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Genealogies of Globalisation: Unpacking the 'Universal' History of Capital

This essay is a preliminary attempt to revisit the history of capital and capitalism with a view to unravelling its supposedly universal character and so-called historical inevitability. With this aim, it re-reads Marx as a critic and historian of capital, and finds in him and his legatees a continuing tension between the belief in capital's universality and its actual failure-to-be in most of the world. This assumption of capital's inevitability continues unshaken even when it is clear that short of state elites' conscious intervention, capitalism just does not seem to take hold.

Genealogies of Globalisation: Unpacking the ‘Universal’ History of Capital


Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071049technologies and the like) but also making them answerable tolocal communities for their air, water and other resources. It isimportant to keep in mind that both these costs have been imposedon capital accumulation by the strength of movements – in onecase the labour movement (and the post-war attraction of the ideaof socialism); in the other case, the powerful ecological move-ments that have made the states enact laws and take action.And so it transpires, capital is not the sovereign, all-powerfulentity that we think it is. It has acted on each of these occasionsunder pressure from the labour, environment and other move-ments. Moreover, its move to relocate operations in the thirdworld – where there is no infrastructure (abysmal power situation,bad roads), interfering governments and where everything be-comes easily politicised – is primarily a result of its crisis. Itis fugitive capital that has run away from one part of the world.Yet, such is our conditioning as victims that we fail to see thestrengths of the movements that challenge capital. The reasonthat makes the LF government of West Bengal or the communistgovernment of China woo capital and that makes western trade/labour unions demand universal labour standards and take wagecuts, really happens to be the same: The complete dependenceof labour on capital. And yet, this dependence is not a naturalfact; nor is it something ordained by something called History(with a capital H).Marxists have celebrated the demise of the old world and thecomplete victory of capitalism. This means that all other waysof life and modes of living are destroyed, installing capital asthe only form of property (ownership) – thus also as the onlyemployer. The only other form of ownership that has been thoughtabout – state ownership – is of course a model that has cometo be in serious crisis, apart from being implicated in totalitarianpolitical structures. The state as owner and employer is, also forvery sound economic reasons, not a viable proposition. However,from our point of view, the really relevant point here is the firstone: what is it that authorises (or legitimises) such a celebrationof the destruction of all other ways of life and modes of beingand the reduction of the entire world to the logic of wage slavery?The answer to this question provided by both neo-liberals andMarxists is very much the same: it lies in the idea of historicalinevitability, the idea that there is a Universal History that hasalready played itself out in the west which we cannot but repeathere. We might be prepared now to argue that the history ofmodernity is not one; that there are alternative trajectories, indeedalternative modernities but when it comes to the history ofcapitalism, we are still overpowered by this idea, thanks in nosmall measure to Marx himself, the chief historian and theoristof capitalism. That is an idea I wish to unpack here. Not the leastbecause, just when Marxists thought they had defeated theNarodniks, the ghost of Narodism would begin to track them andfollow them, right into the 21st century – arising now withinthe Marxist or socialist universe itself.Primitive Accumulation and the Law of History?Since the onset of globalisation, a lot of writings by Marxistshave rehearsed and cited many times over, the celebrated passagesfrom the Communist Manifesto, where Marx and Engels talkabout the “revolutionary” role of capital in exhilarated terms.Recall those famous passages where they talk of “all that is holyis profaned” and “all that is solid melts into air”; the passagewhere they claim that the “bourgeoisie cannot live withoutconstantly revolutionising the means of production” and of“building a world in its own image”. The triumphalism of a certain19th century understanding of capitalism that sees the wholeworld being rapidly modernised in the same way as was westernEurope, is palpably evident in these passages. And this is whathas been canonised as Marxist orthodoxy over the last centuryand a half or more. However, as we know today, at least somefragments of an alternative reading of this history are also availablein Marx. Let us follow that alternative reading for a while inorder to lay out the contours of our argument.In this alternative reading, let us underline, the rise of capitalismis not the