revolutionary reflections | Value, force, many states and other problems: part 1

Distribution des Recompenses (Distribution of Rewards), from Les Misères et les Mal-Heures de la Guerre (The Miseries and Misfortunes of War), plate 18, by Jacques Callot (1633)

Throughout the history of Marxism state theory has developed in waves, with a renewed interest stimulated by the crisis of neoliberalism and the return of the state both to the politics of the left and the right. Colin Barker dedicated much of his life to developing a distinctive account of state power. His 1978 essay for International Socialism (recently published in full in Revolutionary Reflections) situated state power within the wider debates of the International Socialist tendency at the time.

Since the 1990s his thinking on state power moved towards stressing the important of ‘states’ rather than ‘the state’, and towards looking at how violence and coercion are written into the core of capitalist social relations itself. These ideas took the form of a long essay that went back to Marx’s basic categories in Capital.

The essay remained in a draft form at his death, though it was his wish to share it in its current form, in the hope of stimulating further debate and to encourage others to take up the baton. We are pleased to present this essay in three parts over the next six weeks.

On commodities, force and the law of value

By way of introduction

Marx’s theory of the state is seriously underdeveloped, especially with regard to the role of the state within capitalism, and therefore also to the communist view of the struggle to overthrow the specifically capitalist state.

So far as the trajectory of Marx’s own thinking and writing is concerned, there are identifiable reasons for (or patterns within) this theoretical under-development.

Marx’s early writings – up to the 1848 revolutions – embody various developments of a general theme, arising from his reflections on the French Revolution and its limitations. He argued against ‘statist’ illusions along a number of fronts: against Hegel’s seeking in the principle of the state a point of reconciliation; against the Jacobin inheritance that saw the extension of ‘political emancipation’ as the solution to society’s ills; against the illusion that the state could solve problems of poverty.

In becoming a communist, and in identifying the key agent of social transformation in the proletariat, his argument became that a far more thorough-going social revolution was required, beyond the achievements of 1776 and 1789. The criticism of society must extend to its very roots, and to the forms of social life that liberal thought took for granted. Hence it was necessary to criticise ‘civil society’ itself, whose anatomy was to be found in ‘political economy’.

At various points, he suggests that the births of the modern state and of civil society rest on the same basic foundations; the ‘totality’ of social relations most definitely included the state. But his own studies pushed him towards a focus on the anatomy of one half of this double relationship, the analysis of civil society and the critique of political economy, with a particular focus on the ‘economic categories’.

Various of Marx’s sketches for his whole planned work suggest a return to the matter of the state, along with further exploration of such matters as international trade, the world market and crises. There was indeed a warrant for so doing even in terms of the basic ‘agenda’ of classical political economy, in e.g. Smith or Ricardo. But he never managed to make this ‘return’ to the totality.

Before noting some of the matters that this left unexplored, we should perhaps note three general effects of the ‘unfinished’ nature of Marx’s Capital and the whole line of critique he developed. The first is that Marxist critique of modern society was taken by many of his readers to be basically ‘economic’ and not simultaneously ‘political’. In particular, the argument for the revolutionary overthrow of existing society contained a theme – the need to abolish the state as a form of social relations – that was never fully elaborated, although both Marx and Engels held to it consistently, and restated it powerfully with respect to the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune.1 Marx retained the anti-statist impulse of his youth, but without developing a full analysis of the modern state and why that needed to be overthrown.

The second is that, while Marx at various points insisted on the importance of the world market as an emergent feature of capitalism, he did not develop much by way of analytical instruments for its exploration, whether by way of international trade, investment and the like or by way of inter-state politics, or indeed of the distinction between ‘national’ and ‘international’ formations.

The third is that the critical analysis of capitalist society was undertaken predominantly from one side, that of the analysis of capital, and not sufficiently also from ‘the other side’, the critical exploration of the constitutive role of the working class in both ‘making’ capital and challenging it.2 If, in the 1848 Manifesto, all history is the history of class struggle, and if Marx saw class struggle as the means by which capitalism and its class system could eventually be abolished, that idea is rather recessive within the manuscripts associated with Capital as we have inherited them. In at least three senses, therefore, Marx’s theory was seriously underdeveloped, or ‘unfinished’. 3

Here, my focus is on the question of states in capitalism. From any standpoint, this issue has increased in its salience since the deaths of Marx and Engels.4 It would seem incredible, were Marx attempting to begin his Critique of Political Economy a century and a half later, that the forms and activities of states would not figure more centrally in his theorisation.

What must count among the questions that Marx would have needed to address? Or, in terms of what Marx has left us, where are the larger lacunae in his treatment of capitalist society? My list is anything but complete:

  • Should organised violence, and in particular the role of states, be counted in any sense as part of the fundamental ‘social relations of production’ of capitalism, or are they in some sense always ‘superstructural’ or ‘secondary’?
  • Should states be seen as inherently ‘parasitical’ formations, as Marx was inclined to regard the Bonapartist regime of the 1850s and 1860s in France, or have they played a more active and essential part in the development of capitalist production?
  • Should Marx’s explorations of the role of force at the dawn of capitalism (in the ‘so-called primitive accumulation of capital’) be carried forward into the workings of developed capitalism?
  • What significance should be given to the fact that the ‘political form’ of capitalism is not a single state, but many states?
  • Given that there is very little explicit discussion of ‘competition’ in the pages of Capital – indeed, at one point Marx refers to the need to explore the matter in a continuation of the work – what significance should be given to ‘non-economic’ forms of competition, and notably to preparation for and actual waging of war? Those who contested the theory of ‘bureaucratic state capitalism’ (developed by Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Mike Haynes and others) argued that military competition was insufficient to make its participants ‘capitalist’, that it was much older than capitalism, and indeed that it was not really analogous at all. Military competition, they argued, did not involve matters to do with the ‘law of value’. Were they correct, or did the proponents of the theory of bureaucratic state capitalism need to develop the theory of competition further?
  • Are Marx’s remarks in the Preface to Capital Volume I about his use of English data, in one respect, potentially misleading? England was the first to reveal the possibilities of capitalist industry, but did the need felt in other states to ‘catch up and overtake’ not mean that they would use different combinations of the methods and social relations outlined in Capital? Here questions about ‘combined and uneven development’ suggest themselves.
  • What difference would the addition of taxation to the different forms taken by surplus-value (industrial profit, commercial profit, interest, rent) in Volume III of Capital make to the overall analysis?
  • How should such matters as states’ partial and total ownership of industrial, commercial, financial and landed capital be treated?
  • Does the exploration of value-relations require attention to the moment of force in their constitution and reproduction?
  • What significance should be given to the increasing role of states in the reproduction of labour-power, through all manner of so-called ‘welfare’ provisions?
  • What concretely does Marx’s argument that workers’ movements must abolish the existing state imply in a capitalist world where popular suffrage has become widespread and where states devote significant parts of their activities to providing ‘welfare’ to the labour force?

