John Locke, the Brenner thesis and slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 23 15:08:41 MDT 2003

Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 3 No. 3, July 2003
Plantation Slavery and Economic Development in the Antebellum Southern 
United States

Borrowing Robert Brenner’s concept of ‘social property relations’, the 
article presents an alternative analysis of the dynamics of plantation 
slavery and their relation to economic development in the regions it dominated

The crucial difference between capitalism and slavery appears in the 
surplus extractive relationship between the non-producers and the direct 
producers. Capitalists purchase the labour power, the capacity to work, of 
the workers for a specified period of time. Masters, by contrast, purchase 
the labourer, the person of the worker. The purchase of the labourer, 
rather than her or his labour power, has important economic effects. The 
purchase of labour power allows the worker to enter the capitalist 
production process as a variable element of production. The capital 
invested in the reproduction of the workers, their wages, is a variable 
cost clearly distinguished from the constant costs of objects and 
instruments of production. The masters’ purchase of the labourer converts 
the direct producer into ‘means of production in human form’. The 
‘capitalization of labour’ requires the slave to enter the production 
process as a constant element of production. Under slavery, the master is 
unable to distinguish capital invested in objects and instruments of 
production from that invested in reproducing his labourers. Both the 
labourers and land, tools and the like appear as fixed and inflexible costs 
to the planter.


Ellen Meiksins Wood, "Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism" (Against the Current, 
May/June 2001):

Robert Brenner built on the foundation created by these Marxist historians 
and especially their emphasis on the class relations between lords and 
peasants. But he clearly felt that his predecessors were still conceding 
too much to the old model.  So, instead of assuming the prior existence of 
capitalism, either as "protocapitalism" or as petty commodity production 
trying to break out of feudal fetters to become a mature capitalism, he set 
out to explain the emergence of a new and historically unprecedented social 

In other words, Brenner set out to explain a real transition from one mode 
of production to another. He laid out a detailed explanation of how social 
property relations were transformed so that they set in motion a new 
historical dynamic, the imperatives of competition, profit-maximization and 
a tendency to relentless and systematic development of the productive forces.


Ellen Meiksins Wood, "Origins of Capitalism":

"Locke's view of property is very well suited to the conditions of England 
in the early days of agrarian capitalism. It clearly reflects a condition 
in which highly concentrated landownership and large holdings were 
associated with a uniquely productive agriculture (again, productive not 
just in the sense of total output but output per unit of work). His 
language of improvement echoes the scientific literature devoted to the 
techniques of agriculture which flourished uniquely in England at this time 
especially emanating from the Royal Society and the groups of learned men 
with whom Locke and Shaftesbury were closely connected. More particularly, 
his constant references to common land as waste and his praise for the 
removal of land from the common, and indeed for enclosure, had very 
powerful resonances in that time and place."


John Locke, "The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina":

"Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his 
negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever."

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