Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

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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.

January 27, 2016

Town and Tawney

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

R.H. Tawney

As a follow-up to my articles on formal/real subsumption, I decided to reread Maurice Dobb’s “Studies in the Development of Capitalism”, an economic history of England that I remembered as a useful review of class relations both in the city and countryside. Despite the tendency to associate Robert Brenner with Dobb because both were involved with debates with Paul Sweezy, there is little doubt that Dobb was a lot closer to Sweezy. Indeed, Brenner wrote an article in 1978 titled “Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism” that faulted him for giving too much credit to the towns.

For Brenner, Marxists—including Sweezy and Dobb—have overemphasized trade, particularly between England and other nations. Naturally such trade was what drove the growth of town and city, especially London, since the import of spices, silk, precious metals etc. were key to the handicrafts that emerged under feudalism and became the foundation for formal subsumption. If such goods could be purchased cheaply and through monopoly power, an accumulation of mercantile capital was the logical outcome—that, at least, was the argument.

Brenner rejected such arguments. For example, he wrote in his famous 1977 NLR article:

In sum, Sweezy’s entire account of the transition from feudalism to capitalism is based on the implicit assumption that capitalism already exists. This occurs because Sweezy mistakenly believes that trade/towns constitute a sort of capitalism in embryo. The expansion of trade/towns will transmit to the economy as a whole, even one dominated by serfdom, a tendency to self-transformation by means of processes of accumulation and innovation which will inevitably lead to the decline of feudalism (and ultimately the adoption of wage labour), due to the exigencies of the development of the productive forces.

Wood says the same sort of thing:

The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear as a more or less automatic consequence of practices as old as human history, or even the automatic consequence of human nature, the “natural” inclination, in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter, and exchange.”

Perhaps the most salutary corrective to these assumptions—and their ideological implications—is the recognition that capitalism, with all its very specific drives of accumulation and profit-maximization, was born not in the city but in the countryside, in a very specific place, and very late in human history.

While I was mainly interested in finding out whether Dobb historicized the formal to real subsumption process, which would have meant looking at how handicrafts were superseded by manufacturing, etc., I was intrigued to see this reference to how the townsmen (bourgeoisie, in other words) became landed gentry—a kind of reversal of what might be expected:

Similarly, agriculture in the sixteenth century was under-going an important, if partial, transformation. It was a century, on the one hand, of extensive investment by city merchants in the purchase of manors; and while most of this appear to have been either speculative in intention or with the object of drawing rents from leases rather than of enjoying the profits of farming the land, instances were not altogether uncommon of capital being sunk in improvements and of the estate being worked with hired labour as a capitalist farm.

Whoa, I said to myself after reading this paragraph, that is really interesting. So city merchants were buying manors—I didn’t know that. Someone who might have made a killing on the London streets making hats or boots then went out and bought a bunch of land. Was there a possibility that this explained the transformations in the countryside? When an early capitalist invests in land, it was no doubt motivated by the same kind of acquisitiveness that led him to corner the market in hats or boots—or so it would seem.

In his discussion of these trends, Dobb cites R.H. Tawney’s “The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century” that was written in 1912 and available on Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40336/40336-h/40336-h.htm). Tawney was a Christian Socialist and strongly influenced by Max Weber. He is also someone that Brenner cited favorably on behalf of his own theory in “Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe” so that might give him some credibility.

Part two of Tawney’s book is titled “The Transition to Capitalist Agriculture” and is obviously relevant to the topic under discussion. Tawney views the enclosure act as critical to the rise of capitalism: “The development of the textile manufactures, which for two centuries were the chief source of English wealth, could not have taken place without the production of cheap supplies of raw material, and the growth of the towns was dependent on the saving of labour from agriculture.” This certainly sounds consistent with Political Marxism, the notion of towns relying on labor-saving large farms. But there’s a larger framework for all this—the Tudor epoch as a “commercial age”:

The age is a commercial one in the more fundamental sense that large economic changes are initiated by classes and individuals. Foreign trade grows enormously in the early years of Henry VIII., though certain branches of it suffer a temporary set back at the end of the reign. The use of money, of which during the first quarter of the century there was a shortage, begins in the middle of it to spread throughout all classes. The industry which for the next three centuries is to be the chief manufacture of England becomes firmly established. Under the influence of widening markets, trade separates from trade. Within single industries there is an increasing subdivision of labour; many links intervene between the group supplying the raw material and the group which hands the finished article to the consumer; a special class of capitalist entrepreneurs appears to hold the various stages of production together, to organise supplies, and to find markets. Side by side with the development of manufacturing industry goes a development in the organisation of finance. In the woollen industry men buy and sell on credit. In tin-mining and coal-mining they sink shafts with borrowed capital. The first joint-stock companies are established in the middle of the century with capitals of from £5000 to £20,000. There is a regular money market in London, there are bill brokers, arbitrage dealings between it and the Continent, adventurers who take advantage of the increasing fluidity of capital to speculate on the difference in the rates at which it can be borrowed in the Low Countries and in England. By the end of the century London has partially ousted Antwerp as the financial capital of Europe.

In the second place, the social arrangements of England are such as to make it certain that this increasing activity will react almost immediately on agriculture and on agrarian relationships. There have been countries where a sharp line has been drawn between trade and agriculture, where the landowner could not engage in trade without degrading himself, where the tradesman could not buy up the noble’s land. But this has never been the case in England. In that precocious island the Lombards had hardly settled in Lombard Street, when Mr. Pole’s daughters discovered that the fine shades flourished their finest in country air, and there was a market for heiresses among the English aristocracy long before Columbus had revealed to Europe the Eldorado of the New World. From a very early date the successful merchant has bought dignity and social consideration by investing his savings in an estate. The impecunious gentleman has restored the falling fortunes of his house by commercial speculations, of which marriage into a merchant family, if not the least speculative, is not the least profitable. At the beginning of the sixteenth century both movements were going on simultaneously with a rapidity which was before unknown, and which must be explained as the consequence of the great growth of all forms of commercial activity. The rise of great incomes drawn from trade had brought into existence a new order of business men whose enterprise was not confined to the seaport and privileged town, but flowed over into the purchase of landed estates, even before the secularisation of monastic endowments made land speculation the mania of a whole generation. Great nobles plunged into commerce, were granted special trading privileges, and intermarried with the rising middle-class families who were often better off than themselves. In all ages wealth allies itself with wealth, and power with power. As soon as the appearance of rich merchant families creates a fresh and powerful interest in society, the old social system and the new coalesce, and each learns from the other—the merchant how to make a display as a landed proprietor and a Justice of the Peace, the old-fashioned landlord how to cut down expenses and squeeze the utmost farthing out of his property in the best City manner. Even if the political and economic environment had remained unchanged, the mere formation of commercial capital and of a moneyed class could hardly have failed to work a slow revolution in agrarian relationships.

