Ellen Meiksins Wood - Horizontal Relations. a Note on Brenner Heresy
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Horizontal Relations: A Note onBrenner's HeresyEllen Meiksins Wood
One fundamental assumption seems to underlie - explicitly or implicitly- every critique of Brenner I have seen: that there can be no such thingas a Marxist theory of competition, the 'horizontal' relation amongmany capitals, that does not presuppose the 'vertical' class relationbetween capital and living labour. To start (if not also to end) with therelation between capital and living labour is the only way to establishone's Marxist credentials (establishing those credentials does, by theway, seem to be the-critical, even the sole, issue for those who engageBrenner's argument on that plane, without considering the empirical orexplanatory power of his argument). In support of that assumption,more than one critic has invoked Marx's comment that competitiondoes not produce or explain capitalist laws of motion but merelyexecutes them, as their visible manifestation in the external movementsof individual capitals. Predictably, too, some critics have gleefully turnedagainst Brenner the charge he has famously levelled against otherMarxists: that his focus on competition and the market makes him a'neo-Smithian' .
In this note, I simply want to propose that there is indeed a way ofthinking in Marxist terms about the relation among capitals, as distinctfrom, and even in some respects independent of, the relation betweencapital and living labour.
The deduction from the relation between capital and livinglabour: what it can and cannot accomplish
Let me start with an observation made by Mike Lebowitz in his lucidand trenchant critique of Brenner. The main 'theoretical requirement'for Marx, he suggests, was to derive the introduction of machinery 'outof the relation of capital to living labour, without reference to othercapitals'. 'Nothing', he says, 'could be easier' than deducing theintroduction of machinery from competition and the need to reduceproduction costs.l
Now, it hardly needs saying that the reason 'nothing could be easier'than deriving the need to increase labour productivity from thepressures of competition is that the connection is so self-evident. Thedifficult question is what underlies those pressures. In particular, to
1 Lebowitz in this issue.
what extent and in what ways do they presuppose and depend on therelation between capital and living labour?
First, we have to be clear about the 'theoretical requirement' todeduce the nee
specificity of capitalism, the specific laws of motion that distinguish itfrom other social forms.
To explain the origin of capitalism ~ as I understand what ahistorical explanation entails - is to isolate, so to speak, the moment ofdifference, to bring into sharp relief the process of transformation bywhich one social form with its own specific laws of motion (or whatBrenner calls its own rules for reproduction) becomes another socialform with different laws of motion and reproductive rules. It would bemeaningless to talk about the origin of capitalism without identifyingthe essential principles that define capitalism as a specific social form.And it would be meaningless to talk about the explanation of capitalistdevelopment if it were simply a matter of chronological sequence ornarrative and not also of systemic causes.
Furthermore, to speak of capitalist laws of motion is to acknowledgethat there are certain essential systemic imperatives that drive both the'synchronic' processes of capitalism and its 'diachronic' movements.For instance, both the pressure to increase surplus-value that drivescapital's relation with wage-labour, and the impetus that historicallypropelled capitalism from its early forms to its mature industrial form,or, say, from the 'formal' to the 'real' subsumption oflabour to capital,are rooted in a fundamental imperative to improve labour productivity.The question we are canvassing here is precisely this: what are theirreducible conditions of that common systemic imperative?
Suppose we agree that capitalism is characterised by distinctive lawsof motion such as the need constantly to increase labour productivity inways unlike any other social form. We might then ask what precisely itis in the nature of capitalism that determines this need. The deductionfrom the mature relation between capital and labour cannot by itselfanswer that question. It can either beg the question by entirely circularreasoning, or it can begin with certain presuppositions and show how,given those presuppositions, the relation between capital and labouraffects the imperative to increase labour productivity.
The proposition. that 'nothing could be easier' than deriving theneed to increase labour productivity from the pressures of competitionamong capitals, and that the real task is to deduce that need from therelation between capital and labour, is just another way of saying thatthe latter presupposes the former, that the .exploitation of wage-labourwithout competitive relations entails nO need to improve labourproductivity. Whether the former also entails the latter is the questionwe are here trying to answer, and the answer cannot be deduced fromthe relation between capital and labour. It is self-evident that, whereboth competition among capitals and the relation between capital andlabour are present, there is an imperative to increase labourproductivity. But this is not necessarily to say that only where bothconditions are present will that imperative obtain.
