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Theory as History

Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation

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Jairus Banaji

Winner of the 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize.

The essays collected here straddle four decades of work in both historiography and Marxist theory, combining source-based historical work in a wide range of languages with sophisticated discussion of Marx's categories. Key themes include the distinctions that are crucial to restoring complexity to the Marxist notion of a 'mode of production'; the emergence of medieval relations of production; the origins of capitalism; the dichotomy between free and unfree labour; and essays in agrarian history that range widely from Byzantine Egypt to 19th-century colonialism. The essays demonstrate the importance of reintegrating theory with history and of bringing history back into historical materialism. An introductory chapter ties the collection together and shows how historical materialists can develop an alternative to Marx's 'Asiatic mode of production'.
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Jairus Banaji

Abstract

The stereotype of slave-run latifundia being turned into serf-worked estates is no longer credible as a model of the transition from antiquity to the middle ages, but Chris Wickham’s anomalous characterisation of the Roman Empire as ‘feudal’ is scarcely a viable alternative to that. If a fully-articulated feudal economy only emerged in the later middle ages, what do we make of the preceding centuries? By postulating a ‘general dominance of tenant production’ throughout the period covered by his book, Wickham fails to offer any basis for a closer characterisation of the post-Roman rural labour-force and exaggerates the degree of control that peasants enjoyed in the late Empire and post-Roman world. A substantial part of the rural labour-force of the sixth to eighth centuries comprised groups who, like Rosamond Faith’s inland-workers in Anglo-Saxon England, were more proletarian than peasant-like. The paper suggests the likely ways in which that situation reflected Roman traditions of direct management and the subordination of labour, and outlines what a Marxist theory of the so-called colonate might look like. After discussing Wickham’s handling of the colonate and slavery, and looking briefly at the nature of estates and the fate of the Roman aristocracy, I conclude by criticising the way Wickham uses the category of ‘mode of production’.

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Jairus Banaji

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Marxist notions of the origins of capitalism are still largely structured by the famous debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This essay suggests that that tradition of historiography locates capitalism too late and sees it in essentially national terms. It argues that capitalism began, on a European scale, in the important transformations that followed the great revival of the eleventh century and the role played by mercantile élites in innovating new forms of business organisation. However, with this starting point, it becomes important to bring Islam into the picture in a central way, since the Mediterranean was the common heritage of many cultural and religious groups. Islam shaped the tradition of early capitalism both by preserving monetary economy and through its own precocious development of the partnership form. The essay periodises this early capitalism into a 'Mediterranean' and an 'Atlantic' phase, and concludes by looking briefly at the ways in which merchants dominate labour.

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Jairus Banaji

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To grasp current trends within capitalism without abandoning the framework of Marx’s Capital we need to return to the category of ‘fictitious capital’ and make it central to our explanations. Based on the 2012 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Lecture, this essay combines reflections on Marx’s account of ‘fictitious capital’; an investigation of the role of bills of exchange; and an analysis of the recent turmoil in British and US banking. It looks at the way the opium trade, financed through the London bill market, integrated a constellation of interests in the City with the labour of peasant households in India as parts of a unified accumulation process. Opium was vital to the fortunes of British capitalism for most of the nineteenth century. The merchant banks that were the mainstay of Britain’s form of capitalism were also the key element in the re-emergence of global finance in the postwar period. The concluding part of the paper deals with the current banking crisis and follows Hilferding in arguing that by providing liquidity to the markets for fictitious capital, speculation plays a crucial role in sustaining profitability for the bigger capitals.

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Jairus Banaji

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This reply defends the need for a specifically materialist historiography of modes of production other than capitalism; argues that Marxists should see history as being driven by the state as much as it is by classes; defends the scientific value of the category ‘merchant capitalism’; and explains why Marx came around to seeing the slave plantations as part of ‘total capital’. It concludes by suggesting both that Marx allowed for different levels of determination when thinking about the origins of capitalism, and that Brenner’s account of the transition in English agriculture has now been seriously weakened by Jane Whittle’s critique of it.

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Jairus Banaji

Abstract

This Introduction to Rosenberg’s essay starts with a brief synopsis of his life, then summarises the key arguments of the essay itself before looking briefly at the twin issues of the social base of the fascist parties (wider than just the ‘petty bourgeoisie’) and the passive complicity/compliance of ‘ordinary Germans’, as the literature now terms whole sectors of the civilian population that were defined by their apathy or moral indifference to the horrors of the Nazi state.

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Jairus Banaji

Abstract

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu’s attempt to shift the terms of the debate about early modern capitalism by a major widening of its perspectives is a welcome move. Accepting this, the paper suggests that their argument can be more forcefully made if the theoretical residues of earlier traditions of Marxist historical explanation are purged from the way they expound that argument. The most ambivalent of these relates to their continued use of the idea of a ‘coexistence of modes of production’. This permeates the confused way they present Atlantic slavery. A second, comparable source of confusion concerns their description of the relationship between merchant capital and the absolutist state. The alliance between the modern state and mercantile capital is radically misrecognised thanks to an uncritical espousal of Anderson’s view of absolutism. The paper suggests that Anievas and Nişancıoğlu might have written a stronger book had they reconceptualised the economic history of capitalism by allowing for a whole epoch dominated by powerful groups of merchant capitalists. In conclusion, I argue (pace Marx) that the commercial capital of the later middle ages/early modern period was the first form in which production began to be subordinated to capital.