Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Historical stereotypes and disjunctures

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[L]ate antiquity throws up a social formation combining aristocratic dominance with free labour on a model that conforms to none of the historical stereotypes distinguishing the classical from the medieval and modern worlds (aristocrats + slaves, aristocrats + serfs, capitalists + wage-labourers). These of course have always been extremely general formulations that seek to sum up the economic structure of different historical periods in terms of an essential or uniquely pervasive set of relations. But hired labourers were used on an extensive scale by the English estates of the thirteenth century; slaves were used by agrarian capitalists down to the late nineteenth century; and serfs, like slaves, could also be deployed in industrial production. These disjunctures complicate the issue of a scholarly understanding of the possible sophistication of ancient economic behaviour, because they rule out the simplistic idea that the dynamic which drives an economic system is given primarily in terms of the organization of labour, i.e. that the ‘forms of exploitation’ of labour determine the ‘relations of production’, and to form some assessment of the nature of aristocratic activity the issue of the nature of the labour force is thus largely irrelevant.”

Jairus Banaji, AGRARIAN CHANGE IN LATE ANTIQUITY, OUP, 2001, pp 217-218

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 20, 2010 at 2:26 am

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