There have appeared in this space several thought-provoking attempts to define capitalism, including here and here. Although this might seem to some a mere academic exercise, nothing could be further from the truth: to be effective, activism to change, transform or overthrow any human construction must be rooted in a thorough and accurate understanding thereof.
This is especially important when discussing capitalism, both because its pervasive ubiquity creates a familiarity that masquerades as understanding and because the defenders of the system work tirelessly to spew lies about its virtues. Even more treacherous than the increasingly strained defenses of the system by modern conservatives are the ideological productions of modern liberals who claim a desire to reform capitalism or ameliorate those of its consequences they don’t like.
The key problem is that liberals and conservatives share the same basic understanding of capitalism, which is rooted in the neo-classical revolution in mainstream economics that occurred in the late 19th century. On this view, capitalism is a “natural” system arising from and based on market exchanges between buyers and sellers of commodities, which are assumed to maximize “efficiency” (defined in terms of allowing “supply” and “demand” to set market-clearing prices) and human happiness (defined as the total dollar value of market commodities bought and sold (GDP), regardless of what needs they meet or how they are distributed among the population).
Thus the neo-classical view (like the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo that preceded it) is fundamentally ahistorical: capitalism is understood not as a historically specific constellation of economic relations, but rather as the result of encouraging the supposedly natural human tendency to engage in market transactions on a competitive basis with the goal of maximizing profit.
Even worse, the neo-classical assumption that the “market” is a naturally occurring phenomenon forces it to posit an Ideal Type Market—characterized by virtually unrestrained good-faith buying and selling backed up by rules to enforce the terms of transactions—against which historical social formations are measured by the degree to which they approximate the Ideal Type and can be called “capitalistic.” In this view there is of course no room for understanding how the historical economies of pre-capitalist social formations worked on their own terms, because those terms are assumed ab initio to represent flaws, deviations from the Ideal Type that maximizes happiness.
And therein lies the reason that neo-classical economics provides an unstable intellectual foundation for capitalist reformism that unavoidably undermines any case for change, because all such reforms involve straying from the Ideal Type Market. That is why, in televised “debates” about regulation between conservatives and liberals, when the former extol the virtues of the market and call for “non-interference,” the latter start off the same way (Obama does this all the time) and then suddenly pivot to an argument that some specific reform represents an exception to the free market rule. Conservatives thus always come off as more intellectually consistent while liberals seem (and in fact are) intellectually muddled and confused—even when “the facts” seem to stand in their favor.
We, however, are Anti-capitalists, and we need an understanding of capitalism that historicizes it as a system with a definite beginning and, therefore, a possible end. Jump below the squiggle to see how.
I. Modes of Production
This essay will define capitalism by deploying a key analytical tool originated by Dr. Karl Marx: the mode of production. The most often cited definition of this concept is as follows:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. … In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.”In Marxism, the emphasis is on “the social production of human existence”—on how human beings collectively manage to avoid starvation, climatic exposure, and disease long enough to beget and raise the next generation of humans. Throughout history, this has always been a “social” activity: modern pre-historical research has proven that the individualistic, Robinson Crusoe fantasies of social contract theory “belong to the insipid illusions of the 18th century.”
-Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
In contrast to the mainstream views discussed above, Marxism provides a historically based way of analyzing capitalist relations by focusing on their core purposes and discerning change over time. There is none of the Ideal Type thinking in Marxism that is found in mainstream economics. The market, as we shall see, is understood as a historically contingent artifact of human social activity, one way of solving the problem of survival, but by no means the best or only valid one for all eras and circumstances.
A mode of production, in turn, is comprised of “relations of production” and “material forces of production,” which we will define in reverse order. The latter include land, natural resources and technology, while the former include rules of various kinds that determine how the material forces are to be rightfully used, including definitions of property, rules for the deployment of human labor power, laws of myriad types, and cultural tendencies affecting productive activity. A given mode of production is superseded by another because the social relations of production associated with it have become a hindrance rather than a help to progress in the development of the material forces of production.
Since the beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago, all societies have been class societies, i.e, the social relations of production have included property rules allowing a small number of people, directly or indirectly, to own or control the material forces of production and the surplus wealth created when a much larger number of people engage their labor power in producing the material needs of the society. In the broadest sense, rules of property include labor deployment as well, because labor power is essential to social production and reproduction. Rules of labor deployment are thus the most fundamental social relations of production, and they define the specific class character of a given social formation at a given time.
Abstract as these points are, they can be illustrated historically, which we do by focusing on a sector of social production that forms the material base of most known civilizations: the baking of bread. We will examine how bread baking was carried out under three different modes of production: the ancient slave mode, the feudal mode, and the capitalist mode.
