From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Jul 07 2003 - 19:46:35 EDT
I recently sent this reply to marxmail. As it deals with debates here on OPE-L, I thought I would forward it. The main text is about forced labor (Michael Perelman's comments of course welcome); the first postscript is a sketch of sympathetic criticisms of Blackburn's book on new world slavery; the second post script is a note on the Brenner-Wood theory of the origins of capitalism. I welcome criticism, sympathetic and otherwise. Yours, Rakesh Julio Huato wrote: "So, it is not out of pedantic dogmatism that I claim that 'capitalist production' excludes production with forced labor. " Agreed not so much dogmatism as ignorance. If you actually read Marx (or Michael Perelman!), you will find that he documents that the bourgeoisie, at its rise, did and had to depend on extra economic coercion to regulate wages and to keep the labourer himself in a degree of dependence. Dull economic compulsion did not suffice only in exceptional cases. You've been importing categories from an already fully developed or pure capitalism. That is, your arguments relied on anachronisms as well as a mixing up of levels of abstraction and of idealizations with historical and contemporary realities. But let's make it exceedingly simple. Say that the rate of exploitation is 4 hours surplus and 12 labor hours necessary. Say that the potentialities of relative surplus value are not yet developed (which for example could allow for 150% increase in surplus labor with a 50% reduction in the working day!) To be a capitalist, i.e., someone who lives off others, you would need to employ at least three proletarians who together would give you command over the daily twelve hours that are necessary for bare subsistence; and if you wanted to double the surplus value, you would need six proletarians. Yet the early capitalist faced a situation where the peasantry has not yet been fully expropriated and the dispossessed did not yet have the predisposition to engage in proletarian labour. Given that capital's voracious hunger for surplus labor had to have then been realized mostly through an expansion of the valorization base while there were objective and subjective limits to just that, it simply follows that early capitalism had to have depended on massive extra-economic coercion of the nascent proletariat...as in fact it did in the countryside (through various statutes), in the cities (use of vagabondage laws), on the seas (massive impressment) and of course on the New World plantations--see Paul Lovejoy and Nicholas Rogers, ed. Unfree Labour in the Development of the Atlantic World (1994). Ear clipping and branding were not simply wanton acts of cruelty in early capitalism; they are examples of the kind of force that capitalism had to use in its rise. As so evident in mercantilist thought (e.g., Colbert), the major problem for early capitalists was securing labor power, not economizing on wage labor--that is, identifying wage costs and substituting dead labor (machine) whenever that would be cheaper and profitable. Against the implications of Dale Tomich's and Charles Post's important arguments, slavery seems not to have been a barrier to mechanization as the plantations were more technically advanced than early capitalist textile mfg; after all slave labor was not immobile or "unexpendable"--slaves could be sold, rented out, shifted from one plantation crop to another. The working time of slaves was probably more devoted to commodity production than was the time of servants in husbandry; plantations seem to have been less self-sufficient, more profit oriented and larger scale than the units of early so-called agrarian capitalism. At any rate, the problem then was first and foremost the expansion of the valorization base, i.e. the securing of an expanding proletarian labour force and for this cocercion was required (and as well as the destruction of the development possibilities of an entire continent--see Catherine Coquery Vidrovitch on the catastrophic demographic consequences of the slave trade on Africa). The age of machino facture was far in the future. Before that exploitation was more extensive than intensive. To be sure, the gains in early capitalist English agriculture from better soil management and larger farm size should count at least somewhat as intensive gains. But it also seems that the impressive, albeit rather late (say post 1700), English reduction in labour per acre was not only a result of rising labor productivity per se but also of the overwork of an extra economically coerced agricultural proletariat and the specialization of the agrarian sector given the use of coal rather than agro forestry products and imported cotton fibre rather than flax. Intensive exploitation or continuously dynamic relative surplus value production simply did not and could not have characterized early capitalism, as Robert Albritton has argued against the Brenner thesis in the Journal of Peasant Studies. Marx's distinction between absolute and relative surplus value is both logical and historical though a late capitalism has doubtless been forced to combine them--see Pietro Basso's recent Modern Times, Ancient Hours for documentation of rising intensification, compulsory unpaid overtime and shift work Another interesting aspect of early capitalism, suggested by John Hicks: more surplus value could be expended by the early bourgeoisie in unproductive consumption as there was not yet intense competitive compulsion on New World plantations or in English agriculture and manufacture to capitalize and accumulate surplus value in expensive, cost-saving machinery. The Moses and the prophets had yet to be born. Sufficient masses of capital had to be accumulated before the leap into machines, infrastructure (e.g., canals) had to be laid, markets had to acquire depth and width, technical possibilities had to be rationalized; the nation-state and national legal systems had to be developed. Marx's truly brilliant insight was that this early capitalist system of extra economic coercion lived on in the laws even after it was no longer needed--that is, after the peasantry had been expropriated, millions of slaves had been incorporated, the cultural inhibitions against proletarian labor had worn down, and production had become less labor intensive. See for example Karen Orren's Belated Feudalism on the persistence of employer rights against the mobility and freedom of wage labor up until the New Deal in the US! She may of course confuse early capitalist vestiges in the law with only formally feudal ones. At any rate, we have here an example of how