November 10, 2012
October 3, 2012
Eugene Genovese, who died last week, was one of only two major Marxist academics prominent in the 1960s to become a reactionary ideologue. The other was Ronald Radosh, who has opined in recent years that it was all for the best that fascism triumphed in Spain. For his part, Genovese became infamous for becoming a reactionary in the mold of the “Southern Agrarians” of the 1930s, a group of poets and novelists that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.
Scott McLemee, a long-time observer of the peregrinations of the academic left, wrote a review of Radosh’s memoir “Commies” that got under his skin. An excerpt should explain why:
In the 1970s, Radosh had made an uneasy alliance with socialist intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington — former protégés of Max Shachtman, men quite capable of holding their own in a political argument. (The Marxist god of History had given them that, mainly, to do.) They saw the radical project in America as a matter of pushing liberal democracy as hard as possible rather than replacing it with some streamlined authoritarian regime. This circle had no illusions about the innocence of the Rosenbergs. But from Commies it is clear that they always harbored serious misgivings about Radosh himself. No doubt they suspected that habits of thought cultivated while rationalizing brutal regimes of one sort are really very helpful when one shifts allegiance to thugs of a different political complexion.
If so, their misgivings were borne out. Radosh soon became a champion of the terrorist Contras in Nicaragua, cheering them as a genuine army of the people. More recently, in the course of research on the Spanish Civil War, he has discovered the virtues of General Franco — a fascist dictator, yes, but at least no communist.
At this point, it would be routine to cite the Cold War anthology The God That Failed (1950) — perhaps with a sneer, which is the preferred attitude toward the book adopted by soi-disant leftists who have never actually read it. But there is really very little resemblance between Commies and the essays of ex-communists such as Arthur Koestler or Richard Wright. Something is missing: the element of soul-searching.
Nothing in Radosh’s memoir conveys the painful ordeal of disillusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one’s previous commitments.
Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh’s first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women’s movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. “I now don’t understand why or even how I did such things,” he writes. “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana.” So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist’s fault.
Given his combination of erudition and mocking condescension, one might only hope that McLemee might be inspired to say something about Genovese’s passing. Yes, sports fans, it is all there in the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, where our intrepid public intellectual has at it:
As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South — developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”
Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.
A couple of professor emerituses (emeriti?) on the Marxism list who remain renegades from capitalism and who were familiar with Genovese from the good old days weighed in shortly after his death was announced. Michael A. Lebowitz, who was editor of “Studies on the Left” from 1961 to 1965, said:
I thought he died a long time ago. He started out quite differently politically than he ended up. He was an editor of Science & Society, Studies on the Left, and the editor [I don't recall his nom de guerre] of the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, the short-lived theoretical journal of Progressive Labor. He was a Marxist at that time [although one with a curious respect for the aristocracy], thought the university was the vehicle for the revolution and thus was horrified at the actions of students at Sir George Williams [now part of Concordia University in Montreal] against racism, denounced them and never looked back on his march to the right.
This led Jesse Lemisch, another veteran of left academia, to contribute this addendum: “Gene’s remark on the West Indian students at Sir George: ‘every once in a while some grit gets into the machine of the left, and must be wiped out.’”
I had more than a casual interest in Eugene Genovese since he was seen as one of the primary exponents of the view that slavery was not a capitalist institution, an analysis that Charles Post took great pains to distinguish himself from when he began applying the Brenner thesis to the civil war. For those of you who have not been following the academic left, the Brenner thesis falls within the purview of what has been called “the transition debate”, something that had its origins in a series of exchanges between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s. It revolves around the question of how feudalism gave way to capitalism, with those in the Sweezy tradition arguing that slavery belongs to the capitalist stage because of its role in commodity production.
Genovese had some debates around the nature of slavery but not with Brennerites, to my knowledge. Mostly he was anxious to refute the findings of Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, the authors of “Time on the Cross”, a book that made the case that slavery was capitalist but not from a Marxist standpoint. Mostly Engerman and Fogel looked at the plantation in terms of how it matched up against the factory system of the north using conventional microeconomics. Oddly enough, they concluded that the slaves had it better off than the factory workers, dovetailing with Genovese’s paternalistic take on master-slave relations despite their theoretical differences.
In a multi-part critique of Charles Post’s writings on the civil war that I wrote 9 years ago, I started with a discussion of the Genovese/Engerman-Fogel debate that in large part is reproduced below:
Post’s article also implicitly poses the question whether the Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”. Although a staple of Marxist theory, this notion has been challenged in recent years by “revisionist” historians, including Francois Furet, who found evidence of powerful affinities between the gentry and the bourgeoisie in the French revolution. George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, was convinced sufficiently by their findings to synthesize them with a Marxist interpretation in “Rethinking the French Revolution”. Although he worries that these new findings might undermine fundamental Marxist precepts about the bourgeois-democratic revolution, I am convinced that Marx himself was drawing away from them as early as 1852 when he observed the failure of the German bourgeoisie to take a resolute stand against the Junkers planter-aristocracy. I will foreshadow the conclusion of these series of posts by stating now that the same exact analysis can be applied to the American Civil War and its aftermath.
Turning now to Post’s article, we learn that it is focused on “economic development” and more particularly whether slavery hindered or fostered such a thing. I view this as a undialectical approach, especially if it is seen as dealing with an essentially “Southern” problem. One of the major weaknesses of the Brenner thesis is its refusal to see capitalism as a system that crosses national or even sectional boundaries. If it is seen as a “mode of production” applied exclusively to a regional or national economy, then it will always produce the expected self-vindicating results. In other words, there was capitalism in New England but none in Mississippi; or, in Great Britain but not in Jamaica. However, if one sees these various forms of exploitation as distinct but interrelated links in a great chain, then the contradiction is resolved.
Post considers two of the most prominent approaches to the slavery question within this framework and finds them lacking in comparison to the Brenner thesis, which prioritizes “class relations”. The first approach views the Southern plantation as an essentially capitalist phenomenon. The work most identified in the scholarly world with this approach is Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, a ‘cliometric’ attempt to demonstrate the dynamism and profitability of the slave system. The second approach is embodied in the writings of Eugene Genovese who defended the thesis that the Southern planters were a precapitalist class that had much in common with their wasteful and extravagant feudal counterparts in Europe centuries earlier.
For Post, the major flaw of Engerman-Fogel is that it fails to conform to Marxist theories on surplus value extraction–no surprise given the bourgeois microeconomic orientation of the authors. (Fogel, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, shared a CPUSA past with Genovese. He was editor of a party journal titled “New Foundations” that was published in the 1950s. Eventually both would break with Marxism, Fogel adopting neoclassical economics of the sort that was prevalent at the University of Chicago, where he taught. Genovese today is an outspoken reactionary. It appears that in the course of writing about the Southern bourbons, he became enamored of their traditional values. Of course, between the anti-capitalism of a Southern planter and that of the Communist Party there is a vast gulf.)
A careful examination of Fogel and Engerman and other proponents of the ‘planter capitalist’ model’s description of the plantation labour process actually contradicts their claim that the planters responded to competitive market imperatives in the same way as capitalists. The labour process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, coordinated groups under the continual supervision of masters, overseers and drivers. As we shall see, the tools slaves used were simple and virtually unchanged. Even with a detailed division of tasks in planting and cultivation, such a labour process left the masters few options to increase output per slave. Planters could either increase the pace of work through punishments or rewards, increase the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, increase the number of slaves working by tapping the capacities to work of female and juvenile slaves, or move the plantation to more fertile soil.
In the section on Genovese, we discover that his model of slavery “derived from Weber” and that it prevented him from “developing a consistent explanation of how slavery’s social property relations block relatively continuous labour-saving technical change.” I, for one, was rather surprised to see Genovese described in such terms because he described himself as strongly influenced by Maurice Dobb in “The World the Slaveholders Made”. There Genovese makes the case for “seigneuralism”, a term that was meant to capture the archaic character of the Southern plantation system but that relieved him from proving that this super-exploitative, commodity-producing system was “feudal”, a static system based on the creation of use-values. He writes:
Capitalism is here defined as the mode of production characterized by wage labor and the separation of the labor force from the means of production–that is, as the mode of production in which labor power itself has become a commodity… Dobb, in Studies in the Development of Capitalism, has brilliantly demonstrated the value of these definitions, and we need not pursue the matter here beyond one point of special relevance to the question of slavery. The great value of this viewpoint lies in its focus on human relationships inherent in labor systems. As such, it should be understood to transcend mere economic categories and to define each mode of production as a social rather than as a narrowly economic system.
For all of the seeming polarities between Engerman-Fogel and Genovese, there were underlying affinities that Post ignores. I would suggest that these affinities are symptomatic of an underlying malaise in a scholarship that focuses on the ruling class, whether it is ‘seigneurial’ or capitalist.
The first evidence of such an affinity is a 1975 collection titled “Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere” that was co-edited by Engerman and Genovese and that contained presentations given at the U. of Rochester in 1972 co-organized by the two professors. This is not just a question of genial scholarly cooperation in a joint project involving disparate interpretations. In Genovese’s concluding remarks to the conference, he leaves open the possibility that his own interpretation could “absorb” the work of Engerman-Fogel despite some reservations about their data on profitability.
Indeed, by 1983 Stanley Engerman and Eugene Genovese found themselves co-authoring a commentary on an article dealing with Brazilian slavery in “The Hispanic American Historical Review”. Apparently, the absorption process alluded to in 1972 had been consummated.
Their piece has all the familiar earmarks of their prior work. In examining the slave economy of Minas Gerais in late 18th century Brazil, they pose coldly clinical questions such as “What was the size of the units on which slaves worked”; “What would the price schedule of slaves looked like if Brazilian slavery had had the characteristics of Minas Gerais”, etc. In answering these questions, Engerman and Genovese allege that economic “subsystems” such as slavery can crop up in isolation from the market sector. If there were differences between the two by the early 1980s, none can be discerned in this article.
I now want to turn my attention to an aspect of Engerman-Fogel and Genovese that is ignored in Post’s article: the implicit racism of their analysis. While it is understandable that he needed to focus on the question of “economic development” for the purpose of his argument, it is in the interest of Marxist scholarship to give a full reckoning of their work, which transcends questions of the viability of slavery as a mode of production. Furthermore, my purpose in writing these articles is to address the broader intersections of race and class in American society.
(In the course of doing some background research, I was struck by the almost universal interest among Marxists on the topics of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction no matter their time and place. It is almost incumbent on any serious Marxist thinker to come to terms with both the left-academic scholarship and the writings of party activists such as Lenin, Peter Camejo, George Novack, Max Shachtman and others.)
Both Engerman-Fogel and Genovese tend to see a kind of paternalism at work in the slave-owning class. For Genovese, the paternalism is a function of ‘seigneurial’ values based on noblesse oblige. For Engerman-Fogel, the paternalism is based on the kind of enlightened “personnel relations” found in modern corporations like “Ma Bell” in the 1930s, when protection against layoffs and provisions for cheap lunches were the norm. In other words, take care of your workers and they’ll take care of you. As Genovese put it in his concluding remarks to the Rochester conference, “Professor Fogel and Engerman describe it [slavery] as a capitalist society modified by paternalism.” One then might characterize Genovese’s view of the system as seigneurial paternalism modified by capitalism.
When Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s “Time on the Cross” appeared, it was accompanied by the kind of publicity blitz enjoyed by Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”. With its full panoply of computer-generated tables and graphs, it preened itself as a scholarly work taking full advantage of the technological revolution then unfolding. (The source for this and the material that follows can be found in Charles Crowe’s “Time on the Cross: The Historical Monograph as a Pop Event”, which appeared in “The History Teacher” in August 1976.)
Peter Passell, a Columbia University professor and NY Times economics reporter, hailed the book as a “jarring attack on the methods and condition of traditional scholarship”. A Newsweek essay was even more effusive. Journalist Walter Clemons regarded the new conclusions based on “electronically sifted data” as “dynamite”. What were the new findings that so excited Clemons? They amounted to rejections of “old historical notions” and “myths” such as the “ubiquitous white overseer”. Tales of disruptions in the black family when a husband or wife was sold to another plantation were merely “abolitionist horror stories”. Indeed, Engerman and Fogel regarded many of these abolitionists as “racists”.
Time Magazine topped all others in its enthusiasm for “Time On the Cross” and its ethical implications for contemporary American society. Using the sort of linguistic glibness and insensitivity characteristic of this uniquely imperialist publication, it ran a caption “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Computer” alongside their feature article. It also tossed in another bit of song parody: “The young folks roll on the little cabin floor/Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”
Time writer Timothy Foote wrote that “the marriage and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years”. The plantations in “Time on the Cross” suggested “both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale”. Despite Sally Hemming and the palpable evidence of Malcolm X’s complexion, the “owners rarely exploited black females sexually” because “it was bad for morale”.