This chronicle of what happened in the sixteenth century is obviously more consistent with Dobb than Brenner/Wood and—might I add—with reality itself. There was an interpenetration of town and country with the town arguably taking precedence. This essentially was Ernest Mandel’s view as well:

It is in the evolution, from the sixteenth century onward, of these local markets supplied essentially out of the surpluses of producers of use-values, into great metropolitan markets, that we must look for the origin of agricultural capitalism. The prodigious development of urban centres like London, Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, etc., upset the relations of supply and demand as regards agricultural produce. These great cities concentrated within their boundaries a considerable proportion of the national population in the case of London, 10 per cent of the British population from the end of the seventeenth century and 20 per cent by the nineteenth century. The supply of foodstuffs to these populations depended no longer merely on the neighbouring agricultural areas, but on a large proportion of the entire agricultural production of the whole country. This tended to level out agricultural prices on the national scale, and this in the sense that the prices paid in the metropolitan area became the basis for the national price of wheat.

Thereby, contrariwise to what happened in the local markets of the Middle Ages, the areas with big wheat surpluses which were near the capital could sell their wheat dearer than remote areas where there was a shortage (allowing for transport costs). After the metropolitan market the next stage, achieved in a single century, was the world grain market: London attracted not only the wheat needed for its own feeding but also all the wheat intended for export, for maximum valorisation on the markets of the world.

The appearance of vast metropolitan markets from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onward was accompanied by a complete reversal of the food-supply policy of the big towns. For these it was no longer a question, as in the Middle Ages, of restricting the price of foodstuffs by every means. On the contrary, it was a question of ensuring by every means an adequate supply of foodstuffs for the town at any price.” It was in this sense that the metropolises played the part of an apparently unlimited market, thus fostering the introduction of capitalism in agriculture. No longer were only the surpluses of rural production sent to the town; the maximum possible amount of wheat was sent, so that often the country people were reduced to subsistence level.

The movement for the enclosure of common land was stimulated not only by attractive prospects for sheep-raising but also by very high prices of wheat. The appearance of the metropolitan market and the ending, for the agricultural producers, of free use of the soil (i.e., the introduction of capitalism in agriculture), were intimately linked together. The importance of this stimulus can be judged if one considers that, from 1500 to 1800, the price of wheat in Britain rose from index 100 to index 275, and in France from index 100 to index 572, whereas the prices of metals and textiles rose by only 30 per cent during the same period.

In the same epoch, the rationalisation of agriculture, the transition from the three-field system to the planting of crops which restore the soil’s fertility, and the growing use of chemical fertilisers, increased, first in Flanders, Holland and some parts of Germany, then later in Britain and France, the minimum funds needed by a farmer if he were to take advantage of this miraculous manna of rising agricultural prices. From the end of the eighteenth century one needed, in England, to dispose of a minimum capital of £5 an acre in order to exploit an arable farm, £8 an acre for a mixed farm, and £20 an acre for a cattle or sheep farm. The ownership of capital thus became the condition for any viable agricultural enterprise, however modest. In this way all the conditions for the penetration of capital into agriculture were realised.

–Marxist Economic Theory, V. 1, pp. 274-275

January 24, 2016

Once again on the formal/real subsumption question

Filed under: economics,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

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Definitely not found in a medieval guild

In my post on “Anglocentrism and the real subsumption of labor”, I mistakenly attributed Marx’s discussion of formal and real subsumption to the Grundrisse. It actually is contained in “The Results of the Direct Production Process”, which is part of a third draft of Capital that Marx wrote between the summer of 1863 and the summer of 1864, and is based on a plan Marx made for the work in December 1862. After reading it, I find myself troubled by how it fits into Marx’s more general analysis of the exploitation of labor in light of his statement:

Just as the production of absolute surplus value can be regarded as the material expression of the formal subsumption of labour under capital, so the production of relative surplus value can be regarded as that of the real subsumption of labour under capital.

Returning once again to Charles Post’s reference to Marx’s definitions of the two forms of subsumption, you find what is commonly understood as “handicrafts”, the most elementary form of labor exploitation that emerged out of the bowels of feudalism:

As long as capital’s subsumption of labor was formal and the actual labor-process was in the hands of skilled artisanal wage earners—legal-juridical forces was necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power and capital’s ability to command production. [emphasis added]

Skilled artisanal wage earners is obviously the words that would describe men and women who worked in “cottage industries” spinning wool and making garments out of the raw materials supplied by an early capitalist, one that Marx considered rooted in usury. The next step would be gathering all of these artisans under the same roof and paying them a wage to make garments with both machinery and raw materials supplied by the capitalist. With their skills, they conceivably could go into business for themselves as many surely did.

In “The Results of the Direct Production Process”, Marx describes the world in which “formal subsumption” operated:

Finally, the relation of capitalist and wage labourer can replace the master of the guild type and his journeymen and apprentices, a transition accomplished in part by urban manufacture at its very beginnings. The medieval guild relation, which developed in analogous form in narrow circles in Athens and Rome as well, and was of such decisive importance in Europe for the formation of capitalists on the one hand, and of a free estate of workers on the other, is a limited, not yet adequate, form of the relation of capital and wage labour. There exists here on the one hand the relation of buyer and seller. Wages are paid, and master, journeyman, and apprentice confront each other as free persons. The technological basis of this relation is the handicraft workshop, in which the more or less skilled manipulation of the instrument of labour is the decisive factor of production.

In between such a relatively primitive form of class relations and that of “real subsumption”, there is a huge gap:

We already noted when considering machinery, how its introduction into one branch brings about its introduction into others, and at the same time into other varieties of the same branch. Mechanical spinning, for example, leads to mechanical weaving; mechanical spinning in the cotton industry leads to mechanical spinning in wool, linen., silk, etc. The wider employment of machinery in coal mines, cotton manufactures, etc., made necessary the introduction of the large-scale method of production into machine manufacture itself. Leaving aside the growth in the means of transport required by this mode of production on a large scale, it is on the other hand only the introduction of machinery into machine manufacture itself — particularly the cyclical prime motor — which has made possible the introduction of steamships and railways, and revolutionised the whole of shipbuilding. Large-scale industry throws as large a mass of human beings into the branches not yet subjected to it, or creates in these branches as large a relative surplus population, as is required for the conversion of handicrafts or of the small, formally capitalist business into a large-scale industry.

So, on one hand you have formal subsumption with its quaint guilds and skilled artisans turning out garments by the dozens each day like something you would see in London circa 1450. On the other, with real subsumption you have the “wider employment of machinery” that makes possible the production of thousands of garments each day in an age when the same advances are yielding the modern steamship and railway lines that can transport them to markets.

If you want to produce 12 shirts a day in the world of formal subsumption, the recourse is to lengthen the workday. This is called the creation of absolute surplus value. If you want to double production in the world of real subsumption, you introduce mechanical looms and a division of unskilled labor that makes the process even more efficient, such as having some men or women assigned to dying and others to operating the machines and still others to putting the finished product into boxes.

