Theory as History – Jairus Banaji’s contribution to Marxism

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Kerem Nisancioglu reviews Jairus Banaji’s Theory as History (2011)

 

Spanning thirty-odd years of academic endeavour, Jairus Banaji’s Theory as History is a collection of essays exploring the role of labour and exploitation within the wider research programme of historical materialism. Having become the latest recipient of the prestigious Isaac Deustcher Prize, this ambitious and rich monograph has already made a splash in the seemingly never ending debates surrounding the historical transition to capitalism, as well as crucial Marxist concepts such as ‘mode of production’ and ‘relations of production’.

If this all sounds like the jargonistic and esoteric stuff that is only of academic interest to Marx nerds, then it is no accident – Theory as History is not exactly bedside reading material. The biggest challenge for the reader is that at times the book appears to assume an extensive prior knowledge of a seemingly daunting array of subjects, from the finer details of Das Kapital to Byzantine legal terminology. It might also be argued that its numerous precapitalist historical case studies do not intuitively relate to contemporary issues. However, none of this should put off potential readers. While the stimulating and original insights gleaned from this work are of immense scholarly significance for historians, they also have broader implications for a critical and revolutionary understanding of the inner workings of capitalism today.

Put simply, Theory as History is a broadside against the view that historical epochs of social production (modes of production, say capitalism, feudalism, slavery) are defined solely by a particular form of exploitation (say wage labour, serfdom, slavery). For example, in the highly influential work of Robert Brenner, the commodification of labour is considered the differentia specifica of capitalism, wherein concrete ‘really existing’ societies are considered capitalist only if there is a clear separation of political and economic forms of coercion and exploitation – in short, ‘wage-labour’. Where this is not identifiable, capitalism cannot be said to exist. In such cases it is instead the political un-freedom of labour under serfdom and slavery that defines and distinguishes these precapitalist modes of production.

Banaji’s primary objection to this viewpoint is that it takes one singular element (wage-labour) of a structurally complex and diverse totality of social relations as constitutive of the whole. This has two negative consequences: a ‘positivist reductionism’, that is, the obliteration of concrete reality’s complexity for the sake of a simple abstraction; and a ‘scholastic formalism’ – the re-grafting of that simple abstraction back onto concrete reality as a substitute for an historical investigation of that very same complexity.

Such a procedure in Marxist analysis reflects a broader tendency in the social sciences in which abstractions (such as wage-labour) are treated as ‘ideal-types’, that is building blocks, or foundational materials, upon which further investigation is constructed. In the case of Brenner et al, wage-labour represents the most essential and basic component of capitalism, out of which all other determinations and social relations flow. But for Banaji, such a method bears little resemblance to Marx’s own approach. In Capital Volumes I-III Marx constantly shifts the vantage points and perspectives from which capitalism as a mode of production is analysed. So inVolume I analysis takes place from the perspective of a single production process, in Volume II from the standpoint of circulation, and Volume III from the vantage point of ‘many capitals’. Accordingly, for Banaji, wage-labour is only one of many vantage points from which we can investigate capitalism. Consequently, it is impossible to grasp capitalism (or any other mode of production) in all of its complexity from the perspective of this singular abstraction alone. Indeed, the key point for Banaji is that the role and significance of any given labour form can only be fully understood when placed within the wider context of a totality of social relations: in short, what historical materialists call, the ‘mode of production’ .

These theoretical insights aside, on the historical terrain Banaji argues that there is little concrete evidence to justify the conceptual equation of forms of exploitation with modes of production. For example, Banaji’s rigorous investigation of Byzantine archive materials shows how sixth-century agriculture was quite often marked by permanently employed wage-labourers. In a remarkable essay “Workers before Capitalism” Banaji traces the existence of proto-proletarians that organised in unions and attacked the rich, going as far back as the Roman Empire and Merovingian period.