Marx theorized the uneven temporal rhythms in the different realms of society (see as recommended by Alex LoCascio Daniel Bensaid's Marx for Our Times on the non reductionist and non progressivist elements in Marx's theory of time and history--the different social realms are temporally out of joint, so obvious in general economic crises when the development of proletarian politics and culture may lag far behind). Now a capitalism in decay may well regress to mass forced labor--see Nazi Germany. And at no time is capitalism free of direct and indirect forced labor. Rakesh Bhandari ps five brief criticisms of Blackburn's analysis both in this article and his superb The Making of New World Slavery: first, he accepts an exaggerated sense of the development of agrarian capitalism as a social relation and as a system of ceaseless labor and LAND productivity growth and TOTAL OUTPUT growth before, say, 1750 (see Mark Overton whom Ellen Wood does not even cite along with Greg Clark, Robert Allen, FM Thompson and others)--the sputtering capitalist revolution in agriculture in the 16th and 17th centuries may never have completed itself without the explosive development of the world market for which New World slavery was the pivot (unlike Poland, England was at the center of these developments through for example the Treaty of Methuen) and the infusion of colonial plunder the greatest source of which was India and the supply of off-farm inputs from industrial production for the rise of which agrarian capitalism was not a sufficient condition; second, Blackburn underestimates the importance of the plunder of India in industrialization (despite his massive erudition and exceptional importance as a historian Blackburn never does work through the revisionist attempts by Alavi, Bagchi, Habib, Alam?); third, Blackburn makes the well-intentioned mistake of thinking that capitalist plantation farming could have taken off in the Americas without slavery and that free wage labor would have been a more efficient form of capitalist exploitation in plantation agriculture-- Evgeny Domar, Barbara Solow and others have shown him to be wrong on this point, though his arguments are interesting indeed; fourth, Blackburn does not explain satisfactorily (IMO) why manumission rates were seemingly lower in New World slavery, especially in the English colonies, than in ancient Roman, Islamic and perhaps even Spanish and Luso American slavery, or in other words: why did slavery extend intergenerationally more so than seemingly ever before in England's New World colonies; fifth, Blackburn recognizes but does not properly emphasize as does Pomeranz how New World colonies relieved ecological pressure on scarce European land from industrialization (one could add Jan DeVries' point that plantation output may have at times sold as a result of hyper-competitive pressure well below value, thus reducing both ecological and cost pressure on early manufacturing). But Blackburn's work is a truly great contribution to the study of early modern history. pps. While the Brenner-Wood thesis does explain the origins of capitalism without having assumed it in the first place--no small accomplishment!--the thesis does not necessarily shatter the myth of the inevitability of capitalism. Since industrial capitalism is (falsely) seen as all but an inevitable outcome of agrarian capitalism (see Wood's Origins of Capitalism) and agrarian capitalism (or rather an English-like, capitalist resolution of the demographic crises inherent in feudalism) was all but fated to take root somewhere and at some time in the European social formation of feudalism given the room for diverse resolutions provided by "the parcellization of sovereignty" (Perry Anderson), the thesis does indeed render full scale capitalism an inevitability within Europe and perhaps Europe alone (see Alan Carling's Social Divisions; of course Perry Anderson has importantly argued that the crises of feudalism would probably not have issued in capitalist development had Europe not been able to draw on an unique ancient heritage, that of the Roman Empire); Habib and Pomeranz, on the other hand, emphasize the contingency in the transition from petty commodity production which developed out of the decay and in the interstices of tributary social formations (Samir Amin's term) all over the world to full scale capitalism. However, Amiya Kumar Bagchi shows how the potentialities for capitalist development after the break up of the Mughal Empire were greater than Habib allows. Kenneth Pomeranz argues that China may have had greater potential for capitalist development than Europe as late as 1800! Of course imperialism snuffed out those potentialities. Which is not to say that they would indeed have eventuated in capitalism. Counter-factual reasoning is difficult indeed. One simply should not confuse two aspects of the Wood-Brenner thesis--its critique of the circularity of most explanations of capitalism's origins and its critique of the "inevitablist" theories of the emergence of capitalism. For Marx large scale manufacture, to say nothing of machino facture, was such an unnatural and delayed outcome of the crisis of feudal or tributary society and such a rupture with the snail's pace of accumulation of small yeomen farmers and interstitial petty producers that only massive and sustained force over more than two centuries could have ensured the transition to capitalism. Long before twentieth century anthropologists analyzed the legitimization functions of so called primitive myths of the origins of the cosmos, man and tribes, Marx understood the importance of supplementing his critique of theoretical political economy and of an idealized and pure capitalism with a critique of the bourgeois "nursery rhymes" (Marx's own expression) about capitalism's origins in the frugality of small men. Capitalism owes its origins and early development to the deployment by already large landowners and wealthy merchants of massive and unbridled force, turned into an economic power. Habib understands this well indeed. Marx's theory of primitive accumulation is an anti myth, though this has yet to be appreciated. Even as the myths of the transhistoricity of capitalism are put into question, Ellen Wood's theory of the origins of capitalism as a global mode of production in the frugality and entrepreneurial zest of the few successful small yeomen farmers who had to compete in an open market for leases in the English hinterland draws power from its convergence with the capitalists' common sense about the humble origins of themselves and their system.
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