[Marxism] The Fiction of Economic Coercion: Political Marxism and the Separation of Theory and History

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 5 13:53:34 MST 2016

An article from Historical Materialism. 2013, Vol. 21 Issue 4 that 
finally is available to me from the Columbia library electronically but 
not unfortunately to the unwashed masses. This HM issue is devoted to a 
symposium on Jairus Banaji's "Theory as History". Banaji is a critic of 
Political Marxism.

The article was written by Sébastien Rioux, one of a legion of other 
such critics. The abstract states:

"The theory of social-property relations, or political Marxism, has 
argued that in contradistinction with pre-capitalist forms of 
exploitation, capitalism is characterised by the separation of the 
economic and the political, which makes surplus appropriation under this 
system uniquely driven by economic coercion. In spite of political 
Marxism's various strengths, this article argues that the paradigm puts 
forward an ahistorical and sanitised conception of capitalism typical of 
bourgeois economics, which is an outcome of its formal-abstractionist 
approach to the concept of the mode of production and the separation 
between theory and history that it operates. A more satisfactory 
solution to political Marxism's inability to make sense of past and 
present forms of coercion and violence under capitalism can be found in 
jairus Banaji's emphasis on Marx's historical - rather than formal - 
conception of the mode of production."

This was something that struck me the first time I began reading Robert 
Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. The idea that 'extra-economic" coercion 
is "outside" of capitalism that relies on market coercion struck me as 
nonsensical when you consider the rise of modern South Africa as I tried 
to point out in one of my first forays into this debate:


For all of its devotion to British exceptionalism, the Brenner thesis 
would seem ill equipped to explain why British rule failed to abolish 
extra-economic forms of coercion in its most important colonial holding: 
South Africa. Indeed, it was here where non-market forms of exploitation 
helped to successfully propel the nation into the front ranks of 
capitalism on the continent.

In keeping with laws already enacted in the rest of the British Empire, 
slavery was abolished in 1834. But the devotion to freedom was only 
lukewarm. Great Britain soon found ways to reintroduce other forms of 
labor conscription.14

Bristling at the abolition of slavery, Boer farmers withdrew into the 
east and northeast, where they would be allowed to pursue religious 
freedom while trafficking in human beings. Their KhoiKhoi slaves could 
be relied on for the dirty work on their farms. According to Bernard 
Magubane, "the Boers stood for outdated slavery on a petty scale, the 
foundation of their patriarchal peasant economy, the British colonist 
represented large-scale capitalist exploitation of the land and Africans."15

For the British, abolitionism was not entirely altruistic. The Reverend 
Thomas Farrell Buxton, a prominent abolitionist, explained his goals in 
a letter to the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the 
Civilization of Africa:

"We determined to form two associations, perfectly distinct from each 
other, but having one common object in view, putting an end to the slave 
trade. One of these associations to be exclusively philanthropic in 
character, and designed mainly to diffuse among the African tribes the 
light of Christianity, and the blessing of civilization and 
free-labour-the other to have a commercial character, and to unite with 
the above objects the pursuit of private enterprise and profit."16

Emulating the old masters of the Spanish empire, British colonial 
administrators in South Africa employed indigenous feudal institutions 
on behalf of capitalist exploitation. The Spaniards made cunning use of 
the Incan 'mi'ita' while the British co-opted local chiefs to supply 
labor gangs. Peter Lionel Wickins writes:

"Some justification for the use of forced labour was found in tribal 
custom, which allowed for service to a chief (tribute labour) or to the 
community (communal labour). The purpose of tribute labour was to 
support the chief in his office and to enable him to perform his public 
duties, such as hospitality to strangers and the relief of the hungry in 
time of dearth. But with the spread of a money economy chiefs became 
acquisitive and the system was abused. Tribesmen found themselves 
compelled to cultivate their chief's land, not in the tribal interest, 
but purely for his personal gain; or even sent off to work as contract 
labourers on the, mines, either individually or, as was sometimes the 
case in South Africa, in age-regiments."17

Just one year after abolishing slavery, the British colonial government 
in South Africa passed an ordinance in 1835 requiring ex-slaves to 
become apprentices to their previous owners. The blacks reacted by 
deserting or damaging property. The British followed up with a new 
ordinance in 1841 that established criminal sanctions for breach of 
contract, but this solution proved short-lived as well. The ruling class 
next toyed with the idea of importing convicts from England, a practice 
that had succeeded in Australia. Finally, they passed an 1853 ordinance 
that provided means of subsistence and a small cash wage based on 
contract. Violations of the contract were punishable by a stiff prison 

Despite verbal commitments to transforming South Africa along free 
market lines, reality somehow fell short of the ideal. As happens almost 
universally in colonial settings where there is a surplus of arable land 
and a shortage of labor, the bourgeoisie resorts to extra-economic 
coercion to extract raw materials for export. In South Africa, this took 
the form of forced migrant labor, particularly in the gold mining 
sector. In another volume, Wickins once again unveils the actual 
practices that evolved despite the British verbal commitment to free labor:

