U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Short Addendum on Political Marxism, Etc.

I wish to thank the participants in last week’s very rich and stimulating discussion of Political Marxism and the new history of capitalism and slavery.

The task remains to defend the claim that slave labor is not capitalist.

I do not think slave labor was capitalist. (I do think that Baptist and Roediger and Esch, among others, provide compelling evidence that some aspects of capitalist management were pioneered in the laboratory of plantation slavery, but we still do not know enough about the transmission of this knowledge to the postbellum factory).

The easy way out (which I will not take) would be to simply restate the definition of capitalism that I suggested in the previous essay. This is a definition which I have borrowed from Political Marxism and still think sensible. “Capitalism” requires, in this view, three features: 1) market-driven labor compulsion; 2) a regime of accumulation based on extraction of surplus; and 3) a liberal state capable of maintaining the “rule of law” and protecting private property.

If I were to take the easy way out, I would maintain that: 1) slavery requires extra-economic coercion (and productivity gains for slaveowners require the application of this coercion with increasing and increasingly costly intensity); 2) that the “surplus labor” extracted from slaves is not the same as the “surplus labor” extracted from formally free workers, and, 3) that the antebellum Southern legal order was a complete mess, unable to work out the contradictions of a property jurisprudence built on the dehumanization and propertization of direct producers.

This sort of argument would recall Marx’s argument that in capitalism, surplus value is calculated against the working day (measured in hours), pegged to wages (paid in dollars), ciphered against the baseline of cost of necessaries (the commodities that workers buy in order to stay alive). That, as I understand it, is how capitalism works. It does not make capitalism good, progressive, interesting, or just, simply different, in form, from chattel slavery. The Catholic Mass is not Protestant. I don’t know what would be accomplished by insisting that it is.


I don’t want to argue in this way, because I see no way out of the hermeneutic circle. This is a disagreement in the arena of historical ontology that derives from incommensurable starting definitions. The definition I favor was not delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is flawed, as all definitions must be. It does not include certain features of capitalism (for example, barriers to full employment, the role of banking and credit, the gendered division of labor, or the centrality of new technologies in revolutionizing the production process). Reasonable people will disagree.

But I want to argue that my position on the nature of capitalist labor and slave labor has something to do with a certain reading of Marxism that I think is worth defending.

Here I draw upon the work of a (partially sympathetic) critic of Political Marxism, Michael Lebowitz. In his critique of Brenner, Lebowitz lays out certain fundamental premises of historical materialism that are very relevant to our discussion.

Lebowitz reminds us that the mature Marx studies the structure of the bourgeois economic system in order to identify structural limits to individual actions. That’s the framework that is threatened, I think, by certain efforts to assimilate slave labor to capitalism. To my mind, historians have not grappled with this idea of limits and barriers as productively as we might.

“By identifying the necessary conditions for reproduction of capital as a whole,” Lebowitz writes, “Marx’s theory points to the tension between those structural limits and individual capitals that proceed as if no limits exist.” This leads Lebowitz to posit a specifically Marxist theory of crisis––something much more integral than cycles of overproduction and underconsumption––and to thus identify “crisis” as the central node of Marx’s anti-political economy.

The crises generated by slavery are different than the crises generated by capitalism. “Precisely because individual capitalists functioning in the market are indifferent to the requirements for capitalist reproduction,” Lebowitz writes,” they tend to violate them in the course of their drive to increase surplus-value.” The same cannot be said of economies based on the labor of slaves, and that turns out to have huge effects on political ideology, class struggle, law, the relationship to the state, and to incentivize collective investment in the machinery of brutalization.

“Given that the purpose of capitalist production is surplus-value,” Lebowitz continues, “and that purpose can be realized only through the sale of commodities, there is a limit to how high the rate of exploitation can be driven.” As the new literature on slavery reminds us, in the post-1830 plantation (drawing on the memory of the Triangle Trade Era sugar plantations) elites envisioned virtually no limit to the escalation of the rate of exploitation, and it was this violence and madness that generated its own negation in the form of the Civil War’s general strike.

