The slave is not a proletarian; the proletarian is not a slave. For, under capitalism the dual freedom of the worker consists of her freedom from the means of production, and her freedom to sell her labour power to any buyer. The slave lacks both freedoms. It follows that slavery and capitalism are incompatible. What could be more straightforward than that? Daniel Gaido points out, in a marxist historiograpical treatise on American capitalism, that this focus on the mode of exploitation involved in any mode of production is one that distinguishes marxism from bourgeois political economy. For the latter, exchange relations are far more central. Slavery is thus often (not always) defined as capitalist on account of its integration into commodity exchange. For marxists, this is to focus on one small aspect of the totality of productive relations, which omits the social role of the worker and the relation of exploitation between owner and labourer. This latter, Marx sees as central
The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.
So, to repeat: the mode of exploitation comprising the innermost secret of the whole social formation, slave labour would seem to be a form of surplus extraction that belongs solely and exclusively to pre-capitalist modes of production (PCMPs). Yet, of course, there is a tradition in marxist thought, which owes as much to W E B Du Bois as to Eric Williams, which sees plantation slavery as a capitalist form. Contemporary advocates of this view would include David Roediger, for example. In a classic essay, Sidney Mintz made what is in my view a compelling argument for not treating the issue of 'free labour' as decisive. Wage labour is, like exchange relations, only one element in the totality of capitalist social relations, and has precedents in PCMPs. I will return to Mintz's argument, but its polemical thrust is directed against the idea of slavery as the eternal other of capitalism. Naturally, I have my view on the debate over slavery and capitalism which will become obvious throughout the post. And for what it's worth, the latest issue of Historical Materialism
carries a symposium on slavery, capitalism and the US Civil War
, with contributions from Robin Blackburn, Eric Foner and others, which is mandatory reading on the subject. But what I'm most interested in is trying to clarify the ways in which one would approach the issue, and attempt to resolve it.
First of all, it seems to me that the subject is modes of production, and the relations between them. What does a 'mode of production' specify? The mode of production consists of a conjunction of relations of production and forces of production. This much at least is uncontroversial among marxists. But precisely what each element of this conjunction consists of is a matter of intense, complex argument. We have said that the mode of exploitation constitutes the inner secret of a social formation. But Jairus Banaji in his recent collection, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation, has a point when he complains of a tendency to conflate productive relations with modes of exploitation. So, for the purposes of this argument, he insists on the distinction between slavery as a mode of exploitation, and the slave mode of production. Not making this distinction, he argues, leads to the erroneous tendency to assume that wherever slavery exists there is a slave mode of production; and, as a corollary, it is assumed that wherever labour is 'unfree', there can be no capitalist mode of production (CMP).
In an enlightening essay, Banaji goes on to interrogate the notion of 'free labour'. The idea of 'free labour' rests on a certain legal formalism in which 'free will' is assumed in the absence of direct political coercion, it logically leads to absurdities such as the assertion by US courts that "a servitude which was knowingly and willingly entered into could not be termed involuntary"
. The point is not simply that behind formal legal freedom exists a realm of economic coercion; rather, it is that it is incoherent to speak of a free contract, particularly under capitalism where bargaining outcomes are determined by the wider politico-legal structure upheld through coercion. The line between free and unfree labour is impossible to draw without collapsing into liberal mystification. There are various kinds of labour which might be compatible with capitalism - debt-bound labour, hired labour, waged labour, etc - and in each case there are various mechanisms by which labour is subjected and unfree.
