U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Two Paths for the History of Capitalism: Commodification and Proletarianization

Last week, I began a process of rethinking when the “New History of Capitalism” emerged as a distinct field. I argued that the conventional story—that the crisis of 2008 marked, if not the beginning, then the maturation of a new and coherent approach to the study of capitalism—was largely the product of a 2013 New York Times profile of many of HOC’s leading young scholars, and that we should be skeptical of giving such weight to the financial crisis.

There are simple reasons for this, as well as some that are more complex. The simplest reason is that it doesn’t add up: the timing is improbable. Of the generation or “cohort” of scholars that the NYT profile named, none were still in graduate school when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008. N. D. B. Connolly, the most junior member of the cohort, had taken his doctorate that spring.

The more complex reasons for this dubious connection to the financial crisis have to do with the peculiar concentration of the New History of Capitalism on certain topics and certain aspects or dimensions of capitalism.

In a future post, I want to explore what might be called the “Old History of Capitalism,” but a quick feeling for its content and tone can be gleaned from the “Economic History of the United States” series published by Harper & Brothers between 1945 and 1962. The most famous of the eight volumes in the series was probably George Rogers Taylor’s The Transportation Revolution (1951), but in some ways it was a bit of an outlier, as it focused less on production than on distribution. All the other volumes were much more closely focused on either farming or manufacturing (or both); distribution, sales, and financing were peripheral at best.

While there still are excellent books being written about manufacturing workers and farmers, many of the histories of capitalism written today look like inversions of the old approach. This is roughly what Jeffrey Sklansky meant in his 2012 article in Modern Intellectual History when he argued that there has been a historiographical paradigm shift from capitalism as a drama of proletarianization to capitalism as a drama of commodification.

[As a caveat before I proceed further, let me say that, while incredibly rich and insightful, Sklansky’s essay did not flesh out the theoretical assumptions and resonances underlying this argument as much as one might like, and, to be honest, I may be placing more interpretive weight on this point than Sklansky intended. When first introduced, he calls this transformation “a subtle shift in the storyline” (234). So I may be extrapolating quite a bit here—at least, I don’t want anyone to hold Sklansky accountable for any errors or idiocies I may be introducing!]

Proletarianization vs. Commodification

A contrast between commodification and proletarianization seems at first blush to be a kind of category error—is not proletarianization a form of commodification: the commodification of labor?

Yes and no. Proletarianization—which is simply the creation of a class of wage laborers out of men and women who previously worked, but not for wages—is a kind of commodification, but it is not a commodification of labor. This is all a bit technical and a bit dense, but it is important. Bear with me.

Because so much wage work today is paid out according to time (either hourly or weekly rates), we tend to think that the transaction we make with our employers is a sale of our time for their money: we give ourselves up to be directed, our actions dictated for a stipulated measure of time. In a non-trivial way, we are renting our selves—or at least our bodies and enough of our attention to perform our tasks—out for a wage. This is commodification at a very intimate level.

But this is not how Marx described proletarianization. For him, the ontology of wage work is importantly different. Marx defined the transaction of wage work not as an exchange of money for time, but of money for “labor-power.” What is labor-power? Glad you asked. “We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he [sic] sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.”[1]

What you offer to your employer, in other words, is not your time—for you might be paid on a piece-rate basis, after all—but your ability to perform whatever actions or functions necessary to complete the tasks that it is your job to do.

There are two reasons why this is important. The first is simply that labor-power is, for Marx, the only commodity that can generate surplus value. That is not so important to us here, so I’ll skip over it.

The second reason is that, according to Marx, although you are selling your labor-power to your employer, this transaction does not take from you something you cannot get back. Here is Marx’s more precise formulation of this exchange and its implications:

For this relation to continue, the proprietor of labour-power must aways sell it for a limited period only, for if he [sic] were to sell it in a lump, once and for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity. He must constantly treat his labour-power as his own property, his own commodity, and he can do this only by placing it at the disposal of the buyer, i.e. handing it over to the buyer for him to consume, for a definite period of time, temporarily. In this way he manages both to alienate his labour-power and to avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it. (271)

Time, notoriously, cannot be regained once it elapses. But your labor-power replenishes itself—at least under normal conditions. You sell the right to your labor-power for today, but you retain the ultimate title to it: it becomes yours again immediately once the terms of your contract with your employer are fulfilled. And with proper rest and nourishment, you will have as much of it tomorrow as you started with today.

If what your employer buys of you is your time, on the other hand, well, they took it from you and consumed it. It will never be yours again. But if what your employer buys is your ability to work, they cannot—barring enslavement—actually take that from you, cannot dispossess you of it. Although your labor-power is a commodity and you are selling it, your ultimate and inextinguishable title to your capacity to work means that you are not commodifying yourself. There is a layer of insulation that prevents you from exposing yourself to the market directly.

