From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Tue Jun 03 2003 - 18:20:30 EDT
http://www.etehadchap.com/Meillassoux.html Other interesting analyses at the site as well http://www.etehadchap.com/articles.html Marxist anthropologist Claude Meillassoux was interviewed By Francois Chesnais for the journal Carre Rouge (May 2000 issue). This is a draft translation of extracts - Given to Left Unity Iran By Movemnet for Socialism Francois Chesnais (FC) ...How was it that you became that rare phenomenon, an anthropologist who is politically engaged? Claude Meillassoux (CM) The start of my theoretical engagement came from the facts I confronted in my first research field-trip in Africa. I went to a region, that of the Soninke, where a good number of workers had emigrated to France. I realised that the people I saw living in the village could be met in the living quarters of immigrant workers in France. I asked myself how it could be that these poor people, with few resources, could all the same become the means of enrichment of another society, our own. What was it that caused these immigrant workers to find themselves in the situation of a special superexploitation? I believed I could find the basic answer in the fact that these individuals, born in a certain milieu which had until then been preserved from the most direct contact with the capitalist system, could find itself transported into another system, our own, namely capitalism, in order there to sell their labour power under conditions very advantageous to those who bought it. At home, the Soninke lived in a social framework which I called the domestic community. There they were born, were raised for part of their lives by their elders in order to become producers who in their turn would look after those who had raised them. A whole cycle worked like this. Emigration as it were interrupted thiscycle. Instead of working to sustain the lives of those who had worked for them, these productive young people went to work far away, expending their labour power to enrich a society and an economic system which had contributed nothing to their upkeep and their human formation in their first 20 years. This amounted to a reduction in the cost of reproduction of labour power. The immigrants' labour was paid at a cheap price, not only by reason of their being unskilled and because of the power-relations in the metropolis where they worked, but because the cost of their upbringing wasn't counted, was obtained free by capital, in the same way as capital obtains many natural resources free and as a consequence unscrupulously squanders and destroys them. Examining the situation as a whole in the underdeveloped countries and the institutions put in place to make them function, I concluded that this problem of paying the price of labour below its value was one of the very foundations of all the organs established to facilitate these relations. The IMF, for example, the IMF's policy of 'structural adjustment', and the World Bank, what is more independently of the other international organisms, which were never consulted about any of the decisions they took: all these organs demand of the underdeveloped countries that they carry out such a policy, which consists essentially of bringing down the price of labour, in order not to have to pay its real cost.... FC You diverge a little from Marx on the matter of the mechanisms determining wages. MC Effectively, Marx considered that the wage was always enough to sustain a worker and ensure the conditions of reproduction of labour power. But that's not so, is it? Even Ricardo and Smith say that the wage can be below the cost of reconstitution of labour power. Marx wrote as a theoretician of capitalism which, in order to function, must effectively provide the worker with enough to reconstitute himself and even to have a family. At this level he had a rather optimistic view of capitalism. On the other hand, he considered that the system, the critique that he made of the capitalist system, would become totally pertinent only when in a certain sense everything came within the logic of capitalism. That was not the case in 1950, even if today one can begin to say that the logic of capital has overcome everything in its path and completely destroyed all other social formations, where previously it sought rather to subordinate them to itself. In Femmes, greniers et capitaux (trans. Maidens, Meals and Money) I said that if capitalism was to impose itself everywhere, there would be no more non-capitalist societies in which one could make super-profits due to what is called primitive accumulation, that is, the fact that a non-capitalist economic system transfers part of its revenues, in a certain sense part of its resources, to a capitalist system. Thus from the moment the system becomes a complete, closed one, do we not have the situation which Marx considered to be that in which the critique of capitalism becomes effective in the facts, so to speak? FC But haven't you identified mechanisms of the determnation of wage-levels of a very particular kind in the case of child labour? CM We ...have published a work in which we attempt to understand why child labour has become so widespread. And here too there exists a logic proper to capitalism but not necessarily to the society in which these children live. In these societies, children are not put to work in order to make profit; they are forced into that by reason of the economic