From Commercial Capital to Wage Labor Revisited: An Interview with Jairus Banaji

Historian Jairus Banaji’s pathbreaking books include most recently Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (2010) and A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (2020).  Historians may know Andrew Liu’s Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India (2020) which utilized Banaji’s work in a study of China-India trade. Not only does Banaji rethink the relation of theory and history, he declines to correlate wage labor and male bodies. In this discussion Banaji raises questions of historical preconditions and female labor, waged and unwaged.

This interview was conducted via email by Tani Barlow.

Historian Jairus Banaji’s pathbreaking books include most recently Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (2010) and A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (2020).  Historians may know Andrew Liu’s Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India (2020) which utilized Banaji’s work in a study of China-India trade. Not only does Banaji rethink the relation of theory and history, he declines to correlate wage labor and male bodies. In this discussion Banaji raises questions of historical preconditions and female labor, waged and unwaged.

This interview was conducted via email by Tani Barlow.

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TB:  Please explain how you came to theorize Marxism in the way you do.  Particularly address your position that Marx inadequately theorized the long phase of “commercial capitalism” and thus opened up the story political Marxists, the Brenner school and others tell, that capitalism was the outcome of class struggle in the English countryside.  

JB:  If my first radical intervention was the critique of British anthropology that I published in New Left Review in 1970, then the three decades that followed down to the new millennium were largely taken up with the study of agrarian history, supplemented by a reading of Capital, and then by my work on Late Antiquity which I began in 1986.  In those decades I don’t think there was ever really any explicit awareness that the history of capitalism had to be rethought in a radical way. 

In other words, it was not till sometime in the early 2000s that I was finally convinced that merchant capital offered a more viable perspective on those early centuries, unless we were simply going to consign them as Marxists usually do to commonplace notions like ‘primitive accumulation’ and the transition from feudalism. But the first three decades, so to speak, were crucially important because my study of agrarian history was wide-ranging, never confined to just one period, much less to one language, and because the study of Capital had been supplemented and backed up by discussions of value theory, of the architecture of Marx’s work, of Hegel’s influence on Marx, and so on. Also, the work I did at Oxford in late Roman economic history convinced me that primitivism, or ‘minimalism’ as the ancient historians prefer to call it, was a dead end.

My thesis demonstrated the staggering scale on which money circulated in the late antique world and explored the implications of that cardinal fact for its social and economic history more generally.  So, as far as ‘commercial capitalism’ goes and its heuristic potential in structuring new histories of capitalism I’d say there was this early period in my academic life when a study of the peasantry and of large estates was constantly driving me in the direction of money and markets and blurring the boundaries between ancient, medieval and modern history and between ‘peasants’ and ‘workers’; and a later phase of work that began perhaps around 2005 when I started to work on the ‘rise of capitalism’ paper (‘Islam, the Mediterranean and the Rise of Capitalism’ was published in 2007) and began to foreground commercial capitalism in the way I partly do there.

The modernist perspectives that I picked up in my Roman history work cleared the way for a study of the centuries between Rome and modern capitalism, so to speak, that would have no particular reservation about the use of categories like ‘money’, ‘capital’, ‘wage labor’ and so on, as long as these were ‘reconstructed’ and not just externally applied.

TB:  One implication of your work regards class and social relations of production in which family labor plays the central role.  You have written: “Peasant family labor was the productive base of most of the produce trades, and its subsumption into commercial capital through the channels of circulation described here involved the appropriation of vast amounts of unpaid family labor.”  (Brief History, 110). Can you or would you be in favor of disaggregating “peasant family labor” to highlight female and child labor?

JB:  Yes absolutely!  There’s a seminal paper by the German historian Hans Medick [Medick, “The proto-industrial family economy”, 1976] that does precisely this and ends with a plea for a materialist history of the family. Medick argues that women were the vanguard of the proto-industrial household in Europe. In contrast to the typical peasant family, in the families of rural industrial workers the division of labor between the sexes was much less rigid and could even lead to role reversals, with male workers being drawn back into household production as the textile trades expanded. Medick also draws attention to the implications this had for a freer sexuality and for what he calls a “gradual transformation of the world of erotic feelings.”  There was a lowering of the age of sexual activity and middle-class observers were shocked by what they saw as the ‘immorality’ and ‘shameless freedom of the sexes’ in those families. 

