Within the first pages of The Time Machine (1895), H. G. Wells quickens the conceptual engine of his plot by explaining that objects exist not merely in three familiar spatial dimensions but in time, as persisting entities. “‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveler proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.’” When the global reach of capitalism appears to be infinite it is of incredible political importance to recognize its temporal dimension—to historicize it and, in doing so, to realize its relative brevity and its ubiquitous contestation by other social forms. In The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002) Ellen Meiksins Wood exhorts us, “Thinking about future alternatives to capitalism requires us to think about alternative conceptions of its past.” Wherever we look—past, present, future—the capitalist has ventured and asserted a claim. Anti-capitalists must be time-travelers themselves, resisting and reclaiming the capitalist’s historiographical expropriations.
Capitalism is popularly represented and understood as trans-historical, a mode of social being whose “natural” development was long frustrated by backward, restrictive, and parochial customs or institutions—the “fetters of the old cultural constraints and political parasitism.” In his introduction to The Ellen Meiksins Wood Reader, a selection of article and book excerpts synthesized into eight linear chapters (followed by a detailed bibliography), Larry Patriquin observes, “Capitalism’s origins are simply taken for granted. Capitalism, at least in some embryonic form, is deemed to have always existed, in all forms of trade, awaiting the right circumstances to reach maturity.” In contrast and as a corollary, communism is now widely conceived of within (and as) its latest and perhaps briefest phase, roughly our last quarter millennium, its deep historical and anthropological roots severed. David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) provides a good example. Considering the scope of its subject matter we cannot be surprised that this important work makes a promise that it cannot fulfill; but much is deliberately put beyond its bounds. Tidily bookended between 1789 and 1989, The Red Flag, Priestland explains, “starts with the French Revolution, for it is here that we can identify, for the first time, the main elements of Communist politics, though they were yet to be successfully combined.” Despite this claim (itself qualified), Priestland confines his analysis of the French Revolution to a 15-page “prologue.” While capitalism, latent or developed, extends in every direction, neutralizing and digesting all forms of social interaction and material practice, communism would appear to begin in the not-too-distant early 19th century.
A good historical materialist, Ellen Meiksins Wood (hereafter EMW) understands the ideological force of such periodizing. “How we understand the history of capitalism,” she urges, “has a great effect on how we understand the thing itself.” Capitalism, she reveals, is not only a late and highly contingent social formation by which surplus labor is extracted from direct producers. Hardly bourgeois, the capitalist arose in the agrarian countryside of the one European nation that enjoyed centralized government and relative peace among the landowning nobility: England. Sui generis, the capitalist must not be carelessly conflated with the merchant who buys cheap and sells dear, or with the slave owner, colonist, entrepreneur, investor, hunter-gatherer, naturalist, banker, thrifty peasant, miser, or rationalist. In the early modern period, slavery, international trade, banking, joint-stock companies, scientific innovation, and colonization all coexisted with this economic experiment in what EMW calls extraction by “purely ‘economic’ means”—but none of these categories is coextensive with capitalism.
Nonetheless, the classical political economists and other ideologists, EMW shows, will find capitalism, or its germs, in every age and facet of human behavior. EMW denaturalizes capitalism by loosening its ideological grip on all aspects of society, decoupling it from commonly linked ideas, activities, and epochs that are readily, sometimes automatically, associated with and ascribed to it. For example, despite Roman legal advancement of private property, she states, “Rome was not a capitalist society.” Similarly, the European absolutist state “owed more to its precapitalist antecedents than to an emerging capitalist economy.” Moving into the related sphere of early modern intellectual production, EMW argues, “Much of the Enlightenment project belongs to a distinctly non-capitalist—not just pre-capitalist—society … to a social form that is not just a transitional point on the way to capitalism, but an alternative route out of feudalism,” provoking us to reject the conflation of 17th– and 18th-century materialist philosophy (so essential to dialectical Marxism) with patriarchy, Western anthropocentricism, voracious accumulation, and intellectual hubris.
The only “timeless” aspect of capitalism is that it is, like other caste systems, constituted by unequal relations of production that enable an elite appropriating class to extract the surplus labor from propertyless direct producers. There is, however, a key distinction to be made between capitalist and other forms. “Throughout most of history,” she explains, “the central issues in class-struggle have been surplus-extraction and appropriation, not production”—and in that space the capitalist saw an opportunity. Capitalism superimposes the refinements of technical efficiency and the rigor of profit maximization on surplus extraction, largely replacing the blunt extra-economic methods associated with the corvée or slavery (which the capitalist vehemently disavows). The precise and distinctive mechanism of appropriation “takes place in the ‘economic’ sphere by ‘economic’ means” that qualitatively enhance productivity:
Direct “extra-economic” pressure or overt coercion are, in principle, unnecessary to compel the expropriated labourer to give up surplus-labour. Although the coercive force of the “political” sphere is ultimately necessary to sustain private property and the power of appropriation, economic need supplies the immediate compulsion forcing the worker to transfer surplus-labour to the capitalist in order to gain access to the means of production.