Force and commodity production – the social form of commodity production and exchange

I want to explore a possible starting point for the exploration of matters to do with force, and states, in the capitalist mode of production. The approach of some writers to these matters, and to the kinds of questions I posed above, is to turn immediately to the theorisation of the state and its relationship to capital. For reasons that will, I hope, become apparent below, I think this immediate conceptual leap to the state is mistaken. Rather, I want to begin at the same point that Marx chose for the beginning of his presentation of the ‘economic categories’ in Capital. Volume I of that work opens its presentation of the workings of capitalist society not immediately with ‘capital’ but with one vital facet of its existence, namely the fact that wealth in capitalism takes the appearance of an immense collection of commodities. It was only after and through an extensive exploration of the nature of this elementary ‘cell’ form and its implications – notably, value, exchange, money – that Marx began to define the specific character of capital.

To be sure, the end-point of the argument, the analysis of capital, and especially of capital once it has seized control of production and subordinated the labour-force to itself, is the vital thing. Indeed, Marx argued, it is only when capital has secured mastery over the production process that commodity relations become ‘generalised’ through the subordination of the labouring class itself to commodity exchange. The starting point of the presentation, the generalised commodity form, turns out to be the result of the development of the social form, capital, towards which the first part of the analysis has been driven. Nonetheless, that starting point remains vital for the further analysis of capital’s movements in Volumes II and III. For, if the larger latter part of Volume I abstracts from further discussion of the presuppositions of commodity production – notably exchange and competition – the outline presentation of the whole system of circulation and distribution in Volumes II and III returns us to these matters in a fuller form.

‘Commodity production’ is not itself a ‘stage in human history’, but rather the conceptual starting point for Marx’s exploration of the nature of capitalism. The logic of Capital is not one of historical narrative, but rather a journey of critical discovery (Weeks, 1981, p. 43), in which different facets of capitalism as an ‘organic system’ are successively revealed. The total structure of Capital follows an ‘expanding curve’ or spiral (Banaji, 1979, pp. 27-8). Each step presumes the previous one, and adds enriched content to what has gone before, showing the starting point to be the result of the later conceptual development. If the starting point is the production of value, of commodities produced for exchange, the journey takes us to surplus value and to capital¸ whose dominance in production is the condition for the ‘generalisation’ of commodity production and circulation and then for its further exposition as competition. Each significant step in the journey enhances and rounds out what has gone before.

The various discussions by both Marx and Engels on the emergence and presence within human society of states adopt a definite stance towards the phenomenon. Like classes, states have not always existed; and, like classes, states are social forms whose supersession and disappearance (‘withering away’) are seen as necessary outcomes of the class struggle. The same Marx who, in 1844, recommended ‘suicide’ as the best contribution a state could make to the solution of social problems, was to celebrate the Paris Commune in 1871 as a beginning to the overthrow of the very principle of the state. And Engels cheerfully advised his readers in 1884 to look forward to the time when all the majesty of the state would be reduced to nothing more than a display in the Museum of Antiquities.

In general terms, they held, what permits and necessitates the emergence and consolidation of states is that the members of society are unable to govern themselves, lacking sufficient social power and collective self-organisation to manage their own mutual affairs directly, without being ruled by a minority. However, historically, the specific social circumstances that have promoted this condition are varied.

It is with an eye to this question – what conditions promote the impossibility of collective self-government by society’s subjects? – that we can turn to the particular social features of the capitalistic form of society, where human wealth appears in the form of an ‘immense collection of commodities’. Marx asked, what kind of society is it in which the production of commodities is generalised and becomes dominant? That is, he did not simply ask the economist’s question – namely, what is the quantitative relation between the values of commodities, and how is it determined? – but a social anthropologist’s question: what sort of social relations are ‘value relations’? That question is about the forms of social regulation in this strange society, and leads well beyond ‘economics’.

Marx offers some remarks about the social relations involved in commodity production, in the process of his exposition of the commodity, money and exchange. His argument is not immediately obvious, for in Capital he launches immediately into the ‘economic categories’ rather than the social relations per se, or the necessary political aspect that they express and reflect. We depend on Engels, for example, for an interpolation added to the early pages of fourth German edition. After Marx has explained that a thing can be a use-value without being a value, and that in order to produce commodities, one must produce ‘not just use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values’, Engels added a passage in parentheses, explaining in a note that misconceptions had arisen among Marx’s readers:

And not merely [a use-value] for others. The medieval peasant produced a corn-rent for the feudal lord and a corn-tithe for the priest; but neither the corn-rent nor the corn-tithe became commodities simply by being produced for others. In order to become a commodity, the product must be transferred to the other person, for whom it serves as a use-value, through the medium of exchange. (Marx, 1976, p. 130)

Commodity production is thus a form of social production, but one necessarily mediated by exchange. On the next page, exploring the dual character of the labour embodied in commodities, Marx himself explains that commodity production assumes a specific kind of social division of labour:

Labour is socially divided in the primitive Indian community, although the products do not thereby become commodities. Or, to take an example nearer home, labour is systematically divided in every factory, but the workers do not bring about this division by exchanging their individual products. Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities. (Marx, 1976, pp. 131-2)

Marx, distinguishing between the two forms of value – the relative and the equivalent – points out that the value of a commodity can only be expressed in the value of another. Value relations involve a social process of creating equivalence between different sorts of commodities, and of their producers. ‘Value’ is a purely social property, arising from the process of bringing commodities together, for purposes of exchange. The process of making this social connection converts labour – which is ‘like all other commodity-producing labour, … the labour of private individuals’ – into ‘labour in its directly social form’ (Marx, 1976, p. 150). ‘Private’, ‘independent’ producers continually make and re-make this social connection, exchanging their products by weighing them against each other in terms of their shared characteristic, value. These transactions provide the ‘germ’ of the more developed forms of value, and above all the money-form, itself the root of capital.