After having read “The Results of the Direct Production Process” the other day, something nagged at me. I hadn’t read Capital in over forty-five years but the chapter on the creation of absolute surplus value, where the term formal subsumption appears nowhere, seemed to have little to do with the guilds of the late middle ages and much more to do with what William Blake called the “satanic mills”. Sure enough, a rereading this morning confirmed my suspicions. There’s a section in chapter ten titled “Day and Night Work. The Relay System” that hardly sounds like what was going on in Tudor England.

The Relay System was the term Marx used to describe keeping factories going 24 hours a day: “To appropriate labour during all the 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production. But as it is physically impossible to exploit the same individual labour-power constantly during the night as well as the day, to overcome this physical hindrance, an alternation becomes necessary between the workpeople whose powers are exhausted by day, and those who are used up by night.” That doesn’t sound like any medieval guild I’ve heard of. In fact, it sounds much more like Chinese factories today.

Nor does it sound like the small-scale operations of handicrafts or early manufacturing:

Mr. J. Ellis, one of the firm of Messrs. John Brown & Co., steel and iron works, employing about 3,000 men and boys, part of whose operations, namely, iron and heavier steel work, goes on night and day by relays, states “that in the heavier steel work one or two boys are employed to a score or two men.”

As it turns out, Wikipedia has an entry on this guy’s business, which was founded in 1844. By 1859 it was producing rails for the rapidly expanding railway industry that Marx referred to as an exemplar of real subsumption. Like most leading edge factories in the steel business, John Brown and Co. used the Bessemer process. Does the Bessemer process sound like it belongs to the world of formal subsumption with its handicrafts and skilled artisans? I don’t think so.

In fact Marx refers to the Bessemer process in V. 3 of Capital as a key breakthrough in the productivity of labor:

The chief means of reducing the time of production is higher labour productivity, which is commonly called industrial progress. If this does not involve a simultaneous considerable increase in the outlay of total capital resulting from the installation of expensive machinery, etc., and thus a reduction of the rate of profit, which is calculated on the total capital, this rate must rise. And this is decidedly true in the case of many of the latest improvements in metallurgy and in the chemical industry. The recently discovered methods of producing iron and steel, such as the processes of Bessemer, Siemens, Gilchrist-Thomas, etc., cut to a minimum at relatively small costs the formerly arduous processes.

I think that Marx probably understood that there is no Chinese wall between the creation of absolute and relative surplus value as he pointed out in chapter 16 of V. 1 of Capital that is titled “Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value”:

From one standpoint, any distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, since it compels the absolute prolongation of the working-day beyond the labour-time necessary to the existence of the labourer himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, since it makes necessary such a development of the productiveness of labour, as will allow of the necessary labour-time being confined to a portion of the working-day. But if we keep in mind the behaviour of surplus-value, this appearance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production is established and become general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value. Assuming that labour-power is paid for at its value, we are confronted by this alternative: given the productiveness of labour and its normal intensity, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by the actual prolongation of the working-day; on the other hand, given the length of the working-day, that rise can be effected only by a change in the relative magnitudes of the components of the working-day, viz., necessary labour and surplus-labour; a change which, if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, presupposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of the labour.

In plain language, Marx is saying that if profits are declining in a highly mechanized factory, the capitalist will use “extra-economic” coercion to make sure that the workers conform to the treadmill norms of the above mentioned Relay System:

Right now, in Shanghai, China, a factory owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group is pushing out millions of units of the iPhone 6s for Apple. There, its young production workers toil six days a week in 12-hour shifts. Each day they are paid for 10 and half hours of work, not counting 15 minutes of unpaid meetings. The mandatory overtime shift runs from 5:30 pm until 8:00 pm. Most workers will not eat dinner before doing overtime because the 30-break given for a meal is not enough time.

Before overtime pay, workers making the iPhone earn only the local minimum wage of $318 per month, or about $1.85 per hour. This is not a living wage. Even if the factory did not mandate overtime as it does, workers would still depend on their 60-hour workweeks to get by.

After their long shifts, workers take a 30-minute shuttle bus back to their dorms where up to 14 people are crammed into a room. Mold grows pervasively along the walls. Bed bugs have spread throughout the dorm, and many workers are covered in red bug bites.

The problem with the Political Marxists is that they are essentially “stagists” without even realizing it, all the more ironic since Post and Brenner are members of an organization that is led by veterans of either the SWP or the IS, two groups that were the best representatives of American Trotskyism. This whole idea of consigning formal subsumption and the creation of absolute surplus value to a virtual pre-capitalist stage as Brenner does in his 1977 NLR article is wrong. Capitalism began at the point when commodity production began to become universal. Workers across the planet were involved with the emerging system, from slaves in Mississippi to textile workers in Liverpool. If they have trouble understanding that, Marx did not:

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



January 22, 2016

Anticapitalism can only be global in scope — the real purview of the “transition debate”

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

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In the course of writing about the Brenner thesis for the better part of 20 years, I have heard questions about the relevance of the debate to contemporary politics—including I should add from myself. When I found myself writing, for example, about the importance of the turnip in the agrarian economy of 17th century England, I could not help but wonder if I would be better off researching logging and ranching incursions into indigenous regions of the Amazon rainforest instead. As it happens, Alex Anievas and Kerim Nisancioglu, the authors of the monumentally important and deeply researched “How the West Came to Rule”, have demonstrated in their conclusion that the 17th century growth of capitalism worldwide and today’s struggles are related. Not only that, in making this point they also connect it with the need for a worldwide revolutionary party that both forsakes petty and sectarian self-interests but returns to the original vision of proletarian revolution as a global endeavor as this excerpt makes clear.

* * * *

The conquest, ecological ruin, slavery, state terrorism, patriarchal subjugation, racism, mass exploitation and immiseration upon which capitalism was kilt continue unabated today. The violent past explicated in this book was therefore not merely a historical contingency, external to the ‘pure’ operation of vital, or a phase of ‘incompleteness’ out of which capitalism has emerged or will emerge. Rather, these practices and processes are ‘constitutive’ in the sense that they remain crucial to capitalism’s ongoing reproduction as a historical social structure. This should remind us that capitalism is neither natural nor eternal: it has been historically constructed by annihilating or subsuming other non-capitalist — ways of life. But, moreover, these pointers should alert us to the possibility of ridding ourselves of a mode of production that continually reproduces such histories of violence, oppression and exploitation.

As such, we believe the arguments presented in this book raise a key issue that must be placed at the heart of any transformative emancipatory politics —the issue of political or societal multiplicity. Far from being a matter of purely of scholastic concern, this missing ‘international theory’ has a number of political implications. We would therefore argue that this issue is anything but an abstract one, since as we have argued, the interjection of the intersocietal is a permanent condition of the way in which states, communities, and individuals shape their lives politically. And indeed, political challenges to capitalism have often identified the ‘universality’ or ‘totality’ of capitalism as the basis on which it should be challenged and overcome. This serves as an important warning against any endeavour to build ‘socialism in one country’; anticapitalism can only be global in scope.

