It’s the object of a book called Historical Capitalism, by Immanuel Wallerstein. Adam, who had been trying to get me to read Wallerstein for ages, pointed out in a comment on this post that after I read Historical Capitalism I only have mentioned it in passing instead of putting up any notes on it. This post is for those notes.

I thought this was great. It makes me want to read a lot more of his stuff and of people in his orbit. On the first page of the intro he lays out “two faults” that characterize “much [that] had been written about capitalism by Marxists and others on the left.” The first fault is that of “logico-deductive analyses, starting from definitions of what capitalism was thought to be in essence, and then seeing how far it had developed in different places and times.” The second is presuming “major transformations of the capitalist system as of some recent point in time, in which the whole earlier point of time served as a mythologized foil against which to treat the empirical reality of the present.” (7. The latter seems to me exactly what the current autonomist/post-operaismo milieu trades in.)

Later Wallerstein writes in a similar vein about “those who refuse to accept that capitalism can ever be said to exist unless there is a specific form of social relation in the workplace, that of a private entrepreneur employing wage-labourers. There are those who wish to say that when a given state has nationalized its industries and proclaimed its allegiance to socialist doctrines, it has, by those acts and as a result of their consequences, ended the participation of that state in the capitalist world-system.” (19.)

Wallerstein instead aimed “to see capitalism as a historical system, over the whole of its history and in concrete unique reality.” I’m not committed to the temporal scope here – the emphasis on the whole of the history of capitalism, but the impulse is a good and important one I think, especially the importance “of delineating what was always changing and what had not changed at all.” (7.)

Wallerstein mentions Marx briefly, describing what he takes to be an often-missed “tension in the presentation of his work between the exposition of capitalism as a perfected system (which had never in fact existed historically) and the analysis of the concrete day-to-day reality of the capitalist world.” (9.) That seems correct to me, and Wallerstein’s right that this tension and these two directions in Marx’s work are not always noticed.

Wallerstein sees capitalism as a system in which the primary goal has been the accumulation of capital, where that goal has tended more often than not to trump other priorities. (14.) For would-be capitalists, acting on this goal got progressively easier over time, in one sense. That’s not to say that it was better for every/all individual capitalists, but that systematic impediments to anyone acting as capitalists fell away over time. Among the impediments – “many of the links in the chain [of “the circuit of capital”, Wallerstein specifies] were considered, in previous historical systems, to be irrational and/or immoral by the holders of political and moral authority.” In addition, there was “non-availability of one or more elements of the process – the accumulated stock in a money form, the labour-power to be utilized by the producer, the network of distributors, the consumers who were purchasers. One or more elements were missing because, in previous historical social systems, one or more of these elements was not ‘commodified’ or insufficiently ‘commodiified’” by which Wallerstein means “the process was not considered one that could or should be transacted through a ‘market.’ Historical capitalism involved therefore the widespread commodification of processes – not merely exchange processes, but production processes, distribution processes, and investment processes – that had previously been conducted other than via a ‘market’. And, in the course of seeking to accumulate more and more capital, capitalists have sought to commodify more and more of those social processes in all spheres of economic life.” (15.)

Commodification isn’t sufficient for capitalism, however. Commodified processes had to be linked together in an ensemble – commodified raw materials, tools, machinery, distribution processes, etc, and each of their component parts. (16.)

Wallerstein notes that markets are not transparent – the economic humanity bred by capitalism “was almost inevitably a bit confused.” (18.)

Wallerstein argues that the percentage of global population actually engaging in waged labor has been lower than we might expect. This is in part because “Under historical capitalism, as under previous historical systems, individuals have tended to live their lives within the framework of relatively stable structures which share a common fund of current income and accumulated capital, which we may call households.” (23.) The household as a way that people have lived their lives is the context in which “a social distinction between productive and unproductive work began to be imposed on the working classes.” (24.) In this distinction, “productive” means wage-earning and Wallerstein does well in laying out briefly the gender and age dimensions of this division. (On this see my notes on Boydston, Federici, and Fortunati.) Wallerstein also notes that non-productive labor and ideas of “extended childhood/adolescence and of a ‘retirement’ from the work-force not linked to illness or frailty (…) have often been viewed as ‘progressive’ exemptions from work. They may however be more accurately viewed as redefinitions of work as non-work.” (25.) This means they’re not remunerated. The progressive bit is interesting, thinking about Gabriel Kolko’s point that in the US the Progressive Era reforms were conservative in that they aimed to conserve capitalism; in the light of Wallerstein’s point this points out that part of the conservation is regulating the supply of waged laborers. I should compare this with my notes on Claus Offe and decommodification and welfare. I should also compare with my posts on v2 of Capital and reproduction and the persistence of simple circulation under capitalism.

“As an ideology, these distinctions helped ensure that the commodification of labour was extensive but at the same time limited.” (26.) He aadds that “the lowness of the level at which wage-workers could afford to accept employment has been a function of the kind of households in which the wage-workers have been located throughout their life-spans. Put very simply, for identical work at identical levels of efficiency, the wage-workers located in a household with a high percentage of wage income (let us call this a proletarian household) had had a higher monetary threshold below which he would have \found it manifestly irrational for him to do wage work than a wage worker located in a household that has a low percentage of wage income (let us call this a semi-proletarian household).” (26.) This is because the more of a household’s subsistence passes through markets – ie, the more commodification of means of subsistence there is – the more the household needs money (that is, extension of commodification of working class subsistence is a source of upward pressure on wages). And, the role of unwaged people is to help make “the minimum-acceptable-wage threshold” more livable, which is basically the same as lowering that threshold. “No wonder then, as a general rule, that any employer of wage-labour would prefer to have his wage-workers located in semi-proletarian rather than in proletarian households.” (27.) The former, what he calls semi-proletarian households, is the norm for most of historical capitalism, Wallerstein argues.

Wallerstein says capitalism has tended to grow more spatially extensive, more internally differentiated, and more hierarchized over time. “This hierarchization of space in the structure of productive processes has led to an ever greater polarization between the core and peripheral zones of the world-economy, not only in terms of distributive criteria (real income levels, quality of life) but even more importantly in the loci of the accumulation of capital.” These processes were exacerbated by “the intrusion of force into the determination of price.” (30.) Capitalism tends to hide unequal exchange, in part due to the ostensible separation between the economic and the political. (31.) Behind the internal logic of markets, force. (32-33.)

Individual capitalists (persons or enterprises) have moved in two basic directions – competitive advantage through more efficient production, or monopoly status. (33.) This led to cycles of expansion and stagnation. (34.) The transition between the two is destructive for people living through it and it tends to involve reshuffling of the global pecking order. (35. This reminds me of Arrighi’s turning Marx’s M-C-M’ series into long term historical trends, with primitive accumulation occurring between the one of those types of transitions.)

One way for workers to get a greater share of their surplus labor has been greater commodification of labor, to get a higher wage payment. For Wallerstein, entry into waged labor status has been driven in part by the working class in what he calls semi-proletarian households. (36.) Wallerstein argues that over-representation of waged workers in the working class has tended to be an incentive for capitalism to expand, to counter-act the reductions in profitability that happen as wage bills go up. (39.)

Wallerstein rejects any over-all progressive world-historical role for capitalism. (40.) (Compare with Federici.)

[Breaking off for now, will come back later, probly more than once, and put in more notes on the book, I’ve taken notes up to page 47 at this point]