When he has worked through these ‘economic’ arguments about the relation of the form of value to money Marx sets out, in the final section of chapter 1 (‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’), something more explicit about the social relations underpinning and expressed in the whole development. Human labour assumes a social form once human beings start working for each other in any way – something seen, indeed, at the very dawn of our species, and defining human life in general. But the social forms of these reciprocal interactions vary through human history. The question is, what is this social form once they are producing commodities?

Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since these producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labour, the specific social characteristics of their private labours appear only within this exchange. (Marx, 1976, p. 165)

It’s only through the relations that the act of exchange establishes between the products ‘and through their mediation, between the producers’ that the private individual’s labour manifests itself as part of the total labour of society. Only then does it become apparent that this ‘private’ labour is in fact social labour.

Producers in a society where the commodity is the characteristic social form of the product are involved in reciprocal dependence on each other, expressed in the constant necessity for exchange.

The reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals who are indifferent to one another forms their social connection. This social bond is expressed in exchange value, by means of which alone each individual’s own activity or his product becomes an activity and a product for him (Marx, 1973, pp. 156-7).

We are dealing here with a highly developed division of labour, in which every act of production (including the daily reproduction of human beings themselves) depends on the consumption of humanly produced or appropriated ‘materials’ which others produce in distinct social sites which are formally ‘independent’ of each other. Producing units are formally ’free’ to produce what they like, how they like. At the same time, however, they are constrained by the need to offer their products for others via exchanges on a ‘market’. The terms on which they strike bargains with those to whom they sell and from whom they purchase are not under their control, but are set through the mutual interactions of a vast web of transacting social partners, all subject to the vagaries of shifting patterns of productivity, demand, supply and much else besides. This is a form of social cooperation, in which the individual subjects are simultaneously ‘free agents’ of the processes of commodity production and circulation, and subjected to and coerced by forces beyond their control. The very property of ‘value’ that adheres to their own products rules them, so that it seems that social relations exist between things.

Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them… It is … precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making these relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly. (Marx, 1976, pp. 167-8)

These relations are simultaneously relations of need, and relations of exclusion from need. That is, they are inherently contradictory. To be a commodity, a product must fulfil a need in another, hence the commodity presumes a needy would-be user/consumer. But the producer has not laboured in order to meet that need in any direct sense, nor does the producer have the slightest interest in the the character or intensity of that need. The producer has produced, not to fulfil their own need for the other person, nor to express the mutuality of their need, but solely in order only to obtain the means to meet their own needs. ‘Indifference’ to the other is the mark of commodity production.5 If the would-be user does not have ‘the readies’ then the producer will not part company with their product, and the would-be user’s need to consume will not be met.

These social realities are reflected in the categories of bourgeois economics, which are valid – ‘and therefore objective’ (Marx, 1976, p. 169) – for just this form of society. But they are only valid and objective for this form, and for no other. Marx devotes several pages to considering some of the modes of social cooperation in which the categories of bourgeois economics are anything but valid: the imagined island of Robinson Crusoe, feudal Europe, the patriarchal peasant family, and a future association of free men (communism).6

It is a central theoretical weakness of political economy that it has never asked why labour is expressed in value, i.e. has never explored the form of value. It has never asked, in other words, about the social-historical circumstances which brought the social relations of commodity-value production into dominance. Rather it has tended to treat them as natural.

There are passages in the Grundrisse where Marx explores the matter a little more. He notes the reciprocal dependence of producers on each other, expressed in the constant necessity for exchange. As he says, the (bourgeois) economists treat this as a situation where everyone pursues their own interest, thereby serving the general interest, but it could equally be said that ‘each individual reciprocally blocks the assertion of the others’ interests, so that, instead of a general affirmation, this war of all against all produces a general negation’. Rather than either, he suggests, the point is that ‘the private interest is itself already a socially determined interest’ (Marx, 1973, p. 156).

He remarks, ‘The reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals who are indifferent to one another forms their social connection. This social bond is expressed in exchange value, by means of which alone each individual’s own activity or his product becomes an activity and a product for him’ (Marx, 1973, pp. 156-7). Each person carries their ‘social power’ over others, as well as their bond with society, in their pocket. In general terms,

The social character of activity, as well as the social form of the product, and the share of individuals in production here appear as something alien and objective, confronting the individuals, not as their relation with each other, but as their subordination to relations which subsist independently of them and which arise out of collisions between mutually indifferent individuals. The general exchange of activities and products, which has become a vital condition for every individual – their mutual interconnection – here appears as something alien to them, autonomous, as a thing…

Exchange, when mediated by exchange-value and money, presupposes the all-round dependence of the producers on one another, together with the total isolation of their private interests from one another, as well as a division of social labour whose unity and mutual complementarity exist in the form of a natural relation, as it were, external to the individuals and independent of them. The pressure of general supply and demand on one another mediates the connection of mutually indifferent persons…

(1)… individuals now produce only for society and in society; (2)… production is not directly social, is not the ‘offspring of association’, which distributes labour internally. Individuals are subsumed under social production; social production exists outside them as their fate; but social production is not subsumed under individuals, manageable by them as their common wealth. (Marx, 1973, pp.  157-8)

The Grundrisse’s following pages criticise the idea that such relations are either natural or the highest point of human development; rather, they are but a historically necessary way-stage in the development of social humanity.

