Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 20, 2016

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

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

Ricardo Duchesne

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

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

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

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

However, Duchesne now believes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 19, 2016

Ellen Meiksins Wood: a political assessment

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

Ellen Meiksins Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, who can argue with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2016

Deconstructing cannibalism

Filed under: indigenous,transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:26 pm

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu: “How the West Came to Rule”, p. 129

However, political and legal questions were not the primary challenge posed by subjugating the Amerindians. Instead, it was the more existential questions regarding the ontology of the Other — with, of course, determinant (geo)political and legal effects — that proved most problematic, destroying and creating roughly equal measure. This was a problem that touched on all aspects of Native American being, including fundamentally their ‘cultures’. The various challenges that this presented to the European colonialists are the subject of this section.

To better understand the ontological separation of Europe as a discrete sociocultural entity, we must trace a specific challenge found in the colonial confrontation against which these ideologies were created: the resistance of indigenous communities in the Americas. As Silvia Federici argues, the debates among Spanish jurists that took place in the mid-16th century over the ontological status of Amerindians (and therefore also ‘Europeans’) “would have been unthinkable without an ideological campaign representing the latter as animals and demons”. Travel literature was embellished with bestial, diabolical and nonhuman imagery (cyclops, troglodytes, pygmies, people with tails, giants) as a way of sharpening the differences of local populations from Europeans. In this period, cannibalism, polygamy, devil worship, sodomy and bestiality became European obsessions, since they “seemed a perversion of the law of nature.” The ontological separation of Europeans from Amerindians at the heart of the ideological innovations of sovereignty (more on this below), European identity and Eurocentrism was therefore based on a priori attempt to demonise the local populations of the Americas.

    * * * *

Written on December 6, 1998:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian

By Louis Proyect

The evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare not only set The Tempest on a Caribbean island, but included a native American major character. The play’s ambivalent attitude toward this indigenous slave Caliban serves not only as a useful window into 17th century racial attitudes, it also helps us understand our own period as well. The name Caliban, it should be added, is regarded as a form of “Carib,” the name of the original inhabitants on the islands invaded by Columbus.

In 1609 a fleet of nine ships set out from England to shore up John Smith’s Virginia colony, the first English settlement in the new world. As most people already know from their high-school propaganda, Smith was condemned to death by Powhatan, but was saved at the last minute when his 13 year old daughter Pocahontas interceded on Smith’s behalf. The British returned the favor a couple of years later by burning down Indian villages and attempting to enslave them.

One of the nine ships was separated during a violent storm and ended up on Bermuda. Pamphlets were published that gave a highly imaginative account of the shipwrecked crew’s experiences. Evidently Shakespeare got the idea for his play from this background material since The Tempest is a tale about shipwrecked Europeans colonizing an American island and enslaving the native population.

The other important influence on the play was Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” an essay that argues that American Indians lived a naturally virtuous life uncorrupted by civilization. Montaigne wrote:

Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruit are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas in truth, we ought rather to call those wild, whose natures we have changed by our artifice, and diverted from the common order. In those, the genuine, most useful and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and sprightly, which we have helped to degenerate in these, by accommodating them to the pleasure of our own corrupted palate.

Although Montaigne was one of the great writers of the 17th century, he could be longwinded as was so often the case back when people had longer attention spans than they do today in the television age. So allow me to reduce what he was saying into a soundbite: “Frenchmen have no business calling the Indians barbarians, because they live in harmony with nature. If anything, we can learn from them, since our own world is so artificial.”

While giving credit to Montaigne as Europe’s first multiculturalist, we must at the same time recognize that he was also guilty of a terrible slander against the Indian, committed mainly out of ignorance. Montaigne assumed that the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil were cannibals, when there really is no evidence to support this. A sailor named Hans Standen spent 12 months on the South American coast and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about Tupinamba cannibalism that Montaigne accepted at face value.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. I personally have been studying Spanish on and off for 35 years and still don’t have it nailed down.

