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Capitalist Development and Theories of Imperialism

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Part of the Palgrave Insights into Apocalypse Economics book series (PIAE)

Abstract

In distinguishing between formal and real subsumption of the labor and production process of society by capital Marx provides a formative periodizing of capitalism. Yet, losing sight of Marx’s subtle distinctions, it would be the writings of Karl Kautsky, in whose hands the very term Marxism originates, that most influenced generations of Marx’s followers. Kautsky maintained that Marxism is a theory of historical directionality. He argued that Marx’s study of capitalism constituted a subtheory of historical materialism and confirmed socialism as the historical telos. A combination of theoretical problems deriving from Kautsky’s reconstruction of Marxism plus the fact that capitalism would survive its first major economic crisis at the close of the nineteenth century to emerge reloaded in its imperialist stage by the early twentieth century animated the important work of Rudolf Hilferding, V.I. Lenin, and Nicolai Bukharin. Theorizing of imperialism provides the foundation for studies of the corporate form of business enterprise and what is referred to today as financialization.

Keywords

  • Formal and real subsumption
  • Joint-stock company
  • Finance capital
  • Monopoly
  • Imperialism

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The notion of economic principles as it is used in this book combines insights of Marx and Karl Polanyi (1957). In Marx’s reference above, as to how in “all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest”, what Marx alludes to is the central means for differentiating among historical modes of production. Marx was always clear that while markets existed in antiquity, for example, they are not the “specific kind of production”, which was idiosyncratic of that epoch of human existence. Where Polanyi contributes to understanding the question that concerned Marx is in elaboration upon those other “kinds of production”, besides that of the capitalist market, which predominate in other modes of production. Polanyi sets out two further “kinds” or principles of economy other than the market. The first is what Polanyi refers to as “reciprocity”. It predominates in the very earliest societies, though it persists in various forms across history into the present. It entails modalities of cooperative human relations including communal “sharing”, “gift” giving, customary and communal practices of “give and take”, and so on. Second, for Polanyi is “redistribution”. This operates as the central principle in more advanced geospatially larger-scale social units and involves the movement of goods, tribute, tithes, taxes, and so forth from scattered producers to the center. These are then reallocated or redistributed from the center according to hierarchical status of social claimants. Marx, for his part, understood what Polanyi dubs reciprocity as “primitive communism” and redistribution in terms of interpersonal economic relations of domination and subordination as characteristic of slave and feudal modes of production. For our purposes, it is possible to think about redistribution in Polanyi’s sense as the “kind of production” predominant in Soviet style socialist societies and as a principle operating in the shadow of the capitalist market in the welfare states of the post-WWII era.

  2. 2.

    Marx importantly argues that in all human societies the direct producers whether slaves, serfs, or proletarians must receive the product of their “necessary labor” for the work they perform within existing social class structures. What Marx means is that in every society there is some basic level of livelihood and sustenance that the direct producing class requires to guarantee that they will be able to continue to labor, day after day, and to reproduce as a social class. Even slaves must be well fed, Marx argued, otherwise they will perish leaving the masters to do their own work or relentlessly hunt for new slaves which is ultimately a dead end. Where the notion of workers receiving the product of their necessary labor assumes significance in the context discussed here is over the relative contribution to the reproduction of the direct producing class of wages paid in merchant putting out operations and traditional sources of peasant sustenance in household farming and services for the landlord class. We cannot talk about the commodification of labor power until workers are separated from their means of production and access the product of their necessary labor only via wages. Under formal subsumption of the labor process the extent to which the direct producers are supported by their farming activities as subsistence peasantries, or through wages, is ambiguous, particularly during periods of epochal change as societies in Britain and Europe experienced from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. We will return to this question in later chapters as the persistence of subsistence peasantries in the global economy that make family labor available for foreign capital in sweat shops, and the like, demands renewed analysis.

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Westra, R. (2019). Capitalist Development and Theories of Imperialism. In: Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction. Palgrave Insights into Apocalypse Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14390-9_2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14390-9_2

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