The other part of Medick’s argument relates to the pivotal role of children’s labor in proto-industry. Child labor was a ‘vital necessity’ for the rural cottage workers’ families, with both its intensity and duration far exceeding the effort levels of child workers on peasant farms. The children of cottage workers stayed longer in their parents’ homes but they also married earlier than their peasant counterparts and parents possessed no sanctions against adolescent children who wanted to leave the house to form their own nuclear family. And daughters had greater freedom in the choice of marriage partners.

Now I cite this to show how we need comparable studies across the entire range of trades, occupations and productive sectors that were largely geared to a family economy.  Medick’s starting point is Chayanov’s idea that the productive activity of households was not governed by the objective of accumulating a monetary surplus or a net profit. Households entered into exchange relationships as producers of use values, as he says “even under circumstances in which their products necessarily became commodities whose exchange values were objectively determined by money relationships and merchant capital.” [Medick, art.cit.]   

We are dealing here with the unwritten history of family labor processes, whether in household industries or household production more generally, the latter including almost the whole of agriculture. Thus, Duncan Bythell noted that ‘the essential feature of the outwork industries (in Britain) was the very high proportion of women and children that they usually employed’ [Bythell, The Sweated Trades, 1979 p.163]. Women were the key element.  Why this is important is that in terms of the sheer mass of employment involving outwork, it remained the predominant form of industrial organization precisely in the world’s first industrial nation as late as the 1820s!  Yet where do we have a more concrete sense of how those families were structured, of where the adult males were employed or whether they were employed at all, and of the role women played in shaping their lives?  If the putting-out system was so extensively used not just in Europe of course but in other parts of the world, this was partly because of the flexibility it gave employers.  But how resilient were the families themselves?  And how much did the picture vary? 

Paradoxically, household producers in colonial countrysides such as Kenya’s between the 1930s and the 1950s would almost certainly have had greater staying power. In a seminal paper Mike Cowen was able to show that in the Central Province household commodity production was secured by an advanced form of capitalism (finance capital) against the depredations of both settler estates and indigenous merchant capitalists. He argued that the expansion of commodity production (coffee, milk and tea) after the war gave households a space in which they could “resist direct proletarianization.” But again, how were roles allocated in those families and how much control did women exercise over the decisions made in them?  The subsumption of households to capital was, historically, probably the single most widespread economic form known to us before the rise of modern large-scale industry at the end of the 19th century, yet how much research has gone into documenting its history along the lines of Bythell’s book and Cowen’s papers?  [Bob Shenton, “Mike Cowen (1945–2000),” 2008]

TB:  Could an adequate Marxist feminism, in your view, address the question of who did putting out labor and if you concur then how would we document and analyze evidence?  And how would that evidence shape how we imagine labor as such (e.g., wage labor does not equal masculinity)?  How would this help us to reimagine historically how laboring families worked?

JB:  As I noted, women and children were a key productive base of the putting-out system in Europe, especially after the more powerful merchants who had “one foot in the town and the other in the country” (Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Volume 2) harnessed their labor to production for international markets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But of course, each sector was specific in the way it was organized and the way jobs were allocated and so there’s little point in generalizing. (The only invariable feature here is the ubiquity of merchant’s capital.)  The silk industry of Lyon has attracted some fine work at this level and shows how complex these patterns could be. Daryl Hafter shows that women’s work was crucial for silk production in Lyon, providing most of the important auxiliary work for the silk looms, thus contesting the idea that it was simply a tag for unskilled labor.  She argues that “It was the women’s labor that made possible the ‘effective resistance’ of traditional silk artisans both to factories and to rural cottage industry, “allowing the industry to survive into the 19th century.”