And what accounts they are! He says that when the tribe captures a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” That is what we would call a major mood disorder. Standen also said that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism. (For a full and highly informative discussion of how Europeans got the idea from Standen and other fabulists that cannibalism existed in the New World, I recommend W. Arens’ “The Man-Eating Myth Myth: Anthropology and Anthropagy, New York, 1979.)

(One other interesting note on European superstitions about the Tupinamba: They decided to name the newly discovered river the Amazon because their fantasies about fierce Tupinamba women reminded them of the Amazon women of Greek myth. Amazon is the Greek word for “without breast.” It was believed that the Amazons cut off their right breasts in order to allow full extension of their bowstrings in combat. It is difficult to explain the irrational notions of the primitive ancient Greeks, who invented all sorts of absurd myths. We must, however, resist the temptation to explain this in terms of some sort of genetic deficiency in the European race, since as we know they are capable of civilization if educated properly.)

Since Shakespeare represents Caliban in a totally unflattering manner–an “ignoble savage” so to speak, one is tempted to conclude that the play is an attempt to answer Montaigne. As might be expected, Shakespeare has a much more complex understanding of his characters which comes through in the drama itself.

When we first meet Caliban, he complains about how he was disenfranchised by the European invader: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me.” We also learn that Sycorax had worshipped the god Setebos, who was known to Shakespeare as the god of the Patagonian Indians through Magellan’s account in the “History of Travel.”

When Trinculo, a shipwrecked court jester, stumbles across Caliban on the beach, he regards him as some kind of monster. It should be added that Shakespeare’s stage directions stipulate that Caliban should appear as some kind of half-man, half-beast. After recoiling in horror from Caliban, Trinculo considers bringing the monster back to England where he can be displayed in a freak show:

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man: when they will not give a doit (coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.

The court jester is referring to the practice of “exhibiting” Indians for a fee in late 16th century England. Such “freak shows” were highly profitable investments and were a regular feature of colonial policy under King James I.

Caliban tries to ingratiate himself with Trinculo, who might liberate him from Prospero, his current master and lord of the island. What services can Caliban offer? Probably the most important need for any shipwrecked sailor or settler is how to find food, and so Caliban tells him:

I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts; Show thee a jay’s nest, and how to snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll get thee To clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?

Powhatan had provided the same services to John Smith’s colony and with results that were just as predictable. According to Judith Nies, in “Native American History,” (Ballantine, 1996),after half of the colonists died in the first year, Powhatan took pity and “saved them with donations of food and taught them how to fertilize their fields with seaweed; to plant corn, beans pumpkins, squash; to bake clams and beans and corn in a hole in the ground.” Once the starving British colonists recovered their strength, they set about the task of enslaving or exterminating their benefactors.

The main conflict in The Tempest is between the exiled Prospero and the men against whom he seeks vengeance. With his magical powers, he torments them with apparitions as a warmup to killing them. When his daughter falls in love with one of them, he has a change of heart and decides to free them, along with Caliban. Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes be as simplistic as a Saturday morning cartoon, but he compensates with powerful language, including this speech by his daughter Miranda, who in some sense is Pocahantas to his Powhatan: After receiving a promise from her father that the men will be spared, she expresses her happiness:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it.

The play ends with Prospero deciding to return to Europe, where his daughter will marry her lover, the son of the man who was responsible for his exile. He also decides to decolonize his island and emancipate the slaves: “Set Caliban and his companions free.” His final words are an ode to freedom:

I’ll deliver all; And promise you calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expedition, that shall catch Your royal fleet far off. My Ariel, chick, That is your charge: then to the elements Be free, and fare thou well!. . .

Since we only know Shakespeare through the words in his plays, it is a little difficult to come to any conclusions about his social and political views. One thing we can be clear about, however, and that his compassion for humanity and a desire for justice. The Tempest’s happy ending involves setting people free, a rather unambiguous message. In this act, the colonizer sets himself free as well. Prospero not only gives up his island, but relinquishes his magical powers that enabled him to control Caliban. In the epilogue, he states, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own.”