Across chapters two and eight, Banaji finds strong historical evidence that feudal lords exhibited forms of ‘economic rationality’. Some employed day labourers for seasonal tasks, while in other cases certain feudal estates carried out production for sale on the market. Despite the seemingly capitalist character of such activity, Banaji argues that these processes were still unmistakably feudal because they were subordinate to, mediations for, and functions of the consumption requirements of feudal lords. The conclusion is that serfs and wage-labourers were each as much an essential part of the feudal mode of production as the other; what united them in a totality as a mode of production were the consumption needs of feudal lords.

The flip-side of this argument is that if labour processes and forms of exploitation are not the sole determinant of a mode of production, then capitalism can function in the absence of wage-labour. In the essay “Modes of Production in Materialist Conception of History”, Banaji shows that wage-labour, slavery and serfdom have all coexisted under capitalism. What is more this coexistence has been crucial to its functioning and reproduction as a mode of production. That is, capitalism has not only appropriated extant precapitalist forms of labour, but actively created them where they do not exist. What has united these variant forms of exploitation within the capitalist mode of production as an articulated totality is the competition induced compulsion for capitalists to ‘accumulate for accumulations sake’. So the self-expansion of capital – the imperative for capitalists to re-invest in order to expand their profits to the disadvantage of their competitors – is the driving logic of the system, capable in principle of taking advantage of a variety of labour processes, if they can be subjected to the disciplining logic of capital.

This is examined in more detail in the essay the “Islamic Origins of Capitalism”. Here Banaji undertakes a fascinating excavation of capitalism’s institutional lineage from Islamic merchants in the ninth-century to Italian city-states. Alongside an extensive survey of Deccan agriculture in chapter 10, this case study illustrates how merchants were able to effectively mediate production through the use of credit and the advance system. Then, citing the example of German mines of the 16th century, Banaji finds that the first flowerings of industry were brought about by merchants seeking to expand accumulation through intervening more directly at the point of production.

The breadth and depth of Banaji’s historical research is nothing short of staggering, making extensive use of primary archive material while also avoiding an overreliance on solely English-speaking secondary sources. In this regard, Banaji’s work is an example to many in the Marxist tradition (and beyond) that have been content with lazily applying pre-given abstract concepts to concrete reality as a substitute for proper historical study. But it is further to Banaji’s credit that such historical detail at no point eschews theoretical issues. Through his analysis of Islamic traders and the Deccan peasantry, Banaji rises to the long avoided post-colonial challenge of integrating the history of non-Western societies into the historiography of capitalism. At a time when authors across all political spectrums are returning to historical questions surrounding the ‘Rise of the West’ in order to explain its so-called 21st century ‘decline’, Banaji’s intervention reminds us of the inherently international character of capitalist development. And in the midst of an historical epoch in which imperialism is being legitimated through Islamaphobia and the supposed ‘Clash’ of Western and Eastern civilizations, Theory as History is a timely corrective to the view that ‘the East’ is an eternally intractable and inherently incompatible foe of the West.

Such observations are crucial to challenging the notion, widely prevalent in Stalinist orthodoxy and capitalist ideology, that the supposed backwardness of the ‘Global South’ is due to a lack of capitalist development. In contrast Banaji contends that Caribbean plantations, Latin American latifundia and Egyptian ezbas were not aberrations or hangovers from precapitalist societies, but were fundamental to the inner working and reproduction of capitalism in the 19th century and beyond. And through a stimulating reading of Sartre’s critique of the ‘free contract’ Banaji deconstructs the related notion that coerced labour is something external to capitalism. In an age where Workfare, sweatshops and unwaged domestic labour are still prevalent, an analytical sensitivity to the variability of capitalist exploitation is of paramount importance. This also warns us against the pitfalls of reformist illusions and points us in the direction of revolutionary practice that resists capitalist exploitation in all its forms.

