Just a brief placeholder note here, since I don’t have the time to develop this textually (and it would take a very long run-up, since it relates to the architectonic of Capital as a whole), but I was reminded that I’ve been meaning to post on this, by a discussion over at Nate’s over whether slavery in the US in the 19th century could be considered capitalist.
This is one of the many, many – have I mentioned many? – ways in which the presentational strategy of Capital has led to unfortunate confusions… By starting, as it does, deep within the epicentre of a certain classical political economic fantasy about capitalism, then only gradually panning back to bring into view the complex world-system that Marx believes that capitalism really is, Capital makes it too easy for readers to take the opening passages as “definitions” of capitalism, as conditions that need to be met in order for something to be considered capitalist. In relation to Nate’s specific question about slavery, there is a long debate over whether slavery – because it doesn’t involve wage labour – meets the criteria Marx sets out for capitalist production.
These “criteria” are taken be those set out in the early chapters, where Marx initially starts out from a sort of petty bourgeois fantasy of simple commodity production and exchange, and then pulls the rug out from under this fantasy by introducing the category of wage labour – and the related category of the capitalist, as someone who exchanges goods produced by the labour of others. This initial détournement, where Marx shows that the petty bourgeois conception of capitalism is only a partial and narrow view, which cannot account for reality of wage labour, is often read as a one-off gesture: at this point, Marx is taken to have swept aside the curtain and revealed the true reality, which is that capitalism is founded on wage labour and class exploitation, rather than on some purportedly harmonious system in which those who work exchange the products of their respect labours for a fair price. From this point, the text is taken to settle down to business – it has abolished the petty bourgeois illusions and arrived at the reality of class exploitation.
This passage of text of course does do this sort of work – it pans back from the initial petty bourgeois forms of theory with which Capital begins, and shows those forms of theory to be adequate only to a very blinkered and limited view of capitalist production – one which ignores the implications of the existence of class relations. Panning back to the categories of wage labour and capital show that the capitalist vista is much wider than can be grasped by the opening theoretical gambits with which the text begins.
The problem comes in seeing this movement as a one-off strategem. As though, having used this technique to shatter the presuppositions of petty bourgeois theories, Marx then spends the vast remainder of the text just working through the details of this single and unique discovery.
The process of détournement does not end so soon.
Instead – and this is something I will try to demonstrate textually as I have the time – Capital continues to pan back (and move sideways, backwards, and forwards, in order to view previous claims from an ever-widening array of new perspectives). As the text continues to zoom out, it finally reaches elements of capitalist production that overtly violate the “criteria” set out in the initial discussions of wage labour. The later chapters of Capital highlight a whole range of labouring practices that do not conform to the vision of wage labour presented in the earliest passages – including, among other examples, parents selling the labour of their children, press gangs, slavery, and colonial systems.
This doesn’t mean that Marx hasn’t identified a trend toward proletarianisation – a tendency toward the creation of a wage labouring class. It means that – like every other “trend” Marx identifies in Capital – this trend toward proletarianisation is not linear or uniform, but rather confronts a series of counter-trends and conflicting eddies within a vastly complex overarching global system. All of these trends are “characteristic” of capitalist production as a global phenomenon – theories that focus on one trend to the exclusion of contradictory eddies will thus overextrapolate from a limited and partial view of capitalism, and render themselves unable to grasp the likely impacts of other aspects of the complex whole. The interconnectedness of this system as a global whole means, among many other things, that the development of unfree labour in parts of the world carries implications for the development and political self-assertion of formally free labour in other parts.
Significantly, all of these contradictory trends are equally “capitalist”. Capitalism is a global system. No part of the world is “more capitalist” than any other. The trends that are able to play out in more advantaged portions of the world system are related to the trends that play out in the least. Different parts of the world can experience radically divergent conditions on the ground, radically different organisations of labouring activities, and yet all be part of the same global capitalist system – because what “defines” the system, for Marx, is the downstream aggregate consequence of all of these local practices, operating unwittingly in tandem to drive a coercive process of expanding production.
Within the context of this overarching vision of what capitalism “is”, some of the earlier, apparently “definitional” passages, operate as a part of an argument that explains why it might seem plausible to various theorists to act as though, for example, different parts of the world lie along some sort of developmental continuum – as though some are “pre” capitalist, and some are capitalist proper, and some, perhaps, are asserted to be capitalist in some rarified higher form. Marx believes he has to account for the plausibility of this perspective even though it does not reflect his own understanding of capitalism – which holds that capitalism is an internally contradictory global whole, which is quite capable of suspending within itself local and regional trends that directly oppose the trends playing out in other locations.
