(fwd from Rakesh Bhandari) reply to Huato and dms

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Thu Jul 10 12:01:29 MDT 2003

> * From: "Julio Huato" <juliohuato at hotmail.com>
> Save yourself the embarrassment and read what I actually wrote.
> Where do you get the idea that my insistence on getting the
> categories straight denies extra-economic compulsion in the concrete
> history of capitalism?  Have you ever heard of the term
> 'abstraction'?


You seem to reduce primitive accumulation to external plunder
only. However, Marx's theorization is much broader, and includes the
use of direct force in the compulsion of labor and the use of public
debt for the accumulation of capital within early capitalism.  The
theory of primitive accumulation does not reduce in spatial terms to
external relations or in temporal terms to capital's origins only. Yet
given the absence of any real theoretical formulation and the lack of
historical analysis (by which you are not embarrassed!), no other
interpretation of your understanding of primitive accumulation has
been possible.

To put the point another way: New World plantation farming was as true
a form of capitalist and surplus value production as English
capitalist farming and the putting out system (through which
independent craftsmen were turned into defacto wage earners). The
first two did not and could not have relied on free wage labor in an
idealized sense. If plantation capitalism was only formal, so then was
early English capitalist farming; in fact w/ slavery more of the means
of subsistence, in particular clothing, may have been monetized
(though of course not directly purchased by the formally enslaved
proletarian)! By the way, your attempt to read Marx as denying that
New World plantation slaves ever produced surplus value strikes me as,
at best, tendentious.

In the putting out system the worker was not even formally alienated
from the means of production; it is an example of what Marx calls
formal subsumption, capital's colonization of an earlier mode of
production without having overthrown and revolutionized it.  However,
slavery was not a survival of earlier economic conditions but was
rather a resurrection of an institution only by the means of which
capitalist production could have got off the ground in land rich,
labor scarce zones. By saying that slavery was not true capitalism,
all you do is raise anachronistic and idealized standards and grasp
the external features of the social relation, viz. the exchange of
labor power for a wage in the realm of circulation, at the expense of
a focus on the content of that relation, i.e., the production of
surplus value.

Even Wood (after criticism by Robert Albritton) no longer bases the
centrality of English agrarian capitalism on the grounds that the
agrarian proletariat best approximated the free wage worker (servants
in husbandry were pinned down by various statutes, worked only
seasonally and produced much of their own subsistence); in fact one
gets almost no description of the degradation of the early agrarian
proletariat in her rustic account of the origins of capitalism. Her
account is not only Eurocentric but prettifying all the way through
(no rural unrest, no riots, no suppression and violence!). There is
almost nothing on the forcible creation of a rightless proletariat
subjected to bloody legislation so that capitalists could sweat a
profit from them.  Rather than being introduced to Marx's theory of
primitive accumulation, an annal of horror, we are sung the songs of
rising labor productivity and a new economic logic.  Wood emphasizes
in bloodless prose that only in agrarian capitalism were the inputs to
production necessarily monetized--tenants had access to land only via
leases (she may also exaggerate the landlord's actual powers of
eviction and renegotiation).  At any rate, the monetization of
necessary inputs doesn't distinguish agrarian capitalism from
plantation slavery, so one wonders what motivates the focus on one to
the exclusion of the other.

In the end we are not allowed to explore how as a late comer England
developed a slave based empire larger than its rivals, and far better
integrated, so that colonial demand and profits fed back to the
metropolis more reliably. Wood cannot be bothered with the history of
how long before England achieved a true revolution in industrial
productivity it was as a late comer able to penetrate the commercial
systems of these other colonial empires. She cites Blackburn but does
not actually entertain a single argument which he makes about the
stimulus Britain's slave empire made not only to its industrial
revolution but also its far-from- complete agrarian one(see for
example p. 553 of The Making of the New World Slavery and the chapter
as a whole ).

Moreover, if the growth of the world market to which New World slavery
made a pivotal and explosive contribution (as Marx underlined) had not
loosened feudal bonds and stimulated proto industry and petty
commodity production throughout Europe, how are we to explain that
soon after England had first achieved an industrial revolution perhaps
in part to well positioned coal deposits, it was outcompeted in sector
after sector by industrial European powers which had not undergone the
agrarian revolution that the Wood-Brenner thesis claims to be the sole
path to true capitalism?

