Liberating history

Issue: 132

Pepijn Brandon

Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Brill, 2010), €99

The concept of “modes of production” plays an important but problematic role in Marxist historiography. For mainstream historians, the concept (wilfully presented in its most banal form) signifies everything they think is wrong in historical materialism: a schematic subdivision of the whole of human history into rigidly defined stages, the development of which is determined mechanically by a limited set of economic forces, driving each mode of production ineluctably to its predetermined successor stage until the arrival of socialism. Unfortunately, in many variants of Marxism the use of the term fares hardly better. Coming dangerously close to the caricature sketched by their adversaries, they see history writing primarily as a means to vindicate a number of relatively simplistic theoretical notions on the “inner logic” of pre-capitalist societies that they deduce from the works of Marx and Engels.

For Jairus Banaji, historical materialism precisely is a guide to study, or, as he himself puts it, the basis for “scientific research programmes” (p4). He holds justified contempt for the idea that pure theory or abstract philosophy can substitute for real and concrete investigation of primary sources when speaking about the (distant) past.

The 12 essays collected span 35 years of writing and combine a breathtaking variety of types of research. Running through all of them is Banaji’s trenchant critique of what he calls the “metaphysical-scholastic formalism” imprisoning much of Marxist historiography (p61). The roots of this formalism lie in the mechanical materialism propounded by the Marxism of the Second International and (in more grotesque forms) Stalinism, but its core was carried over into the structuralist readings of historical materialism that became dominant in the 1970s. The specific methodological error singled out by Banaji is the direct equation of modes of production with their supposedly characteristic forms of exploitation. So, the inner workings of ancient society would be explicable simply by pointing to the dominance of slave labour, feudalism by the extraction of surplus labour from peasants by forced labour services, and capitalism by the exploitation of “free” wage labourers.

Such a direct equation flies in the face of historical evidence. All societies in the past (and in the present) were characterised by the coexistence of and interaction between different forms of exploitation. Banaji gives plenty of examples for this, and it is not hard to expand on them. From latifundia in the Roman empire worked by wage labourers as well as slaves to lordly demesnes operated by slave or “free” labour, from slaves in the American South hired out as workers to factory owners to the modern wage slaves working semi-indentured in export processing zones, history displays a rich texture of overlapping systems of exploitation that belies a demarcation of historical epochs according to “some imagined register of labour-types” (p359). In fact, it would be hard to find examples of modes of production in which the allegedly characteristic form of exploitation is the actual life condition of the majority of the exploited. Even today, while a massive expansion of wage labour is one of the main features of globalising capitalism, it would be simply empirically wrong to assume that it numerically supersedes all other forms of work under oppressed conditions, from simple commodity production to unpaid housework.

One way around this problem is to see the allegedly “non-essential” forms as remnants of previous modes of production, or as precursors of the next. But this is unsatisfactory in many ways. Historical capitalism, to give just one example, did not only make use of the remnants of forced labour it inherited from its predecessors, but re-created systems of forced labour on an enormous scale. “Free” wage labour under capitalism does not replace all other forms of exploitation, but develops hand in hand with bonded labour in the same internationally operating enterprises, sharing many of its features. In order to understand how these different forms of exploitation can contribute to a single overriding systemic logic, one has to define mode of production in a much broader sense than is usually done.

As Banaji notes, Marx uses the term “Produktionsweise” ambiguously, sometimes referring simply to the different forms taken by the labour process (for example, when he states that “agriculture forms a mode of production sui generis”), but in other cases using it in a far broader sense to denote “epochs of production”, “periods of production”, or “historical organisations of production”. In the latter use of the term, clearly favoured by Banaji, modes of production are social systems characterised by their own immanent tendencies or “laws of motion”. The relations of production or social forms taken by exploitation at the point of production are necessary elements of these tendencies, but not in a simple and direct way. Banaji clarifies this point by examining the category of “free wage labour” in more detail. Many Marxists define capitalism simply as the social formation in which labour is dispossessed and divorced from the means of production, and labour-power transformed into a commodity.

But wage labour, carrying precisely these characteristics, was widespread in many different societies, perhaps even more so than previous generations of scholars tended to think. The spread of markets did not automatically lead to the disintegration of feudal relations, but instead stimulated the rise of forms of “commodity feudalism”. Manors were worked by wage-labourers, but the overall operation of these enterprises was still determined by the consumption needs of the lords. Concentrating on the fact that the individual relationship between exploiter and the direct producers takes the form of the exploitation of wage-labour tells us very little about the social dynamics under which this relationship operates. Only the totality of social relations provides the key to understanding their individual expressions. Wage labour only becomes a “specifically bourgeois relation of production” when it encounters its opposite in capital, and itself in turn acts, in Marx’s expression, as “capital-positing, capital-producing labour” (p54).

