Reconstructing Historical Materialism II

On February 7, 2011 by admin

Jairus Banaji

[ This is the second and concluding part of the essay. It was presented at the 6th Annual Historical Materialism Conference in London, 2009]


3. The indeterminacy of ‘free labour’ and the return to materialist categories

The last issue I‘d like to raise is the incoherence of the notion of free labour. Much is made of free labour in run-of-the-mill discussions of historical materialism, as if the whole edifice of Marxist theory would collapse without the crucial cornerstones of free/unfree labour, economic/extra-economic coercion, and so on. These dichotomies are rooted in the voluntarist models of contract that sprang from the pervasive individualism of the nineteenth century and barely survived the searing assaults of American legal realism. (61) If Marxists continue to repeat them, one imagines that is because they derive comfort from the illusion that free labour is essential to capitalism. But the dichotomy between free and unfree labour is either a tautology (under most legal systems there are individuals who are either free or unfree) or a remarkably naïve reposing of faith in freedom of contract which is assumed to be a reality when it is in fact a transparent fiction, even more of one today than it was in the nineteenth century, as every good lawyer knows.(62) Marx called it an ‘embellishment’ on the sale and purchase of labour-power. (63) Contracts between employers and workers were simply a ‘legal fiction.’ (64) More often than not, free labour for Marx only meant labour dispossessed of the means of production. More illuminating than the contrast between free and unfree labour and its obvious potential for mystification would be a history of wage-labour itself, the ‘differences of form’ that Marx would doubtless have developed in his ‘special study of wage-labour’, (65) but reconstructed historically, with a wealth of material that scarcely existed for him.

Both the extent of wage-labour before capitalism and the brutality with which wage-labourers were treated under capitalism (and still are in most parts of the world) have been massively underestimated by Marxists. These are both issues that only historians can sort out properly but they will obviously have a major bearing on the future shape of historical materialism. As Karen Orren writes, “the institution of wage labor long preceded the emergence of capitalism in the seventeenth century.’ (66)Both the dispossession of labour and large-scale migrancy have been more common throughout history than the standard model of historical materialism suggests. Dispossessed farmers who worked as casual labourers or tenant-farmers on great estates in China from the late seventh century on, (67) ‘runaway households’ as the early T‘ang sources refer to such impoverished peasants; (68) the seasonal labourers who migrated from Umbria to the Sabine country to handle the harvests there; (69) the substantial volume of hired labour used in public works at Rome; (70) or the extensive use of wage-labour on English estates of the thirteenth century (71) are random examples drawn from the history of China and Europe. What was distinctive about agrarian, mining and industrial capital was not the existence of wage-labour markets but their forcible creation — laws for the ‘enforcement of industry,’ (72) the control of unregulated squatting on private land, (73) the kind of mechanisms discussed by Arrighi in his classic paper ‘Labour supplies in historical perspective’; and so on. That the Roman agricultural writer Varro recommended the use of wage-labourers for hazardous jobs (74) suggests that the capital invested in slaves was seen as fixed capital and vulnerable to loss (devaluation).

 It was Roman civil law that evolved the first clear model of the buying and selling of labour-power, doubtless because the use of hired labour was so widespread. Indeed, Roman labour markets were incomparably less regulated than the labour markets of colonialism with their widespread regulation by master and servant regimes. For example, there were half a million contract workers in the tea gardens of Assam by the early twentieth century, yet flogging of men and women was common in every garden, either for non-completion of work or for disobedience and desertion,’ (75) The forced recruitment of wage-labour that characterized pre-industrial forms of capitalism shaded off into the repeated use of force against wage-labourers, even in England in the nineteenth century when legal coercion was widely used against craft workers and the English working-class was, in a technical sense at least, still ‘unfree’ when Marx wrote Capital. (76) Indeed, it may well be that the overdetermination of ‘purely’ economic coercion by legal compulsion is a peculiarity of modern wage-labour markets, if we date the emergence of these to the Statute of Labourers in the fourteenth century.

