Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


I’m mired in the selection process at the moment, but couldn’t resist replying (too) quickly to john’s comment under the Is Slavery Capitalist? post below, which was itself a response to a discussion of this issue over at Nate’s. I realised after posting that I should really lift the exchange to a more visible place, particularly given that I’m unlikely to be generating other content this week to draw any attention to the blog… So – john’s comment first, and my response below, with apologies that I’ve not at all fully addressed the points john has raised…

john wrote:
After having abandoned the discussion over at Nate’s I see it’s popped up over here as well. That’s very satisfying, as these are my two favorite blogs.

I’ll try to summarize what would have been my response to Nate (sorry Nate for not getting back to you, i fell into disuse for a couple of months). I’m basically not sure what’s really at stake in the question of whether slavery is capitalist. In my experience arguments between Marxists about what is and what isn’t capitalist tend to become fights over different definitions of capitalism that can be extracted from Marx, but since Marx clearly never provided a definitive definition such arguments tend to have an irresolvable quality at best, and at worst become a matter of racking up quotations on either side. My worry is that in all these definitional disputes the actual historical object of enquiry (whether it be slavery, or wage-labor based production, or indeed global trade) gets lost.

So when NP defines capitalism as “a global system, effecting global forms of compulsion – and effecting this compulsion precisely in and through a range of apparently contradictory practices playing out in various regions, through apparently dissimilar forms of everyday practice on the ground” – my inclination is to just to say, well that seems like an extremely broad definition, which would tend to push the origin of capitalism pretty far back in history, and even potentially apply to some ancient “global” systems, but whatever, I’ll roll with it. But the point is that there is no necessary relation between this definition and all those non-linear “trends” that Marx identifies in Capital (I’m assuming that “a range of apparently contradictory practices” is not meant to be synonymous with those specific trends). So that if we are to accept this definition then we need to come up with another term or set of terms for specifying to what extent those specific trends are applicable in any particular social arrangement of production/reproduction. My argument is that most of the trends Marx identifies in Capital do not apply in “societies” or regions dominated by chattel slavery. Thus for instance the tendency for social labor to be mediated by the exchange of commodities does not apply since the slaves do not exchange anything and their labor is not redistributed automatically by the market, but only by the command of the slave-owner who is partially insulated from competition in respect to his allocation of labor (because it is not simply an input, but also an asset for him). This also means that there is no simple reproduction in slavery, and no tendency for necessary labor to be reduced to a minimum, because the slave (because it is an asset) will be supplied with food whether he/she produces or not, and is in this respect not dispossessed, and under no compulsion from the relations of production themselves (and must thus be directly compelled by physical force). Last but not least, there is also no tendency in chattel slavery to replace labor with machinery (no rising org. composition), since it is not easy for the slave owner to expel labor from the production process (due to transaction costs), and the resulting endemic problem of surplus labor is most efficiently resolved by diversifying output rather than specializing. All of these points are made by Marx in the Results. I agree that it is probably wrong (and of little import) to say that because these tendencies don’t apply under chattel slavery that chattel slavery is not capitalist. But then we still need a theoretical vocabulary to refer to this non-application of tendencies which Marx thought were central to the history of the CMP. I’ve toyed with the idea of saying chattel slavery is “formal subsumption” but that doesn’t seem to really work. Any ideas?

Saturday, 20/11/2010 at 6:38 am

N Pepperell wrote:
Hey john – good to see you again :-) I’ll have to apologise that this may not be a very thorough response – I’m in disuse a bit myself at the moment, working on a selection-related deadline, so my time online is very constricted right now…

In terms of the stakes: yes, this sort of question is generally approached either from a historian’s perspective – how far back can we date the origins of capitalism? – or perhaps from a textual/pedantic perspective – whose quotations trump whose? I’m not uninterested in the historical issue (that was my original training, and I did a lot of work starting out on the question of why historical markets differ from modern ones – i.e., why “the market” we have now carries different consequences than various other sorts of complex markets in other historical periods). But for me the definitional stake in this sort of debate relates more to how we think about transformation, and what it would mean to develop post-capitalist institutions.

One of the things that’s concerned me all the way along in this work, but that gets occluded – or, more accurately, just hasn’t been particularly strongly expressed – on the blog, is the issue of what happens, what sorts of institutional proposals get put forward and implemented, in those rare historical moments when substantial radical change suddenly becomes possible. Often, transformative movements are stopped by sheer hard power, but when this doesn’t happen, when movements gain power themselves are able to implement substantial institutional transformations, the changes they will implement will depend greatly on how these movements understand what capitalism “is”, and therefore how they understand what it means to construct a post-capitalist society.

So, if capitalism “is” property relations, then changing the structure of ownership will abolish capitalism. If capitalism “is” wage labour, then changing the structure of industrial labour will abolish capitalism. Etc.

