Theory as History – Jairus Banaji’s contribution to Marxism
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.