Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.”

April 4, 2016

Sharecropper Nation

Filed under: farming,transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

White Landowners Weighing Sharecroppers’ Cotton

In a fascinating two part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Michael Hudson on CounterPunch, they agreed that the USA was succumbing to “neo-feudalism” because the rentiers had taken over. Hudson pointed out that real estate magnates and banks are basically parasites sucking wealth out of the “real economy” as they worked nonstop to figure out new ways to turn the population into debt peons.

HEDGES: But could it go down and down, and what we end up with is a form of neofeudalism, a rapaciously wealthy, oligarchic elite with a kind of horrifying police state to keep us all in order?

HUDSON: This is exactly what happened in the Roman Empire.

HEDGES: Yes, it did.

HUDSON: You had the great Roman historians, Livy and Plutarch – all blamed the decline of the Roman empire on the creditor class being predatory, and the latifundia. The creditors took all money, and would just buy more and more land, displacing the other people. The result in Rome was a Dark Age, and that can last a very long time. The Dark Age is what happens when the rentiers take over.

If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.

HEDGES: And in essence, we become a kind of nation of sharecroppers.

HUDSON: That’s exactly right, having to shop at the company store.

Since I always considered Hudson a post-Keynesian, I might have been a bit surprised to see the reference to Leon Trotsky but now wonder if there’s a debt to the Russian revolutionary that is more than skin-deep. In the first part of the interview, Hedges introduced Hudson as the “godson of Leon Trotsky”. I was intrigued to see this reference and a bit of poking around revealed a family connection even though one not necessarily on the basis of a faith-based relationship. It turns out that Hudson is the son of Carlos Hudson, one of the SWP leaders imprisoned in 1940 for violation of the Smith Act—in other words being opposed to WWII.

I had never heard of Carlos Hudson before this but upon doing a search on the Marxism Internet Archives, I discovered that he had written for the Trotskyist press both in his own name and as Jack Ranger, an evocative pen name to say the least. As Carlos Hudson, he had been the editor of the Northwest Organizer, the newspaper that hoped to spread the influence of the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis teamster’s local. And as Jack Ranger, he wrote a series of articles in 1948 under the title Tapping the Wall St. Wire. They have the same kind of apocalyptic tone as the Hedges/Hudson interview: “To assume that the capitalists or their political agents can control capitalism is to give them much too much credit. They cannot. It is an anarchical system, and cannot be harnessed to plans. That is why it must be succeeded by socialism which CAN PLAN FOR HUMANITY.”

As it happens, I have been preoccupied lately with the question of sharecropping and debt peonage, the lynchpins of the post-Civil War southern economy. Does the term feudalism accurately describe the class relations between the white owner of land and the former slaves who continued to be deeply oppressed in what Sven Beckert calls the Empire of Cotton?

I for one would question the usefulness of such a term in light of what Karl Marx said about the slave owners in Theories of Surplus Value:

In the second type of colonies—plantations—where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists.

For some the litmus test for agrarian capitalism is free wage-labor, especially those who belong to the Political Marxism school. While reluctant to use the term feudal to describe sharecropping, Charles Post certainly views it as outside of capitalism. In the conclusion to “The American Road to Capitalism”, he writes:

Congressional Reconstruction, however, had a major unintended consequence. Rather than realising the utopian vision of a capitalist plantation-agriculture based on juridically free labour, Republican dominance in the South led to the break-up of the plantations and the emergence of a new, non-capitalist form of social labour, share-cropping tenancy.

For Post, agrarian capitalism is synonymous with the large British estates run by tenant farmers in the 16th century and onwards that employed wage labor. If this is your litmus test, naturally you would regard sharecropping as “non-capitalist”. Going further in a Jacobin interview, Post claims that if the slaves had been granted the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to them, this “would have consolidated a non-capitalist African-American peasantry subsisting outside of market relations.” It is a bit puzzling to consider small farmers “subsisting outside of market relations” in the post-Civil War period. This was not exactly the USA of the early 1800s when plucky yeoman farmers could grow their own food self-sufficiently in the frontier territories like the family Alan Ladd happened upon in “Shane” or in the TV show “Little House on the Prairie”.

If you rely on Marx as the ultimate authority on such questions, there’s not much to go by in his writings. In volume 3 of Capital, he defines the sharecropper as “his own capitalist”:

On the one hand, the sharecropper, whether he employs his own or another’s labour, is to lay claim to a portion of the product not in his capacity as labourer, but as possessor of part of the instruments of labour, as his own capitalist.

Indeed, in my education in the party that both Post and I belonged to, the small farmer was always considered a classic petty-bourgeoisie. Like the shopkeeper or the lawyer, they tended to work for themselves with occasionally a small staff of wage earners to help keep them going. In fact, forty-four percent of all farms in the USA are run by two people or less. Many of them are virtual debt peons to the agribusinesses they rely on for supplies and credit, much as the sharecropper relied on the plantation owner for his tools and other necessities.

It is too bad that Post has never spent much time writing about what happened after Reconstruction. Citing the research of Susan Mann, he states “In the first four decades of the twentieth century, the planters’ ability to organise the labour-process under their command and fire workers at will [ie., as wage workers] allowed them to progressively mechanise southern agriculture”. I personally would not try to compress a vast chunk of history into a single sentence but what would I know? I have never been invited to speak at a HM Workshop.

I have my doubts over this especially since the machine that effectively put cotton harvesting on an industrial footing did not come into existence until 1943 when International Harvester introduced a mechanical picker that could separate the fiber from the plant. Even if wage labor on large-scale British-style farms had been introduced in 1870 at the point of a Union Army bayonet, it would have not made much of a difference. It was not the form of labor exploitation that dictated manual labor but the technical barriers to picking cotton.

Even now, there are no machines that can replace the manual labor necessary to pick cocoa beans, a source of $98.3 billion in sales last year. Much of it is harvested by child labor, often enslaved, in places like Ghana. A machete must be used to pry open the pods to expose the beans that are then extracted by hand. The same thing is true of coffee beans that are picked by hand in places like Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador on the sides of hills where they flourish. It is only on flat land and where the fields are immense, such as in Brazil, that machines can be used.

For a useful survey on the fitful attempts to replace living labor by dead labor (ie. machines), I recommend a look at Rachel Snyder’s “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World”:

Cotton is a devilishly difficult crop to mechanize. It grows differently according to climate and variety; some plants grow less than a meter, while others can sprout up to become trees. Some plants are thin and scrubby while others bush out wildly. Bolls vary in size and ripen at different times, while the pre-bloom pods are very fragile. As early as 1820, one mad Louisiana farmer imported a large brood of Brazilian monkeys with the misguided but charming aspiration of training them to pick cotton.

