Monday, August 23, 2004

The Lateness of Capitalism, Part 2

In short, capitalism is clearly not the only form of market society in human history. So it is not to be understood as the function of "the" market, the profit motive, or the entrepreneurial persuasion--all three can exist, and have existed, in the absence of capitalism, as both Marx and Weber insisted. What distinguishes capitalism from other modes of production is NOT that the distribution of private property determines the distribution of income. Think of every "pre-capitalist economic formation," as the dreaded Eric Hobsbawm once titled an excerpt from Marx's Grundrisse: people owned things, and what they owned shaped everything else, no matter how deeply a "gift economy" had taken root. And please don't cite William Cronon and Richard White and Patricia Limerick and Colin Calloway, or Marcel Mauss and Lewis Hyde, for that matter--all I'm saying is (1) that private property precedes capitalism, and (2) that effective ownership of certain resources (you can't give it away unless others agree that it's yours to give) is a trans-historical determinant of social status. NOR is it that the circulation of commodities becomes a means to the accumulation of private fortunes: commodities precede capitalism by a long shot, no matter what we may believe about the idyll of the medieval world, and will outlast this mode of production by another millennium at least. NOR is it that merchants and middlemen prey on real producers; they do, course, but we know they've been doing it since the 9th century BC--this definition of capitalism lasts because it is the paranoid inversion of the American dream and the popular source of a labor theory of value which tells us that "property is theft."

No, capitalism is distinguished by the fact that wage labor, or rather "abstract social labor," comes to characterize work as such, and to define the larger social relations of goods production. Accordingly, class supersedes or at least regulates other, inherited principles of social organization (kinship, estate, etc.) because commodity production and the capital-labor relation come to contain or determine more and more social relations as such.

So conceived, capitalism is a complex market society that permits and requires a market in labor as well as goods. Capitalism exists when labor-power, the capacity to produce value through work, becomes a commodity, when its value can be exprsseed in monetary terms, and when the allocation of labor-power acording to market criteria becomes commonplace. Capitalism exists when people can assume that the production of value through work, the alienation of their labor-power, is the condition of their receipt of a wage, an income, which in turn gives them access to share of those goods available for purchase--that is, when people start to assume that consumption is authorized by prior acts of production, not the customary claims of superior social standing (when markets could be construed as the site of rationality or objectivity because they semed to be governed by anonymous laws of supply and demand). But this assumption did not, and could not become commonplace until the 19th century, with the breakdown of household economies and the consequent extrusion of goods production from the home. We may note in passing that this assumption did not and could not survive the Great Depression; since then the idea that consumption of goods is authorized by prior acts of production has become quaint at best, except among ideologues of both Left and Right.

Thus capitalism cannot emerge from the constraints of a simple market (bourgeois) society unless wage laborers and their allies establish clear limits on the scope of the commodity form--unless they can specify and enforce a meaningful distinction between the value of their labor-time and the value of their lives. In the absence of this distinction, as philosophers, labor leaders, and abolitionists in the Atlantic world noted, workers are slaves. That is why the most effective critics of the antebellum South denounced slaveholders for treating human beings as if they were commodities to be bought and sold, "soul by soul," but also welcomed what we call the "market revolution" as evidence of moral progress and noticed no irony or contradiction in their position--David Brion Davis and Eugene Genovese notwithstanding--because there was none.

More to come. But shoot, Jim, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" should tell us that unless we engage the demagogues, they'll carry the day. Josh Marshall is all tied up today because he doesn't want us to acknowledge the unavoidable fact that in Boston, salute and all, Kerry made his Vietnam bio the rationale for his candidacy and his presidency. He made the personal political because he figured that, in this race, the credentials have become Cold War as the key question devolves into--what kind of person do you want holding that big stick? He can't now say, "Get Back to the Issues," as in the new ad. He forfeited that ground by pre-empting the predicted Bush personal-is-political strategy. Maybe he can make his way back home, but the only way to do so is to fight his way through the autobiographical tangle he created. Ugh.