Forwarded from Rakesh Bhandari (origins of capitalism)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jul 10 12:02:17 MDT 2003

* From: "Julio Huato" <juliohuato at>

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

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 society.

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 out).

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?)

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 title).

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.



The Marxism list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list