The Proletarianization Plot

The implications of this distinction are profound for the history of capitalism. If capitalism is primarily a drama of proletarianization—if its main plot is one in which people are transformed into wage workers—then a few things follow. First, the line separating capitalism and slavery is sharp and bright. Slavery might not be outside of capitalism in a temporal or geographic sense,[2] but wage workers are ontologically different from slaves. Talk of “wage slavery” may be a crude way to indicate the gross lack of power of workers to determine their wage rates or other conditions of labor, but it is by definition oxymoronic.

Second, “labor-power” is hypothetically homogeneous—whether you’re a stevedore or a shipping clerk, what you are selling is theoretically the same thing. Categories like “affective labor” or “emotional labor” are irrelevant, and the distinction between mental and manual labor has more to do with status than with different degrees of commodification.

Third, the implicit historical predecessor of proletarianization is not independence but feudalism, and thus proletarianization is to some degree a considerable triumph over the restrictions that bound commoners before the coming of wage labor. Marx never wavered in his distaste for the feudal order: there was no romanticization of serfdom or peasantry. Proletarianization does subject individuals to the whims of the market but it is a genuine emancipation from a more degrading, less free condition. Thus, stories of proletarianization are always stories of self-actualization even if they are also stories of deprivation, stories of initiative and creation as much as they are stories of oppression. The Making of the English Working Class is archetypal in this regard: the English proletariat, E. P. Thompson says, was “present at its own creation”—unlike Adam, no external deity filled its lungs with their first breath.

The proletarianization plot, therefore, goes well beyond giving mere agency to its protagonists. There is a greater emphasis on dignity and even heroism in these histories; the reader is instructed not only to crush any twinge of condescension but to acknowledge with due regard the remarkable acts of successful self-making pursued by our proletarians. Pity is unwanted.

The last effect of this understanding of proletarianization on the historiography becomes clear if you look back at the blockquote from Marx: in the final sentence he says, “In this way he manages both to alienate his labour-power and to avoid renouncing his rights of ownership over it.” “Alienate,” like “labor” itself, is a polysemous word that has grown increasingly slippery over time. When Marx uses “alienate” (veräussern) in this sentence, though, he does not mean it in the vague existential sense that we are used to thinking about, but in a more direct sense of actual ownership or title. As I described above, Marx theorizes that the worker both transfers the title to his labor-power to the employer for a delimited time[3] and also retains the ultimate ownership of their labor-power. Labor-power both is and is not “alienated”—transferred in title.

The import of this peculiar condition is subtle but significant: because they could be secure in that ultimate inalienability of their labor-power, proletarians’ struggles were primarily directed outward—toward issues like wages, workers’ control, and the ability to form unions. As we’ll see next week, even if those issues have not gone away, the shift to the commodification plot has redirected workers’ struggles inward.

Now, as I’ve run past the wordcount I wanted to stop at this week, I will have to save the other side of this transition—what a drama of commodification looks like and why the history of capitalism has turned in this direction—for next week. But the meanings of “alienation” will be key there.


[1] Marx, Chapter 6 of Capital Vol 1, “The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power.” I am quoting from the Penguin edition; quote is on page 270.

[2] That is, slavery might be able to function effectively within a capitalist economy, with no inevitable contradictions arising—they could hypothetically continue to coexist indefinitely and even mutually benefit one another. Also, please note that one of the key questions which has driven much of the debate about slavery and capitalism—whether slave-owners were responsive to the profit motive—is tangential or even irrelevant to this way of distinguishing slavery and capitalism.

[3] It is not necessary that a specific amount of time (an hour, eight hours, twelve hours) be stipulated as part of the transaction, just that both the employer and the worker understand that the amount of time to be worked has a limit, a point that will satisfy the conditions of the agreement—with the result that the worker will be paid at that point.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andy – Intriguing stuff … I like this series, and am learning a lot from it. A few thoughts/questions:

    One can almost see the point where Marx may lend himself in a weird way to the terms of neo-liberalism. As “his own property, his own commodity,” the worker has a double relation to himself as commodity: thing and owner. It’s not that you’re not commodifying yourself, but that “insulation” is the human element that distinguishes the specifically human commodity.

    As you neatly implied, proletarianization can bridge the old bourgeois “emancipation” and the new “self-actualization.” From here it’s perhaps not a great conceptual leap to redefine the worker as an agentic entrepreneur, alive and fully human in a world of opportunities. We’ll just read our lives as “stories of initiative and creation as much as…stories of oppression.” Perhaps this is the right Marx for our time.

    Proletarianization to me always implied the formation of a sense of “we,” the point or possibility of agency becoming transformative instead of merely adaptive. But how is this possible where it’s believed only individuals are real, and groups mere fictions, aggregates? To twist theory into teleology, insulation is required as workers’ collective capacity to become aware of their shared degradation, and act together to make history, as the Thompson quote conveys.