What I’m working toward – and pretty much everything published here is a very preliminary step in this process, since there’s just a huge amount of underbrush clearing that’s needed first, to clarify what’s happening in Capital as a text, etc. – is a specification of the specific aggregate social trends in terms of which capitalism can be defined, so that it becomes possible to ask a little more clearly whether some specific institutional configuration is likely to generate those exact same trends, even as it may also make extensive transformations on the ground in other ways.

One of the trends I have written a bit about here and there on the blog is the way in which capitalism pivots around human labour in a manner that Marx regarded, I think plausibly, as historically unique. Looked at from a great height, and over a period of time, capitalism figures as something that is constantly displacing and reconstituting the need for the expenditure of human labour, in a way that is disconnected from the “material” need to expend human labour as a motive force for material reproduction. The practices that generate this overarching historical pattern are quite diverse – they generate immediate consequences that can diverge from the aggregate pattern, and that can also diverge from the immediate consequences of other practices required to generate the overarching pattern. If someone looks at capitalism from too narrow a perspective, they will therefore see “trends” that are, in practice, checked by the operation of other, conflicting trends – and, if they extrapolate from one set of trends without taking into account the implications of conflictual trends that play out in other aspects of social practice at the same time, they will misunderstand where the whole aggregate system is heading.

If that makes any sense :-)

So on one level, I’m saying: yes, there are enormous on the ground, practical differences between production mediated by slave labour and production mediated by wage labour – and these differences should be analysed, and might in fact be possible to mine for the different potentials they suggest for future social development.

On another level, I’m saying: capitalism is an indirect effect of a wide array of concrete practices and, where this isn’t understood, people are extremely likely to decide to target their political energies toward a concrete aspect of the overarching system which can be comfortably abolished without particularly touching the system itself.

Now: I don’t actually /object/ to someone deciding to focus political energy on a small aspect of the more complex whole. I think in the short term this is simply necessary, and it can also make a life-or-death difference on the ground to many many people: the humanisation of living conditions in a capitalist context is itself a vital immediate political goal.

Where problems can arise, however, is when it isn’t understood that this is what’s happening – when people think that, by abolishing x, they are eliminating capitalism itself. This can create problems both in the sense that people can rationalise more horrific things, if they believe they are achieving something grand, and it can create problems because, while believing they are abolishing capitalism, they can pour enormous amounts of energy into building a new set of social institutions that happily replicate the same old dynamic – and this dynamic is itself corrosive of radical political achievements over time, and institutions that promote it are generally oppressive in the immediate moment, as well…

So basically, I think there’s an on-the-ground value to what can seem like a very abstract definition of capitalism. But, at the same time, I need to do much more – to get much more “out” than I have so far on this blog – to feel like I’ve established any of this in more than a really gestural way… So I’m sympathetic to skepticism :-)

But apologies for having to write in such a rushed way – I’ve probably scrambled the intended content beyond all recognition… Hopefully I’ll have more time in the coming year to get some of this out in a more systematic form…

Sunday, 21/11/2010 at 7:31 am

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6 responses to “Stakes

  1. john November 29, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Very interesting. I hadn’t thought this would be your reaction. I think I agree with you that this is ultimately the only good reason to define capitalism, but this raises several issues. Firstly the debates around slavery are about the origins of capitalism, and I’m not sure if there is any necessary reason why what was key to the break between capitalism and pre-capitalism should also be key to the break between capitalism and post-capitalism. The implication of your post is that the abolition of wage-labor might not be the key to the latter, although I imagine that you’d agree that the generalization of wage labor was key to the former. I’m not sure what to think about this. In another guise I’ve thought a lot about negative definitions of communism, but i’ve been reluctant to focus on the abolition of wage labor (mainly because of its association in my mind with a problematic focus on the refusal of work). However, while you could certainly imagine a system of slave labor of various sorts that could replace wage labor and not be communism, if it was generalized it would seem to me to imply a sufficient break that we could no longer call such a society capitalist (there would be very little use for money in such a society for instance). It seems to me that the problem with focussing on wage labor as the essence that must be abolished is that you are focussing on a macro dynamic (fungibility of labor) that is certainly necessary for capitalism but that at the same time refers to a specific quality of a particular working situation, such that getting rid of wages can too easily be confused with e.g. setting up profit-sharing or other schemes that remain either minority activities constrained by capitalist logic or even potentially reaffirm that logic in the way they are projected to spread.

    I think you put the point very well here:

    “Looked at from a great height, and over a period of time, capitalism figures as something that is constantly displacing and reconstituting the need for the expenditure of human labour, in a way that is disconnected from the “material” need to expend human labour as a motive force for material reproduction”

    I agree that this is to some degree compatible with all sorts of concrete practices (and it is certainly compatible with many forms of unfreedom for wage laborers) but I think it does require that labor is not treated as fixed capital as it was under chattel slavery. One of the most remarkable aspects of chattel slavery is that slave-owners actually had an immediate interest in seeing the price of labor rise, since this would increase their assets (the vast majority of which were held in slaves), and they often appear to have acted to either maintain or induce high labor prices. This is of course the exact opposite of the standard capitalist, who is constantly acting to both suppress her own labor costs and suppress the price of labor in general through expelling labor from the production process. But it is precisely this latter action that tends to generate the constant displacement and reconstitution of labor that is typical of capitalism.

