A POST on Post, and vice versa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 1 15:36:12 MDT 2003

>Although some lengthy expositions have appeared regarding the "Brenner
>thesis," and the article by Charles Post, "Plantation Slavery and Economic
>Development in the Antebellum Southern United States," is identified as a
>casus belli, very little of those expositions has directly dealt with
>Brenner's thesis or Post's article.

Of course they have. The Brenner thesis posits class relations based on
market relations rather than "extra-economic" coercion. If the civil war
was supposed to reflect the revolutionary introduction of market relations,
especially in labor, in a bastion of "extra-economic" coercion", then you
have to characterize sharecropping, debt peonage and convict leasing in a
way that makes no sense whatsoever. The South simply traded in one form of
"extra-economic coercion" for another.

>Post is not one to abstract Southern slavery for the historical circumstance
>of its existence.  He acknowledges immediately slavery's existence and
>import within and  to the triangle trade, and the motor effect the trade has
>on the development of wage-labor capitalism.  At no point will Post argue
>that slavery is not part of the world market and not part of the substance
>of developing capitalism.

But that's the Brenner party line. Non-capitalist forms of exploitation
produced resources that were turned into commodities in capitalist
manufacturing. This is a rather peculiar understanding of the role of
forced labor in mining and agriculture, in other words most of the 3rd
world throughout its history. You end up with all sorts of obvious
inconsistencies from a Marxist standpoint. In South Africa, the diamond
mines would be considered "noncapitalist" because black workers were
dragooned into them through "extra-economic" laws, while the skilled white
workers who polished them for deBeers et al would be considered part of the
capitalist sphere because they could sell their labor to the highest
bidder. This is not Marxism; it is economistic formalism.

>Post argues, from an apparently classic Marxist position, that history of
>the slave system must be analyzed on the basis of its property relations, on
>its organization of labor, on its distinction, or lack thereof, between the
>living and dead elements of production.

In fact Marx wrote almost nothing about slavery. The Brenner thesis is a
rather patently obvious and self-vindicating exercise in formal logic. You
begin with a formal definition of capitalism and reject everything that it
does not apply to. For Brenner the essence of capitalism is the production
of variable surplus value such as took place in the industrial revolution
in Great Britain and afterwards. But until recently in the 20th century
such class relationships were nowhere to be seen in *most of the world*.
You could not find them in the Congo, Brazil, Nigeria, India, China, Russia
and elsewhere. In other words, you had pockets of capitalism surrounded by
a sea of "noncapitalism". This obvious anomaly forced people like Paul
Baran and Paul Sweezy to take a closer look at class relations in the part
of the world that was ignored by Marx and Engels for obvious reasons. They
were simply too consumed with the task of addressing the political needs of
the German and British working-class, which did operate in a context
typified by variable surplus value production and involved struggles
related to that reality, such as an 8-hour day. That doesn't exactly relate
to the reality of sharecropping and debt peonage.

>Like profit, technological innovation in the slave economy is an external
>input.  Analyzing Cuba, whose technical advances in sugar harvesting,
>processing, transport were financed, engineered, introduced by US and
>British industrial capitalism, and brought to fruition in construction and
>operation by slave labor, Post  clearly shows how the technical innovation
>became a static component, never precipitating a sustained technical advance
>beyond its original "benchmark."  What has occurred is the technical
>grafting or implementation of the products of wage labor into the social
>relations of the plantation economy, and thus, it is that relation, that
>property relation that encapsulates and constricts further innovation.

The question is not whether slavery was a stagnant system. It is whether
what replaced it was any more dynamic. Charles Post truncates his history.
I can't blame him. It would be an awful burden to fit the KKK into a
Brennerite context. A burning cross just about epitomizes "extra-economic"

>And so we see here a confirmation of the "backwardness" of the South as the
>product of its property relations, of  its historical, and thus historically
>limited importance to developing industrial capitalism.

I guess you are about as anxious as Charles to sweep the collapse of
Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and all the other counter-indicative evidence
under the rug. I'd do the same thing if I were trying to score debating points.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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