To return to Laclau with this background behind us, the centrality of free labour to capitalism was the crux of his critique of Frank. Laclau‘s implicit reasoning was as follows: capitalism is characterized by free labour, free labour by the use of purely economic coercion. ‘Extra-economic’ coercion defines non-capitalist relations of exploitation, and these in turn constitute pre-capitalist modes of production. If the expansion of world capitalism consolidated pre-capitalist modes of production, then that is because it was bound up with the widespread use of non-capitalist relations of exploitation in the countrysides of Latin America and other parts of the Third World. The coherence of this picture is still seductive some forty years down the line, which is why Laclau continues to be cited.

But taken individually, almost every link in the chain of reasoning is false. The contrast between servile relations of production in the periphery and free labour in Europe is consistently overstated. Dispossession was no less characteristic of the colonies then it was of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was sufficiently widespread in New Spain in 1633 for the abolition of compulsory labour to have no serious effect on the supply of farm workers to private estates. (77) In South Africa, “the struggle to dispossess blacks on alienated land and subjugate them in the interests of capital accumulation proper” lasted throughout the nineteenth century. In the sheep-farming districts of the Cape interior, “Khoi labour was thoroughly proletarianised, even if subject to non-economic coercion.” (78) Second, free labour in the classic nineteenth-century sense that Marx understood it was certainly not free of penal coercion or most other forms of extra-economic compulsion. (79)

In England,  “employers commonly used criminal sanctions to hold skilled workers to long contracts.” (80) Most peones who worked on Mexican estates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not serfs but wage-labourers bound by debt. (81) They lacked any means of subsistence of their own and worked full time for the estates. Thus the distinction between free and unfree labour collapses in a grey area which is much better sorted out in terms of a notion of how wage-labour markets are structured and how they work, especially in agriculture, than through the distorting lens of ideological categories that have nothing to do with historical materialism. Finally, there is no logical inference from non-capitalist relations of exploitation to non-capitalist relations of production. Slave labour can feed into the expansion of individual capitals. Forced labour under fascism sustained large sectors of German industry, e.g., in Volkswagen plants the foreigner contingent was as high as 45% by 1942, and, as Ulrich Herbert says, “Virtually all large enterprises demonstrated their strong interest in foreign skilled workers,” i.e. forced labour. (82)

The more general point here is that modes of production cannot be inferred from the relations of exploitation that are typical of them. Their laws of motion suggest a more complex level of determination than any simple characterization in terms of slavery, serfdom, and so on. The corollary of this is that the analysis of exploitation also implicates a much richer, denser level of abstraction than simple taxonomies based on historically generic categories conceived in their abstract purity. The reason why Marxist historians have paid so little attention to this level of analysis, the deployment of labour, is that they have rarely moved beyond the general categories of labour to a grasp of the actual organization and control of labour-processes in history. Histories of capitalism in agriculture are a partial exception to this (Frank Snowden‘s work on Italy, William Beinart, Helen Bradford and Tim Keegan on South Africa, William Dusinberre on the slave-based capitalism of the Carolina ‘rice kingdom,’ (83) Mertens on the Mexican estates) but in general the ‘special study of wage-labour’ that Marx had planned remains a huge lacuna in Marxist theory. Much of his study would clearly have been about ‘distinctions of form,’ For example, when Tim Keegan refers to “white farmers’ preference for a tenant labour force rather than a proletarian one,” the contrast here is not between wage-labourers and other forms of labour but a ‘form determination’ within wage-labour, a contrast between labour-tenants and ‘pure’ wage-labourers, paid in cash, that Keegan describes as a ‘proletarian work force,’ (84)