    Chattel slavery does seem to foreshadow the way that human labor becomes a calculated resource subject to the demands of production. It’s just that I think in many ways it was actually less subject to those demands, at least in the sense that it was insulated from the homogenizing and reifying effects of the constant mechanization and diversification of production.

    But I’m aware that I’m pulling the discussion back in the other direction, and I don’t really wan’t to do this, since I’m very interested to hear more about the intention of your own thinking about the dynamics and their overcoming.

    I’d also really like to read some of your work on what distinguishes the modern “market” from older ones. Have you written about it on your blog anywhere?

  2. Nate November 30, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Great stuff here and as usual more than I can get to. I’ll get back to this as soon as I can. For now one thought re: stakes and a quibble –

    John, there’s no way to put this that doesn’t feel rude, I hope it doesn’t come off this way (this’d all be easier in person) — reading your comment it at least *sounds* like you’re deriving speculative claims about the social reality of slavery from categories, something relatively common in the history of marxism. To my mind, from what I’ve read about slave societies (which is not near as much as I’d like and which is pretty much entirely confined to the 19th century US), I don’t know that it’s at all clear that “the tendency for social labor to mediated by the exchange of commodities” doesn’t apply to the antebellum south, nor that there’s no reduction in necessary labor via technology. It seems to me there were numerous tendencies, I don’t know what the dominant ones were, and all of this should be a matter of historical inquiry. I say this – and this gets at the stakes – not least because I think that slavery is one area where engagement with the marxist tradition is more alive within history departments, at least in the US and so there’s an opportunity there, and because I think that it’s possible for marxist categories to shed light here. It needs to work in a way that poses questions as a drive toward empirical research, though (and reading historiography, broadly, about slave socieities).
    Sorry so breief and again I hope this isn’t rude, not my intent. Gotta run, I’ll get back to the many substantive matters here as soon as I can.
    take care,

  3. john November 30, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    hey Nate,

    Not taken as rude in any way, you are right to point out the over-generalizing going on here, and even the derivation from categories. The point about “the tendency for social labor to be mediated by the exchange of commodities” is I guess by its very nature a statement about categories – an interpretation of Marx’s category of fetishism. On my reading this category does not imply that commodity exchange is the only form in which human activity becomes social under capitalism, only that it is a very important one. Nor does it imply that in societies where commodity exchange does not mediate the labor process (such as chattel slavery, where the exchange of the slave is both fundamentally prior to and independent of the labor process) that there is an alternative process of mediation via social labor. I rather tend to agree with Postone that it is better to think of pre-capitalist social mediation as something radically different, so that one could say for example that maybe the primary way that human activity was rendered social under feudalism had nothing to do with labor, but was merely by virtue of its conformity with religious custom.

    As for the point about technology, I’m only starting to study this properly and wish I could give a better answer. There were of course technological developments that took place under chattel slavery. Sugar plantations introduced steam technology, and both sugar and cotton introduced new mechanical techniques in the processing of the crop (although very few of these techniques originated on plantations). However my claim is not that there was no technical change, only that it was relatively subdued. There was much technical change under feudalism and ancient civilizations, the point is only that the pace of technical change picks up in an unprecedented way with the dawn of capitalism, for reasons that I believe Marx uniquely explains. In exploring my hypothesis I am trying to find suitable comparisons between technical change under slavery and contemporaneous wage-labor based industrial(izing) agriculture, but it is of course very difficult to decide on which comparisons are justified. It is clear however that in general technical innovation in the ante-bellum south lagged far behind that of the northeast US, and it’s my hunch that the relative underdevelopment of southern manufacturing had a lot to do with the lack of labor-saving technical change on the plantations (as well as their relative economic self-sufficiency).

    It’s strange to be conducting this discussion on N’s blog. I promise I’ll respond to you back on your blog as soon as I get a chance.


  4. Nate December 1, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    hi John,

    Thanks for this, and no worries on pace, I’m struggling to keep up with a great deal of stuff so I know how hard it is to find time.

    A bit of related discussion –

    This issue of capitalism and/vs slavery has also come up recently in a discussion on a post about Haiti at the Kasama blog, in case anyone’s interested.

  5. Chuckie K December 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Off topic, but the easiest point ot latch onto.

    In case it’s not by someone you correspond with:

    Dennis, Alex. 2010. “Structure and Agency ias the Products of Dynamic Social Systems: Marx and Modern Social Theory.” In: Martin, Peter J. and Alex Dennis. Eds. Human Agents and Social Structures. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Pp. 52-67.

  6. john December 25, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Chuckie: Does Alex Dennis discuss slavery per se in this? Or is it the more general problematic of long run dynamics that he brings up?

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