Many of the early harvesting prototypes were drawn by mule or horse, though generally speaking they used pneumatic extractors, electrical devices, chemical processes, threshers, or other available technologies of the day. One 1957 industry book illustrates hundreds of failed machines that resemble upright vacuum cleaners, train engines, or basket/conveyor contraptions atop a set of wheels. Some even looked like early cartoon drawings of multi-legged aliens or, if you’re a child of the 1960s and 1970s, oversized hookahs. The first attempts all had some sort of suction device and ran either on gasoline or electricity. One determined man named L. C. Stuckenborg spent more than two decades attempting to make a viable machine for the open market with a set of electrically operated brushes attached to individual sucking tubes. He was said to have been inspired by a cow’s bristly tongue, after he allegedly watched a cow work seeds from unplucked cotton bolls one afternoon. His life’s passion, as it turned out, never worked well enough to produce and sell.

I should only add that I have to wonder whether Post was citing Susan Mann accurately since I have read reviews of her book that refer to her belief that attempts to apply industrial techniques to agriculture face a number of challenges:

With many industrial goods, labour time and production time are nearly identical; with agricultural goods, one encounters a gap during which crops or livestock are maturing, immobilizing capital for a longer period. Moreover, the rhythm of the seasons imposes only one or two production cycles per year in agriculture, discouraging industrial investment in time-saving technology designed to shorten (and increase the number of) annual production cycles. Furthermore, agricultural machinery is different from industrial machinery: it cannot be used constantly (thus increasing its relative cost), and it is more directly tied to nature. These obstacles to capitalist agricultural production are exacerbated by special features of agricultural distribution and marketing – the unpredictability of yields, the spoilage of produce, etc.

–William Roseberry, Social History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1993),

Finally, even when mechanical cotton-pickers hit the marketplace, they were not purchased by the agrarian capitalists immediately. As hard as this is to believe, they did a cost-benefit analysis and figured out that as long as living labor was cheaper than dead labor, they’d stick with the status quo—namely sharecropping, debt peonage, the KKK, and all the rest.

In the Spring 1948 edition of Science and Society, there’s an article titled “Machines in Cotton” by James S. Allen that is essential reading on this matter. Many of you are too young to remember Allen but in the 1960s he was one of the CP’s leading editors. At International Publishers he did very good work bringing out WEB Dubois and other Marxist thinkers whose volumes were always for sale on Pathfinder Bookstore shelves.

Long before he got involved with the CP’s publishing arm, he launched “The Southern Worker” in 1930, the first Communist newspaper produced below the Mason-Dixon line. He was an advocate of the Black Belt, a misguided attempt to agitate for a Black separatist state in the South, largely a product of “Third Period” Stalinism.

In any case, there’s no denying that he was an expert on the South as the substantive S&S article would indicate. His main point is that unless there was a significant savings through the introduction of machinery, the preferred option would be manual labor. Referring to a Mississippi State College study conducted in 1944, Lewis pointed out that the cost of machine-harvested cotton was $33.04 per bale, as compared to $37.76 per bale for hand-picked crops on the same plantation. This was not enough to justify spending money on an expensive machine. Furthermore, the study was conducted during a period of labor shortage when many Southern Blacks had joined the army to replace the brutal racism of the South with one somewhat easier to take. If labor had remained in ample supply, there would have been even fewer machines purchased. This is something on Allen’s mind in 1948 because like Carlos Hudson he frets over the possibility of a new economic depression that would force Blacks into the reserve army of the unemployed and hence sustain the slave-like conditions of sharecropping. However, history took a sharp turn that was predicted neither by the CP or the Trotskyists. What lie in store was a mammoth expansion of the capitalist economy that would last for 25 years until the rise of neoliberalism, globalization and all the other aspects of its latest stage that Hedges and Hudson so eloquently decry.

Returning to Hedges and Hudson, I can understand their anger over what appears to be a return to the past. Yet the notion that feudalism is on the agenda seems ahistorical. The growth of a rentier economy is not an indication that we are about to enter anything resembling the late middle ages.

To reprise Hudson: “If you look back in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky said that fascism was the inability of the socialist parties to come forth with an alternative. If the socialist parties and media don’t come forth with an alternative to this neofeudalism, you’re going to have a rollback to feudalism.”

In all likelihood, American capitalism will continue on its way until the working class develops the consciousness it had in earlier periods of our history and organized the kind of political instruments it needed to mount a serious challenge to the status quo. With all due respect to Hudson, whose analysis can often be quite trenchant, there are no “socialist parties” to speak of. We are in a very early period of political reconfiguration that both the Sanders and Trump campaign reflect (with the latter being more distorted than a funhouse mirror).

In the 1930s, men like Carlos Hudson and James S. Allen (born into an immigrant Jewish family as Sol Auerbach) could reach thousands and tens of thousands respectively. Over the next two decades there will be new Carlos Hudson’s and James S. Allens’s to step into the breach and take up the task that has confronted humanity for the past 165 years or so: to replace an irrational system based on private profit with one dedicated to production for the common good.


February 6, 2016

Capitalism, slavery and the search for definitions

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

I finally got around to reading John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery” that appeared in the Fall 2015, Critical Historical Studies. Like practically all such articles dealing with Political Marxism except for those that appear occasionally in the ISO’s International Socialist Review, it is behind a paywall. I had heard that the article defended the idea that the slave-owners of the Deep South were capitalists while at the same time it defended the Brenner thesis that capitalism began in the British countryside. To put it mildly, this is about as unusual a combination of positions as can be imagined given that the Political Marxism catechism sees slavery = precapitalist as sacrosanct.

I first heard Clegg speak at a HM conference last April where he argued that chattel slavery was a form of exploitation consistent with Marx’s value theory. For Clegg, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor are being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

The brunt of the article was a critique of three of the most noted historians writing in the Eric Williams tradition–Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson—for failing to provide a definition of capitalism in their various books. Although I have not read any of their books from cover to cover, I did find it interesting that when I went to the index I could find hardly any pages devoted to a theorization of capitalism. Clegg writes:

The problem is not that they lack the “correct” definition of capitalism. The problem is that by dodging the problem of definition altogether they fail to provide a coherent account of capitalist slavery. One doesn’t need to believe in such a thing as “pure” capitalism in order to recognize that modern capitalist societies have certain core features in common. Nor does one have to be a structuralist to see that capitalism lends itself to systematic analysis. Yet these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system.

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. 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.

So there you have it. A rejection of one core belief of Political Marxism while embracing another. That’s something you don’t see every day.