On the other hand, although some form of the putting-out system was widespread outside Europe in countries like China and India and in the Islamic world, we know almost nothing about its actual extent and internal organization.  The “Company weavers” of Bengal studied by Hameeda Hossain were organized into weaving villages subject to the control of European capital. They sustained a cotton textile industry where piece-goods exports reached half a million pounds sterling by the 1770s. But women are largely invisible in this story, doubtless because here, unlike the jute industry, women were ritually barred from touching the loom. Short of archival sources it’s hard to see how we can make any of this more ‘visible’.  [Daryl M. Hafter, Women at Work in Preindustrial France, 2007 and Hameeda Hossain, The Company Weavers of Bengal, 1988].

Indeed, according to Rosemary Crompton, the construction of ‘skills’ and the status of occupations were ‘decisively influenced by gender’ (Crompton, “Class theory and gender”, 1989). This could work in complex ways. Henry Ford, for example, deliberately refused to hire women for assembly-line work “so that he could denigrate the manhood of employees who could not keep up with the line.” In other words, the assembly-line was coded as a site of masculinity.  Competition between male workers in terms of effort standards (speed and intensity) has a strong resonance of masculine bravado, e.g. in contemporary, massive automated warehouses where job performance is electronically tracked through the entire shift and workers are “directly controlled by computers.” There’s an outstanding field study of this by Christopher Shane Elliott.  [Elliott, “Manufacturing rate busters: computer control and social relations in the labour process,” 2016]. This is partly how we should understand the ideologically constructed but commonplace contrast between domestic and industrial labor.  The former is naturalized as a realm of use-values and quintessentially female while only the latter counts in terms of the production of value.

As long as both Marxists and feminists accept this division, then both Marxism and feminism fail to see the precise sense in which both male dominance and women’s oppression are rooted in capitalism.  Marx couldn’t make up his mind whether the individual consumption of the male wage-laborer was productive or unproductive!  The Italian Marxist feminists of the 1970s who came from a workerist or ‘Autonomist’ political background took the decisive step of characterizing women’s labor in the home as directly productive of value insofar as this was living labor being objectified in the commodity labor power. Leopoldina Fortunati argued that what appears as an exchange between male workers and women is an exchange between women and capital mediated through the male worker. But here the ‘form of appearance’ (simple circulation) is both objective (given the way reproduction is structured under capitalism it has to appear this way) and mystifying. It is part of the mysticism of the wage form that it hides the unity of the necessary labor performed in the home with that performed in the factory. [Fortunati, The arcane of reproduction: Housework, prostitution, labor and capital, 1995] The same point was made by socialist feminists like Rohini Hensman way back in the 1970s. [Hensman, “Wage-labour: the production and sale of the commodity labour-power”, orig. 1977]

By doing this it covers up the exploitation of female houseworkers by capital. Silvia Federici has expressed this by saying Marx ignores the fact that “the wage mobilises not only waged workers but unwaged labour as well, that it extracts surplus labour also from the unwaged, which means that the working day is much longer and wider than the one computed on the shopfloor” [Federici, “Marx and feminism,” 2019]. What is at issue here is the capitalist relationship between production and reproduction. To fail to see this or simply deny it is to say that “the reproduction of labor power takes place outside the capitalist mode of production,” which is the kind of nonsense Paul Smith was reduced to at the end of an influential intervention in the domestic labor debate in 1978.  Subscribing to this profoundly conservative and largely Anglo-American orthodoxy is probably the major drawback of second-wave Social Reproduction Theory, such as when Tithi Bhattacharya writes (in her introduction to the essays) that labor power “is produced outside of the circuit of commodity production,” which leaves you wondering how a commodity (in this case, labor power) can be produced outside commodity production and of course also seems to beg the question from the start. And then in her own chapter she discusses everything under the sun except the cardinal issue of the precise sense in which production and reproduction are not ‘discrete spheres’.