Jairus Banaji’s Contribution to Historical Materialism (Part 2)

In Part 1 of my review of Jairus Banaji’s Theory as History, I tried to give an account of where he sees the distinction between modes of exploitation and modes of production in the Marxist sense – bringing into play the central concept of laws of motion, which define the mode of production. Whereas the motive force of capitalism as a mode of production is competitive accumulation across a world economy, for instance, the motive force of the feudal mode is the consumption needs of the ruling class. It is these laws that govern the specific forms of labor (slavery, wage-labor, serfdom etc.), ownership (collective, individual, etc.) and the subjects of production (commodities and so on). From there I moved on to a summary of the world history that emerges through his various critical essays, up to the point of transition into capitalism beginning with Portuguese imperialist expansion in the 15th century.

About the much-hyped “transition debate,” Banaji does not so much take sides as question the very terms on which it takes place. In his opinion, many involved in the debate rely far too much on “ideal types” of modes of production – feudalism defined by serfdom, capitalism defined by wage labor – and are trapped by the concept of an “ideal” transition to capitalism, which supposedly took place in England. In Chapter 11 (“Trajectories of Accumulation or ‘Transitions’ to Capitalism”) he takes the argument a step backward. Seeing multiple paths to agrarian capitalism, including the ezba system of 19th century Egypt and the haciendas of Latin America, he proposes that this hybridity requires Marxist historians “to map the various early-modern paths to capitalism in detail, working not at the national but at the regional or sub-national level” as trajectories to capitalism before integrating them into an international theory of the capitalist transition. By its very nature, of course, this chapter raises far more questions than it answers. My next theoretical reading is Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, so I will be interested to see if he proposes any answers, even tentative ones, to the questions Banaji has laid out here.

The keystone of Banaji’s book – the laws of motion which I tried to give some account of in Part 1 of this review – is cemented in his Chapter 10 (“Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry.”) In this exhaustive case study of the agricultural districts of the 19th century Deccan in India, Banaji establishes precisely what makes the relations of production in colonial India (and modern India) capitalist rather than “semi-feudal, semi-colonial.”

In his account, which details the subjugation of Indian small peasantry to the usury capital of Mawari and Gujarati merchants as well as to a nascent capitalist class emerging from the big peasantry in the Deccan, he arrives at Marx’s concept of the “formal subsumption of labour into capital” versus the “real subsumption of labor into to capital” detailed in the appendix to Volume One of Capital. In the stage of “formal subsumption,” the labor process is technologically continuous with how it took place under the previous mode – but it has been invaded and taken over by the demands of capital, which does not yet move to revolutionize it technologically (280). This takes place in the course of the “real subsumption to capital,” which brings the labor process in capitalism’s hinterland into line with the technology of advanced capitalist production:

It is now possible to detect the fault underlying so many of the arguments that downgrade the development of capitalist relations in India. Arguments of the sort that Bhaduri or Patnaik propose confuse the capitalist’s intervention in, or control over, the process of production with the specifically capitalist form of the labour-process. When the process of production of a small-peasant household depends from one cycle to the next on the advances of the usurer – when, without such ‘advances,’ the process of production would come to a halt – then, in this case the ‘usurer,’ i.e., the monied capitalist, exerts a definite command over the process of production. This control or command is established and operates even when, as in this case, the labour-process remains technologically primitive, manually operated, and continuous with earlier, archaic modes of labour. The purely formal and stereotyped conceptions of ‘capitalist production’ that see in its basic relations only the glitter of technological advance (machinery, fertiliser and so on) have very little in common with Marx’s understanding of capitalism…

Let me pose the question more sharply. Is the domination of capital over the small producer – that is, the extortion of surplus-value from small peasants, artisans, etc. – compatible with the forms of the process of labour specific to these households? Both Marx and Lenin answered, quite clearly, ‘yes.’ For, ‘the fact is that capital subsumes the labour process as it finds it, developed by different and more archaic modes of production’ (Capital Vol. 1, 1021.) This is a theme that Lenin had to constantly emphasise against the Narodniks in Russia… It follows that, in these forms, based on the ‘formal subsumption of labour into capital, the small peasant is a ‘simple commodity owner’ only by way of his attributes. (308-9)

In other words, what defines the class role of the peasant is not the outward appearance of the owner of the crops, the land he grew them on if he owns it, etc. What is important is the hidden essence behind this appearance – that the peasant receives a wage for his own reproduction, whether in the form of an advance on the crop to be delivered, or a share of the crop. Behind all these appearances, the peasant has become dependent on the capitalist – is a worker.