In capitalism, in contrast, the crisis of overproduction takes the form of substitution of machinery and reduction of working time. Overcapacity in capitalism, Lebowitz writes, ‘results from violation of the limits to the market under existing conditions––workers cannot spend more and capitalists will not.” So the relationship between the rate of exploitation on the job and the rate of consumption on the part of worker becomes the crucial variable in capitalist class struggles.

It should be stressed that Lebowitz’s claims, here, are crafted in service of the larger project of criticizing Brenner for clinging to “micro-foundations” and drafting highly individualistic “rules for reproduction,” failing to recognize the “logical priority of the whole.”

And this is the inspiration for my response to the question of whether slave labor is “capitalist”: I would counter by insisting that this is not a well-formulated question. What matters are patterns, tendencies, and the reciprocal interaction of social and political forces. “Only when analysis begins from capital as a whole and workers as a whole,” Lebowitz emphasizes, “is there not a distortion of the essential relation of capital and wage-labor.” It is only by attending to the positive uses of abstraction as a guide to systemic laws of motion––a reappraisal of the abstract that Marx began with the feverish composition of the Grundrisse––that we can grasp the sad conceits and tortured logics (as well as the legacies of resistance and critique) at the heart of the histories of both slavery and capitalism.


Michael Lebowitz, “In Brenner, Everything Is Reversed” Historical Materialism 4 (1):119-129 (1999)

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks Kurt, this was a great and informative series of posts and discussion. I think what I took from it is that I better understand the uses of different definitions of capitalism. It seems to boil down to a peculiar kind of historical local-patriotism. Scholars of colonialism and slavery have found much in common and a common vested interests in casting the political and economic structures that underscored these phenomena as capitalism (Genovese and scholars of slavery who like him might have ambivalent feelings regarding slavery are an exception). They see this development as the most crucial to informing our world today, I think.
    Others, whose interests often lay in casting the modern world as dominated by “transcendent” market forces and novel epistemologies, seem more likely to find a more limited definition of capitalism useful.
    However, the main problem I find with these distinct definitions is how to explain the historical reality of a world dependent on a combination of mutually constitutive economic and political formations.

    • I think you hit the nail exactly on the head. I’m not sure any economic history has quite figured out how to transcend the tradition of nation-as-unit-of-analysis. Certainly to most of the historical actors we study, the nation or subnational unit (region, state, locality) tends to be pretty important. The creation of economic knowledge is usually a national or state affair.

      Which is not to endorse the localism/patriotism you rightly flag as problematic. Let a thousand transnational historical flowers bloom, I say. But let’s be honest about the limits of that work. So, thinking about my own research: it is comparatively easy to think about the exchange of ideas between American, Soviet, French, and Caribbean thinkers about the idea of cultural work and Marxist aesthetic theory in the 1930s (if I let myself compare texts in translation), and I hope I can respond to the call to “trans-nationalize” by appreciating the importance of these networks. But that is a different order of magnitude from figuring out transnational capital flows prior to the formation of the OECD and before nations started calculating GDP and GNP (so, before World War II). To do that would require incredible amounts of travel and time.

      To take another example from my work: there are many economists who work on, e.g., “productivity” in the arts sector from 1500-2000 AD, comparing 18 different countries. What they do is get grad students to read a bunch of monographs (of varying reliability and relevance), distill data, and run regressions. From this, they generate ideas like the “cost disease” that makes the arts sector unproductive in the long run. Do they define “productivity” properly? No. Are they comparing apples and apples? No. Were theaters in the 1600s commercial concerns in the same way that Broadway theaters today are? No. So, that’s a concern, too: a solid national-level study, covering a short period of time, still strikes me as way more useful than this kind of transnational longitudinal study.