The juridical-political coercion that would invoke the spectre of the feudal landlord demanding his rent is hereby displaced and the exploitation effectively mystified, since here the relations between appropriator and producer (a wage-laborer, not a bondsman) are understood as legally contracted and free.
But truly freer societies existed long ago, EMW reminds us. Athens figures prominently in her work, for it is one of the best-documented of earlier cultures that approximates the true freedom, unmediated political agency, and high quality of life to be won with the overthrow of socio-economic hierarchies. Athenian citizenship was restricted to men and was therefore only a trial in universal emancipation, but all Athenian citizens including peasant and craftsman lived by a robust and self-consistent notion of human equality. Moreover, they were neither servile nor dependent because they were free
from the depredations of Hesiod’s “gift-devouring” lords, using jurisdictional powers to milk the peasantry; or from the direct coercion of the Spartan ruling-class, exploiting helots by means of what amounted to a military occupation; or from the feudal obligations of the medieval peasant, subject to the military and jurisdictional powers of the lords; or from the taxation of European absolutism, in which public office was a primary instrument of private appropriation; and so on.
“Political equality,” EMW continues, “not only co-existed with, but substantially modified socio-economic inequality, and democracy was more substantive than ‘formal’”—as, by contrast, it necessarily must be within modern capitalist democracy. (It’s worth pointing out that to make even relative claims about the substance of Athenian democracy is a huge blow to capitalists’ exceptionalist pretensions about progress and liberality.)
The Athenian “philosophical” sector (Plato foremost) responded energetically to the threat of the demos, producing potent propaganda about the harms of such popular participation (i.e., “mob rule”) by insisting on a biopolitics of inherent capacities and roles, and on the spiritual degradation of the very manual labor on which the community depended. As I. F. Stone put it in The Trial of Socrates, “In the fourth century [BCE] he [Plato] carried on the same intellectual assault against Athenian freedom and democracy that his master [Socrates] had launched in the fifth.” Despite his empiricism, here Aristotle was little better. Their combined efforts can be linked with those of modern scholars whose liberalism holds no court with Plato’s undisguised snobbery but who seek to undermine the Athenian social achievement by emphasizing the importance of slavery within it. EMW reveals, however, that Athenian slavery, not so extensive as thought, correlates to the general enfranchisement of the working majority only insofar as elites had little economic hold over producers, not because the citizen-workers employed slaves themselves.
In this and other regards EMW’s research substantiates Alain Badiou’s ongoing admonition that we widen our outlook on the historical actualities and future possibilities of a society without exploitation and injustice. In his 2008 essay “The Communist Hypothesis,” Badiou exhorts us to get such a perspective in part by recognizing the overriding “logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity,” which “is not inevitable; it can be overcome.” In different forms most societies have desired, theorized, and sometimes even realized, albeit imperfectly, the overthrow of private property, the abolition of caste, and the negation of the ugly vicissitudes of life under coerced labor, bonded or contracted. Badiou continues:
As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts—the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer—might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.”
Badiou’s insistence here on the Idea is deeply dialectical—think not Plato but Ernst Bloch—and perfectly complements EMW’s historical work. Social structures and struggles are mediated by but never reducible to material conditions: utopia, will, negation, imagination, and memory play a part. In various, limited, but consistently substantive forms, the commons have in fact always existed, providing a central locus for revolutionary (i.e., fully emancipatory) struggle. And a longer, deeper story of communism (a term that EMW does not use herself) might free us from the shadow of our too-recent Soviet or anticolonial past, embattled as it was with an ascendant capitalism. A fuller history might also allow us, here and now, to identify the communist “rudiment” of social movements, diachronic and synchronic, beyond the Western techno-industrial matrix; to integrate the agencies of non-capitalist societies, of non-human forms of life, and of communities functioning outside the twisted logic of labor itself; in short, to enrich the liberatory argument by extending communism’s scope and plasticity.
The savvy capitalist seized the very ideas of freedom, virtue, and equality for himself and turned them on their heads. He understood that the seigneur’s outright denial of equality before the law, his privilege and social exclusiveness, undermined his own political power. The capitalist’s depredations are therefore more discreet, confined to labor relations and economic structures, with the consequence that the universal struggle against hierarchy per se has faltered, lost its moral-philosophical force—a point to which EMW alludes. Class conflict has become mere class struggle, reconciled to the socio-economic system. In the contemporary world, she writes, whereas
the most revolutionary movements have tended to be those in which militantly anti-capitalist working-class struggles have been grafted on to pre-capitalist struggles, … industrial organization and disputes over the terms and conditions of work overtook political movements and struggles…. A preoccupation with issues directly generated by capitalism must, in the end, be the strength of such movements as much as it often seems to be their weakness. The ancien régime is, after all, no longer available as a major target of emancipatory struggle.
Within that great break separating the extra-economic grip of the feudal lord from the “purely economic” mechanism of the capitalist there is the crucial link of ideology. EMW’s work may help to remind us of the dialectical connection between monumental social transformation and the conception adequate to it. To this end the 21st-century revolutionary must not just imagine but remember.
Reviewed by Carl Grey Martin
Department of English & Communications