Roman proletarians and Southern "white trash"

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Oct 30 02:31:51 MST 2000

Hi Nestor:

Thank you for a very detailed elaboration on the social position of
the proletarians in Rome (between the oligarchs & the slaves, perhaps
not unlike non-slaveholding whites in the antebellum USA).  I'd like,
however, to postpone the exchange on ancient Rome & discuss the
center of your post directly:

>In the origin of all this lies the debasement of manual labor and the
>ruin and social unworthiness of petty peasantry and urban artisans
>(which probably is a rule of _every_ formation based upon slavery,
>whether "modern" or "ancient"), and here lies a most important issue
>in the "slavery vs. capitalism" debate that seems to lie at the core
>of the often acrimonious exchange of opinions around Brenner.
>Why? Because although it would be silly to deny that, from the
>_overtly abstract_ point of view that all production integrated into
>the world market after the 16th. or 17th. century is "capitalist" in
>the sense that it is aiming to accumulation at the core, the _actual_
>social and economic relations prevailing outside the core _need not_
>be understood, in their concrete working, as "capitalist" tout court.
>The concrete consequences of slavery in the South of the United
>States, or of rentistic oligarchic ownership of mines and land in
>Latin America, cannot be understood if we do not take into account
>this issue. Worse yet, it tends to cripple our political efforts. The
>basic issue here is, as Mark Jones brilliantly stated on a posting to
>the Marxism list very long ago, that in order for capitalism to exist
>as such, and to realize all of its potentialities, an order must be
>brought to life that makes investment in an ever enlarging
>reproduction of capital _the condition of existence_ for the ruling
>class. This is precisely what lacks in this kind of formations, be
>they "capitalist" in a general sense or not..
>This cannot be achieved, for example, when the main productive
>relation is based on ownership of people and on productive
>backwardness, such as is the case in "chattel slavery".  I would add
>that though there is an obvious moral issue here (which did not exist
>in ancient Rome, of course [footnote 1]), the most important problem
>for a Marxist does not lie in the _moral_ issue itself, but in the
>material reasons why it is immoral.
>These reasons are quite simple: modern slavery, while furthering
>accumulation _abroad_, hinders accumulation _on the spot_ and thus
>_hinders the global expansion of the full set of social relations
>that define capitalism and, most important for us, proves a strong
>counter to the TRPF!_. In fact, slavery is a simple device through
>which a non-investing ruling class can make its way through
>capitalism without caring about permanent modernization of the
>methods of production, competition, and so on.
>Under adequate conditions, the same goals can be obtained WITHOUT
>slavery. Slavery, serfdom, latifundiary ownership of particularly
>fertile tracts of land, are for this kind of "capitalism" simply
>means to _avoid_, and not to _promote_, accumulation. What we are
>facing in these formations is a _rentistic_ and, in this sense,
>deeply _antibourgeois_ ruling class. Thus, even though _of course_
>modern slavery cannot but, as anything else trapped in the net of the
>world market, become a "capitalist enterprise", it is _not_
>capitalist in the full sense of the word, it is at best peripherical
>capitalist. But this is not a matter of location. I mean peripherical
>to the core set of social relations that define modern capitalism.
>This set of social relations (best modelized in Marx's _Capital_)
>includes, on the one hand, a particular way to extract excedent from
>the direct producer (the purchase of the producer's energy, which
>leaves the buyer unconcerned about the nourrishment of the producer),
>and on the other hand, a particular way to use that excedent
>extracted. This second feature becomes overwhelmingly important when
>we find a ruling class which wastes the excedent without reinvesting
>it, and not out of a moral constriction (Weber's "Protestant ethics")
>but out of a material requisite for existence (Marx's objective drive
>for accumulation).
>IMHO, this is the point to be debated when dealing with "chattel
>slavery" and, in fact, with the second great bunch of issues that is
>connected with this one: the problem of national revolutions and the
>problem of the Third World (does it exist? if it does, what is the
>common trait of all these different countries? what is the organic
>and structural difference between capitalism in, say, Indonesia and
>in the USA? is there any difference at all? and so on). All these
>questions are immediately linked with the debate on the social
>definition of chattel slavery, in fact.

John Ashworth analyzes the slave owners in the South in a way akin to
your analysis of the "anti-bourgeois ruling class" who "avoid,"
rather than "promote," accumulation at home & who fail to modernize
the productive forces:

*****   The South was being outpaced by the West in manufacturing,
though both sections were far behind the Northeast.  On the
assumption that wage labor was concentrated in the Northeast, we can
conclude, once again, that the slave economy was increasingly
diverging from a free labor economy, as free labor came to mean wage

The data on industrialization demonstrates that a gap was opening up
between the sections.  This conclusion indeed is shared by all
scholars, even those most firmly committed to the view that the South
had a successful capitalist economy.