It is probably hard to overestimate just how much of a breakthrough this is for Marxist theory. As Banaji writes in the concluding essay, to confuse the mode of production with the mode of exploitation is, at the level of theory, to “end with a model that sees the capitalist world economy as structured by an articulation of different modes of production, usually ‘feudalism.'” (I would add that for postmodernist academics like the geographers J.K. Gibson-Graham, this model is a prospect received with delight as a sign of the “queerness” of the world economy, and complicated to the point of absurdity by including things like unpaid domestic labor under the many “non-capitalist” modes of production – which, of course, allows them to imagine themselves out of a world dominated by capital.)

Banaji’s book is constructed, as the title suggests, in the form of exercises that return theory to the service of history, rather than letting theoretical concepts overrule the realities of history. At a certain point, however, we must return both theory and history to the service of politics, at least if Marxism is a guide to changing the world in addition to a theoretical tool mostly useful to academics. What Banaji establishes in his book offers us much here, as well. Obviously, the conclusions of Chapter 10 allow us to evade the pitfalls of a strategy based upon the “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” conditions of production in India and the rest of the Global South which would lead necessarily to the prospect that capitalist development rather than socialist revolution is on the order of the day, a prospect shared by Stalinists and Maoists who evade, in different ways, the central role of the working class in the fight against capitalist relations of production and embrace other classes – the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia or the big “national” capitalists.

His emphasis on the laws of motion unique to capitalism, rather than the specific forms taken by capital and labor, allow us to clarify another argument that has plagued the Marxist left. I mean the debate over the nature of the Soviet Union. Trotsky and those who followed him in the Fourth International have maintained that the Soviet Union was non-capitalist on the basis of its nationalized economic production, inherited from the October Revolution, which entailed the absence of a capitalist class in competition with itself.

In contrast, Tony Cliff and others in the International Socialist tradition saw the Soviet Union as capitalistRegardless of the specific forms of production, the Stalinist bureaucracy remained in command of an economy that competed on the world scale with other capitalist powers – a process mediated from the end of the Second World War through military competition with the United States. Cliff picked up from Bukharin’s analysis of imperialism, which pointed to the tendency of capitalist production to be increasingly centralized into nationalized cartels competing on the world scale, to suggest the fundamental nature of the Soviet Union as one large capitalist enterprise within this system. In my opinion, Banaji’s theoretical breakthrough clearly reinforces the case of Cliff and his followers. A reliance on the laws of motion particular to the capitalist mode, rather than the specific forms taken by one or another “blueprint” of capitalist production (namely the enterprise of Volume 1, which, in fact, is Marx at his most abstract), allows us to see that the Soviet Union and other Stalinist countries had a typically capitalist character hidden behind, and transposed onto, the forms of socialist collective ownership. Marxists who recognize this would not, of course, have sided with one or the other imperialist team in the Cold War, nor today would they waste any time mourning the collapse of the Eastern Bloc or the “rise” of capitalism in China and Cuba.

Such is the strength of Banaji’s analysis. But if he is an adept at wielding “Marxist steel… over the raw material,” as Trotsky says, it is an unfortunate truth that even one who is adept with the knife will occasionally cut himself. Chapter 5, entitled “The Fictions of Free Labor,” is a veritable lesson on the misuse of the dialectic. Having established the centrality of the laws of motion in defining capitalist production as opposed to the specific forms that production has taken in different times and places in Chapter 2, he sets out from this to challenge the work of historians and theoreticians who believe that labor under capitalism is and must be “free” from coercion. As he writes, these historians “subscribe to a liberal-individualist notion of wage-labour as essentially free labour, labour based on the ‘consent’ of the individual worker and the free bargain [contract – B.C.] that embodies that consent” (137). In contrast, he says, at a certain point, the reality of the labor market itself is a compulsion. The proletariat, as Marx says in Vol. 1, is “compelled to sell himself of his own free will.” Coerced and free labor, says Banaji, are not opposites but simply the most reified form of the other.