More particularly, what the deduction from the mature relationbetween capital and labour can never do is demonstrate that nothing
short of that relation, or nothing but that relation, or even that no othercondition in the absence of that relation, can set in motion theimperative to increase labour productivity. Above all, that deductioncannot demonstrate that the imperatives of competition have theirsource in the relation between capital and labour.
One obvious way of breaking out of an endless question-beggingcircularity is a historical analysis of the conditions in which theimperative to increase labour productivity first came into play. Ahistorical analysis allows us to follow the causal chain back from thedual relations of a mature capitalism, tracing the imperative to itsminimal preconditions. We may stilI not be able to say with certaintythat no other conditions could, in principle, have had the same effect.But (provided we can offer, as Brenner has offered, a systematicexplanation of how and why those conditions caused those effects - andnot just a contingent narrative of chronological sequences) we are atleast entitled to conclude that the imperative will operate where thoseconditions obtain. So, for instance, if it can be shown (as Brenner hasshown) that market-dependent producers have been subject to thatimperative even in the absence of wage-labour, certain conclusionsseem to follow. We cannot conclude that the presence of wage labourwould have no specific effects on that imperative, but we are surelyentitled to make certain deductions about the autonomy of thoseimperatives from the relation between capital and wage labour. Theargument that follows here will proceed on that basis.
The deduction from the capital/labour relation does not - and is notmeant to - tell us where the systemic imperatives of competition andincreasing productivity come from in the first place. It can tell us about(to quote Lebowitz) 'capital's tendency to increase productivity in orderto generate relative surplus-value', but it cannot tell us why capital is ina position that requires it to generate relative surplus-value. It cannottell us about the imperatives that precede, historically and causally, theneed to generate relative surplus-value. By the way, there is atelescoping of historical processes implicit in the conflation of 'relationbetween capital and living labour' ~ not to mention 'exploitation' - and'relative surplus-value'. Exploitative relations even between capital andlabour have not, needless to say, always taken the form of relativesurplus-value).
The mature relation between capital and labour, then, haspresuppositions that remain to be explained, and among thosepresuppositions is a system of competition. The deduction from thecapital/labour relation certainly meets an important 'theoreticalrequirement', but not the only one, or even the first one. Even thepassage from the 'formal' to the 'real'subsumption of labour to capitalwould be hard to explain in distinctively Marxist terms without takingaccount of some compulsion prior to the imperative derived from themature relation between capital and living labour. The formalsubsumption itself would be even harder to explain. Instead of a
distinctively Marxist explanation of how the relation between capital andlabour came into being in the .first place, Marxists - not excluding Marxhimself - have often resorted to arguments not unlike those of classicalpolitical economy or liberal historiography, before Marx's revolutionarycritique of political economy: arguments having to do withtranshistorical processes of commercialisation or technologicalprogress.
Here comes the tricky part. It may be that Marx himself never fullymet all the 'theoretical requirements' of his own argument, his owncritique of political economy. We not only need to deduce an imperativeto increase labour productivity from the relation between capital andlabour. We also need an explanation of the underlying imperative toincrease labour productivity presupposed by the relation between capitaland labour. Marx obviously went a long way in providing anexplanation, but perhaps he did not do it all. He did not elaborate acomprehensive and consistent theory of capitalist imperatives thatspelled out all the presuppositions of competition.
It is easy enough to see how Marx differentiates his analysis fromclassical political economy in his explanation of the relation betweencapital and labour, and it is not hard to understand how his conceptionof surplus-value affects the theory of competition. It is not so easy tosee how a Marxist theory of the relation among capitals can distinguishitself from bourgeois economics without relying .on the relation betweencapital and living labour. But a Marxist theory that differentiates itselffrom bourgeois economics only by introducing the relation betweencapital and labour is essentially circular.
'Horizontal' and 'vertical' relations
To break out of the circle requires us, first, to think about how theimperatives of competition were first established, the imperatives thatfirst created the need to increase labour productivity ~ setting in train aprocess in which the need to generate relative surplus-value, with itseffects on the development of machinery, is not the first cause but theend result.