result of an inexorable historical law of Progress thatmust be celebrated. Marx opens his discussion of primitiveaccumulation, in the last section of Capital, Vol I, by assertingthat the origins of capitalist private property lie in “conquest,enslavement, robbery, murder”.He describes the process of primitive accumulation as “(T)heprocess…that clears the way for the capitalist system… [and]takes away from the labourer the possession of the means ofproduction”, as “a process that transforms, on the one hand, thesocial means of subsistence and of production into capital, onthe other, the immediate producers into wage-labourers.”This so-called primitive accumulation, he asserts, is nothingelse than the historical process of divorcing the producer fromthe means of production. Marx recognises that while this processfrees the serfs “from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds”,it simultaneously produces this new form of enslavement anddispossession. He pours scorn over “our bourgeois historians”who recognise only the emancipatory side of this process. In otherwords, even when he sees the emancipatory dimensions of Progressand Development, his moral revulsion against the violence andinjustice of this process remains apparent. Thus his indignation:“the history of their expropriation is written in the annals ofmankind in letters of blood and fire.”In the rest of the discussion, Marx takes up the specific caseof England for discussion. It is important that through this readingof English history, he lays bare the way in which capitalism cameto its own through the forcible dispossession of the erstwhilepeasant communities. Unfortunately, once again, he universalisesthat process with disastrous consequences but let us leave thataside for the time being. He traces the history of the usurpationof common lands first by individual feudal lords through the late15th and early 16th centuries. The 18th century marks a fun-damental change in the process, in Marx’s perception. While the15th and 16th centuries saw the process being carried on throughindividual acts of violence, the “advance made by the 18th centuryshows itself in this, that the law itself becomes the instrumentof the theft of the people’s land.” This is embodied in the actsof parliament for the enclosure of the commons.By the time we reach the 19th century, he remarks, “the verymemory of the connection between the agricultural labourer andthe communal property had vanished.” The so-called “clearingofestates” is then described by him as the “last process of wholesaleexpropriation of the agricultural population from the soil.”There is a ring of the surreal as one feels in his reflectionson19th century England the reverberations of 21st century Bengal:“To say nothing of more recent times, have the agriculturalpopulation received a farthing of compensation for the 35,11,770acres of common land which between 1801 and 1831 were stolenfrom them and by parliamentary devices presented to the land-lords by the landlords?”Let us underline that the purpose of this exercise of readingMarx and his rendition of English history is not meant to uncoversome ostensible Universal History in operation. On the contrary,it is to underline that once presented as Universal History by
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071050Marx and his generation, it becomes a self-fulfilling logic.Thereafter, Marxists can only act in one way that is commensuratewith this logic; every other way is deemed to be reactionary andagainst the logic of History. What we will need to excavate fromthe debris of the political practice of the past two centuries isthe manner in which the belief in a certain logic of History,operating as scientific knowledge, already laid out the contourswithin which one could act.Marx also goes on to discuss the ways in which, from the endof the 15th century onwards, bloody legislations were enactedto keep the displaced population in check. The populationwhichwas rendered destitute was “disciplined and normalised”,to use a Foucauldian expression, through these laws. The “free”proletariat, created by the “forcible expropriation of the peoplefrom the soil”, which “could not be absorbed by the nascentmanufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world”, was turned“en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly frominclination, in most cases from the stress of circumstances”.Marx and the Crisis of Universal HistoryMarx certainly cannot be exonerated from the responsibilityof having produced the Universal History of capitalism that weare, in a sense, reeling under. However, this was only one sideof Marx. Already in 1853, while he was working on and producingthis universal history, he already found himself caught in a deepbind – that of explaining the irreducible heterogeneity of theworld in his time. Following Eric Hobsbawm’s interpretation oftheGrundrisse (1857-58), as outlining a “non-consecutive” mapof historical development that allowed for “three or four alter-native routes out of primitive communal systems”, Teodor Shaninsuggests that Marx was “already aware” of the difficulties of