sessions there will directly address the Political Marxists, they implicitly challenge its premise that primitive accumulation refers exclusively to the emergence of agrarian capitalism in late 15th century England, the linchpin of Robert Brenner’s scholarship. For Brenner and his acolytes, slavery and all that colonialism stuff do not enter the picture. It is only when land was enclosed in England as part of the rise of tenant farming that the “social-property relations” unique to capitalism kicked in. When a tenant farmer began to hire wage labor to milk cows, shear wool, and harvest wheat with a sickle, it set into motion the competitive drive that allowed England to rule the world. Cotton being picked by slaves was “pre-capitalist” and if it hadn’t been fed into the maw of emerging English capitalism, it would have gone to waste in Spain or Portugal whose rulers were only interested in using the gold and silver extracted from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico to buy silk pantaloons from India, powdered wigs from Bulgaria, and tea from China. England was the proverbial ant and the Iberian empires were the proverbial grasshoppers.

Speaking of Aesop’s fable, it should be understood that Marx developed the theory of primitive accumulation to rebut Adam Smith who was trying to account for the emergence of a capitalist class. In Smith’s world, the capitalist was someone who was thrifty like the ant and put aside the capital that was necessary to hire wage labor in the nascent manufacturing sphere of 18th century England. In Smith’s language, the term was “previous accumulation” rather than primitive. Perhaps, the best term would be “primary accumulation” since it only denotes the gathering of capital used a priori to capitalism.

In chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital, the allusion to Aesop is palpable:

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.

Robert Brenner first presented this version of primitive accumulation in the 1977 NLR article that attacked Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank as “neo-Smithian” ideologues. He argues that prior to capitalist “social-property” relations, there was no surplus value since there was no wage labor. Thus, all the gold in Peru and all the silver and Mexico was outside the sphere of capitalism, strictly speaking. This analysis, of course, rests on the premise that slave labor was “pre-capitalist”.

With “social-property relations”, you get a kind of Procrustean Bed. Unless there is a capitalist paying wage labor, you are outside of the capitalist world. In Greek mythology, Procrustes took people captive and then either stretched out or cut flesh and bone from their legs so they would fit in his iron beds. At least the people being excluded from “social-property relations” in Brenner’s writings only suffer from historical mutilation.

In V. 2 of Capital, Marx had a more inclusive view of the sphere of capitalist property relations:

No matter whether commodities are the output of production based on slavery, of peasants (Chinese, Indian ryots). of communes (Dutch East Indies), of state enterprise (such as existed in former epochs of Russian history on the basis of serfdom) or of half-savage hunting tribes, etc. — as commodities and money they come face to face with the money and commodities in which the industrial capital presents itself and enter as much into its circuit as into that of the surplus-value borne in the commodity-capital, provided the surplus-value is spent as revenue; hence they enter in both branches of circulation of commodity-capital. The character of the process of production from which they originate is immaterial. They function as commodities in the market, and as commodities they enter into the circuit of industrial capital as well as into the circulation of the surplus-value incorporated in it.

For some Marxists, this was always an aspect of primitive accumulation that was either explicitly presented in chapter 31 referred to above or in need of amplification. In Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital”, you get a clear statement about the intersection of capitalist and non-capitalist sectors in the accumulation of capital. In chapter 26, she writes:

[C]apitalism in its full maturity also depends in all respects on non-capitalist strata and social organizations existing side by side with it. It is not merely a question of a market for the additional product, as Sismondi and the later critics and doubters of capitalist accumulation would have it. The interrelations of accumulating capital and non-capitalist forms of production extend over values as well as over material conditions, for constant capital, variable capital and surplus value alike.

Hence the contradictory phenomena that the old capitalist countries provide ever larger markets for, and become increasingly dependent upon, one another, yet on the other hand compete ever more ruthlessly for trade relations with non-capitalist countries.

More recently, David Harvey adopted Luxemburg’s analysis in order to describe the same kind of ongoing process of capital accumulation in terms of “accumulation by dispossession”. In the 2004 Socialist Register, Harvey wrote:

A closer look at Marx’s description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; conversion of various forms of property rights – common, collective, state, etc. – into exclusive private property rights; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative, indigenous, forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets, including natural resources; monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; slave trade; and usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes and there is considerable evidence, which Marx suggests and Braudel confirms, that the transition to capitalist development was vitally contingent upon the stance of the state – broadly supportive in Britain, weakly so in France and highly negative, until very recently, in China. The invocation of the recent shift towards primitive accumulation in the case of China indicates that this is an on-going issue and the evidence is strong, particularly throughout East and South East Asia, that state policies and politics (consider the case of Singapore) have played a critical role in defining both the intensity and the paths of new forms of capital accumulation. The role of the ‘developmental state’ in recent phases of capital accumulation has therefore been the subject of intense scrutiny. One only has to look back at Bismarck’s Germany or Meiji Japan to recognize that this has long been the case.

Returning to chapter 31, with its emphasis on slavery and colonialism, it is important to read the fine print. Since the chapter is concerned with the genesis of the industrial capitalist, it begins with his forerunner during feudalism who were small guild-masters, independent small artisans, or even wage laborers.

Eventually, as feudalism began to collapse, seaports arose beyond the reach of the feudal guilds in order to take advantage of increased global trade. Within these “free trade zones” of the 17th century captured so vividly in Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, you get the growth of manufacturing, mostly in textiles, woolen at first and then cotton.

Marx writes that “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.” Even though commerce belongs to an earlier type of capital, it dovetailed with the new industrial capital as Marx points out: “In the period of manufacture properly so called, it is, on the other hand, the commercial supremacy that gives industrial predominance. Hence the preponderant role that the colonial system plays at that time.”

The next to last paragraph of chapter 31 could not be clearer about what tends to be overlooked in Political Marxism:

Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

 

October 20, 2018

Mercantile Capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Jairus Banaji

Probably because British colonialism screwed their homeland so royally, Indian Marxists tend to be some of Political Marxism’s most vehement critics. Perhaps the best known of them is Jairus Banaji, who received the Deutscher Prize in 2011 for his “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation” that is available online. That year, Banaji’s book edged out Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. I wish I could have listened in on the jury’s deliberations.

Since I tend to see Banaji and the writing team of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu (A&N henceforth) as occupying the same place ideologically in this debate, I was surprised to see Banaji’s broadside against “How the West Came to Rule” in the latest HM. I found most of his article extremely useful but had some of the same qualms as expressed by Anievas and Nişancioğlu in a reply to their critics.

The nub of Banaji’s criticism of A&N is that they see Caribbean sugar plantations of the 17th century, for example, as combining both pre-capitalist and capitalist features in a “transitional” mode. For Banaji, there is nothing “pre-capitalist” in these plantations so if you look at these debates across a spectrum, the PM’ers were the direct opposites of Banaji with A&N toward the middle, leaning a bit in Banaji’s direction. Banaji makes his case thusly:

Without doubt the least fortunate pages in How the West Came to Rule are those dealing with the slave plantations. The plantations are characterised both as ‘ “transitional forms” of social relations combining complex amalgams of capitalist and non-capitalist relations’, as the ‘interlacing and systemic fusion of different relations of production’, and as productive units ‘geared specifically towards capitalistic [sic] production’ which ‘operat[ed] according to distinctly capitalist rules of reproduction’. Now both characterisations cannot simultaneously be retained, for if these enterprises really were ‘geared specifically towards capitalist production’, then they embodied capitalist relations of production even if exploitation in them was based on slave labour. No teleology prescribed that those slaves would eventually be transformed into wage workers employed by the same owners or by others.

I am afraid that Banaji undermines his own case by projecting capitalism backward in history to the point that it is difficult to distinguish between antiquity and modernity as might be obvious from this sweeping panorama:

The sheer historical variegation of capital, especially commercial capitalists, over the centuries is striking – from the Roman capitalists who had ‘vast sums invested in Asia’, according to Cicero, or the capitalists of Fars in southern Iran whom the geographer al-Iṣṭakhrî described in the tenth century as ‘passionate’ about ‘accumulating capital’, or the ‘large capitalists’ who drained the salt marshes east of Basra using slaves imported from East Africa, or the ‘northern Kiangsu industrialists’ who invested in a booming iron industry employing thousands of wage labourers, or the ‘merchant princes’ of late-Song/Yuan China who owned massive shipyards and were both shipowners and international merchants at the head of ‘great business firms’, or the Corner brothers of Venice who built substantial sugar interests in Cyprus on plantations that imported large copper boilers from Italy, to the Dutch Calvinist merchants who emerged from the great Flemish dispersion of the seventeenth century to become the ‘economic élite of Europe’ and ‘the heirs of medieval capitalism’; the big colonial merchants of London who would ‘accumulate sufficient capital to diversify investment around their core business into ship-owning, joint-stocks, insurance, wharf- leases, and industry’, when London expanded rapidly in the late seventeenth century; the East India Houses of the nineteenth century, old City firms with branch houses in India that speculated repeatedly in indigo, opium and sugar; the Beirut trading houses who exported raw silk to French commercial houses in Marseilles and Lyons in the early part of the twentieth century; or, finally, big international merchants of our own period, companies like UAC, CFAO, and Metallgesellschaft.