Indeed, Banaji’s principle theoretical breakthrough also has crucial political consequences. As numerous Smithian and Marginalist economists (and to a lesser degree Weberian sociologists) have argued, there is extensive historical evidence for the existence of wage-labour and capital prior to the modern, capitalist epoch. For such authors this proves the transhistoricity of capitalism, and consequently acts as a rebuke to the most basic of Marxist claims – that capitalism is transient. Banaji skilfully negotiates this historiographical blind spot, not by denying the historical evidence, but by critically reworking it in a Marxist framework. In this sense the greatest insight of the book is a reaffirmation of the historical changeability of society, and why the rigorous, critical and theoretically informed study of that changeability, in all of its complexity, is of fundamental importance to understanding – and transforming – the present. In short, it provides an important theoretical foundation to an overtly anticapitalist politics seeking to move beyond this epoch of exploitation.

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18 Comments

  1. Louis Proyect
    May 14, 2012 at 8:57 pm · Reply
  2. Pham Binh
    May 14, 2012 at 10:53 pm · Reply

    This is easily the best damn book review I’ve read in years — comprehensive and readable for a subject that is anything but. Bravo.

  3. Kerem Nisancioglu
    May 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm · Reply

    Thank you for your comments guys – much appreciated!

    Louis, that’s a great review, thanks for posting it. I too was struck by the references to Ibn Khaldun – in fact I recall reading elsewhere (for the life of me I cannot remember where!) that there are traces of a dialectical approach in his work, which is worth exploring.

    I do wonder if Marx and/or Engels were ever exposed to the Muqaddimah. I think the first full translation into French appeared around the time Marx would have been preparing Capital. But we can only speculate!

  4. May 19, 2012 at 11:28 pm · Reply

    Really interesting. Just a question really:

    Kerem, you say “Banaji’s primary objection to this viewpoint is that it takes one singular element (wage-labour) of a structurally complex and diverse totality of social relations as constitutive of the whole. This has two negative consequences: a ‘positivist reductionism’, that is, the obliteration of concrete reality’s complexity for the sake of a simple abstraction; and a ‘scholastic formalism’ – the re-grafting of that simple abstraction back onto concrete reality as a substitute for an historical investigation of that very same complexity.”

    Not clear why apprehension of a totality excludes recognition of a specified element as determinant (not necessarily ‘constituent’) (?) of a whole.

    Can’t we see both? Could you please explain?

    • Kerem Nisancioglu
      May 21, 2012 at 9:20 am · Reply

      Thanks Richard for this comment/ question – it is a very important one!

      “Not clear why apprehension of a totality excludes recognition of a specified element as determinant (not necessarily ‘constituent’) (?) of a whole. Can’t we see both? Could you please explain?”

      I would say that you’re right, we can ‘see both’, and that both Marx and Banaji would argue for such an approach. Both would also, in my opinion, also argue that any given totality is made up of *multiple* determinations.

      Banaji’s objection to the likes of Robert Brenner is that a particular element (wage-labour) is positited as a singular determinant of the totality (the capitalist mode of production). The theoretical result is a conflation of a particular element with the totality as a whole – a conflation of ‘forms of exploitation’ with ‘mode of production’ – which *obscures* the apprehension of each at their appropriate level of generality and/or abstraction.

  5. billj
    May 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm · Reply

    “The flip-side of this argument is that if labour processes and forms of exploitation are not the sole determinant of a mode of production, then capitalism can function in the absence of wage-labour.”

    He might have an interesting point – but its certainly not a Marxist point as Marx said;

    “Capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other.”

    • Kerem Nisancioglu
      May 21, 2012 at 10:22 am · Reply

      Yes Marx did say that. Indeed, Marx said many things – which is why I rarely find it helpful to use two line quotes out of context as definitive statements on his position.

      For example, Marx also said the decline of the Roman Empire “involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital”

      When talking about slave plantations Marx said: “the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it.”

      What are we to make of these? That Marx was confused, that he was contradicting himself? Did he change his mind? Perhaps, as he famously said, he actually was “no Marxist”!