His very final words plead for forgiveness from the audience: “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

It has been said that Melville is to the United States as Shakespeare is to England. Not only are the two the greatest writers their country produced, they are also–for their age–deeply humanitarian and progressive. Shakespeare’s call for decolonization and emancipation mirrors Melville’s own commitment to the cause of South Sea indigenous peoples, whom he discovered in his early sailing days. His challenge to conventional notions of “civilization” and “savagery” mirror the themes of The Tempest and the Montaigne essay on cannibalism that inspired it.

There were two great influences on Melville’s prose. One was the King James Bible, with its beautiful poetry and insights into human nature. The other was Shakespeare. Melville, who hated snobbery of any sort, saw Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. His Shakespeare was not the precious, aristocratic taste-maker of the kind so often found on Mobil’s Masterpiece Theater. Melville saw Shakespeare as “one of us.” Writing his best friend and editor Evert Duyckinck, Melville said:

I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.

With these words Melville declares that Shakespeare was a progressive artist, even if he was the servant of the Elizabethan aristocracy, who paid his wage and kept him “muzzled.” In the United States of Melville’s day, the artist suffered no such inhibitions. The American Revolution of 1776 had broken all ties with the English aristocracy and artists could write freely.

Alas, the American Revolution of 1776 had not set the slaves free, nor would it protect the rights of the indigenous peoples. The question that Melville was wrestling with for his entire career as a writer was whether the soul of the American republic could be saved. Moby Dick is an indictment of the country he was growing more and more estranged from. The capitalist whaling-ship which destroyed great whales wantonly, while oppressing the working-class crew, was a symbol of the rot at the heart of American society.

Melville was no social scientist, but his alienation from American capitalism was clearly expressed through his fiction. Moby Dick was written in 1851 and by this time there could be no mistake about the direction of the country. It was becoming wealthy through slave labor, subjugation of the Indian and domination of the world’s oceans, just as England had done before it. This would very likely explain why three of Moby Dick’s most sympathetic characters are Doggo, an African, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Queequeg, a Polynesian. The final scene in Moby Dick depicts the whaling-ship Pequod, named after the exterminated New England Indian tribe, sinking into the ocean after the white whale has rammed it into oblivion. In an apt symbol for the fate it deserved, we see Tashtego’s tomahawk has nailed an American flag into the mast of sinking ship.

People who desire to change American, British or any other repressive society are obliged to consult the great literature of their country, not in order to become “cultured” but in order to get to the living essence of what makes us tick as a people.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

* * * *

This article appeared originally in Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy19.html).

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

October 18, 2004

Herman Melville, Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life, Penguin Books, NY, Reprint edition February 1996, ISBN 0-14043-488-7, 328 pages.

(Swans – October 18, 2004)   After the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the Melville family, the eighteen-year-old Herman was forced to fend for himself. After bouncing from teaching to surveying to civil engineering jobs, he finally signed up on the whaler Acushnet and sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on January 3, 1841. While spending the next four years at sea, first as a whaler and then as a sailor in the US Navy, Melville began to conceive of a new career for himself as a writer.

On June 23, 1842, Melville and a companion jumped ship from the Acushnet and made their way to the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. There they sought refuge with the reputedly hospitable Happaa peoples. After taking a wrong turn in a forest, they wound up in the midst of their rivals, the Typees, who had a reputation for ferocity and cannibalism. The four weeks spent among the Typees inspired Melville to write the eponymous Typee, a novel that defies 19th century conventions and which foreshadows many of the themes that would appear in subsequent works such as Moby Dick. It is a clarion call against racism and colonialism, as well as an inchoate search for an alternative to the inhuman economic system that had ruined his once patrician family as well as many other Americans of all races.

While Typee incorporates many fictional elements, there is no doubt that his description of life on the Acushnet (called the Dolly in the novel) is very close to the truth:

The usage on board of her was tyrannical; the sick had been inhumanly neglected; the provisions had been doled out in scanty allowance; and her cruises were unreasonably protracted. The captain was the author of the abuses; it was in vain to think that he would either remedy them, or alter his conduct, which was arbitrary and violent in the extreme. His prompt reply to all complaints and remonstrances was–the butt-end of a handspike, so convincingly administered as effectually to silence the aggrieved party.

