Walter Johnson’s excellent essay “The Pedestal and the Veil” asks “[w]hat would have happened if Karl Marx had begun his magnificent critique of the commodity form with a detailed consideration not of a bolt of finished linen but a bale of cotton? What would a theory of political economy that treated the labor, products, and experiences of people of African descent as central to (rather than prior to) the history of Western capitalism look like?” (I’ve blogged about this a before and so I won’t spend time on Johnson in particular here, though I do need to think about his work again soon.) Johnson’s questions speak to Dale Tomich’s arguments in his essay collection Through the Prism of Slavery.

I read Tomich’s book a while back when I was reading work on slavery pretty regularly. I’ve mentioned it many posts but never taken decent notes on it. I read through it again recently. On the one hand the book is very much about understanding the role slavery in actually existing capitalism, but the scope of all this is larger than that, raising (meta?)theoretical questions about how we understand capitalism and about historical inquiry.

Below are some quotes from Tomich. This too took longer than it should have, but at least it’s done.

Tomich refers to the need to “incorporate into a unified analytical framework the complex historical combinations of specific forms of wage and non-wage production together with the world market.” (xii.) “At issue is the need to move beyond the abstract conceptions of capitalism (…) in order to establish the historical terrain of (world) capitalist development.” He calls for rethinking “the totality of relations of capital in way that is inclusive of slavery and diverse non-waged relations. This entails reconceptualizing the ways that slave formations of the New World are constituted by the capitalist world economy and are themselves productive of capital even hwile they retain their particular characteristics.” He distinguishes between “those slave regims that precede, and are partly responsible for, the emergence of industrial capital and wage lanor as dominant poles of the world economy and those slave regimes that were created as part of teh processes restructuring the nineteenth-century world economy.” (xiii.) Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tomich calls for and tries to practice “interpreting slavery as an integral part of the captialist world economy” (xiv)

Tomich argues that these issues about slavery raise bigger questions, such as “the problem of conceptualizing the relationship between market and production within the historical trajectory of the capitalist world economy.” (3) Often “abstract and partial categories orchestrate historical narratives in ways that eliminate from consideration complex and contingent causal relations.” (3-4.) This is tied to problematic “assumptions about the nature of theoretical categories and their role in the reconstruction of historical processes of capitalist development.” (4.)

“force and production are not simply contingent extra-economic factors. Rather, they are constitutive of slave production.” (7)

Often the categories of “”Slavery” and “capitalism” are (…) made to stand in isolation from one another and from the historical whole and are contrasted to one another in terms of what are concieved as internal attributes.” (10-11.) “for example, capitalism is identified with the prevalence of wage labor in the immediate process of production” (12)

In all this “The “application” of theory becomes an operation of classification. Particularly phenomena are placed in the appropriate boxes, while the relation between boxes is already established, not through historical inquiry, but through inference from theoretical knowledge. Theory becomes a surrogate for historical analysis and interpretation.” (13.)

All of this raises “questions about the nature and role of theoretical categories and their relation to historical processes of capitalist development.” (18.) Tomich distinguishes “historical theory which is concerned with formulating theoretical categories that are appropriate for comprehension of a historically distinct object and theoretical history which is concerned with using such categories to reconstruct processes of historical development.” (18-19.)

“The concepts of Capital form what Marx terms “rational abstractions” (…) abstract reflections derived from developing historical relations. Capitalist social relations provide the ongoing historical premise of Marx’s theory, and the categories of this theory obtain only under specified historical circumstances.” (19.)

Tomich quotes Marx about his order of presentation, in which he does not “let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they are historically decisive. Their sequence is determined rather by their relations to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development.” (21; quote is from the Grundrisse, 107.)

Marx’s “purpose is not to provide a historical account of the capital relation.” Instead, “Marx focuses on the theoretical exposition of specifically capitalist social relations.” This involves “abstracting the formal characteristics of the capital-wage labor relation fromthe historical conditions of its existence (…) stripping the concept of its “historical form” and eliminating “contingencies and disturbing accidents.””(22. I believe the latter quotes are from Engels.)

“Marx’s concern is to delineate the theoretical structure of the capital relation.” This is why “Marx treats slavery as an external contingency and excludes it from the logical exposition. Nonetheless, historically, slavery was a key means of expanding commodity production, creating a world market, and providing the substantive conditions for the development of the capital-wage labor form.” Tomich notes that the historical origins of capitalism come at the end of the book and argues that these are presented as “not in any way a part of its ongoing processes and relations.” he adds that the section on primitive accumulation “is itself a theoretically constructed sketch of the historical origins of capital, the separation of the direct producers from the means of production, and the concentration of the means in the hands of a class of capitalists but is by no means identical with the real hsitory of the formation of capitalist social relations.” (23.)

“Although Marx identifies the world market as the historical premise and condition of capital, he presents a theoretical account of the movement from the market to the capital-wage labor relation and the categories of capitalist production, not a historical one.” (25.)

“Marx’s method posits a close and necessary relation between theory and history. On the one hand, his theoretical categories are valid only under specified historical conditions. On the other hand, the conceptual movement of Capital reproduces in theory the historical development of capital. However, according to its own methodological assumptions, the theoretical structure of Capital cannot be treated as if it were identical with the history of capitalist development. One cannot be reduced to the others. The general theory of capital, however interpreted, is distinct from the particularly history of capitalist development. Although Marx regards England as the locus classicus of the “capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and forms of intercourse that correspond to it” an duses it as “the main illustration of [his] theoretical development,” Capital in no way presents a history of capital in England. (…) The organizing principle of Capital is theoretical. History retains its independent movement.” (Tomich’s brackets. p26.)

Marx’s “rational abstractions are intended as mirror images of the hstorical processs of capitalist development, not as the history itself. (…) Marx’s text (…) provides a perspective from which to reconstruct historical processes, but it does not itself provide a historical account. To allow the theoretical narrative of Capital to provide the script for the historical narrative is to confound a general theoretical abstraction with history. It is to ignore broader and more complex historical processes of capitalist development and reproduce the exclusions made in the process of abstraction.” Like slavery. Tomich quotes Marx that “our method indicates the point where historical investigation must enter in, or where bourgeois economy as a merely historical form of the production process points beyond itself to earlier historical modes of production.” All of this centers on the need to “distinguish his theroy of capital from historical accounts of capitalist development”, which is necessary to understand the role of slavery in capitalism historically. For Tomich this means “going against the grain of Marx’s classical theoretical presentation in order to reincorporate into the field of analysis theose “historical contingencies and disturbing accidents” that were eliminated in the process of abstraction. By moving from “rational abstractions” toward engagement, appropriation, and theoretical reconstruction of diverse histroical relations excluded by the logic of Marx’s presentation, we may comprehend the historical complexity of world capitalist development.” (28.)

Elsewhere in the book Tomich asks that people “emphasize the nonidentity of theoretical categories with historical narratives of capitalist development and class formation.” (46.) If we start from “categories as analytical abstractions, that is, as the means of understanding historical phenomena, it becomes possible – and necessary – to reconstruct theoretically their changing historical interrelation and interaction.” (47.)