Does it make sense to refer to Roman capitalists in the time of Cicero, namely the first century before Christ? Perhaps this only makes sense if you collapse all of the various stages of world history into class societies and the primitive communist societies that preceded them. Is there a difference between Roman slavery and that of the Deep South? I tend to think so. In my view, there is something to be said for the PM emphasis on relative surplus value that depends on the introduction of machinery into the productive process when extending the working day and other forms of exploitation associated with absolute surplus value have run their course. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, he was trying to identify the dynamism of the capitalist system of his day, which surely could not have been mistaken for Cicero’s Rome.

Now that this is out of the way, I want to focus on Banaji’s discussion of mercantile capitalism that according to Charles Post does not exist.

At an HM conference in 2015, someone raised a question about merchant capital in a panel discussion that included Post. Post answered by saying that that such an interpretation was based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. In other words, Post was saying basically the same thing as Spencer Dimmock who dismissed chapter 31 of Capital with its reference to slavery and colonialism as being written when Marx was still under Adam Smith’s influence. According to the PM’ers apparently, it was only when Marx had become fully mature by V. 3 of Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other superfluous stuff that got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

Toward the end of his article, Banaji defines merchant capital (or mercantile capitalism) as being very real and very much consistent with Marx’s mature analysis:

Yet Marx himself described mercantilism as the ‘first scientific theoretical treatment of the modern mode of production’. With the Mercantile System, he writes elsewhere, ‘it is no longer the transformation of commodity value into money that is decisive but instead the production of surplus-value’. And in another passage, this time from the Grundrisse, he describes the Mercantile System as an ‘epoch where industrial capital and hence wage labour arose in manufactures’; but here he adds the fascinating aside: ‘Industrial capital has value for them [the mercantilists], even the highest value, as a means … because it creates mercantile capital and the latter, via circulation, becomes money’.

If, as Marx believed, the manufacturing period involved an expansion of industrial capital, then of course these were industries largely controlled by merchants. We can always call this industrial capitalism, but today historians would doubtless prefer to see these early forms of industrial capital as simply one aspect of the wider system of merchant or commercial capitalism that expanded in the late-medieval/early-modern world. In his brilliant monograph on the Venetian silk industry, Luca Molà points out that in Vicenza by the end of the sixteenth century ‘the silk mills belonging to merchants alone were well over 100’. Merchant capitalists extended control over production in multiple ways. But they also dominated a host of major economic sectors such as foreign banking, wholesale trade, shipping, government finance, tax-farming, and so on. In any case, regardless of where they invested, we have to abandon the tautology which claims that ‘The independent and preponderant development of capital in the form of commercial capital is synonymous with the non- subjection of production to capita …’, an assertion which ignores Marx’s own remarks about the role of merchants in the luxury industries.

Volume 3 of Capital was not exactly written by Karl Marx, who died before it could be turned into a cohesive manuscript. It was completed by Engels, who based himself on Marx’s notes. But there is little doubt that it represents his mature thought. That being said, it is worth referring to chapter 20 titled “Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital” that captures the contradictory nature of commodity production in the period either neglected by PM’ers or given short shrift by Ellen Meiksins Wood in her reference to the East India Company as “pre-capitalist”:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. However, in its first period — the manufacturing period — the modern mode of production developed only where the conditions for it had taken shape within the Middle Ages. Compare, for instance, Holland with Portugal.[5] And when in the 16th, and partially still in the 17th, century the sudden expansion of commerce and emergence of a new world-market overwhelmingly contributed to the fall of the old mode of production and the rise of capitalist production, this was accomplished conversely on the basis of the already existing capitalist mode of production. The world-market itself forms the basis for this mode of production. On the other hand, the immanent necessity of this mode of production to produce on an ever-enlarged scale tends to extend the world-market continually, so that it is not commerce in this case which revolutionises industry, but industry which constantly revolutionises commerce.

As it happens, the only PM’er who wrote a book focused on the merchants was Robert Brenner himself in his 1993 “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London’s Overseas Traders 1550-1653”. As might be expected, the British colonists operating sugar plantations in Barbados were not capitalist in Brenner’s eyes. The only genuine capitalists in the 17th century were those who leased (or owned by this point) the vast agrarian estates that provided the oomph necessary to make the industrial revolution possible. Brenner’s book was reviewed that year in the London Review of Books by Perry Anderson who has never written about the “transition” debate except in this review, as far as I know. He lauds Brenner’s research but finds his landmark thesis lacking. You’ll note how close it is to what Marx wrote in chapter 20 of V. 3 of Capital:

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?

 

 

October 16, 2018

Thoughts provoked by the HM Symposium on “How the West Came to Rule”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

In 1976, Robert Brenner wrote an article titled “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in a scholarly journal that defined what would become known as “the Brenner thesis”. Based entirely on an accident of history, it was only in England in the late 14th century that agriculture became capitalist. There was a tripartite class relationship in which the landed gentry began leasing out land to tenant farmers, who then hired wage labor to produce for the market. Once capitalist farming kicked in, it paved the way for capitalism in general. So, if it weren’t for tenant farming, England never would have come to rule the world.

Before this miracle happened in England (and to a much lesser degree in Holland) and which would never be repeated elsewhere before the 19th century, most farming was done by peasants who only sold what was left over after satisfying family needs. These were “yeoman” farmers of the kind popularized in “The Little House on the Prairie” and many other heartwarming American sagas. They prospered until the redskins came along and destroyed their homes and kidnapped their children as depicted in John Ford’s “The Searchers”.

Now you would think that if tenant farming was a sine qua non for capitalist development, why didn’t yeoman farming in the USA inhibit the growth of manufacturing, especially in the north that fought for free labor in the Civil War? Charles Post has an explanation for this in his book on the origins of capitalism in the USA. It seems that the high price of land forced farmers to specialize and produce for the market rather than for their own subsistence. Once they became squeezed by competition, they sought ways of reducing labor costs, thus creating an impetus for farm machinery.

Now, it should be understood that this analysis cannot be found anywhere in Marx’s writings. In chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” (can’t be more specific than that, right?), he states emphatically:

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.

His main interest in the agrarian economy was not in tenant farming, etc. but how the landed gentry dispossessed yeoman farmers who would then be forced to become wage slaves. In chapter 27, titled “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”, he wrote:

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.”

In chapter 26, which also deals with primitive accumulation, Marx geolocated the first sprouts of the capitalist system. It wasn’t England:

Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the middle ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane.

Now this would likely cause most people on the left to shrug their shoulders and ask themselves what’s the big deal. After all, as Marx once said, the point is to change it—not to pinpoint where and when it got started. If these debates were taking place in obscure scholarly journals, that would likely have been the end of it. But a year after Brenner’s dry as dust article appeared, he took to the pages of New Left Review to turn his thesis into a litmus test. If you agreed with Paul Sweezy that capitalism started off because of expanded international trade in the late middle ages, a hypothesis associated with Henri Pirenne, you were some kind of ideological Menshevik. Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank were singled out as non-Marxist because they viewed colonialism and slavery as a sine qua non for the origins of capitalism in Europe. Considering what Marx wrote in chapter 31, you’d conclude that Brenner’s beef was with Karl Marx, not these three.

Today, the most vociferous Brennerite on the scene is Spencer Dimmock who wrote a book in 2015 titled “The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400-1600” that combines the kind of scholarly investigation of the material Brenner worked with in his first article with a slashing defense of Political Marxism (another word for the Brenner thesis) against its critics. The book can be downloaded from here.

I’ll give credit to Dimmock for a couple of reasons. It was he who made it downloadable, not someone trying to cheat him out of his royalties. (Ranked 1,611,042 by Amazon, they are probably rather modest.)

He is also the first PM’er to specifically address what Marx wrote about capitalism and slavery even if he gets it wrong. Referring to chapter 31, he cites Marx: “The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more or less chronological order.”