thisuniversalism and had therefore “worked out and put to useconcepts of Oriental Despotism and of the Asiatic Mode ofProduction” (AMP).6Of course, these were conceptual devicesof trying to account for the heterogeneity of “past”, “pre-capitalist” forms. In the end, Marx’s position at this time wouldbe to argue that capitalism would, as the first truly universalsystem, would bring in these “societies without history” into theorbit of world history. The future was still one – all societiesinevitably moving inexorably towards the Telos, the final goal.The very concepts of oriental despotism and the AsiaticModeofproduction refer back to a Eurocentric and in somewaysan Asian-exceptionalist view of History. The notions oftime and world history that were dominant and which he receivedfrom Hegel, provided an excellent way out of the problem posedby this irreducible heterogeneity, by suggesting that these so-cieties represented “past forms” that were to soon go out ofexistence.More to the point is the strange episode of Marx’s encounterwith the Russian peasant communes first through some fortuitouscircumstances and then more strongly through Vera Zasulich andthe Russian Marxists. For these Marxists were involved in afurious debate with the Narodniks who did not merely celebratethese past forms, but as Karat rightly concedes, posed the questionof their becoming the basis of a socialist future. Teodor Shaninremarks that already in the Grundrisse, Marx had shown indi-cations of taking peasant agriculture and “communal landownership” in “pre-capitalist modes of production” and the problemof “uneven development” seriously (14-15). What is cruciallyimportant is that this quest was not resolved in one fell swoop.It preoccupied him more and more and in 1870-71, he startedlearning Russian and immersed himself into a study of the Russiansocial formation, including the writings of such Narodniktheorists such as Chernyshevskii and others like Alexander Herzen.Shanin remarks that “what followed was a long silence…Marxdid not publish anything substantial until his death” (7). This,we might underline, was also the period of his intensive studyof India and other oriental societies.7It was in this frame of mind, 10 years into his studies, thathe received in 1881, a letter from Vera Zasulich, a formerNarodnik turned Marxist. As mentioned earlier, this group ofMarxists was engaged in a serious controversy with the Narodniksover the inevitability of capitalism in Russia and of the signi-ficance of the peasant communes to the socialist project. Zasulichtherefore wrote to Marx seeking his opinion on the matter.Japanese scholar Haruki Wada has unearthed the entire sequenceof events around this episode.8 Marx wrote four drafts of a replyto Zasulich but ended up not sending any. Finally, after his death,Engels sent the fourth draft to the Emancipation of Labour Groupto which Zasulich belonged and which was led among others,by Plekhanov and P B Axelrod. The letter was never published,even though after as long as seven months, they replied to Engelsthat they would, now that the letter had been translated intoRussian. All of Engels’ efforts went in vain. In 1911, they werediscovered by D B Riazanov, who deciphered it with the helpof Bukharin but then, once again they were left unpublished. In1923, they were published by B I Nikolaevskii, a Menshevik inexile. Once it was published, it was immediately brought out thatvery year by Riazanov, where he prefaced it with a remark that“the drafts merely exemplified a decline in Marx’s scholasticcapability”. It was the Socialist-Revolutionaries who enthusias-tically picked it up as evidence that “on the question of the futureof the peasant communes, Marx was definitely on the side ofPopulism” [Wada 1983: 41-42].Wada notes, in this context, that even at the time of thepublication of Volume I of Capital, Marx’s attitude towardsRussian populism and the peasant communes was utterly nega-tive. He viewed Herzen’s contention that the peasant communewas unique to the Slavic world, as simply laughable, accordingto Wada [Wada 1983: 43]. He cites Marx as saying that“Everything, to the minutest details, is completely the same asin the ancient Germanic community…” By the time the Frenchedition of Capital was published in 1875, however, Wada notesthat there was an interesting change. In this edition, in chapter26,“The Secret of Primitive Accumulation” Marx struck out apassage about the expropriation of the agricultural producerswhich gave a sense of a more universal history and in its steadwrote: “It has been accomplished in final form only in England…butall other countries of Western Europe are going through the samemovement”. Thus, Wada suggests, Marx allowed for the pos-sibility that eastern Europe and Russia might not be followingthe same trajectory (ibid: 49).Retarded Capitalism?It is in the 1960s and 1970s that this theme of capitalism inthe peripheries or the third world comes to the fore and the debateon the AMP is resumed. Unfortunately, the entire story of thisepisode was eventually brought to light in English much later.The 1960s debate, except in Japan, remained by and large untouchedby the knowledge of this important engagement. Thus forinstance,Susanne D Mueller could argue in the Socialist Registeras late as in 1980, writing on ‘Retarded Capitalism in Tanzania’,