Unlike Eugene Genovese, who was considering ways in which his own work could “absorb” this sort of racist tripe, other Marxists were revolted by “Time on the Cross”. Herbert Aptheker, who might have been the last person in the world invited to present a paper at the Rochester conference co-organized by Engerman and Genovese, wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the pages of Political Affairs, the CPUSA journal. Titled “Heavenly Days in Dixie: Or, the Time of their Lives”, it linked Engerman and Fogel to William Schockley and Arthur Jensen, who wrote a book “proving” that blacks were genetically inferior to whites.
Aptheker’s main axis of attack was around Engerman and Fogel’s reliance on US census figures, which supposedly supported their conclusion that blacks were well off under slavery. Aptheker points out that census takers were white and subject to the racial prejudices of the time. If blacks were undercounted, as they certainly were, then attempts to come up with daily caloric intake on a per capita basis will overstate food input.
In his exasperated conclusion, Aptheker cries out, “Sometimes one is led to the point of near-despair when he reads books like ‘Time on the Cross’, by relatively young professors, and see how they are hailed and their book pushed and advertised and reviewed; a book that is as false, as contrived, as vicious as is this one. But, of course, one knows that it is only a dying social order that needs and produces such books–just as that of Calhoun and Jefferson Davis needed the work of Fitzhugh.”
Eventually more mainstream scholars began to discover that the emperor was not wearing clothes, including some of the scholars at the 1972 Rochester conference who made their devastating critiques in collegially deferential language. Martin Duberman was one of the first to open up an attack in the mass media. In the Village Voice he pointed to the book’s failure to distinguish between factual and evaluative statements and its skewed data about slave life. African-American historian Winthrop D. Jordan attacked Engerman and Fogel as “perversely self-righteous snake root salesmen”. Perhaps the most telling indictment of “Time on the Cross” came from Robert Fogel himself, who wrote “Without Consent or Contract” in 1989 as a way of atoning for the earlier work. Not only did he take a moral stand against slavery in this book, he admitted that he originally “did not emphasize the horrors and human cost of slavery”. (NY Times, Dec. 16, 1989) What he would not admit, however, was that the cliometric approach itself, with its number-crunching and single-minded focus on economic performance, could never do justice to the “peculiar institution” in all its complexity.
While Genovese never generated the kind of controversy that Engerman and Fogel did, there were some Marxist scholars who were just as adamantly opposed to his message. One of them was Herbert Gutman, the eminent labor historian who had also written a trenchant criticism of “Time on the Cross”.
In “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925″, which some regard as a rebuttal in its entirety to Genovese’s scholarship, Gutman takes up the claim that slaves lived in an “elaborate web of paternalistic relations” as Genovese put it. Although Gutman acknowledges that slave masters viewed themselves in this light, he questions whether this was the way that their subjects perceived it. For example, in response to Genovese’s claim that a high rate of slave reproduction proved “the paternalistic quality of the masters”, he states that a high reproduction rate does not depend on “good treatment”.
Some years later Gutman gave an interview to Mike Merrill, the codirector of the Institute for Labor Education and Research in New York City. His comments on Genovese are worth quoting in their entirety:
This is the context, I think, in which we can best understand Eugene Genovese’s work. He posed some important questions. My difficulty is with how he went about answering them. A central question raised in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made is the effect slaves had on their owners. A splendid question. To answer it one needs to know who the slaves were early in time and how the master-slave relationship was formed and developed.
Think of it this way. Suppose one was writing a book on ironworkers and steelworkers in Pittsburgh called Roll, Monongahela, Roll: The World the Steelworkers Made. How would that book begin? It is not a book about the steel industry. It is not a book about class relations in the steel industry. It is subtitled The World the Steelworkers Made. Would it begin with a 150-page essay quoting from and explicating Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography and his letters? If one writes about the world the steelworkers made, the book should begin with the men before they were steelworkers and study how they became steelworkers. It would begin with them before they experienced Andrew Carnegie and then watch a world being made as they become steelworkers and interact with Andrew and his factories. Obviously this is precisely the innovative and bold structure of The Making of the English Working Class. We don’t begin with industrial capitalism already imposed and study strands of upper-class ideology. We begin with the world of the artisan. We begin with the world of the handicraft weaver. We begin with the world before modern capitalism. Then the interaction is intense, painful, sometimes violent, and even creative.
The way in which you examine a world people make is to show that world in formation. A major conceptual problem in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it ignores class formation. A static class relationship is probed for several hundred pages, sometimes imaginatively and brilliantly. We are presented with a fully developed slave system. Class relations and ideologies are described only in the late slave period, the decades immediately prior to emancipation.
The problem with such an approach is that when you freeze a moment in time to examine a structural relationship, you cannot neglect the process by which that relationship was formed, how it developed. If you either ignore or misunderstand that process, then you can give almost any meaning you want to the relationship and to its constituent parts. What struck me on rereading Roll, Jordan, Roll is that it is so very functionalist. It is as if we are being told, “This is the way that society worked, why there was so little rebellion, and slaves and their owners made it through the day and night.”
April 25, 2012
(From “Debt: the first 5,000 years”)
It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery, and “indentured service” — that is the use of contract labor, workers who had received cash in advance and were thus bound for five-, seven-, or ten-year terms to pay it back. Needless to say, indentured servants were recruited largely from among people who were already debtors. In the 1600s there were at times almost as many white debtors as African slaves working southern plantations, and legally they were at first in almost the same situation, since in the beginning, plantation societies were working within a European legal tradition that assumed slavery did not exist so even Africans in the Carolinas were classified, as contract labour. Of course this later changed when the idea of “race” was introduced. When African slaves were freed, they were replaced, on plantations from Barbados to Mauritius, with contract laborers again: though now ones recruited mainly in India or China. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, and Indian “coolies” built the South African mines. The peasants of Russia and Poland, who had been free landholders in the Middle Age, were only made serfs at the dawn of capitalism, when their lords began to sell grain on the new world market to feed the new industrial cities to the West. Colonial regimes in Africa and Southeast Asia regularly demanded forced labour from their conquered subjects, or, alternately, created tax systems designed to force the population into the labor market through debt. British overlords in India, starting with the East India Company but continuing under Her Majesty’s government, institutionalized debt peonage as their primary means of creating products for sale abroad.
This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire, as it did in the Putumayo, but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is— particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom. For the capitalists, this means the freedom of the market place. For most workers, it means free labor. Marxists have questioned whether wage labor is ultimately free in any sense (since someone with nothing to sell but his or her body cannot in any sense be considered a genuinely free agent), but they still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism. And the dominant image in the history of capitalism is the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road. I Ike sweatshops, this is assumed to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.
When one looks at the actual history of wage labor, even in countries like England, that picture begins to melt away. In most of Medieval northern Europe, wage labor had been mainly a lifestyle phenomenon. From roughly the age of twelve or fourteen to roughly twenty-eight or thirty, everyone was expected to be employed as a servant in someone else’s household—usually on a yearly contract basis, for which they received room, board, professional training, and usually a wage of some sort — until they accumulated enough resources to marry and set up a household of their own. The first thing that “proletarianization” came to mean was that millions of young men and women across Europe found themselves effectively stuck in a kind of permanent adolescence. Apprentices and journeymen could never become “masters,” and thus, never actually grow up. Eventually, many began to give up and marry early – to the great scandal of the moralists, who insisted that the new proletariat were starting families they could not possibly support.
There is, and has always been, a curious affinity between wage labor and slavery. This is not just because it was slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations who supplied the quick-energy products that powered much of early wage laborers’ work; not just because of the scientific management techniques applied in factories in industrial revolution can be traced back to those sugar plantations; but also because both the relation between master and slave, and between employer and employee, are in principle impersonal: whether you’ve been sold or you’re simply rented yourself out, the moment money changes hands, who you are is supposed to be unimportant; all that’s important is that you are capable of understanding orders and doing what you’re told.
This is one reason, perhaps, that in principle, there was always a feeling that both the buying of slaves and the hiring of laborers should really not be on credit, but should employ cash. The problem, as I’ve noted, was that for most of the history of British capitalism, cash simply didn’t exist. Even when the Royal Mint began to produce smaller-denomination silver and copper coins, the supply was sporadic and inadequate. This is how the “truck system” developed to begin with: during the industrial revolution, factory owners would often pay their workers with tickets or vouchers good only in local shops, whose owners they had some sort of informal arrangement, or, in more isolated parts of the country, which they owned themselves. Traditional credit relations with one’s local shopkeeper clearly took on entirely new complexion once the shopkeeper was effectively agent of the boss. Another expedient was to pay workers at least partly in kind—and notice the very richness of the vocabulary for the sorts of things one was assumed to be allowed to appropriate from one’s workplace, particularly from the waste, excess, and side products: cabbage, chips, thrums, sweepings, buggings, gleanings, sweepings, potchings, vails, poake, coltage, knockdowns, tinge. “Cabbage,” for instance, was the cloth left over from tailoring, “chips” the pieces of board that dockworkers had the right to carry from their workplace (any piece of timber less than two feet long), “thrums” were taken from the warping-bars of looms, and so on. And of course we have already heard about payment in the form of cod, or nails.
Employers had a final expedient: wait for the money to show up and in the meantime, don’t pay anything—leaving their employers to get by with only what they could scrounge from their shop floors, or what their families could finagle in outside employment, receive in charity, preserve in savings pools with friends and families, or, when all else failed, acquire on credit from the loan sharks and pawnbrokers, who rapidly came to be seen as the perennial scourge of the working poor. The situation became such that, by the nineteenth century, any time a fire destroyed a London pawnshop, working-class neighborhoods would brace for the wave of domestic violence that would inevitably ensue when many a wife was forced to confess that she’d long since secretly hocked her husband’s Sunday suit.
We are, nowadays, used to associating factories eighteen months in arrears for wages with a nation in economic free-fall, such as occurred during the collapse of the Soviet Union; but owing to the hard-money policies of the British government, who were always concerned above all to ensure that their paper money didn’t float away in another speculative bubble, in the early days of industrial capitalism, such a situation was in no way unusual. Even the government was often unable to find the cash to pay its own employees. In eighteenth-century London, the Royal Admiralty was regularly over a year behind in paying the wages of those who labored at the Deptford docks—one reason that they were willing to tolerate the appropriation of chips, not to mention hemp, canvas, steel bolts, and cordage. In fact, as Linebaugh has shown, the situation only really began to take recognizable form around 1800, when the government stabilized its finances, began paying cash wages (in schedule, and therefore tried to abolish the practice of what was now relabeled “workplace pilfering”—which, meeting outraged resistance on the part of the dockworkers, was made punishable by whipping and imprisonment. Samuel Bentham, the engineer put in charge of reforming the dockyards, had to turn them into a regular police state in order to be able to institute a regime of pure wage labor—to which purpose he ultimately conceived the notion of building a giant tower in the middle to guarantee constant surveillance, an idea that was later borrowed by his brother Jeremy for the famous Panopticon.
December 13, 2011
In mid-October word leaked out that Charlie Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism” was on the short list for this year’s Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, competing with Jairus Banaji’s “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. Perhaps it is a sign that the ideological hegemony of the Brenner thesis is finally breaking down that Banaji was declared the winner. Maybe the jury had a chance to read Henry Heller’s recently published “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book that offers the most devastating critique of Brenner’s Eurocentrism since Jim Blaut’s.
“Theory as History” is a collection of essays written by Banaji over thirty years dealing with the “transition” problem although none of them mention Brenner by name. Unlike Heller or Blaut, who consciously sought to knock him off his pedestal (I am sure that Henry would object to this characterization but my old friend and comrade Jim Blaut, may he rest in peace, would have accepted it gladly), Banaji’s chief goal is to interrogate some of the “stagist” preconceptions of a dogmatic Marxism that have allowed scholars to succumb to Eurocentric tendencies. I strongly urge people to purchase the paperback edition from Haymarket books. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that the book can also be read at Scribd.com for free.)
Among the collection is Banaji’s best-known article, the 44 page “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History” that was published in the autumn 1977 Capital and Class and can also be read at www.anti-politics.net/discussion/Jairus_Banaji.pdf. That was the same year that Robert Brenner published “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in the New Left Review. Ironically, despite Brenner’s connections at that time with a state capitalist variety of Trotskyism, his scholarship owed much more to the British Historian’s group whose leading lights—Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill—were committed to a “stagist” conception of history very much influenced by the Stalintern’s cruder version of Engels’s historical materialism. For the British CP historians, history is marked by discrete phases based on distinct modes of production such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc. Once one phase is finished, another starts sort of like what happens in natural history. First you have the apes, then the Neanderthal, then homo sapiens, etc.