In his exegesis of the three historians, Clegg places them in the legacy of Fogel and Engerman’s “Time on the Cross”. This was a book that argued for the capitalistic logic of slave plantations where profit governed every calculation, even more so than in northern factories. While Fogel and Engerman made some useful arguments supported by extensive documentation, they went overboard and argued that productivity breakthroughs in the south led to improvements in the lives of slaves to the point of making them materially privileged in comparison to many wage workers.

Against these two stood Eugene Genovese who claimed that the plantation owners had much more in common with feudal lords, a point made essentially by Brenner and Charles Post. It is obviously wrong. In his own way, Genovese shared Fogel and Engerman’s dubious support for the idea of slave owner beneficence. For them, it flowed from their commitment to the idea that a happy worker was a productive worker, while for Genovese it was much more of a function of precapitalist paternalism of the sort that allowed serfs to have more than a hundred days of religious holidays per year.

While nominally in the Fogel and Engerman camp, the three historians considered by Clegg all subscribe to the notion that it was violence that increased productivity on the plantation—not adroit management or time and labor-saving technologies. This is something Clegg regards as exaggerated:

The point is not that violence was an ineffective means of extracting surplus labor from slaves. If the whip hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have been so widely used. Baptist and Johnson are right to emphasize, against the neoclassical assumptions of Fogel and Engerman, that market competition most likely increased rather than moderated slave owner violence. The point is rather that slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money.

Up till this point, there’s not much for me to disagree with. I would only add that I would tend to hold off final judgement on the three historians until I have had a chance to read their books from beginning to end. My suspicion is that I will take a somewhat different tack than both Clegg and the others. Isn’t it the case that social control is not just a function of violence but the threat of violence? People were obedient in Nazi Germany because the threat of violence was omnipresent. The same thing was likely true in the Deep South.

Clegg has a section in his article titled “The Problem of Origins” that I dare say is problematic. It is there that he calls upon the Brenner thesis to “fix” what was wrong in the three historians, namely their belief that without American slavery there would be no British capitalism. In other words, they were wrong to either explicitly or implicitly base themselves on Eric Williams. While no doubt accepting the possibility that cotton from the south was a key and necessary raw material for the textile industry, Clegg argues that it is impossible to prove that British capitalism or that of the northern states was “dependent’ on it.

I will reserve judgement on this until I have had a chance to evaluate Clegg’s claim that “while cotton represented a large share of US exports, exports were a small share of the antebellum US economy, averaging 6 percent of GDP from 1800–1860.” To my knowledge GDP data does not exist prior to 1870 but maybe Clegg has a better handle on this.

What I am more qualified to render an opinion on is the echt Brennerite claim that “The Spanish, Portuguese, and French often had richer colonies, but none experienced either large scale industrialization or an industrial revolution.” By now you should be familiar with the idea that it was only Britain that had made a transition to capitalism so the plunder of gold and silver, the slave trade, the genocide against the Indians, etc. was “squandered” everywhere except England.

To a large extent, Clegg’s flawed thinking on this is a function of relying simultaneously on both Brenner and Wallerstein, who seem to serve as ideological boundaries for his understanding of the origins of capitalism. Despite their furious debates over the years, both scholars accepted that capitalism began in England as a consequence of contradictions internal to feudalism. Once it was established there, it diffused outwards but for Wallerstein was utterly reliant on colonization for its ability to become hegemonic.

Political Marxism and world systems theory both have a Eurocentric outlook although in Wallerstein’s case it was meliorated by his steadfast engagement with those who existed on its periphery—the “people without history” as Hegel put it.

Missing from Clegg’s analysis is the place of England within an ensemble of class relations existing inter-societally vis-a-vis the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Chinese and the Indians. As a ‘backward” country on their periphery, England was able to leapfrog over them through a series of policies that exploited its geographical position, its military superiority, its access to New World bullion and other factors identified in Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule”. None of this is reflected in the traditional axis of the debate as constituted by Brenner on one hand and the dependency theorists on the other.

However, the biggest problem for me is Clegg’s use of the term capitalism firstly as an adjective to describe a particular country like England and secondly the usefulness of the term in conventional social science terms, which he seems to employ unfortunately.

Referring to another scholar’s problem with the new historians’ avoidance of a definition for capitalism, Clegg writes: “It is true that terminological debates can have a pedantic tone, and it is unlikely they will be resolved anytime soon. However, if the new field is to last, it cannot avoid the question of definition.”

This leads us to the interesting question of whether Marx ever defined the term himself. In fact if you do a search on it on MIA, you will find not a single attempt to do so. Mostly you see him grappling with the problem of defining capital, such as in “Wage Labor and Capital”: “Capital consists of raw materials, instruments of labour, and means of subsistence of all kinds, which are employed in producing new raw materials, new instruments, and new means of subsistence. All these components of capital are created by labour, products of labour, accumulated labour. Accumulated labour that serves as a means to new production is capital.”

Sometimes Marx refers to “the capitalist system” but without taking any particular pains to clarify what that means. Usually it is something like this: “The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour”, something just about everybody can agree with.

However, the problem arises when you try to use such terms both as a social science type definition and as a historical term for the simple reason that when capitalism is coming into being (to put it in Hegelian terms), it has only a relative “separation of the labourers from all property” as the presence of a dominantly self-husbanding peasantry in late 18th century France would indicate. Was France capitalist at this point or was it feudal? I suppose the only way to answer that is like Faye Dunaway answering Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”. “Who was she?” “She was my daughter”. Slap. “She was my sister”. Slap. “All right. She was my daughter. She was my sister”. Aaah!

Was there any way to answer this question of defining capitalism in the early stages other than how Trotsky answered the question of whether the USSR was socialist? I don’t think so. The sooner the Brennerites begin to use the same kind of language with respect to early modern European economic history, the better off we will all be.

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes – yes, and no – no. Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous, however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.

The Revolution Betrayed, 1936 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch09.htm#ch09-3)

February 3, 2016

The specter that is haunting Vivek Chibber: combined and uneven development

Filed under: Academia,subaltern studies,transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:07 pm

Vivek Chibber

Leon Trotsky

It would appear that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development informs not only Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” but four articles I recently read that are critical of Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. This might lead one to believe that no matter how failed a project the Fourth International was, Trotsky’s ideas remain current especially for scholars grappling with the Eurocentrism of Political Marxism, a tendency that includes Vivek Chibber as one of its most truculent spokesmen.

Vivek Chibber stormed on the scene in 2013 with the publication of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. It created the same kind of stir as Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax in 1996 that was greeted ecstatically by virtually the entire left, including me. We saw him as our Marxist savior against postmodernist obfuscation. Not two years after the hoax, I discovered that Sokal had never read Richard Lewontin and writing partner Richard Levins, who were included in the very issue that Sokal sought to discredit.

