Spain: colonizer and colonized/New World Slavery and Marx

Julio Huato juliohuato at
Fri Jul 4 10:26:27 MDT 2003

Melvin P. wrote:

>"Wage labor and forced labor," pose the question incorrectly because at
>first glance one knows that "wage" is an economic category and "forced" -
>coercion, is a political category.

Wage labor means economic subordination and exploitation while forced labor
means extra-economic subordination and exploitation.  Why is it wrong to
draw this contrast?  Doesn't the conflict between the two encapsulate much
of the dynamics of modern history?

>Let us begin at the beginning with Marx.
>"In the second type of colonies - plantations- where commercial speculation
>figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the
>capitalist mode of production exist, although only in a formal sense, since
>the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage laborers, which is the basis of
>capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is
>conducted by capitalist (italicized capitalist in original)."  (Theory of
>Surplus Value Volume 2).

Excellent quote.  According to Marx, in America's slave plantations, even
though they were plugged to the world market, capitalist production existed
only *formally*.  By implication, the social *content* of production was
still noncapitalist.  Note that Marx says that free wage labor "is the basis
of capitalist production."  Note that in my comments to South African
mining, I said the property used to exploit slave labor is capital.  Hence
Marx's next sentence, "the business in which slaves are used is conducted by
capitalists."  Yes, it is their capital that exploits slave labor, but that
means it is capital that is not valorizing itself the way typical capital
valorizes itself -- i.e., through the exploitation of free wage laborers.

It is capital in its antediluvian form, because the content of the process
by which it expands is not surplus value *production*.  It may mix and melt
into the flow of surplus value in the economy.  But then it will become
'surplus value' not by origin but by choice -- if you allow my figure of
speech.  And that, to Marx, matters.  And it should matter to us too.  More
on this below.

>"Where the capitalist outlook prevails, as on American plantations, this
>entire surplus value is regarded as profit . . ."  (Capital Volume 3 page

Let me give the whole citation.  (I added the emphasis.) Marx says:

"Where the capitalist conception prevails, as on the American plantations,
this entire surplus-value is conceived as profit; where the capitalist mode
of production DOES NOT EXIST ITSELF, and the mode of conception
corresponding to it is not transferred from capitalist countries, it appears
as rent."  (Penguin Classics edition, p. 940.)

Note that Marx does not hide behind vague terms like the 'overdetermination
by the world system', etc. to avoid characterizing the American plantation
system as it is in and by itself.  He says say that here, in this particular
instance, you have a system of production closely connected to capitalist
production, driven by the needs of capitalist production, YET not in itself
capitalist production because capitalist production entails free wage labor.
  That is what Marx says.

>What is peculiar in "American" development is our specific capitalist
>development. This peculiar development calls for - nay demands, an
>indigenousness and militant Marxism.

Yes.  I agree.  In fact, in a page nearby, Marx says:

"The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of
the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and
servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back
on it in turn as a determinant.  On this is based the entire configuration
of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production,
and hence also its specific political form. [...]  This does not prevent the
endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of
innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial
relations, historical influences acting from outside, etc., and these can
ONLY be understood by analyzing these empirically given conditions." (p.

Two things.  First, by the same economic basis admitting endless gradations
and variations, Marx obviously means surplus value production from its very
conception.  Not by choice, but by origin.  That is, production by free wage
laborers.  That is the same economic basis that exists in endless gradations
and variations.  Is the worker paid with cash, check, direct deposit, or
calls on the company stock?  Etc.  This is the same economic basis, same in
its major conditions.  Forced labor would be different in its 'major
conditions' to wage labor.

Second, that a factory, plantation, or mine is plugged to the
capitalist-dominated world market is not sufficient to decide the character
of the factory, plantation, or mine.  The character of the place is
determined by how surplus labor is 'pumped out of the direct producers' --
Marx says.  Is it pumped out directly, by direct coercion?  Or is it pumped
out indirectly, mediating a wage contract?  If you determine that, you have
only characterized the 'major conditions' of the economic basis.  There are
other, 'empirical' aspects that influence it.  And on top of the economic
basis, there are other structures to be comprehended.  And they all require
specific investigation.

Obviously, communists in the U.S. must study the animal in its full
complexity.  The 'empirical' aspects must be understood as well -- and be
related to the 'major conditions' of the 'economic basis' to be informative
in practice.  Just because you have a compass that always gives you the
North doesn't mean that you have to move in a straight line path.  But that
is no denying of the importance of the compass.

>Here at one blow, Marx clearly sets forth the character of capitalist
>slavery in North America. Marx says:
>"It is however, clear that in any given economic formation of society,
>where not the exchange value but the use value of the product predominated,
>the surplus labor will be limited by a given set of wants, which may be
>greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus labor arises
>from the nature of production itself. Hence in antiquity, overwork become
>horrible only when the object is to obtain exchange value in its specific
>independent money-form; in the production of gold and silver. Compulsory
>working to death is here the recognized form of over-work." (Capital Volume

This citation makes it clear.  In antiquity, wherever there was production
for exchange value -- as opposed to production for use value -- the thirst
for surplus labor became 'boundless'.  This means that in antiquity, we may
find instances of this phenomenon.  And antiquity wasn't capitalist.
Slavery in America entailed a boundless thirst for surplus labor.  It was
because it was plugged to the capitalist-dominated world market.  But there
is no implication that slavery was capitalist production.