Banaji rejects this model entirely, describing it as Vulgar Marxism:
The tradition of Vulgar Marxism which drew its earliest sources of energy from the Marxism of the Second International, crystallised only under the domination of Stalin. Stalinism uprooted not only the proletarian orientations of Marxism, but its scientific foundations as well. For the dialectic as the principle of rigorous scientific investigation of historical processes – it was, after all, this rational dialectic that was “a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors” (Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Afterword to Second German Edition) – Stalinism substituted the “dialectic” as a cosmological principle prior to, and independent of, science. For the materialist conception of history it substituted a theory of history “in general”, “converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories” (Trotsky, 1932, Appendix I). Finally, this rubber-stamp conception of history it represented as a history deja constituee, open therefore only to the procedures of verification. This lifeless bureaucratic conception, steeped in the methods of formalism, produced a history emptied of any specifically historical content, reduced by the forced march of simple formal abstractions to the meagre ration of a few volatile categories. Within five decades of Marx’s death, the history written by the Stalinists became as opaque and dreamlike, and hardly as exciting, as the fantasies of surrealism.
As should be clear from the reference to Leon Trotsky above, Banaji’s conception of history is much closer to the combined and uneven development model found in Trotsky’s writings on the Russian revolution. For Trotsky, Russia was a clear example that feudalism and capitalism can co-exist in a given society. Moreover, one of the earliest implicit challenges to the “stagist” conceptions of the CP historians was Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”, a book making the case for the interrelationship between Caribbean slavery and British capitalism that was strongly influenced by CLR James’s “Black Jacobins”.
While Brenner is not specifically targeted in Banaji’s article, it does have plenty to say about Maurice Dobb who clearly paved the way for Brenner. In his debate with Paul Sweezy, Dobb was probably closer to the spirit of Karl Marx’s writings than Sweezy but unfortunately bent the stick too far in the direction of defining “free wage labor” as a sine qua non for the capitalist mode of production—thus leading to many of the dogmatic errors of the Brenner school of historiography. Banaji writes:
Again, in Capital Volume 3, Marx referred to the evolution of merchant capital in the ancient world transforming “a patriarchal slave system devoted to the production of immediate means of subsistence into one devoted to the production of surplus value”. According to an edict of 1721, Peter the Great had allowed the Russian factory-owners to utilise serf-labour. “But if the factory-owner could now carry on his business with the labour of serfs”, wrote Pokrovsky, “who prevented the serf-holder from establishing a factory?” To Pokrovsky the edict was one of the forerunners of “bondage or landlord capitalism”. Analysing the land question in Peru, Mariategui wrote about the technically advanced capitalist latifundia on the coast, owned by US and British business, in which “exploitation still rests on feudal practices and principles”. In its theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress, the colonial commission of the Comintern spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies “on feudal foundations” and developing “in distorted and incomplete transitional forms which give commercial capital predominance. Finally, outside the Marxist tradition, Hobson could refer to industrial profits which “represented the surplus-value of slave or forced labour” and Barrington Moore to “labour-repressive forms of capitalist agriculture”. In all these varied instances – the subordination of the potters of Moscow province to merchant capital, the production of cotton in the slave South, the expansion of landlord capitalism in Rumanian agriculture or Petrine industry, the sugar latifundia of coastal Peru – there was no question of identifying the “mode of production” according to the character of the given forms or relations of exploitation. Nor did any of these instances involve a “coexistence” of modes of production.
Another essay worth singling out is “Islam, the Mediterranean, and the Rise of Capitalism” that appeared originally in the 2007 Historical Materialism. The article makes the case for understanding commercial or merchant capitalism as a much more powerful link in the chain of the system’s history than ever recognized in Marx’s writings. For Banaji, the Dutch and English East India Companies are not simply involved in exchange external to production, a point made as well by Henry Heller. And even before the Dutch and English were involved in capitalist trade, the Portuguese and the Venetians were in the thick of things. Banaji states that by the fourteenth century, Venice was an economy dominated by capital, with the same families controlling trade, transport, finance, and industry.
Of even greater interest is Banaji’s discussion of the Arab trade empire. He states that concepts of profit, capital, and the accumulation of capital are all found in the Arabic sources of the ninth to fourteenth centuries.
Even more startlingly, he uncovers what amounts to a labor theory of value in the writings of Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian scholar who wrote a history of the world that posited the notion that all great civilizations have a kind of life cycle with an inevitable death. Khaldun wrote that “labor is the cause of profit” and that it is “necessary for every profit and capital accumulation”. Gold and silver are the only socially acceptable measures of value “for all capital accumulations” while profit is defined as the “extent by which capital increases” and commerce as the “striving for profit by means of the accumulation of capital”.
The Arab world is not some backwater for Banaji. He asserts that by the seventh century it was a cosmopolitan civilization whose economic resources were unrivaled except by China. The Muslims created a vigorous monetary economy based on the dinar and drew regional areas into their commercial nexus. In Banaji’s words, that economy “was not just some loose ensemble of feudal regimes”. A late 10th century Persian geographer described Cairo as “the wealthiest city in the world, extremely prosperous.” By the second half of the 10th century, Alexandria was exporting well over 5000 to 6000 tons of flax to European countries.
Thus Islam made a powerful contribution to the growth of capitalism in the Mediterranean, in part because it preserved and expanded the monetary economy of late antiquity and innovated business techniques that became the staple of Mediterranean commerce (in particular, partnerships and commenda agreements), and also because the seaports of the Muslim world became a rich source of the plundered money-capital which largely financed the growth of maritime capitalism in Europe. Indeed, [Ernest] Mandel stated this with unabashed bluntness when he wrote: ‘The accumulation of money capital by the Italian merchants who dominated European economic life from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries originated directly from the Crusades, an enormous plundering enterprise if ever there was one’
All of this is a useful corrective not only to the Brenner school but to another brand of Eurocentrism that is far more insidious in that it has received big play in the bourgeois media over the last year or so. Published by the prestigious Princeton University Press, Turkish economist Timur Kuran’s “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East” won the admiration of pundits everywhere anxious to blame the people of the Middle East for their own problems, as if British and American ships and warplanes had less impact than verses in the Koran.
In an op-ed piece that appeared in the May 29, 2011 NY Times, Kuran offered his explanation of why Arab states were so backward and repressive:
But the handicaps of Arab civil society also have historical causes that transcend the policies of modern rulers. Until the establishment of colonial regimes in the late 19th century, Arab societies were ruled under Shariah law, which essentially precludes autonomous and self-governing private organizations. Thus, while Western Europe was making its tortuous transition from arbitrary rule by monarchs to democratic rule of law, the Middle East retained authoritarian political structures. Such a political environment prevented democratic institutions from taking root and ultimately facilitated the rise of modern Arab dictatorships.
Strikingly, Shariah lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.
One wonders how much Kuran knows about Arab history if he can make such a claim in the face of Banaji’s research. This is not to speak of Kuran’s obvious inability to appreciate the dynamism of the Anatolian “tigers” who currently rule his native country and who certainly not only have the “concept of the corporation” but a willingness to dump the European Union, the true “sick men”, in favor of trade alliances with a revitalized East.
Jim Blaut died before he had to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrist history. The third volume was to present an alternative way of seeing China, India, the Arab world et al. While this certainly leaves a gap in a crucial area of Marxist scholarship, we can be grateful to Jairus Banaji in his ongoing effort to effectively fulfill Jim’s dream.
October 8, 2011
Back sometime in 1998, the year that I created the Marxism mailing list, a University of Illinois at Chicago geography professor named Jim Blaut showed up touting a new book titled “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that I read with great interest since it dovetailed with my own research on American Indians at the time. Blaut maintained that Eurocentrist historians had given Asian, African and New World civilizations short shrift, an analysis I had read before in Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s “Before European hegemony: the world system A.D. 1250-1350”.
Abu-Lughod’s book was filled with fascinating details, such as the fact that all three of Columbus’s ships could have fit on the deck of the largest ship in a Ming Dynasty armada that made frequent trips to the coast of East Africa in the 1400s. Since Abu-Lughod had blurbed Blaut’s book as “absolutely spellbinding”, that was recommendation enough for me.
Soon after Jim made his initial appearance, his attention turned to Robert Brenner, a UCLA professor I had never heard of and who was targeted as a Eurocentrist in his new book. While most of the historians discussed there were non-Marxists, Brenner apparently had the reputation of being a big-time Marxist. I scratched my head trying to figure that out. Marxism and Eurocentrism seemed to be diametrically opposed (this was before I had been exposed to post-colonial scholarship.)
Not long after “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” came out, Jim followed up with “Eight Eurocentric Historians”, the second in a trilogy of books that would have concluded with one on writing non-Eurocentric history. Unfortunately, Jim died of cancer of the pancreas in November 2000 and was not able to complete that book.
One of the eight historians Jim took up was Robert Brenner who he had described as follows in an Antipode article (available online) that was later adapted for the new book:
Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.
I would say that of all the people I grew to respect and admire through the Marxism list, Jim Blaut stood at the top along with Mark Jones, a self-professed Stalinist who died of cancer three years after Blaut’s passing. The passion that Jim directed toward his project has sustained me ever since. I only wish that he had been around to see the publication of Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book put out by the leftwing British Pluto Press, whose chief editor Roger van Zwanenberg was an old friend of Mark Jones. It’s a small world, after all.
Heller’s book is an amazing accomplishment. It serves as a very useful introduction to the “Brenner thesis” debates as well as weighing in with his own perspectives—including a critique of Jim Blaut’s analysis that I find persuasive. I only regret that Jim had not lived to read this book since his response to Heller would have been something to behold, I am sure. If there was one thing that Jim loved more than bird-watching, it was debate.
For me, the book is of particular value since it jibes in so many ways with my own amateur historian’s findings. I always thought I was on the right track but having a professional saying many of the same things I have said gives me a sense of vindication.
It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the left academy. Partially this is a function of the disillusionment with “Third Worldism” that took hold in the early 80s. It can also be traced to the decline of the Marxism that was associated with Paul Sweezy and the “dependency” theorists grouped around the Monthly Review. For the most part, they lacked the interest that someone like a Brenner supporter Ellen Meiksins Wood had in continuing the debate. In numerous articles and several books, she has even surpassed Brenner in carrying his thesis to its logical (or absurd) conclusion. Andre Gunder Frank, one of Brenner’s principal antagonists, had reached the point of abandoning Marxism altogether, arguing in “ReOrient” that the term capitalism had no meaning. I guess that’s one way of resolving the transition problem.
Other scholars who were explicitly or implicitly opposed to Brenner never had any commitment to Marxism to begin with. Most notable among them was Kenneth Pomeranz, a neoclassical econometrician and historian who argued in “The Great Divergence” that China was far more advanced than Britain in the 18th century. One of the best things about Heller’s book is his review of the Brenner-Pomeranz debate that has been focused on quite narrow questions about agrarian class relations in the lower Yangtze River region. As avid as I am to follow the Brenner debate, their articles have not whetted my appetite.
I sometimes felt that I was the only person in the world who cared enough to answer Wood or Brenner’s other acolytes. For some the debate seemed sterile. Who really cared where or when capitalism came into being? For today’s revolutionary, the burning question is how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism not to figure out how feudalism gave way to capitalism. Of course, the “transition” problem of 500 years ago can tell us a lot about how our own transition will take place, as Heller points out in his conclusion:
Writing in 2000 while the neoliberal experiment was still going strong, [medievalist and Brenner critic] Guy Bois saw neoliberalism as a symptom of deepening capitalist crisis. Toward the conclusion of his account of the late medieval feudal crisis, Bois offered a qualified comparison between that crisis and the contemporary crisis of capitalism. In doing so, Bois was able to suggest the gravity of the current situation from a historical perspective. Like the late medieval crisis, the current state of affairs is marked by ongoing large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization. The two eras are likewise characterized by outbursts of the irrational in the realm of culture in which the existing elites are fully complicit. At the same time, Bois hastened to distinguish the sources of crisis in each case: the one engendered by an insufficiency of production in an economy based on petty production, the other rooted in a crisis of over-production in an economy based on industrial capitalism.
Unlike Pomeranz or other anti-Eurocentric historians such as Jack Goody and John M. Hobson (the great grandson of John A. Hobson, who Lenin cited frequently in his article on imperialism), Heller situates himself within the Marxist tradition. He is equally at home discussing the fine details of early modern European history (his specialty is France) and Marxist theory. While his analysis is more “Hellerian” than anything else, it is clear to me that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is a major influence. While Trotsky’s theory was used to explain the contradictory character of a Russian capitalism that mixed feudal social relationships with some of the worlds most advanced industrial production facilities, Heller applies it to the 1500s and 1600s when ostensibly non-capitalist social relations including slavery were becoming essential—serving as midwife in many ways—to the birth of capitalism.