"In the later nineteenth century, when the shortage of labour for White 
enterprises was becoming acute, three forms of compulsion were 
attempted: firstly, taxation - capitation (poll) or hearth (hut) tax - 
which served a dual purpose of providing revenue and forcing Blacks to 
earn sufficient cash to meet their obligations; secondly, so-called 
squatters laws to restrict the number of Africans resident on European 
farms; and thirdly, attempts to substitute individual tenure for 
communal title in the reserves. To these forms of coercion must be added 
the pass laws. These were not conducive to the labour mobility that 
hard-pressed employers were anxious to foster, but they did give those 
who had labour a hold on their workers. This control was strengthened by 
other legislative measures, such as the Masters and Servants Laws and 
the Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911. The best-known example of a 
labour tax was the annual poll tax (of 10 shillings) imposed by the Glen 
Grey Act of 1894 in the Cape on all African men in certain districts who 
were not freeholders or regular lessees or who had not served a 
stipulated minimum period in wage labour during the year. The labour tax 
was in fact ineffective and was repealed in 1905. The Act also 
authorised the issue of individual title deeds in the Glen Grey district 
near Queenstown, at least partly with the intention of forcing on to the 
labour market those unable to acquire and exploit individual plots 
efficiently. This part of its provisions, too, did not fulfil the hopes 
placed in it. There was no marked drift from the countryside of people 
deprived of access to land by the spread of individual tenure."18

The stakes were incalculable. According to South African economist, the 
Witwatersrand would have yielded 6,000 pounds worth of gold if a 
sufficient labor force had been deployed to dig it from the earth. The 
reserves and the migrant-labor system made the realization of such a 
bounty of surplus value possible. Migrant workers were snared in the 
same web that colonists had set from the very beginning whenever they 
initiated the process of primitive accumulation: they were forced to 
seek work in the mines in order to avoid arrest for failure to pay 
taxes. Ironically, Magubane cites Maurice Dobb, whom Brenner describes 
as a forerunner, to explain the need for forced labor in South Africa:

"When the supply of labor for any new enterprise was insufficiently 
plentiful, for example in mining, it was not uncommon for the Crown to 
grant the right of impressments to the entrepreneur or to require that 
convicts be assigned to the work under penalty of hanging if they were 
refractory or if they absconded."19

The development of mining also created opportunities for the capitalist 
class, especially in light of the inexplicable desire of native Africans 
to subsist through farming rather than dig for diamonds or gold at a 
pittance. This led to the establishment of a mixture of wage and forced, 
contract labor. An 1872 proclamation declared that mine owners were 
obligated to pay a wage to a miner, while he would be forced to carry a 
pass when he was not at the site. Since diamonds were extremely 
valuable, labor conditions became prison-like. All sorts of 
extra-economic controls were instituted to keep workers in line. These 
controls were utterly necessary for the growth of capitalism, since free 
market compulsion would have not sufficed.

The biggest obstacle to the mine owners' plans, however, was the 
relative prosperity of the African peasant who was able to not only 
subsist on the fertile soil, but sell a surplus in the commercial 
marketplace. This development was most pronounced in the Cape Colony. 
Taking pity on the understaffed gold mining companies, the state enacted 
a migrant labor system in the 1890s. Contracts to work in these 
prison-like compounds were made more palatable through prostitution and 
saloons (shebeens). And if an African preferred subsistence farming to 
mining, legislation could bend his will to the greater good of 
capitalist development. The Glen Gray Act of 1894 imposed a ten-shilling 
tax on all men in the Cape colony who could not prove that they had been 
in wage employment for three months in every year.

These sorts of laws persisted throughout the twentieth century as South 
Africa was entering the ranks of the developed world. The vast wealth of 
South Africa rests on mining and mining, which in turn rested on unfree 
labor through the 1970s. Workers who quit a contract were characterized 
as "deserters" by the authorities and subject to arrest. A boycott by 
American unions finally abolished such "master and servants" acts, but 
long after the damage had been done.

 From the standpoint of class relations, contemporary South Africa and 
colonial Spain have much in common. Capitalism is not about advanced 
technology. Until relatively recent times, a miner worked with a pick 
and a shovel. Nor is capitalism about "freedom". It is about producing 
surplus value. If a work force is not available to work for a wage, then 
the capitalist state will pass laws ensuring that various forms of 
unfree labor keep the system going. It is our job as Marxists to develop 
a class analysis that can maximize the power of the laboring classes 
politically. Quibbling over whether the worker is really a worker or not 
based on the peculiarities of a given country's history not only 
constitutes a form of pedantic quibbling, it is a detour from our task 
as revolutionaries.

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