After a long arduous trek through the mountains of Nuku Hiva, Tommo (a character based on Melville) and his companion Toby stumble across the Typees who live in a secluded valley. The two sailors are practically adopted by the villagers at once and treated as visiting dignitaries:

All the inhabitants of the valley treated me with great kindness; but as to the household of Marheyo, with whom I was now permanently domiciled, nothing could surpass their efforts to minister to my comfort. To the gratification of my palate they paid the most unwearied attention. They continually invited me to partake of food, and when after eating heartily I declined the viands they continued to offer me, they seemed to think that my appetite stood in need of some piquant stimulant to excite its activity.

The contrast between the oppressive conditions of life in capitalist society, called “civilization,” and the Stone Age affluence (as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it) enjoyed by the Typees is drawn throughout the novel. After watching a Typee man laboriously start a fire by rubbing two sticks, Melville observes:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable cannibal education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who through the instrumentality of a lucifer performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wit’s end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without troubling their parents, pluck from the branches of every tree around them.

After noticing that the Typees lacked a concept of personal property or crime and that they left valued spears and carvings about for the taking, Melville wondered aloud if civilization was really that much of an advance over savagery:

Civilization does not engross all the virtues of humanity: she has not even her full share of them. They flourish in greater abundance and attain greater strength among many barbarous people. The hospitality of the wild Arab, the courage of the North American Indian, and the faithful friendship of some of the Polynesian nations, far surpass anything of a similar kind among the polished communities of Europe. If truth and justice, and the better principles of our nature, cannot exist unless enforced by the statute-book, how are we to account for the social condition of the Typees? So pure and upright were they in all the relations of life, that entering their valley, as I did, under the most erroneous impressions of their character, I was soon led to exclaim in amazement: ‘Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales! They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.’ I will frankly declare that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marquesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before entertained. But alas! since then I have been one of the crew of a man-of-war, and the pent-up wickedness of five hundred men has nearly overturned all my previous theories.

Ultimately Melville casts doubt on the possibility that cannibalism was practiced by the Typee, despite the allegations of missionaries and sailors who had preceded him to the island and who were far more prejudiced against the “savages.” This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the history of colonialism. During the early years of colonial expansion, subjugation of native peoples was considered appropriate if they were beyond redemption, especially if they were reported to be cannibals. Hence, such reports on such tendencies were accepted often at face value.

In The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, anthropologist W. Arens debunks such testimonies and concludes — with Melville — that cannibalism is an extremely rare phenomenon in precapitalist society. Arens tells the story of a sailor named Hans Standen who spent 12 months in Brazil in the 1600s and wrote a travel book filled with lurid tales about cannibalism among the Tupinamba people. He is everything that Melville is not.

Standen’s account is so filled with inconsistencies that they alone serve to debunk the notion of cannibalism in Brazil. By his own admission, he only spent 12 months in Tupinamba territory but apparently learned their language well enough in this time to record their accounts. And what accounts they are! He says that when they capture a man from another tribe, their own women force themselves sexually on him. If the woman becomes pregnant, the child is raised as a Tupinamba, but during adulthood “when the mood seizes them, they kill and eat it.” He also claimed that the Indians could not count past five, which in his mind was sufficient proof of a savagery consistent with cannibalism.

Whatever the truth about cannibalism among the Typees, they are mere slouches when it comes to the savagery of the invader. Some experts believe that Western colonialism is responsible for the reduction of the native Marquesan population from 100,000 at its height to only 4,865 in 1882. One such assailant of the native peoples was Captain David Porter of the US Navy who seized the islands shortly after the War of 1812. While at first acknowledging the generosity and pacific nature of the islanders, he soon found it necessary to bring them under his thumb as part of an overall scheme to exploit the Marquesas economically. When a chief of the Teii peoples expresses his defiance to the naval officer, Porter thrusts a musket into his face and demands an apology. His words are a virtual credo of the colonizer: “My aim was to render all the tribes subservient to my views, and I thought it necessary to check the manner of Mouina, lest it became contagious, and I should find a difficulty in keeping them in that subjugation by which only we could render ourselves secure.” (Quoted in T. Walter Herbert Jr.’s Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization.)