Can it be that what we are dealing with here is the making of
relatively pleasant myths with Marxist imprimatur about the origins of
capitalism and the rise of the West? That would certainly explain the
refusal both to consider counter-evidence to claims about the timing
and depth of a capitalist agrarian revolution and the theory of
agrarian capitalism as primus mobilis and to refute patiently
counter-arguments about the crucial role played by New World slavery
and colonial plunder in British industrialization.

Capitalism does not seem to me to have had its origins in a
productivity revolution, agrarian or industrial, but rather in
unbridled violence by which capital was amassed and a global
proletariat was expropriated and compelled through coerced overwork
and minimal subsistence to satiate a new boundless thirst for surplus
value; slowly that system would evolve compulsions for the
capitalization of a rising percentage of an ever rising mass surplus
value.  At a certain point, this too undergoes dialectical
inversion--the demand for credit retracts, potential surplus value is
not realized and a general crisis cascades throughout a now global

To return to the point of contention: Marx's primitive accumulation
covers relations external and internal to early capitalist development
which spanned at least two centuries (of course primitive accumulation
is not simply a historical category but despite its continuation
throughout the history of capitalism, say South Africa in the late
19th century, it loses its centrality--again your argument that South
African miners did not produce surplus value and were not part of the
proletariat proper is tendentious).

You may want to consult Grossmann's chapter on the population problem
in early capitalism; his magnum opus is available in German, Spanish
and Italian (however the abridged English version leaves this chapter

In consigning the centrality of non economic coercion to early
capitalism, Marxism, always threatening to collapse into economism,
confronts grave problems as a social theory in terms of its
theorization of contemporary state power. Marx never did write the
book on the state, which may reflect not only time and health
limitations but an illicit theoretical demotion of non-economic forms
of power.


DMS whose arguments seem similar to Charles Post (do you know his
work?) wrote

> Slavery was indeed a barrier to mechanization. But later.  The
> initial technical "equivalence" between plantation and "free"
> agrarian production disappears in the second half of the 18th
> century and and the resistance of plantation production to
> mechanization, technical inputs, is critical to its demise.

Yes, yes, slavery became a barrier to industrialization but this
side-steps the point--what contribution did it make to the industrial
revolution or to the development of the capitalist system out of which
the industrial revolution eventually issued? Another question of
course is how the integration of slavery into a historical uniquely
wide and deep world market changed its character. In Africa royal
households had kidnapped or purchased or conquered slaves to use as
servants, soldiers, concubines and labourers. The status of slaves
changed over a few generations, if not in a lifetime. This was not New
World Slavery (as Jurriaan seems to forget in his praise of David
Landes' comments).

At any rate, please explain why exactly slavery became a barrier to
mechanization. Slavery made it difficult to identify wage costs which
in turn made it difficult to see the profitability of substituting
machines for labor?

Did resistance to mechanization lead to slavery's demise because said
resistance undermined profitability? Evidence of declining
profitability and declining profitabilty as caused by resistance to
mechanization (as opposed to say the cut off of the African slave
trade as continental Africa was brought directly under colonial
control, emphasized by Wallerstein in his review of Fogel and
Engerman)? Please site the sources on which you are relying.

And when did slavery or rather forced labor fall? Capitalist systems
of indentured (aka coolie) labor (see David Northrup), near slave
plantations (see E Daniel Valentine,ed) and colonial forced labor (see
Frederick Cooper) persisted across the globe well after formal
abolition into the 20th c. Cotton continued to be produced under
formally unfree labor relations in Egypt, India and Central America
(Eric Wolf''s Europe and the People Without History remains an
excellent overview). By focusing on American racial plantation slavery
only, you make it seem that industrialism had to have been more
incompatible with formally unfree labour than it actually was. The
British had not done away with formally unfree labor in their Empire,
as you seem to suggest.