It is entirely possible that the bloom has also begun to fade from the Chibber rose. For the Marxist wing of the postcolonial academic discipline, many see him as an interloper who did more damage than good. Indeed, the complaint heard from all four of his critics considered here is that he was not very knowledgeable about his subject. To start with, his polemic was directed against Subaltern Studies that he suggested was the dog wagging the tail of postcolonial theory when in fact postcolonialism appeared on the scene a full decade before Subaltern Studies and actually was responsible for it gaining any kind of traction. Furthermore, there was a reductionist element to his attack on Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty that despite slaking his polemical appetite gave short shrift to the complexity of their ideas.

Let me start with Tim Brennan’s article “Subaltern Stakes” that appeared in the September-October 2014 New Left Review. (It is a sign of the generally academic provenance of these debates that all of the articles under consideration here are behind a paywall.)

Brennan, who I rubbed shoulders with in the NY headquarters of the SWP when he was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance in the mid-70s, is more generous to Chibber than any of the other authors but regards him as a kind of a bull in a china shop with respect to the highly allusive literary style of the authors he pillories:

So, to demolish the pretensions of the subalternists’ ‘infelicitous terminology’, in Chibber’s words, is at least in part to miss the point. He says he finds the formulations of Chatterjee and Chakrabarty elusive, vague, obscure, and difficult to understand. But this is a little like finding geometry abstract or obituaries brief. The manner is intrinsic to the project. The methods of this kind of cultural theory—and we can by now agree that Subaltern Studies falls within their orbit—are based not on historical accuracy, context or intention, but on the production of political outcomes by way of a textual occasion.

Since Brennan can be “elusive, vague, obscure and difficult” himself, I can understand why he would have a problem with Chibber’s Sokalesque premium on plain language. What interested me more was this:

Chibber mentions in passing Karl Kautsky, Leon Trotsky, and others who explored the dynamics of agrarian economy and uneven development, but the sense of this broader politico-cultural history is missing, and its vexing relationship to theory and method goes undiagnosed.

Maybe Brennan and to some extent the other three critics I will be turning to in this article should have been a bit more skeptical about Chibber’s understanding of Trotsky:

Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development was an explicit rejection of the argument that later developers would simply replicate the developmental path of the early ones. For Trotsky, the fact of their later insertion into the capitalist vortex meant that such societies would be able to import the most recent innovations in certain spheres, while preserving a whole gamut of older social relations in others. There is no implication of homogeneous time, no historicism, no “stageism”—indeed, the theory is immune to virtually every accusation that Subalternist theorists make against the Marxian tradition. (p. 292 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital)

It strikes me that Chibber might have confused Trotsky’s theory with the letters Karl Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich warning against a Plekhanov type “stagism” that necessitated a capitalist development prior to struggle for socialism in Russia. Trotsky’s theory was much more about understanding the co-existence of apparently opposed socio-economic institutions in Czarist Russia as he put it in chapter one of “History of the Russian Revolution”:

Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development.

In other words, combined and uneven development applies to both the transition from feudalism to capitalism as well as the transition from capitalism to socialism. The existence of slavery, a “backward” institution in the USA, was essential to the creation of its textile industry. In Germany, the Junkers were the shock troops of a bourgeois revolution that preserved feudal relations in the countryside. And if serfdom had been abolished in Russia in 1861, the peasants in 1917 were hardly profit-seeking yeomen of the kind found in 18th century England. Trotsky wrote:

The law of combined development of backward countries – in the sense of a peculiar mixture of backward elements with the most modern factors – here rises before us in its most finished form, and offers a key to the fundamental riddle of the Russian revolution. If the agrarian problem, as a heritage from the barbarism of the old Russian history, had been solved by the bourgeoisie, if it could have been solved by them, the Russian proletariat could not possibly have come to power in 1917 [emphasis added].

Julian Murphet as well as the other two authors I will now consider are not familiar to me. He teaches cultural studies in Australia, a discipline that presumably gives him the background to evaluate Chibber. In September 2013, he wrote “No Alternative: On Vivek Chibber,” for the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, a journal one supposes that Chibber would regard as enemy territory. Speaking probably for those who identify with such a journal, Murphet described the impact of Chibber’s book as entering “this fractured terrain with all the diplomacy of a stinging backhand across the face.” Well, that’s probably the way that Verso intended it.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 4.21.41 PM

Like Tim Brennan, Murphet finds Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies woefully reductionist:

[I]t could be argued that Chibber’s book is one long, distemperate construction of an imago of Subaltern Studies that flattens it into a caricature, a negative imprint of what this work is offering us. Deaf as Chibber is to what theory and the dialectic have to offer social cognition, those elements of postcolonial theory are either dismissed as so much irrationalism and obfuscation, or simply not registered—a result that renders the opponent as one-dimensional as the Weberian analytic Marxism championed by Chibber. As many readers will be aware, that is to strip the work of Charkabarthy, Chatterjee, and others of precisely their dialectical spark and agility; and so to misread their analyses.

In contrast to a “Weberian analytic Marxism”, Murphet advocates the Marxism of Leon Trotsky:

Consider one of the most important Marxist concepts to have emerged après Marx: the notion of “uneven and combined development” as this was first sketched by Trotsky and filled in by later theorists such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, and Perry Anderson. It is a concept only in fetal state on the pages of Capital, but under this subsequent nurturing, seems best qualified to account for much of what Chibber’s book wants to reprimand the subalternists for ignoring: the economic pressures put on nation states by a world market in which each is inserted differently; the frequent maintenance of distinct, precapitalist modes of production within and alongside advanced industrial production; the distinction between real and formal subsumption within the capitalist economy; and the readiness of capital to accept differential wage rates in different geographical locations. And yet this concept, so useful to the kind of critique Chibber seems to want to make, is only mentioned once, five pages from the end of the book, and gestured at in passing on page 245. The reason is surely that, for all that the concept illuminates precisely the terrain covered in this book, it does not do so in a compatible way. When Bloch writes about various temporalities beating in the heart of the present, or Jameson about the social and cultural dissonances that arise from uneven development, what is most evident is that there is no way of representing this imbrication of modes of production effectively without employing a dialectical style. Only a dialectical presentation can capture the acute existential and epistemological torsion at stake in the palimpsest-like social formation of capitalist India or communist Russia—and a dialectical style is what Chibber’s method is dedicated to invalidating. Sociological and analytic Marxism of this sort is incompatible with the giddy transformations of an idea as it passes back and forth between the specific conjuncture and the universal frame; between the local situation and the global trend; between the particular product and the universal equivalent; between the superstructural detail and the economic ground. Where the style of an Adorno or a Jameson is tailored to these vertiginous shifts up and down the scale of social reality, Chibber’s is myopically trained on the “clear and distinct” idea itself; a Cartesian prejudice of the Enlightenment that sees all deviation from rational method as inherently reactionary.

