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Abigail Bakan


  • PlantationSlavery and

    the CapitalistMode of

    Production: AnAnalysis of theDevelopment

    of theJamaican

    Labour ForceABIGAIL B. BAKAN

    The role of slavery in the history of capi-talist and pre-capitalist societies has become a centralproblem in Marxist and "neo-Marxist" discourse overrecent years.' In the development of the Jamaican labourforce, the transition from slavery to complete legal freedom(finally won in 1838 as a result of the passage of the Eman-cipation Act in the British Parliament) stands as perhaps themost significam formative event. But the process of the tran-

    Studies in Political Economy 22, Spring 1987 73

  • Studies in Political Economy

    sition from slave labour to wage labour was a complex one,spanning some one hundred years. The legacy of almost twocenturies of slavery meant that once free from their master'scontrol, the newly emancipated were extremely reluctant toreturn to the plantations to labour for wages. Moreover, thegeographic and demographic conditions of early nineteenth-century Jamaica presented the freed slaves with tangible alter-native means of support. Vast acres of uncultivated, moun-tainous land, and further acres of land previously cultivatedbut since abandoned by bankrupt planters were occupied bythe former slaves and developed into small agricultural plots.Work for wages on the plantations was, in the early years afteremancipation, performed essentially as supplementary em-ployment. The attachment to private land cultivation was rein-forced by the legacy of the "provision grounds system" inplace during the years of slavery. All but the most privilegedslaves, such as the domestics for whom food was provided bytheir masters, were allotted plots of estate land not suitablefor sugar cultivation, usually in the mountainous areas, uponwhich they raised produce for their own diet. In the majorityof cases, only a small portion of the slaves' food (such assaltfish, which the slaves could not produce for themselves)was provided by their masters. The extent to which the plant-ers relied on slave-grown rather than imported food for theirchattels varied, but the peculiarities of jamaica's geographyensured that this system was by and large extremely wide-spread on the island.

    After emancipation, it was only when land availability andthe profitability of small plot production were outstripped bythe growth of the labour force that this "re-constituted peas-antry" began to function as a more classical wage labour forceon the agricultural estates.s These conditions began to comeinto play around the 1880s, but it was not until the turn ofthe century that the pattern could be fully discerned.

    If the purpose of sound Marxist analytical theory is tounderstand real events in the real world, then this particularhistorical sequence in the Jamaican class struggle poses somevery important and controversial problems. The historical pic-ture can be summarized, crudely, as follows: a class of slaveswho were also cultivators, became peasants who were also wageworkers. (Later they became wage workers who continued to


  • Bakan/Slavery and Capitalism

    cultivate private plots of land, but this second phase of theprocess takes us beyond the scope of this discussion.) Thecentral question to be considered here is how do we explainthis dramatic transition in labour force organization in termsof the existing mode, or modes, of production? In the follow-ing discussion, it will be argued that this process, despite thediffering forms of labour organization or the differing proc-esses of surplus extraction from labour performed, was char-acterized by a single mode of production in the historical,epochal sense in which Marx uses the term-a capitalist modeof production. At the same time, the very real distinctionsbetween these various forms of labour organization cannot beoverlooked or conveniently subsumed under one single ana-lytical category. It will be further argued that in another sensein which Marx uses the term "mode of production" (or, putdifferently, taken from another plane of analysis referring tothe technical aspects of the organization of production) eachhistorical instance is a distinct "mode". It is the capitalist modeof production in the historical sense, however, which shapesthe dynamic relationship between the exploiters and the directproducers, and thereby similarly shapes and alters the tech-nical aspects of the production process. A failure to concep-tualize this historical process as one of changing forms oflabour organization within a unitary capitalist mode of pro-duction leads to confusion about the very nature of capitalismas a process of production, and to a distorted understandingof the course of the Jamaican class struggle.