To summarize: the presuppositions of the dominance of the value relation include a form of society of a specific kind. The analysis of this form of society was the work of political economy, and Marx took over and further developed the assumptions of that work.

Commodity production and exchange promote a kind of equality between participants, in the same process that creates an abstract equivalence between their commodities:

Each of the subjects is an exchanger; i.e. each has the same relation towards the other that the other has towards him. As subjects of exchange, their relation is therefore that of equality. It is impossible to find any trace of distinction, not to speak of contradiction, between them; not even a difference… A worker who buys commodities for 3s. appears to the seller in the same function, in the same equality – in the form of 3s. – as the king who does the same. All distinction between them is extinguished (Marx, 1973. pp. 241, 246).

Their mutual equality – and their indifference to each other – is the product of their mutual need for the other’s commodity, and thus for the other’s contribution to social production. The differences between individuals and their commodities ‘form the motive for the integration of these individuals, for their social interrelation as exchangers’ and this process of exchange promotes not only their equality but also their freedom:

Although individual A feels a need for the commodity of individual B, he does not appropriate it by force, nor vice versa, but rather they recogniSe one another reciprocally as proprietor, as persons whose will penetrates their commodities. Accordingly, the juridical moment of the Person enters here, as well as that of freedom, in so far as it is contained in the former. No one seizes hold of another’s property by force. Each divests himself of his property voluntarily’ (Marx, 1973, p. 243).

A key element differentiating modern society from previous forms is its particular form of the social division of labour. Each producer specializes in the production of a specific part of society’s total needed product. Each producer is free to produce what they like, in what conditions they like, to what quality they like, and taking what time they like. That is, each producer is autonomous and independent: there is no ‘central authority’ – whether custom or plan – that instructs producers.

Force and commodity production – coercion and the law of value

However, if at first sight there seems to be no coercion or social regulation, further consideration soon reveals not only that there is strict regulation of all producers but also that this occurs ‘blindly’, through the very process of their mutual interaction.

In order to be able to live, each producer must exchange products with other similarly placed producers. Each has need of the products of others, but can in principle only obtain the objects of their need by entering in relations of ‘contractual exchange’ with other producers. These are the circumstances in which, as Marx explains, the products of human labour become ‘commodities’: products are not simply use-values for others, but possess an additional social quality, an exchange-value. What determines that exchange-value is the quantum of ‘socially necessary labour-time’ the commodity contains. All producers find that, though they be formally free to produce as and what they like, in practice the law of value acts on them quite as coercively as any decree, compelling them to produce with constant regard to the ever-shifting standard of what is ‘socially necessary’. That standard is established, and continuously re-established, through the practical interactions of producers and their commodity-products on the market. Only through the actual process of exchange do products acquire the stamp of ‘social validity’ which declares them – and therefore also the labour involved in their production – to possess any value whatever.

Through exchange, a whole host of concretely different forms of labour are reduced to a common standard, and weighed against each other: exchange involves a practical process of ‘abstraction’ and ‘equaliSation’ through which products are found to contain merely different quantitative amounts of the same essential substance, human social labour as such, or ‘abstract labour’. That ‘abstract labour’ is the result of ‘the objective equaliSation of different kinds of labour which the social process forcibly carries out’ (Marx, 1904, p. 68).7

Human beings within capitalism do not and cannot control the world they themselves produce. The idea of alienation which the young Marx developed reappears here in the critique of commodity production and exchange. Just as in the world of religious illusion, human beings produce in ways that involve their own products falling out of their control and returning to rule over them. Only, where the rule by humanly produced deities is an (understandable) illusion, the rule of the relations required for commodity production and exchange is all too real.8

This is a form of socialised production, as Engels put it, in which ‘Anarchy reigns… [It] has its peculiar, inherent laws inseparable from it; and these laws work, despite anarchy, in and through anarchy.’ If, along with many liberals and some libertarians, anyone is tempted to think that such ‘anarchy’, in which no body rules – no decree by a ruler, no custom, no communal decision – is the very acme of human freedom, Engels’s argument continues immediately:

The [laws] reveal themselves in the only persistent form of social interrelations, i.e. in exchange, and here they affect the individual producers as compulsory laws of competition… They work themselves out… independently of the producers, and in antagonism to them, as inexorable natural laws of their particular form of production. The product governs the producers. (Engels, 1959, p. 374)

Liberalism, which celebrates free competition and regards its absence as the negation of individual freedom, forgets that this kind of ‘individual freedom is… at the same time… the complete subjugation of individuality under social conditions (which) assume the form of objective powers, even of overpowering objects’, which have made themselves independent of individuals (Marx, 1973, p. 651). Social integration is achieved, not through the direct joint activity of the producers, but ‘behind their backs’. Humankind is driven, blindly, by the very products that manifest the human capacity to control the world: this is the acme, not of freedom, but of alienation.

Beyond noting in the very opening sentence of Capital that commodities are ‘the elementary form’ of wealth within capitalist society, Marx has not immediately introduced capital in his exposition. Nonetheless, already in his first chapter he has begun to criticise capitalism and measure it against other forms of production, including those characterising a future communist society (Marx, 1976, pp. 169-71). His political critique of capitalism begins with a critique not of exploitation, but of the market and the social relations underpinning it.9

The relations of mutual dependence involved in the production and exchange of commodities can be understood one-sidedly, as for example in Emile Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society. The French sociologist presents humanity’s development simply in terms of a shift from ‘mechanical’ to ‘organic’ solidarity, where the latter depends on an all-round development of the division of labour and interdependence of production. If, indeed, we focus on nothing but the use-value aspect of commodity production and exchange, then we are presented with the growth of human civilization as the expansion of an immense cooperative commonwealth that draws all individuals, communities, nations and peoples into a single interacting social mechanism which provides the means for all to supply the needs of others and in turn to depend on those others for their support and aid. Such a focus, of course, shows on the one hand what real possibilities lurk within the present form of social production – if there is a global revolutionizing of social relations. On the other hand, it quite fails to account for the immense and growing inequalities in access to fundamental needs that characterize the modern world, or the violence and oppression that mark every facet of our everyday lives.