So: yes – slavery in the 19th century US is capitalist. If we understand 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…
It will take a long long run-up textually to explain how this argument plays out in Capital – even if I were able to blog regularly, it would be quite a while before I could ground this point… But for whatever it’s worth to foreshadow where the argument would go… Here’s where 🙂
I’ve been very happy with your last posts, NP – this is one of the best blogs, you know.
And I agree entirely with what you have to say, including this very very good comparison:
“Capital continues to pan back (and move sideways, backwards, and forwards, in order to view previous claims from an ever-widening array of new perspectives).”
May I say that this comes not just from Marx reading Hegel, but from Marx reading Balzac. It is the technique of the ‘realist’ novel that makes Capital as a text, I think, possible. Just as one can see that Adam Smith comes up against certain narrative limits in the Wealth of Nations – he sometimes doesn’t know how to tell his story – so, too, Marx exploits the creation of the nineteenth century novel to tell the story in Capital.
Hey roger – Many thanks for this – and I agree. I’ve gotten a bit of offline kickback on the manuscript, worried that I’m over-emphasising the “literary” aspects of Capital – I think on the grounds that this is taken to diminish the “serious” social theoretic argument. But the issue is that the current genre standards for how one presents a “serious” social theoretic argument did not exist when Marx was writing – and he repurposed what was at hand, including forms of presentation that would now be considered “literary”, in trying to develop a genre adequate to what he was trying to convey… I think you’re right that many of the Hegelian readings of Marx miss out on this – and therefore also miss the way in which Marx’s critique of Hegel relies on this dramatic presentation of the text, which Marx cobbles together in no small sense from literary sources – Balzac, but also Shakespeare, Sterne and others…
I agree with Roger that yours is one of the best blogs. That’s one reason I always feel very honored when you engage with my musings, and why I always wish I had more time to respond with the substance that your posts merit. All I can add for now is that if you’ve not read it already you might like some of the essay in Dale Tomich’s Through The Prism of Slavery. He’s a slavery historian and is strongly rooted in marxism (primarily world-systems theory), his work supports your points here (which I agree with strongly) though I’m not sure if he makes the marxological argument. I like that you have good arguments about Marx’s texts because I’m emotionally invested in Marx. I also think that another prong to this particular question about slavery is simply to ask for a coherent, historically grounded presentation of capitalism in which slavery is not capitalist, and which accounts for a variety of phenomena current scholars of slavery have found…
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?
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…
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I somehow missed this picking back up, sorry to come late to the party. Real quick –
“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.”I have two thoughts. One, “is an indirect effect of” or “is a name for an ensemble of”? Perhaps they mean the same here. Just curious.
Two, I wonder if “comfortably abolished” is a bit overstated for some reason “touching the system itself” gives me pause, not sure why. I wonder if you’d agree that this is partly about, for lack of a better term, the possibility of course corrections in service of systemic longevity. I say this because I think it’s probably only ever possible to direct energy toward some concrete aspect of the system at any particular moment in or sequence of time (and from what you wrote here I think we’re on the same page). The thing is, I think, for folk to recognize that that particular concrete aspect isn’t the totality or the key to the totality and so the emphasis on whatever particular piece needs to be tied into a next move, so to speak. (Here too I think we’re on the same page, from what you’ve said here.) This links up with the discussion in that post of mine that you linked to (or maybe it’s in the comments, I don’t recall) about assessing antislavery.
This all feels very unclear, best I can do just now.
Is slavery capitalist? In itself no.
But if you’re talking about the slavery of the nineteenth century USA, that is geared to the production of commodities for sale on a market then the answer is yes and no.
The mode of extraction of labour surplus was non-capitalist. That’s why the North overthrew it in the civil war. That’s why it operated under quite different dynamics than the capitalist mode of production. Marx describes some of these, the exhaustion of the soil, the inability to revolutionise production, the tying up of capital in slave ownership, the absence of a labour market, the requirement of slave owners to expand into new still fertile lands etc.
But it was also subjugated to the vagaries of the market. It needed to sell its output, basically raw materials, to capitalists.
It existed for, with masses of free land available in the USA, there was no other way of forcing labourers to toil that hard, except through physically tying them to the soil.
