[OPE-L:2662] Re: slaves and value

From: Gerald Levy (glevy@PRATT.EDU)
Date: Fri Mar 31 2000 - 20:16:38 EST

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Re Rakesh's [OPE-L:2661]:

> *Exchange* by capitalists with labor is not what makes this *variable*
> capital. One can find such wage exchange long before capitalism (and
> even now) that involved no value and commodity production. Surely this
> cannot be the criterion for variable capital--it may allow you to exclude
> slaves from the proletariat but then it brings all kinds of wage earners
> you don't belong.

Such as?

> You are just mistaking the common phenomenal form for
> the essence of the matter. This emphasis on the legal nature of the
> exchange relation is anachronistic and formalistic. Capital invested in
> the reproduction of slaves was *variable* because the slave labor that was
> thereby reproduced was then coerced under the threat of the bull whip
> to produce a commodity output of sufficiently greater value than its own
> reproduction costs to enable a reasonable return on capital--especially
> given the alternatives for capital investment at that time.

No, I am not mistaking the "phenomenal form for the essence of the
matter". Rather, I am insisting that capitalism as a mode of production
has various distinctive (yes, *DEFINING*) features which can not be
arbitrarily dismissed.

The question is not whether a bull whip is used to coerce labor. The
question is -- pure and simple -- what is the form of labor characteristic
of capitalism.

And, yes, it is wage labor. If we insist that the distinction between
wage labor and slavery is merely "phenomenal" then we miss what makes
capitalism, among other factors, a distinct and separate mode of
production from pre-capitalist modes of production where there were also
class societies.
> You say no employment contract. I say big deal because there was still
> production of value and surplus value.

I say no value or surplus value, but rather the production of surplus
labor where the surplus product takes the commodity-form. In focusing only
on the presence of commodity production, you ignore the *class relation*
between wage-labor and capital. And by implying that the distinction
between slave labor and wage labor is "phenomenal", you miss the central
distinction between slavery and "wage slavery", i.e. the nature of "free
labor". Without the ability of workers to sell their labor-power to
capitalists in exchange for a wage, there is no "free labor" and Marx's
understanding about what makes the working class under capitalism distinct
from laborers in other modes of production thereby vanishes. Thus,
wage-labor is an essential part of the "essence" of capitalism.

> Jerry, the question is whether slave labor produced value and surplus
> value, not whether it took the commodity form--which is not in debate or
> debateable.

It boils down to whether you -- like political economy -- only define a
commodity as a product that is produced in order to be sold (and thereby
must have a use-value and an exchange-value) or whether a commodity by
definition must have value where value represents a social relationship
among classes. Related distinctions concern the distinction between
surplus labor time and surplus value. I would assert that the definition
of "commodity" in Marx for capitalism is specific to capitalism. Thus,
"commodities" in other modes of production do not have the full and
distinct meaning of commodity under capitalism.

> Perhaps somewhere in this exchange--which I
joined late--you
> have demonstrated why only commodified labor power can produce value and
> surplus value.

The distinction is between labor which is performed by slaves and labor
power which belongs to and is alienated by wage-earners. Without the
category of labor power, then related ideas like paid vs. unpaid labor
time, and the *unique* form that exploitation takes under capitalism,

> But capitalism couldn't have been birthed with generalized commodity
> production already in place. This is a historic result.

Of course. But capitalism was "birthed" in the womb of feudalism. The
question, though, regarding modern slavery largely concerns a historical
period *after* capitalism had already become the dominant international
mode of production.

> Well such waves and cycles of technical change--are you referring to the
> periodic replacement of fixed capital?--is a late development in the
> history of capital accumulation. Indeed it requires the development of
> machines with which to produce machines.

This was by no means, when viewed in terms of capitalist history, a "late

In solidarity, Jerry

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