Moving from Australia to Norway, we encounter Alf Gunvald Nilsen who tends to be as generous with Chibber as Tim Brennan. He teaches at the University of Bergen where he lists his pursuits on his web page.

  • Social movements in the global South
  • The political economy of capitalism
  • Critical development research
  • Marxist theory
  • Postcolonial theory
  • all with special reference to India and Asia.

Writing an article titled “Passages from Marxism to Postcolonialism: a comment on Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” for the December 2015 issue of Critical Sociology, Gunvald, like Brennan, agrees with the basic thrust of Chibber’s critique:

Whereas my point of departure is that of agreement with Chibber’s basic claims, the ensuing discussion also carries the imprint of a view that I share with many others – namely, that there is more mileage in postcolonialism than what Chibber allows for, and that consequently, Marxist inquiries in the field of historical sociology are likely to gain from a willingness to reflect on the foundational theoretical assumptions that guide the study of capitalist development in light of some of the critical insights that postcolonialism has yielded.

While Gunvald sympathizes with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists’ tendency to essentialize the East and West, he also faults him for universalizing the capitalist mode of production in a manner that flattens the difference between the two regions:

As much as Chibber is correct in arguing that Marxists have devoted much time and energy ‘to understand the peculiar effects of capitalist development in the non-West’, these interrogations have often proceeded from a vantage point in which capitalism is posited as a mode of production that emerges in and emanates from. Moreover, within Marxist historical sociology, there is also a tendency to conceive of colonialism as something that is ‘consequent to capitalism’ rather than ‘constitutive of it’. Ultimately, these historiographical parameters are Eurocentric in the sense that they result in ‘the eradication of the role and effect of the non-West in engendering both conjunctural and epochal transformations, some of which are essentially constitutive of the emergence of the modern capitalist economy and the international state-system’.

As an antidote to this kind of Eurocentrism, Gunvald recommends the theory of combined and uneven development as mediated by Jairus Banaji and Justin Rosenberg. I am well aware of Banaji’s work but much less familiar with Rosenberg who I do remember being cited favorably in the Anievas and Nisancioglu book. Gunwald convinces me that more attention should be paid to Rosenberg:

One of the most significant resources for the construction of a relational ontology for the study of the historical development of capitalism is arguably to be found in Justin Rosenberg’s reconstruction of Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. This reconstruction starts from the claim that there is no sociological definition of the international due to the fact that the classical social theorists failed to systematically incorporate ‘inter-societal coexistence and interaction into their theoretical conception of social causality’. Working towards such a definition in turn entails that we have to abandon ‘at the deepest theoretical level any notion of the constitution of society as analytically prior to its interaction with other societies’.

Finally, we turn to Neil Lazarus, an English literature professor and self-described postcolonialism specialist at the University of Warwick, who is the most hostile to Chibber but never threatened to beat him up as far as I know. His article “Vivek Chibber and the spectre of postcolonial theory” appears in the Jan.-Mar. 2016 “Race and Class”. Unlike all the other authors considered above, Lazarus enjoys hitting below the belt—turning Chibber into a comical figure:

I’m not opposed to the genre of the long rant as such. Some long rants are very much worth reading: Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family, for instance – a text bearing the rather wicked subtitle, Critique of Critical Criticism – is almost as long as Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. But Vivek Chibber is no Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. He reminds me, instead, of the protagonist of the ideal-type of the literary genre of the novel, as famously analysed by Lucien Goldmann in Toward a Sociology of the Novel: a hero, torn from community, who goes in search of authentic values in a degraded world. Dogged, unafraid and unamused – our solitary hero ventures forth in his modern epic onto the blasted heath of postcolonialism with an avenger’s zeal, to fight the good fight against Subaltern Studies all by himself, but on behalf of all of us.

I rather like that sort of writing. I only wish that more academics could master it. Perhaps Lazarus’s classes include close readings of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, who despite their ideological differences were very good at mockery.

One can understand Lazarus’s antagonism toward Chibber. For his entire academic career, Lazarus has stood up for a class analysis in a field that is dominated by postmodernists. He openly admits to being resentful about being taken for granted by Chibber who slights him and a number of others like him who have labored in the trenches for a Marxist analysis for the past three decades at least. Of course, given Chibber’s legendary arrogance, that might have been expected.

While generously giving Chibber credit for taking up the cause of Marxism in the academy, Lazarus like all the other critics above returns once again to the theory of combined and uneven development as a tool perfectly suited to explaining the differences between India and Britain that Chibber tends to push to the side in his pursuit of “universalist” themes consistent with the Enlightenment. Lazarus writes:

Marx’s identification of unevenness then received notable amplification in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s, in which he formulated his theory of ‘uneven and combined development’, by way of analysing the effects of the imposition of capitalism on cultures and societies hitherto un- or only sectorally capitalised. In these contexts – properly understood as imperialist – Trotsky observed, the imposed capitalist forces of production and class relations tended not to supplant but to be conjoined forcibly with pre-existing forces and relations. The outcome, he wrote, was a contradictory ‘amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’ – an urban proletariat working in technologically advanced industries existing side by side with a rural population engaged in subsistence farming; industrial plants built alongside ‘villages of wood and straw’, and peasants ‘thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow’.

Lazarus is somewhat puzzled by Chibber’s Eurocentric tendencies in light of the credit to Trotsky on page 292 of his book cited above. After reproducing it, Lazarus scratches his head over how Chibber can “make no use of the theory of uneven and combined development in the main body of his study” despite the nod to the theory. This, to Lazarus, is “a failure that simply baffles understanding.”

I sent him a note yesterday explaining the discrepancy:

Hi, Neil

Really enjoyed your article that Alex Anievas alerted me to, especially on the Combined and Uneven Development angle. You probably know that Anievas and Nisancioglu base their critique of the Brenner thesis on Trotsky’s theory.

I come at this as a former member of the American SWP where I learned about the theory in classes with people like George Novack rather than in academia so when I first encountered the Brenner thesis in the mid-90s when Jim Blaut subbed to a listserv I moderated, my reaction was that Brenner was a kind of new-fangled “stagist”. The idea that capitalism sprang up in the mid 1500s like Athena being born from Zeus’s forehead struck me as rather undialectical.