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071051that it was “reactionary utopianism of Russia’s Narodniks” thatLenin had effectively demolished a hundred years ago, that wasbeing “institutionalised” and “labelled as socialism” by Nyerere.9It is interesting that Mueller’s critique of Tanzanian “socialism”was that the state, in the name of socialism, was acting “to forestallthe development of a bourgeoisie and a proletariat by basingaccumulation on the expansion of middle-peasant householdproduction” [Mueller 1980: 203]. Even more interesting is herassertion (which she underlines by citing another Marxist scholarof Africa, M P Cowen) that “by forestalling ‘the direct separationof household producers from their means of production’, the statehas ‘fettered the accumulation of indigenous capital withinsmallholding production’” (ibid: 203). Lest we miss the point,it should be underlined that what is being lamented here isprecisely the attempt to preserve the property of the peasantry,even if that meant “fettering accumulation” within “smallholdingproduction”. This reading of Tanzania’s specific history is predi-cated upon a desire for the replay of European history and isclearly unable to ask the question as to what the Tanzanianleadership might have been doing with the idea of socialism. Inclaiming that “capitalism, exploitation, classes and class struggle”were “a unique product of Western colonialism” (quoted in ibid:206), was Nyerere possibly trying to do something else – sayargue that the bourgeois notion of property was really notcommensurate with notions of property, or presumably the socio-political conditions extant in Africa? Could his insistence thatself-reliance, via a strengthening of the “already socialistic”traditional economy have been something more than merely“cultural” in a narrow sense?10Was his insistence and Mueller’sattempt to draw a parallel with the Narodniks, ironically, not veryfar off the mark, in that case? One could read similar anxietiesinto the experiments undertaken in China under Mao Zedong,which attempted to find a balance between “ten major relation-ships”, which included most centrally, that between agricultureand industry. The slogan of “walking on two legs”, in retrospect,was an attempt to avoid the violent decimation of agricultureand populations dependent on it. Those experiments may havefailed, sometimes disastrously, but they nevertheless signal ina direction that “scientifically” inclined Marxists have tended toignore. Much like Chernyshevskii who argued that Russia couldbenefit from the “relative advantages of its backwardness”, Maotoo emphasised that the fact that the Chinese people were “poorand blank” could be to China’s advantage. Hence his argument,much like that of the Narodniks’, that China could avoid thecapitalist path and pass on to socialism directly. It is true thatthe attempts to build steel furnaces in backyards in villages,undertaken during the Great Leap Forward, were completelymisplaced and ended up as a disaster. However, the logic of thatattempt was clearly to find a more decentralised model of de-velopment, and one where the peasants themselves would becomecapitalists – a bit like Nyerere’s Tanzania. It is also very easyto dismiss the violent and genocidal Pol Pot regime withoutfurther ado but the question that the Cambodian tragedy posestoo may linger for a very long time. For, once again the desireto inscribe “socialism” (that is, anti-capitalism, embodied in theabolition of money and market relations) in ancient Khmer gloryseems to underline another violent rejection of bourgeois propertyrelations. All these instances are indicative of the fact that theso-called universal history of capital and its self-fulfilling logicmay have produced anti-capitalism in more forms than werecognise; they are also indicative of the fact that this logic maynot be all that universal after all.We also know that during the 1960s and 1970s, there wasanother very significant debate that raged among Marxists – thedebate on “underdevelopment”, that argued from within a Marxistuniverse that capitalism does not necessarily produce capitalismand development everywhere. The name of Andre Gunder Frankis associated with the position that “underdevelopment” in theperipheries was not simply a “lack” of development; that it wasrather the product of “development” in the centre/metropolises.Undoubtedly, in those debates, there was a tone of lament in thefact that capitalist development in the countries in the peripherycould not take off or was arrested due to structural connectionswith the metropolises. But that is precisely the point that interestsus here: Capitalist development did not simply emerge every-where out of some inexorable law of history. Even a few centuriesof colonial expansion could not really succeed in implanting iteverywhere in the world, though colonisation did fundamentallyalter the logic of integration of colonised economies