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 🙂