Durkheim offers a fundamentally positive account of this development, reserving to his last pages some remarks about ‘pathological’ forms of the division of labour, but with no attempt to provide an integrated account of their central role in capitalist society. He does not capture the contradictory combination of social dependence and social antagonism inherent in this form, where ‘value’ and ‘use-value’ stand opposed.

Those who stand in need of others’ products must offer in return some other thing that the producers need, in exchange – whether that be a direct use-value, itself in commodity-form, or its monetary equivalent. In short, they must be able to pay. Those who lack the wherewithal shall not get the goods they need. ‘Need’ is not the same as ‘demand’. There are two sides to this: would-be consumers can be excluded from consuming for lack of things to offer in exchange, and be compelled to live without meeting their needs, indeed to starve; and would-be sellers, failing to ‘find a market’ for the commodities they have to offer, can thus be unable to get back anything in return – again, with major consequences for their own reproduction.10

The social relations underpinning the production and exchange of commodities are not ‘eternal’ but have historical – social and material – presuppositions.11 Contrary to the whole Enlightenment tradition, none of these social relations and their associated values can be derived from ‘nature’, any more than we can derive the categories of capitalist political economy from nature. No feature of the modern form of society can be explained by some a-historical principle outside itself. These social relations and property forms are historically constituted, as are their social and material presuppositions.

Furthermore, the constitution of these social relations and forms involved the forcible destruction of other, previous and different such relations and forms. The whole process which Marx dubbed ‘the so-called primitive accumulation of capital’ involved not only the constitution by force of a propertyless proletariat, but also the violent overthrow of older property forms and alternative ‘moral economies’.12 This is the theme of the final section of Capital Volume I, where Marx offers an historical sketch of the way in which the various necessities of capitalist production were first brought together in England, in the ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ of capital. Discussing how the ‘different moments’ of primitive accumulation are systematically combined in late-seventeenth century England, he notes that the various methods all depend on ‘brute force’. He adds:

… they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power. (Marx, 1976, pp. 915-916)

A question that naturally arises is whether this remark about ‘force’ as an ‘economic power’ is applicable only to the birth-pangs of capitalist society, as a ‘once-for-all’ process, or whether the ongoing reproduction of this form of society also depends on the continuous use and threat of force. On that question, the rest of Capital as Marx left it to us is as largely silent as it is on the whole matter of states within capitalism.

Further elaboration of force in the reproduction of capitalist social relations

Exchange relations involve a kind of ‘abstract coercion’, in which the law of value compels all participants to follow prescribed patterns of activity. But there is an additional, ‘non-economic’ side to value relations, entailing a definite pattern of political-juridical relationships among them. To consider these, we need to look again at the social relations of commodity production and exchange, only this time through a different window. I partly borrow here from David Harvey, who himself acknowledges a debt to Bertell Ollman:

It is rather as if… Marx sees each relation as a separate ‘window’ from which we can look in upon the inner structure of capitalism. The view from any one window is flat and lacks perspective. When we move to another window, we can see things that were formerly hidden from view. Armed with that knowledge, we can reinterpret and reconstitute our understanding of what we saw through the first window, giving it greater depth and perspective. By moving from window to window and carefully recording what we see, we come closer and closer to understanding capitalist society and all of its inherent contradictions.’ (Harvey, 1984, p. 2)

Only where Harvey writes of ‘each relation’, I am suggesting that we look at the same essential relation – that existing between those engaged in commodity production and exchange – from a different perspective. For there are qualities inherent in these social relations that remain to be explored.

According to Marx, as we have seen, commodity production and exchange involves a particular kind of social division of labour. What it also involves, necessarily, is a particular division of the world of material necessities, into separate ‘property parcels’. Each separate ‘parcel’ of necessities is attached to an individual or group, as ‘exclusive property’. It is as if almost the entire world of nature on this planet is fenced around and marked with signs: ‘Private property! Keep out!’ The means of production and of consumption have been made exclusive – or, to use the contemporary jargon, ‘privatised’. If at one point this delimitation of property was confined to land, water, tools, machines, buildings, foodstuffs, clothing and other necessities, today the world of human ‘mental products’, invention, discovery, ideas, images, melodies and the like are also classified, labelled and turned into ‘patents’, ‘copyrights’ and ‘intellectual property’.

Private property, in this ‘exclusive’ sense, is anything but ‘natural’, and had itself to be created through historical struggles, involving the dispossession of claims, customs and previous entitlements that were built into customary social arrangements. Such processes form an essential part of what Marx termed the ‘primitive accumulation’ (or ‘original accumulation’) of capital. Marx remarks of landed property that it ‘receives its purely economic form by the stripping away of all its former political and social embellishments and admixtures’ (Marx, 1981, p. 755). It is not only that, as Marx argued, the critical presupposition of capitalist production, namely, a propertyless proletariat compelled to subsist on wage labour, had first to be created through a long and violent process of dispossession, but also the very existence of delimited ‘private properties’ with their borders and fences, their ‘limits’ to others, had to be fully constituted. Land had to become alienable and defensible private property. All movable property and means of production to be treated socially as belonging by right and law to a definite person or group, territory and population to be constituted as ‘nation-state’, and so forth. The delimitation of property, and such a division of the world of needed things with boundaries set between them, was and remains a precondition of commodity production and exchange and thus the domination of ‘market’ relations.

