Genovese, Laclau and Brenner

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Nov 7 11:05:45 MST 2000

(Yoshie questions the appropriateness of linking Genovese, Laclau and
Brenner. Actually this is a rather established linkage based on their
relationship to the Dobb side of the debate against Sweezy. While covering
different bases (the slave states, Latin America, and Europe respectively),
they agreed essentially on the need to restrict the term capitalist to
modes of production based on free wage labor. All this is put into context
in Steve Stern's article "Feudalism, Capitalism and the World System in the
Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean" that appeared in the Oct.
1988 American Historical Review. Unfortunately, this article, which I
downloaded from JSTOR, is only available at educational institutions like
Columbia. If Yoshie has access to it at Ohio State, I strongly urge her to
check it out. Meanwhile, here are some salient paragraphs.)


Scholars on the left, broadly defined, were the most disposed to confront
seriously the issues and implications of dependency perspectives, and the
critical assessment of Frank’s work rekindled interest in the important
Dobb-Sweezy debate in the 1950s on Europe’s transition from feudalism to
capitalism. In that debate, Sweezy’s critics argued that his stress on the
expansion of commerce and profit making in late medieval Europe could not
really account for the qualitative transformations of technique ("forces of
production") and social relations ("relations of production") that gave the
capitalist mode of production its distinctive historical character. Profit
making and intense market activity that turned the purpose of production in
wide territories toward exchange-value rather than use-value could be found
in a variety of historical epochs and societies, including ancient Rome.
What explained, at bottom, capitalism’s unique and even revolutionary
impact on economic life was its new method of organizing production on the
basis of the free sale of labor-power to capitalists in exchange for a
wage. Free wage labor was the relation of production that liberated
entrepreneurship from the comparatively stifling restrictions of
pre-capitalist societies. Free wage labor allowed for optimal and changing
combinations of machinery and labor, a possibility that made feasible
unparalleled technical experimentation and progress in production; it also
encouraged the rise of mass markets for subsistence items purchased with
wages. a development that expanded the scope of profitable market activity
enormously. Marx’s creative insight was to analyze the causes,
mystifications, inner dynamics, and far-reaching consequences of this
transformation of the production process. Sweezy’s critics argued that,
once one focused on the production rather than the circulation of
commodities, the strategic issues requiring explanation shifted from the
expansion of the profit motive and international commerce to the
replacement of servile labor by proletarianized labor and the associated
rise of home markets (that is, mass consumption of commodities). To explain
the transition to capitalism therefore required close historical analysis
of the social and class conflicts, expropriations of petty producers, and
deterioration of subsistence strategies that underwrote the transition from
servile to free labor. A good deal of the Europeanists’ recent debate on
capitalist transition, particularly Robert Brenner’s important essays,
follows in the tradition of the Dobb-Sweezy debate.

Between Dobb and Brenner, however, came Ernesto Laclau. Like Dobb and like
other critics of Andre Gunder Frank, Laclau invoked the classic Marxist
emphasis on capitalism as a mode of production. To demonstrate the rise of
commercial exploitation and a profit motive, as Frank had done for colonial
Latin America, was insufficient to demonstrate that the Latin American
economy had been "capitalist" since Cortés and Pizarro. It was obvious,
observed Laclau, that mercantile exploitation used as its instrument the
coercive labor relations and tributary obligations corresponding to the
feudal mode of production. This was not a trivial point, since it greatly
affected the explanation of Latin America’s historic underdevelopment. In
Laclau’s scheme, underdevelopment derived not only from Europe’s channeling
of the colonies’ economic surpluses from satellite to metropolis but also
from its "fixing their relations of production in an archaic mould of
extra-economic coercion, which retarded any process of social
differentiation and diminished the size of their internal markets." The
first implication was that, in the absence of further transformations of
production (transformations that could not derive simply from a process of
commercialization), the feudal socioeconomic structure imposed by Europe’s
commercial exploitation of Latin America would have blocked capitalist
development. Even had Latin America retained a greater share of economic
surplus. Further, material progress in twentieth-century Latin America did
indeed require the break-up of the feudal socioeconomic structures that
dominated many backward regions. Laclau held that Frank had confused the
"mode of production" with the "economic system." It was perfectly possible,
even likely, that an overarching economic system that was as a whole
capitalist—that is, governed by the needs of a dominant capitalist mode of
production and by the profit principle—could include several modes of
production among its constituent "parts." Frank had demolished the "dual
society" thesis of the modernization theorists by demonstrating that Latin
America’s "backward" regions had been inserted, on exploitative terms, into
the world capitalist system, but this contribution hardly demonstrated that
such regions were themselves capitalist.


[T]he Caribbean experience lends some historical support to Wallerstein's
theoretical stance on units of analysis and capitalist combinations of free
and coercive labor. The history of Caribbean plantation slavery complicates
the distinction between non-capitalist modes of production founded on
servile labor and a capitalist mode of’ production founded on free wage
labor. In some extreme instances, the sugar plantation islands have seemed
less like societies in their own right, whose material base rested on a
non-capitalist mode of production "articulated" to the capitalist mode,
than like outposts of Europe. Their absentee rulers lived and invested as
an integrated part of the bourgeoisie in the metropolis, and their
portfolio of investments included plantation enterprises that handled the
slaves as finite repositories of labor-power to be replaced upon death or
depletion by fresh African imports. Under these circumstances, even Eugene
D. Genovese, a scholar squarely aligned with Dobb and Laclau, equivocated.
One could write off the major sugar islands as an "extreme case" proving
little. But extreme cases do sometimes expose otherwise hidden tendencies
and relationships, and Genovese argues persuasively that the U.S. South is
just as "extreme" an instance in the comparative history of American slavery.

Louis Proyect
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