We agree with this, and an obvious implication of our calls for an inter-nationalist counter-history of capitalism is that an internationalist politics of anticapitalism is a necessity. However, the content of this internationalism is not self-evident, and requires working out — and, of course, not through theory alone but also through struggle. Insofar as ‘the international’ was central to the emergence and reproduction of capitalism, we should be critical of political positions that treat this internationality — the system of multiple nation-states as an empty vessel that simply needs to filled with communist or socialist content. Indeed, the very internationality of capitalism might well prove fundamentally antithetical to communist politics under certain circumstances. For if the ‘forgotten’ history of the social sciences — and, in particular, the discipline of International Relations — has been crucially implicated in confronting the dilemmas of social disorder and revolution wrought by the international spread of capitalist social relations and empire, the subaltern history of 20th century revolutionary politics has been imbricated with the constraints imposed by the ‘inter-stateness’ of capitalism on the potenties emancipatory projects for social transformation.

That capitalism emerged in conjunction with – and in fact perpetuates – a world divided into a multiplicity of interactive, heterogeneous states has held enormous significance for revolutionary politics. For in the process of attempting to build socialism by taking state power and harnessing it to this end, Marxist-inspired revolutions have all too often been transformed into their very negation. Rather than constructing the emancipated society of the future, in which the political state dissolves into a free association of self-governing producers, the trajectories of self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ societies witnessed the intensive perfection of the oppressive state apparatus they had originally sought to destroy. Hence, the creation and consolidation of revolutionary states ‘perhaps best dramatizes the ‘centrality of interstate relations and war’ to modern development.’

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.


January 21, 2016

Anglocentrism and the real subsumption of labor

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

An antidote to Anglocentrism

Yesterday an old friend from my misspent Trotskyist youth sent me an excerpt from Harry Harootunian’s “Marx After Marx” that he described as “a further contribution to the transition debates and a polemic against Western Marxism, stagist theories, and by implication some aspects of Political Marxism (but no index entries for Brenner or Wood).” He warned me, however, that before tackling it I review Marx’s discussion of formal vs. real subsumption. This was in something called “The Results of the Direct Production Process”, which is part of a third draft of Capital that Marx wrote between the summer of 1863 and the summer of 1864, based on a plan Marx made for the work in December 1862 according to its introduction in MIA.

Needless to say Charles Post was someone who obviously had read this material on the evidence of having invoked “real subsumption” in his speech at the Ellen Meiksins Wood Symposium where he took on the “critics of Political Marxism” who harped on “the persistence of legally coerced labor under capitalism.” He referred them to Mike Zmolek’s recently published book on the history of capitalism in England from a Brennerite perspective, where the “the state plays a crucial role” in primitive accumulation by using “legal-juridical forces…necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power.” Once the state has finished playing this role by kicking the workers in the teeth, the markets can kick in after “capital has achieved real subsumption of labor.” Now, anybody who has not read Marx might scratch his or her head about this “real subsumption” business. What was it while the state was still a player? Unreal subsumption? No, Marx called it formal subsumption. Don’t ask me why. I have trouble enough with Hegel.

And if you read Marx on this, you still might end up scratching your head:

The labour process becomes the instrument of the valorisation process, of the process of capital’s self-valorisation — the process of the creation of surplus value. The labour process is subsumed under capital (it is capital’s own process) and the capitalist enters the process as its conductor, its director; for him it is at the same time directly a process of the exploitation of alien labour. I call this the formal subsumption of labour under capital. It is the general form of any capitalist production process; but at the same time it is a particular form alongside the developed mode of production which is specifically capitalist because the second involves the first, but the first by no means necessarily involves the second.

Got that? I hope so because I am going to give you a test later. When you come to what Marx wrote about real subsumption, it is a bit easier to fathom since it refers to the absolute versus relative creation of surplus value, topics that are explored in V. 1 of Capital, a work relatively easier to absorb than the thickets of the Grundrisse.

Just as the production of absolute surplus value can be regarded as the material expression of the formal subsumption of labour under capital, so the production of relative surplus value can be regarded as that of the real subsumption of labour under capital.

In any case, if each of the two forms of surplus value — absolute and relative — is considered for itself, in its separate existence and absolute surplus value always precedes relative — we can say that two separate forms of the subsumption of labour under capital, or two separate forms of capitalist production, correspond to the two forms of surplus value. The first form of production always constitutes the predecessor of the second, although the second, which is the further developed form, can in turn form the basis for the introduction of the first in new branches of production.

After I read this, I finally got it. Basically, the formal subsumption of labor refers to the creation of absolute surplus value and the real subsumption refers to the creation of relative surplus value. Which in turn refers to the contrast between the lengthening of the workday to extract profits, particularly through the exploitation of unskilled labor on one hand and the use of machines (dead labor in effect) to allow fewer workers to produce equivalent profits on the other. It would be illustrated, for example, by the difference between Black plantation workers working 12 hours a day during Jim Crow and the heavily mechanized cotton production of today. But keep in mind that when Marx wrote about formal subsumption, he was referring to what happened in Britain as wage labor was exploited under conditions that largely prevailed under feudalism. In other words, commodity production took place under artisanal conditions that were necessary to “subsume” under conditions in which the worker’s skills were reduced and became more like the replaceable parts of the machines they worked on–the conditions that created the Luddite revolt. What this might have to do with sugar plantations in 18th century Jamaica or Mexican silver mines is anybody’s guess.

Indeed, Post refers to such examples of “formal subsumption”:

Legally coerced wage labor also persists in capitalist agriculture, where the disjuncture between production and labor time makes non-market coercion necessary to secure adequate supplies of labor power during crucial periods like planting and harvesting. Legally coerced wage labor is also found in situations where capital has command of industrial labor-processes, but where workers are only partially separated from landed property. For example, in apartheid South Africa, workers were not “free” to enter or leave labor contracts at will.

So basically Post is admitting that in modern capitalist societies, non-market coercion can exist alongside market coercion. This, as a psychiatrist might say, is a sign of making progress.

The problem is that it does not address the nature of societies where non-market coercion dominated. This in fact is just about the entire colonial and postcolonial world throughout most of the last half-millennium. In Latin America, Africa and Asia, the creation of absolute surplus value was the norm as people cut sugar cane, picked cotton, chopped lumber, or mined silver under conditions of non-market coercion. Forget about an eight-hour day in 19th century Mexico. The army or police enforced the rules dictated by the man who owned the plantation or timberland. They worked under conditions just one step above slavery. Was it capitalist social property relations to use the Brennerite jargon? Certainly it was whatever they think.