The point is illustrated rather well in Marc Bloch’s account of the lack of ‘freedom’ of the feudal lord in medieval Europe to dispose of ‘land’ in the way that a modern landowner might:

…the word ‘ownership’, as applied to landed property, would have been almost meaningless… For nearly all land and a great many human beings were burdened at this time with a multiplicity of obligations differing in their nature, but all apparently of equal importance. None implied that fixed proprietary exclusiveness which belonged to the conception of ownership in Roman law. The tenant who – from father to son, as a rule – ploughs the land and gathers in the crop; his immediate lord, to whom he pays dues, and who, in certain circumstances, can resume possession of the land; the lord of the lord, and so on, right up the feudal scale – how many persons there are who can say, each with as much justification as the other, ‘That is my field!’ Even this is an understatement. For the ramifications extended horizontally as well as vertically and account should be taken of the village community, which normally recovered the use of the whole of its agricultural land as soon as it was cleared of crops; of the tenant’s family, without whose consent the property could not be alienated; and of the families of the successive lords (Sayer, 1987, citing Bloch, Feudal Society).

The American elementary school parody of Woody Guthrie’s song nicely brings out the difference between that situation and what obtains under modern capitalism:

This land is my land, and only my land
I’ve got a shotgun, and you ain’t got one.
If you don’t get off, I’ll blow your head off,
This land is private property.13

Economic and juridical relations

The division of the world into parcels of delimited property is paralleled by a division of human society into property-owners, standing in definite relations to each other. This is the theme that Marx broaches in the second chapter of Capital, where he begins to explore the legal presuppositions of commodity exchange.

Commodities are just ‘things’ and can’t take themselves to market and perform exchanges in their own right. If commodities are unwilling to be marketed, humans can use force against them, or as Marx puts it, ‘take possession of them’. Exchange relations involve people adopting a particular stance towards each other, as a necessary condition of the whole process:

In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate their own, except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians must therefore recognise each other as owners of private property. This juridical relation, whose form is the contract, whether as part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills which mirrors the economic relation. The content of this juridical relation (or relation of two wills) is itself determined by the economic relation. Here the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities.

A few pages further on, he adds:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of these alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. (Marx, 1976, pp. 178-9, 182)

Marx goes on to say that the commodity-owner is only prepared to part with his property in return for commodities whose use-value satisfies his own need. He doesn’t care if his own commodity has any use-value for the owner of another commodity: ‘From this point of view, exchange is for him a general social process’ (Marx, 1976, p. 180).

And, Marx notes, essentially repeating the argument of the last part of chapter one, this ‘relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness’ doesn’t exist for the members of primitive communities of natural origin, etc. It’s only as the products of such communities become part of their ‘external relations’ that they ‘also, by reaction, become commodities in the internal life of the community’ (Marx, 1976, p. 182).14

Marx is describing a society where the necessary means of production and consumption take the form of exclusive property, and where there is a systematic social division of labour with vast numbers of producers dependent on each other for the means to sustain life and continue production. In such a society, the only legitimate manner in which its participants can obtain access to the things they need is by entering into ‘contractual relations’ with the owners of their necessities. They must make ‘offers to exchange’, offers which can in principle be rejected. The world of ‘free exchange’ is definitely not the world of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: We make offers that can be refused. There is ‘pressure’ to enter into transactions of exchange but it derives not from political or legal coercion, or the threat of violence, but from material need for what the other possesses. The starting point of modern private property is not mutual exchange, but mutual exclusion. Participants must recognise each other’s rights, including the right to deny them access to what they need.

The ‘juridical relation’ between those who exchange not only, as Marx suggests, mirrors the economic relation but is indeed its precondition, or its entailment. It has a number of vital implications. The moment of exchange at least is one in which the participants treat each other as equals, each possessed of rights, and in which the things they bring to the exchange have themselves been equalised as values. They recognise each other’s freedom: each is entitled to offer and refuse a contractual exchange.

The Bolshevik theorist of jurisprudence, Evgeny Pashukanis, takes this relationship as the starting point for his theory of legal regulation. As he suggests, the relationship is not only marked by contractualism, but by the conflict of private interests. As Marx suggests, the participants in exchange are ‘indifferent’ to each other, and each seeks to gain advantage from the other in their relationship. It is in the interest of the owner of the commodity offered for sale to set the price high, as it is in the interest of the would-be purchaser to set the price low. Antagonism of interest is central to the workings of commodity production and exchange. Hence the advice to everyone entering the market-place: Caveat emptor!

As Pashukanis notes, the ‘right’ of property – a necessary accompaniment of commodity exchange – does not imply anything by way of obligation to others, but rather the reverse (Pashukanis, 1978, p. 99). The endless chain of commodity exchanges is, viewed from another aspect, simultaneously an endless chain of legal relations. Commodity production is maintained, he suggests, by a permanently renewed sequence of ‘successfully concluded business deals’. What constitutes the heart of the legal form (the inherent accompaniment of value relations) is ‘dispute’, conflict of interest.

It is above all in private law that the a priori principles and premises of judicial thought become clothed in the flesh and blood of two litigating parties who, vindicta in hand, claim ‘their right’. (Pashukanis, 1978. p. 80).15

The ‘legal subject’ is the ‘atom’ (we might say, following Marx, the ‘cell-form’) of legal theory (Pashukanis, 1978, pp. 109, 112-3). The ‘legal subject’, the human presupposition of commodity production and exchange, is not simply a needy being standing in relations of mutual dependence with billions of other such persons, but also at once the figure of the participant in the ‘duel’, asserting a ‘right’ not simply as a ‘human right’ (a claim to equality and humanity of treatment by others) but as an anti-social, private right, in contradistinction to all other ‘rights’ and in regular opposition to others’ needs, and ready to back up that ‘right’ by the exercise of might.

That ‘legal subject’ is endowed with or is a ‘bearer’ of ‘rights’, though these are formal in nature. The ‘subject’ is ‘eligible’ to own property, an abstract right that endows them with nothing tangible, except with ‘will’, with ‘freedom’, with an autonomous and equal personality recognised by ethical theory (itself rooted in commodity production and exchange) as both a ‘moral subject’ and a being of equal worth, yet one marked simultaneously by an essential egoism.

The person engaged in exchange must be an egoist, that is to say they must stick to naked economic calculation, otherwise the value relation cannot be manifested as a socially necessary relation. The person engaging in exchange must be the bearer of rights, that is, they must be able to make autonomous decisions, for their will supposedly ‘resides in objects’. Lastly, they embody the principle of the essential equivalence of human personalities, for, in exchange, all forms of labour are equalised and become human labour in the abstract.