But even more importantly, Heller hones in on the contribution of V.I. Lenin whose groundbreaking 1899 study “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” is critical for understanding how much of a mistake it is to see the “British road” as the only possibility for a transition to capitalism. (Heller correctly points out that the term Eurocentric might not do justice to Brenner; “Anglocentric” is more fitting.)
Heller makes clear that Brenner and his followers view coercive “extra-economic” state interventions into the economy as typically pre-capitalist. So, for example, they assert that the East India Company is feudal even if they might not necessarily use that term–the same thing with Southern slavery, or other forms of forced labor including indentured servitude, debt peonage, etc. It ain’t capitalism if ain’t out of the pages of Adam Smith, in other words.
For Lenin, this distinction does not exist. He wrote about capitalism coming into existence “from above” and “from below”. The best hope for a Russian revolution would have been a transition to capitalism “from below” like the classic yeoman farmer dominated Anglo-American model but it was not excluded that a “Junker” model from above might be imposed. In line with both Lenin and Trotsky, Heller observes:
The Prussian instance demonstrates in turn how the state not only intervened to ensure the survival of its nobility, but aided them in making the transition to capitalism at the expense of the peasant producers. As their historical development has recently been fruitfully explored from the point of view of capitalism from above, the examples of Scotland and Japan are discussed with an eye to developing a comparative under- standing of alternative routes to capitalism. The decisive role of the state is illustrated by applying Trotsky’s conception of combined and uneven development to the Scottish path to capitalism. It illustrates the speed and contradictory nature of capitalist development in states with archaic social relations.
That was the first thing that came to my mind after reading Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that challenged Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and other “Third Worldists”. (It was an open question whether Brenner even considered them to be true Marxists, since Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism was regarded as “neo-Smithian”. It always occurred to me that the same adjective might have been applied to the Brennerites since they were so determined to make an equation between the capitalist mode of production and free markets.)
The words “Junkers” and “Meiji restoration” kept popping into my head. I said to myself, “Louis Proyect, this cannot be right. Capitalism arrived in Germany and Japan through a mixture of state coercion and market relations. Take yourself over to the Columbia University library first chance you get and follow up.”
The net result was the very first article I ever wrote about the Brenner thesis titled aptly enough “The Brenner Thesis”. It has a section with the subheading “The Meiji Restoration” that anticipates what would be written far more elegantly and with more erudition in Heller’s book. I wrote:
Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.
In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.
Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:
Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.
Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship, semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn’t add up here, does it?
There are so many good things in Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism” that my readers would be foolish not to rush out and buy it at once. You have already been told that it serves as a primer to the Brenner debate and is worth having on you bookshelf as a kind of reference guide. Like a racing form at the track, it helps you know who the players are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
It also helps that despite his adversarial relationship to Brenner and his followers, he is always civil and respectful finding value in their various books and articles where it is appropriate.
Keeping in mind that much of the debate is taken up with relatively arcane matters, Heller writes with a clarity that is missing all too often in works directed toward one’s peers in the academy.
For those who are relatively up to speed on the debate, Heller provides tantalizing references to more specialized works that can open up avenues of further research. For example, he writes:
The deep-seated prejudice that capitalism represented a triumph of free trade over political imperialism goes back to Adam Smith. In fact as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson pointed out long ago, capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination depending on the historical and strategic circumstances.53
This will surely be of use to me in my own research. I did not know Gallagher and Robinson before this and am anxious to see what they have to say. Columbia University might not have the highest-paid programmers in New York (my old employer, the dreadful Goldman-Sachs, beat them on this score) but the library is worth gold to me.
This leads me to my conclusion. As valuable as Henry Heller’s book is, it does not answer all the questions posed by the Brenner thesis, as I am sure that it was not intended to do anyhow.
Gallagher and Robinson’s research on how “capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination” matters to me because it addresses the ideas put forward by Ellen Meiksins Wood in “Empire of Capital”, a book that attempts to extend the Brenner thesis to imperialism. Bent as she is on demonstrating that “capitalist imperialism” operates mostly on the basis of market coercion, Wood misses the reality of international relations today—one that is dramatically illustrated by the gargantuan U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that is nearly as large as the Vatican. In fact, the decline of American economic hegemony can only lead to increasing “extra-economic” factors such as those that marked imperialism in its infancy. With the growing turmoil of a financial crisis that does not seem to show any signs of abating, we can expect the state to play a growing role. This might not amount to “feudalism”, but one cannot avoid the suspicion that Bois was correct when he referred to the current period as one of marked by ongoing “large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization.” With that to look forward to, no wonder young people are mobilizing to realize their hopes that “another world is possible”, the slogan for the transition so necessary in the 21st century.
September 9, 2011
Generally I don’t find Facebook useful for much else besides clever repartee and birthday greetings but on Richard Seymour’s FB page there was a very useful discussion about whether the plantation slave was a proletarian that benefited from the participation of Charles Post whose PhD thesis that applied the Brenner thesis to the American civil war has been turned into a book. I tried to debate Post on his analysis some years ago to no avail. He did not even respond to my emails. This time around he did manage to refer to me once, calling my attention to the fact that Ashley Smith was a man, not a woman. That’s better than nothing, I suppose. I particularly recommend the last entry in this log by Richard Drayton. Drayton is a brilliant historian who wrote “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World”, a book about how the British navy of the 18th century combined scientific exploration with colonialism.
A slightly edited transcription of the discussion follows:
So, question: was the plantation slave a proletarian? (Charles Charlie Post says no, as does Eugene Genovese and John Ashworth), but I believe this chap says yes. (The chap is Sidney Mintz, whose article can be read here: http://marxmail.org/slave_proletarian.pdf)
Surely they are the ultimate proletarians? How could one be more proletarian than a slave labourer?!
Marx certainly didn’t think so.
It’s a question of whether slave labour is a capitalist or precapitalist form. If you read Charles Post’s latest book, building on insights first developed in the New Left Review, you’ll see he takes the argument, siding with Eugene Genovese, that antebellum slavery was a non-capitalist form of production with very low productivity, which could only expand by territorial augmentations – thus driving some of the competition with mercantile capital and petty commodity production in the North, and the colonisation of Indian Country. Personally, I have some reservations about this line of argument, but it’s worth thinking about in light of the articulation of modes of production and its relation to concrete social formations.
But surely capitalism subsumes all sorts of non-proletarian labor under it anyway? From peasant quasi-subsistence labor to slavery to non value-producing work, there’s always a considerable amount of non-proletarian labor that nonetheless is pushed along a capitalist logic.
Ah ok, well in Marxist terms its different, but in the generic sense of the word they certainly are.
We had a long discussion of this at NYU recently with Charlie Post. If you are interested it was recorded and is available here: Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652)
Paul Levi Bryant
It’s difficult to see how slaves can be proletarians given that they don’t sell their labor for a wage. “Proletarian” doesn’t mean “manual labor” but someone who sells their labor as a commodity. Perhaps slavery would be a form of “primitive accumulation”?
Well, their labour power was certainly bought and sold as a commodity, even if not by the actual slaves themselves…
But what distinguished the capitalist mode of production from earlier forms is most centrally the separation of the economic from the political. Labor has to be “free” for the theory of relative surplus value to make any sense at all. And that, capitalist competition, is the heart of capitalism, no?
Ok so they have some characteristics of the proletariat but not others. I think Marx says somewhere that the value of the slave’s labour-power is not zero, ie the capitalist pays the cost of the reproduction of slaves’ ability to work; but the distinction between the modern proletarian and the slave or indeed the bonded labourer is their freedom to contract with the employer (a strictly formal freedom if course) but one which means the worker presents as a commodity (labour power) owner in the wage labour-capital relation. This contradictory freedom makes the modern class struggle both difficult and uniquely promising, because it conceals the reality of exploitation beneath the wage form, while at the same time creating a universal class bearing no new future form of class division in its basic makeup.
I think that the plantation system combined both pre-capitalist and capitalist aspects in a contradictory manner. Slavery was essentially a pre-capitalist mode of production, but plantations functioned within a global economy that was predominantly capitalist. Planters therefore had function on a profit-or-loss basis. I think that Genovese was correct in arguing slavery as a mode of production imposed intrinsic limits as to how far planters could improve labor productivity, whcih forced planters to turn towards territorial expansion in order to keep the system going.
So in that sense, slaves were not proletarians. On the other hand, many planters did pay some of their slaves wages in order to get extra work out of them. These slaves still had to perform all their normal duties, for which they were not compensated in the form of wages, but some planters would, nevertheless, pay some of their slaves wages in turn for their performing extra assignments that went beyond their normal duties as slaves. So, at this point one can see how slave labor being eventually superseded by wage labor. To this extent, some slaves were ALSO proletarians too.
Yeah I think what Jim Farmelant said is basically right. Although I don’t think slave labor need ‘necessarily’ disappear from actual capitalism. Proletarian labor is at the heart of capitalist reproduction and in its pure form only proletarian labor would exist, but of course there is not and never will be a pure capitalism of that kind. In reality, all sorts of pre-capitalist formations persist subsumed under capitalism, and often this subsumption makes it stronger than it would be if there were only wage labor. E.g., the quasi-subsistence peasants in India are probably in the colloquial sense more exploited than the fully proletarian wage labor in that country.
Thus the distinction between ‘wage-slave’ and ‘slave’ – a distinction he must have made in German – a German speaker here will tell us what it is, in order to make clear that the working class were being exploited in a way which involved the exchange of their labour-power at a negotiated price below the value of what they produced. The trickier question is re ‘indentured labour’ which was, as it sounds, a kind of hybrid between slavery and wage-slavery.
re paying for the cost of the reproduction of the slaves’ labour-power…hmmm, yes, they provided the most rudimentary of housing, the house-slaves got some food, but the field slaves where the major part of the exploitation went on – often had the ‘right’ (!) to grow their own food. (Thus the ‘retention’ of African foods in the Americas.) In other words, the outlay in terms of reproduction of that labour-power was minimal.
Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
It’s pretty dodgy to define slaves in exact same terms as wage labourers. But it’s worth noting that capitalism, in periods of very rapid expansion has made use of slave labour more than once- especially if you include indentured servitude- I’m thinking not only of the American westwward expansion, but also of Stalinist Russias militarisation of labour, Jewish and political slaves in Nazi Germany…I know there’s another one but I can’t quite remmember what it is.
Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Oh yeah, everyday commen or garden PRISON LABOUR. Are prison labourers “proletarian”? There are a lot of them in America.
You may be thinking of the Khmer Rouge (if you’re a state capitalist)
See also the Nazis’ use of both ‘slave’ labour and what was in fact ‘pressed’ labour. Millions of workers were employed forcibly by the Nazi state and German industry. Some of this was effectively slave labour eg (the work details from the concentration camps – though many of these didn’t actually produce much of value) others were forced labour, minimally paid and fed. Some of this was crucial for the system eg the arms manufacture.
And talking of ‘pressed’ labour, of course the idea of the ‘press’ was behind the employment of seamen in Britain for several hundred years. Again, for minimal pay and food.
Louis N. Proyect
I dealt with Post’s thesis here:
Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 1 (Engerman-Fogel and Genovese)
Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 2 (Class and racial oppression prior to Reconstruction)
Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 3 (Reconstruction)
Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 4 (Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists)
Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 5 (Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican)
Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Maybe the problem is the way the question is posed- that is to say “can slaves be proletarians”. I mean, we don’t expect capitalism to be everywhere a pure model of the “two great classes”, so maybe its various incidences don’t need to be that simple either- perhaps there are degrees of proletarianisation. So the real question is to what extent does coercion exist in “free” loabour.
Indeed, RJDM – Marx was writing in the tradition of the natural scientists (Boyle et al) who dealt in ‘ideal’ laws eg Boyle’s law which never prevails but all cases tend towards it, and it’s law which is ruling the main process of the relations between volume, pressure and heat. The capitalism that Marx is describing in the first instance is the ‘ideal’ model and what actually takes place are many variations on that theme, with exploitations at different moments going on in different ways and within different structures. After all, it was the ‘state capitalist’ theory which posited the notion that the Soviet ruling class extracted surplus labour from the Soviet working class and used it and controlled it as a class. But the conditions of labour were very different from eg a Detroit car worker.
Louis N. Proyect
I have written more than a hundred thousand words on the “origin” debate including a number of articles prompted by Richard’s defense of the Brenner thesis on his blog. All of it is contained under the URL I posted above. Put briefly, the confusion stems primarily from differing interpretations of the term ‘capitalism’. As a mode of production, it undoubtedly entails free labor. As a system, it combines free and unfree labor. I obviously lean toward the latter definition.