However, according to Dimmock, the term “primitive accumulation” in that quote is derived from Adam Smith. It assumes that capitalism needed a “prior” accumulation of capital for a kick start. Even if Marx wrote that gold and silver from the New World from the sixteenth century onwards and super profits from the slave trade and plantations from the seventeenth century onwards were necessary, he was channeling his inner Adam Smith, just as Brenner accused Paul Sweezy in his NLR article. Gosh, who would want to be accused of promoting Smithian views? Not me.

Adam Smith did not use the term “primitive accumulation”. He called it “previous accumulation” instead. For Smith, this was a peaceful process, in which some workers worked harder and were thriftier than others. The money they put aside helped them become capitalists and build factories. Slavery, colonialism, dispossession and other violent measures did not enter the picture.

The latest issue of Historical Materialism has a symposium on Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” that was published in the same year as Dimmock’s book. Dimmock and Post are among his critics, as well as Jairus Banaji, also a Brenner critic who is disappointed that the authors cede too much ground to Brenner. Neil Davidson, another critic, is also disappointed but mostly because they base their history on Leon Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development that in Davidson’s eyes (and Post’s as well) does not apply to precapitalist society. I can only say that HM deserves kudos for hosting such a symposium since the debate is just as urgent as it ever was. I suspect that for most people on the left it will only generate a shrug of the shoulders but for those who have been following the debate, it certainly is worth a trip to a research library to track down the latest issue. (Information on how to buy HM is at the end of this article.)

Post, like Davidson, came to his understanding of Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development through training in Trotskyist sects, just as was the case with me. His article is titled “The Use and Misuse of Uneven and Combined Development: A Critique of Anievas and Nişancıoğlu” and as the title implies makes the case that the theory is not useful in understanding world history in its totality. Of more immediate interest to me is Post’s critique of the authors’ reference to colonialism and slavery as being essential to the development of capitalism in England. He has a rather narrow view of their role: “The slave plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced exotic items (coffee, sugar, tobacco) for a large, but primarily well-off market made up of nobles and government officeholders on the Continent and capitalist landlords and farmers in England.” It was only when cotton entered the equation that such imports could make a difference but Post qualifies that by saying it was the ex post facto consequence of industrial capitalism having taken root.

Funny to hear sugar being reduced to an exotic item marketed to the wealthy. By the mid-18th century, it had become the most valuable commodity in Europe and one savored by rich and poor alike. In a 1989 article titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism”, Jim Blaut identified sugar as a key commodity:

After the plantation system had proven its profitability in the Atlantic islands it leaped to Brazil and became even more profitable and much more important. Here, at the close of the 16th century, it was producing a profit permitting a doubling of productive capacity every two years, a profit which amounted, early in the 17th century, to £1,000,000 sterling per year. By the year 1600, the annual value of sugar exported from Brazil already amounted to £2,000,000 sterling – twice the annual value of England’s total exports to all the world; this should be viewed against the backdrop of the traditional view that England’s exports in that period, principally of wool, were paradigmatic for the “awakening” or “rise” of capitalism.

Turning to Dimmock, whose article can be read online just like his book, you get a restatement of the Brenner thesis and a dismissal of most of the “How the West Came to Rule” as a failure to understand the thesis or, understanding it, misrepresenting it. As for colonialism and slavery, Dimmock minimizes its importance in the same fashion as Post:

Without the super-profits of slavery, the history of capitalism and industrial development may have taken a different course. But given that the symbiotic development of agrarian and industrial capitalism had already taken great strides by the 1620s, when Virginia and Bermuda were only just emerging, and that the social structure of England had been irreversibly transformed by then, it is difficult to see how the force of this structure could have been restrained or ‘choked off’ so easily.

Well, for most people the term “industrial capitalism” evokes textile mills in Birmingham two centuries later but I’ll leave Dimmock to his own devices on this.

For me, the more interesting question is whether it took the tripartite agrarian class relationship central to the Brenner thesis to generate profit-seeking in the countryside. He writes:

Because in an established feudal/absolutist society peasants possess the vast majority of the land, and are able to derive their subsistence from that land without becoming overly dependent upon the market for their inputs through wages or trade income, the surplus from their production can only be sufficiently extracted from them by political force or its threat.

In Anievas and Nişancıoğlu’s reply to Dimmock, they refer to a Dutch historian named Jessica Dijkman who rejects the “idea that peasants were by nature subsistence-oriented and only turned to the market if they were forced to”. In her book titled “Shaping Medieval Markets”, she points to a significant degree of farmers producing for the market rather than for their family. Although she is hardly combatant in the Political Marxism debates, she refers to Brenner in a footnote as someone tied to that idea.

She compares Holland, Flanders (ie., contemporary Belgium) and England and produces statistics that belies the Brenner thesis. Let’s start with Holland:

By 1500 not just non-agrarian activities in the Holland countryside were market-oriented, but so too were most agrarian activities. This may seem surprising, since this development had not been accompanied, as it was in England, by the rise of large landownership, tenant farming, and wage labour. In Holland, for the time being, peasants held on to their land: the structure of small family farms remained in place until at least the middle of the 16th century. By then, about 20% of labour input in agriculture was performed as wage labour.

In inland Flanders, subsistence farming generally held sway but in the coastal areas, profit-seeking held sway. Large farms emerged that conformed to Dimmock’s accidental miracle of capitalist tenant farming in England and around the same time. Dijkman writes:

The result was a predominance of middle-sized and large leasehold farms that mainly produced meat, dairy, and commercial crops. The Veurne district is a good example. In the early 16th century, the polders around Veurne were an important cattle-farming region. Although very little information on the marketing of meat and dairy produced on the large farms in this district is available, there can be no doubt that most of these products were sold on the urban markets in the vicinity.

And when you line up the numbers, Holland and Flanders were far more advanced in terms of their use of wage labor, a sine qua non for the PM’ers:

The PM’ers are in unenviable position. Most joined this school decades ago and rarely go outside their comfort zone. I doubt that you will ever find someone like Dimmock or Post working on a global survey of how the tripartite agrarian institutions of late 14th century England can be seamlessly tied to the emergence of the industrial revolution. Mostly they are content to use inductive reasoning to make their case. Honestly, I would love to see someone as erudite as Dimmock produce data that leads to the conclusion that the British East India Company was inconsequential. Even if it was wrong, it would give me something to work with.

Essentially, they are not interested in the capitalist system. What they were looking for is evidence of the kind of class relations that Marx identified in V. 1 of Capital with its strict focus on the textile mills. This entails a kind of ideological selectivity that makes all those statements from Marx to the contrary disappear. Ones like this:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.


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August 24, 2018

Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

Continue reading

August 12, 2018

Political Marxism and petty commodity production

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

1854 Engraving of New England farmers engaged in petty commodity production

In his Catalyst critique of books by the New Historians of Capitalism (Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist), Charles Post levels the charge that they don’t ground their history of slavery in Marxist theory, in other words Political Marxism. Recently I have been reading books and articles about agriculture and capitalism that suggest it is Charles Post who needs to sharpen his own understanding of Marxist theory.

Part of the problem with the Brenner thesis is that it speaks in the name of Karl Marx on agriculture and capitalism even though Marx never spent much time in developing his own analysis. In fact, there has been an extensive record of theorizing about agriculture that basically starts at ground zero, from Lenin to Kautsky.

Just consider the chapter in V. 1 of Capital on “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”. It is only 542 words long and repeats what is common knowledge, namely that starting in the latter part of the 14th century landlords leased large amounts of land to tenant farmers who then hired wage labor.

You can also find chapters on ground rent in V. 3 of Capital that begins by stating: “The analysis of landed property in its various historical forms is beyond the scope of this work.” In other words, the type of detail found in V. 1 of Capital about the origins of manufacturing and wage labor is utterly absent here. However, those looking for a definition of capitalist farming should take note of this in his introduction to the chapters on ground rent:

The prerequisites for the capitalist mode of production therefore are the following: The actual tillers of the soil are wage labourers employed by a capitalist, the capitalist farmer who is engaged in agriculture merely as a particular field of exploitation for capital, as investment for his capital in a particular sphere of production. This capitalist farmer pays the landowner, the owner of the land exploited by him, a sum of money at definite periods fixed by contract, for instance, annually (just as the borrower of money-capital pays a fixed interest), for the right to invest his capital in this specific sphere of production.

That certainly describes what took place in the English countryside but does it apply to the United States? Considering Charles Post’s emphasis on the small farmers of the north being the catalyst who made the transition to capitalism in the USA possible, it is worth considering what Marx wrote about them in the final chapter of V. 1 of Capital titled “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”. It basically draws a sharp contrast between England and “the colonies”, which means the USA and Australia. Quoting E. G. Wakefield’s “England and America,” Marx describes agrarian society as not based on capitalism, “In the Northern States of the American Union; it may be doubted whether so many as a tenth of the people would fall under the description of hired labourers…. In England… the labouring class compose the bulk of the people.”

