Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Wallerstein, Amino, Harvey

Some of you probably already know, but let me start by recommending this anyway: http://fbc.binghamton.edu/cmpg.htm. Its a site where you can read and subscribe to Immanuel Wallerstein's bimonthly commentaries to the contemporary world scene (as seen from the perspective "of the long term").

Lately I’ve been reading some of the older well-known texts by Wallerstein, Robert Brenner etc. The occasion has been my preparations for a course next spring. Partly this has been a rereading of books I once read as a student. This has been a pleasant exercise, which has suggested some interesting possible connections and similarities.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how similar the debate between world-system analysts and their critics is to the debate in Japan between Amino Yoshihiko and Araki Moriaki – with one side leaning towards emphasizing the role of trade and transborder traffic in the birth of capitalism, and the other side focusing on the class relations between landlords and peasants and more or less staying within the bounds of the nation-state as a unit of analysis. The template for the Brenner-Wallerstein debate, the classic debate on the ”transition from feudalism to capitalism”, is similarly structured with Paul Sweeney on one side and Maurice Dobb on the other. 

Braudel and Wallerstein, 1977
In these debates the proponents of the ”trade”-side, although part of a broadly Marxist tradition, have usually been viewed as heterodox and marginal to this tradition. Sweeney is less of a ”good Marxist” than Dobb, Wallerstein less than Brenner, and Amino is certainly less so than Araki. The role of the French Annales school as a catalyst of Marxist heterodoxy in these debates is interesting and deserves to be pointed out. World system analysts like Wallerstein and Arrighi endorse Fernand Braudel, Sweezy relies on Braudel’s forerunner Henri Pirenne, and Amino’s historiography is often compared to that of the Annales historians (although he was unaware of them when he developed his ideas).

There are also differences (of course) between Amino and world-system theorists. Wallerstein somewhere mentions the debate on the ”Asiatic mode of production” among Soviet scholars as one source of inspiration for world system analysis. However, far more than Wallerstein (or any of the classics dealing with this issue, such as Wittvogel), Amino has contributed to clarifying this concept. Above all his discussion of the role of the emperor in promoting ”non-agricultural” activities such as trade have shown how conductive such a mode of production in fact is of a certain kind of capitalism. He's also better than either Wallerstein or Brenner in bringing out how inappropriate labels such as ”feudalism” are when applied to societies or periods as a whole, entities which are inevitably much more complex composite formations in which feudal social relations can co-exist with ”Asiatic” as well as capitalist elements.

Speaking of Japan, it is gratifying to note how the Brenner-Wallerstein debate links up with the old "capitalism debate" (shihonshugi ronsô) among Marxist scholars in prewar Japan (as well as, incidentally, to what appears to have been a similar debate in Latin America mentioned by Wallerstein as the background of the emergence of dependency theory). From the theoretical vantage-point of people like Brenner or the Japanese Kôza faction, countries outside of the industrialized West are not yet part of capitalism, and rather than aiming for socialist revolution they should concentrate on overcoming feudalism and achieving economic development. To Wallerstein and the Rônô faction, by contrast, so-called underdeveloped or non-Western countries can already be considered part of a fully capitalist world. We can note that the position of the Rônô faction was considered a heterodox one in Japan, departing from the “official” Comintern standpoint of the time.

Part of the air of heterodoxy of people like Amino or Wallerstein springs from their unmistakable and, to many, provocatively positive view of the ”market”. To Amino the market is a space of muen and an area of relative freedom for outcasts, lepers and other marginals. Wallerstein claims that capitalism is possible only by virtue of oligopolistic or monopolistic tendencies that run counter to the ideal of a free market (in which, he claims, profit would be impossible). 

In rejecting the identification of capitalism and market economy Wallerstein relies on Braudel (see Wallerstein's "Braudel on Capitalism, or Everything Upside Down", The Journal of Modern History 63:2, 1991), and no one is as eloquent as Braudel in expressing the incompatibility of the market with capitalism. I can only recommend the reader to have a look at his Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century (especially volume one and three) for the wonderful formulations that express his evident nostalgia for markets, the local beehives of fairs, shops, and transparent transactions – a world on ground-level that exists apart from the forbidding ”commanding heights” of the properly capitalist economy, a shady world in which the great capitalist predators roam, controlling the international flows of capital shielded from public view.