Correlations, however, are not causes and we need to establish the
reasons for the slower pace of southern industrialization and
urbanization.  According to the neo-classicists, the reason is
simple: the South's comparative advantage lay in agriculture and thus
it was entirely rational for southerners to concentrate on farming
rather than commerce or industry.  Unfortunately this view now lacks
empirical foundation.  According to the most definitive work on
southern manufacturing, rates of return in manufacturing in the South
were extremely good.  "The average for all southern manufacturing,"
according to historians Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, "was 28
percent in 1860 and 25 percent in 1850."  And prospects did not vary
greatly from subregion to subregion.  Moreover, these rates of return
"were not simply high, they were substantially above the returns
earned from slavery and slave-based farming."  Why did southerners
not engage in manufacturing to a greater degree?  There can be only
one answer (though it is one which Bateman and Weiss will not
accept): they were not profit-maximizers in the way that
neo-classical economics postulates.  This is no small matter; it
suggests a catastrophic weakness in the entire neo-classical approach
to the southern economy.  For it reinforces the possibility that a
slave-based economy cannot industrialize....

Let us now see if the Marxist approach fares better.  Is there reason
to believe that the pursuit of self-interest was mediated or
structured by the exigencies of the master-slave relation?  Indeed
there is.  For manufacturing posed special problems for the masters,
problems that had no real equivalent on the plantation or in an
agrarian society generally and which were also less severe (or absent
altogether) in a wage labor economy.  An overwhelming amount of
evidence can be cited in support of this proposition.  Before we
examine this evidence, however, we should note the root cause of the
master's difficulties.  As we shall see, the problems stemmed from
the fact that so many slaves did not wish to be slaves, did not wish
to see the fruits of their labor appropriated by another and
therefore attempted, in various ways, to resist this exploitation.
In so far as the evidence demonstrates that slave resistance (in its
many forms) constrained southern economic development, it compels us
to acknowledge the vital importance of class interests.  _In
inhibiting the development of industry (and of cities) in the South,
the slaveholder was simultaneously advancing a class interest_.

As we shall see, _the southern failure to industrialize or to
urbanize cannot be explained without reference to this class
interest_.  Of course such an interest was, to a considerable extent,
an economic one, since the slaves were themselves the source of the
economic well-being of the masters.  But it was not an economic
interest of the kind which modern neo-classical economics envisages:
it was not a profit-maximizing impulse.  For the slaveholders'
pursuit of wealth and prosperity was subject to a complex series of
mediations.  _Here the relations between the contending classes
assume the utmost importance.  The desire to maintain their slaves
and thus their class position constrained the slaveholders' response
to commercial opportunities, allowing and encouraging certain
activities at the expense of others.  And the need to take account of
the non-slaveholding whites, whose loyalty was essential to the
maintenance of their regime, in turn constrained the defense of
slavery, again encouraging certain activities rather than others_.
The problem with the neo-classical approach is not its assumptions
that slaveholders were acquisitive or self-interested but its refusal
to accept the existence of these filters, as it were, through which
self-interest was perceived or interpreted and then pursued.
(emphasis mine, footnotes omitted, John Ashworth, _Slavery,
Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum South_, Vol. 1: Commerce
and Compromise, 1820-1850, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995, pp. 90-93)

What Nestor analyzes in general (encompassing slavery, serfdom,
latifundium ownership, etc.) and what Ashworth discusses with regard
to the antebellum South, is still of utmost importance in our late
capitalist world.  To simply describe any social formation
incorporated in the world economy as purely "capitalist" -- though
true in the sense that it promotes accumulation at the core -- means
to miss much of the concrete workings of the actual "economic and
social relations" outside the core.  The peripheral ruling class's
desire to maintain their class power makes them pursue activities
that go against economic development and social modernization, by
depending on & perpetuating unfree labor, even after unfree labor
ceases to make "economic sense" (understood as profit-maximization in
the sense of neo-classical economics), and by buying the loyalty of
the strata between the ruling class and the most oppressed (in the
case of the antebellum South, non-slave-owning whites).  We cannot
afford to paper over the differences among the modes of surplus
extraction by describing any social relation under capitalism purely
& simply as "capitalist."  Those who wish to minimize the difference
between slavery (and other modes of coerced labor) and wage labor by
regarding both as "fully capitalist" may ironically end up
diminishing the value of progressive nationalism (not to mention
socialism) on the periphery, despite their good intention to morally
indict capitalism.


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