Brenner's historical work lays a foundation for a Marxist theory ofthe relation among capitals by explaining the conditions in which directproducers were first subjected to market imperatives and competition.This is something Marx himself never really did. In his own historicalaccounts of the origin of capitalism, for instance, he sometimesreproduces bourgeois ideology, the commercialisation model ortechnological determinism. Or else, in the discussion of primitiveaccumulation, he seems to treat expropriation as a largely 'extra-economic' process of coercion, so he never really analyses the originalconditions of market-dependence and market imperatives.
That is what Brenner set out to do, and his historical insights havewider theoretical implications, as he makes clear, for instance, byconstructing an explanation of the current global economy based onthose insights. His analysis of 'economic turbulence', which locates theoriginal mechanism of overproduction/overcapacity in the 'horizontal'relation of competition among capitals, starts from the premise that thedifferentia spedfica of capitalism is the market-dependence of alleconomic actors and of producers in particular. Only in capitalism doesaccess to the means of subsistence and self-reproduction depend on themarket, and, hence, only capitalism is subject to the imperatives ofcompetition.
But - and here is the critical point - market-dependence does not,in the first instance, derive from a 'vertical' relation between capital andlabour. The essential theoretical point, derived from his historical work,is two-fold: on the one hand, market-dependence and competition willgive rise to specialisation, accumulation and innovation even in theabsence of exploitation. On the other hand, in the absence ofcompetition, no form of exploitation will produce those effects.
Brenner's focus on the 'horizontal' relation among capitals in hisanalysis of the long downturn is therefore (notwithstanding theanonymous - though dare I say it has Perry Anderson written all overit? - editorial introduction to the NLR text) not a departure from hisearlier work and the centrality it accords to 'vertical' relations of class.On the contrary, the one follows directly from the other. His history ofthe origin of capitalism exposes, in historical materialist terms, thefoundations of competitive relations.
Brenner's history shows how economic units became market-dependent, in historically unprecedented ways, not because of therelation between capital and labour but before the widespreadproletarianisation of the work force and as a precondition to it. In thespecific property relations of early modern England, landlords and theirtenants became dependent on the market for their self-reproduction andhence subject to. the imperatives of competition and increasingproductivity, whether or not they employed wage-labour.
The crucial point here is that market-dependence, and theimperatives of competition that went with it, did not depend on thecomplete separation of the producers from the means of production.The essential determinant was separation from non-market access tothe means of subsistence, the means of self-reproduction. A tenantcould, for instance, remain in possession of land, but his survival andhis tenure could nonetheless be subject to market imperatives, whetherhe employed wage labour or was himself the direct producer. This kindof market-dependence was a cause of complete dispossession, a cause,not a result, of the expropriation of the English peasantry. People inpossession of land were driven off the land not just by direct coercionbut also by the operation of economic forces, the forces of anincreasingly competitive market. Let me emphasise, in case it is not
already blindingly obvious, that to detach these 'economic' forces ofcompetition from the relation between capital and labour is not todetach the 'economy' or the competitive market from social propertyrelations as such. On the contrary, the whole point is that they wererooted in, and emanated from, very specific property relations, veryspecific conditions of access to the means of subsistence and self-reproduction.
In other words, the 'so-called primitive accumulation' was achievednot only by acts of extra-economic coercion but, increasingly, also inresponse to economic imperatives, rooted in specific property relations,which drove out uncompetitive producers by the sheer force of marketpressures and/or provided larger, more powerful landowners with anew incentive to concentrate property by direct coercive means. So amass proletariat was the result, not the cause, of those marketimperatives.
The pressure to increase labour productivity, then, was not causedby the relation between capital and wage-labour. If anything, the reverseis true: the pressure to increase labour productivity brought about thegeneralised relation between capital and wage-labour which we nowregard as essential to capitalism. The capital/wage-labour relationcharacteristic of a mature industrial capitalism, once established,certainly increased the need to revolutionise the technical forces ofproduction, the pressure to intensify exploitation and with it working-class resistance and struggle. But we cannot understand the emergenceof that mature form of capitalism without understanding the imperativesthat preceded it. If we fail to acknowledge the imperatives rooted inproperty relations that preceded the mature relation between capital andlabour, weare, for instance, reduced to talking about the 'industrialrevolution' as an essentially technical process, a process of'industrialisation' rather than a process of capitalist development.