Banaji derives this reading from a careful examination of the method of historical abstraction employed by Marx in Capital. All the phenomena introduced in the dense first chapters of Capital, volume 1—the commodity, use value, exchange value, labour power, money, commodity fetishism, etc—only can be fully grasped when looked at from the totality of capitalist relations, the uncovering of which was the ultimate aim of the work as a whole. Therefore, they attain their developed meaning and real complexity in light of the fuller formulations on the essential tendencies of capitalism as a self-producing and reproducing social system in Capital, volume 3. But when it comes to examining precapitalist societies, Marxists have often contented themselves with applying these categories in their unmediated forms, without going through the same process of relating them to the fundamental tendencies of the societies under investigation. They failed to replicate the method Marx employed in his attempt to understand the fundamental tendencies of the capitalist mode of production. Instead, far too many have simply relied on loose and sketchy, and in some cases even seriously misguided (eg on the so-called “Asiatic mode of production”) remarks by Marx and Engels.

Starting from these theoretical criticisms, Banaji embarks on an ambitious project to dislodge the “canonical genealogy which sees Europe’s past (more precisely, the past of western Europe) moving from slavery to feudalism to capitalism in a sort of inflexible succession spanning whole centuries” (p351). He does so in a series of essays that often deal with very technical questions, such as the nature of the relationship between the aristocracy and the state in late antiquity or the evolution of the company form during the different stages in the development of capitalism. For the non-specialised reader, the level of detail can sometimes make this a daunting read. However, Banaji never loses sight of the wider theoretical implications of his investigations. For example, his studies of the great diversity in agricultural economies under different modes of production do a lot to clarify his criticism of historical formalism. If “intermediary” forms of exploitation are the norm for periods of many centuries, then historical materialism needs more refined theoretical tools than that of a standard set of ideal-types with which to measure past social formations.

In two essays Banaji criticises Chris Wickham’s recent work on the early Middle Ages on this ground. While giving credit to Wickham’s scholarly contribution, Banaji rejects his attempt to employ the category of “feudalism” for much of the later Roman Empire as proof of a one-sided concentration on a limited number of forms of exploitation. An important essay on the “fictions of free labour” scrutinises the idea that the whole contradiction between fully developed capitalism and previous modes of production can be summed up in the antithesis between “free” and “unfree” labour. Here, Banaji combines openness to the unevenness and ironies of real historic development (for example, the fact that England as the first industrial country was late among its competitors in applying civil law instead of the coercive penal code to breaches of “free” labour contracts), with a stimulating discussion of the idea of freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Banaji’s treatment of the history of labour hinges on another crucial observation Marx makes in Capital. In his discussion of the history of manufacturing industry, Marx distinguishes between the cases in which merchant capital acquired control of the surplus labour by a process of merely “formal subsumption”, where the capitalists only controlled the fruits of labour, and “real subsumption”, in which the whole labour process was integrated into the working of capital itself. Marxists will recognise the latter as the more “pure” form of capitalist exploitation. However, this does not mean that formal subsumption historically predates real subsumption in neat stages, the first under the aegis of pre-capitalist merchants and the second under real capitalist industrialists. Rather, both processes are intimately connected in the long history of capitalism. This point plays a crucial role in the earliest of the essays collected here. Written in 1977 at a time of intense debates on the Indian left on the history and nature of Indian capitalism, this is the essay that most clearly reveals the political implications of the sometimes seemingly arcane debates that Banaji engages in. While large parts of the Indian left, strongly influenced by Stalinist stage theory, believed that most peasant small-producers still lived under semi-feudal conditions, Banaji sets out to show that already in the second half of the 19th century, debt functioned as an effective lever for capitalists to “formally subsume” the surplus labour of these small-producers, subjugating them to the logic of international capitalism. In the process of making this argument, Banaji deepens our understanding of the conditions of semi-dependence on which hundreds of millions of labourers throughout the world still live and adds substantially to a Marxist understanding of the world market.

Of course, in a book of this scope, discussing so many subjects in such depth, there remains much room for disagreement. I have reservations about some of Banaji’s statements on the history of capitalism before the industrial revolution, which is closest to the field of my own investigations. What I sometimes felt was lacking here is the sort of detailed examination that he provides for both the earlier and later periods of the links between internationally operating commercial capital on the one hand, and the still highly localised systems of production that characterised much of the early modern European economy.

Given the scale of the historical debates on such issues, these criticisms are minor. The great merit of this volume is that it establishes an approach for such debates that is deeply theoretical, but at the same time refreshingly unhampered by the kind of doctrinaire attachment to a perceived (and often misread) orthodoxy that plagued so much of “historical materialism” for the past century. It is scholarly, without being purely academic. And it helps us to make much better sense of the great varieties of interlocking forms of exploitation that have existed not only under precapitalist modes of production, but that still exist in the modern world. Banaji’s book deserves to be read and debated as one of the starting points for a new wave of Marxist historiography, still in the process of liberating itself from the ghost of its formalist past.