While Herman Melville never achieved the sort of superstar status of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, he too attempted a career as a public lecturer. Part of his repertory was a talk on the South Seas. Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes from a “phonographist” from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas. His reply:

Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside — splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.


December 11, 2015

Alex Anievas: ‘Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism: Beyond the Eurocentric Cage’

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

July 26, 2015

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu on the Brenner thesis

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

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

The Brenner Thesis: Explanation and Critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2015

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor,Pekar,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
The Tide is Turning

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism


Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

read full article

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

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

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.

December 11, 2014

Slavery and Capitalism

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

A passage from this extraordinary book:

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote half a century ago and many scholars, such as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman, are today confirming, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” The expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West was still years away, but slavery as it then existed in the southern states was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves’ lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities, and botanical gardens.

The use of slave labor in the North was ending by the time Amasa was building his Perseverance, but throughout New England there were merchant families and port towns—Salem, Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, and New London among them—that thrived on the trade. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts a Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, which were boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Other New Englanders benefited indirectly, building the slave ships, weaving the “negro cloth” and cobbling the shoes to dress slaves, or catching and salting the fish used to feed them in the southern states and Caribbean islands. Haiti’s plantations purchased 63 percent of their dried fish and 80 percent of their pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seamen, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”


December 8, 2014

A response to an Ellen Meiksins Wood article in Jacobin

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm

Ellen Meiksins Wood

In a New Left Review interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, the 25-year-old founder of Jacobin magazine, we learn that the contributors are drawn partially from a pool of “grad students, young adjunct professors or tenured professors”. That being the case, I wonder what they make of a 4700 word article by Ellen Meiksins Wood that appears on the Jacobin website titled “Capitalism’s Gravediggers”. Despite its focus on ostensibly economic matters, it is distinguished by a breathtaking lack of economic data. I wonder if any of those “young adjunct professors” would have the brass to submit an article to a JSTOR type journal so bereft of evidence unless of course it was targeted to those categorized as philosophy.

I should add this is not the first time I have noticed such an absence from Wood. She seems to be allergic to statistics, an odd disorder for one specializing in political economy.

This article, which has appeared in various permutations over the years, tends to make assertions such as this:

A substantial class of English agricultural producers, mainly tenant farmers, had emerged on the ruins of the peasantry, which had seen its land expropriated. Separated from their means of subsistence, these agrarian capitalists were dependent on the market, and whatever their own consumption needs, were therefore required to meet those imperatives.

You would think that Wood might have taken the trouble to substantiate the claim that market relations were unique to the period in question since it is not only the basis for British exceptionalism but the “big bang” that got the capitalist system going. Without tenant farming based on short-term leases—literally—there would be no industrial revolution, no imperialism, and no commercials for auto insurance 5 times an hour on prime-time television.

By contrast, I just read a 65-page article by Eric Mielants titled “Perspectives on the Origins of Merchant Capitalism in Europe” that appeared in the Fall 2000 Review, a journal put out by the Fernand Braudel Center. Mielants, a critic of the Brenner thesis, writes:

After investigating data available in the Domesday book, the economic historian Snooks estimates that 40% of the economy in eleventh-century England was involved in market activities (the market being the sector where “all the major economic decisions in England were made”) and 60% in subsistence.

Mielants adds in a footnote: “Snooks estimates that 32.3 % of the English market sector in 1086 was rural and 7.8% was urban, hereby arriving at a total of 40.1% (1995: 40).” And that’s a good three centuries before Brenner’s big bang occurred. You would have had to assume that market relations only deepened over three centuries but prior to the introduction of tenant farming.