From the time this academic smart kids club began, the emphasis has always been on real subsumption, even to the point of explicitly identifying it with capitalism itself. In Robert Brenner’s 1977 NLR article, which was his nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, he made formal subsumption a virtual catechism:

Now, there is no doubt that capitalism is a system in which production for a profit via exchange predominates. But does the opposite hold true? Does the appearance of widespread production ‘for profit in the market’ signal the existence of capitalism, and more particularly a system in which, as a characteristic feature, ‘production is constantly expanded and men constantly innovate new ways of producing’. Certainly not, because production for exchange is perfectly compatible with a system in which it is either unnecessary or impossible, or both, to reinvest in expanded, improved production in order to ‘profit’. Indeed, we shall argue that this is the norm in pre-capitalist societies. For in such societies the social relations of production in large part confine the realization of surplus labour to the methods of extending absolute labour. [emphasis added]

Leaving aside Brenner’s confused reference to absolute labor time that simply means the lengthening of the workday, you can assume that he is simply establishing a ruling as a judge does in a courtroom: Formal subsumption/creation of absolute surplus value through the extension of absolute labor belongs to “pre-capitalist societies”. In the Belgian Empire of King Leopold, there was capitalism and pre-capitalism. In Brussels, there was real subsumption as men on assembly lines converted rubber into bicycle and then automobile tires, while in the Congo it was pre-capitalism as a variety of taxes and other repressive legislation violently dissolved the self-sustaining villages and forced men to climb trees and tap rubber with a knife.

That a popular consumer product would have a dirty secret hidden far from end users’ eyes in the Global South is almost to be expected these days.

A century ago, the bicycle was high on this list.

1890 was the year that a company called Dunlop Rubber formed primarily for the purpose of producing a newfangled and incredibly popular product — the inflatable bicycle tire, which provided a much smoother ride than their predecessors, the aptly named “boneshakers.”

The demand for bicycles surged. The first golden age of cycling had arrived. Many in Europe and North America — particularly the women’s movement — found liberation in having access to cheap, fast transportation for the first time.

This freedom came with an external price that was paid, in this case, by millions of workers and their families on rubber plantations throughout what was then the colonial world.

“The Rubber Terror” is what activists at the time dubbed the situation in central Africa. The Congo was, from 1885 to 1908, the private colony owned by (though never visited by) King Leopold II of Belgium. In the early 1890s, the king responded to the ever-growing demand for rubber by pressing millions of workers into unpaid labor, enforced by his brutal private army that was quick to mutilate, torture, and murder workers deemed slow or rebellious — or their families.

The resulting holocaust is calculated by some to have claimed the lives of 15 million people — over two thirds of the vast region’s population.


One of the most depressing things about the PM people is their utter lack of interest in the colonial world. I think Jim Blaut erred a bit when he characterized them as Eurocentric. Indeed, a better term would be Anglocentric since their entire effort seems to be the creation of a template based on British history, the latest installment of which is Mike Zmolek’s tome. If the Congo does not match this template, then it must be put into a Procrustean bed in which it ends up ideologically butchered as “pre-capitalist”.

If they could possibly be lured outside of their comfort zone, I’d advise them to read B. Traven’s “Jungle Novels” that are about as good an introduction to Mexican economic history as any history book. I especially love this quote from “Government,” the first in the series, which refers to Don Gabriel, the tax collector in a small Chiapas town:

Don Gabriel quickly took to it. He saw there was a fortune to be made, without real effort and without the need of allowing a margin for losses. He did not consider don Ramón any brighter than himself; and no intelligence was required. There were thousands of indebted peons and independent Indians in the district he was best acquainted with. In his own village alone there were more than a dozen who were deeply enough in his debt to give him the right to proceed against them in any way and by any means not expressly forbidden by the law. It was not illegal to offer them the chance of contracting with a monteria [lumber chopping company] as a means of freeing themselves from debt. On the contrary, the government was glad to see debts paid off, and even more glad that the companies who paid it well for licenses and concessions should be kept supplied with labor, so that production could be maintained and exports increased. Exports were necessary to the finances of the country and kept up the value of the peso on the money markets of London and New York. It was therefore a highly patriotic activity to supply the coffee plantations and the monterias with labor and to keep the supply constant; it was just as important as dying gloriously and miserably for the honor of your country assured of the joys of paradise.

Let me end with a passage from “Trozas”, the fourth in the series that illustrates in biting, sardonic prose how capitalism was a world system when the novel was written and how foolish it is to see it otherwise:

Don Remigio left the men, who had been on the march since one in the morning to get there from their last bivouac by midday, standing in the tropical glare of the sun as if they were blocks of stone. Whether they were seriously sunburnt or even collapsed or went off their head, that didn’t seem to worry him. They cost so much of his money. He had to pay off each individual’s debts, since it was on account of them that the man had been sold or peddled to him. For each individual he had to pay the president of the municipality of Hucutsin the tax on the labor contract at a rate of twenty-five pesos, so that the authorities would arrest the man if he ran away. What is more, he had to pay a high commission to the advertising agents who bought out peons from the fincas, the estates and the villages, who were in debt to their masters, as well as other Indians whose police fines had to be paid in order to bring them here. No one could expect that the enganchadores, the advertising agents, would work for nothing, still less as they were in a business in which they hoped to get very rich. Finally, a cash advance had been paid to every man recruited by the agents, the better to tempt the men to confirm their contracts before the municipal president and thus, in the eyes of the civilized world, give the impression that it was a simple labor contract such as can be concluded anywhere on earth. The old cacique knew far better than the newly fledged dictators how to conceal the true conditions in his country from the suspicions of the other nations, helped by a gagged and self-corrupting press that groveled before him. What the workers themselves said or spread abroad was nothing but lies and slander. Truth was only what was written in the labor contracts, acknowledged by the workers, and stamped by an official authority. That the Indian workers could neither read nor write the dictator did not regard as his fault. Why didn’t they learn to read and write? They were too stupid for it and just didn’t want to learn.

All the amounts and payments that the contratista [contractor] laid out for a man he had recruited, that man had to earn back in the jungle. A contratista could not be expected to pay out all those amounts for an Indian, or even for two hundred of them, out of pure philanthropy, and then tell the man: “Many thanks for your friendliness, allowing me to pay your debts and give you an advance, which you take so you can get pissed and go whoring. Go back to your father’s house, increase and multiply, and live happy and contented to the end of your days!”

What would become of a contratista who did that sort of thing? In this world, where everybody has to fight for a crust of bread, even a contratista cannot give things away without there being something at the other end. He has to work damned hard to be able to live and to make something of it. If it happens that he has nothing once he is old, then he can go begging. So he must take care of his welfare as long as he is in a position to. Wife and children at home have to live too. And if he has to work hard himself, why not the peons? They’re not used to anything else anyway and do nothing but fool around. If they have no work to do, they just get pissed. Instead of thinking of something else, most of all how they can pay off their debts and escape from enslavement, they waste their good strength on nothing but bringing a crowd of kids into the world.

Besides, the people in New York and London want mahogany furniture. Why they want it has nothing to do with us contratistas. That is their business. But there is money to be made from it, a lovely mountain of money. Our jungles are full of caoba. We have no idea what to do with so much caoba. We have such an infinite amount of it that we actually make our railroad ties out of mahogany and ebony. Why shouldn’t we provide a few tons of our rich excess of this handsome wood for suffering mankind? Of course, it does have to be got out of the jungle. We contratistas can’t do that by ourselves. I least of all. I get great blood-blisters on my hands if I cut caoba just for three hours. Mahogany is as hard as iron, damn it. But those Indians, boozy fuckers that they are, are lucky to be able to do something for their fatherland and raise the exports figure.