      Considering the wide array of statements Marx made about categories such as capital, wage-labour and capitalism more generally, it is important to appreciate the context in which any such category is used – ie the perspective from which it is being studied and its relation to other categories.

      Banaji argues that proponents of the ‘wage-labour thesis’ only analyse capital from the perspective of a single ‘unit’ or ‘enterprise’ – that of one capital – primarily elucidated in Capital volume 1. Indeed, the context of your quotation [“Capital presupposes wage labour”] is specifically from the perspective of one unit – one tenant farmer purchasing the labour-power of a day worker.

      The problem with taking solely this view is that such a social relation has historically existed prior to capitalism – there is extensive historical evidence for this [perhaps you argue that history is not being Marxist ;-)]. So what is it that makes this relation specifically *capitalist*? To find an answer, one has to look beyond this singular social relation and analyse how it is related to a wider totality of social relations. This exactly what Marx does through volumes 2 & 3 and exactly what Banaji suggests we do if we are to make any sense/ use of Marx’s approach

      • Luke Cooper
        May 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm · Reply

        We need to find a wordpress plugin for this website that let’s us “like” posts 😉

  6. billj
    May 21, 2012 at 2:59 pm · Reply

    Not at all. Capital Volume I was written after Volume III as I’m sure you’re aware. Wage labour as the basis of the economy, as part of a system of generalised commodity production, is quite different from wage labour as a subordinate part of other economies, slavery, feudalism, whatever.
    Wage labour has existed for thousands of years, but only under capitalism has wage labour formed the basis of the economy. To argue that you can have capitalism without wage labour is to render Marx’s entire discussion of the orgin of surplus value, and all the laws elaborated on that basis – basically the whole of Kapital – redundant.
    If Banaji argues it the way you say he does – I’ve not read the book – then he’s inadvertently refuted Marx’s entire analysis of capitalism. Not so hot huh?

  7. billj
    May 21, 2012 at 3:44 pm · Reply

    Just to add, Engels pointed out that the law of value had operated for thousands of years, in the sense that commodities exchange according to the amount of labour incorporated in them during production.
    What was different about capitalism was the entire mode of production was predicated on commodity exchange, wealth appears as a mass of commodities, as Marx wrote in line 1.
    What makes the wage/labour relationship specifically capitalist, is that capitalism as a mode of production is predicated on wage labour. The commodity contains in embryo all of the contradictions of the mode of production. But embryos have to undergo a long period of gestation and then growth before they mature into fully grown beings.
    So commodity production existed long before capitalism but under capitalism commodity production is the basis of the mode of production.
    The separation of the producers from the means of production is capital’s pre-requisite. Marx explains this over and over, certainly in the first part of Capital Volume I, but also in the Grundrisse, Wage Labour and Capital etc.
    You may object to that quote as a one liner – but that’s what’s great about Marx, in a sentence he can pithily sum up the whole system.

  8. Kerem Nisancioglu
    May 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm · Reply

    “Wage labour as the basis of the economy, as part of a system of generalised commodity production, is quite different from wage labour as a subordinate part of other economies, slavery, feudalism, whatever. Wage labour has existed for thousands of years, but only under capitalism has wage labour formed the basis of the economy.”

    I’m uncomfortable with the use of terms such as ‘basis’ because of their reductionist implications. But broadly speaking, I agree with this and much of your second post – yes, of course, capitalism presupposes wage-labour. And in fact Banaji makes a similar distinction between wage-labour as a “simple determination” (common to several epochs) and wage-labour as “determinate determination” (abstract-value producing, capital-positing labour, historically specific to capitalism). Though none of this means that capital cannot ‘put to work’ other labour processes and forms of exploitation.

    “To argue that you can have capitalism without wage labour is to render Marx’s entire discussion of the origin of surplus value… redundant”

    Why?