I should add that the References section (see below) of Mielants’s article is 19 pages long. Given what I have seen in the article, I am positive that he has immersed himself in this material over his relatively brief career. That is what I call scholarship as opposed to the sort of vaporous theorizing that Ellen Meiksins Woods is so good at.

Screen shot 2014-12-08 at 6.51.05 AM

In the 33 articles I have written about the Brenner thesis (aka Political Marxism) over the years, I have tried to be scrupulous about providing evidence even though my articles were written for popular consumption on the Internet. For example, in an article titled “British Farming and Market Imperatives”, I wrote:

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

It might be useful to see how Karl Marx wrote about these issues in volume one of Capital. In chapter 29, titled “The Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer”, he supports his arguments with three rather meaty footnotes and that was not even to cover his ass if he intended to submit it for peer review.

Marx’s main interest in fact is the impact it had on the creation of dispossessed farmers now available for wage labor. In the preceding chapter (“Bloody Legislation Against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing Down of Wages by Acts of Parliament”), he hones in on this:

A tariff of wages was fixed by law for town and country, for piece work and day work. The agricultural labourers were to hire themselves out by the year, the town ones “in open market.” It was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment, to pay higher wages than those fixed by the statute, but the taking of higher wages was more severely punished than the giving them. [So also in Sections 18 and 19 of the Statute of Apprentices of Elizabeth, ten days’ imprisonment is decreed for him that pays the higher wages, but twenty-one days for him that receives them.]

Compare this description of the conditions facing the dispossessed with Woods’s assertion about the primacy of market relations: “Capitalism is a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life.” That is true to some extent. The lash of the market coerces modern workers to accept minimum wages and to work in unsafe conditions. If you are a high school dropout, that’s what the market dictates. But in the early stages of capitalism, it was not the market that ruled. It was “extra-economic” forces that set wages. Leaving aside the debate with the “Political Marxists” over the exact nature of chattel slavery, we should never forget that the 16th century worker was literally forced by the gun to accept a below-market wage.

In chapter 30, titled “Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital”, Marx acknowledges that the emergence of large-scale farming brought about improvements: “the soil brought forth as much or more produce, after as before, because the revolution in the conditions of landed property was accompanied by improved methods of culture, greater co-operation, concentration of the means of production.”

However, the real breakthrough was the creation of a class of wage workers who could now be made available for industry: “The peasant, expropriated and cast adrift, must buy their value in the form of wages, from his new master, the industrial capitalist. That which holds good of the means of subsistence holds with the raw materials of industry dependent upon home agriculture. They were transformed into an element of constant capital.“

If according to Marx the creation of a proletariat was a critical element—a sine qua non in some ways—for the origins of capitalism, it is almost besides the point for Wood and Brenner. In a Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism”, she writes that the term “agrarian capitalism” has no role for the nascent industrial proletariat that Marx dwells upon. She says, “This requires some explanation.” I would say so.

She concurs with Marx that: “Without that dispossessed non-agrarian work force, there would have been no mass consumer market for the cheap everyday goods—such as food and textiles—that drove the process of industrialization in England.”

But what separates Marx from Wood and Brenner was his laser-like focus on the evolution of the modern industrial system out of the handicrafts and manufacturing that preceded it historically. Chapter 15 of Capital is titled “Machinery and Modern Industry”. It puts this process under a microscope. While Britain always had a textile sector, it was only through the simultaneous development of labor-saving devices, including the windmills and watermills that could drive machinery, that the industrial revolution became possible. Wageworkers driven from their land became part of the early manufacturing system that eventually turned into the modern factory system.

To make such a transformation complete, capital was needed. A primitive accumulation that swept the self-sustaining farmer off his land was accompanied by another form of primitive accumulation that yielded the financial wherewithal to create the factories where they toiled. As the ultimate rebuttal to Political Marxism, Marx made it clear where the capital came from in chapter 31, titled appropriately enough “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. None of it was based on market relations. It was based on the gun and the ball-and-chain, the ultimate forms of “extra-economic” coercion that made all the rest possible. This was the real big bang, not lease farming in the 15th century British countryside:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.