      As I read through the literature on other comparative/trans-national/long-range topics, I find that the problems in the “cost disease” literature are pretty universal.

      The challenge, moving forward, as I see it, is to begin properly historicizing some of the hazy terms at the center of these accounts: “productivity,” “value,” “exploitation.” Not easy work, but necessary, and maybe even useful!

  2. Lots of illuminating goodies here! Thinking of how theorists have questioned from different angles the notion of totality, I wondered to what extent is it possible to conceive of capital and workers “as a whole.” The question of crisis is related to this notion–what do we exactly mean by crisis? Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis has made me reflect on how we utilize crisis to narrate and produce knowledge, without attending to its actual meaning. Here’s a quote: “it is a non-locus from which to claim access to both history and knowledge of history. In other words, crisis is mobilized in narrative constructions to mark out or to designate “moments of truth; it is taken to be a means to access historical truth, and even a means to think “history” itself.” Koselleck is of course behind this definition. Taking into account how the notion of crisis is now utilized virtually ad infinitum to diagnose the present, according to some as a perpetual condition, what value can we extract from it as a concept? Can the cyclical theory of crisis of political Marxism still be productive in contemporary times, is there a limits to how it defines crisis? Peter Osborne also has a wonderful brief but dense article on the matter of crisis, ““A Sudden Topicality. Marx, Nietzsche, and the Politics of Crisis,” which I am stil trying to figure out. He criticizes the “the quasi-theological notion of a “final” crisis of the capitalist system,” arguing, with Althusser and company, that this wasn’t Marx’s idea: he held instead that political transformation would be articulated at the social level, the struggles in the order of social labor.

    I still would like to see a post from the other camp–slavery as capitalism–, responding to both your critiques and those of Livingston.

    • Kahlil, Thanks so much for this stimulating response.
      I wonder if there is a Zizekian out to the dilemma of the whole–of all his interventions, I think that paradoxical non-total totality that he takes from Lacan that Lacan takes from mathematics might be the most helpful in these practical, concrete historical debates.

      I love that Roitman quote–so much to think with there. It is certainly true that the crisis of 2007-08 (with its multiple, radiating streams of value-negation) is different from the “crisis” that neo-liberals announce in order to justify every new privatization measure; and different, too, from the crisis set in motion by Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA metadata collection. Each has a different ontological weight, I think. But I would want to defend a Marxist view of systemic crisis that is substantially similar to the view that economic historians call “stagnationist” and connected to cycles of the Kondratieff variety–whether from a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the substitution of saving for spending, or the inflationary effects of war, capitalism seems to rotate in a ever-narrowing spiral, collapsing on itself until the apparatus is re-set. Bottom up class struggle, in capitalism, often has the curious effect of saving capitalism from itself (this is the kernel of truth at the heart of the old “corporate liberal” arguments). That is why Political Marxists are correct, I think to say that class struggle in capitalism that does not lead to socialism cannot do much about capitalism’s prone-ness to crisis. Capitalism’s relentless drive to crisis, in other words, provides a sensible (even cost-benefit!) rationale for switching to socialism. As Gabe Winant points out, though–this is an airtight theory without much in the way of a praxis.

      I also wonder whether the Kosselleckian intervention isn’t also bedeviled by the genetic or nomothetic fallacies. Yes, this is how crises work, and these are the processes from which they derive, and any historical operation restated in functionalist terms will look either silly or sinister. In an optimal scenario, such analysis might help a political movement organized in opposition to the status quo clarify its agenda; but in actual practice, such analysis often leads to blanket kinds of refusal.

      I really want to read that Osborne piece–it sounds absolutely fascinating and on the money. Certainly connects with major themes of Hayden White and Fredric Jameson, and back to Vico and even further back to the patristic tradition… The Internationale does lay on the “final battle” thematics fairly thickly, doesn’t it? This sort of reading of left history really excites me, because I think the identification of tropic repetitions might save us from the endless and useless debates on class versus “identitarian’ and economic versus political struggle, all of which are so exhausting!