II. The Ancient Slave Mode of Production and Bread baking: the Roman Republic and Empire
One of the key material factors that supported the transition from nomadism to settled living, i.e., the Dawn of Civilization, was the discovery that intentionally cultivated grain, as well as other plants, provided a more stable food source than peripatetic hunting and gathering. The transition from gathering plants for food, to cultivating and then fully domesticating them, took several thousand years.
Settled living based on grain consumption was established by 7500 BCE in the “Fertile Crescent,” by 6500 BCE in Mexico, by 6000 BCE in Northern China, by 5000 BCE in the Indus River valley of India and the Nile River valley of Egypt, and by 4500 BCE in West Africa, where people had been growing root and vegetable crops since about 6000 BCE. Settled agriculture spread from all these beginning points, and grains were the primary source of the food surplus that allowed some people to congregate in towns and not themselves engage in agriculture. Thus cereal agriculture was an essential element in creating the necessary preconditions for the beginnings of urban life around 3500 BCE. Wheat and barley became the dominant grains of Southwest Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean; rice dominated East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, which also grew wheat; rice and millet came to the fore in Africa; and maize took pride of place in the Americas.
A. The Material Forces of Bread Production Under Ancient Slavery
Slave-based systems of production are inherently conservative, not only from a social standpoint, but from a material one as well. Progress in the development of agricultural tools, machinery and methods of work was agonizingly slow in Antiquity, because neither slaves nor plantation owners had much incentive to innovate. Thus even when individual Romans invented new farming methods or tools, they were rarely put into practice. Roman transportation technology—those famous roads and infamous galley ships—did represent technological advances, however, and allowed cheap movement of grain from far-flung provinces to the cities.
Things were a little better in the cities, where Roman bakers gradually improved their ovens and developed on-site grain-milling powered by animals and occasionally humans. The Romans excelled at construction, developing the first cement and numerous architectural innovations, and the legendary aqueducts (the backbone of civilized urban Roman life) provided cheap and plentiful water to Roman bakers.
B. The Social Relations of Bread Production Under Ancient Slavery
The overwhelmingly rural and agrarian Roman social formation was dominated by large landowners. While semi-subsistence farmers worked their own land with the help of a few slaves, the agricultural surplus that fed the cities was grown on large plantations, known as latifundia, often thousands of acres worked by thousands of slaves, who lived a subsistence lifestyle, living directly off the land, and had no incentive to innovate.
Those magnates of the land, however, did not reside in the countryside, choosing mostly to live in the cities, where they kept slaves to meet their daily needs and spent their wealth on architecture, furnishings, luxuries, and politics. The cities of Antiquity were thus economically dependent on the countryside because the wealth circulating in them arose from the surplus created by plantation slavery and appropriated by the wealthy.
Two other social classes complete the structure of the ancient city. First, cities were populated by bureaucrats whose job was to administer the Imperial State and to collect a portion of the surplus wealth created by agriculture via taxes. As such, they did not produce new wealth but instead re-distributed it. Second, merchants and artisans, who were a mixture of slaves and free persons, created wealth in the form of consumer goods that was nevertheless ancillary to the agrarian core of the ancient economy, as indeed were the cities economically marginal themselves as compared to the countryside.
Roman bakers conducted their craft in small shops, with probably a few slaves or wage workers in their employ. Rome regulated the quality of the bread sold or distributed free to the public, taking legal measures to guarantee the quality of the grain delivered to the bakeries, and authorizing the Prefectus Annonae (Ministry of Food Supply) to inspect the loaves to ensure their weight and quality.
In republican Rome, the state prevented urban famine in an ad hoc fashion by purchasing grain at times of dearth for free distribution to the poor. As conquest gradually transformed the Republic into an empire, however, the growing wealth of Senatorial class stimulated an increasing demand for luxury goods, including non-staple foods such as grapes and wine, which the owners of the latifundia, eagerly supplied by employing large numbers of slaves and expropriating smaller landholders who could not compete with them, despite centuries-old laws which forbade this sort of concentration. Thousands of free but now propertyless Roman citizens flooded into Rome as a result of this agrarian crisis of the second century BCE, but under the slave mode of production there were few if any opportunities for wage-work, which was little known. They became known as proletarii and pressured the republic to distribute free or low cost grain to the people, leading to the first lex frumentaria (law of grain supply). This required the Roman State to have grain for sale at or below the legislated nominal price, and succeeded in stabilizing the grain supply of Rome and preventing hunger and famine.