Enforced labour definitely exists under capitalism and large-scale plantation slavery (as opposed to personal slavery) isn’t actually that common in history so it’s difficult to see slavery as a mode of production in the sense of a historical epoch – there is a section in the collection ‘Precapitalist formations’ where Marx describes slavery as an auxiliary form. I haven’t read Charlie Post’s book but I think plantation can be described as ‘pre’ or at least ‘non’ capitalist for the reasons others have given above. The particular position of the slave – who is herself a commodity – means a different kind of class struggle for the mode. As CLR James shows in ‘The Black Jacobins’, masters employ savage violence against slaves’ bodies in a way that would not do to ordinary means of production nor be able to do to free labourers who could leave easily. This is because the slave is a conscious means of production, whose consciousness must be continually terrorised to maintain this status. For the slave on the other hand, resistance usually took the form of flight or rebellion that would permit large-scale flight (I know that the role of slaves in the US civil war is different here, which is why it’s interesting as a kind of permanent revolution)
Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Yeah, I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. Marx calls it the “capitalist system” because the capitalist mode of production is dominant within the system, and because capitalist productive relations determine the shape of other modes of production to which they are connected- not because the system is uniform in it’s modes of production.
Ruairidh John Dugald MacLean
Sorry, that last post was aimed at Louis.
The most interesting thing is the combination/ articulation of modes of production, though. The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians. But uneven and combined development suggests that we can see this link to the world market as actually strengthening pre-capitalist forms, and that the resultant political tensions bring about revolutionary situations – I wonder if this is a way to read the US civil war?
Louis N. Proyect
Speaking of sugar plantations, the topic of Sidney Mintz’s article I made available (as well as his book “Sweetness and Power”), I recommend a new book titled “The Sugar Barons” that appears very much in the Mintz, Eric Williams, CLR James tradition:
tricky. Insofar as the plantation produced for the capitalist market, the slave and the Lancashire mill worker were part of the same workforce. But because the slave was actually owned by the master they were also a form of capital and subject to depreciation. And as property slaves could not choose their place of exploitation or even keep their family together. But taking the minimum definition of proletarian as that class which owns no share of the means of production; in the slave’s case does not even control the means of reproduction. the slave was surely a proletarian , what else? cf also the slaves in the Nazi camps who unlike those in ancient times perhaps could be scrapped and replaced when they were not productive enough.
Louis N. Proyect
It is not just slavery that exists outside of the parameters of the Brenner-Wood thesis. It is all forced labor. So, based on that definition, there was no capitalism in apartheid South Africa outside of the mostly white skilled sector. This makes no sense–at least to me.
Louis N. Proyect
I should add that Laclau’s articles on Latin America adhere to this strict definition of capitalism as a mode of production and lead to all sorts of questionable applications. For example, most of these countries relied on debt peonage in the 19th century (just read Traven’s jungle novels for a literary treatment). That was the form that capitalism assumed in places like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico and so on.
On the substantive issue. I argue that the “second slavery”– 19th century slavery in the US South, Cuba and Brazil– were non-capitalist forms subordinated to industrial capitalism on a world-scale (the 17th and 18th century slave plantations were, with the exception of the English colonies, subordinate to pre-capitalist/Absolutist social formations like France). While the slave-owning planters were compelled to “sell to survive,” they responded to the demands of the capitalist world market in distinctly non-capitalist ways. While there was accumulation of land and slaves, there was no specialization of output or labor-saving technical innovation.
This was the result of the non-capitalist social property relations of slavery. What made the master-slave relation non-capitalist was NOT the juridical unfreedom of the slave (I have a lengthy review of Jairus Banaji’s THEORY AS HISTORY that I have submitted to HISTORICAL MATERIALISM and will e-mail to anyone who contacts me on FB mail with their e-mail address that deals with the distinction between slavery and legally coerced forms of wage-labor). Instead, it is the fact that under slavery, masters’ do not purchase LABOR-POWER for a set period of time, but buy the LABORER as a “means of production in human form” (DuBois).This has two important results. First, the slave laborer must be maintained whether or not their labor in order to preserve their value as fixed capital (thus the need for physical coercion in the organization of the labor-process). Combined with the disjuncture between production and labor time in agriculture (the existence of a “slave season”), this leads planters to seek to keep their slaves busy “year round”– including producing their own subsistence, undermining productive specialization. Second, labor cannot be easily expelled from production in order to introduce labor-saving tools/machinery. Thus the most rational way for planters to increase output/cut costs was geographic expansion–moving slaves to new/more fertile lands. In the specific conjuncture of the US after c. 1840– after the completion of the subordination of rural households/family farmers to market coercion– creates a situation in which the expanded reproduction of capitalism and slavery become incompatible. It is this incompatibility that underlies the class struggles that culminate in the US Civil War.
Sorry for the multiple entries and going on for so long. But again, thanks for the discussion of my work. If you want to be updated on reviews, book launches, etc., please “like” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Charles-Post-The-American-Road-to-Capitalism/187949994581652?ref=ts. Again, many thanks!
@Jamie Allinson “The plantations oriented towards the market of the then hegemonic capitalist power, Britain and if we take that final destination of the product as the most important thing then that tends to a view of plantation slavery as capitalist and slaves as proletarians.”That seems a bit of a jump. Capitalism to this day contains many vestiges from previous modes of production. The monarchy in the UK being one example. They are clearly a product of fuedal superstructure that have survived to live side by side with capitalist relations of production.
Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.
Slaves aren’t proletarian in any Marxist sense I know of. Hence, as Michael Rosen pointed out, Marx makes use of the term wage-slave to describe proletarians. Labour Power is the commodity sold by the proletariat to the capitalist. Whereas a Slave is a commodity that is sold to a capitalist.
I think Gramsci’s term Subaltern is better for describing slaves.
…and capitalism isn’t capitalism because of the value extracted (crudely expressed as price and profit) but because of the exact composition of the process of exploitation. Most post-hunter-gatherer systems accrue value and surplus, but aren’t necessarily capitalist.
Exactly, there is a huge qualitive difference in the process of exploitation.
“Slavery in America can be seen as one moment termporally strectched across two modes of production but was only the product of the first.” That’s a strange sort of argument. If it was only the product of feudalism, one would expect it to wane under capitalism, rather than expand as it in fact did. The specific form of colonial slavery that produced the antebellum system in the US surely owes itself to the capitalist imperatives dominant in England and increasingly North America at the time.
Ashley Smith’s review of Charlie’s book is on the ISR website– it references Banaji’s new book “Theory as History,” which is the best theoretical treatment of hybrid labor forms I’ve yet come across. http://isreview.org/issues/78/featrev-amcapitalism.shtml
Louis N. Proyect
I recommend Robert Miles’s “Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or Necessity?”, fortunately available for under $4 on amazon.com–as well as university libraries of course.
Louis N. Proyect
Ashley Smith’s review is quite on target but I don’t know where he picked up the term “political Marxist” which is used in a fairly dismissive fashion. Odd…
The term “political marxism” was coined by Ellen Wood, I believe.
According to Paul Blackledge, Guy Bois actually came up with the term in an article critiquing Brenner, but Ellen Wood and Robert Brenner have both embraced it.
Slavery in the USA was actually intensified by the development of industrial capitalism in Europe, increasing demand for cotton. Something similar had happened with serfdom in eastern Europe as market for grain grew in western towns. But the South’s backwardness which geared it to Europe became an obstacle to the rise of US capitalism. The civil war was the second American revolution. But this raises another difference -the proletariat is not only exploited but contains in its struggle the seed of a classless society, based not on reverting to small proprietorship but on collective ownership and control.
See CLR James on the Haitian revolution, on this topic. In “The Black Jacobins”, he had interesting things to say on this topic.
Penny McCall Howard
See also Jairus Banaji
Charlie Post: you say the distinction is *NOT* the juridical form of freedom but that in the one case the capitalist buys labour power and in the other buys the labourer. But these two things are different aspects of the same concrete phenomenon: the slave is purchased as labourer, the wage slave”s labour power is purchased by the capitalist…AND SOLD by the ‘free labourer’, the owner and seller if the commodity labour power.
Obviously, slavery is defined by a set of forms of coercion, domination, and violence that make it without analogy to wage labor at the experiential level, but it clearly operates within the commodity system. Additionally, the cotton gin was clearly a significant labor saving device, and Roediger amongst others has pointed out that the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.
Louis N. Proyect
“the modern factory (plant) has organizational principles that draw from the organization of plantation.”
Well, it’s not just that. Ellen Wood describes John Locke as the ultimate philosopher of the early capitalist system but he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas that defined slavery as a fundamental property right.
I find this an interesting discussion and thanks particularly to Louis Proyect and Charlie Post for their efforts. I’m worried though we might have reached the point where we are fruitlessly arguing about definitions. If we all agree 19th century slavery was subject to capitalist logic but not a form of labor intrinsic to capitalism (in the sense it has no part in a ‘pure’ capitalism), then surely that suffices?
This article by Sidney Mintz in “Review” (Fernand Braudel Center) is not accessible. The simultaneous presence of slavery in one space (Caribbean, southern North America, and South America) and wage-labor relations in other spaces (whether in England or in the northern New England states) is probably not all that contradictory. Why can’t coerced labor and free-wage-labor coexist as complementary labor-systems organized by agencies of capitalist accumulation
What puzzles me is that is if the slave was a proletarian, then it would seem that there lived proletarian labour pre capitalism. France was feudal and yet had a sysytem similar to the slave system that existed whithin capitalist England.
I think the claim would be that this form of labour was, under capitalism, subordinate to capitalist imperatives, and that slavery in the plantation was quite different in terms of work patterns etc to, say, Ancient slavery.
Wouldn’t the Althusserian notion of social formations in which different modes of production exist side by side, sometimes symbiotically, sometimes antagonistically, be useful here for understanding slavery in the modern era? Then slavery could be regarded as a pre-capitalist mode of production that was able to exist symbiotically with capitalism (which was already the dominant mode of production) during periods of primitive accumulation.
A couple of quick points. It is absolutely true that New World slave plantations– especially the “second slavery” of the 19th century (cotton in US south, sugar in Cuba, coffee in Brazil)- prefigured features of the capitalist factory. In response to the necessity of “selling to survive,” planters organized a labor-process with a detailed division of labor, closely supervised and coordinated work gangs, and the like. In fact, one neo-classical economic historian (Fleisig) argued that the origins of Taylorism/Scientific Management could be found in the plantations of the Americas.
However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION. While the plantation, at any given point, resembled the capitalist factory, we do not see the relatively continuous introduction of labor-saving technology (limited to new frontiers and new crops). What Blackburn, in his latest book, describes as the planters’ “addiction to absolute surplus labor” was not a choice/pathology, but inscribed into the rules of reproduction of the master-slave relation.
The master-slave relation also produced the non-capitalist anomaly of plantation self-sufficiency, which had profound impact on the trajectory of the slaves’ class struggle. The need for planters to keep slaves laboring year round led them to put slaves to work, in gangs (cotton plantations growing corn) or universally on small garden plots growing food stuffs. The slaves not only supplemented their rations through their own independent production, but were generally allowed to market their own surplus. Thus plantation slavery combined a centralized labor-process under the masters’ command producing commodities for the world-market AND independent household production that included marketing of physical surpluses under the slaves’ (usually the eldest male) control.
Louis N. Proyect
“However, the non-capitalist structure of the master-slave relation meant that the ONLY means of increasing output was intensifying ABSOLUTE SURPLUS LABOR EXTRACTION.”
As if the abolition of slavery introduced relative surplus labor extraction. The plain fact is that the plantation system continued well into the 20th century, abetted by Jim Crow which effectively chained Blacks to their shacks. The notion of a “capitalist revolution” has to be closely examined in light of a mountain of contrary evidence. The Northern big bourgeoisie, as opposed to the middle-class base of the radical wing of the Republican Party, had no interest in a truly emancipated Black population. If you want documentation on that, just read the fucking Nation Magazine of the 1880s that railed against anti-Klan legislation. And if you want to see the limitations of the “radical” Republicans, check my article on Henry Villard, who became publisher of the Nation after founder E.L. Godkin died.
On his own initiative, Villard became the foreign agent of the Wisconsin Central Railroad and persuaded German bankers to buy bonds, out of which he pocketed a handsome commission. It was this sort of entrepreneurial spirit that eventually recommended him to Ben Holladay, the founder of the Oregon and Western Railroad. Although Villard was originally hired to raise capital from European investors, he took over the company from Holladay, as well as the Oregon Steamship Company and a few other Oregon companies in 1876, just one year before the North washed its hands of Reconstruction. Pleased with his takeover of the railroad and assorted assets, Villard wrote his wife Fanny, who was becoming ever more enthusiastic about his business success, that “I knew you would be mad at me for not returning to-day, but I am sure that the wrath of my little wife will be appeased when I tell her that her great ‘schemer’ has now in his pocket nine thousand Dollars clear profit made this week and that he expects his labors to be eventually rewarded by more than as much more!” His pet name for Fanny was “darling greediness”.