      Thanks as always. Your comments are so generative and helpful and illuminating.

      • More goodies, excellent! The good thing about Roitman is that she doesn’t follow Koselleck to the letter, she uses his ideas on crisis and critique to think through 1) the tropes and narratives of crisis and 2) their blindspots, what happens when we do not read a socioeconomic event through the lens of crisis (her main case is the so-called housing crisis, the question being how a former asset is turned into debt). At the same time, she is nor arguing for a wholesale discarding of narratives of crisis, or to read them through a true/false operation. The objective is to read otherwise. Which is what Osborne is doing too, especially when he brings up Nietzsche into the mix, reading the idea of eternal return through Marx. I remember blowing away his book The Politics of Time years ago, specially for how it tackles the avant-garde left’s own aestheticization of politics. I haven’t read the Political Marxists but your reading of them sounds convincing: any recommendations of not too long texts that can be useful, specially for a Caribbeanist lit/cultural scholar like me?

  3. Again, thank you for your illuminating essays, Kurt. And thanks to everyone for joining in. Here is a passage I’ve come across in the Grundrisse which I find very revealing, and, I think, speaks to your conclusion.

    “Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it…Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even transvestied…But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society.”

    We don’t have to accept Marx at his word, but I think one major insight generated by Hegel, then Marx, and then the tradition(s) that followed, is that elements within a given social formation, or within a given conceptual system, only reveal themselves fully when understood in their relationality, as part of a whole. I think the new historians of capitalism are trying to understand the development of slavery in relation to the broader formation of capitalism in the nineteenth century, but they may be playing a different language game than PM, as you suggest in your first post.

    I think relationality is key. To ontologically privilege the mode of production is, then, not to collapse society, culture, and political life into a “concrete” base, in which the superstructure is merely a reflection or epiphenomenon of the base. Rather, “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.” Would you agree, or am I wrongheaded here, or misunderstanding Marx? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the point (or one of the points) you and Lebowitz are making in your final paragraph. So in this sense, the question of whether or not slave societies were capitalists, or whether slavery is capitalist, is a non-starter, if we truly want to understand the relationship/dynamics/whatever between slavery and capitalism as historical formations.

    • I want to respond to this more fully, but yes absolutely, and thanks for that Grundrisse quote–totally captures the relationality, as you put it, that I think you have described so well. I have been finding James Oakes’s 1990 text Slavery and Freedom to be a really exemplary meditation on this theme (somehow missed this book–it’s great). Thanks so much for continuing the discussion.

  4. A passage I just happened upon in Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique:
    Marx articulated this: “What precisely distinguishes capital
    from the master-slave relation is that the worker confronts him as consumer and possessor of exchange values, and that in the form of the possessor of money, in the form of money he becomes a simple center of circulation—one of its infinitely many centers, in which his specificity as worker is extinguished.”

    For capital, consumption is the place where surplus value is finally realized, and for this objective precisely, the only place where it is subordinated to the will of consumers/workers. (20)

    Kahlil: One can get a good sense of Political Marxism’s broad project via Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism, and Charles Post’s The American Road to Capitalism. The collected Brenner Debates are still really interesting to read, even if you bracket all the inside baseball stuff about debates in agrarian economic history. I think F Jameson was thinking about them a lot when he wrote the Political Unconscious?

    Brenner’s first book on contemporary economic matters, The Boom and the Bubble (also published as an issue of NLR) is the best. (Hist story gets increasingly thickened, to the point of incomprehensibility, in my opinion). Gopal Balakrishnan probably identifies as a PM (I think) and his collection of essays–Antagonistics––is great.

    I am aware of Vivek Chibber’s work.