On its face, this distinction is perfectly correct. All labor under capitalism is gotten by a certain amount of compulsion – “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” The problem is that free labor under capitalism is not simply “the most reified form of coerced labor,” but a very meaningful category. By saying this, Banaji is unfortunately ignoring a whole continuum of forms of labor spanning the gulf between the most coerced forms (things such as plantation slavery) and the least coerced (“free” labor as it exists in most of the industrial West). A grocery store cashier in the contemporary United States must work to ensure her survival. This is true at the most fundamental level – but, as Marxism teaches us, the fundamental level, or should we say the economic “base,” is not the only level there is. At another level, if our cashier walks off her shift, she may suffer verbal abuse from her supervisor, but she is very unlikely to be flogged, as were the plantation slaves in the U.S. South if they were perceived as negligent in their work. Free labor is, under capitalism, a mystification – but it is a significant mystification, a mystification that makes a real difference in the lives of actual workers (much like, I might add, the “democracy” part of bourgeois democracy, which ultra-leftists ignore at their own peril.)

The idea only thing that matters is that the industrial proletarian and the plantation slave are united by the fact that their labor is coerced, the former’s behind the mystifying labor market should be deeply troubling to all Marxists. Why, for example, did Marx spend so much time agitating for the victory of the Union in the American Civil War if this conflict was being fought between a system that openly and brutally coerced its workers and a system that coerced its workers rather less? This keeping in mind, of course, that Marx insisted again and again that the struggle between Northern industrial capitalism and Southern slave capitalism was of world significance, not just American significance.

What, for Marxists, makes the difference between systems of labor that are more coercive and less coercive? It is not the enlightened charity of the liberal bourgeois who chooses to let his workers have more time outside the factory, more breaks and overall better conditions within when he works. If you were thinking “class struggle,” then you are correct – and, fortunately, more on the ball than Banaji in Chapter 5 and elsewhere. Banaji’s rediscovery of the concept of the laws of motion has put him lightyears ahead of most Marxists. But one can, as in this case, rely on them to the point that you forget other key concepts of Marxism – and it would be hard to think of a more glaring omission. By relying on laws of motion to the point of absurdity, Banaji does what he quite correctly criticizes many others for doing: letting theory overrule the historical reality. To paraphrase Engels, once the dialectical method ceases to be the concrete analysis of concrete conditions, it is in danger of turning into its opposite.

To take it back to the example of the American Civil War. At the end of the war, the resistance of the planter class had been broken by Northern military power, and was faced with a militant class composed of its former slaves. Whereas the planters hoped to reconstitute their rule by establishing a new system of wage labor, the ex-slaves hoped to divide up their former masters’ plantations and become freeholders in their own right. However, both classes lacked the power to force its solution on the other. As a result, the system that emerged was sharecropping, which incorporated features of both solutions but which was subject to contestation based on the power of class forces – and therefore was tilted in favor of the planters as the boot of the Union Army was withdrawn from their necks. This kind of analysis, which contains a sense of the contending class forces as the key factor that mediates and challenges the forms of capitalist production – is unfortunately missing from large parts of Theory as History.

Overall, however, this book’s analysis is representative of the best of contemporary Marxist thought. There are other things that Banaji deals with, including his arguments for a “logic of deployment” in agriculture that is common to capitalist and precapitalist modes alike (Chapter 6) which deserve their own discussions, indeed their own books, which I don’t have the time, energy, or understanding to give them. Read this book, discuss it, and then read it again.

I am thankful for discussions with John Buttell and Tithi Bhattacharya, which helped me to clarify my thoughts in writing this review.


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