Today, I seek to open up a space for the discussion of the relation (or non-relation) of two intellectual projects: the new historiography of capitalism and slavery, on the one hand, and the analytical project called Political Marxism, on the other.
As Tim Barker suggests (I hope I am not mangling his point, here), there has been less dialogue between the two endeavors than might have been anticipated. Perhaps we have lacked the adequate venue for such a discussion. If that has been the case, I offer the comments section here as an open space for discussion, debate, fights, gnashing of teeth, crying, what have you.
First, some background: I recommend strongly that readers check out Stuart Schrader on slavery historiography and the new anti-Genovesean reading of the political economy of slavery. I think James Oakes’s essay on similar topics is helpful, too. Tom Cutterham cuts to the quick on many important related questions here.
In order to get things going, I will present a highly impressionistic and under-sourced (in other words, “bloggy”) picture of the two schools of thought, and suggest some points of harmony as well as friction.
Political Marxism is a term that causes a good deal of confusion. I was lucky to study, in undergrad, with an excellent representative of the Political Marxist tendency––the political scientist and comparative historian George Comninel––and to receive a pretty good education in its worldview. I think that this experience may still be usefully drawn upon to talk about contemporary Political Marxism.
To study the history of capitalism with a Political Marxist is to take on a concern with the fundamental distinction between “capitalism” as a very specific mode of exploitation and “capitalism” as a sort of placeholder word that encompasses modernity, progress, the disenchantment of the world, technological revolutions, consumerism, reification and alienation, etc. A student of Political Marxism learns that for “capitalism” to be “capitalism,” three features must be present: market-driven labor compulsion (that is, hunger, rather than some feudal bully, makes sure that you go out and find a job); a regime of accumulation based on surplus labor extraction (not robbery, nor discovery of some cave full of precious metals, nor the profits from unpaid slave labor); and the presence of a liberal state muscular enough to maintain the “rule of law,” thereby ensuring the protection of private property.
The alert reader will note that this way of looking at capitalism is quite different from that presented in many postmodern essays on capitalism, and considerably more technical than the Marxism upon which twentieth century social movements drew. And, indeed, the Political Marxists identified as discursive enemies precisely these two camps: first, the postmodernists and post-structuralists, who stood accused of abandoning materiality and class struggle, and second, the “vulgar Marxists” whose picture of capitalist development consisted of an interlocking series of “just-so” stories largely immune to further scholarly testing.
What postmodern and vulgar Marxists shared, Political Marxism charged, was a unilineal picture of capitalist development, unfolding at about the same rate across the West in the years after the Black Death. Not so, countered Political Marxism, for whom the key analytic imperative was the acknowledgement of capitalism arriving first among the agrarian improvers of Elizabethan England, accelerated by the enclosure movement, and congealing into a full-fledged mode of exploitation with its own laws of motion at some point around the time that Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Government. Simultaneous with this epochal transformation of the English countryside, the rest of the Europe (with the complicated partial exception of Holland) remained, steadfastly, un-capitalist. In France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, one found no market-driven labor force participation (those who worked were compelled to do so by extra-economic means), no market-driven wages (instead, customary wages and prices prevailed), no rule of law protecting private property (it was not until the late nineteenth century, in fact, that Continental elites made peace with private property as a positive good, and shook off the long-running suspicion of private property that ran from Plato to the Rerum Novarum).
I have not provided the full explanation that I was taught about the specifics of the class struggle that brought about capitalism in England and not in the rest of Europe. That can be found in the groundbreaking work of Robert Brenner (and the famous debates that Brenner conducted with other left economic historians in the 1970s and 1980s). Nor have I touched on the particular political gloss that scholars like Ellen Meiksins Wood put on this historical treatment of capitalism. Wood and others insist that if capitalism is distinguished by its novelty as a mode of exploitation that does not require extra-economic coercion to generate profits, then it is the very immanence of exploitation that ought to be targeted by revolutionary socialists. Identity politics––including struggles for racial justice and feminism––constitute, for Political Marxism, epiphenomenal distractions.
Now, in what ways does Political Marxism chime or clash with the new historiography of capitalism?
Here are some of the possible points of consonance: 1) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists likely agree that the narratives of capitalist development proffered by, say, Joyce Appleby, don’t make very much sense, on the one hand, and embody certain narrative naturalizations of market society, on the other (by using, for example, the language of capitalist energies waiting to burst forth); 2) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists likely agree that while it is impossible to say that one is “a little bit pregnant,” there is no inherent difficulty in describing a given historical formation as a larval stage, on its way to becoming capitalist (but possessing enough contingency to perhaps turn into something different): and if that settlement was agreed upon, a lot of conflicts over the question of whether slavery was capitalist or non-capitalist might reveal themselves to be poorly posed; 3) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists agree that while capitalism involves markets, money, stocks, and banks, as well as movies, tabloid newspapers, and soccer games, these all must be traced back to a moment of exploitation and domination, or be convincingly described as relatively autonomous satellites.
Here, I think, is where the disagreements might lie: 1) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might really disagree about the economic character of slavery, and that might lead a Political Marxist to accuse a historian of capitalist that the latter is working with an ahistorical criteria of capitalism; it might also lead a historian of capitalism to charge the Political Marxist with setting up a language game and then demanding that others play it, and more seriously, give way to the charge that Political Marxists only see labor in capitalism when it is done by white bodies; 2) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might further quarrel about the erasure of the long history of colonialism, imperialism, and racialization from the history of capitalism, and argue about the racial stakes of the constriction of the narrative of capitalism’s rise to the enclosed space of the seventeenth-century English countryside; 3) the new historians of capitalism and slavery and the Political Marxists might then find it difficult to take up the question of American herrenvolk democracy and the rise of a particularly nasty form of racial capitalism in the wake of Reconstruction’s initial, egalitarian promise.
This, it seems to me, is a reasonably coherent (and, I hope, not too inflammatory) presentation of the debate, in potentia. No doubt I have gotten some things wrong, and have ignored details that are crucial to a proper staging––I hope you will let me know, in the comments, and I invite everyone with any interest in this debate to take the discussion in any direction that seems fruitful
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