  5. One of my personal favorite contemporary readings of Marx comes from Dipesh Chakrabarty. I’m particularly interested in assertion that capitalism posits its own historical time. Anway, I really don’t mean to flood this threads, but writing out my thoughts has really helped me work through my understanding of capitalism (or lack thereof).

    He begins with Marx’s concept of abstract labor which entails one of two readings: 1) the commodification of labor power as the abstraction of heterogeneous forms of human labor. 2) The Enlightenment universal subject as bearer of commodities and bearer of freedom—recognized by other subjects as such. This is the “being” of capital, the logic of capital: M-C-M, the logic of wage labor, the money-form, accumulation, and so on. But there is also the “becoming” of capital, in the sense that the logic of capital is never fully realized, human labor and human life is never fully abstracted. Abstraction is performative in the sense that it is historical and therefore must be realized in time—a process which unfolds through the workings of cultural/social/technological/disciplinary systems.

    A capitalist society, or bourgeois society, comes into being to facilitate the realization of these abstraction, or the Logic of Capital. However, human life, in all of its manifold noncapitalist glory, in all of its heterogeneity, is constantly escaping the attempt by capital to achieve full abstraction. It’s always overflowing the container. In its becoming, capital posits or presupposes its own historicity, it’s own historical progression—a future in which the logic of capital is realize and fully instituted, yet has not come into being, a past in which the formation was incomplete, and a present which moves towards the future. “Capital is a philosophical-historical category—that is, historical difference is not external to it but is rather constitutive of it.” This is what Chakrabarty terms History 1. History 2 on the other hand is that temporal/spatial heterogeneous and plural ether outside of Capital, that which is “not yet” capital—outside of History One. This is where he locates the object of study of Subaltern Studies, or those diverse lifeworlds (in a Habermassian sense) which do not confirm to Western categories or chronologies. The question becomes, how then should we translate between History 1 and History 2. History 1 encounters the money form and the commodity form, as well as capitalist behavior in History 2, yet it must subsume these practices/forms within itself, it most post them as part of History 1. When it fails to do so, a crisis opens up. The Civil War, maybe? I don’t know. Of course the North was not History 1 and the South was not History 2—but I do think Chakrabarty’s reading of Marx could be helpful for us Americanists.

    Here is that Grundrisse section again, which I think illustrates Chakrabarty’s point quite nicely—in terms of capitalism positing its own historical time:

    “Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it…Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even transvestied.”

    • This is great, and I think there is a terrific essay in this comment that should definitely be worked up and published. I think DC’s a genius (even if he critiques my beloved Ernst Bloch) and that the History 1/2 split is crucial for understanding combined and uneven development. (FWIW, he is also one of Chibber’s betes noires). It would be interesting to put this analysis in dialogue with the critical historiography of history–e.g. David Noble’s End of American History, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning or Fabian’s Time And The Other. (I’m sure Kahlil can think of some other good texts to throw in there, too).

  6. Hi Kurt.

    You quote Lebowitz, who says “Precisely because individual capitalists functioning in the market are indifferent to the requirements for capitalist reproduction, they tend to violate them in the course of their drive to increase surplus-value.” You then comment: “The same cannot be said of economies based on the labor of slaves.” But you don’t explain why.

    It seems to me that the crisis of the late 1830s can easily be thought of as slaveowners violating the requirements of capitalist reproduction in pursuing surplus value. After all it is typically understood as a crisis of over-production.

    As far as there being no limit to exploitation under slavery, I would argue that those limits are simply lower than for wage labor. After all, there were clearly biological limits, and slave resistance presumably acted as a check on the exploitation rate.

    Moreover, you mentioned in a previous comment your sympathy for the Genovese thesis, but according to Genovese the hyper-exploitation of slaves is precisely what limited Southern consumption and doomed slavery to stagnation and ultimate defeat. Thus according to Genovese the struggles and crisis due to limited consumption that you identify as peculiarly capitalist are all at play in the antebellum slave economy.