into theso-called “world economy”.More recent historians of capitalism have thus made the pointthat “the transition [from pre-capitalist forms to capitalism] istoo long to have any real meaning as a transition…” [Chalcraft2005]. They recall the early critiques by Ernesto Laclau andRobert Brenner of Andre Gunder Frank and Wallerstein, whereLaclau, for instance, argued that “although capitalist relationsof exchange had been universalised across the globe since the16th century, capitalist relations of production were much moreunevenly distributed, having a far denser presence in the corethan in the periphery”. This problem of large parts of the world,deeply integrated and implicated into a world market and yetresistant to a transformation of the actual mode or organisationof capitalist production has dogged Marxist thought right fromMarx’s own time. We know that this problem was sought to beexplained through the distinction between “formal” subsumptionof labour under capital (e g, integration into the world market)and “real” subsumption (reorganisation of production alongcapitalist relations). The idea was used to argue that the wholeworld, once integrated into capitalist exchange relations, is alreadyirrevocably capitalist; it is thus a matter of time before this formalsubsumption is transformed into real subsumption. At one level,therefore this conceptual device helped to mask the very pro-vincial, western European origin of capitalism and produce itas a universal norm. More than three-fourths of the world, thatrefused to obey the supposed universal norm of capitalist de-velopment, nevertheless, remained an exception to be explained.If this was a way of understanding the “lack” of capitalistdevelopment in the so-called peripheries of the world-system,how exactly was development explained, where it did take place?We know that in many of the late-industrialising countries ofthe “periphery”, it was the state that built capitalism and virtuallyproduced a capitalist class. Here again, the project of buildingcapitalism was a project of a state elite that believed that wasthe only way to be in the modern world. To explain the rise ofstate capitalism in states like Brazil and South Korea, Marxistas well as non-Marxist scholars influenced by Marxism deployedthenotion of the “relative autonomy of the state” [Fox 1980; Amsden1990]. This “relative autonomy” was defined by EVKFitzgeraldin Brazil’s context as a “state’s capacity to take action againstthe interests of any one fraction of capital (or even of nationalcapital as a whole at any one point in time) in order to promotethe long-run survival and expansion of capitalism as a socialformation”.11Alice Amsden’s (1990) study of South Koreashows that were it not for the state, there would neither be
Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071052capitalism nor a bourgeoisie; it was the state that put the countryon the high road to capitalism. And we know today that wherethe “state” as such failed to spawn and develop capitalism,international financial institutions, especially the IMF and theWorld Bank have played that role of transplanting notions(andinstitutions) of property and market that are commensuratewith industrial capitalism. And yet, despite these direct interven-tions, not to speak of a few centuries of direct colonial rule,capitalism has not yet managed to entrench itself in large partsof the world.Decentring CapitalHowever, such an imagination continues to structure ourunderstanding of capitalism and its history till this day, ifonly because not enough has emerged so far by way ofproducingalternative histories of capitalism that put its rise inperspective. Concepts or formulations such as “retarded capi-talism”, “dependent capitalism” “arrested development”simultaneously produced capitalism as the norm and the historiesof the periphery as histories of Lack, in much the same way asour modernity is a history of Lack – always waiting to beincorporated into the “full-blooded bourgeois” order in order tobe delivered from their living hell. That the exception/s werespread over such a large part of the world was not of anyconsequence in reconsidering the premises of the theory itself.In fact, throughout the world, Marxists were debating about thepotentialities of capitalist development in their respective soci-eties before colonialism came and stunted that growth.It is interesting in this context, to revisit the well knownMauriceDobb-Paul Sweezy transition debate and find the latterinsisting that what Dobb refers to as the “classic” form offeudalism, would be better described as west European feudalism.It is also interesting to see that in this debate on the transition(origins of capitalism), we can see the difficulties encounteredby the protagonists in maintaining a logic of the evolution ofthe feudal mode into the capitalist mode of production. Sweezywrote: “The transition from feudalism to capitalism is thus nota single uninterrupted process – similar to the transition fromcapitalism to socialism – but is made up of two quite distinctphases which present radically different problems and requireto be analysed