This attitude of the contratistas is thoroughly comprehensible; it shows reason and a profound insight into the confused laws of world economics. Of course, the Indian thinks about it differently. But then he is only a wretched proletarian, not a director of a bank. And it is simply incomprehensible to any normal-thinking man that those goddamn proletarians simply won’t ever grasp how reasonable and right and patriotic are the ideas and opinions that are hatched out with so much trouble and worry and sleepless nights by dictators and factory managers, for the good of the fatherland. Goddamn it all, all those proletarians should just be shot, then there would be peace in the country at last. Why is the miserable dog a proletarian anyway? It’s his own fault after all. It certainly isn’t the fault of the contratistas that the peons are permanently so deep in debt to their masters. The master needs his money too, and if he finally loses patience and wants to have his money, because he has to have it, and so sells the peons to the contratistas for the amount of the debt, then there is an outcry and a lot of screaming about the slave trade and slavery.

It is all so clear, so simple, so logical, so reasonable, that one has only to wonder why the proletariat won’t understand it when they are dictated to. Once they understand for the first time and fully accept that everything done is done only for their good, that no dictator, no shareholder, thinks or has ever thought of impinging on the value of the worker or making him into a beast of burden, once they begin to see that people only want their good, even their best, then the time will at last be ripe when they may be counted among the reasonable, and every single proletarian will have the prospect of actually becoming a factory manager and chairman of a board of directors. But as long as he does not, or will not, understand, he must keep his mouth shut and let himself be managed and dictated to.

Everything here was therefore going right. No one was treated unjustly. No one had any cause for complaint. All the business, that of the advertising agents, of the contratistas and the companies, was carried on, always and in all circumstances, within the framework of the law. If gaps showed in the legal network, there was a dictator who mended those gaps with a signature. And what the dictator did was always right, for all his activities were confirmed by the Cámara de Diputados. If by chance one of the Diputados raised an objection, he ceased to be a Diputado, because he was hindering the order and the well-oiled progress of business. Only yes-men were accepted in the Cámara and the Senate. It was a joy to live, and anyone who didn’t like it had no right to live, and was shot. If there were moderating circumstances, then he went to the concentration camp, El Valle de los Muertos, an area fenced in with barbed wire, in the middle of the best-chosen fever swamp in the south of the state of Veracruz. He went there never to return. It was the golden age of dictatorship.


January 20, 2016

Ricardo Duchesne: the Marxist-Hegelian who became a White Nationalist

Filed under: Fascism,immigration,racism,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

Ricardo Duchesne

Yesterday as I began reading the penultimate chapter of Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule”, one which deals with the “great divergence” between the West and Asia, I was surprised to see a history professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada named Ricardo Duchesne mentioned as a believer in the “miracle” of the West. Like the more straightforward believers of Western superiority covered by Jim Blaut in “Eight Eurocentrist Historians”, Duchesne attributes its domination of the rest of the world to its “higher intellectual and artistic creativity”.

The last time Duchesne came to my attention was in September 2003 when I commented on a critique of the Brenner thesis that he had written for Rethinking Marxism.

Duchesne’s article is not only worth tracking down as a very effective rebuttal to Brenner and Wood but as a rarity in the academic world: a witty and highly readable essay that entertains while it educates. For veterans of PEN-L, it might come as some surprise to discover that he has written such an article for in the past he was one of the most vociferous opponents of James M. Blaut, both on that list and other lists where the origins of capitalism was a hot topic. For example in January 1998, he wrote the following on PEN-L:

“Now consider the dilemma Blaut finds himself: why did Europe came to dominate the rest of the World? Answer: geographical proximity of Europe to the Americas(!) gave it access to its metals and labor leading to the industrial revolution. Obviously the notion that European capitalism developed as a result of the exploitation of the Third World has been so roundly refuted I need not elaborate this here. Just a handy, if incomplete, stats: At most 2% of Europe’s GNP at the end of 18th century took the form of profits derived from commerce with Americas, Asia, Africa! (I think source is K.O’Brien).”

However, Duchesne now believes:

“The major drawback of Wood’s Origins is its Eurocentric presumption that explaining the transition to capitalism is simply a matter of looking for those ‘unique’ traits that set Europe or England apart from the rest of the world. Marxists can no longer rest comfortably with the story that England and Europe emerged from the Middle Ages with an internally generated advantage over the rest of Asia.”

As it turns out, his dissertation was on the “transition debate”. Written in 1994, it claimed that it would apply a “Hegelian” procedure to resolve a debate that reached an impasse in his view. His dissertation adviser was Robert Albritton, a Marxist scholar generally associated with the anti-Brenner camp. He also thanks David McNally, who we assume was on his dissertation committee, as being “helpful” despite their differences over deconstruction. Since I had just heard McNally paying loving tribute to Ellen Meiksins Wood yesterday, a person who never met a deconstructionist she wouldn’t have had for breakfast, I wondered what that was about.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded Duchesne’s dissertation that is titled “All contraries confounded: Historical materialism and the transition-to-capitalism debate” and turned to the conclusion. It certainly confirms his approaching the “transition debate” from a Hegelian standpoint, as this gibberish from his final paragraph would confirm:

Throughout this movement, however, it is crucial that we do not lose sight of our initial object of knowledge, our explanadum. Our explanadum must be the point of departure for the construction of our concrete whole: it sets the site of over-determination. It is the point from which we will derive a totality which is pertinent to our object of study, as opposed to an indifferent totality in which everything is related to everything else. It is also crucial that we remember our starting point in order to avoid the conclusion that this process of concretization is a reconstruction of history or society as such. Marx’s method of political economy comprehends one area of what Hegel called objective spirit, namely, socio-economic life. Our totality will be a part of a larger and still more complex whole – a totality which will always remain incomplete.

Having followed Duchesne’s interventions around the Brenner thesis on two different mailing lists in the early 2000s, the Hegelian influence is obvious to me seen in retrospect. I state that as someone who studied Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Mind” in 1966 at the New School when I was dodging the draft. Key to Hegel is the dialectic, which poses one set of ideas against another in an ongoing struggle that finally resolves itself in the Prussian state that Hegel bowed down to. Whenever Hegel’s name came up on Marxmail, Jim Blaut raised a stink since he considered Hegel an arch-reactionary and urged us to steer clear of him. Whether Duchesne was a Marxist at the time was open to question but there is little doubt what he turned into today, a vicious racist who has the same worshipful attitude toward the Canadian state of his dreams—one that is devoted to Western values and the White Race–that Hegel had toward the Prussian state.

