Revisiting the ‘Mode of Production’: Enduring Controversies over Labour, Exploitation and Historiographies of Capitalism – Nottingham, 1 July

4th Jun 2019

Revisiting the ‘Mode of Production’: Enduring Controversies over Labour, Exploitation and Historiographies of Capitalism

One-day workshop at the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham, 1st July 2019 

In the provocative monograph Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Brill Academic Publishers, 2010), Jairus Banaji sets out to survey the role of labour and exploitation within historical materialist tradition. Covering forty years of intellectual engagement that traces its pedigrees to the famous Marxist debate around ‘modes of production’ in the 1970s, this recent republication of articles in one volume invites us to re-examine longstanding questions surrounding the historical transition to capitalism. It further challenges the ways in which we continue to deploy fundamental concepts such as the ‘mode of production’, ‘relations of exploitation’ and ‘wage labour’ to understand the current conjuncture.  

Banaji’s contribution addresses the issue of ‘abstract scholastic formalism’ that proceeds by identifying simple categories that are used to read off the character of a given ‘epoch of production’ (mode of production). For example, the manner in which labour is subjugated is taken to form the defining basis of a given mode of production (serfdom = feudalism, free wage labour = capitalism). Likewise, the category of the ‘market’ can be conceived in this way, when it is assumed that given its necessity to the capitalist mode of production, all commodity markets are capitalist by definition. This mode of enquiry is incapable of accounting for the presence of wage-labour and commodity markets in earlier epochs of production. Elements characterising modes of production, therefore, have to be understood in relation to their specific laws of motion, operative at two levels, namely individual capital and total social capital. 

What follows from this careful re-reading of Marx is the implication that capital accumulation has been historically characterised by a considerable flexibility in the structuring of production and in the forms of labour used in producing surplus value. The orthodox conception of capitalism, which sees the sole basis of accumulation in the individual wage-earner conceived as free labourer eradicates a great deal of capitalist history, assuming away the contribution of both enslaved and collective (family) units of labour power. Against this backdrop, Banaji’s conceptualisation offers an alternative that sees ‘free’ wage-labour as one form of exploitation among many, alongside sharecropping, labour tenancy, and various kinds of bonded labour. These specific individual forms of exploitation that apparently belong to various modes of production, might be nothing but the ways in which labour is recruited, exploited and controlled by capitalist employers. 

The 1970s had also witnessed a proliferation of debate and dissensus around the role of domestic labour in capitalism. Concerned with the formation of the ‘family wage’ in the late nineteenth century, participants tended to advance highly theoretical and abstract contributions that remained bereft of deeper historical detail. Advancing central ideas of the International Feminist Collective (Wages for Housework campaign in 1972) that emphasised capital’s dependence on unwaged reproductive labour of the housewife, Silvia Federici embarks upon reassessing historical origins of capitalist sexual division of labour and unpaid work in the accumulation process. 

Published in 2004, Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia) offers a novel interpretation of the primitive accumulation problematic by shedding light on the sixteenth and seventeenth century witch-hunts in Europe and the ‘New World’. In this account, expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations attest to necessary but not sufficient conditions for the emergence of capitalism. Of decisive importance is the transformation of the body into a work machine and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the workforce. Not only the notion of accumulation is broadened to include the mechanisms of class rule that are inseparable from and built upon hierarchies of gender, race and age, but also the sphere of reproduction is considered to be the source of value-creation and exploitation. 

Stimulating serious reconsiderations of foundational historical materialist concepts, the reception of two contributions has invited many supportive and critical engagements, in turn generating new avenues for reflection about the ‘totality’ of capitalism as a system. In their own distinctive ways both interventions provide important theoretical guidelines and raise pertinent questions relating to: the relationship of ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ categories in the development of historical knowledge about socio-economic change, definition of the ‘mode of production’, dichotomies between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’, ‘waged’ and ‘unwaged’ labour, vectors of systemic violence and statecraft in theorising transition to capitalism. Challenging stagist emphasis on the qualitative difference embodied in capitalist relations of exploitation both exhibit propensities to conceive of capitalist development as a multi-linear phenomenon, thereby engendering the necessity to depart from Eurocentric understandings of modern history.  

This one-day workshop intends to revive two old and pivotal debates in historical materialist cannon (on mode of production and domestic labour), which will be of interest to the young generation of radical scholars as well as those interested in the topic more generally. While instigating an inter-disciplinary discussion that brings those working in the fields of history, philosophy, historical sociology, politics and international relations and development studies, the objective is to enrich historically informed theorisations of capitalism by locating the sphere of reproduction at the centre stage. A related aim of this event is to interrogate whether bridging Banaji’s and Federici’s contributions together offers a richer repertoire of methodological resources for a comprehensive grasp of capitalist mode of production. To this end, having two prominent scholars reiterate their approaches in dialogue with their sympathetic critics also promises to generate new avenues for future enquiries. Finally, the workshop that introduces the already rich debate on the topic and demonstrates its contemporary relevance could provide conceptual grounding for radical scholars as well as activist audiences beyond academia in search for possibilities of resisting and transcending capitalism.

Presentations and discussions will be focused on but not limited to the following areas:

–      Interiorities of Production and Social Reproduction 

–      Categories of Free and Unfree Labour

–      The Question of Eurocentrism in Historiographies of Capitalism

–      Uneven and Combined Development and Mode of Production

–      Antediluvian Forms of Capital: Locating the Origins of Capitalism

–      Statecraft in Transition to and Reproduction of Capitalism


The list of presenters:


Jairus Banaji (SOAS)

Silvia Federici (Hofstra University, New York)


Andreas Bieler (University of Nottingham)

Tony Burns (University of Nottingham)

Neil Davidson (University of Glasgow)

Jens Lerche (SOAS)

Alessandra Mezzadri (SOAS)

Benno Teschke (University of Sussex)

Further information is available athttps://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/

The event is being held on the 1st July and will feature keynotes from Silvia Federici (Hofstra University) and Jairus Banaji (SOAS). You can find workshop details as well as full list of participants in the attachments and below.

We have very limited places available and would like to encourage those keen to participate to register as soon as possible. Attendance is free of charge but registration via Eventbrite is required.