Given that there is no necessary sequence of modes/forms of production– no direction to history given by the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces– it is not surprising that the class struggles in the Reconstruction period created new, non-capitalist forms in the south. No question the Radical Republicans de-radicalized significantly after 1868– under the impact of growing northern working class struggles in the north. I agree that the notion of the “bourgeois revolution”– in particular it’s bastard child the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”– needs to be seriously reconsidered. It was Brenner, Wood, Cominel and other “political Marxist” who have initiated that process…
Louis N. Proyect
On bourgeois revolutions:
Yes of course I know ancient slavery was fundamentally different from modern slavery.
My question is, what difference was there between the slavery on French plantations at a time when France was feudal and English plantations at a time when England was capitalist ie for most of the 18th Century?
Was an English slave a proletarian? If so, did that make a French slave one as well? If not why not?
Louis N. Proyect
I don’t think there was much difference between sugar plantations in Haiti and in Jamaica. They were both distinguished by chattel slavery. Precapitalist slavery was not about commodity production. It was about extending the power of potentates through conquest. The Ottoman Janissaries were typical. In Ethiopia, slaves carried guns for their masters during hunting expeditions. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Mississippi in the 1850s.
Thanks Charlie Post for fascinating observations
Richard– you are welcome!
The difference between plantation slavery in St. Domingue did not result in different class relations and labor-processes on those islands. Instead, the differences showed up in the origins and impact of plantation slavery on the “metropolis.” Only the English slave colonies settlement/development were the work of “new merchants” who did not enjoy exclusive royal monopolies on the sale of slaves or importation of sugar. As Brenner argues in MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION the emergence of the new merchants was directly tied to the breakthrough to agrarian capitalism in England. By contrast, French colonialism was fueled by the crisis of revenues of the French absolutist state (limits to taxing the peasantry), and was organized by “royal” merchants who enjoyed monopolies for the importation of slaves/marketing of sugar. Even more marked it the effects of slavery/slave trade on France and England. In England, the expansion of colonial markets and profits from the slave/sugar trade promoted capitalist industrialization. In France, the profits of slavery went into buying offices (tax farming) in the pre-capitalist Absolutist state.
I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed. So the hand loom weavers had more than ‘nothing but their labour power’ to sell, but actually owned the means of production. The creation of the factories mechanised and removed from them the means of production, thus transforming them into the proletariat.
If we take Marx’s definition then the slaves were not proletarian.
Louis N. Proyect
“I think part of the answer is that in the 18th Century the proletariat didn’t really exist anywhere, but was being created as the capitalist mode of production developed.”
You have to understand that with the Brenner thesis, you can have capitalism without a proletariat. What matters is that landlords began to compete with each other in the 16th century British countryside, which led to technological innovation. Meanwhile, the existence of the largest concentration of workers in the world–Potosi, Bolivia–in the same period is of no interest to Brenner since landlords operated on a “feudal” basis. If you scour through the writings of Wood, Brenner and all others that are part of this current, I doubt if you will find more than a thousand words on Latin America.
Charlie – I meant your comments on absolute surplus value. But I should say I don’t agree about the non-directional impulse of capitalist development or your comment on the utility of the term ‘bourgeois revolution.
For many Caribbean historians, by which I mean those who are both from the region as well as students of it, there is in the organisation of plantation slave labour a form of proletarianization. I think here in particular of the marxists C.L.R James of Trinidad and Richard Hart of Jamaica, and those they influenced including Eric Williams of Trinidad, and a generation later the American anthropologist Sid Mintz.
It is a theme I turn to myself in my essay: “The Collaboration of Labour: Slaves, Empires, and Globalizations in the Atlantic World, c. 1600-1850″, in A.G. Hopkins, ed., GLOBALISATION IN WORLD HISTORY (2002). The key issue for us is that labour is organised by a modern division of labour and bought and sold as a commodity.
They/we note on the sugar plantations of the 17th century: labour is not given as part of a system of mutual obligation but is instead sold as a commodity; work units much larger than the family, subjection to strict time discipline and spatial constraint; task specialisation; alienation of worker from tools; production for non‑local markets; dependence on long distance markets for food and subsistence. By these criteria the plantations were the avantgarde of the process of capitalist market modes of production, as Mintz put it “The plantation as a synthesis of factory and field. . . was really quite unlike anything known in mainland Europe at the time . . . [it was] probably the closest thing to industry that was typical of the Seventeenth century.” Plantation sugar production was large‑scale, capital‑intensive, and machine‑dependent like no other industry in the world in its time.
By the late 18th and 19th century also, there is in urban slavery (eg. Trinidad or Rio), the phenomenon of slaves being hired on day wage rates, and by the nineteenth century being used as factory workers in Richmond Virginia.
The comparison of modern plantation slavery with ancient slavery is entirely false. The correct comparison is the with other forms of unfree or semifree labour operating in the early modern world from press ganged sailors and soldiers, to apprentices and journeymen, to workers selling their labour in the shadow of factory owners on whom they depended for housing etc. We need to keep sight always of the modernity of the plantation.
September 5, 2008
“Twilight Samurai” (2002) and “The Hidden Blade,” (2004) the first two installments in Yoji Yamada’s Samurai trilogy are now available from Netflix. “Love and Honor,” the final installment, showed at the Imaginasian Theater in New York last November and should soon be available in home DVD as well. Although I missed “Love and Honor” when it was at the Imaginasian, I am grateful for the loan of a press screener from a fellow programmer at Columbia University who has had an involvement with Japanese films for decades.
I am not sure of the 77 year old Yoji Yamada’s political associations today but the N.Y. Times reported in 1982 that he was “a member in good standing of Japan’s Communist Party” and usually tried to make “some reference in his films to man’s disaffection with society.”
For those of you who think of Kurosawa’s samurai movies as genre-defining, you are likely to be surprised by Yamada’s approach (even though both directors were men of the left) for Yamada sees the men not primarily as warriors but as court functionaries in a feudal system that was about to be replaced by the capitalism of the Meiji restoration. They are always pathetic in one fashion or another, but find a way in the climax of each of his great movies to redeem their honor in a display of swordsmanship against the feudal forces of oppression. These are very class conscious films, even if the alignment of class forces bears little resemblance to modern-day bourgeois society.
“Twilight Samurai” is a double-entendre. The hero, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), has been nicknamed “twilight” by fellow clerks since he goes straight home at sunset to look after his two young daughters or to plow his fields rather than join them for drinks at the local geisha house. The word “twilight” also describes the period in Japanese history immediately before the Meiji restoration that brought an end to samurai power and privilege.
By the 1800s, many samurai had descended to Seibi Iguchi’s status. They functioned as minor bureaucrats in a decaying feudal system rather than as warriors. Indeed, Seibei’s existence evokes Bob Cratchit rather than Yojimbo. His day is spent in the counting house of the local prince’s palace, where he sits and enters columns of numbers onto parchment. I was reminded of the social function of my ancestors since Proyect is Yiddish for the counting house of a tax-farmer, a role assigned typically to the court Jews of the Middle Ages.
Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.
Seibei is not a typical samurai, who are generally a misogynist lot-including the powerful 1000-koku samurai who has been divorced by Seibei’s childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) after years of drunken physical and verbal abuse.
When the ex-husband arrives at Tomoe’s house to retrieve her, Seibei intercedes to tell him that she is no longer his wife and that he must leave at once. The aristocrat is shocked by Seibei’s impudence and challenges him to a duel by the river banks the next day. When Seibei arrives armed with nothing but a stick, we assume that he will be slaughtered by Tomoe’s ex-husband, who is a feared swordsman. Instead, Seibei dodges the blade and a well-placed blow to his head ends the duel on favorable terms both to him and to his opponent. We soon discover that Seibei is actually a skilled swordsman who has forsaken combat long ago. Despite his prowess, he has lost the stomach for killing other human beings. Like a gunman from the old west who has given up killing (Alan Ladd in “Shane” and Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven” come to mind), Seibei soon learns that it is difficult to escape his past. Once again he is forced to take up the sword in the thrilling conclusion to “Twilight Samurai”.
The Hidden Blade
Like Seibei, the samurai in “The Hidden Blade” is something of an anti-hero. He is Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), a low-level functionary who spends much of his time learning how to use the newly imported British cannons that his master plans to use against his enemies. Just as is the case with the Tom Cruise movie, the samurai bitterly resent being forced to use such a vulgar armament and profess their preference for the sword or bow and arrow.
The fortyish Katagari has never married and like a bachelor uncle is fretted over by his relatives. They even notice that he has stopped caring about his appearance. Indeed, there is not much to sustain Katagari psychologically since his role as a warrior is anachronistic. His duties do not consist of going out with sword in hand to defeat other samurais, but preparing a training manual on how to use the new artillery.
Midway into the film, Katagari discovers that Kie (Takako Matsu), his family’s young maid who has entered into an arranged marriage with a merchant, is being mistreated by her new family. They treat her as a beast of burden and do not feed and clothe her adequately. He shows up at their manor to discover her sick and weak in a darkened room. Enraged by her treatment, he hoists her on his back and brings her back to his home and nurses her back to health. Once she is fully recovered, she begins to attend to his every need. It is clear that she is drawn to him romantically and that he loves her as well. Unfortunately for the two, the rigid caste system of feudal Japan prevents them from marrying. He is an aristocrat and she is from a peasant family.
Despite never having used his sword in combat, Katagari trained in one of the finest schools along with an old friend Yaichiro, who has recently escaped from a cage on the local Retainer’s estate where he was being jailed in ignominy. Yaichiro was implicated in a plot against the Shogunate and was not even permitted the honor of hari-kari. Eventually Yaichiro escapes from the cage and flees to a farming village where he takes an old man and his granddaughter hostage. He boldly announces that he is ready to die there. Let the Retainer send his riflemen and they will die by his sword.
The climax of the movie pits Katagari and Yaichiro against each other. Using some techniques he learned from his former master, who has renounced the martial arts and now lives the life of a simple farmer, Katagari hopes against hope that he won’t have to use them against an old friend.
Masatoshi Nagase delivers a riveting performance as the aging samurai Katagari. Although the movie is focused on the duel between Katagari and Yaichiro, it is as much a love story between the crusty bachelor and the young peasant woman whose caste keeps them apart. Implicitly, it is as the N.Y. Times put it a strong reference to man’s disaffection from society, in this case a rotting feudal system.
Love and Honor (Spanish subtitles)
“Love and Honor” once again features a hapless lower-rung samurai. Shinnojo (Takuya Kimura) is a food taster for a local clan lord, a job that virtually symbolizes the stupidity of the old order. He and six other samurai take bites of a meal three times a day just to make sure that their overlord is not poisoned. The food is delivered in complete solemnity and when the samurai make small talk about the bites they take, they are reprimanded by a vassal in charge of the operation.
One day Shinnojo eats some bad shellfish and immediately falls into a coma. When he awakens a week or so later, he discovers that he has become blind. In feudal society, there are provisions made for the disabled but as one might expect there are concessions expected from the unlucky victims like Shinnojo, including his wife being coerced into serving as a sex slave for a powerful sub-lord.
In order to preserve his sense of honor, Shinnojo challenges the man to a duel. Unlike the popular “Blind Swordsman” series, “Love and Honor” is played without any kind of showboating involving superior sense of hearing or smell, etc. You get the very strong sense that the blind Shinnojo has bitten off more than he can chew.
Again, like “The Hidden Blade”, there is a deeply moving love story at the core of the film. No matter how many times Shinnojo demands that his wife start a new life without him, she remains faithful-even to the point of sacrificing her body to keep them fed and sheltered.
There is probably no better introduction to the historical period of Yamada’s films than Douglas R. Howland’s “Samurai Status, Class and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay” that appeared in the May 2001 Journal of Asian Studies.
Howland states that there were two Marxist tendencies in the prewar Japan academy with varying interpretations of the pre-Meiji era. The Koza, or “Lecture” group, argued that the samurai were a purely feudal class and that the Meiji restoration resulted in the ascendancy of a reconstituted feudal ruling class, against which a bourgeois revolution must be organized. Not surprisingly, the “Lecture” group was supported by the Communist Party.
The Rono, or “Farmer-Labor” group, argued that the samurai had shifted class positions, with the lower rungs–people like the heroes of Yamada’s films, in other words-joining the urban working class and becoming critical to the Meiji restoration’s bourgeois revolution from above. I am sympathetic to these views. And despite Yoji Yamada’s membership in the JCP, his movies tend to support the “Farmer-Labor” perspective.
