[Marxism] The Political Economy of Capitalist Labor - Viewpoint Magazine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 6 13:27:02 MDT 2019

I am rather convinced that Marx himself conceived of primitive 
accumulation as a historical phase which more or less ended when and 
where capitalist forms of production became dominant. Why else would he 
have stated that at the time of his writing, primitive accumulation had 
been more or less accomplished in Western Europe? 6 I am not opposed to 
re-interpretations which endeavor to make use of the analytical concept 
of primitive accumulation in order to grasp continual processes of 
expropriation as well as the extension of market structures into spheres 
of life heretofore outside the realm of competition. 7 Instead, my 
critique focuses on the assumption that the constitution of labor 
relations through direct violence and constraint is only prevalent at 
the fringes of capitalism, and that this will be overcome when the 
rationality of capitalist economic relations becomes dominant.

Just like proponents of capitalism, Marx, Engels, and Marxists have 
maintained that the forceful constraint of laborers is a hindrance to 
any strategy which aims at furthering the productivity of labor. If 
there was, indeed, slavery to be found in the epoch of capitalism, then 
this had to be conceived of as an alternative to capitalist production, 
albeit an alternative that was historically outdated and hence doomed to 
disappear. Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth have recently 
labeled this a Eurocentric conception of the history of capitalism. 8 I 
would rather point to the fact that – with very few exceptions – it is 
not economic rationality that effects the end of forced labor. Instead, 
historical analysis of the concrete functioning of capitalism reveals 
that the end of the many different forms of direct violence in labor 
relations has usually been achieved by the application of state power, 
hence by political struggle. Capitalism has correctly been termed a 
“political-economic” system. In what follows I will try to explain why 
this should be taken much more seriously than has hitherto been the case.

Let us start out with the results of recent historical research on the 
history of wage labor in England. In contrast to developments on the 
continent, English laborers were legally free to sell their capacity to 
labor at a very early stage. However, until the mid-1870s – definitely 
long after the beginning of industrial capitalism in England – they were 
not legally free to end their contract at will. If they did so and their 
employer went to court, they had to expect a sentence in prison. Upon 
their arrival they were officially welcomed with a flogging, and during 
their stay many experienced forced labor in a treadmill. In his 
important work on the history of voluntary wage labor Robert J. 
Steinfeld is very firm in his rejection of any functional explanation of 
the persistent use of state violence to leave the duration of contracts 
to the will of employers. 9 He concludes that “what we call ‘free labor’ 
is defined essentially by the moral and political judgment that penal 
sanctions… should not be permitted to enforce ‘voluntary’ labor agreements.”


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