Thus the three aspects mentioned above, or, as people used to call them, the principles of the egoism, freedom, and supremely equivalent worth of the personality are indivisibly linked and represent, in their totality, the rational expression of a single social relation. The egoistic subject, the legal subject and the moral personality are the three most important character masks assumed by people in commodity-producing society. The economics of value-relations provides the key to an understanding of the juridical and ethical structure, not in the sense of the concrete content of legal or moral norms, but in the sense of the form itself. (Pashukanis, 1978, p. 152)

Commodities and crime

One thing perhaps requires to be emphasised again about these relations: they are the way in which needs are open to being met legitimately. The social division of labour involves a system of mutual social dependence, in which the everyday reproduction of individuals necessitates repeated access to things which are the property and/or the productions of others. It is that mutual need which also lies behind a vital matter which Pashukanis, for all the brilliance of his exposition, does not draw out with sufficient clarity. Exchange is not the only possible mechanism in a commodity-producing society by which necessities may be socially distributed. There is another possibility: crime.

We have already quoted Marx on exchange, suggesting, ‘No one seizes another’s property by force. Each divests himself of his property voluntarily.’ That is true, of commodity exchange, or Pashukanis’s ‘successfully concluded business deals’. But that is not the whole story of everyday life in commodity-producing society. There is that urgent matter of the gap between need, whatever its expression, and the means of satisfaction of that need. Commodity-producing society is always potentially a thief-producing society. Pashukanis is right: every exchange involves contract, the heart of the legal form. But exchange is not the only mechanism by which goods change hands – and I leave out here all issues to do with gifts. Given the contradiction between need and means of satisfaction, the formal ‘right’ of property, the ‘consent’ of the property-owner and the like are in constant threat of being subverted by ‘illegal’ means, where there is indeed ‘seizure of another’s property by force’.

None of this is brought out in Marx, 16 while Pashukanis restricts himself to almost gnomic remarks. He notes that, ‘Legal intercourse does not “naturally” presuppose a state of peace, just as trade does not, in the first instance, preclude armed robbery, but goes hand in hand with it.’ Also he writes, ‘In intercourse between commodity owners, the necessity for authoritarian coercion arises whenever the peace is disturbed or a contract not fulfilled voluntarily’ (Pashukanis, 1978, pp. 134, 144). His final chapter, on ‘Law and lawbreaking’ discusses modern forms of punishment, not the roots of ‘lawbreaking’ itself.

Never mind. It’s useful to remind ourselves that holy texts are holey. They’re sufficiently rich that they often offer clues about how to go beyond them.

Need and force

It now becomes possible to begin an answer to the question, was the ‘force as an economic power’ of which Marx wrote when discussing ‘primitive accumulation’ simply a ‘once-for-all’ process, or does it enter into the necessities of capitalism as a system? In the light of our discussion of the relations of commodity production and exchange, it seems that the very maintenance and re-production of the everyday assumptions of modern private property relations depends on the systematic use or threat of force.

The reason is plain enough. Existing property relations systematically separate producers from the objects of their need, on an everyday and continuous basis. In commodity production, ‘need’ and ‘right’ stand opposed. The organisation of existing society constantly impels individuals, groups, classes and other collectivities towards what MacPherson termed the ‘invasion of the rights of others’ (MacPherson 1962). The motive to trespass, steal, invade, oppress, rob and generally transgress property rights is continually recreated through the pressure of material need.

Hence this system of social production relations generates a permanent and general requirement for means of ‘defence’, i.e. for means of violence and its organisation. Without a constant threat and/or application of force, commodity production would stand in danger of rapid subversion and breakdown.

It turns out that the exchange of commodities itself depends on ‘non-exchange’ relations, the forcible exclusion of participants in commodity production and exchange from the objects of their need. As I hope to show, the forms of these ‘non-exchange’ relations require further development.17

The logic of the argument is that two positions are mistaken. The first is the vulgar bourgeois-liberal one. This treats the existing system as ‘natural’, i.e. as conforming to ‘human nature’, and thus as demanding no intervention of force except by way of the accident that man is also ‘bad’, i.e. prone to breach the naturalness of private property by his tendency to be a wolf to other men, because of his inherently fallen and ‘competitive’ nature. In our argument, private property is not ‘natural’ but historically created, and human tendencies to sinfulness are, at least in this respect, a product of the specific historical form in which human social cooperation is developed. The second is that set of versions of Marxism itself which see the role of ‘extra-economic force’ in maintaining other modes of production than capitalism (e.g. feudalism), but which only see the role of force in constituting the capitalist mode (‘the so-called primitive accumulation of capital’, where force is the ‘midwife’ acting at the birth). These miss out the permanent necessity of force as a condition of exchange and social cooperation through every phase of the processes of capitalist reproduction, and its regular role in competition and in the resolution of capitalism’s recurrent crises and internal struggles.

All we need assert here is that, at the most abstract and general level of analysis, force is a pre-requisite for social production: all we suppose for the moment is ‘commodity production’ and not (yet) exploitation of one class by another. The social organisation of necessary force and the specific matter of the state still await further development. Nonetheless, it is at this level of analysis that such general concepts as ‘right’, ‘contract’, ‘force’ and indeed ‘law’ belong. They are the legal-political correlates of such economic concepts as ‘value’, ‘exchange-value’ and ‘money’. They express the same social relations, only in a different, ‘jurisprudential’ aspect. In principle they demand the same kind of dialectical presentation as Marx offers in the opening part of Capital, although this will not be attempted here.18

Of course, if means of violence for purposes of ‘defence’ of rights are required as part of the normal everyday functioning of social production, those same means of violence may also be deployed for the opposite purpose: for the ‘offensive’ invasion of the property rights of others. Just as ‘purchase’ and ‘sale’ imply each other, within the social relation of exchange, so ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ are mutual correlates. The major difference is that the attacker and the defender are less easily distinguished in reality than are buyer and seller. Conflicting interpretations and understandings of ‘right’ abound; needs and rights are poorly matched; ‘rights’ regularly conflict. In conflicts over ‘right’, there are and can be no ultimately agreed principles of settlement. Rather, the really operative truth is that ‘Might is Right’. Those whose interest it is to protect their own property and position are not immune from the temptation to enhance their property and position by seizing the property and position of others by force or fraud. The biggest robbers are the rich and powerful, not the poor and weak!