Again, the sharecroppers (haris) employed by large landlords in Sind were on one description “more like labourers than tenants,”‘ “They were hired by the season and did not necessarily work for the same zamindar in consecutive seasons.” They were a “floating population drifting from zamindar to zamindar,” (85) The ‘form’ of sharecropping doesn‘t settle the issue of the nature of exploitation, only a concrete grasp of the actual relations concealed within it can do that. Such examples could be multiplied — the Instleute on nineteenth-century Prussian estates, paid largely in kind, including small allotments of land; (86) shepherds on the livestock haciendas of the Peruvian altiplano, whose remuneration was even more complex; (87) the peculiar methods of payment used to attract the thousands of casual labourers that descended on the reclaimed areas of Emilia, the bulk of them women88 (the nucleus of Giuseppe Massarenti‘s ‘proletarian republic’ at Molinella — from the 1890s to 1920 — and the seminal base of the Italian Socialist Party); etc. In the section on ground rent proposed for Volume 3, Marx, Engels noted, was planning to deal with the “diversity of forms of exploitation” of the Russian agricultural labour-force but “was never able to carry out this plan.” (89) There is clearly a major ‘scientific research programme’ here that Marxists have barely begun to address, but when they do, with the same sense for method that distinguished Marx himself, we shall finally have a more complex model of the integration of world economy than the schematic and formalist constructions on offer today.

 61 Dalton, ‘An Essay in the Deconstruction of Contract Doctrine,’ Yale Law Journal, 94 (1985).

62 Atiyah, An Introduction to the Law of Contract, p. 17.

63 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 682.

64 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 719.

65 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 683.

66 Orren, Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States, p. 10.

67 Twitchett, Financial Administration, p. 12ff., 16ff.

68 Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan, p. 27.

69 de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, p. 187.

70 Brunt, ‘Free Labour and Public Works at Rome,’ JRS 1980; DeLaine, The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome.

71 Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, p. 263.

72 Marx, Grundrisse, p. 785, citing Tuckett.

73 Chanock, ‘South Africa, 1841–1924: Race, Contract, and Coercion,’ in Hay and Craven, Masters, Servants (n. 79), p. 343.

74 Varro, RR, 1.xvii.3.

75 Behal and Mohapatra, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Indenture System in the Assam Tea Plantations, 1840–1908,’ J. of Peasant Studies, 19 (1992) p. 157.

76 Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century.

77 Zavala, New Viewpoints on the Spanish Colonization of America, p. 98.

78 Keegan, ‘The Origins of Agrarian Capitalism in South Africa: A Reply,’ J. of Southern African Studies, 15 (1989) pp. 677, 673–4.

79 See Hay and Craven, ‘Introduction,’ in Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955, p. 29.

80 Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor, p. 59.

81 Borah, Justice by Insurance: The General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aides of the Half-Real, p. 177: ‘recruitment of wage labor bound by debt.’ This view goes back, of course, to Silvio Zavala.

82 Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, pp. 248 (Volkswagen), 208 (all large enterprises).

83 Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps.

84 Keegan, Rural Transformations in Industrializing South Africa: The Southern Highveld to 1914, pp. 124, 122.

85 Cheesman, Landlord Power and Rural Indebtedness in Colonial Sind, 1865–1901, pp. 60, 77.

86 Schissler, Preussische Agrargesellschaft im Wandel, p. 176ff.

87 Jacobsen, Mirages of Transition, p. 295ff., access to pastures for own livestock a key element of wages. Marx was quite clear that “whether the captalist pays the worker in money or in means of subsistence does not affect (the definition of variable capital). It affects only the mode of existence of the value advanced by him.”‘. “The creation of 12

surplus-value, hence the capitalization of the sum of value advanced, arises neither from the money form nor from the natural form of wages…It arises from the exchange of value for value-creating power,”Marx, Capital, vol. 2, pp. 297–8.

88 Medici and Orlando, Agricoltura e disoccupazione. I braccianti nella bassa padana, p. 165ff., on compartecipazione.

89 Engels, ‘Preface’ in Marx, Capital, vol. 3, pp.96–7.

Jairus Banaji  is the author of Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation  (Historical Materialism Book Series 25) (Brill, 2010).

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