Now are you saying that in the US the rising industrial sector had to
eliminate slavery (as opposed to small family farming) because slavery
was not a good market for its wares given its resistance to
mechanization (suggested by Charles Post)? That is, are you saying
that the American Civil War was fought in order to gain markets in
which the surplus value embodied in industrial goods could be
realized? Such a market centered approach conflicts with the primacy
of industrial production which your posts seem meant to
underline. Moreover, the more industrial production develops, the more
it creates its own market for its own goods, esp. Div I products. The
function of agro-raw material exporting colonies and semi colonies
becomes over time less one of realizing surplus value (they are too
poor to do much realization!) but rather of producing it or rather
distributing it outward through unequal terms of trade by which the
profitability of imperialist and industrial capital is bolstered. I
don't think there is anything dangerously circulationist about that.

Moreover, this argument now has the burden of having to reply to the
conclusion of Blackburn's magisterial study in which it is argued that
the market created by plantations before the industrial revolution
allowed the Amercian Northeast and Mid Atlantic to break out of
autarchic modes of development.

You refer to anecdotal reports about technical backwardness and
inefficiency of slavery ("Reporter after reporter bemoans the
ignorance, backwardness, inefficiency of the plantation producers
during the late 18th/early 19th centuries.") I suppose you are
referring to Adam Smith, Olmstead and Cairnes (though Cairnes is late
mid 19th C). Please clarify. It's not clear that their accounts stand
up to empirical scrutiny even though Marx himself leaned hard on the
last two. I think it's unfortunate that TJ Byres relies on such
anecdotal evidence in Capitalism From Above and Below (roughly the

> One plantation colony did become the exception to the rule, Cuba.
> There the application of steam and iron in the construction of
> railroads (financed by exported British capital, engineered by US
> engineers, powered by US locomotives) and applied also to the
> processing of the cane itself propelled the island to pre-eminence
> in sugar.  ___________

The rule being the resistance of plantation colonies to the
assimilation of industrial inputs?

Simply untrue that other raw material exporting colonies and semi
colonies in which formally unfree labor relations prevailed did not
assimilate chemical fertilizers, steel tools, rail roads, complex
processing technology, etc.

Moreover, the main function of colonies in which unfree labour
relations prevailed became (once again) not one of absorbing the
surplus industrial product or realizing surplus value--this is a
Luxemburgian idea, effectively criticized by Grossmann. Rather it was
in reducing costs for industrial capital through unequal terms of
trade or simply in the provision of basic inputs which could only be
produced in the tropics. I don't see how you have proven the
incompatability of agro and raw material production on the basis of
formally unfree labour with industrial capitalism. If that were true,
much of capitalist history would have to be whited out.

If your argument is that the dynamics of capitalism came to be
centered in machine production and relative surplus value, I am not
opposed. I even agree that there is good presumptive evidence in favor
of the counter-intuitive thesis that the Northern working class is
exploited at a higher rate!

My point is that the boundless search for surplus value should not
however be equated with the continuous revolutionization of the
conditions of production: capitalism is not industrialism.  The
boundless production of surplus value is the essence of capitalism--in
a kind of Hegelese surplus value as a concept has no self limitation
(see exploration of the relation between surplus value as a concept
and infinity by Christopher Arthur whose Hegelese is vigorously
contested by John Rosenthal), though of course it is limited in fact
by the surplus labor which can actually be appropriated. Industrialism
or the continuous revolutionization of the conditions of production is
consequence as capitalism.

At a late stage capital also becomes a barrier to industrialism in two
ways: 1) rising organic composition of capital, falling rate of
profit, shortage in the mass of surplus value for the purposes of
continued accumulation, excess capacity (a shortage of surplus labor
in the production process appears as an excess of capacity and
commodities in the marketplace, as Mattick Sr once roughly put it),
crisis-driven centralization and concentration of capital, growth of
the reserve army of labor and surplus population, rising rate of
exploitation though the higher the rate of exploitation already is,
the less future productivity gains can raise it further; and 2)
capitalists pay for labor power, not labor time itself; if they had to
pay for the latter, it may well prove profitable to expand the scope
of mechanization beyond that which capitalists will allow.


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