Historical stereotypes and disjunctures

[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

On Jairus Banaji’s response to Arundhati Roy

One point that interests me in Jairus Banaji’s post in Kafila and the subsequent debate on the post is his focus on labour as the centre of the movement. I think this focus is fundamental in order to ground various local/localised struggles in political economy (or rather in its critique) and to understand the underlying interconnections between them (whether the leadership of these struggles understand them in this manner is immaterial – did not Marx appreciate Paris Commune even when Blanquists were in hegemony?).

Marx’s conceptualisation of labour and of capital-labour relations is rich enough to provide tools for comprehending various struggles against capitalist accumulation (both primitive and normal). He understood subsumption of labour by capital as a process (not some particular fixed states), which starts from being formal to real – from a stage where labour is subsumed through non-capitalist “forms” of exploitation to the actual subsumption in “pure” wage-labour form. Between these two poles, subsumption can take a plethora of forms. Who knows better than Jairus that unwaged labour (reproductive or otherwise) is also part of the capitalist subsumption of labour.

So how do we understand tribals and “peasants” struggles against land and resource alienation within this framework? They are essentially fighting against capitalist efforts to alienate them from their resources, which create (or, better, reproduce) conditions for the subsumption of their labour by capital. Whether they will become wage labourers is not at all essential; if they are not employed, or even employable, they still remain labourers as part of the reserve army of proletarians or surplus population (stagnant, latent and floating) reproducing themselves on their small pieces of land, or by food gathering (in forests or trash cans). Their struggle, in a Marxist sense, can be understood as part of the anti-systemic working class struggle to control the conditions of production and, I stress, reproduction too.

Now coming to the forms of struggle (armed, unarmed, etc), I think we as Marxists (of all hues and colours) cannot act as idealists, by considering only those movements as working class movements or anti-capitalist movements, which are projected in our idioms, and are developing according to our framework of strategic-building. The working class can throw diverse forms of struggles according to its internal constituents or class composition. However, one must critique forms in order to show the limitations and problems of those forms, in order to avoid the problem of overgeneralisation of particular forms, and also in order to undertake the revolutionary task of generalisation seriously, which essentially means to see a revolutionary building up against capitalism within and through all forms of working-class struggles.