I suspect that people in the PM camp, no matter how much Trotsky they have read, tend to see things through Brenner’s stagist perspective. You are absolutely right that Trotsky’s writings (or Marx’s 18th Brumaire for that matter) are key to understanding the co-existence and mutual reinforcement of apparently opposed social forces and that this methodology would be of great benefit to those investigating postcolonial studies, I simply think that Chibber was paying lip-service to Trotsky in those quotes you included in your article.




January 31, 2016

“How the West Came to Rule”: a work for the ages

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

When Jim Blaut succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2000, he was denied the possibility of completing the third and final installment in a series of books about Eurocentrism. The first two—“The Colonizer’s Model of the World” and “Eight Eurocentric Historians”—were polemical but scholarly rebuttals to a wide range of thinkers, including Robert Brenner. The third was intended to demonstrate that a different kind of history could be written, one that gave the “people without history”—as Hegel put it—their proper due. When I finished reading Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule: the Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism” this week, I was left with the feeling that Blaut’s book had finally been written.

“How the West Came to Rule” is a work of towering scholarly erudition combined with deep political insights that must be reckoned with, whichever position you take on a debate that has been ongoing since 1950 when Paul Sweezy critiqued Maurice Dobb’s 1946 “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” in the pages of Science and Society. For Dobb, the transition to capitalism was rooted in contradictions internal to European feudalism while for Sweezy foreign trade was critical. That being said, Dobb’s book could not possibly be mistaken for the much more radical “internal” interpretation of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. In chapter five Dobb wrote:

In short, the Mercantile System was a system of State-regulated exploitation through trade which played a highly important role in the adolescence of capitalist industry: it was essentially the economic policy of primitive accumulation.

Moreover, there were indirect ways in which the prosperity of foreign trade in the Tudor Age aided industrial development in the ensuing century. Some of the fortunes made by foreign adventurers no doubt eventually found their way into industrial enterprise; while, as we shall presently see, the expansion of overseas markets, especially colonial markets, in the seventeenth century, to some extent acted as a lever to the profitability of manufacture at home.

For Brenner, these sorts of arguments were unacceptable. Capitalism originated in the British countryside in the 16th century because of a totally contingent set of circumstances that led to lease farming instead of self-husbanding family farms that were typical of other nations such as France. Tenant farmers were forced to compete in the marketplace to increase productivity and generate the profits needed to accumulate capital. Not only was foreign trade extraneous to this development; slavery and colonialism hardly entered the equation. Wood, who tended to be much more categorical in her formulations, put it this way:

This mode of providing for the basic material needs of English society brought with it a whole new dynamic of self-sustaining growth, a process of accumulation and expansion very different from the age-old cyclical patterns that dominated material life in other societies. It was also accompanied by the typical capitalist processes of expropriation and the creation of a propertyless mass. It is in this sense that we can speak of “agrarian capitalism” in early modern England.

Once this “big bang” occurred, everything else fell into place: the industrial revolution, the development of the British empire, and the diffusion of capitalist property relations to the rest of the planet. Any other interpretation was effectively outside of Marxism. That was the only way to interpret Brenner’s use of the term “neo-Smithian” to describe Paul Sweezy in a 1977 NLR article.

After Brenner and Wood staked out their positions, there were challenges from a number of Marxists grouped around Monthly Review including Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. As “world systems” theorists, they made the case that slavery and colonialism were a sine qua non for the development of capitalism. Until now, the parameters of the debate have followed the pattern established by Brenner/Wood on one side and Wallerstein et al on the other.

Alexander Anievas

Kerem Nisancioglu

All that changed with the timely intervention of Anievas and Nisancioglu who make a convincing case that the terms of the debate have been inadequate to analyze the dynamics at work in the formation of the capitalist system. While Wallerstein was correct to see the importance of colonialism and slavery, he nonetheless accepted the terms of the “internalist” camp, namely that capitalism originated in Britain. Once it was established there, it took advantage of its economic and military superiority to become hegemonic as a “core” exploiting a “periphery”.

But this binary opposition does not take into account the “external” forces that operated on Britain, without which its eventual domination would be impossible. Specifically, “How the West Came to Rule” looks eastward at the Ottoman and Mongol empires whose impact on Europe would be as crucial to the formation of capitalism as oxygen would be to life on earth. Indeed, it was Turkish historian Kerem Nisancioglu’s investigations into the class relations of the Ottoman Empire that inspired Anievas to work on the joint project that culminated in “How the West Came to Rule”. With so much of the Brenner thesis debate revolving around the Western Europe/New World axis for obvious reasons, it was a breakthrough of considerable intellectual and political weight to look toward the east as a way of raising the debate to a higher level.

While many of us are familiar with the impact of Ottoman culture on classical composers, like Mozart who incorporated elements of the Janissary marching band into Piano Sonata number 11 with its final “Rondo alla Turka” movement or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the evidence is much more profound when you look at Holbein’s “Ambassadors” from 1533, the year that Queen Elizabeth was born. At the center of the painting is a Turkish rug that undoubtedly refers to both the threat posed by the Ottomans as well as their value to a transnational economy bursting at the seams of feudalism.

The Turks were rivals to the Hapsburg monarchy that saw Ottoman incursions into Eastern Europe as a mortal threat especially since many of their subjects welcomed a system that was based on a less punishing tax system and that respected local customs. For Nisancioglu, the key determinant of Ottoman influence and power rested on its tributary mode of production that did not conform to the norms we associate with feudalism. (This is a question that has preoccupied me for some years as an amateur student of Turkish history and that grew out of visits to Istanbul over the years with my wife. In a Turkish language class at Columbia University, I once asked the professor for the Turkish word that referred to a feudal lord and he looked at me as if I had two heads.)

Nisancioglu explains that in the Ottoman Empire the peasants were taxed on a basis regulated by officials appointed by the Sultan and thus relinquished a lot less of their surplus product than their European counterparts. While by no means an agrarian paradise, the Ottoman peasant was freer and less exploited. Additionally, the Sultan had power over the local administrators of land—the timars—who had much less power than the feudal lords of Europe. In order to generate the revenue for its court and its potent military machine, the Sultans had no other recourse except to expand geographically and bring new subjects under their domain. So, in essence the Ottoman Empire had a smaller footprint in the territory it absorbed but an ineluctable need to keep expanding in order to support what one Turkish scholar called “the military-agricultural complex”.

The European feudal ruling class also ruled by expropriating the peasantry but political power was far more dispersed with the fiefdoms essentially functioning as independent entities above and beyond the monarch’s control. In order for the monarch to wage war, he or she had to go to merchants and bankers with hat in hand. This is what led to the enormous power of families like the Fuggers. By contrast, Ottoman military expeditions were financed directly out of the Sultan’s treasury which relied on a steady tax revenue. This meant that the mercantile system’s growth was stunted in comparison to Europe.

