I wish to thank the participants in last week’s very rich and stimulating discussion of Political Marxism and the new history of capitalism and slavery.
The task remains to defend the claim that slave labor is not capitalist.
I do not think slave labor was capitalist. (I do think that Baptist and Roediger and Esch, among others, provide compelling evidence that some aspects of capitalist management were pioneered in the laboratory of plantation slavery, but we still do not know enough about the transmission of this knowledge to the postbellum factory).
The easy way out (which I will not take) would be to simply restate the definition of capitalism that I suggested in the previous essay. This is a definition which I have borrowed from Political Marxism and still think sensible. “Capitalism” requires, in this view, three features: 1) market-driven labor compulsion; 2) a regime of accumulation based on extraction of surplus; and 3) a liberal state capable of maintaining the “rule of law” and protecting private property.
If I were to take the easy way out, I would maintain that: 1) slavery requires extra-economic coercion (and productivity gains for slaveowners require the application of this coercion with increasing and increasingly costly intensity); 2) that the “surplus labor” extracted from slaves is not the same as the “surplus labor” extracted from formally free workers, and, 3) that the antebellum Southern legal order was a complete mess, unable to work out the contradictions of a property jurisprudence built on the dehumanization and propertization of direct producers.
This sort of argument would recall Marx’s argument that in capitalism, surplus value is calculated against the working day (measured in hours), pegged to wages (paid in dollars), ciphered against the baseline of cost of necessaries (the commodities that workers buy in order to stay alive). That, as I understand it, is how capitalism works. It does not make capitalism good, progressive, interesting, or just, simply different, in form, from chattel slavery. The Catholic Mass is not Protestant. I don’t know what would be accomplished by insisting that it is.
I don’t want to argue in this way, because I see no way out of the hermeneutic circle. This is a disagreement in the arena of historical ontology that derives from incommensurable starting definitions. The definition I favor was not delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is flawed, as all definitions must be. It does not include certain features of capitalism (for example, barriers to full employment, the role of banking and credit, the gendered division of labor, or the centrality of new technologies in revolutionizing the production process). Reasonable people will disagree.
But I want to argue that my position on the nature of capitalist labor and slave labor has something to do with a certain reading of Marxism that I think is worth defending.
Here I draw upon the work of a (partially sympathetic) critic of Political Marxism, Michael Lebowitz. In his critique of Brenner, Lebowitz lays out certain fundamental premises of historical materialism that are very relevant to our discussion.
Lebowitz reminds us that the mature Marx studies the structure of the bourgeois economic system in order to identify structural limits to individual actions. That’s the framework that is threatened, I think, by certain efforts to assimilate slave labor to capitalism. To my mind, historians have not grappled with this idea of limits and barriers as productively as we might.
“By identifying the necessary conditions for reproduction of capital as a whole,” Lebowitz writes, “Marx’s theory points to the tension between those structural limits and individual capitals that proceed as if no limits exist.” This leads Lebowitz to posit a specifically Marxist theory of crisis––something much more integral than cycles of overproduction and underconsumption––and to thus identify “crisis” as the central node of Marx’s anti-political economy.
The crises generated by slavery are different than the crises generated by capitalism. “Precisely because individual capitalists functioning in the market are indifferent to the requirements for capitalist reproduction,” Lebowitz writes,” they tend to violate them in the course of their drive to increase surplus-value.” The same cannot be said of economies based on the labor of slaves, and that turns out to have huge effects on political ideology, class struggle, law, the relationship to the state, and to incentivize collective investment in the machinery of brutalization.
“Given that the purpose of capitalist production is surplus-value,” Lebowitz continues, “and that purpose can be realized only through the sale of commodities, there is a limit to how high the rate of exploitation can be driven.” As the new literature on slavery reminds us, in the post-1830 plantation (drawing on the memory of the Triangle Trade Era sugar plantations) elites envisioned virtually no limit to the escalation of the rate of exploitation, and it was this violence and madness that generated its own negation in the form of the Civil War’s general strike.
In capitalism, in contrast, the crisis of overproduction takes the form of substitution of machinery and reduction of working time. Overcapacity in capitalism, Lebowitz writes, ‘results from violation of the limits to the market under existing conditions––workers cannot spend more and capitalists will not.” So the relationship between the rate of exploitation on the job and the rate of consumption on the part of worker becomes the crucial variable in capitalist class struggles.
It should be stressed that Lebowitz’s claims, here, are crafted in service of the larger project of criticizing Brenner for clinging to “micro-foundations” and drafting highly individualistic “rules for reproduction,” failing to recognize the “logical priority of the whole.”
And this is the inspiration for my response to the question of whether slave labor is “capitalist”: I would counter by insisting that this is not a well-formulated question. What matters are patterns, tendencies, and the reciprocal interaction of social and political forces. “Only when analysis begins from capital as a whole and workers as a whole,” Lebowitz emphasizes, “is there not a distortion of the essential relation of capital and wage-labor.” It is only by attending to the positive uses of abstraction as a guide to systemic laws of motion––a reappraisal of the abstract that Marx began with the feverish composition of the Grundrisse––that we can grasp the sad conceits and tortured logics (as well as the legacies of resistance and critique) at the heart of the histories of both slavery and capitalism.
Michael Lebowitz, “In Brenner, Everything Is Reversed” Historical Materialism 4 (1):119-129 (1999)
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