>Marx further explains why slavery in America was a peculiar form of
>"But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower form
>of slave labor, corvee labor, etc. art drawn into the whirlpool of an
>international market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, the
>sale of their products for export becoming the principle interest, the
>civilized horrors of overwork are grafted on the barbaric horrors of
>slaver, serfdom, etc. Hence the Negro labor in the Southern states of the
>American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as
>production was chiefly directed to immediate consumption. But in proportion
>as the export of cotton become of vital interest to these states, the over
>working of the Negro and sometimes the using up of his life in seven years
>labor becomes a factor in a calculated and calculating system."  (Capital
>Volume 1)

I disagree with your interpretation, Melvin.  Slavery in America was part of
the capitalist social formation, but it was not a peculiar form of
capitalist production.  It was no capitalist production.  The only way you
can call it capitalist is by reference to the overall world market to which
it is plugged.  There is no basis for that interpretation in Marx's words.

When you have an animal that has it in its guts the drive to grow endlessly,
like capitalist production, then -- as it enters into contact with other
modes of production -- it might at first coexist and even reinforce such
modes temporarily.  But, eventually, it will conflict with them.  I am no
expert in U.S. history but it seems to me that we miss a whole lot if we
view slavery as the same as capitalist production.  Was Lincoln
anti-capitalist then?  Was the civil war a war against the peculiar form of
U.S. capitalism?

>In the Poverty of Philosophy Marx shows the decisive role of slavery in the
>USNA in the development of capitalism:  "Direct slavery (repeat:
>D-I-R-E-C-T S-L-A-V-E-R-Y MP.) is just as much the pivot of bourgeois
>industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton;
>without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given
>the colonies their values; it is the colonies that have created world
>trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale
>industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.
>"Without slavery, North America, the most progressive of countries would be
>transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe out North America from the map
>of the world, and you will have anarchy - the complete decay of modern
>commerce and civilization. Abolish slavery and you will have wiped America
>off the map of nations."

Let us read what Marx actually says.  Nothing in this passage justifies
thinking of slavery as a 'peculiar form of capitalism.'  Marx says that
direct slavery is a 'pivot' of bourgeois industry.  Like what?  Like
'machinery, credits, etc.'  Slavery has expanded colonial trade and created
the world market.  Through that, slavery is a 'precondition' of large-scale
industry.  That gives slavery such importance.  Now, machinery is not
characteristic of capitalist production.  In fact, machines predated
capitalist production.  There were machines in the middle ages, in some
cases, they were used extensively -- as Marx notices in Grundrisse and
Capital.  There were even machines in the ancient world, by some accounts.
Credits are not inherent to capitalist production.  There was a broad credit
system in many cities and towns before capitalist production proper took
over.  There is ample evidence of credit arrangements in ancient times.
What Marx says is that they are PRE-conditions.

Commodity production and exchange is a precondition of capitalist
production.  Yet, it is not per se capitalist production.  Yes, the world
market (made possible by slavery in America) is a PRE-condition for
capitalist production and for large-scale industry.  "World trade and the
world market date from the 16th century, and from then on the modern history
of capital unfolds." (first paragraph of Capital I, chapter 4).  It is with
large-scale industry that capitalist production ensures its domination of
the world market.  Chicken and egg, yes, but there's a clear hint as to the
direction of the process.  So, there is no basis to equate slavery with
capitalist production.

If slavery is just a peculiar form of capitalist production, on the same
footing as wage labor, then what we should expect with the development of
capitalism is a reinforcement or at least proportional expansion of direct
slavery.  In fact, as a share of the total value produced in the world, the
production of value by direct slaves has declined.  Therefore, slavery is
NOT a peculiar form of capitalist production.  It is different from it and
it conflicts with it eventually.

>Further in Capital Volume 1, Marx continues:
>"Whilst the cotton industry introduced child slavery in England, it gave in
>the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or
>less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In
>fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its
>pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world."

See my comments to the previous citation.

>Free labor is not the antithesis of forced labor. Free or free labor means
>divorced from means of production, or hurled unto the market unattached -
>free, of ownership of "means," and not "politically free."

I disagree.  Free wage laborers are (remember, we are talking about the
tendency a historical process) politically free as well.  They are free of
political coercion.  Political coercion is extra-economic subjugation.  Like
the caciques in a Mexican ejido or comunidad.  Workers cannot be free in a
proletarian sense if they remain attached to the ejido or comunidad.

>The slaves were proletarians in chains. Simply because this slave labor was
>sold all at once - in the form of the slave who is sold to an owner of
>capital, does not change the character of the exploitation of that labor.
>This is a peculiarity. The slave was in fact sold as a commodity, which is
>the economic meaning of chattel slavery. This is also the absurdity.

We may say that proletarians are slaves but under economic coercion.  That
the wage system is slavery under an economic form.  Of course, the economic
form is not insignificant.  But, deep down, the wage system is akin to
slavery.  That is why we want to end it.  By saying that modern workers are
subject to 'wage slavery', we are being blunt about the true nature of
capitalism.  But... hmm, it seems to me that to call slaves 'proletarians in
chains' flatters slavery.  It's like saying that my PC is 'a
Pentium-Centrino-with-wireless-broadband-connection in chains'.  I wish.


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