Reconstructing_Historical_Materialism_So - Reconstructing...

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1 Reconstructing Historical Materialism: Some Key Issues What I‘d like to do in this paper is raise the general issue of how we can develop historical materialism in more powerful ways than Marxists have tried to do since the sixties. The general issue is addressed by raising three specific questions. First, how should Marxists periodize capitalism? Second, is there a consistent materialist characterization of ‗Asiatic‘ regimes, since Marx‘s Asiatic mode of production clearly doesn‘t work as one ? And third, why have Marxists had so little to say about the deployment of labour? By deployment of labour I mean not the general ways of controlling and exploiting labour that Marx himself would repeatedly refer to in categories such as ‗slavery‘, ‗serfdom‘ and so on , but the organization and control of the labour- process in concrete settings , as in Carlo Poni‘ s fine monograph on the struggle between landowners and sharecroppers over methods of ploughing that increased the intensity of labour 1 or Hans-Günther Mertens ‘ discussion of the organization of Mexican estates. 2 1. Commercial capitalism, slaveholder capitalism: the problem of configurations Let me start with the issue of slavery because that will lead into the wider issue of the periodization of capitalism. In the Grundrisse Marx states, ‗The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour‘. 3 This has always struck me as one of the most intriguing passages in all of Marx‘s writings . The Southern slaveholders are called capitalists but their form of capitalism is anomalous, because capitalism for Marx presupposes free labour (or at least wage-labour) and the Southern plantations are clearly not based on that. On the other hand, the plantations clearly are capitalist enterprises (in Marx‘s eyes) or the problem of characterizing them wouldn‘t exist. A passage in Theories of Surplus-Value is more explicit in exposing the roots of the tension evident here. Here Marx writes, ‗ In the second types of colonies plantations where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of (blacks) precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists . The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is g rafted on to it‘. 4 Here he actually states that a capitalist mode of production exists in the colonial plantations despite the existence of slave labour. It is clear that the two determinations that summed up the nature of capitalist production for Marx (the production of capital or the drive to accumulate, on the one hand, the domination and use of wage-labour on the other) were in conflict here
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