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The Being and Becoming of Capitalism

by Alexander Anievas on October 13, 2016
Marxism Reading Group

WestIn this post, jointly written with Kerem Nisancioglu, we want to thank the contributors to this forum as well as Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton in organising it and for posing a number of insightful and challenging questions concerning our analysis of the origins of capitalism and the ‘rise of the West’ in How the West Came to Rule (HWCR). In this reply, we focus on what we take to be the four most significant points raised by them: (1) the place of ‘superstructural’ factors in our account and within the broader theory of uneven and combined development (UCD); (2) our conception of causality and how it relates to comparative methods; (3) the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ challenge that our work presents to Eurocentric explanations of the rise of capitalism, and; (4) the question of how we might overcome Eurocentrism in our strategies to transcendence capitalism.

Jokubas Salyga and Kayhan Valadbaygi focus on the relationship between ‘superstructural’ factors and the UCD approach, asking: ‘…what role should be accredited to the super-structural elements within the uneven and combined development thesis, and to what degree is the latter capable of productively incorporating cultural manifestations of the studied modes of production?’.  It should be clear from our analysis that we reject any orthodox conception of Marx’s basis/superstructure (Basis/Überbau) metaphor as a causal model by which the economic basis somehow functionally explains the superstructure, even if the latter can condition and influence the former. Indeed, the model of causality inscribed in UCD invests such conventionally assumed ‘superstructural’ factors like international relations, geopolitics and war with distinct causal powers and determinations. As we demonstrate throughout the book, such factors were critical to explaining the origins of capitalism in Europe, and were ‘constitutive of capitalism’ itself (HWCR, 2).

However, our emphasis on these factors in the book did not begin and end with the international sphere alone and we would push back at Salyga and Valadbaygi’s suggestion that the ‘role of cultural elements comprising any given mode of production’ was ‘partially assumed away’ in our use of UCD. While we accept their more specific criticism that we could have focused more on the role of religion and particularly the spread of the Reformation in the Netherlands, their broader argument that we generally ignored the impact of cultural factors is difficult to sustain when considering numerous cultural, social and ideological processes and relations we examine in the historical chapters of the book. These include, for example, an analysis of the breakdown of Christendom and the concomitant reconceptualisation of a secularised universality based upon the ontological distinction between a European Self and Amerindian Other; the emergence of scientific racism, along with new racialised categories and institutional apparatuses; the development of new legal principles of sovereignty and ‘just war’; and the formation of novel gender relations, cultural norms and hierarchies and a new sexual division of labor intimately tied to the ‘cultural wars’ waged by Europeans in the Atlantic colonies which established a new system of patriarchy undergirding colonial rule and exploitation. All these factors were, we argue, crucial to understanding the genesis of capitalism.

What is more, the significance we assign such social relations and processes is not restricted to capitalism’s historical process of becoming, but rather also its very being. Insofar as ‘superstructural’ relations and processes are directly implicated in the systematic reproduction of the capital-wage labor relation – the ‘“internal” nexus of surplus extraction’ (Anderson 1974, 403) – they are conceptualised as constitutive of capitalism as such. This is the direct upshot of our definition of capitalism as a historical mode of production as ‘a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation, but not reducible – either historically or logically – to that relation alone’ (HWCR,9). On this view, the conventional conception of a more or less strict division between ‘process’ and ‘structure’ in theorising capitalism is also problematised.

Given this definition, we do not share Robert Brenner’s conception of capitalism as suggested by Andreas Bieler. Brenner defines capitalism as the market-dependency of economic agents, including wage-laborers. This conception problematically reduces the totality of social relations making up the capitalist mode of production to the prevailing form and relations of exploitation, while over-emphasising the role of ‘market imperatives’ in gauging the existence of capitalism (HWCR, 29-32). Yet by reducing Marx’s more robust mode of production concept to the ‘mode of exploitation’ (Comninel 1987, 133-178; Teschke 2003, 53-56; Lacher 2006, 78), any social formation characterised by extra-economic forms of surplus extraction is conceived as non-capitalist. By contrast, our definition of capitalism incorporates the wider sets of social relations and processes fundamental to the ceaseless accumulation and reproduction of capital, but nonetheless not reducible to a particular form of exploitation.