With little interest in the expansion of a mercantilist sector, the Ottomans neglected opportunities that would have been eagerly exploited by the British or French. For example, after a stunning victory over the Mamluks in 1517, the Turks had an open door to India with its spices. But the Sultan had far more interest in Southeastern Europe with its fertile soil to increase its tax base.

In a direct comparison with the Ottoman Empire, Western Europe was underdeveloped. But seen dialectically, it was this very “weakness” that allowed it to leapfrog Turkey. As the Ottoman Empire was extending its influence and control over vast portions of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, it allowed trading networks to develop without interference from pirates or banditry. With a greater need for mercantile capital, the European feudal elites could benefit greatly from Pax Ottomana. With a safe route into India, merchants could export manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials that were essential to social reproduction such as the spices that could preserve meat or the silk that could be woven into fine garments. Turkey, in effect, was playing the same role that the USA played after Bretton Woods. Nisancioglu describes the process:

Trade and communication between the Ottomans and Europe also assisted in the transmission of social and technological knowledge, leading to a spurt of developments in European manufacturing, particularly those sectors imitating ‘Eastern’ products. The boost in French economic activity following a trade agreement with the Ottomans led to the `proto-industrialisation’ of towns as Marseilles. The competition in silk markets between the Levant and Venice inspired the creation of the hydraulic mill in Bologna which would later be adapted to construct Lombe’s Mill in Derby in the early 18th century—arguably the world’s first fully mechanised factory. Because Ottoman merchants were themselves were active agents in bolstering trade within the Empire and beyond, their own credit system and methods of accumulation such as the simsar monopoly association and mudaraba advance system became woven into the fabric of European commercial relations, prefiguring the ‘complete control of a commodity from production to sales’ that would become the of ‘company 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.

With a declining military base, the English aristocracy lacked the means to forcibly extract agricultural surpluses as was customary in Spain or France. Furthermore, the English nobility was socially less stratified than on the continent with the gentry often emerging out of the urban mercantile class. With its burgeoning textile industry that had benefited from Ottoman ties, the displaced peasant was able to make do as a wage laborer in either the new tenant farms or in manufacturing. So when the social property relations that are the hallmark of the Brenner thesis were being born, the midwife was effectively the Ottoman Empire.

If the Political Marxists failed to take the East into account when they developed the theory of agrarian capitalism, it was an even more egregious failure to reckon with the role of slavery in the New World. Typically, when Robert Brenner refers to slavery in his 1977 NLR article, he amalgamates it with serfdom—a form of extra-economic coercion that belongs to the “precapitalist” epoch. However, the particular form that slavery took in the New World was hardly typical of feudalism, which was based primarily on the creation of use values. Slaves produced commodities—exchange value—for the capitalist market. If this distinction was lost on the PM’ers, it was not lost on Karl Marx who observed:

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

For Ellen Meiksins Wood, the New World had hardly anything to do with the origins of capitalism, as she explains in the book with that exact title. On page 148, she points to the failure of Spain to develop along capitalist lines despite amassing “huge wealth” from South American mines. By contrast, England took off even though its overseas colonization “lagged behind”. The same thing was true of slavery. Britain certainly did benefit from the slave labor that provided cotton to mills in Manchester but for Spain it was squandered on sugar and tobacco. This analysis, such as it is, was the one that was widespread on the left in the early 1990s from people who had never read Brenner or Wood. To some extent it was a kind of neo-Weberianism that exploited the idea of Spanish indolence.

Perhaps a tendency toward Anglocentrism that is endemic to PM prevented Wood from recognizing that Holland benefited greatly from Spanish colonization. (We should mention that Brenner and Wood differ over whether agrarian capitalism had developed there as well, with Wood in denial.) Holland had traditionally developed much stronger ties to Spain and as such was able to make good use of gold and silver bullion in both manufacturing and banking. Indeed, Karl Marx noted that Holland was “was the head capitalistic nation of the 17th century” in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital. This chapter, titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, argues that “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.” Needless to say, the PM’ers tend to tiptoe around this chapter, regretting to themselves that Karl Marx ever made the mistake of writing it.

Furthermore, the gold and silver from the New World made its way into a variety of financial institutions across northern Europe and helped to lubricate trade with Asia. If England, Holland and French merchants had easy access to capital, it made the import of raw materials critical to early manufacturing possible whatever the fate of poor, indolent Spain. The mercantile capital provided from slavery and other forms of coerced labor in the mines of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia gave both the Dutch and British East India Companies the leverage they needed to trade with the east and eventually monopolize them. For Wood, these trading companies are written off as “precapitalist”, a facile term that tends to blur more than it clarifies.

While the notion of chattel slavery as being “precapitalist” erodes apace under the impact of major scholarly contributions by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson, the benefit of Anievas and Nisancioglu is to put the question into the context of historical materialism and specifically Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development. The combination of English capital, American land and African slavery was unprecedented in human history and the reflexive tendency by PM’ers to aggregate it with serfdom can only be described as an intellectual failure of some magnitude. Anievas and Nisancioglu write:

Perhaps most importantly, market competition compelled plantations to operate according to distinctly capitalist rules of reproduction. The maintenance of the plantation was subject to costs and ‘market stimuli’ that constantly demanded renewed and expanding commodity production, where profit maximisation was the cardinal aim. As assets of fixed capital, slaves were ‘put to work’ in the name of profit, or else sold off to someone who would do so. Consequently, at least ‘nine tenths of American slaves were put to commodity production’, in which modern techniques of discipline and violence were deployed to concentrate and mechanise work, as well as accelerate its intensity. Such features meant that the condition of slaves was considerably closer to that the proletarians of England than that of the self-subsisting peasants of feudal Europe. Moreover, planters often made large investments in slave labour that could ‘enhance the productivity of future laborers’, as exemplified by South Carolina’s tidal rice plantations. Elsewhere slavers introduced labour-saving technologies, as in the case of the ginning machine, which in 1794 mechanised cotton cleaning.

Like much of the new scholarship of Baptist et al, Anievas and Nisancioglu hearken back to Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a work that in turn was influenced by CLR James who was critical for helping to make the connection between the Caribbean and England. James, of course, was one of the major Trotskyist thinkers of the 20th century and surely someone who would be able to see the relationship between apparently opposed modes of production acting on each other dialectally. Rather than seeing slavery and capitalism as rival forms of class exploitation, James and Williams saw them as mutually reinforcing even if at a certain point the contradictions would make them mortal enemies.

When I first encountered the Brenner thesis around 1997 as a result of Jim Blaut’s participation in the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail, my immediate reaction was to evaluate it against Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development as I pointed out in an article posted to the list (this was before blogging existed.)