  9. billj
    May 21, 2012 at 8:18 pm · Reply

    I am a reductionist at the end of the day the base determines the superstructure. That’s the entire foundation of Marxism.
    Kapital explains how capitalism is a system of generalised commodity production. Everything within it is produced for sale, including labour. The producers (farmers, yeomen, knights, slaves etc.)are separated from the means of production so that if they want to live they have to sell their labour power to capitalists to earn their wage.
    They are free in the double sense, free from ownership/control of the means of production, free to sell their labour power.
    This is the basis of the capitalist system. True when Marx wrote it. Truer today.
    So capitalism without wage labour is not capitalism. It can only mean that the producers have not been separated from the means of production. They do not have to sell their labour power to the capitalist. So the capitalist is not able to exploit them. Therefore there is no value and no surplus value and no commodity production, so no capitalism. If no capitalism, no Kapital.
    It seems to me that insofar as there’s any political implications to this argument – capitalism exists without workers – its an attempt to downplay the centrality of the working class in the political struggle. By freeing themselves the workers free the whole of society said Marx. If workers are not the source of surplus value then that’s not true.
    What’s great about Marxism is that as soon as you challenge some component the whole thing comes crashing down.
    Back in the real world, workers are exploited by capitalists, they do have to sell their labour power, this is value, surplus value, profits and exploitation.

    • Kerem Nisancioglu
      May 21, 2012 at 10:21 pm · Reply

      Would you then argue that unpaid domestic labour, human trafficking, prostitution, labour camps and bonded labour – all of which are prevalent in the world today – have nothing to do with capitalism, exist outside of capitalism, and are therefore not crucial to its reproduction?

  10. GrahamB
    May 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm · Reply

    Enjoyed the review – I can imagine Banaji’s book isn’t bedtime reading!

    How far does he go in terms of a trans-historical labour theory of value – if at all?

    • Kerem Nisancioglu
      May 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm · Reply

      There is barely anything at all on this, certainly no substantive or systematic treatment of it.

      The one very brief moment (that I can remember off the top of my head) is in the chapter on “Islam, the Mediterranean and the Rise of Capitalism”, where Banaji traces ‘a resonance’ of the labour theory of value in the twelfth-century work of the Arabian sociologist-historian Ibn Khaldun. And some of the quotes (on p. 263) from Khaldun are really interesting:

      “Labour is the cause of profit”

      “Human labour is necessary for every profit and capital accumulation”

  11. billj
    May 21, 2012 at 11:16 pm · Reply

    “Would you then argue that unpaid domestic labour, human trafficking, prostitution, labour camps and bonded labour – all of which are prevalent in the world today – have nothing to do with capitalism, exist outside of capitalism, and are therefore not crucial to its reproduction?”

    Of course I wouldn’t.
    The point is Marx explained that capitalism, a system of generalised commodity production, rests on the exploitation of labour through the purchase of labour power on a market.

  12. Tom Brass
    August 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm · Reply

    Once again, a review that succumbs to yet another attempt by someone to reinvent the wheel. The argument that capitalism and unfree labour are compatible has a very, very long history indeed, well before Banaji arrived at this “discovery”. In truth, he is a late-comer to this discussion. Debates about this linkage, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, are considered in depth in two books. One is Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates (1999), and the other is Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation (2011). Moreover, to read the gushing book review set out above one could be forgiven for thinking both that Banaji was a Marxist and that his interpretation has never been criticized from a Marxist viewpoint. Each of these assumptions is incorrect, as has been shown in some detail in the following articles:

    [2003] ‘Why Unfree Labour is Not “So-Called”: The Fictions of Jairus Banaji’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp.101-136.
    [2005] ‘Late Antiquity as Early Capitalism?’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 118-150.
    [2012] ‘Jairus Banaji’s mode of production: eviscerating Marxism, essentialising capitalism’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 42, No. 4.

  13. February 28, 2013 at 10:20 am · Reply

    Greetings!
    is Theory as history and Theoretical Praxis one and the same?
    please elaborate.
    Regards

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