These clarifications regarding our conception of capitalism are significant to addressing Bieler’s key criticism that while we may have provided a successful challenge to Eurocentric accounts of the origins of capitalism, we did so only in the ‘weak’ sense of demonstrating that the way ‘capitalism expanded outward…was heavily influenced by developments elsewhere and especially the way non-Europeans responded to this outward expansion’ (Bieler, emphasis added). However, given our ‘Brennerian definition of capitalism’ we were ultimately unable to offer a ‘strong’ challenge to Eurocentrism since we fail to convincingly show how these interactions between European and non-European societies resulted in ‘the emergence of capitalism’ (Bieler, emphasis added).

There are two responses to this critique, one weak and one strong. The weak response challenges parts of Bieler’s interpretation of our historical analysis. For example, Bieler claims that the intensification of long distance trade between Asia and Europe and increased accumulation of capital brought about the Pax Mongolica could not in itself explain the emergence of capitalism in Europe since ‘this wealth resulted from the trade in goods, which were produced in feudal social relations of production’. However, we never claimed that such factors by themselves – i.e. considered in isolation from the other institutional and social processes of transformation we examine – did or could lead to the emergence of capitalism. Rather, we argued that such factors contributed to a crisis in feudalism and were preconditions for the later development of capitalism (HWCR, 75) once these factors combined with various other developments.  Had we argued otherwise, we would have fallen into the kind of ‘neo-Smithianism’ Brenner and Wood have so brilliantly critiqued.

Moreover, we would reiterate that our analysis of the effects of the Mongol Empire on Europe demonstrates the sharply uneven distribution of such effects on different locales within Europe. Commercial gains were disproportionately accrued in the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa, the Low Countries and England (see esp. HWCR, 73-77) – all regions where capitalist relations did develop to one extent or another. With regards to the impact of the Black Death on Europe, we sought to demonstrate the differential effects it had on various regions of Europe, focusing in particular on: the reasons why it led to the collapse of serfdom in Western Europe as opposed to the imposition of the ‘second serfdom’ in Central and Eastern Europe, and; how it specifically impacted social relations in the English countryside.

We then concluded our analysis with a restatement of Brenner’s key argument that the peculiar strength and unity of the English ruling class was a central factor in explaining why the state acted on behalf of the landed interests against rising peasant revolts. These unique characteristics of English state-nobility and inter-nobility relations help us understand how the English lords were able to maintain landholdings by ‘engrossing, consolidating and enclosing’ peasant freeholds, which unintentionally gave rise to ‘the classical landlord-capitalist tenant-wage labor structure’ (Brenner 1985). These factors, taken together, explain ‘why capitalism emerged in England’ and not elsewhere (Bieler).

What we disagreed with Brenner on is exactly what explained these continuing ‘peculiarities’ of the English state and inter-nobility relations in the era in which agrarian capitalism took off. Contra Brenner, our explanation focused on geopolitical developments over the Long 16th Century (c. 1450-1650) and not exclusively on the Norman invasions of the 11th century. In short, we argued that the ‘superpower rivalry’ between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires meant that Habsburg military resources were overwhelming directed to the Mediterranean and Central East Europe, thereby affording Northwestern European states the ‘structural geopolitical space’ that proved crucial to their development along capitalist lines. With respect to England, the Ottomans unintentionally created for them a condition of geopolitical ‘isolation’, which contributed to the particularly homogeneous and unified character of the English ruling class and state, the nobility’s eventual demilitarisation, and thus their success in enclosing and engrossing land. This process of primitive accumulation in the English countryside was thus directly conditioned by the geopolitical threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Turning to our strong response, we would challenge the sharp differentiation Bieler draws between the origins and reproduction of capitalism. In HWCR, we suggest that a singular focus on origins leads us to a narrow historicisation of the ‘simple reproduction of capital’ (in Political Marxist terms ‘market dependence’ – the continual need for workers to sell their labour power in exchange for a wage). We show in our discussion of the ‘expanded reproduction of capital’ that there is a vast sphere of activity that enables and sustains such market dependence, in particular when ‘simple reproduction’ reaches its limits. Specifically, we argue that the expanded reproduction of capital identifies processes that account for the absorption of surpluses created by capital accumulation – either in the form of capital investments or surplus populations shed from production by technological developments. To be clear, our claim is not that simple reproduction and expanded reproduction are distinct historical stages that follow one another. But, rather, that both are constitutive components in the functioning of capitalism itself. As a consequence, seeing (expanded) reproduction as something that happens after the origins of capitalism is, in our view, mistaken. As set out, we conceive of capitalism as a process – conceived as such, the sharp distinction drawn by Bieler between origins and reproduction breaks down.