    • John: thanks for these probing questions. I appreciate greatly your comments, and hope you will continue this discussion for as long as it remains interesting to you.

      I hoped in this post to point out some places where you and I do not disagree, exactly, so much as approach the question of slavery and capitalism from incommensurable starting positions. And, writing in a hurried manner, I think I buried the lede: which is that I think one must begin with the logical priority of the whole, whereas Brenner, for example (and you, I think), want to begin with micro-foundations. My hope is a Marxist historiography that can accommodate both positions with less rancor than has previously been the case. In any event, beginning with the logical priority of the whole means that a given act of labor is only realized upon sale of the commodity which is bought back by the workers themselves. Sometimes this happens, and sometimes it doesn’t, and all sorts of things can happen in regard to the price of that commodity and the return of value to the capitalist to be pumped into the productive apparatus anew. This is where the existence of the capitalist state (which did not exist in a familiar form during the age of plantation slavery) becomes absolutely crucial: as guarantor of smoothness in these transactions, as protector of private property, and in the exercise of the police power, minimal regulation of health and safety, and management of that population which to capital appears to be surplus people–the rabble or lumpen. Most crucially, the state supervises internal improvements (enclosure, dredging, canal building, laying roads and rail line, banking, information technologies) that facilitate the growth and spread of capitalism and for which individual capitals cannot be held responsible. It also intervenes to manage and contain the effects of crisis.

      Turning to empirical evidence: this was simply not the case in the South, and none of the new literature disputes this reading (a narrow extraction from Genovese, the rest of whose work I can happily do without). Most importantly, for a PMist, the new literature on slavery does not dispute the older Southern economic historiography that emphasized patterns of extensive rather than intensive development. Productivity may well have risen between the 1830s and 1860s (and it is possible that a certain becoming-capitalist was taking place in parts of the South), but the soil was rapidly exhausted, the labor force was increasingly moved to overthrow the slaveocracy by military force, and no self-sustaining capitalist take-off was in sight. It is possible that with ever more slaves conquering ever more land and a steady market abroad, cotton slavery might have continued to grow–but its pattern of growth would not have been classically capitalist.

      Which brings us to the final point, made frequently by E.P. Thompson. There are limits to abuse, denigration,and murder–some of those limits inhere within the very political and religious traditions that powered slavery in the first place. Capitalism solves many of these problems of ideological contradiction by means of the legal fiction of the contract. Crucially, the contract was completely absent from the slave south: to make a labor contract with a slave was as unthinkable as making a labor contract with a horse or threshing machine. I see nothing in the ideological arsenal of the slaveholding South that could approach the myth of contract as an enabling conceit. (The absence of contract in feudalism was offset, for example, by the serf’s property interests in his parcel of land, which, of course, had no parallel in chattel slavery).

      I have no problem with re-naming American slavery to better account for its empirical features and to capture certain structural affinities with an emergent capitalism, or to better identify the dialectical interrelation of the plantation and the international market. But I remain steadfast in thinking that slave labor is not capitalist in character.

      • Kurt,

        I don’t mean to be rude, but your summary of the new literature suggests to me that you haven’t read much of it.

        Regarding your characterization of the modern state as subsidizing development and solving coordination problems you write “this was simply not the case in the South, and none of the new literature disputes this reading.” On the contrary the active role of Southern states in both these regards is a recurrent theme of the new literature. Beckert makes it the defining aspect of American slavery, distinguishing it from slavery elsewhere in the New World. Majewksi cashes this out in detail with regard to railroads, and Schermerhorn with regard to banks. It is a repeated theme in the collection by Barnes et. al. and will also be in the forthcoming Beckert/Rothman collection.

        You further claim that “the new literature on slavery does not dispute the older Southern economic historiography that emphasized patterns of extensive rather than intensive development.” Yet the soil erosion hypothesis (as a theory of southern distinctiveness) has long been disputed by economic historians, and Olmsted and Rhode’s work (on which Johnson and Baptist draw heavily) is all about southern agricultural development as intensive accumulation.