conditions to which they are subjected. What economic conditions? Again, it is the lowering of wage-levels to so low a level that the children come into competition with their parents. The workings of exploitation and of the market mean that children eliminate their parents from the labour market; and so, since they have little protection, they are paid practically any sum the employer decides. Moreover, and this is very important, the advantage of having children work is that they have employment only so long as they remain children. From the moment they cease to be children, they are of no further interest to their employers. Thus from the human point of view, this is extremely serious, because the individual who ceases to be a child is no longer useful for anything: he/she has had no training, has never studied, and is thrown on the street. The child's 'retirement' is the street, the street at some 15 years of age. He/she has been used by the system under conditions extremely profitable for the employers during childhood and is then thrown on the scrapheap. FC What are the demographic effects of this vicious system? CM The demographic effects of child labour are the following: in order to survive a family must always have a child working. Consequently this supposes for the wife, for women, that they produce a child every five years or so. This is so that they may always have a child at work. It also means that they must provide for that child for five years. At first this seems possible, but in the end its becomes a heavy burden on the mother, especially as in most cases the husband has left because he cannot find work. So, after a certain time, the mother finds herself unable even to feed a child up to the age of five, and what you are now seeing, on a massive scale, is children under five years old being abandoned..... FC In your book L'economie de la vie, I was struck by the chapter entitled 'The Lesson of Malthus', in which you put forward an interpretation of the mechanisms at the origin of theAIDS pandemic which is ravaging Africa, and of the famines and many mutual killings, sustained or permitted by foreign powers ... Are not these things the expression of certain profound tendencies of imperialism in the framework of the 'globalisation' (mondialisation) of capital? For my part, I think we are confronted worldwide by a system in contraction, and it's in this framework that I read with such interest your 1997 book. MC Effectively I think you can indeed say that. At this time capitalism has this tendency of trying to get, or more exactly trying to provoke, the reduction of the population of certain regions, and this translates itself into the phenomena you have just mentioned, whether it be the AIDS pandemic or the massacres. Today, because of the productivity of labour, which has increased, and of poverty, which forms a barrier to consumption, there is less and less need for a poor proletariat. Today, a continent like Africa is not considered as it once was, as a welcome source of cheap manpower to be exploited on the spot in the big towns or on the plantations or to be brought to Europe. Its population has become a burden and a menace. But the world capitalist system has given itself the means by which to put pressure on its demographic evolution by making most of the African countries dependent in the matter of subsistence. The importation of cheap foodstuffs, produced in the industrialised countries in conditions of high productivity, often subsidised by exporting and local governments and even sometimes free, are necessary to contain food prices and thus keep down the cost of manpower in the towns in the importing countries. But at the same time, this policy impedes the development of local agriculture , because it is put in impossible conditions of 'competition'. This agriculture has gone backwards everywhere and in some places almost disappeared. Why so many incurable illnesses in Africa? Why so many continuing masscres in Africa? I don't say it is deliberately done by capitalism, but it is a global effect of capitalism, which no longer has need of this too large population after having sustained its growth and destroyed its own forms of agriculture. FC How do you characterise the present wars, those in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, in the Great Lakes region? CM That's just the problem which I put to myself and which I am at present working on. I have to go to Germany for a conference on the wars in Africa, and my intention (But I would like more evidence and elements for the work) is to try to make understandable what is at stake in this other sort of war. Before, it was a matter of colonial wars. A colonial country made war and conquered a territory in proportioon to what was colonial power. That sometimes concerned very important territories. Now, I think it is wars provoked by the interests of private capitalist companies, which rely on mercenaries, wars which consist of dividng up territories in proportion to their strength and their interests. We know for example that De Beers is at work in the old Congo, tht it still has interests there, that it deploys mercenaries on its own account within the civil wars in that country. The same in Angola. Le Monde published an article in which the Chairman or one of the top people in De Beers admits, even explains, the implication of this group in the war.
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