Such a view in turn necessitates some historical excavation of expanded reproduction as a composite part of the ‘origins’ of capitalism itself. We do this by looking into the Dutch and English’s ability to tap into the massive markets and enormous amounts of unfree labour in the colonies, without which their capitalist development would have been strangled at birth as witnessed in the earlier cases of the Northern Italian city-states. In Chapter 5, for example, we detail how England’s capitalism was vitally dependent on the widened sphere of activity offered by the Atlantic; it was only through the sociological combination of American land, African slave labor and English capital that the limits of English agrarian capitalism were eventually surmounted. In Chapter 7, we then examine how proto-capitalist enterprises in the Low Countries were stifled by the relatively low supply of labour at home which was only overcome by tapping into a vast well of labour in Southeast Asia. There, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC: Dutch East India Company) created a commercial network that combined uneven labour processes spanning the spice-producing islands in Indonesia, precious metal production in Japan and China, and textile workers in India into a single integrated network of ‘global’ production. It was through these intersocietal interactions that the VOC were able to integrate a disparate yet large mass of labour-power into their own operations. The development and ultimate survival of the institutional innovations central to the development of capitalism in Holland – the Bourse, the Amsterdam entrepôt and the VOC – were thus all founded on this subjugated and exploited mass of unfree Asian labour-power.

Had it not been for the expanded reproduction of Dutch and English capitalism through colonial expansion, force and war, their capitalist development would have been unsustainable in ways other antediluvian forms of capital were. We would therefore argue that our analysis does provide the ‘strong’ challenge to Eurocentrism as defined by Bieler. In this respect, we share the view of Perry Anderson (2005) view of the origins of capitalism ‘as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of interrelated sites’.

Turning to Jamie Jordan’s probing questions on causality and method, this is an understanding of capitalism’s origins (and reproduction) that rejects and seeks to go beyond any spatio-temporally singular conception of causality: for example, the ‘freeing’ of the peasantry in the English countryside as the sole ‘sufficient condition’ for capitalism. Rather, our analysis points to the accumulation of many different ‘necessary conditions’ that once combined transform into a ‘sufficient condition’. This de-centred or multi-perspectival conception of causality is in fact integral to UCD, which entails a methodology capable of capturing the multiplicity of different causal factors – spatio-temporally variegated ‘causal chains’ – as internally related to one another. In other words, UCD reconciles ‘causal pluralism’ (for lack of a better term) into a single theoretical framework.

From the concept of unevenness comes the focus on a multiplicity of different causal vectors, and through the notion of combination, the dialectical synthesis of those different causal chains. This contrasts with many (neo-)Weberian approaches that render historical accounts effectively contingent as different causal factors are conceived as externally related. While we have not fully thought out what type of comparative method UCD might offer, the closest existing approach is perhaps Philip McMichael’s (1990) ‘incorporated comparison’. Such a method breaks out of the ‘methodological internalism’ of most comparative approaches that view ‘cases’ as discretely constituted entities abstracted from time and space, without subsuming the ‘parts’ to the ‘whole’ as with some World-Systems approaches. In effect, it allows for a comparative analysis of the spatio-temporally differentiated outcomes (the ‘parts’) of a singular world-historical processes (the ‘whole’), whereby the ‘parts’ are constituted by an amalgam of the ‘particular’ and ‘general’ conditions of the whole while in part re-constituting the whole itself.

How then might our analysis of the origins of capitalism and UCD relate to overcoming Eurocentrism in our strategies to transcend capitalism, as raised by Jon Mansell? Ultimately, our answer can only be rather limited and incomplete as any theory (or history) is always in part politically indeterminate. Ultimately theory is nothing without struggle. What we can say is that our analysis and theory point to the necessity (and potential means) to recognise the many different forms of oppression and exploitation upon which capitalism was (and is) built. And such a recognition is built on the way a non-Eurocentric perspective alters the way we conceive of capitalism. As a consequence, we think any struggle against capitalism should be predicated on asking how multiple and differentiated forms of struggle against these multiple oppressions and relations of exploitation might come together and combine. This may seem like a rather mundane point, but one that is nonetheless significant and all too little heeded.

Alexander Anievas
Alexander Anievas is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945 (University of Michigan Press, 2014), for which he was awarded the Sussex International Theory Prize, and co-author (with Kerem Nişancıoğlu) of How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (Pluto, 2015). He has also (co-)edited and contributed to: Historical Sociology and World History: Uneven and Combined Development over the Longue Durée (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), with Kamran Matin; Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line (Routledge, 2015), with Nivi Manchanda and Robbie Shilliam; and, Cataclysm 1914: The First World War and the Making of Modern World Politics (Brill Press, 2015).
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