This system was more fully institutionalized by Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, who moreover distributed the grain free of charge. Between 150,000 and 320,000 Roman citizens residing in Rome, known as the plebs frumentaria (lower class of the grain) were entitled to free grain or bread until the fall of the western empire in the fifth century CE. The political leverage of the plebeian class over the Imperial government resident at Rome meant that free grain distributions were better funded and more regular in Rome than in the lesser cities of the Empire, but the lesser Roman cities also established mechanisms for the distribution of grain or bread, especially during times of short supply and high prices.
C. Conclusions Regarding the Ancient Mode
The Ancient Slave mode of production yielded a successful political economy that produced grain and bread sufficient to supply the far-flung Roman Empire by applying the principle that grain was not a commodity like others and that it was the state’s task to act so that the people were supplied therewith. Indeed, the market was largely irrelevant to the distribution of grain and bread in Imperial Rome, because so much grain was either eaten by the slaves and peasants who grew it, distributed free to the plebs frumentaria, or paid directly to wage-earners in lieu of currency. Further, much of the grain distributed free in Rome was grown on estates owned directly by the Emperor and was thus earmarked, from the time of planting, for non-market distribution. Under these circumstances, the nominal “price” of grain played a secondary role in its distribution, because so much grain, being produced directly for use and not for sale on the “market,” never became a commodity subject to market pricing.
III. The Feudal Mode of Production and Bread baking
The decay and demise of the ancient slave mode of production, which was a largely accomplished fact by the fifth century, led to a period in the former Western Roman Empire sometimes called the Dark Ages, characterized in the countryside by what medieval historian Chris Wickham has termed a “peasant mode of production,” consisting of subsistence farming by a peasantry with a light or even nonexistent coercive surplus transfer to landlords. That lack of exploitation, ironically and necessarily, corresponded with declines in population, technical knowhow, agricultural production, trade, life expectancy, urban living, and most other indices of material prosperity.
Feudalism, understood as a mode of production whose “essence [lies] in the exploitative relationship between landowners and subordinated peasants, in which the surplus beyond subsistence of the latter, whether in direct labour or in rent in kind or in money, is transferred under coercive sanction to the former,” [Rodney Hilton, ed., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (1976): 11] did not arise until the 9th century, after Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire and brought a degree of political and social cohesion to western Europe it had not known in centuries. That cohesion, however, also meant the destruction of the inherently stagnant peasant mode and the forcible insertion of a class of warrior landlords over the peasantry.
It should be noted that the word feudalism is also used to describe a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations existing exclusively among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. These purely political relations are, in our use of the term, subsumed within the feudal mode of production.
A. The Material Forces of Grain and Bread Production Under Feudalism
Like slavery, feudalism was conservative and slow-moving when it came to technical change, and the substantial losses in learning and technology that occurred during the Dark Ages meant that feudalism started on cruder material foundations than Ancient Slavery had left behind.
In the countryside, feudal agriculture was dominated by large manors, owned by feudal lords and intended to be food self-sufficient. Unlike their Roman predecessors, feudal lords typically lived on the land, where they maintained retinues of vassals: armed men available for self-defense and to fight if the lord were called upon by his lord. The peasantry was tied to the land, both the small parcels belonging to them that provided much of their sustenance and to the lord's demesne, which peasants were forced to work without pay for a certain number of days per year as part of their "rent."
In the cities, bread baking was technically cruder than it had been in Roman times; bakers no longer milled their own grain on-site, for the feudal lords reserved to themselves the right to force bakers and others to mill grain only on in the lord's water-powered or wind-powered mill--for a fee.
B. The Social Relations of Bread Baking Under Feudalism
Cities played very different roles within feudalism than they did within the ancient slave mode of production. Unlike the cities of the ancient world, which were run by a class of city-dwelling absentee landlords, medieval cities were autonomous entities, governed in a variety of ways. Typically residing on their lands in the countryside, feudal landlords had no formal power over nearby cities, whose independence was a source of urban pride and lordly jealousy. Materially, the landlord class depended on the city as the site of the marketplaces where they transformed their share of the Manorial surplus into cash, with which they paid their soldieries and purchased the luxury items so essential to their necessary displays of wealth and cultural power.
Simultaneously, the medieval city encouraged the development of commodity production and commercial networks, which in the long run helped to dissolve the seigniorial relations so necessary to the feudal social formation. The medieval city thus played a dynamic and contradictory role within feudalism: It was essential to its functioning, yet created some of the forces and structures that proved to be its undoing. As Marx put it,
“the history of classical antiquity is the history of cities, but of cities founded on landed property and on agriculture … the Middle Ages … begins with the land as the seat of history, whose further development then moves forward in the contradiction between town and countryside.” Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1973): 479.