Marx is emphatic: “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself — and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production — capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible.” Those who possess the means of production can refer to, for example, weavers of cloth in Medieval Europe who owned a loom and worked out of their house. The first step in moving toward capitalism consisted of a wealthy weaver setting up a shop with looms and hiring men and women to work for him.

Early farmers in New England operated on the same basis. With land grabbed from the Wampanoags et al, they used horse-drawn plows to prepare the soil as shown above, planted seed by hand and finally harvested the crops using a scythe. These were his “means of production” and the family members were his workforce, sometimes augmented by seasonal wage labor.

Among Marxists, this has been termed petty (or simple) commodity production. For example, Ernest Mandel writes: “Petty commodity production has its own characteristics which are neither those of feudalism (serfdom) or of capitalism (wage labour). The predominant form of labour is the free labour of small proprietors or semi-proprietors, owning their own means of production.” In England, it was possible to make the transition to capitalism because petty commodity production was wiped out through the Enclosure Acts. This was a key part of primitive accumulation, according to Marx:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that family farms existed outside the realm of capitalist property relations in the USA, Post sees them as the sine qua non for the birth of capitalism. What is critical for him is that the small farmer became a supplier of commodities to the home market in a period when manufacturing was taking off. Instead of producing goods mostly for home consumption, farmers began to specialize and use machinery to meet the growing demand:

Merchant-capital, through the mechanisms of land-law, land-speculation and the promotion of internal improvements, was responsible for the enforced dependence of free farmers on commodity-production for their economic reproduction. In particular, federal land-policy promoted the transformation of land into a commodity through the public auction of the public domain. This policy encouraged the speculative purchasing of large blocks of land, which forced actual settlers to purchase land from large land-companies at prices well above the minimal prices charged by the federal government. The cost of land-purchases and the burden of mortgages to the land-company forced the farmers to special- ise their crops and increase their production of commodities, thus becoming dependent on the sphere of commodity-circulation for their economic reproduction. The merchants also promoted internal improvements projects, such as canals and railways in the 1820s and 1830s, which lowered the costs of commodity-circulation, further promoting commodity-production.

The subordination of free farming to the law of value unleashed a process of increasing labour-productivity, technical innovation and social differentiation in the 1840s and 1850s. This period saw a sharp rise in the productivity of the farms of the old Northwest and the eastern Great Plains. This increase in the productivity of labour was accomplished through the introduction of labour-saving farm-implements, such as the mechanical reaper, new seed- drills and new ploughs.

You’ll notice what’s missing here, any mention of wage labor. So what if Marx stipulates that as long as the farmer possesses the means of production, the capitalist accumulation and the capitalistic mode of production are impossible. Charles Post knows better.

So you might ask yourself what’s the big deal. Even if these farmers were not capitalist farmers as defined by Karl Marx, who would deny that they were a cog in the machinery of capitalism? I would grant this as long as you grant the possibility that the same thing can be said about cotton plantations in the South. They were not capitalist, strictly speaking, but they made a major contribution to capital accumulation in the USA, something easily understood by everybody not blinded by Political Marxist orthodoxy—including Karl Marx, I might add:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

–Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

It is also worth mentioning that the family farm never went the way of the dinosaur in the USA. According to the USDA, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the USA in 2015 were family-owned. More importantly, 88 percent of them were categorized as small businesses. It is also true that roughly 2/3rds of the food we eat are produced by only 3 percent of the family farms but in many cases these are heavily capitalized and mechanized. For many of the wealthier farmers, the debt involved in maintaining such agrarian factories is like a huge bet made in Las Vegas. One mistake and you can go bankrupt.

An article by Mieke Calus and Guido Van Huylenbroeck in the Autumn, 2010 Journal of Comparative Family Studies includes a graph that shows how persistent family farming is, not just in the USA:

In 1978, Harriet Friedmann wrote an article for the Journal of Peasant Studies about “Simple Commodity Production and wage labor in the American Plains” that by its very title indicates the stubborn persistence of small family-owned farms. She studied wheat farmers in Cass County in North Dakota in the 1920s, the very people who identified with the Nonpartisan League featured in the documentaries I reviewed a while back. They were a mixture of populists and socialists who were descendants ideologically of the “free soil” abolitionists of the New England countryside.

Friedmann’s research revealed that the average household size was 5.2 people and that 85 percent of the wheat farms in Cass County were run by the family. Furthermore, when wage laborers were used on these farms in harvest periods typically, a goodly portion were the children of neighbors who saw lending out a son as a form of mutual aid. This has little resemblance to the wage labor used on English farms in the 18th and 19th century.

Ultimately, Marx’s business about wage labor being intrinsic to capitalist agriculture can be explained by an understandable tendency to think in terms of the factory system. In some cases this makes sense when you are talking about the immense meat and poultry production systems that have mechanized the raising, slaughtering and packaging of animals according to the Fordist model.

But producing wheat and other grains, fruits and vegetables is far too reliant on nature to become industrialized. Growing wheat in a place like Cass County involves a long growing cycle in which labor is not necessary. Indeed, that is the reason so much of American agriculture exploits immigrant, seasonal labor. Additionally, farms are not operating on raw material. In a factory, machinery can run 24 hours a day but on a farm a tractor might lie idle for months on end.

Despite Post’s insistence that the slave plantations were “pre-capitalist”, it was where factory-like conditions prevailed universally. If free labor was subject to the iron laws of the market in order to comply with the boss’s speedup, demands for wage reductions, it was the whip that maintained order in the south. If African slaves had not been available, maybe free labor would have taken root in the South just as it did in other cotton-producing countries in the 19th century such as Egypt that relied more on child labor.

According to Post, forced labor persisted in the South because of the failure of Reconstruction to root out the reactionary institutions that remained after the end of the Civil War. If there were competitive pressures on the gentry, they would have been forced to mechanize. At least, that’s the theory.

As it happens, the South did not mechanize cotton production until the 1940s and it had more to do with policies adopted by Roosevelt than anything else. In many ways, cotton was the best crop for investors since it was not subject to the contingencies of weather that made fruit and vegetables so risky. Since it was not perishable, it could be stored indefinitely until market conditions favored its sale. (This finding and what follows in the paragraphs below comes from Susan A. Mann’s “Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice.”)

In rushing to meet the demand for cotton in WWI, Southern farmers ramped up production using credit. Since capitalist production is not rational, this led to a crisis of overproduction as soon as the war ended. When faced by rural unrest after taking office, FDR sought to stabilize production in the same fashion as he did with other agricultural sectors. He created the Agricultural Adjustment Act that benefited wealthy farmers but ruined sharecroppers who received a far lower payment for reducing the yields. This should come as no surprise since the Southern racist ruling class was solidly tied to the Democratic Party at the time.

In the absence of a sufficient sharecropping labor pool, the big planters were forced to invest in labor-saving machinery. However, it was not as if this machinery was for sale and the gentry refused to pay for it because sharecropping was cheaper. A cotton harvester, a key labor-saving device, only went on sale in 1941. Like much of agriculture, including tea, coffee, tobacco and much of the goodies we buy at Gristede’s or Whole Food that come from Mexico or California’s Central Valley, rely on stoop labor. And, for the most part, those who supply such labor are subject to the kind of coercion—including threats of deportation—that make the Brenner thesis based on free wage labor so irrelevant to capitalist farming.

April 8, 2018

Charles Post’s palm-leaf hat

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:37 pm

Charles Post wearing a palm-leaf hat from the Museum of Social Property Relations collection in Bangor, Maine

Largely as a result of the ferocious debate taking place between the New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) and their detractors such as Alan Olmstead, Paul Rohde and Gavin Wright (whom Charles Post relies upon in his recent Catalyst critique of the NHC), I have decided to dive back into the controversies. Hopefully, I will find time to read the 3 seminal works by Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist that get the most attention—both positive and negative—but decided to revisit Charles Post’s analysis first. Even though the NHC seem oblivious to his writings (as he is to mine), it would be useful to have a fresh look at his “The American Road to Capitalism”. In the past, I focused mainly on the sections of the book dealing with the South since it was home to the cotton plantations that he viewed rather amorphously as “pre-capitalist”, a big-tent kind of term that could include the Inuit of Admiral Byrd’s time as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. This time I read the sections of the book that deal with the North that Post identifies as the birthplace of American capitalism just as Robert Brenner identified the English countryside.

Post has a tunnel vision of history that is similar to the one that Blaut described in his critique of Brenner:

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right.