BTW the reason Marx starts capital with commodity exchange has nothing to do with a fantasy – petit bourgeois or otherwise – it’s simply as this expresses the essence of capital. Ergo, any mode of production, i.e. slavery without generalised commodity production is not capitalist.
Hi bill j – I’m obviously aware of this as a common interpretation:
I think this isn’t the most productive way, however to make sense of the opening chapters of the text – I think it misses a great many of the resources Capital makes available, and obscures how rich the text is in its critique of capitalism. Among other things, it tends to force a suppression of later dimensions of the text – which are positioned, by this reading, as “less essential”. I think this tends to dig a hole that helps to make capitalism look more difficult to criticise and contest than it might otherwise appear.
Again, though, these aren’t points that can be made convincingly in a short span on the blog, so I understand taking the reading with a grain of salt – or provisionally rejecting it, if that’s more comfortable, until I present the textual case in a more systematic form.
In terms of the issue of whether slavery is capitalist: what the debate is about is how we define capitalist. If capitalism is defined in terms of a particular organisation of labour, then one answer seems obvious. If it’s defined in terms of a global system characterised by specific patterns or tendencies of historical change, then other answers are possible. Both sorts of answers are reflected in different Marxist traditions – and both may have a place in responding to specific kinds of practical and theoretical problems. Personally, I think the implications of the latter definition are underexplored, and I think it’s important to drill down to what changes, if we see capital as this sort of historical dynamic – which may be associated with contradictory trends of labour organisation, depending on where in the world we are focusing attention at a specific moment in time.
Hey Nate – sorry I’ve taken so long to reply – it’s been frantic around here…
On the “comfortably abolished” issue – I don’t want to assert this in any strong way at all. What I have in mind is that I think there’s an argument in Capital that social phenomena associated intuitively with the sphere of circulation, appear more intuitively “artificial”, and therefore more readily contestable, than do other phenomena that Marx regards as equally essential to the reproduction of capital. So one of the tendencies Capital would lead you to expect at the level of social movements are contestations around distribution. These aren’t bad – and they can be life or death struggles. But it’s possible significantly to change distribution without necessarily abolishing capital by that change.
This doesn’t mean, however, that distributional disputes shouldn’t happen, or aren’t important – or even that there might be some specific distributional dispute that would be the incubator of a more systemic transformation. But just to explain a bit more what sort of referent was in the back of my head when I was writing this (and writing too quickly – apologies).
In terms of the indirect effect/ensemble issue: to be honest, I’m still trying to work out what terms best communicate what I’m after here. I do think Marx is making an argument that the “same” act can have more than one layer of consequences – and that some of these consequences may only ever arise if that act is performed in tandem with specific other acts. Where this sort of tandem action is required, I’m using the term “indirect effect” above, to capture the effect that’s generated. I’m not averse to the vocabulary of ensemble – I’ve also used assemblage, and various other terms. I’m not wedded to any particular one, and am happy to take suggestions.
But what I’m after is a good way to express that there are some actions that, performed now, are part and parcel of the process by which capital is reproduced – but which are very similar to actions that have been performed in other historical contexts, in which they did not form a component part of an aggregate process like the reproduction of capital. For Marx, this is part of what confuses the political economists – part of what contributes to the fetish character of capitalist social relations: lots of people engage in actions – like, say, buying and selling goods – that are superficially similar to actions people have engaged in for a long time. Because of the context in which these actions are now performed, however, they generate new sorts of consequences they never did before. For lots of people, it’s perfectly reasonably to go about their day to day as though the aggregate process doesn’t exist – looking at capitalism as though it’s defined only by the small portion with which they immediately interact. If we do this, however, we end up unable to understand large dimensions of social experience – and then end up startled when events happen that don’t make sense in terms of how the small portion seemed to work. We may then conclude – as Marx thinks some political economists have – that the startling and unpredicted results must somehow be sui generis or otherwise mystical – arising because that’s what material reproduction is intrinsically like, or because human nature is necessarily that way, etc.
So I guess this is the rough target I’m trying to hit… Specific words for it I’m happy to take or leave… And I think this is absolutely right – and nicely put:
Hope all is well, and sorry for the long delay…
bill j – apologies – just to make sure I’m not being misleading on the appearance/essence issue in Capital: I do think there is a specific sense in which certain of Marx’s categories need to be understood as “essences”.
