[OPE-L:1306] Re: capitalism as an organic system

Gilbert Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Mon, 4 Mar 1996 13:24:17 -0800

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My thanks to Mike L. for a superb series of posts (1218-1220 plus
1234). I think they go a long way toward establishing a common
ground for further analytical development. In part because I agree
with so much of what Mike says, and in part to minimize the length of
my responses, I'll summarize and respond to Mike's argument in his
order, rather than going point-by-point. Mike, please let me know
if I do any violence to your position thereby.

As a general thing I'll be pursuing two questions in each of this
series of posts:

1) Granting that the real subsumption of labor under capital is
central to capitalism as we know it, what exactly is it necessary
*for*? For example, would there still and reliably exist what Marx
calls capitalist exploitation in the absence of real subsumption?
[If there is, then it seems to me that one apparent source of
disagreement reduces simply to a matter of degree.]

2) Granting this necessity, *why* is real subsumption of labor under
capital necessary for the results Mike identifies? [If these reasons
have to do with historically contingent strategic conditions of class
conflict, Mike and I may only be arguing over details of the same
theory.] In particular, how central is Marx's value theory to the
appropriate explanation of why real subsumption is necessary for
the indicated results?

Moving, then, to Mike's analysis in 1218:

Mike argues that the merely formal subsumption of labor under
capital is insufficient to guarantee the normal reproduction of
capitalism, i.e. to reproduce capitalism as an "organic system." He
quotes the Grundrisse to establish Marx's sense of the latter
condition as a system in which "everything posited is also a
presupposition." Finally, he pinpoints the meaning of "normal
reproduction" of capitalism by adducing Marx's analysis of colonial
exploitation, to the effect that, in the absence of real subsumption and its
effects on the industrial reserve army, workers "may be able to
reduce their dependence upon capital"--quoting Marx, "today's
wage-labourer is tomorrow's peasant or artisan, working for himself."

I agree with Mike's readings of the relevant passages, and in
particular I'm convinced that his interpretation of the "It is not
enough..." passage in Ch. 28 is more consistent with Marx's meaning
than mine.

What have I just agreed to?

A) By these arguments Mike identifies in Marx a set of historically
contingent material conditions necessary for the reproduction of
capitalism as an organic system. Thus, we seem to be agreeing that
what drives Marx's analysis of capitalist exploitation and its
development is primarily a set of historical-materialist concerns.

Moreover, the bottom line of the argument identified by Mike is
specifically a historical-*strategic* argument, to the effect that
the existence of an industrial reserve army is an effective strategic
substitute for extra-economic compulsion in yielding surplus value:
"The constant generation of a relative surplus population...sets the
seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct
extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional

B) I'll develop this point further in response to Mike's post 1234,
but the argument referred to in (A) depends in no particular way on
value-theoretic categories, as is most obviously seen from the fact
that Mike didn't have to invoke any to make his meaning clear.

C) Granting that real subsumption of labor is necessary for the
specific effects Mike indicates, by creating and maintaining the
industrial reserve army, would capitalist exploitation, as Marx
understood the term, be "normally" reproduced in the absence of real
subsumption, just on the basis of Marx's own arguments? I think the
answer must be yes:

i) As Marx notes repeatedly, circuits of capital which do not
presume even *formal* subsumption of labor under capital were
historically capable of appropriating surplus value, and thus
constituted "capitalist exploitation without the capitalist mode of

ii) Granting that some workers may be able to become independent
producers in the absence of real subsumption's effect on the
industrial reserve army, does it follow that this effect is
progressive, implying a steady erosion of the scope for capitalist
exploitation? Arguably not: Marx shows that historical circuits of
usurer's and merchant's capital eroded their own preconditions by
progressively expropriating small producers. That is to say: predictably,
some portion of independent producers find themselves unable to pay
the required interest and go bankrupt, returning the means of
production to capitalists. If anyone's interested, I can cite some
theoretical mainstream work by a former colleague, Harl Ryder, which
shows in effect that persistent exploitation, even progressive immiseration, of
the borrowing class would emerge as long as there are initial class
wealth differences and time preferences are income elastic (which
evidence shows them to be).

Further comments apply on the basis of Marx's analysis in Ch. 25 part
1, but I'll save them for responses to Mike's post on this topic.

Bottom line: One can of course always argue that real subsumption is
necessary for the nature and degree of capitalist exploitation
specific to real subsumption. Any claim short of this tautology is,
however, at least debatable, even if we limit the terms of the debate
to Marx's own arguments. Thus it seems that any disagreement between
Mike and me is at most a matter of detail and degree, and whether or
not this is the case depends in no way on the incorporation of
value-theoretic categories in the above argument.

On to Mike's post 1219.

In solidarity, Gil