    The insight that the term "mode of production" must beunderstood as bearing two distinct meanings in Marx's workis traceable to a pathbreaking article by Jairus Banaji entitled"Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History"."Banaji's argument is developed in the context of the general"modes of production" controversy that has loomed in contem-porary Marxist circles over the last decade.s Though it isbeyond the scope of this discussion to give a detailed summaryof the "modes" debate, two general perspectives can be broadly,if simplistically, identified as bearing particular relevance foran understanding of modes of production in underdevelopedcountries in general, and the transition from slavery to eman-cipation in the English Caribbean in particular.


  • Studies in Political Economy

    The first view follows from the "dependency" perspective,traceable largely to the work of Andre Gunder Frank." Thisview maintains that the capitalist mode of production becameglobally dominant as early as the fifteenth century with therise of colonialism in the Americas. Frank's original argumentshave been so widely and extensively criticized that a summaryof the critiques is hardly necessary. The failure to recognizethe centrality of the concept of class, and the emphasis onrelations of exchange rather than relations of production areonly two of the most glaring weaknesses in Frank's theoreticalframework. Probably the single most widely acclaimed critiqueof Frank's perspective using a Marxist approach, however, isErnesto Laclau's "Feudalism and Capitalism in Latin Amer-ica"." As an alternative to the metropolis/satellite model putforward in Frank's dependency approach, Laclau identifies thevarious modes of production which exist in underdevelopedcountries. Rather than Frank's single (misconceived) globalcapitalist mode of production, Laclau suggests an analysisincorporating numerous modes of production, some pre-cap-italist and some capitalist, which are "articulated" in a hierar-chical order of "dominance"."

    Laclau's approach was widely received as a refreshing re-turn to a classical Marxist framework, but one which continuedto shed light upon societies that did not exemplify patternscommon to Western capitalism. Of particular import for thecurrent discussion, the most sophisticated Marxist analysis todate of Jamaican labour, Arise Ye Starvelings: The JamaicanLabour Rebellion of 1938 and its Aftermath, by Ken Post has beenwritten from the theoretical standpoint elaborated by Laclau.sLaclau's perspective, developed within the "structuralist" schoolof Marxist analysis, is however no less misguided than Frank's.?It is in identifying this misplaced interpretation of Marx's workthat Banaji's contribution is essential. Laclau, among othersdescribed (correctly) by Banaji as "vulgar Marxists", has re-duced Marx's notion of a mode of production as an historicalepoch of social organization governed by certain historicallyspecific laws of motion, to a crude, empirical measurement ofnumbers and types of workers. In the process, Marx's use ofthe term "mode of production" in the general, historical sensehas been collapsed into the second usage of the term in themore technical sense referring to the immediate relations ofproduction. Both meanings of the term, and the Marxist


  • Bakan/SIavery and Capitalism

    method in general, are distorted in this interpretation. InMarx's work, the labour process is consistently treated assubordinate to the mode of production in the historical sense,for which the central, determining factor is the social relationsof production. It is not the form in which labour is performedthat distinguishes, for example, the feudal mode of productionfrom the capitalist mode. More importantly, the labour processdoes not determine the specific laws of motion which compelthe process of surplus extraction to be conducted in a givenway. On the contrary, for Marx, it is the mode of productionin the historical sense which is pivotal in shaping the labourprocess.

    The critical feature in defining the capitalist mode of pro-duction in the historical sense is not the presence of wagelabour as a phenomenon, but the social relationship betweenwage labour and capital. The distinct feature of the wagelabour form is not primarily how it is paid for, but that itstands, in Marx's terms, as "capital-positing, capital-producinglabour."IO Thus, pre-capitalist forms of labour may be, in termsof their relation to the dominant historical mode of produc-tion, "capital-producing labour" without being directly paid inthe form of wages; similarly, in pre-capitalist epochs, labourpaid in the form of wages was not "capital-producing".

    The framework elaborated by Laclau and adopted by Postfails to theoretically differentiate capitalism as a unique, self-expanding mode of surplus extraction, from particular formsof labour or form of surplus production. As a result, Post isunable to explain the specific process of the transition fromslavery to wage labour. When he attempts to account for post-emancipation Jamaican labour force deve


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