    I guess the standard view is that Marx matured as a thinker as he figured out how to translate his early humanist anthropology into the terms of political economy, conceptual tools that help construct the world they describe. But your essay has got me wondering if this rendering of species essence into labor power, etc, doesn’t put it entirely within the capitalist frame – not to raise the old Althusserian specter, but how can agency be transformative if there’s no outside? Well, your life is a business, so just start one!

    Finally, it occurred to me that in the quotation Marx defines labor-power through a contrast with slavery; yet we find in recent historiography the recognition that slaves had significant agency, through revolts, escapes, the underground railroad networks, and the like.

  2. ….because they could be secure in that ultimate inalienability of their labor-power, proletarians’ struggles were primarily directed outward—toward issues like wages, workers’ control, and the ability to form unions.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with this implicit cause-and-effect phrasing. Workers’ struggles were directed toward, for example, limiting the length of the working day, and then toward unionization and so on, not so much because they were “secure” in the “ultimate inalienability of their labor-power,” but rather because the conditions of factory labor esp. in the first phases of industrialization were so oppressive that they generated gradually a collective response.

    In a piece in the current (Summer 2018) issue of New Politics (not online, I think, b.c the website is being updated), Chris Wright reminds that Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class emphasized how ex-peasants (and I guess ex-artisans too) had to be disciplined to the rhythms of factory labor: “These ‘lazy’ ex-peasants just could not get it through their heads that it was their sacred duty to God, country, and employer to submit to the clock and the overseer in a cotton sweatshop every day from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm. Only if they were trained from the age of six and indoctrinated … with a submissive Methodism that preached … a compensation for their miseries in the hereafter was there any hope of widespread docility — although even then it was… necessary to back up indoctrination” with brute force “(the death penalty for Luddism, the occasional military massacre, like Peterloo, and so forth).”

    The struggle for the eight-hour working day occurred in this context of a proletarianization that meant initially subjection to the rhythms of the time-clock and (if I’m counting 5 am to 9 pm correctly) a 16-hour working day. I wonder how much, if any, “self-actualization” could occur before the 8-hour working day had been won, at least in some industries or some particular contexts. If you’re working 16 hours a day in dusty, miserable, noisy, squalid conditions, there’s not a lot of time for collective or individual self-actualization. A similar point might apply, with suitable adjustments, to conditions of labor in the garment and other sweatshops of the 21st century (located overwhelmingly in the poorer parts of the world). The lack of safety in these places (e.g. a dramatic event like the Rana Plaza collapse) has gotten attention in the Western media but the daily conditions of labor not so much.

  3. Another enjoyable post in this series. I like the idea of framing proletarianization and commodification as plots, since it nicely encapsulates how the new HoC is as much about narrative reframing as anything else.

    Reading your piece, I couldn’t help but wonder how the perceived decline of work via automation and continued ascension of consumption has shaped HoC scholarship. Unlike proletarianization which is defined by transformations in production, commodification is defined by consumption. Is the shift in the literature, therefore, indicative of a belief that late capitalism (or whatever you want to call it) is defined more by conditions of consumption than production? If so, the question remains whether this was always the case and historians (and economists and political scientists) were simply wrong about the nature of capitalism or (more convincingly IMO) something changed in capitalism to occasion this shift?

    Or, perhaps, Louis is right that this is really a story about American capitalism and as the productive elements of capitalism are sent abroad (or mechanized or done by people without full citizenship) the story of capitalism as told by its narrators – historians or otherwise – changes commensurately.

  4. Hey everyone,
    Sorry for being slow to respond to these great comments. There’s so much here, and all too often my answer is going to be, “I was planning on getting to that!”

    You point to a really important dimension of the proletarianization “plot” that I underplayed–its collective aspect. For Marx, self-actualization is not possible as a solitary activity: self-making is always about forming bonds and creating solidarity. That is definitely important. As for your question about species essence and labor power, my understanding is that it is only under capitalism that humanity’s capacity for labor is commodified, and so “labor power” only exists under capitalism. In other words, our physical and mental capacities (will) exist outside of capitalism, but they will not do so as labor power.

    I think your question gets to the heart of both a historical and a theoretical issue about whose story is told when we talk about proletarianization. I’m coming down maybe more than I should be on one end of that issue and imagining proletarianization as a plot that fits artisans more than it does “common laborers.” That is a bit deliberate–as I think it follows the overall tendency of the paradigm-setting works of the “old” HOC–but also clearly blind to the other experiences of proletarianization.

    Just like last time, you’ve stolen my thunder! That’s definitely a part of what I’ll be writing about next Monday. Thanks for the kind words!

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