Basically, Post’s diffusionism rests on the same kind of premise, namely that capitalism originated in places like New England, the Ohio valley, etc. and then diffused into the rest of the USA after the Civil War. When I began writing about the “transition debate”, I focused on the large farms that Brenner considered the hothouse of capitalism—mostly prompted by Richard Seymour’s defense of Political Marxism, a temporary episode for him fortunately. It now dawns on me that the plucky, freedom-loving farmers of the North play the same role that tenant farmers of 16th century England played in the Brenner thesis.

As I worked my way through Post’s book, I came across a paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks:

Additional evidence for increasing market-dependence in the early nineteenth century comes from Thomas Dublin’s work on capitalist rural ‘out- work’ in environs of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Farm-households in this region responded to the new competitive requirements of land-ownership by increasing the production of non-agricultural commodities. Before 1820, better-off farm-households utilised female and child-labour to produce cloth at home for sale on the market. After 1820, local merchants paid poorer farm-women and children to fabricate palm-leaf hats in their homes, which the merchants then sold to farmers and planters in the west and the south.

Palm-leaf hats? Are you fucking kidding me? In 1860, 60 percent of the value of American exports came from cotton and Post is honing in on palm-leaf hats as a sign that the capitalist embryo was growing? Say what? The palm-leaf hats make two other appearances:

Wealthier households began to specialise in the production of agricultural commodities such as wheat, meat, dairy and eggs; while poorer households began to provide labour-power to local merchants who were organising capitalist ‘outwork’-production of buttons, palm-leaf hats and other manufactured goods.

And once again:

While the merchants in palm- leaf hat-manufacture operated autonomously, organising a self-contained production-process carried out entirely in rural households; those in button-, shoe-, boot- and other capitalist domestic manufacture were often partners of manufacturers, who organised a centralised labour-process in a small workshop and ‘put out’ parts of the production-process to workers in the countryside.

So, if the South was exporting cotton to England that was used to fuel the industrial revolution, it mattered less than the god-damned palm-leaf hats? Why? Because the people making them were being paid a wage while the men and women picking cotton were not? Does any of this make sense?

While it may be a couple of months before I get around to the 3 NHC books alluded to above, I decided to download the new book “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development” co-edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman since a couple of the articles were relevant to the question of the exclusivity of Northern capitalism. A Kindle version of the book is $15.12 and well worth it if you are interested in these questions. I only shelled out the dough for it because it had been checked out of the Columbia library.

Post’s argument is that once the farms of the north ceased being “yeoman” (producing goods mostly for household consumption with any surplus sold in the market) and became capitalist, this led to an explosion of innovation, especially in farm machinery. In contrast, the “non-capitalist” plantations just ambled along content to use slaves. I would imagine that most people would look at Cyrus McCormick’s reaper as the product of such competition. In the chapter titled “An International Harvest: the Second Slavery, the Virginia-Brazil Connections, and the Development of the McCormick Reaper”, University of Georgia historian Daniel Rood reveals that the machine was actually invented on a slave plantation in Virginia. Imagine that!

In the 30 years before the Civil War, Brazil became the number one export market for American wheat flour and no city in the USA produced more wheat flour than Richmond, Virginia.

Furthermore, despite being a slave state, technical innovation in Virginia was equal to any “free” state in the North. Since wheat production was lucrative, land tended to be bought from small proprietors and turned into vast plantations that had the capitalization to innovate. Planters experimented with new techniques as well as coercing field hands. In other words, they were both keen on improving output both through invention and the whip. They used five-field rotation, imported guano (bat shit) from Latin America for fertilization, marling (another kind of fertilizer) and looked to Edmund Ruffin for guidance. Known as America’s best-known advocate of agricultural improvement (a term found liberally in Brennerite literature), Ruffin was a Virginia planter who marketed upwards of 5,000 bushels of wheat a year.

In addition to improvements in wheat production, Virginia became a prime venue for iron production using the latest methods. All this helped to spawn McCormick’s experiments on the Walnut Grove plantation. Below is a reenactment of the earliest attempt at creating a reaper on Walnut Grove, with one of McCormick’s slaves trailing behind the machine.

Besides being the birthplace of the reaper, Virginia’s wheat plantations were also keen on using the most advanced techniques to separate the wheat from the chaff. Slaves carried wheat to either a horse or steam-engine powered fan that did the job. While the norm in the South was to have livestock walk across the wheat to thresh the grain like barefoot Italian peasants stomping grapes to make wine, Richmond was anxious to keep the process as clean as possible to keep the Brazilian purchasers happy. Therefore, there was a heavy investment in mechanization to keep the wheat away from human contact.

Once McCormick had perfected his reaper, he relocated to Chicago and formed International Harvester, which is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of farm equipment today. Despite its location in a bastion of the abolitionist north, its roots were in a slave state thus demonstrating that tunnel vision is ill-suited to understanding the rise of capitalism in the USA.

As a symbol of Yankee independence and abolitionist zeal, New England was likely a place to pose the question of “What Have We to Do With Slavery” in the pre-civil war era. In a chapter written by University of Pittsburgh historian Eric Kimball with this title and the subtitle “New England and the Slave Economies of the West Indies”, you find further evidence of the futility of separating the north and the south in a non-dialectical fashion.

Kimball takes a close look at the interdependence of New England and the sugar-producing slave-based colonies of the Caribbean. Evoking the triangular trade of slaves, sugar and rum I learned about in high school, he expands upon these commodities and counts fish, livestock, timber and slaves as those shipped to places like Jamaica from New England.

It was such trade that allowed New Englanders to pay off debts to England during the colonial era. New England was deeply involved in the slave trade as well. Of the 139,000 Africans kidnapped from their homeland aboard New England ships, nearly 80 percent were on ships launched from Rhode Island. Many Rhode Islanders, including the Brown family whose slave-based fortune helped launch the prestigious university, were implicated in a slave trade that lasted over 200 years. Perhaps the “take-off” in manufacturing in the north should take these facts into account, even if it goes against the grain of Political Marxism.

Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Islanders exported 11 million gallons of rum to Africa, all of which were produced by more than 20 distilleries. To the north, Massachusetts imported even more molasses from the West Indies to turn into rum. Thus, as Kimball points out, “New Englanders were converting slave-produced raw materials into valuable export commodities long before the construction of cotton textile mills during the antebellum period.”

Even larger than the slave trade was export of goods essential to the functioning of plantations such as whale oil for lamps. What else would have brought Ahab to risk his life except for the profits that could have been made? In a very real sense, the lights that those lamps produced helped to illuminate the labor processes of slave plantations in the Caribbean.

You also had to factor in the wealth that was produced from cod fishing, a key industry in New England. The dried, salted cod became “the meat of all the slaves in all the West Indians” according to George Walker, a British member of parliament in the 18th century. If the slaves ate cod, their masters feasted on livestock exported from New England. The governor of the colony of Connecticut stated that “Those vessels that go from hence to the French and Dutch Plantations…carry horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, provisions, and lumber.” On their return, they brought with them “molasses, cocoa, cotton and some sugar.”

There was also a vast amount of lumber shipped southward. Between 1768 and 1772, more than 160 million feet of pine board were exported to the Caribbean colonies from New England. Carrying all these commodities required an immense merchant fleet and thus fed into the shipbuilding industry that New England was noted for. Even if Charles Post chooses to sweep these connections under the rug, the power elite in New England of antebellum times readily admitted them as Kimball points out:

Indeed, contemporaries were well aware of the importance of this trade, and in 1818 Adam Seybert, a Pennsylvania congressman, provided an extremely useful description of it. In 1818, Seybert concluded that “we not only supplied the demand in our markets, but also furnished a considerable portion of Europe with the valuable productions of the Colonies of France, Spain, and Holland. The surplus re-exported produced a general activity in the sea ports of the United States.” He further noted that “without the intercourse with the colonies and the countries above enumerated, we should not have been able to extend our trade in the Europeans markets; in consequence of it we carried rich cargoes to the ports of France, Holland, Spain, Germany, and Italy.” This element, Seybert concluded, was critical: “it was from the profits of that trade, that we discharged our enormous debts in England.” Seybert estimated that a profit rate of $50 per ton in this branch of trade between 1795 to 1801 was “a moderate allowance” and that “intelligent merchants calculated it as high as 70 dollars per ton, on voyages of every description.

Ironically, the best introduction to this perspective can be found in Forbes, a magazine that portrayed itself as a “capitalist tool” in the 1960s. In a review of “Slavery’s Capitalism” titled “The Clear Connection Between Slavery And American Capitalism“, Dina Gerdeman asks Sven Beckert why historians made slavery out to be only a “southern problem”. I don’t know if she was referring to Charles Post but it sure sounds like it. Beckert replied:

This is an excellent question, and indeed, as you note, quite puzzling. It is puzzling for three reasons: For one, into the early years of the 19th century, slavery was a national institution, and while slavery was never as predominate a system of labor in the North as it was in the South, it was still important.