separately.”12We need to also remind ourselvesthat the concept of the mode of production became, in the practiceof Marxist theory, more and more difficult to sustain, preciselyfor the reasons outlined by Sweezy and not quite contested byDobb himself, namely, the prolonged coexistence of different“modes” within the same time-space. Thus was invented theconcept of the social formation – the actually existing form thatexpressed an articulation of more than one mode of production.What Sweezy and Dobb agree was a two-century long transitionin western Europe, would appear to be an endless one, if onewere to look at the “world-system” as a whole. A closer lookthus reveals that this process of the “rise of capitalism” is rathercontingent and not a universal law.If theoretical Marxism remained entrapped, by and large, withinthe self-fulfilling logic of this universal history, practical Marx-ism did struggle to find a way out, as we saw in the instanceof Mao for example. While the revolutionary struggles of the20th century broke out invariably in the colonial world as peasantinsurrections, theoretical Marxism, especially in the west and theformer Soviet Union, started expressing deep unease at this“corruption” of Marxism by “peasant consciousness”. Any numberof studies of that period that deal with the Chinese and Vietnameserevolutions can be cited as evidence of this fact. Not only didwestern and Soviet Marxism take this route, event the doctrinalvariants adopted by many third world movements (for instancethe CPI(M) in India), continued to see their own existence asa sort of illegitimate child of a backward society.Theoretically speaking, it was in the writings of Louis Althusserand Etienne Balibar, who were among the very western Marxiststo have taken Mao seriously, that the entire question of the historyof capital and the question of so-called survivals of “past forms”was reopened in some essays in For Marx and later in ReadingCapital. Balibar’s essay in Reading Capital argues persuasively,on the basis of his reading of the Grundrisse, that capitalism arisesout of the contingent conjunction of two independent and discretehistories – that of free labour and of capital or “men with money”.In other words, Balibar suggests that it is not the “feudal modeof production” that evolves into the “capitalist mode”, but thedifferent elements that comprise the “structure” called capitalism,that come together to form capitalism.13It is thus the history ofthe elements that one must look at rather than the history of thestructure. Althusser returns to this question in his elaboration ofhis “philosophy of the Encounter” and poses the question ex-plicitly as one of the contingency of capitalism.In the Philosophy of the Encounter, Althusser returns with adifferent gaze as he scans the history of capitalism in Europeand Marx’s understanding of it. Commenting on the comingtogether of labour and capital and their “taking hold”, he says:“We can even go further and suppose that this encounter occurredseveral times in history before taking hold in the West”, ashappened at least once in the 13th and 14th century Italian states.“The elements do not exist in history” he says, “so that the modeof production may exist, they exist in a ‘floating’ state prior totheir ‘accumulation’ and ‘combination’, each being the productof its own history…” [Althusser 2006: 198].In the light of his new philosophy Althusser reads the prob-lematic, teleological parts in Marx as arising out of a conflationof the accomplished fact (capitalism) with its taking-hold or beingaccomplished – that is, the process of becoming capitalism. Thisconflation, he suggests, results in seeing the structure as precedingits elements and reproducing them. For the late Althusser,capitalism is never a fully accomplished fact. It is thus fromthisangle that he reads the chapters on primitive accumulationand finds them already coloured by the teleology capitalism’sinevitability – even though he considers it to be the “true heart”ofCapital. He goes on to suggest: “Here we witness theemergence of the historical phenomenon whose result we know– the expropriation of the means of production from an entirerural population in Great Britain – but whose causes bear norelation to the results and its effects.” The element of contingencyand uncertainty arises from the fact that we do not really knowwhat the reason for this expropriation was. That it was eventuallydiverted by the “owners of money” looking for impoverishedmanpower, appears to him as rather accidental and the mark ofthe non-teleology of this process.The other interesting question that Althusser raises is regardingthe “owners of money”: where does their money come from?It could it be usury, colonial pillage or mercantile capitalism,he ruminates. It is the phenomenon of mercantile capitalism thatis, according to him, a great mystery – a capitalism before theemergence of a capitalist mode of production and the exploitationof free wage labour. This riddle of the bourgeoisie, “this strangeclass – capitalist by virtue of its future, but formed well before

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