For Howland, the category “bureaucratic labor” describes the lot of the average samurai throughout the Shogunate era. He writes:
As an individual, a samurai was often on his own in securing an adequate livelihood. Kozo Yamamura’s important study of samurai income found that the stipend of a ‘houseman’ was always barely adequate, giving him in the early Tokugawa period the living standard of a merchant or artisan.
The ‘lower samurai,’ who made up the majority of bureaucratic clerks and lowly functionaries and who felt unjustly cut off from positions of power and respect, increasingly voiced the rationalizing opinion that official appointments and positions should be based on merit rather than heredity.
Thus alienated from the Tokugawa state, motivated by notions of reform, and discovering alternative models, some younger samurai-Fukuzawa Yukichi, for example–began to interpret the question of political legitimacy in new terms, even those of representative institutions, and to replace relationships of loyalty with an identification with personal and national independence.
In other words, the samurai depicted in Yamada’s movies were the advance guard of democracy in the new Japan. Japan’s failure to deliver fully on that promise is obviously a subject for another post.
August 16, 2007
Eric Mielants’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is necessary reading for anybody following the “transition debate” as well as a thought-provoking comparative study of Western Europe and the East in the late Middle Ages. Like Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World-System, A.D. 1250-1350,” it challenges the reader to think about how one of the world’s backwaters in that period–Europe–became dominant.
Mielants’s title is carefully chosen since he understands that the questions of capitalist origins and world domination are interrelated. The country or countries that first made the transition to capitalism were also the first to become global powers. For Marxists or left-leaning scholars, the rise of the West has been a disaster, whatever their differences on the origins of capitalism. Robert Brenner and the late James Blaut disagreed on whether changes in the British countryside explain the rise of capitalism, but they agreed that the system must be opposed however it came into existence.
Despite Mielants’s outspoken opposition to the Brenner thesis, he does have something in common with his adversary. For Brenner, the British agrarian class transformations of the 15th century provided a spawning ground for capitalism found nowhere else in the world. For Mielants, the West European city-states of the medieval era provided a nursery for the new system that also could not be replicated elsewhere. In either case, you are dealing with a kind of European exceptionalism. For Brenner, the British landlords and lease farmers were critical players, while for Mielant it is the Western European merchant bourgeoisie. As opposed to James Blaut who saw possibilities for the rise of capitalism in the East, Brenner and Mielants make the case that it could have only happened in the British countryside or the trade-oriented city-states respectively. While Mielants concentrates his fire on the Brennerites, the book is a serious challenge to Blaut’s claim that capitalism could have just as easily developed in the “proto-capitalist” regions of India, China and elsewhere in the East.
With a 73 page bibliography, Mielants raises the bar for those who want to participate in the “transition debate.” As I mentioned to Mielants in an email, the paltry eight pages of references in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism” pale by comparison. Originally a dissertation, the 162 pages of “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West” is brimming with footnotes. But it is not a dry work. On almost every page, there is an eye-opening historical observation in support of his overall thesis. As is the case with the best scholarship, you want to track down the sources and find out more. For example, chapter two, “The Political Economies of China and Europe Compared,” begins:
HAVING LEARNED more about medieval Europe, the curious reader will undoubtedly ask: What about China? China has long been regarded as one of the most ancient and glorious civilizations. In the Middle Ages, China was probably the most developed of all regions— socioeconomically, politically, and militarily. Around a.d. 1100, it had a population of approximately 100 million people and the largest cities likely had up to a million inhabitants (Elvin 1973:159; Kracke 1969:11). “Medieval China witnessed considerable economic advance” (Hall 1988:22) such that it outshone anything in Europe. The economy certainly had a high level of monetization; for example, usage of paper money (huizi) issued in a.d. 1160, written contracts, mercantile credits, checks, promissory notes, bills of exchange, and so forth. Militarily speaking, the Chinese emperor was probably the strongest overlord in the entire Eurasian landmass; in the 12th century, he could easily mobilize nearly 1 million soldiers. In comparison, when at the end of the 12th century, Britain’s King Richard I wanted to maintain a “regular army of 300 knights supported by taxation, [his attempt] sank without trace” (French 1999:230) due to insufficient means.
Despite these seeming advantages, China failed to develop capitalism for the same reason that India and the city-states of North Africa failed. Although there was a merchant bourgeoisie, it did not enjoy a privileged status within the state. The Emperors and Kings of the East simply saw no advantage in promoting the interests of a merchant class. The source of their wealth was in the land and they saw no compelling need to expand beyond their borders in order to exploit the resources of less-developed regions.
While Brenner saw capitalism as originating in the British countryside and then diffusing outwards to the cities and then to the rest of the world, Mielants sees cities as the core. Capitalism begins in trading centers such as Venice or Flanders and then sucked in the countryside and peripheral foreign territories as merchants imposed their will on weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe and the Near East. For Mielants, colonialism was as important an aspect of the medieval economy as it was for Lenin when WWI broke out. During the 13th century, Venice operated in the Mediterranean in the same way that the US operates in the Persian Gulf today. Commercial and military objectives complemented each other. The Byzantine Empire of the east was forced by the Italian city-states into a “subordinate position within the unfolding inter-regional division of labor.” In other words, the Italian city-states were imperialist just as Great Britain was in the 19th century and the US is today. An official of the Dutch East India Company wrote to the board of directors in 1614:
Your Honours should know that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favour of Your Honours own weapons, and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so that we can not carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.
If this differs from Thomas Friedman’s own recommendation in a March 28, 1999 NY Times Magazine article, I fail to see how:
The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
The Chinese merchants simply lacked the power to use the state on its own behalf as was the case in Western Europe. The Portuguese and the Dutch were far more aggressive in their trade relations with foreign countries. By contrast, the Chinese royalty was solely interested in controlling its own vast territory, which was subject to invasion from nomadic tribes, particularly the Mongols. In a fascinating discussion of the Mongol invasion, Mielants notes that 35 million Chinese died at the hands of occupiers in the 13th century and that the economy never recovered. The net effect of the invasion was to open up trade from the West (this was the period of Marco Polo) to the disadvantage of the Chinese. When reading this, I thought of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Despite the fact that the Soviet economy was more progressive than that of the capitalist invader, the long-term consequences of the war was to weaken and eventually destroy the foundations for socialism. If there is a third world war and generalized nuclear annihilation, the end result will be a retreat to barbarism. In order to understand history’s grand narrative, we must never forget that war can act as a terrible deus ex machina–a time machine stuck in reverse.
Turning now to a consideration of whether capitalism could have evolved in the East, a review of Jim Blaut’s “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” is a good place to start. In chapter three (“Before 1492″), there’s a section titled “Protocapitalism in Africa, Asia, and Europe.” Blaut shares Mielants’s emphasis on urban trading centers, but does not believe that the European city-states were that much different from their Eastern counterparts.
The protocapitalist port cities of Europe were not more highly developed than those of Africa and Asia in the fifteenth century. This holds true regardless of the kinds of criteria chosen as measures. European cities, first, were not larger in absolute or relative population. In fact, urbanization in Europe was probably less advanced than urbanization in China, India, the Arab region, and no doubt many other non-European areas. The urban population in early Ming China was perhaps 10% of the total population. In the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India it must have been at least as high: the inland capital alone held about 3% of the population—comparable centers in Europe, such as Paris, may have had half that percentage—and the coastal port cities were both numerous and large. Second, the development of the techniques of business was fully as advanced, fully as complex, and fully as wideflung in space among the merchants and bankers of Asia and Africa as among those of Europe. (Tome Pires said of Gujarati businessmen in 1515: “They are men who understand merchandise; they are . . . properly steeped in the sound and harmony of it” and “those of our people who want to be clerks and factors ought to go there and learn, because the business of trade is a science.”) Third, the technical and material means of production seem to have been at about the same level of development in many mercantile-maritime centers of all three continents, allowing for differences in the volume of production and trade, the kinds of merchandise, and the like. Maritime techniques were also comparable across the hemisphere: though they differed from ocean to ocean, it cannot be said that ships of one ocean were technologically more advanced than those of the others. Manufactures in port cities and other industrial centers of Europe, Africa, and Asia were also roughly comparable in gross scale and level of development. Fourth, the urban class composition of Asian and African centers appears to have been similar to that of European centers: in all regions there existed a powerful class of protocapitalists and a wage-earning class of workers, with or without involvement also of other classes such as feudal landlords, slaves, and so on. And finally, the old European myth, codified by Weber—that European cities were somehow more free than non-European cities, which were under the tight control of the surrounding polity—is essentially an inheritance from classical Eurocentric diffusionism, which imagined that everything important in early Europe was imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying “Oriental despotism” until the Europeans arrived there and brought freedom. The so-called “free cities” of central Europe were hardly the norm and were not central to the rise of capitalism. The partial autonomy of many mercantile-maritime port cities of Europe, from Italy to the Baltic, was of course a reality, and usually reflected either the dominance by the city of a relatively small polity (often a city-state) or the gradual accommodation of feudal states to their urban sectors, allowing the latter considerable autonomy for reasons of profit or power. But all of this held true also in various parts of Africa and Asia. Small city-states were common around the shores of the Indian Ocean, in the Maghreb, and in Southeast Asia; also common were quasi-independent cities, giving loose allegiance to larger states.
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer struck down Jim Blaut before he had a chance to complete his trilogy on Eurocentrism. His third volume would be an attempt to develop a history that incorporated the viewpoint of what Eric Wolf called “the people without history.” I am sure that he would have taken great relish in responding to the case made by Eric Mielants on behalf of European exceptionalism. To be sure, Mielants has nothing in common with those that characterize early Europe as being “imbued with freedom while everything important in Asia (not to mention Africa) was ground under a stultifying ‘Oriental despotism’”. Mielants warns specifically against creating an “ideal-typical dichotomy between dynamic ‘mercantilist’ trading states on one hand and static ‘inward-looking’ states with antimercantile practices on the other.”
As convincing as Mielants’s data is, I am still somewhat bothered by a certain gap in his book between the Middle Ages and the period generally associated with full-blown capitalism–the late 18th and early 19th century. It is the same unease I have had with the Brennerites who after examining 16th century British farming conclude that the industrial revolution was inevitable. Unless you trace the economic processes that led from either the “agrarian revolution” or the urban mercantilism of the same period to Manchester textile mills of Engels’s time, you are left with a kind of historical erasure–to use postmodernist jargon.
Specifically, I wonder whether Great Britain’s more “advanced” mode of production had more to do with the colonization of India than military superiority. Mielants states, “Why were the Europeans ultimately able to colonize and ‘underdevelop’ India, and not the other way around? In my opinion, the answer lies not in the often-discussed events of 1757 or 1857 [Battle of Plessy and Sepoy Rebellion] but rather, in the combination of these extremely important yet often-ignored events that made peripheralization possible; that is, the prelude to de facto annexation.”
In light of Mielants’s analysis of the impact of the Mongol invasion of China, I am not so sure. Isn’t it possible that the answer does lie in 1757, when a superior British military force’s victory opened the doors for further encroachment? For all of Great Britain’s much-vaunted capitalist development, it took cannons to achieve its goals.
In a polemic directed against Ellen Meiksins Wood titled “Colonialism and the Rise of Capitalism,” Pakistani Marxist scholar Hamza Alavi notes that British superiority was not so clear-cut:
India’s strength vis-a-vis Manchester seemed to lie mainly in its ability to produce fine yarn. Much effort was directed in Britain to improve spinning machinery. Crompton’s mule, developed in the 1780s, went some way to improve spinning technology. But as it yet could not match Indian quality. Indian textile industry was not easy to finish off. Contrary to the conventional wisdom (shared universally by Marxist and non-Marxist historians alike) that it was machine production in England that killed the Indian textile industry, we can identify three factors that combined to bring about its steady decline. All three related to the choking off of demand for Indian textiles. First of all, as pointed out above, Britain imposed heavy protective duties and administrative measures to keep Indian textiles out of the British market. The second factor, no less important, was that this coincided with the period of the Napoleonic Wars. The British imposed cordon sanitaire around Europe closed off the European market for Indian textiles entirely. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that in 1789 85% of the calicoes imported into Britain were re-exported to Europe and 60 % of muslins were re-exported. (Baines,1966:330) Simultaneously with the closing of the British and European markets, there was also a collapse in internal demand for textiles in India. In pre-colonial India, taxes collected from the peasant supported a large urban population, including the ruling elite. When, after the British conquest, these taxes were appropriated by the East Indian Company and used to pay for the export of Indian textiles, the Indian urban classes were suddenly dispossessed. There was a massive de-urbanisation. For example, according to Charles Trevelyan, the population of Dacca, the ‘Manchester of India’, dropped from 150,000 to 30,000.(quoted by Palme Dutt, 1970:120) The weavers were driven out of the towns, to seek a livelihood in villages. The Urban elite and middle classes, the consumers, were gone too. The internal demand for Indian textiles collapsed almost simultaneously with the closure of its outlets abroad.
