origins of capitalism

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

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 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

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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