The first indication that Duchesne had thrown in his lot with the Eurocentrists was a 2005 article taking issue with Kenneth Pomeranz, the author of “The Great Divergence”, a book that held that China was superior to Britain in many respects in the 18th century, and that if not for British access to New World plunder and the availability of coal in the early stages of the industrial revolution it would have remained subordinate to China. Duchesne’s article remained within the parameters of scholarly norms, even though one might wonder whether it harbored a willingness to break ranks with the anti-Eurocentrists that the capricious scholar had tenuous ties to.

But it was the next article that appeared that year that amounted to a “coming out”. Titled “Defending the rise of Western Culture against its Multicultural critics”, it was the sort of article that you would expect to read in The New Criterion or The Weekly Standard. From that point on, everything that Duchesne has written is in the same vein with a brazen disregard for scholarly impartiality. It culminated in a 528-page book titled “The Uniqueness of Western Civilization” that was published in 2011. It has a chapter titled “The Restlessness of the Western Spirit from a Hegelian Perspective” that is a reminder that Blaut knew what he was talking about. It is followed by one titled “The Aristocratic Egalitarianism of Indo-Europeans and the Primordial Origins of Western Civilization”. I am sure that you know that Aryan is another word for Indo-Europeans.

But nothing would prepare you for Duchesne’s personal blog that is a blatant defense of White Nationalism of the sort that is tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Political Research Associates and other groups that follow the KKK, neo-Nazis, et al.

The blog is titled Council of European Canadians and describes its goals as follows:

We believe that existing strategies for immigration reform have not been successful and must be abandoned. We believe that assimilation (of non-Europeans in the current state of mass immigration) would be fatal to our European heritage, and that if we aim to enhance European Canada we must rely upon the current mechanisms afforded by multiculturalism while it lasts. Multiculturalism recognizes the right of ethnic groups to preserve and enhance their identity and cultural heritage.

We are against an establishment that is determined to destroy European Canada through fanatical immigration, imposition of a diversity curriculum, affirmative action in favor of non-Europeans, and promotion of white guilt. The domination of the cultural Marxists is so deeply seated, so entrenched inside the psychology of Canadians that we cannot engage only in ordinary party politics.

It has racist articles by Duchesne and crosspostings from other fascist-minded filth such as Tim Murray, the author of “Ban Muslim Immigration? Trump Is Right” and “Students for Western Civilization”, a group at York University that was formed by “White/European students to challenge those arguments about the inherent illegitimacy of our civilisation’s existence.”

Over the past couple of years, Duchesne has become a public figure in Canada for his racist views. On May 26 2014, he wrote a blog post titled “Chinese Head Tax, White Apologies, and “Inclusive Redress” that assailed Vancouver City Councilor Raymond Louie for urging that discriminatory laws and policies imposed on Chinese immigrants in the city between 1886 and 1947 be investigated. For Duchesne, this was a “cultural Marxist” assault on the city’s White values. (I should mention that his use of this term is consistent with the way it was used by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.)

Kerry Jang, another Chinese-Canadian councilperson, complained to the administration at Duchesne’s college that predictably defended his academic freedom. Meanwhile, some of his peers wrote a letter to the Toronto Star disassociating themselves from Duchesne:

The principle of academic freedom has long been established in Canada and continues to be a cornerstone of the Canadian university system. As such, Dr. Ricardo Duchesne has a right to use that freedom as a member of the Sociology Unit in the Department of Social Science, University of New Brunswick, Saint John.

However, academic freedom entails neither a right to be listened to, nor a right to an audience. We, the undersigned, also exercise our academic freedom and state categorically that we reject Dr. Duchesne’s expressed views on “Western civilization” and consider them void of academic merit. His views are his alone and are not shared by the ten signatories below from the Department of Sociology, UNB Fredericton.

Professors Gary Bowden, Dan Crouse, Tia Dafnos, Nick Hardy, Catherine Holtmann, Jacqueline Low, Nancy Nason-Clark, Paul Peters, Lucia Tramonte and Maria Costanza Torri, Department of Sociology, UNB, Fredericton

I don’t know enough about Duchesne personally to speculate on how he could have ended up as White Nationalist except to say that he was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Apparently the colonial condition was insufficient to keep his head screwed on right. In contrast, Jim Blaut had a very close connection to the island that sustained him until his death. He was married to America Sorrentini-Blaut, whom he met when he was teaching at the University of Puerto Rico. She was a central leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, a group that he strongly identified with and no doubt that influenced his decision to take up the question of Eurocentrism. Long after riffraff like Ricardo Duchesne are six feet under, serious scholars will be reading Blaut to get ideas on how to understand the phenomenon that Mahatma Gandhi once described in the following terms when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”


January 19, 2016

Ellen Meiksins Wood: a political assessment

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was first getting a handle on the academic left, Wood’s articles on postmodernism were very useful to me. She co-edited a collection of articles published by Monthly Review in 1997 with John Bellamy Foster titled “In Defense of History” that was a frontal assault on Baudrillard, Lyotard at al. Now, looking back at the work, I can see how far I have distanced myself from that project.

One article is by Meera Nanda, an Indian physicist who was closely linked to Alan Sokal’s crusade against pomo obscurantism that I embraced at the time especially since I had a particular dislike for the bad writing that he spoofed in Social Text. However, a few years later I was shocked to discover that Nanda was an ardent defender of the Narmada Dam in India that would displace thousands of peasants and risk major ecological damage.

Another contributor was Kenan Malik, who was a member of Frank Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Party at the time and a contributor to their magazine Living Marxism. In 1996, a year before the Wood-Foster book came off the press, Malik wrote an article for LM titled “Dying Languages” that had this subheading: “It would be no loss if most of the world’s languages died out, argues Kenan Malik”. In keeping with the RCP’s vulgar Marxist belief that capitalism was a “revolutionary” bludgeon against what the Communist Manifesto called “all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations”, the article claimed that “Cultural homogenisation is something to be welcomed, not feared.” Did Wood or Foster have any idea how such homogenization takes place? For the American Indian, it took place at the leading edge of a whip in residential schools. Well, who knows. Maybe they had not bothered to look into Malik’s background. They were busy people, after all.

The susceptibility of Wood and Foster to this sort of stuff was very much a function of a drift in Marxism toward a knee-jerk reaction to anything with the slightest whiff of postmodernism, making it especially vulnerable to the RCP’s interventions on the left. Of course, nobody could possibly make the same mistake today since LM is long gone with the group having mutated into an openly libertarian think-tank funded in all likelihood by major corporations.

In 1997, after Wood had come on board, MR republished a Pluto book titled “Science and the Retreat from Reason” by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar. At the time I was so shocked by this that I contacted MR immediately to alert them to the fact that the authors were RCP members and that their book contained an attack on Rachel Carsons. Since it was too late to cancel the contract with Pluto, Foster was put in the awkward position of having to pan the book in MR. Now I don’t know if this all happened before Wood was in the driver’s seat but it should give you a sense of the disorientation that was widespread at the time.

