Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Bondage, Vestiges and Capitalism

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Following paragraphs are taken from a review that I wrote for Labour File in 2008:

It is important to understand Marx’s conception of “wage slavery” here. The usage of this phrase was not at all allegorical or rhetorical, as many tend to believe. It conceptualised the unfreedom or coercion inherent in the dual freedom of labour (from physical compulsion and from the means of production). On one hand, this dual freedom creates an ambience that compels a labourer to sell his/her labour power. On the other hand, once labour power is sold for a period, the labourer has no control over its expenditure for that duration. It should be remembered though the custom is to pay the wages after labour-power is exercised, wages are, in fact, already advanced prior to the labour process not only for the purpose of records, but also as capital required for production – i.e., it constitutes variable capital that is required to buy labour-power and put it to work. In the circuit of capital given below, Money (M) is advanced to buy Means of Production (MP) and Labour Power (LP) before Production (P) can take place.

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In fact, “whether money serves as a means of purchase or a means of payment, this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”.(Karl Marx, Capital, Penguin, pp. 279) As “a means of purchase” money is advanced to the sellers of labour power prior to production, while as “a means of payment”, it remains as the worker’s “credit to the capitalist” until production is completed to be paid as wages afterwards. Functionally it hardly makes any difference – “this does not alter the nature of the exchange of commodities”. And both institutionalise labour vulnerabilities in their own way – advance (partial or whole) can easily be transformed into debt, creating liabilities that shape bondage, while wages can be delayed or even lost (when the capitalist goes bankrupt). In fact, the delay in receiving wages is a significant reason for indebtedness among workers. If in Marx’s England debt played a part in tying the worker more to a shop as a consumer, or to sustain the “truck system”, it can instigate other systems, too, to institute labour vulnerabilities. Ultimately the purpose is to increase these vulnerabilities and thus, reproduce the hegemony of capital over labour. The report remarkably succeeds in showing how this is done in various parts of India through debt bondage.

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Here are some more observations that I made during that time:

A. The process of proletarianisation to which the majority is subjugated, not the number of ‘ideal’ proletarians or wageworkers, defines capitalism. The actualisation of this process – and thus the degrees of proletarianisation or the “dual freedom of labour” differs according to the concrete contexts defined by the needs of capital and class struggle. More technically, this process is a long thread (not necessarily historical) between the formal subsumption to the actual subsumption of labour by capital – its two ends. At various junctures archaic unfreedom, like slavery, which generally characterised pre-capitalism is formally adopted (more aptly, exapted as explained in B) and transformed according to the conjunctural needs of capitalist accumulation. If we don’t recognise this processual aspect of capitalism, we will be lost in the miasma of overproduced forms and appearances in capitalism.

B. Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of exaptation, I believe, is very useful in understanding the dialectical internalisation of “vestiges” by new stages in evolution – both biological and social. Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba in their 1982 paper defines exaptation as (i) “a character, previously shaped by natural selection for a particular function (an adaptation), is coopted for a new use”; and, (ii) “a character whose origin cannot be ascribed to the direct action of natural selection (a nonaptation), is coopted for a current use”. This concept allows us to comprehend the reproduction of “vestiges” as a process internal to the new stage in development, not as something hindering the ‘complete’ realisation of the new stage.

C. The “purist” idea that “vestiges” obstruct (not shape or contextualise) capitalist development has for a long time informed the theory and practice of Marxism in the so-called third world countries – engaging the revolutionaries in the fruitless exercise of fighting the “vestiges” before taking on the basic system, thus investing their revolutionary vigour in the reformist project of the capitalist development. It is interesting to note that this is not only true about the “Leninists” and “Maoists”, as some “anti-Leninists” allege. Many anti-Leninists and anti-Maoists present more vehement denial of the feasibility of any socialist project in “backward” countries. Their conceptualistion of revolution not only goes against the thesis of “revolution in permanence” – “the downfall of all the privileged classes, and the subjection of these classes to the dictatorship of the proletariat by maintaining the revolution in permanence until the realisation of Communism, which is the final form of organisation of human society” – but is also an unconscious reinforcement of the notion of “socialism in one country”, which they profess to hate.

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm

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