A key element of Trotskyist thought is combined and uneven development, which first appeared in Trotsky’s analysis of the coming Russian Revolution. As opposed to the narrow “stagist” conceptions of much of the Russian social democracy, Trotsky believed that Russian capitalism and precapitalist forms had a dialectical relationship to each other.

While apparently blessed by having learned about Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development as independent scholars rather than through the school of hard knocks in the Fourth International, there is every evidence that they have mastered it as equals to CLR James. It is a reminder that no matter how quixotic Trotsky’s attempts to build an alternative to the Stalinist movement, his ideas about permanent revolution, fascism, and other big questions in the class struggle remain pertinent.

Throughout “How the West Came to Rule”, there is a constant engagement with the dialectic of combined and uneven development. In a recent discussion of the book, Neil Davidson—another critic of the Brenner thesis—asked the authors whether the theory was necessary for their critique. In a way, that misses the point since all Trotsky was doing is applying Marxism to the Russian class struggle. If he had not coined the term, it would have amounted to the same thing. If you read “The Eighteenth Brumaire”, for example, the same sort of analysis leaps off the page.

The authors offer a succinct presentation of Trotsky’s theory that will be useful to readers that have not gone through the sort of internal cadre training classes I went through forty-five years or so ago. Unevenness refers to different levels of development within a society or between societies, with the plantation system in the Old South or the mixture of the most advanced factories and serfdom in Czarist Russia classic examples. In the latter case, Trotsky noted that Russia stood between Europe and Asia—his way of describing its uneven development: neither fully capitalist or fully feudal.

Combination refers to the ways in which the internal relations of any society are determined by their interaction with other differentially developed societies. In the case of Czarist Russia, this meant adopting the latest industrial technology from Germany or Britain. As the authors make clear, this “leapfrogging” was essential to England’s rise. As a relatively backward and isolated society in comparison to China or India, it used its backwardness as a way of catapulting to a higher stage since it was not burdened by a tributary mode of production that while allowing the Ottomans to rule a vast empire served as well to retard its development.

Finally, the most significant contribution of Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu is to reorient Marxism to the proletarian internationalism that was its hallmark before “socialism in one country” became dominant on the left (facilitated to a large degree by thuggery and assassination.)

If my initial reaction to the Brenner thesis was influenced by my reading in Trotsky and CLR James, there was another aspect that troubled me when weighed against my Marxist training. I always considered capitalism a world system just the way I viewed socialism. In my days as an activist in the Nicaraguan solidarity movement, I tried to explain the Sandinista failure in terms of the expectations of the revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. There was no confusion about that in the time of Marx and Engels. When Engels considered the question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?”, his answer was unambiguous: “No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.”

If socialism in one country was always an impossibility, it only makes sense to understand how capitalism operating as a global system practically from its inception makes internationalism a necessity. If “agrarian capitalism” always had an insular quality, that’s reason enough to approach world politics from the standpoint of “combined and uneven development”. To paraphrase John Donne, “no society is an island, entire of itself”.

In their conclusion, Anievas and Nisancioglu issue a ringing call for building a revolutionary movement that unites the many against the few in the spirit of the Internationale: “The International Union Shall be the human race.” We end now with their words::

The myriad dilemmas arising from the ‘inter-stateness’ of capitalism, this international dimension inscribed in all forms of development, confronting any revolution was clearly recognised – if not properly addressed – by Lenin. As he commented to fellow Bolsheviks in March 1919, ‘We are living not merely in a state, but in a system of states, and it is inconceivable for the Soviet Republic to exist alongside the imperialist states for any length of time. One or the other must triumph in the end’. In the field of IR, the apparent fact that revolutionary states quickly adopted the methods of traditional diplomacy and great power politics has been viewed as a striking vindication of the ‘timeless’ wisdom of political realism – a conclusion we clearly reject. But while it would be hopelessly naïve, if not intellectually disingenuous, to subsume an explanation ill the multitude of forces behind any socialist revolution’s ‘degeneration’, revolutionaries travel at their peril without recognition of the socially transformational power of ‘power politics’. And this ‘international’ dimension of development has much broader implications to revolutionary politics more generally.

Take, for example, our argument that the multiple labour processes in different parts of the world were crucial to the formation and subsequent reproduction of capitalism. In the period of the Industrial Revolution, coerced forms of surplus extraction in the Americas and Asia enabled capitalists in Britain to increase rates of exploitation and subordinate labour to the mechanics of the factory. Here the combination of uneven forms of exploitation was constitutive of capitalism’s expanded reproduction, and the real subsumption of labour. In the contemporary period, the divesting machinations of capitalism have continued and expanded into a global system of geopolitical violent and integrated production processes which afford it coercive and disciplining capabilities with an unprecedented international reach. The fluidities of finance capital, ‘just-in-time’ production, and logistics have only sharpened this sociological multiplicity – the international – into a machine of tyranny. Today, as always, wage repression, deteriorating work conditions and anti-strike practices are actively determined by variegated labour processes in different societies across the globe. In these ways, unevenness and combination act as disciplining features that maintains the capital relation as the basis of social existence.

So when considering the challenge of political multiplicity, we must not only connsider the level of ‘many societies’, but also many oppressions, many powers, many struggles, many actors and so on. Historically, sociopolitical differences borne of ‘many oppressions’ or ‘many struggles’ have been understood as something for the Left – and in particular the Party – to negate and sublate into the unity and singularity of revolutionary thought and practice. In this tradition, the programme has been presented as the higher ideological/strategic unity, and the Party the organisational form, in which political differences are ironed out, unity among disparate parts realised, and a homogenous political perspective pursued. In turn, the perspectives constructed by the leadership of parties and organisations are presented as the historical prime mover – the royal road – which simply needs to be replicated everywhere for capitalism to be overthrown. This negation of political difference sought by programmatic organisations generates a form of political autocentrism, and ontological singularity, where any given party or programme is posited as the sole and sovereign author of historical change. In this programmatic approach, difference is something not to be articulated, but destroyed; something to be redirected onto the True Path – where it cannot be redirected – exiled as a ‘bourgeois deviation’.

Drawing on our preceding analysis, we would argue that any politics that takes a singular – historically and geographically specific – experience and generalises beyond its own spatiotemporal conditions and limitations, is inherently limited, problematic and potentially dangerous. It is so precisely because it imposes a false universality on the uneven, multiform social experiences of proletarians. Insofar as capitalism has been built on the subjugation and marginalisation of multiplicity – both historically and historiographically – any anticapitalist politics that reproduces this subjugation and marginalisation is not worthy of the name.

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