Second, there were a vast number of very obvious economic links between the slave plantations of the southern states and enterprises as well as other institutions in the northern states: Just think of all these New York and Boston merchants who traded in slave-grown goods. Or the textile industrialists of New England who processed vast quantities of slave-grown cotton. Or the bankers who financed the expansion of the plantation complex.

And third, both the abolitionists as well as pro-slavery advocates talked over and over about the deep links between the southern slave economy and the national economy.

Why did these insights get lost? I think the main reason is ideological and political. For a long time after the Civil War, the nation really did not want to be reminded of either the war or the institution that lay at its root—slavery. A country that saw itself as uniquely invested in human freedom had a hard time coming to terms with the centuries’ long history of enslaving so many of its people.

When slavery became more important to our historical memory, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the work of reconciling the history of freedom and the history of enslavement involved quarantining the history of slavery to one section of the nation only. That allowed for doing two things simultaneously: It allowed for the belated acknowledgement of the importance, barbarity, and longevity of slavery in the United States. But it also allowed for a continued telling of the story of freedom, since the national story could be told as one in which one section of the United States, the North, fought hard to overcome the retrograde, coercive, and inhumane system of slavery in the other section.

Of course, this story is not completely wrong. Yet what it effectively did was to insulate the national story from the problem of slavery. A focus on the economic links generated around slavery, the story that our book charts, brings the story of enslavement squarely back into the center of the national history as a whole. And this is where it belongs.

April 2, 2018

The dialectical relationship between the steam-engine and slavery

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

James Watt’s steam-engine

In Historical Materialism (2013, 21.1), there’s a 53-page article by Andreas Malm titled “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry” that presents the same arguments found in his 2016 book “Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming”. In a nutshell, his main idea is that when England adopted coal-powered steam engines to run the machinery used to spin cotton into yarn, it was a decision that eventually led to the general usage of fossil fuel in manufacturing and thus climate change.

At first blush, this seems counter-intuitive since burning coal was more costly than the water wheel. After all, once you built one, the water was free while it cost money to pay the wages of miners who went into the ground to dig it up as well as the railroad trains that delivered it to the factory. Malm writes:

In 1786, the brothers Robinson erected the first rotative steam engine to drive machinery for spinning cotton in their Papplewick factory on the River Leen. But they soon became disappointed. In a complaint that would long haunt steam power, the brothers faulted the engine for excessively high fuel costs: coal commanded a price of up to 12 shillings, to be measured against the free running water of the Leen. Instead of pursuing steam further, they fell back on the natural supply of the river, augmented it with reservoirs, and continued to spin by water.’

Not only was the water-wheel cheaper, it was more powerful. James Watt’s steam engines typically were rated at 60 horsepower while the largest water-powered mills were 5 times more powerful. Furthermore, they were less prone to mechanical breakdown.

For the industrialists, the advantage of coal was that it could allow factories to be built anywhere there was abundant labor. Since rivers did not necessarily flow through heavily populated areas, it meant that hiring workers was more difficult. John McCullough, a leading bourgeois economist of the period put it this way: “But the invention of the steam-engine has relieved us from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed them to be placed in the centre of a population trained to industrious habit.”

Malm describes the hiring process that was so onerous to the profit-seeking class:

Recruitment and maintenance of a labour-force were the defining problems of the factory colony. When a manufacturer came across a powerful stream passing through a valley or around a river peninsula, chances were slim that he also hit upon a local population predisposed to factory labour: the opportunity to come and work at machines for long, regular hours, herded together under one roof and strictly supervised by a manager, appeared repugnant to most, and particularly in rural areas. Colonisers following in the steps of Arkwright frequently encountered implacable aversion to factory discipline among whatever farmers or independent artisans they could find. Instead, the majority of the operatives had to be imported from towns such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham, requiring steady advertisement in the press as well as attractive cottages behind leafy trees, allotment gardens, milk-cows, sick- clubs and other perks to persuade the workers to come, and to stay.

Another problem was the occasional unreliability of water streams. When a river froze over, production stopped. Or in periods of drought, the water would be inadequate to rotate the mill. On the other hand, steam engines did not rely on such exigencies. A supply of coal could be depended on. Brought together, steam power, machinery and an ample supply of workers could ramp up the production that was necessary for British textiles to dominate the world markets. Showing his contempt for the bosses of yesteryear, Malm writes: “A perfectly docile, ductile, tractable labourer: the wettest dream of employers come true. Here were the reasons to glorify ‘the creator of six or eight million labourers, among whom the law will never have to suppress either combination or rioting’, in the words of François Arago, author of the first major biography of Watt.”

In some reviews, Malm’s valuable insights are linked to Political Marxism. For example, in the ISR, Bill Crane provides some background on the book:

Even such a pioneering and innovative study as Fossil Capital has its weak points. It is based on Malm’s doctoral dissertation, and its erudition in one specific area of social science can be difficult for readers (like myself) who do not share his background. Similarly, Malm draws deeply on several different schools of Marxist thought, including Robert Brenner and Ellen Wood’s historical interpretation of the rise of capitalism in England, the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser, and Henri Lefebvre’s work on capitalism’s production of space.

Meanwhile, Michael Robbins’s review in BookForum (behind a paywall) sums up the book’s argument about as succinctly as can be imagined as well as making the Political Marxism connection:

Malm is the author of Fossil Capital (2016), the best book written about the origins of global warming. Drawing on currents of political Marxism, Malm showed that British capitalists turned from hydropower to industrial coal-fired steam power in response to class struggle rather than, as mainstream views have it, because coal proved a cheaper or more efficient energy source. What steam power enabled was cheaper and more efficient control of labor. It also, as we now know, empowered capitalists to change the climate of the planet by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (a process later exacerbated by petroleum-based industry).

Ironically, despite Malm’s connection to the Brenner school of Marxism, I find the connection between slavery and coal-based production compellingly obvious. If coal could make labor exploitation possible on an uninterrupted basis, so could slavery. Keep in mind the troubles that the American bourgeoisie had putting people to work in the fertile fields of the south.

American Indians were impossible to keep captive because they knew escape routes and native villages that would shelter them. Furthermore, Indians were still powerful enough militarily in the 1700s and early to mid-1800s to make subduing them anything but a cakewalk. Before slavery, indentured servitude was used to provide labor for tobacco, sugar and other cash crops before the demand for cotton soared. While an indentured servant was certainly capable of picking cotton, the contract was based on a fixed length so that eventually he or she could find other work or become yeoman farmers.

Slavery solved that problem just as steam power solved the labor supply problem in England. What difference does it make if one form of labor was based on a wage and the other by repression? The goal was to produce commodities, after all.

That is something that Karl Marx makes clear in V. 1 of Capital:

But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labour, the corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom etc. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those [southern] states [of the American Union], the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of labour, became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products, but rather of the production of surplus-value itself.

 

March 31, 2018

Thoughts on John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery”

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

John Clegg

Like Charles Post’s article in the latest Catalyst (behind a paywall), John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015  Critical Historical Studies criticizes the New Historians of Capitalism aka NHC (Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, et al) from the standpoint of Political Marxism. However, unlike Post, Clegg maintains that slavery was capitalist, thus distancing himself from the more rigid schemas of Post and others in this camp. For Post, anything except free wage labor is “pre-capitalist”, a category that arguably begins with hunting and gathering societies and continues until the 15th century when purely contingent—or even “random” as Post put it–events led to the introduction of lease farming in England, which was the seed that led to the industrial revolution, Amazon.com and all the rest. As such, it might be considered in the same light as the asteroid that hit the Gulf of Mexico 66 millions of years ago. If the asteroid had missed Earth, we might be seeing Tyrannosaurus rex rather than Jeff Bezos running Amazon.

Both Post and Clegg fault the NHC for not being interested in defining capitalism, which is the hallmark of the Political Marxists no matter that Marx spent little time trying to define it himself. He was much more dedicated to explaining how the system took root and how it functions. And when he does refer to the origins of the system, he has quite a different outlook than Post’s: “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.” If anybody can find a reference from Post, Brenner, Chibber or any other Political Marxist to this sentence or the chapter of Capital in which it appears, I will donate $100 to their favorite leftist cause.