In other words, the British conquest was not a function of having an entrepreneurial class tightly integrated with the state, but old-fashioned coercion. While it is difficult to imagine India colonizing Great Britain, one has to wonder whether Britain could have imposed its will without its powerful army and navy. Without its massive cavalry, the Mongols could not have imposed its will on the Chinese. And how was the British navy and army financed? While it is extremely difficult to track the revenues and expenditures of Great Britain in the 16th to 18th century, it seems quite plausible that it was through the capital accumulated in the New World through a combination of plunder and extortion–or what Karl Marx calls primitive accumulation. For Jim Blaut, 1492 is critical for understanding the rise of the west and I tend to agree with him, despite the rigor of Eric Mielants’s logic and the depth and breadth of his research.
August 7, 2007
Dr. Gregory Clark: purveyor of sociobiological claptrap
I have begun reading Eric Mielant’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West.” The book reminds me that the “transition debate” is not just about dry, academic disputes over whether turnips were more critical to the rise of capitalism than sugar. As should be obvious from the title, “the rise of the west” addresses the question of how Great Britain and then the United States became hegemonic. Bourgeois historians and sociologists prefer to talk about the “internal” factors in Europe–Great Britain in particular–that supposedly led to capitalism. To admit that the rise of the west was accomplished by stepping on the backs of slaves and the corpses of indigenous peoples crosses the boundaries of what is ideologically acceptable, to put it in Chomskyan terms.
In the 19th century, when social Darwinism was at its peak, the rise of the west was explained in terms of the survival of the fittest. There was a certain genius to northern Europe that helped it to dominate the rest of the world. In the 20th century, particularly under the impact of the colonial revolution, it was no longer impossible to be so crass. Instead, there were efforts to be more “scientific”. For example, Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” in order to show that the Europeans were not more intelligent or creative than those they came to rule, only more resistant to germs. You find a similar approach with Robert Brenner, who tries to prove that an accident of history–namely the rise of lease farming in Great Britain–led to the rise of capitalism and hence the rise of the west.
The latest explanation for the rise of the west is about as “internal” as you can get. As reported in today’s NY Times , Gregory Clark, a historian at U. of California/Davis, says it is all in our genes!
If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.
Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”
Gosh, some people have all the luck. The British rose to the top of the heap because it was in their genes. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray wrote “The Bell Curve” to demonstrate that genetic differences between Blacks and whites accounted for economic and social inequality. I doubt that Clark is as reactionary as these two bastards, but he does seem to have it in for any attempts at a class analysis of the rise of capitalism. In his review of Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism,” Clark dismisses the idea that game laws were used in order to force British peasants off the land:
Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not a docile and dependable worker.
(I should mention that Michael’s book is excellent in all respects, but that it too tends to identify primitive accumulation strictly in terms of the “internal” changes taking place in the British countryside. Perhaps he might consider writing a follow up one day that is inspired by the other aspect of primitive accumulation, namely the slave trade and the expropriation and murder of indigenous Americans.)
Clark’s general perspective is that before capitalism mankind lived in an undifferentiated mass of squalor and hunger. Malthusian law dictated that for every advance in farming technology (including the agrarian revolution’s turnip), there was an increase in population that always outstripped the food supply. It was only with the advent of the industrial revolution that the supply finally could exceed the demand. This thesis requires Clark to reject out of hand the notion that peasants could have been better off in some ways under feudalism than they were under capitalism. While Perelman never romanticized life under capitalism, he certainly made the case that it was better to be a self-husbanding farmer with hundreds of religious holidays in the medieval period than it was to be a starving landless peasant roaming the British countryside in search of work.
Unfortunately, the NY Times article is so poorly written that it is hard to determine what Clark’s thesis is all about down to its squalid core, but I will attempt a running commentary on the ideas and the personalities referred to therein.
To start with, Clark is at odds with the Brennerite insistence that British agricultural breakthroughs created a fat and happy work force up to the task of running the new machines of the 19th century. Apparently, these British workers were just as hungry as the French, although according to some accounts they would at least have enough tea and sugar to get them through the day–like Bolivian miners dependent on their coca. The NY Times states:
This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.
“Primitive man ate well compared with one of the richest societies in the world in 1800,” Dr. Clark observes.
Of course, Great Britain was busily at work destroying hunter-gatherer societies so as to make the British dining table more ample, but that is obviously a topic that neither Clark nor the NY Times is interested in pursuing.
When the topic turns to “survival of the fittest”, either Clark’s explanation is incoherent or the NY Times reporter was drunk when he gave his version of it:
In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.
A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.
I honestly can’t figure out what Clark was trying to say, except that the average British citizen of today is descended from the aristocracy. Is this supposed to be a key to success? I don’t think so, based on the evidence of a recent Radar Online article:
The 7th Earl of Lucan (Richard John Bingham) 1934 – ? Lord Lucan appeared to be the epitome of an upright British aristocrat, what with his family home in Westminster, regal bearing, and sexy mustache. The dashing fellow also had a taste for speed boats and gambling, and after a particularly successful run in the casinos gained him both a sizable sum and the nickname “Lucky,” he dropped his other career pursuits to become a professional gambler. He ended up having a rough go of it and eventually found himself living the life of a drunken, debt-ridden, wife-beating gambler. Perhaps in an effort to reduce his expenses and secure sole custody of his children, he hatched a plot to kill his mentally fragile wife. But Lucky Lord Lucan, a direct descendant of the man responsible for the famously doomed “Charge of the Light Brigade” somehow botched the job, brutally killing his children’s nanny instead of his wife. Lucan has not been seen since that night in 1974, and his whereabouts remains the subject of much speculation.
Clark also makes the startling discovery that the industrial revolution came about because the British were thrifty: “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.” Impulsive, violent and leisure loving? I would love to see the good professor’s scholarly citations for this. What was he reading to come up with this conclusion? It sounds like the sort of thing that you hear about the Black community in the pages of the National Review today.
More nonsense follows. Clark says that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in China or Japan. Why? Because the richer classes “were surprisingly unfertile” and couldn’t bequeath their “good” genes on the rest of society. How this crap gets taken seriously in the academy is beyond me. As Doug Henwood just observed on the LBO Talk mailing list, “How can anyone take seriously a purported evolutionary change that happens over the course of a couple of hundred years? If Ward Chuchill had written something so ridiculous, he’d have gotten fired.”
The article concludes with verdicts from three big name scholars. Kenneth L. Pomeranz, the author of “The Great Divergence,” a book that tries to explain China’s lagging behind Great Britain in terms of a lack of coal rather than cojones, says that Clark’s argument “is significantly weaker, and maybe just not necessary, if you can trace the changes in the institutions.” Weaker? How about just plain idiotic.
Robert Brenner says that Dr. Clark’s idea of genes for capitalist behavior was “quite a speculative leap.” Indeed, so was the Bell Curve.
Sam Bowles, a Santa Fe economist who had morphed from a kind of weak tea Marxism into mainstream liberalism, says that he was “not averse to the idea” that genetic transmission of capitalist values is important, but that the evidence for it was not yet there. “It’s just that we don’t have any idea what it is, and everything we look at ends up being awfully small.” So, apparently, are the brains of big-time academics.
July 24, 2007
Verene A. Shepherd and Veront M. Mitchell: see capitalism and slavery as intertwined
In the concluding paragraph of my last post on the role of sugar in the transition to capitalism, I alluded to the spread of new technology in the sugar plantations of the British Empire. By comparisons, the “high farming” estates of the British countryside were quite modest. Except for the introduction of turnips and clover in three-field crop rotation, floating meadows and Jethro Tull’s seed drill, British farms were not particularly innovative and when they did incorporate these innovations (which were actually very beneficial from the standpoint of sustainability), it was at the expense of profit. If such farms were the leading edge of capitalism, it was a very odd capitalism indeed.
The anthology “Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom,” edited by Verene A. Shepherd, includes an article by Veront Satchell titled “Innovations in sugar-cane mill technology in Jamaica.” The book evolved out of a series of seminars at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Shepherd and Satchell are Afro-Caribbeans who are obviously much influenced by the work of fellow Afro-Caribbean Marxists CLR James and Eric Williams. This trend starts off on a completely different premise than Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Rather than seeing the forced labor and trade monopolies of the mercantile period as “pre-capitalist”, they see it as a necessary first stage in the development of capitalism, a period that Karl Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation.” The high farming of the British countryside belongs to this period as well. Classical Marxism, including the work of Maurice Dobb, always saw it this way. It is only in the Brenner thesis that the colonial world becomes unimportant.
Satchell gets straight to the point in the opening paragraph of his article:
A popularly held view by Marxists and some economic historians is that slavery impeded or retarded technological changes. Innovations, they argue, were incompatible with slavery. This incompatibility thesis is rooted in the prevailing assumption that technological change is synonymous with technologies that are aimed at saving labour. According to the argument, then, in a slave society such as Jamaica’s, with an assumed abundance of cheap coerced labour, it would be improvident to introduce labour-saving devices, as this would result in a displacement of labour. Such displaced labour, without work to fill the resultant leisure time, would engage in revolts and other acts of violence. Since there was not much evidence of the implementation of labour-saving inventions (and given the assumption that an absence of these meant an absence of technical progress), the theory concludes that slavery negated technical change.
This chapter is a contribution to the general debate on slavery and technological changes or innovations in slave societies. By presenting an analysis of empirical evidence of technological innovations which were adopted and adapted to sugar-cane mills in Jamaica during the period 1760-1830, the technical capacity of this Caribbean slave society is highlighted.
In accordance with Sidney W. Mintz, Satchell views the sugar plantation as a factory set in a field. Within this agrarian factory, the vertical three-roller crushing mill was the key machine, as essential to its operation as the cotton gin was to the textile mill. As seen in the drawing below from the late eighteenth century, this was a far more complex piece of machinery than any found on large British farms.
The most complex piece of machinery during the “agrarian revolution” was Jethro Tull’s seed drill seen below.
In keeping with the economic rationality of the sugar plantation, a sword was kept close to the crushing mill in case a slave’s hand got cut in the rollers. It was better to lose a hand than stop production. Arguably, the workers involved with the crushing mill had much more in common with Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” than any field hand on a British farm during the same period.
Between 1760 and 1830, the Jamaican Legislature passed 49 bills granting patents for improved methods in sugar and rum production. Of these, 34 were for innovations in the infernal sugar crushing mills. It should be said that there were also many agricultural patents at the same time in the mother country, but they were mostly concerned with how to prepare manure or improve irrigation. Machinery patents were in the distinct minority. The most important patents in Jamaica were undoubtedly those that involved the application of steam power to the sugar mill. It would take at least 30 years for steam power to be as important in the British textile mills, a cornerstone of the industrial revolution.
Eventually they even came up with an invention that would prevent workers’ hands from getting caught in the crushing mill. The so-called “dumbturner” was a circular screen that was attached to the upper and lower frames of the roller and that fed the cane into the crushing mills. The slave owners were forced to devise such a critical part for social and political reasons. Due to the efforts of the British abolitionists, the supply of slave labor had slowed to a trickle. In keeping with the economic rationality of supply and demand, it made more sense to save a slave’s hand. One wonders if the sugar plantation owner had more of a sense of their long-term class interests than the American ruling class that is fighting socialized medicine tooth and nail.
In keeping with the interesting findings in Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science,” Satchell reveals that many of the patents were the inspiration of artisans working on the mills, most of whom were slaves rather than scientists off in a laboratory. The slaves themselves occupied a sort of netherworld between abject field work and free labor. Satchell writes:
Nevertheless, slaves were the principal artisans, and they worked in foundries. My considered view here is that the slaves actively participated in inventing new techniques and equipment pertinent to the sugar industry. My position is based on two premises. First (as stated before), slaves were the principal artisans in the island. In Jamaica there was a paucity of White artisans, so there developed an almost total reliance on the artisan slaves. Planters relied heavily on slave labour for all aspects of plantation life; it is for this reason that Douglas Hall concludes that the slave was a ‘multi-purpose tool’.33 Barry Higman notes that at the time of emancipation in 1834 compensation was paid for 17,873 artisan slaves, representing 5.74 per cent of the total slave population. These included blacksmiths, millwrights, coopers, wheelwrights, masons, plumbers, carpenters, coppersmiths and engineers.
Many of these slaves came from an area of Africa that had a highly sophisticated understanding of metallurgy. The West African coast, from which most Jamaican slaves originated, had developed complex skills in working iron and became blacksmiths in the Americas, either free or slave. Their activities included the manufacturing and repair of machinery, as well as making arms and ammunition. One sugar planter reported that his slaves “perform all manner of foundry work the greater portion of which cannot be performed by any other establishment in the island.” Indeed, as the former slaves of Cuba would eventually discover, they could do all this without the plantation owner himself.