Just as much a source of controversy as the content of each element of the mode of production is the relation between the elements, eg whether the dynamic historical element in the mode of production is the forces or relations of production. I won't go into this controversy here, but I have some sympathy with the argument that prioritising productive forces tends to collapse into a kind of techno-determinism. Then there is the question of whether the concept of a mode of production needs to specify additional elements: should it, for example, specify the means of its own reproduction? I don't think it has to, necessarily, but for a rigorous discussion of this and related questions, you should read Harold Wolpe's introductory essay in The Articulation of Modes of Production
With those questions still in mind, it becomes necessary to resolve exactly what the CMP is, and how does it relate to PCMPs? When capitalism emerges, does it instantaneously obliterate PCMPs, gradually subsume them, incorporate elements of the old into the new, remain constrained by them in various ways... or what? When we speak of "uneven and combined development" in relation to the development of capitalism, we mean that capitalism develops independently in a number of territories, but not in complete separation; and that it develops at a different pace in each zone. The concept helps explain certain concrete effects in terms of class formations, national politics and culture, but it also implies something else. It implies unevenness of development and a combination of different levels of development of capitalism in relation to PCMPs.
To put this in a more concrete way, how might we understand the position of slavery in a capitalist social formation? Must we see it as apart from capitalism, a PCMP in its midst? Alternatively is it possible to think of slavery as a remnant of a PCMP that has been annexed by the CMP? Or is slave labour simply one mode of exploitation that is perfectly compatible with capitalism? Not a remnant of a PCMP but simply one of the many ways in which the capital-labour relation can be expressed? Returning to Mintz's argument, what he shows in his detailed survey of plantation slavery is the co-existence of capitalist and pre-capitalist forms of labour not only in the same social formations, but often in the same sites of production; the same labourer could be both a slave and a proletarian. From a very different position, Charles Post has made a strong case for seeing the cotton plantations in antebellum slavery as non-capitalist on the grounds of their lack of development of the means of production, low productivity and tendency to expand surplus value by crude absolute means such as territorial expansion: this clearly showed that pre-capitalist rather than capitalist imperatives were operative in antebellum slavery. But as far as I can gather, the evidence on this is mixed depending on which sector of production you are looking at - for example, it depends on whether you are surveying evidence from cotton plantations, or from sugar plantations. This would imply, perhaps, that different imperatives operated within the same regional system, that different modes of production were articulated together under a wider capitalist dominance.
Much hinges here on the distinction (derided as positivist by Banaji for reasons I don't follow) between the mode of production, and the social formation. This is principally a distinction between different levels of abstraction. The mode of production is an abstract set of determinations, whereas the social formation is the concrete site on which the mode of production is realised. As such, or so Althusser and his followers would argue, one should expect to find an articulation of distinct 'pure' modes of production in any given formation. And if that is correct, then it would be sensible to expect both capitalist and non-capitalist forms to co-exist in various complex ways; to mutually determine and restrict one another's formation and development; and when capitalism eventually triumphs, it would tend to have incorporate elements, remnants of precapitalist modes that are perhaps useful to its reproduction either at a political, ideological or economic level.
This brings me back to another point made by Banaji, which is worth quoting at length:
For Marx himself, the task of scientific history consisted in the determination of the laws regulating the movement of different epochs of history, their ‘laws of motion’ as they were called after the example of the natural sciences. Vulgar Marxism abdicated this task for a less ambitious programme of verifying ‘laws’ already implicit, as it supposed, in the materialist conception of history. ... Marx had been emphatic that abstract laws do not exist in history, that the laws of motion which operate in history are historically determinate laws. He indicated thereby that the scientific conception of history could be concretised only through the process of establishing these laws, specific to each epoch, and their corresponding categories. In other terms, through a process of producing concepts on the same level of historical ‘concreteness’ as the concepts of ‘value’, ‘capital’ and ‘commodity-fetishism’.
My opinion is that there is no way to determine in advance whether a system of slave (or bonded, or impressed) labour is capitalist or non-capitalist, a remnant or a dynamic component of the dominant mode of production. Slavery cannot be interpreted as a transhistorical mode of exploitation whose substance remains unaltered through various historical epochs and social formations. While it is correct that the capitalist law of value requires the operation of imperatives through competition, and this requires the wider dominance of the form of waged labour, it doesn't exclude the persistence of slave labour as a capitalist form, or as a pre-capitalist form annexed to capitalism.
Labels: articulation of modes of production, capitalism, exploitation, historical materialism, marxism, mode of production, slavery