What people like Brenner, Araki or Dobb might ask is what role production plays in the distinction between capitalism and the market. In fact, the image conjured up by Braudel is of an economy in which trade and finance play the central role - with labor being largely confined to a third level, that of everyday "material life". The sinister nature of capitalism seems to derive more from secrecy, ruthlessness and power than from the fact that workers are exploited. Here we approach one of the most central points of difference between the antagonists in the abovementioned debates. Their definitions of capitalism are not identical. While the exploitation of wage labor is central to most orthodox Marxist definitions, Amino, Wallerstein, Sweezy, Braudel and the Rônô all appear to be interested primarily in capitalism as a trade-based, profit-driven activity. 

In view of this wide definition, it is not surprising that, to them, capitalism goes far back in history. Locating any proper temporal limit when capitalism starts has in fact usually been rather difficult for these scholars. Amino discovers capitalism in the exchange taking place already in primitive times. The Rônô-ha faction argued that capitalism developed in Japan long before the Meiji Restoration. A forerunner and fellow-traveller of world-system analysis like A. G. Frank claims that a trade-driven "world system" (without the hyphen) has existed for five thousand years. Wallerstein himself settles for around five hundred years since earlier long-distance trade had been more episodic and production for such trade less systematic. 

To their critics, by contrast, capitalism is defined not by trade but by a particular class relation, involving capitalists extracting surplus through the employment of free wage labor (and, in order to prevent the fall of the rate of profit, the drive to constant improvement of the means of production). The two sides in the debates, then, seem to arrange themselves somewhat along the old divide of “production” versus “circulation” as the source of value in Marxist theory. The fact that these debates seem to connect up with one of the central problems in Marxist theory, that of the value form, was one of the most pleasant realizations I had while reading these texts.

This brings me to a final point – a point which I think suggests a contemporary relevance for these debates about the origin of capitalism. In works like A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey famously claims that today’s capitalism is increasingly relying on on an ”accumulation by dispossession” rather than on extracting surplus through the wage-relation (an idea which has influenced Hardt and Negri). Such dispossession includes, broadly, all kind of appropriations of value that is produced outside the capitalist system proper – including the redestribution of already formed wealth from the poor to the rich, the commodification of natural resources such as water or forests, the exploitation of the knowledge of indigenous peoples or the privatization of public goods provided by states. Although the exploitation of labor (through precarization, the intensification of work or outsourcing of production to places of weak labor rights, or the colonization by work of so-called leisure time) is an undeniable fact, capitalism is increasingly relying on taking rather than producing wealth for its accumulation of capital

As Harvey points out, this is a return to what Marx called ”primitive accumulation”. The idea of such accumulation, Harvey suggests, shouldn't be seen as a dubious myth about the violent origins of capitalism. It is a process that is constantly repeated today and that perhaps is even necessary to keep capitalism alive. That capitalism isn't limited to systems of wage labor may sound like an un-Marxist idea, but the idea of ”primitive accumulation” shows that not all value in capitalism needs to be derived from wage labor, even from a Marxist point of view. As Wallerstein points out, the capitalist world-system works comfortably with all kinds of relations of exploitation – from slavery to wage labor, and from serfdom to unpaid housewives. 

"Accumulation by dispossession" would certainly be easier to fit into a world-system analysis than into the theoretical framework of its critics. World-system analysis could also supplement Harvey's analysis in important ways. His portrait of "neoliberalism" is rather insensitive to regional variations (his analysis of China is one example) which I am pretty certain could be better captured with a world-system model.

I admit that my attempt to link together the debates on the origin of capitalism to the theory of the value form really should be done with much more care. What makes people like Wallerstein so heterodox is in part that their theories no longer rely on a Marxian theory of value. But in order to theorize any linkage between world-system analysis and "accumulation by dispossession" properly, clearly some form of reworked theoretization of value is necessary. Above all it would be interesting to look further into the relation between the labor theory of value and the idea of primitive accumulation in Marx. That Brenner rejects the very idea that Marx ever seriously considered ”primitive accumulation” to have had any basis in reality looks symptomatic of the uneasy relation between these two theoretical ideas (see Brenner’s “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”, New Left Review I /104, July-August 1977, p.66f). While exchange and labor can't be neatly separated in Marx' theory of value, it seems undeniable that a stubborn tension exists between these two elements.


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