[Marxism] Wallerstein versus Brenner

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 4 08:33:05 MDT 2014

This comment just turned up on my blog:

I have read Brenner and Wallerstein. I think that both said important 
things about capitalism. While Brenner was right in asserting that one 
of the “conditions” for capitalism was the separation of the direct 
producers from the direct access (extra-market) to the means of 
production/subsistence, I think that this conditions is not sufficient 
to explayn the appearance of capitalism. In the first place, what is 
prior to that structural condition for the appearance of capitalism? I 
think that when Brenner says that capitalism was the outcome of the 
UNINTENDED consequences of the feudal lords in defending “feudal social 
property relations” it implicitly means that he has no theory for, it 
cannot be explained only by resorting to Marx’s condition, the 
appearance of capitalism (or a theory of social change at grand scale) 
and that it can only be settled with historical research. I think that 
it is a tautology to say that capitalism arose from the structural 
condition already mentioned. I think that Wallerstein is far more 
“dialectical” than Brenner, and if you read volume I of “The modern 
world-system” he incorporates into the picture almost the same elements 
that Marx said about “primitive accumulation” in volume I of “Capital”: 
national debts, colonization of the Americas, the “price revolution” 
promoted with the plunder of the american gold, the mercantilist system, 

By the way, Brenner accused (in his 1977 article) Wallerstein of being 
ahistorical and for his “homo economicus” account for the rise of 
capitalism, but when you read Brenner’s “The social basis of economic 
development” (in the book “Analytical marxism”) he adopts a kind of 
argument that resembles a “homo economicus” when he says that it was not 
in the interest of the feudal lord to separate the peasants from the 
means of production/subsistence because he was first to reproduce 
himself individually and as a member of a class:

“Indeed, because there was no class of economic actors devoid of the 
means of reproduction (subsistence) to take up the lords’ land as 
exploited tenants or to work the lords’ land as exploited wage workers, 
the individual lords did not, as a rule, find it in their self-interest 
to expropriate their own peasants” (1986: 27).

I don’t have a problem with that kind of assertions, but I think that 
Brenner’s account on capitalism is, at some times, a tautology because 
it does not explain what did lead first to the expropriation of the 
direct producers.

On the other hand, perhaps Brenner is textually more attached to Marx 
than Wallerstein, I think that world-systems analysis pays far more 
attention than Brenner to the consequences in the “longue durée” of the 
law of accumulation and the increasing appearance of the 
“laboral/industrial reserve army” because of the “eficience of 
production” (the increment or productivity of labor expelling labor 
force from the labor-process). And Wallerstein makes the case in his 
short text “Cities in socialist theory and capitalist praxis” (1984). He 
first exposes the typical marxist explanation for the appearance of 

“The argument seems to be threefold: 1) To have a surplus that may be 
appropriated by bourgeois owners, there must be workers to be exploited; 
but workers would only permit themselves to be so exploited if they were 
compelled by lack of alternative means to provide for their livelihood 
(that is, if they did not own the means of production for their 
subsistence). 2) To have a significant total surplus, and through it an 
‘industrial revolution’, there must be very large numbers of workers 
available who are propertyless and thereby dependent upon wage 
employment. 3) To prevent these propertyless workes from bidding up 
wages, there must be a greater supply of them than there is demand. That 
is, there must be an ‘industrial reserve army’ which os created by 
expropriation and whose existence is thereafter assured by the 
increasing organic composition of capital” (p. 66-67).

And then Wallerstein says:

“The empirical validity of each of these propositions may be challenged. 
1) There have always been and continue to be ways of compelling the 
production of a surplus other than depriving the worker of the ownership 
of the means of production. 2) It is not clear empirically that the 
expansion of industrial enterprise -in particular countries or in the 
world as a whole- has been regularly preceded or even accompanied by the 
creation of masses of propertyless workers. 3) Members of the industrial 
reserve army must eat enough to survive, or they are of little use as a 
weapon of capitalists against wage workers. By what means have they been 
getting the income that has permitted them to survive? (Marx himself 
recognizes three varieties of reserve army, two of which are defined as 
only part-lifetime wage workers). And if they are surviving because of 
income from sources other than wage income, to what extent is this 
proposition compatible with proposition 1, that workers would only 
permit themselves to be exploited if they did not own the means of 
production?” (p. 67).

It also has to do with the category of “productive labor”. Only 
wage-workers perform actually “productive labor” in opposition to other 
forms of labor? Perhaps “productive” means something else (under 
capitalism) and not the production of commodities or the appropiation of 
surplus value (in slavery, feudalism and serfdom, the ruling class also 
appropiated the surplus value produced by the direct producers, so 
capitalism in the end is not so different):

“Is wage labour in fact the cheapest form of labour power in terms of 
real outlays by the individual enterpreneur for the social labour 
delivered? To put this in marxist terminology, is the relative surplus 
value produced by the wage labourer greater than that produced by direct 
producers operating under other relations of production and garnered 
directly or indirectly enterpreneurs? (This of course assumes dropping a 
definition of surplus value as accruing only in situations of the wage 
labour/capital social relation. To insist on this as part of the 
definition is more theological than logical)” (p. 68).

Wallerstein may does not have all the answers to the inconsistencies 
within the marxist propositions, but I think that his insights about 
capitalism as a world-system are very fruitful.

I hope you could understand what I tried to say (english is not my 
mother language).

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