The purpose of Clegg’s article is to expand on his initial definition of it as a system based on “widespread and systematic market dependence” that includes the plantations of the old South. This view puts him in league with Sidney Mintz, James Blaut and even the NHC. Whether it is consistent with the Political Marxism he has absorbed in the NYU Sociology Department is another question entirely. For the more orthodox Brennerites, when human beings are forced to “freely” sell their labor power in the marketplace in order to survive, this satisfies one of the key requirements for capitalism. However, for Clegg the ability of slave-owners, and more specifically the need, to compete with each other for the price of slaves or the goods they produce for the marketplace qualifies them as capitalist property relations:

It is true that markets didn’t allocate slave labor within the plantation, but neither do they allocate wage labor within factories. Insofar as it is capable of being either hired or purchased slave labor is like any other capitalist commodity. The presence of a specialized class of slave traders in the antebellum South ensured that slave markets were exceptionally liquid. Evidence of their allocative efficiency can be found in the estimated net transfer, from 1820 to 1860, of more than half a million slaves from the less productive plantations of the Old South to the more productive plantations in the New South via the domestic slave trade alone.

In a footnote tied to this excerpt, Clegg states: “It is his failure to recognize the liquidity of slave labor markets that leads Charles Post to argue that slaves could not be expelled from the labor process, giving planters no incentive to introduce labor-saving technical change.”

Clegg is not satisfied with the implicit definition of capitalism in the NHC literature, which revolves around profit-seeking and commodification. It is not so much that their hazy definition is incorrect. It is more that they evasively refuse to cast it in concrete. In some sense this is certainly true. I have the three main texts of the NHC but you can search in vain for references to Karl Marx or Marxism in the index.

He recommends to his readers and implicitly to the NHC authors who come across his article that they look into Robert Brenner, whose “conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works.” He goes on to explain that plantation owners had to compete with each other on the world market and thus find ways to cut costs, either through labor-saving machinery or through the violent enforcement of labor discipline that is recounted in Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told”.

I will pass over Clegg’s critique of some of the arguments made by the NHC since they do not touch upon the question of whether slavery is capitalism or not—the focus of this article—and proceed to the final section titled “The Problem of Origins” that addresses where, when and how capitalism began. (I should add that since I have not read the three main texts of the NHC’ers, I’d be making a fool of myself if I did.)

For Marx, its origin was simply put as “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population”. So now what does Clegg think?

He starts off by revisiting the Eric Williams classic that actually never argued that slavery was capitalist. His thesis (literally speaking since the book was adapted from his PhD dissertation) was that slavery was necessary for the take-off of British capitalism but in itself was an earlier mode of production. However, Clegg argues against this, even citing Sven Beckert himself who made the case that British textile mills survived even after the Civil War cut off supplies from the South. He also questions whether the North was dependent on the plantation system, citing data that cotton represented only 6 percent of GDP from 1800 to 1860.

In my view this is the kind of tunnel vision that makes Political Marxism so inadequate. Rather than focusing on plantation cotton and British textile mills, it makes much more sense to analyze the origins of capitalism as the outcome of a multiplicity of factors including the impact of the Ottoman Empire as I pointed out in my review of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism”. Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean had consequences that ultimately made the “agrarian capitalism” hailed by Brenner and Wood possible, although it was never acknowledged in their scholarship. Put succinctly, the English benefited from Pax Ottomana while the Italian city-states were shut out. This meant that the nascent textile industry had easy access to wool, cotton, silk and mohair from the East. Furthermore, England’s isolation from the intra-feudal warfare of continental Europe allowed it to invest far less capital in the military. So pronounced was the “peacetime” dividend that by the 1550s Spain had seven times as men in arms than England. And none of this would have been possible without the open door the Ottomans provided.

In the final analysis, understanding how capitalism came to pass requires a much broader scope than that is found in both the Political Marxist literature as well as that of the NHC. At least the NHC historians don’t put themselves forward as experts on its origins, only as men and women intelligent enough to understand that slaves were workers producing commodities even if their labor was coerced just as was the case for the hundreds of years preceding the American civil war, from the tin mines of Bolivia to the sugar plantations of Jamaica.

Near to its conclusion, Clegg makes an observation that is most welcome:

In a capitalist order of fully specified property rights, it is wage labor rather than slave labor that is the anomaly. Far from being a precapitalist holdover, enforceable labor contracts would be the dream of many an employer. Today, indenture and debt peonage are legally restricted in most countries, not because employers found free labor to be in their enlightened self-interest but because workers refused to accept a condition approximating slavery. Commenting on a French slave code, Marx once wrote that “this subject one must study in detail to see what the bourgeois makes of himself and of the worker when he can model the world ac- cording to his own image without any interference.” (emphasis added)

He is totally right. It is wage labor that is the anomaly. In a future post, I will try to show this is particularly true of commercial farming that has been most resistant to the idea of a free market when it comes to boss and bossed relations. Just look at how chocolate is produced and you’ll understand what I am driving at.

Frankly, I sometimes wonder if Clegg pays homage to Robert Brenner despite putting forward such distinctly anti-Brennerite ideas just for professional exigency. Is it possible that kowtowing to Political Marxism is a necessity in the NYU Sociology Department because the two big shots who might be sitting on Clegg’s dissertation committee or influencing it are fanatical Brennerites like former Department chair Jeff Goodwin and Vivek Chibber who was so devoted to this academic cult that he had the balls to heckle me at a Historical Materialism conference when I challenged it during a Q&A.

 

March 24, 2018

Capitalism and slavery

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Read the book here

Fifteen years ago I began writing a series of articles about capitalism and slavery to answer Charles Post’s July 2003 Journal of Agrarian Change article titled “Plantation Slavery and Economic Development in the Antebellum Southern United States” that applied the Brenner thesis to the “peculiar institution” and its abolition. In essence, Post argues that slavery in the south was “pre-capitalist”, a term I always found rather noncommittal since it failed to make a distinction between a slave economy based on commodity-production—such as the American south—and those that were associated with a tributary society like the Ottoman Empire. There is a huge difference obviously between Janissary slaves who were highly privileged military elites and those men and women kidnapped from Africa and forced to produce cotton for the textile mills of capitalist England.

Post has basically been self-plagiarizing the article ever since and has made a studied effort to pretend I do not exist, except to make snarky references to me on FB. I was treated rudely by his good buddy Vivek Chibber at an HM conference a few years ago. One wonders if these two high priests of Marxism ever had a regular job like mine working in a cubicle whether they would have written a single article about anything at all.

Chibber and Post belong to an academic cult called “Political Marxism” around Robert Brenner and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood that has a beachhead in the NYU Sociology Department. It is there that you get trained to write articles arguing that colonialism and slavery had little to do with the rise of capitalism even though that’s specifically what Marx wrote in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital. If having faith in Political Marxism separates you from the ideologically impure, what can one make of Post’s recent polemic against Chibber’s defense of market socialism in Jacobin? If the Brenner thesis is a vaccine against revisionism, Chibber must have been injected with a placebo.

For many years, the Brenner thesis was virtually hegemonic in the academy, with support from many professors having no connection to Marxism. My good friend, the late Jim Blaut, explained why there was such readiness to accept it:

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

Jim never wrote much about American slavery in his books and articles but he certainly did in Internet mailing lists like PEN-L where support for the Brenner thesis ran deep. Even before I ran into Jim on Marxmail, I would have found arguments like Post’s questionable at best because like many 60s radicals I had read Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, based on his doctoral dissertation, that was mandatory reading whatever your ideology, especially for Trotskyists. In Kent Worcester’s biography of CLR James, we learn that the Trotskyist theorist served as a tutor to Williams at Oxford. It seems that James read both drafts of Williams’s dissertation and had a significant role in formulating the book’s primary thesis, namely that sugar plantations, rum and slavery trade helped to catapult Great Britain into world domination at the expense of the African peoples in the Diaspora. Without the underdevelopment of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., capitalist development in Great Britain would not have had the supercharged character that it did.

In 2013 and 2014, three books came out that rested firmly on the foundations of Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”:

  • Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap, 2013)
  • Edward Baptist, The Half That Has Never Been Told: The Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014)
  • Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014).

As expected, Post wrote an attack on what has now become known as the New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) school for not having a proper understanding of capitalism. In a preface to an article in Catalyst, part of the Bhaskar Sunkara publishing empire, Post wrote:

The New Historians of Capitalism (NHC) claim that their refusal to “define” capitalism is a historical and theoretical virtue. In reality, NHC do have a concept of capitalism — a system of trade, finance and extra-economic coercion and dispossession. Unfortunately, these social processes have existed trans-historically.

If you’ve read the founding document of Political Marxism, Robert Brenner’s 1977 NLR article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: a critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, this will sound familiar. The Brennerites have a rather narrow definition of capitalism, one based on the premise that it involves free wage labor producing commodities on the basis of relative surplus value—in other words, using machinery rather than ratcheting up the work-day hours to produce absolute surplus value, especially through coercion. Strictly speaking on this basis, there was no capitalism anywhere in the world in the mid-1800s except in England and the American north. Not even in France or Germany.