People like John Bellamy Foster and Ellen Meiksins Wood live in a very rarified world, one circumscribed by Historical Materialism, NLR, Verso Press, the Left Forum and other institutions that tend to be isolated from criticism. If you don’t like an article in the New Left Review or Historical Materialism, that’s just too darned bad. The people who run such august institutions had to scale major hurdles before getting on their editorial boards so they must know what they are talking about. Right?

In terms of Woods’s contributions to Marxism, I imagine that her book “Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy” is probably worth reading at least on the basis of David McNally’s talk at a symposium on her life and work that was held at Birbeck College in England in conjunction with Verso’s republication of some of her books.

But most of the symposium that you can listen to here (as I did today) is devoted to her co-thinkers’ reflections on her major contribution to Marxist theory, the so-called separation of the political and the economic.

Listening to Robert Brenner, the first time I ever heard him speak actually, I was struck by how much Political Marxism is based on the sort of theorizing you can read in Althusser, G.A. Cohen, and other figures in the academy. Despite the assurances by just everybody there that Wood disdained academia and was trying to relate to activists, I doubt that anybody who slept in Zuccotti Park could have made heads or tails out of Brenner’s review of Wood’s ideas.

Brenner described her 1981 NLR article “The Separation of the Economic and the Political In Capitalism” as a kind of major statement of her views, something that had somehow eluded me over the years. It begins portentously: “The intention of Marxism is to provide a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it. This is not an empty slogan. It has—or ought to have—a very precise meaning. It means that Marxism seeks a particular kind of knowledge, one which is uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement and, at least implicitly, the points at which political action can most effectively intervene.”

Well, who can argue with that?

Much of Wood’s article is a critique of G.A. Cohen who she faults as an exponent of “base/superstructure” Marxism of the sort that was rife in Second International Marxism (Plekhanov, for example). Now, that is something I could buy into especially since my own reading of Cohen led me to the same conclusions. As opposed to Cohen’s dualism, Wood urged the need for a “new approach to Marxist theory” that attempts to bridge the discontinuities between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ by broadening the meaning of the ‘base’ itself. She writes: “The virtue of this ‘unitarian’ approach is that it attempts to restore some kind of social and historical content to the ‘economy’ and that, unlike both economistic and structuralist Marxisms, it recognizes and rejects what has been called the ‘fetishism’ of capitalist categories.”

I should add at this point that the reference to “structuralist Marxisms” is a jab at Althusser so if you want to be initiated into the Political Marxism fraternity, you’d better be up to speed on G.A. Cohen and Louis Althusser before you get your foot in the door.

Once she establishes the theoretical basis for Political Marxism, she gets down to brass tacks and explains how this approach can explain the difference between capitalism and the systems that preceded it. Unlike Cohen, who viewed capitalism as arising out of a natural tendency to revolutionize the means of production (a vulgar notion no doubt encouraged by having read the Communist Manifesto at too early and tender an age), Wood sees it as contingent and arising out of class struggle. The separation of the political and the economic distinguish capitalism from earlier forms of class domination. This statement encapsulates her approach and that of all the other members of the PM tribe. Once again from the 1981 NLR article:

Although the coercive force of the ‘political’ sphere is ultimately necessary to sustain private property and the power of appropriation, ‘economic’ need supplies the immediate compulsion that forces the worker to transfer surplus labour to the capitalist in order to gain access to the means of production. The labourer is, therefore, ‘free’, not in a relationship of dependence or servitude; the transfer of surplus labour and its appropriation by someone else are not conditioned by such an ‘extra-economic’ relationship. The forfeit of surplus labour is an immediate condition of production itself. Capitalism in these respects differs from precapitalist forms to the extent that the latter are characterized by ‘extra-economic’ modes of surplus extraction, political, legal, or military coercion, traditional bonds or duties, etc., which demand the transfer of surplus labour to a private lord or to the state by means of labour services, rent, tax, and so on.

To put it in plain language, she is saying that “extra-economic” modes of surplus extraction such as slavery, debt peonage, etc. are precapitalist. This means that when King Leopold dragooned the Congolese to become rubber tappers, he was presiding over a precapitalist society. But when the rubber made its way to Belgium to become automobile tires, it was within the sphere of capitalist property relations. I don’t think this makes much sense but that’s the analysis for better or for worse.

In Charles Post’s speech to the gathering, he referred to PM’s critics (but not me, I’m sure, who is beyond the pale) that harp on the persistence of the “extra-economic” in today’s world. If you’ve been following the furor over NYU’s use of what amounts to indentured servants in Dubai, you can hardly ignore it. Referring to South Africa’s pass laws, which obviously were key to the accumulation of capital, Post saw them as a kind of transition to full-scale capitalism:

This “partial proletarianization” required the “pass laws” that legally restricted geographic mobility of labor-power in order to ensure steady supplies of ‘cheap’ African labor power to capital.

A whole book could be written about the word “required” in the above sentence. Capitalism entailed massive unfree labor in its early stages because it was required to do so on account of its scarcity in the New World. American Indians had the ability to subsist in the “wilderness”—that is those who had not already been killed by the white man’s diseases—and those that were unable to do so were so ill suited to the tasks of tending to tobacco, sugar or cotton growing. Debt peonage, slavery, and other forms of “extra-economic” exploitation were essential to capital accumulation in the system’s infancy, even this remained difficult for someone like Wood to understand for her entire life.

Although the Political Marxists have an almost cult-like devotion to their cause, there are signs of indiscipline. In groups like the SWP, this could lead to expulsion. Fortunately, tenured professors who publish in NLR have no such worries including Benno Teschke who has grown concerned about some basic flaws in the Wood-Brenner methodology. He told the gathering that once there was “rigor” but now it seems more like “rigor mortis”. If you want to be spared listening to his talk, you might want to take a look at an article he wrote with Samuel Knafo, another speaker at the symposium. Titled “The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique“, it zeroes in on a tendency in PM to shirk the responsibility of engaging with history’s messy details that might be at odds with its “structural” purity (a bad case of Althusserian relapse?)

However, the path pioneered by Brenner and Wood would in turn create its own set of pitfalls. For the ability to ground concretely the analysis of capitalism in the study of social property relations gave incentives to the first generation of Political Marxists to stylize theoretically the implications of this historical work. Robert Brenner, in particular, formalised his conception of capitalism in the form of an ideal type (Brenner, 1986), which was in turn stereotyped in Wood’s distinction between pre-capitalist markets as an opportunity and capitalist markets as an imperative (Wood, 1994). In time, the elaboration of a more substantial conception of capitalism with its inner logic was to become a structural impediment to the original historicist aspirations of PM.

In plain language, Teschke and Knafo are saying that Wood and Brenner conceive of capitalism in almost Platonic terms, as a system that has the essence of resting on markets rather than “extra-economic” compulsion for the creation of surplus value. Well, I could have told them that twenty years ago at least but they wouldn’t have listened. That’s okay. The tide has finally turned as nearly each month a new book on slavery and capitalism rolls off the presses of some of America’s most distinguished academic presses.

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