Commodity production within the medieval city, including the baking of bread, was carried on by an urban artisanal class, comprised at once of masters, journeymen, and apprentices. The pre-industrial artisan can be defined both with reference to craft skill within the process of production and with reference to the system of production and exchange as a whole. Thus Marx emphasized the ambiguities of artisanal work relations when he pointed out that,
"The master does indeed own the conditions of production—tools, material, etc., (although the tools may be owned by the journeyman too)—and he owns the product. To that extent he is a capitalist. But it is not as capitalist that he is master. He is an artisan in the first instance and is supposed to be a master of his craft. Within the process of production he appears as an artisan, and it is he who initiates his apprentices into the mysteries of the craft. He has precisely the same relationship to his apprentices as a professor to his students. Hence his approach to his apprentices is not that of a capitalist but of a master of his craft, and by virtue of that fact he assumes a position of superiority in the corporation [i.e, the guild] and hence towards them."Within the work process, then, the master baker appears as a skilled craftsman. His skill, in fact, defines him: he learns it to become an artisan, and he uses it to control entry into his craft. As such, it is difficult to distinguish the medieval or pre industrial artisan from the industrial era craftsman or skilled worker, for both are defined by craft skill. Within the field of work relations, they may even appear identical.
- Karl Marx, “The Immediate Results of the Production Process,” appendix to Capital: I, 1029.
From the perspective of the social relations of production taken as a whole, however, critical differences emerge. In the towns and cities of feudal Europe, a petty mode of production emerged and flourished in conjunction with the rise of merchant capital. Within it, the artisanal class stood at the center of socially organized urban production. Artisans—masters, journeymen and apprentices—carried on the bulk of this production. Below them were the unskilled laboring poor, and above them were the large scale merchants, who often amassed large fortunes through their extensive trade connections. The fortunes of these two classes—the artisanal and the mercantile—were intimately and even inextricably bound together, and the story of their relationship to one another is largely the story of the rise of capitalist production.
Artisanal production differed fundamentally from capitalist production because the alienated labor of a permanently dispossessed class was not the core of the system, i.e., was not the central means by which surplus value was produced. The artisanal class was thus fundamentally different from later classes and ought not to be termed either petty bourgeois or proletarian. Insofar as these terms describe particular relationships to the capitalist means of production, i.e., dependence on, or ownership of, capital, they cannot apply to the artisanry under the artisanal mode of production, for as Marx so insightfully observed,
"The means of production become capital only in so far as they have become separated from the laborer and confront labor as an independent power. But in the case referred to the producer—the laborer—is the possessor, the owner of his means of production. They are therefore not capital, any more than in relation to them he is a wage laborer."Thus the characteristic feudal laws and guild regulations governing bread had their meaning in the context of the artisanal production of bread within the feudal mode of production. Specifically, three broad types of laws were enacted by or for the medieval city to ensure the steady supply of cheap, high-quality bread: laws that prohibited the export of grain under conditions of dearth, laws that set the weight, price, and quality of the loaf, and laws that regulated the local grain trade by prohibiting sharp trading that could raise the price of grain and bread above its "natural price."
- Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, 3 pts. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963, ): I, 408.
C. Conclusions Regarding Feudalism
In feudalism, the market was not an economic abstraction but a concrete place, a physical site in each town where buyers and sellers met face to face to exchange money for goods, the temporal and spatial logic underlying these legal regimes becomes manifest. From the time grain was planted in the farmer’s field, through harvest and threshing, until its arrival at the marketplace, the laws against forestalling, regrating, and engrossing prevented its sale anywhere other than the public market. Especially in light of the fact that, at least before the late seventeenth century in England, the grain market was fragmented and localized, with prices varying from region to region and town to town, laws ensuring the integrity of the local market place made eminent sense as a way of protecting local producers and consumers. Finally, the laws and customs requiring a lengthy period of apprenticeship and journeyman status prior to becoming a master baker, as well as those regulating the quality of flour and bread, were in the nature of pre-modern public health laws, designed as they were to protect the quality of the most important source of calories and nutrition. All these laws were understood to be pro-consumer laws, for their intent was to guard the right of the individual to purchase high quality grain, flour, and bread at the lowest price available, and to prevent grain merchants and commercial purchasers, such as millers and bakers, from obtaining better bargains.
These feudal and early modern systems of regulating the price, quality, and distribution of grain and bread survived well into the nineteenth century, and the transition to a different system of regulation was quite contentious, as the “commons” of the rural and small town areas frequently took direct action, known as “bread riots,” to compel local elites to enforce the grain and bread regulation laws against millers, bakers, and corn factors.
In Part II, we will discuss grain and bread production under the capitalist mode of production