3 December 2019

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

The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham has organised a one-day workshop Revisiting the ‘Mode of Production’: Enduring Controversies over Labour, Exploitation and Historiographies of Capitalism on the 1st July 2019. The event was dedicated to the re-examination of two important debates in historical materialism related to the conceptualisation of the mode of production and domestic labour that were thriving in the 1970s and attracted fresh interest more recently. We were delighted to host two distinguished contributors, Jairus Banaji and Silvia Federici as keynote speakers who presented alongside other prominent authors, including Andreas Bieler, Tony Burns, Neil Davidson, Jens Lerche, Alessandra Mezzadri and Benno Teschke. In this blog post, Jokubas Salyga and Kayhan Valadbaygi, the organisers of the workshop, share video-recorded proceedings of the event.

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 the historical-materialist tradition. Covering forty years of intellectual engagement that traces its pedigrees to the famous debate around ‘modes of production’ in the 1970s, this recent republication of articles in one volume invites us to reconsider 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 brings to light the issue of ‘abstract scholastic formalism’ that is shown to proceed problematically by identifying simple categories 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 method 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 the 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’ conceptions of capitalism, which see the sole basis of accumulation in the individual wage earner conceived as free labourer eradicate a great deal of capitalist history. Effectively, they tend to assume 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.

More recently, Banaji’s work has endeavoured to integrate the rich pre-industrial historiography of capitalism into theory by reinstating the notion of merchant capitalism as both a valid and consistent category with Marx’s own writings. Rather than viewing merchant capital as a dependent agent of industrial capital in line with ‘orthodox’ understanding, he unearths the imperative historical role of merchants already prior to industrialisation, for example in transporting goods, organising and financing voyages, exerting control over and organising of household producers into putting-out systems, financing, managing and owning plantation industries among other undertakings. This implies that the function of merchant capital is not reducible to buying and selling but instead can be viewed through a four-fold taxonomy that includes organisational patterns in the long history of pre-industrial capitalism, related to: i) the Verlagssystem, ii) international money markets, iii) ‘colonial trades’, iv) produce trades. While this and other themes are subjected to scrutiny in the forthcoming bookA Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (Haymarket Books, July 2020), Banaji’s presentation at the workshop sought to unpack this taxonomy in detail and address the historical manifestations of state-merchant nexus in the era of commercial capitalism.

Jairus’ talk

The 1970s had also witnessed a proliferation of debate and dissensus around the role of domestic (or household) 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’s work 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 the 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. A wide-ranging record of Federici’s publications also opens up a broad array of conceptual questions predicated on the puzzle whether household labour activities can be treated as a labour process or not. This prompts us to probe what is the product of household labour? Is it the people, commodities or labour power? Does the product have value and if so, how to determine it? What are the circumstances, conditions, and constraints of domestic labour? How does domestic labour relate to the processes of reproduction of labor-power, to overall social reproduction, to capital accumulation? Could a mode of reproduction of people be analytically detached from the mode of production? To what extent answers to these questions are instructive in accounting for the origins of women’s oppression?

In the panel Women, the Body and ‘Primitive Accumulation’: Past and Present dedicated to Federici’s work, she revisited the centrality of witch-hunts in the moments of capital’s genesis. In doing so, it was accentuated that rather than reserving primitive accumulation and witch-hunts to specific time-periods, the latter attest to central pillars of analysis in grasping contemporary dynamics of commodification of all aspects of social life.

Silvia’s talk

Stimulating serious reconsiderations of foundational historical materialist concepts, the reception of Banaji and Federici’s publications has invited many supportive and critical engagements, in turn generating new avenues for reflection about capitalism as a systemic ‘totality’. 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 modernity.

One of the central aims of this workshop was to interrogate whether bridging Banaji and Federici’s contributions together offers a richer repertoire of methodological resources for a comprehensive grasp of capitalist mode of production. It aspired to put the two highly original approaches in dialogue with their sympathetic critics in the hope of generating new avenues for future enquiries. To this end, each keynote was followed by the panel of two contributions. Critically engaging with Banaji’s work, The Mode of Production and Forms of Exploitation panel featured interventions by Tony Burns and Jens Lerche. Andreas Bieler and Alessandra Mezzadri explored the themes developed in Federici’s work in theInteriorities of Production and Social Reproduction: Domestic Labour Debate panel.

Tony Burns (University of Nottingham): Marxism and the Concept of a Social Formation

Jens Lerche (SOAS): Seeing Beyond so-called Unfree Labour: Real Unfreedoms, Marxist Political Economy and Labour Regimes

Andreas Bieler (University of Nottingham): Is Capitalism Structurally Indifferent to Gender?

Alessandra Mezzadri (SOAS): Social Reproduction, Forms of Exploitation, and Value: From Housework to Informal Labour Debates

In light of recent interest in the notion of ‘uneven and combined development’, the objective of the final panel was to scrutinize this current of historical sociology in depth. Advancing their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the concept, both supportive and critical of ‘Political Marxism’, the 2003 Deutscher Memorial Prize winners, Neil Davidson and Benno Teschke enquired to what extent the idea of UCD help us to broaden analytical horizons beyond Eurocentric historiographies. How UCD could be grounded in the theorisation of mode of production? Who does the combination and what is actually combined? Whether UCD could be used as a transhistorical category? If so, does it not risk becoming trivial by aiming to explain everything? What are the concrete manifestations of UCD in contemporary capitalism? What are the political implications behind it? And finally, is permanent revolution still possible in the 21st century?

Neil Davidson (University of Glasgow): Capitalist Modernity, Uneven and Combined Development and the Nation-State Form

Benno Teschke (University of Sussex): Reflections on Eurocentrism in Uneven and Combined Development and Political Marxism