At any rate, English 'agrarian capitalism', as described by Brenner,not only reveals the historical preconditions of the capitalist relationbetween capital and labour. It also demonstrates how the market-dependence of producers, with or without wage-labour, can subjectthem to the imperatives of competition. This provides at least ahistorical reason for thinking that we miss something fundamentallyimportant about market-dependence, market imperatives, and capitalistcompetition if we fail to recognise the ways in which they are notconnected to the relation with wage-labour, as well as the ways in whichthey are. The fact that market-dependence and competition precededproletarianisation tells us something about the relations of competitionand their autonomy from the relations between capital and labour. Itmeans that producers and possessors of the means of production, whoare not themselves wage-labourers, can be market-dependent withoutemploying wage-labour. This clearly has implications for the pressuresthat affect capital even abstracted from its relation to wage-labour.
But I want to go beyond that claim. The fact that market-dependence can exist without complete dispossession of the directproducers has other implications. For instance, it tells us somethingabout the impossibility of so-called market socialism. I think marketsocialism is impossible - I think the term market socialism is acontradiction in terms - because, even in the absence of a class divisionbetween capital and labour, even if the means of production arereturned to the direct producers, as long as the market regulates theeconomy there will always be imperatives of accumulation andcompetition. Once the market becomes an economic 'discipline' or'regulator', which requires that producers remain market-dependent,even workers who own the means of production, individually orcollectively, will be forced to respond to the market's imperatives - tocompete and accumulate, to exploit themselves, and to let so-called'uncompetitive' enterprises and their workers go under. (Marx, by theway, suggested just this possibility in a discussion of workers'cooperatives and how they would be self-exploiting in the presence. ofmarket imperatives.) To the extent that these competitive pressuresdemand the intensification of labour to maximise labour productivity,hierarchical relations in the process of production will be generatedeven in the absence of vertical relations between classes. And it evenseems likely that the end result would be to reproduce the verticalrelations of class. Just as market imperatives expropriated directproducers in the early days of capitalism, so they could have similareffects in 'market socialism'.
To sum up: we have to acknowledge that market-dependence andmarket imperatives existed before direct producers were expropriated.And we also have to acknowledge that market-dependence and marketimperatives could exist even if workers were reconnected with themeans of production ~ in other words, even in the absence ofa verticalrelation between capital and labour.
The point here is obviously not - or not only. - that the deductionfrom the relation between capital and living labour cannot provide, andis not meant to, a historical explanation of the origin of capitalism. Thepoint is that - or also that - it does not, and is not meant to, find theirreducible source of the imperative to increase labour productivity.
So it is not enough to say that the primacy Brenner gives tocompetition as a relation among capitals is contrary to Marx's owninsistence that competition does not cause capitalism's laws of motionbut is simply their executor or their external manifestation in themovements of individual capitals. The point is that no other social formhas laws of motion that work through the mechanisms of competition.No other social form is subject to the imperatives of accumulation andinnovation, which are driven by competition. And competition is themechanism of capitalism's basic laws of motion because, in capitalism,as in no other system, the irreducible condition of access to the meansof self-reproduction is market-dependence and subjection to market
imperatives. We cannot even understand capital's perennial efforts tocircumvent competition without taking account of that irreduciblecondition of market-dependence and the competitive imperatives thatgo with it.2
Competition plays a central role in capitalist accumulation becausecapitalism is, in its essence, a system of market-dependence, a system inwhich the sphere of circulation is directly implicated in the sphere ofproduction and in relations of exploitation as it is in no other mode ofproduction. A Marxist theory of competition must, in other words, takeaccount of the fact that market-dependence is capital's ultimatecondition of existence, and that market-dependence is historically andcausally prior to the relation between capital and living labour.
This does not mean, as Brenner's critics seem to think it does, thatclass struggle has been relegated to the margins of contemporary historyand politics. On the contrary, his analysis represents a powerful case infavour of militant class struggle. But that is another story.3
Wood, Ellen 1999, 'The Politics of Capitalism', Monthly Review. 51, 4:12-26.
2 Wood 1999.3 Wood 1999.
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