December 4, 2014

When slaves were paid wages

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:01 am

(This is an excerpt from Greg Grandin’s beautifully written and mind-blowing “The Empire of Necessity”, a book that digs into the history that Herman Melville fictionalized in “Benito Cereno”. I had a suspicion from what I had read that the book would address the slavery-as-capitalism debate that is part of the broader debate around the Brenner thesis. The excerpt focuses on the role of slavery in Latin America, where it became instrumental in the development of capitalism on the continent but even more interestingly a particular form of the “peculiar institution” where slaves were paid wages.)

Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution, though not exactly in the same way it was in plantation zones of the Caribbean, coastal Brazil, or, later, the U.S. South. As in those areas, Africans and African-descendant peoples might be used to produce commercial exports for Europe, mining gold, for instance, diving for pearls in the Caribbean and the Pacific, drying hides, or cutting cane.” But a large number, per-haps even most, of Africans arriving under the new “free trade in blacks” system were put to work creating goods traded among the colonies.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside of Bogota. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used to carry Chilean wheat to Lima markets. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brickmakers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants. Others, like Montevideo’s doleful itinerants, took to the streets, peddling goods they either made themselves or sold on commission.

It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The driving of more and more slaves inland, across the continent, the opening up of new slave roads and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fixed but fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin of a new commercialized one. Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money, at least in a way. It wasn’t so much that the value of indi-vidual slaves was standardized in relation to currency. Slaves were the standard: when appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, slaves usually accounted for over half its worth, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.

The world was changing fast, old lines of rank and status were blurring, and slaves, along with livestock and land, often appeared to be the last substantial things. Slaves didn’t just create wealth: as items of conspicuous consumption for a rising merchant class, they displayed wealth. And since some slaves in Spanish America, especially those in cities like Montevideo and Buenos Aires, were paid wages, they were also consumers, spending their money on items that arrived in ships with other slaves or maybe even, in a few instances, with themselves.12

Endnote 12. My understanding of the importance of slavery to South America’s market revolution is indebted to Adelman’s Sovereignty and Revolution. The deregulation the slave trade was a central component in Spain’s efforts to adapt the colonial system to the “pressures of ramped-up inter-imperial competition.” But, according to Adelman, unlike the large-scale, export-focused plantations found in the U.S. South and the Caribbean, slavery in South America linked together “ever more diverse and decentralized commercial hubs” throughout the whole of the continent. “It could be argued,” Adelman writes, “drawing on Ira Berlin, that South America’s expanding hinterlands were slave societies (not simply societies with slaves) where slaves were central to productive processes. Plantations existed, but they were embedded in more diversified social systems,” with smaller establishments and hybrid forms of wage and coerced labor. “Slavery helped support rapidly commercialized, relatively diffused and adaptive production in the South American hinterlands integrated by the flow of merchant capital. And as it did so, it helped colonies become increasingly autonomous economically and socially, from metropolitan Spanish and Portuguese command.” In other words, what became American freedom—independence from Spain—was made possible by American slavery (p. 59). Such an approach opens up new ways to compare U.S. and Spanish American slavery and allows for consideration of the economic importance of slavery without reproducing old debates about whether slavery was capitalist or compatible with capitalism. In the United States, historians have recently returned to an older scholarly tradition emphasizing the importance of slavery to the making of modern capitalism examining slavery not just as a system of labor or a generator of profit but as a driver of finance capital and real estate speculation, as well as looking at how plantations served as organizational models for “innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management,” as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman write, in “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism,” in Bloomberg, January 24, 2012 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-24/how-slavery-led-to-modern-capitalism-echoes.html). See also Beckert and Rockman’s forthcoming edited collection “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development,” to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press, as well as earlier work, including Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944, and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York: Viking, 1985; Sidney Mintz, “Slavery and Emergent Capitalism,” in Slavery in the New World, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969. See also Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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