[OPE-L:2584] Re: Classes and wage-labor

akliman@acl.nyit.edu (akliman@acl.nyit.edu)
Fri, 28 Jun 1996 09:13:52 -0700 (PDT)

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A brief reply to one point in Jerry's ope-l 2581. Welcome Back, Jerry!

Jerry asks whether I'd consider small family farmers in the antebellum US
proletarians, and whether I'd consider the slaves proletarians.

To answer these questions, I first have to note that I don't think of these
questions in the same framework that Jerry seems to. He seems to be
adopting some version of the stucturalist/Althusserian framework, in which
there's an articulation of different "modes of production" within the same
"social formation," with one of the modes (generally) being "dominant."

What has emerged, historically, from this framework, is an endless prolifera-
tion of "modes of production." If I remember right, someone once did an
analysis of a certain society that had four dozen or so "modes of production."
Such are the problems that emerge when one tries to ignore historical
process and thus to "define" things in a fixed way, independent of the
process of their becoming. To avoid this trap, the key is to recognize

Accordingly, on the most general level, I'd say that both the family
farmers and the slaves were proletarians and, and the same time, were not
proletarians. This statement, however, is meaningless unless and until
the *concrete* nature of the self-contradiction is explained. Obviously,
I can't do that here, and I don't think that I, personally, am capable of
doing it adequately at all. But let me pursue one point, to me key, that
might help explain the sense in which these people were proletarians. The
_differentia specifica_ of capitalism is that labor-power is a commodity.
Thus the key capitalist relation, between capital and "labor", is more
precisely between capital and labor-power-as-commodity. The latter is the
alienation of the potential to work from the person of the laborer. While
"alienation" here may refer to sale, it also primarily refers to the
externalization of labor-power, that it doesn't "belong" to the individual
in a concrete sense, is not an inseparable function of the individual, but
is a separable "thing." As such its activity, labor, can also be alienated,
abstract, external to the laborer who does it.

Now, what makes labor-power a commodity? This question can be answered in a
number of ways (it includes a number of different questions), but one
simple way is to say: when it is treated as a commodity, considered as a
commodity, *thought of* as separable from the person of the laborer. To
a certain degree, this was already true of family farmers in the US in the
mid-1800s. They, to some degree, thought of their labor-power as something
to be "used" for external ends (actually, I don't know what they thought,
but they treated their labor-power this way to some extent). One of the
many ways we know this is that people would move from farm to factory or
to the mechanic's workshop (or choose one as a trade) according to its
advantages (largely pecuniary).

Black slaves in the South were, I think, proletarianized to a much greater
degree. Here what is important is not how *they* treated their labor-power,
but how the slaveowners did. Once cotton became king and production was
geared toward the world market, and not the fulfillment of the needs to
maintain the plantation, satisfy the personal needs of the masters, etc.,
the slaves labor-power and its exploitation became an abstract "factor of
production" in an abstract economic calculus hardly different from what
prevailed (and prevails) in industry up North. As Marx put it (in
_Capital_), the masters were now caught up in the drive to extract, not
concrete surplus products, but boundless amounts of abstract labor itself.
(Massimo has written incisively IMO on this issue of the boundlessness of
capital and capitalist production.)

All of this barely scratches the surface of Jerry's original questions. I
personally can't go too much deeper with them.

Let me also briefly respond to another point Jerry made in a related post.
He maintains that kids whose parents hire them out to capitalists are
proletarians *becuase* the wage relation is present. But this is not what
we mean, generally, by the "wage." The wage is the payment to the OWNER
of "labor" for the use of his/her "service." (Or one can use Marxist
terminology.) The parents are actually being paid something akin to a
"delivery charge." Of course, I'm restricting myself here to the "wage"
as a phenomenal form.

Andrew Kliman