The question is what it means to label a category that way: what the referent of an “essential category” would be. In other posts, I’ve argued that certain categories arise as aggregate effects of the tandem operation of a wide range of different social practices. These aggregate effects are unintentional, and you wouldn’t be able to guess in advance, from examining any individual concrete social practice, that the social practice would be capable to generating that sort of effect – because the capacity to generate the effect depends on the simultaneous performance of many additional actions, without which the aggregate effect won’t be produced.
This is how I think Marx translates the Hegelian concepts of essence and appearance, where appearance figures as the range of concrete practices that are unintentionally cooperating to reproduce capital, and essence is the unintended aggregate consequence that this reproduction takes place. Stated this way, it’s all a bit too abbreviated and underspecified – these are arguments I’ve developed in greater detail in other places…
That said, I don’t think the text itself moves in a straightforward linear way from essence to appearance. Instead, “essential” categories are continuously determined and redetermined again, as the text explores more and more concrete social practices that participate in the reproduction of capital.
Many readings that emphasise the “essential” character of the opening categories seem to stop at that point, and don’t complete the argument by exploring how Marx thinks these specific essences are reproduced in practice. It’s this that I was objecting to at the top of this comment: approaches that make an argument about early categories being essences, while disregarding later passages that explain how these essences are produced – and therefore cast some light on how they might be transformed.
None of this is incompatible, however, with saying that the early chapters also present a particular political economic fantasy space. To the extent that political economy fails itself to analyse the process by which its core “essential” categories are reproduced, it deals with these categories in a mystifying way. The result is a partial and one-sided conception of capitalism that obscures the possibility for emancipatory transformation.
By contrast, Marx wants to understand these opening categories in a more thoroughly secular way – by exploring their process of reproduction. In the process, he can convict many of the positions introduced early in his text, for being myopic, for grasping at some limited aspect of capitalist production, but being unaware of how this aspect is bounded, how it abridges our understanding of the possibilities generated by the reproduction of capital.
There’s more to be said, but again this is very difficult to communicate adequately in a short space… Apologies for the shorthanded account…
Thanks for that, great stuff, and I’m convinced. 🙂 On essences in Marx, I wrote a reply to Bill that I’m now a bit unsure of, I’ll paste that here in a moment. One thought that strikes me, what you say about essences reminds me somewhat of what little I’ve read by and the little more I’ve read about Wittgenstein writing on family resemblance, as a metaphor — I have the eyes and the hair, my one brother the eyes and the chin, my other other brother the chin and the hair, etc, so that if you see two of us you may not see it but if you see enough of us we are clearly a family. What you say here sounds something like that, though dynamic and about a dynamic object of analysis, unlike the family resemblance metaphor.
Bill, on essences — NP can say it better and support it better with textual evidence but as I read Marx I’m not sure he thinks there’s any single social practice that defines its essence. Slavery is not essentially capitalist. Neither is waged labor. Neither is commodity exchange. I think I’d want to argue that any example of waged labor where there is surplus value production involves a capitalist as the employer but I’m starting to think that even this is not, for Marx, the essence of capitalism — there were capitalists before there was capitalism in the sense of a social system (just as there are communists who pre-date a communist society).
And on the particulars of the 19th century in the U.S., there are quite simply no labor relations which draw a bright clear line between enslaved and waged laborers, in terms of labor processes or legal dependency. The bright clear line that does exist is about chattel slavery, but that’s a property relationship (and perhaps an employment relationship but only some of the time). As such it’s not the case that there all slavery at the time was different from all waged labor such that the mode of surplus value extraction for slaves was always non-capitalist. On this, I highly recommend Gavin Wright’s short, smart, readable book Slavery and American Economic Development. It is of course possible to introduce a subsidiary definition into our understanding of capitalism that simply defines slavery as non-capitalist. Many arguments about slavery as non- or not-fully- or not-really- capitalist strike me as basically attempts to rationally reconstruct (or simply justify) people’s intellectual intuition that this definition is the case. Doing so would require an argument, though, and would require dealing with some of the historical scholarship (here too, Gavin Wright’s book is a great overview of a lot of relevant material with regard to the US in the 1800s). I can say I for one was very hesitant to begin to include slavery within capitalism as doing so cut against deeply held intuitions I had and it was frustrating to figure out I didn’t have a clearer argument for them. I also think that (as much as it pains me to say it and as much as I’m embarassed that this kind of thing pains me), Marx was at best textually ambiguous on this point and I suspect more likely he had slavery mostly wrong on these questions, perhaps also tied to intellectual intuitions or assumptions more than clearly worked out arguments.