        Finally you claim that “the contract was completely absent from the slave south.” This is not only wrong, but contrary to the spirit of new literature, which tends to see slaveowners as market fundamentalists, adamant that the sanctity of contract (between slaveowners) be upheld against abolitionist abominations. See Gavin Wright’s work on slavery as a system of property rights, which has been very influential in the new literature.

        Perhaps you are thinking of Johnson’s work? He seem to be closer to Genovese than the others, but I suspect that’s because he’s less familiar with the economic history that has contradicted Genovese.

  7. John, I think we’ve probably gone around in as many circles as we can, and as the first glint of rudeness has appeared on the discursive horizon, I am bowing out.

    I could respond to each point you raise, and to each example of scholarly revision, with the classic PM rejoinder that “precisely what needs to be proved is instead assumed or asserted,” but I don’t think that would be useful… or, at very least, it’s not what I want to do. Thematization is not proof; the suggestive is not the probative; patterns of extensive development do not require arguments for “soil erosion”; a contract with a fellow master is not the same as a contract with a slave.

    Please take advantage of the space below for the last word. Do your worst.

    • Kurt,

      I’m sorry if what I wrote above came off as rude. Those were not my own views I was summarizing, but what I take to be common themes in the literature. I’ve found this discussion very stimulating, and I hope you will continue to write about these issues.


  8. I missed all this because I was traveling and offline, so it may be too late. I hope not. I’m unconvinced by some of the points in these two posts, but I nonetheless appreciate their raising these important themes and interesting points about those themes.

    “the tension between those structural limits and individual capitals that proceed as if no limits exist.” (…) “Precisely because individual capitalists functioning in the market are indifferent to the requirements for capitalist reproduction,” Lebowitz writes,” they tend to violate them in the course of their drive to increase surplus-value.” The same cannot be said of economies based on the labor of slaves.”

    Why can’t this be said of economies based on slaves? If we set aside the capitalism specific language we get something like “the tension between those structural limits and individual [enterprise-owners] that proceed as if no limits exist.” “Precisely because individual [enterprise owners] functioning in the market are indifferent to the requirements for (…) reproduction [of existing economic arrangements]” “they tend to violate them in the course of their drive to increase [wealth produced by their enterprise.]”

    It seems to me that’s an accurate description of the behaviors of plantation owners in the 19th century south just as much as in factories, even if the specific limits and specific violation of limits differs. (As an aside I think it’s also worth pointing out that at least some of those structural limits are themselves historical and at least in part constituted by conflict.)

    You write that “in the post-1830 plantation (…) elites envisioned virtually no limit to the escalation of the rate of exploitation.” I’m not sure about that, but even if so, this is a pretty accurate description of how Marx describes English manufacturers prior to the introduction of the English Factory Acts (that’s in the chapter on the working day in Capital v1). It seems to me that your argument that the post-1830 plantation was not capitalist would also entail that pre-Factory Acts manufacturing in England wasn’t capitalist either. That’s counter-intuitive at the very least. I think the same would go for U.S. manufacturers until at least the opening of the 20th century.

    Finally, it seems to me that the call via Lebowitz to conceive of capitalism as a whole is indifferent to how we understand capitalism in relation to slavery and waged labor, because the arguments about whether or not slave labor can be capitalist are at least implicitly about what constitutes the totality of capitalist social relation. So I don’t think Lebowitz on totality clarifies matters with regard to plantation slavery as capitalist or not; his arguments regarding totality are compatible with positions that see slavery as never capitalist and with positions that see slavery as sometimes capitalist.

    • Nate, thanks for this comment and for these penetrating questions. I don’t want to attempt answer standing-on-one-foot. I will try to provide a response adequate to the seriousness of your questions in my next post.

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