Unfortunately, I could not justify spending $60 to take out a Catalyst subscription to read Post’s article that is behind a paywall but in lieu of that, you can join me in reading NYU Sociology Department dissertation student John Clegg’s “Capitalism and Slavery” on ResearchGate. Like Post, Clegg faults the three historians for not having a coherent account of capitalism. To be fair to Clegg, he differs from Post in defining slavery as capitalist because of its “widespread and systematic market dependence.” Oddly enough, Clegg’s understanding is based on an idiosyncratic version of the Brenner thesis:

In this essay I argue that Robert Brenner’s conception of capitalism as generalized market dependence may provide the theoretical framing that is largely missing in these works.10 Brenner points out that while markets have existed in all known societies, only in capitalism are productive agents dependent on the market for their survival. This is because producers in capitalist societies have no direct (nonmarket) access to the means of production, including their own means of subsistence, and must therefore sell to survive. Since prices will be determined by the interaction of many producers in the market, producers in capitalist societies are compelled not only to sell but also to produce at a competitive cost.

Well, maybe so but if two people swearing by the Brenner thesis can come up with a definition of slavery totally opposed to each other’s, you really have to wonder if the theory itself is problematic especially since Brenner’s 1977 article was emphatic:

To state the case schematically: ‘production for profit via exchange’ will have the systematic effect of accumulation and the development of the productive forces only when it expresses certain specific social relations of production, namely a system of free wage labour, where labour power is a commodity. (emphasis added)

For Post and Clegg, the NHC represents a challenge to their understanding of Marxism even if they can’t seem quite able to agree with each other on the finer points of the Brenner thesis.

But only recently did I discover that Johnson, Baptist and Beckert are also fending off attacks from other quarters having little connection to Marxism. It doesn’t surprise me that they never bothered to answer Post or Clegg since having Talmudic debates over Marxist theory would have little appeal. I sometimes wonder why I bother myself.

I had run across a link somewhere, probably on FB but I can’t be sure, to a recording of a panel discussion on “Free and Unfree Labor: The Political Economy of Capitalism, Share-Cropping, and Slavery” chaired by Robert Brenner in the UCLA Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. Unfortunately, it cuts off in the middle of a presentation by Columbia professor Suresh Naidu who is working on a book about these questions and even before John Clegg had a chance to weigh in. But I was able to hear the entire talk by Gavin Wright, a 74-year old Stanford professor who has written a number of books and articles on these questions as well but none in recent years until the NHC cropped up.

Wright comes at the slavery and capitalism from two contradictory angles. He begins by stating that Eric Williams was correct in attributing the rise of British capitalism to slavery but then changes gears to attack Johnson, Baptist and Beckert for overemphasizing the importance of slavery. I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds but really..,

Much of Wright’s attack is based on an article written by Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism”, which is particularly focused on the work of Edward Baptist who is particularly reviled by the non-Marxist critics of NHC.

Basic to Baptist’s research is the notion that it was torture that accounts for an increase in productivity on cotton plantations. Olmstead and Rhode, who are economists rather than historians, claim that it was a new variety of seeds that was key. They write, “Baptist ignored the well-documented argument that picking rates had increased in large part due to a succession of improved cotton varieties.” In other words, it was technological advances rather than the whip that worked.

In trying to get a handle on Olmstead and Rhode’s approach, I discovered that they co-authored a book in 2008 titled “Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development” that sounds like it might have subsidized by Monsanto given the blurb on Amazon:

This book demonstrates that American agricultural development was far more dynamic than generally portrayed. In the two centuries before World War II, a stream of biological innovations revolutionized the crop and livestock sectors, increasing both land and labor productivity. Biological innovations were essential for the movement of agriculture onto new lands with more extreme climates, for maintaining production in the face of evolving threats from pests, and for the creation of the modern livestock sector. These innovations established the foundation for the subsequent Green and Genetic Revolutions. The book challenges the misconceptions that, before the advent of hybrid corn, American farmers single-mindedly invested in laborsaving mechanical technologies and that biological technologies were static.

In addition, they co-authored an article titled “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy” for Dec. 2008 Journal of Economic History that even finds the same kind of entrepreneurial innovation in a region viewed as a “precapitalist” sinkhole by Charles Post:

The achievements of antebellum southern cotton breeders surpassed those of northern wheat breeders. Our findings shed light on these advances in cotton breeding, as well as the movements in slave, cotton, and land prices; the factors responsible for the growth of cotton output and the spread of cotton cultivation; the sources of the differences in regional production and productivity between the Old and New South; as well as the conventional static comparisons of plantation and non-plantation efficiency.

I’ll close with a passage from a very useful article on the debate by Marc Parry that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Shackles and Dollars”, which is behind a paywall (contact me at lnp3@panix.com for the entire article.)

Much criticism of Baptist and others originates within the subfield of economic history. These are scholars, trained mostly in economics, who bring a social-science perspective to studying historical economic behavior. That means testing hypotheses against data. It means quantitative analysis. And it means counterfactual thinking. When historians claim slavery was essential to the Industrial Revolution, as Beckert and Baptist both do, to economists that implies it would not have happened in slavery’s absence. If scholars feel uncomfortable making that statement, “than they should think harder about the initial claim,” Hilt says. Economic historians have thought very hard about the slave economy for decades. They believe slavery was profitable. But they also believe the institutions created to sustain it harmed the South’s long-term development.

As they see it, the problem with the new slavery books stems in part from how the discipline of history has developed. In the ’60s and ’70s, historians and economists battled over economic history. But as historians turned toward culture, and economists became more quantitative, economic history increasingly became just a subfield of economics. For a variety of reasons, including the 2008 crisis, historians are turning their attention back to financial matters. But they “did not build up their tools in order to understand the material world,” says Rhode. “And they carry along certain ideological positions which they hold fervently and are not willing to test.” Historians, he says, “can’t be making stuff up.”

Not surprisingly, Rhode’s targets see things differently. Start with Baptist. He ended up pulling out of the Dartmouth debate, blaming scheduling problems, so he was not on stage to rebut Olmstead’s wand-waving. Reached by phone, however, he does so aggressively. Baptist sees a basic flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s research — a problem that points to the methodological gulf dividing historians and economists.

Economists are ‘so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations.’ It comes down to seeds. Olmstead and Rhode say that cotton picking got more efficient because of improved varieties of Upland cotton. They reach that conclusion in part by comparing the growth in Upland cotton to the lack of growth in Sea Island cotton. The problem, Baptist says, is that comparison assumes there was no real difference in the labor systems used to produce those crops. But there was. As Baptist writes in a blog post responding to Olmstead and Rhode, historians have shown that Sea Island planters assigned slaves a “task,” or a specific amount of work they had to get done each day. Task accomplished, they could go home. The quantity of work demanded under the task system did not change much prior to emancipation, he says, partly because those slave communities resisted increased labor demands.

To Baptist, the root problem with Olmstead and Rhode’s work is reductionism. The economists are bent on stripping causality down to one variable (seeds), assuming away things they have no business discarding (different systems of labor). They also falsely suppose that economic actors will always look at a situation and identify the most efficient way of achieving their goals. So, by this logic, planters in 1800 understood everything about extracting labor that they understood in 1860. But that’s antithetical to how many historians think, Baptist says. Historians believe causality is complex and cultural frameworks are in constant flux. By 1860, planters may have formed different ideas about what they should be trying to get out of laborers.

Baptist calls Olmstead and Rhode “profoundly naïve” about the plantation records that anchor their research. “These are not documents that were generated to test seeds,” he says. “They are documents that were generated to measure labor. And to measure labor that was being extracted by force. And to measure labor that we know, from dozens and dozens of different testimonies by people who survived it, was generated by the threat of being whipped for not picking enough cotton.”

When economists gripe about historians retreating from economics, historians offer a counternarrative: “The problem is the economists left history for statistical model building,” says Eric Foner, a historian of 19th-century America at Columbia University. “History for them is just a source of numbers, a source of data to throw into their equations.” Foner considers counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes, he says. It’s to figure out what happened and why. And, in the history that actually took place, cotton was extremely important in the Industrial Revolution.

Some economists who attack the new slavery studies are “champion nitpickers,” adds Foner, who has praised Baptist’s book in The New York Times and who taught Beckert at Columbia. “They’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations. Yes, I’m sure there are good, legitimate criticisms of the handling of economic data. But in some ways I think it’s almost irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of these works.”

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