If the historical effort is made to trace back particular ‘rights’ to their point of origin, again and again they will be found to rest on acts of force. The boundaries separating properties, as much as those separating kingdoms, and the exclusions associated with these boundaries, were founded on acts of violent expropriation. All that has happened is that a kind of ‘Statute of Limitations’ has been applied, and theft and murder have been sanctified.19 This is not only a matter of power exercised ‘from above’ to establish existing rights, but equally of power exercised ‘from below’. Popular revolutions, for example, forcibly expropriate existing rights and property claims. Were this not so, the citizens of the USA would still acknowledge Queen Elizabeth as their sovereign ruler.

The point emphasised here is that, without the continuous organisation of means of violence, the very possibility of the world of ‘value’ relations would dissolve. The constitution and preservation of ‘property’ and of the boundaries which demarcate it is an inherently conflict-prone social enterprise. ‘Economic’ processes demand, as a vital presupposition, the consolidation of a system of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and a set of means by which they may be maintained. It is not so much that the economic (in this specific sense) ‘causes’ the political and/or legal framework; for the development of the economic depends on the political/legal, and vice versa. The relation is one of mutual entailment. The constitution of the social relations of value production, rather, involves the simultaneous development of its various sides as interdependent conditions.

If, as we have suggested, ‘value’ and ‘violence’ are as much correlative as antagonistic, we need to consider the social forms through which the necessary organisation of perpetual threat of force is accomplished. Properly developed, the understanding of ‘value’ relations within commodity production demands at least the outline of a theory of jurisprudence, politics and war, alongside its theory of the ‘abstract or economic coercion’ of the law of value.


1 Bob Jessop (2007) sees fit to treat Marx’s views on the Commune as evidence of a lapse into ‘anarchism’: a necessary step perhaps for any attempt to fit Marx into the Procrustean bed of social democracy.

2 Here Michael Lebowitz’s contribution is important.

3 We could also note that Marx and Engels said very little about the limits of ‘national’ revolutions. That they believed in the necessity of world revolution is clear, but they were never faced with the need to argue this against proponents of ‘socialism in one country’.

4 Here we could put the basic figures on growth of state spending as a proportion of GNPs, from e.g. Haynes or Budd. Note also how it has changed its composition, with arms spending – except during world wars – falling as a proportion of the whole.

5 In the final paragraphs of his early ‘Excerpts from James Mill’ (1844), Marx draws out beautifully the contrast between these social relations and those that would obtain if ‘we produced as human beings’ (Marx, 1975b, pp. 277-8).

6 Elsewhere, as we’ve seen, he notes that these exchange relations do not obtain within the capitalist factory.

7 As Michael Heinrich comments: ‘… abstract labour is a violent abstraction from the differences of labour, an abstraction which is only present in exchange, in the relation of commodity to commodity.’ (Heinrich, 2004, p. 3).

8 ‘Just as man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain, so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand’ (Marx, 1976, p. 772).

9 For a developed version of the argument, and its sharp application against theories of ‘market socialism’, David McNally’s work is fundamental (McNally, 1993).

10 ‘It must never be forgotten, that in capitalist production what matters is not the immediate use-value but the exchange-value and, in particular, the expansion of surplus value. This is the driving motive of capitalist production, and it is a pretty conception that… abstracts from its very basis and depicts it as a production aiming at the direct satisfaction of the consumption of the producers.’ (Marx, 1959, p. 495)

11 Marx’s discussion of this under the heading of ‘commodity fetishism’ is matched by his exploratory discussion of ‘pre-capitalist economic formations’ in the Grundrisse (Marx, 1973, pp. 471-514). The relevant passages are brought together, with a useful introduction by Eric Hobsbawm (Marx 1964). The nature of pre-capitalist societies continued to exercise Marx and Engels during the 1870s and 1880s: Laurence Krader transcribed and edited Marx’s ‘ethnological notebooks’ (Marx, 1972), which Engels drew on when writing The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Engels, 1958).

12 Using the useful expression of E P Thompson (Thompson, 1971).

13 Thanks to Keith Gibbard for this. The website (accessed 16 August 2009) lists and classifies other versions:

‘Anti-imperialist’: ‘This land is my land, and only my land / And I just take land if I can’t buy land / And if I spy land, well, then it’s my land / This land was made for only me.’

‘Native American’: ‘This land is your land, it once was my land / Before I sold you Manhattan Island / You banished my nation, to the reservation / This land was stolen by you from me.’

‘Anarchist’: ‘This land is their land, it isn’t our land / From the Wall Street office, to the Cadillac car-land / From the plush apartments, to the Hollywood starland / This land is not for you and me / If this is our land, You’d never know it / So take your bullshit, and kindly stow it / Let’s get together, and overthrow it / Then this land will be for you and me.’

14 ‘Money’s ability to buy rests on the “foreign-ness” of commodity owners from each other, that is, on the weak influence on commodity owners of kinship, hierarchy, religion, and so on. Money is the social bond of “foreigners”, the nexus rerum holding commodity owners together in the market and beyond.’ (Lapavitsas, 2006, p. 144)

15 In a footnote the editor notes that the Vindicta meant originally the liberating rod with which a slave was touched in manumission ceremony; it came to mean a means of asserting or defending – a protection or defence. The term’s most common derived use in English is ‘vindication’.

16 There is a passage in Marx’s preparatory materials for Capital, in which Marx, in rather satirical tone, briefly considers the contributions of crime to capitalist development. I draw on this passage here.

17 My thanks to Adrian Budd for pressing me to develop this point.

18 But see, for example, as well as Pashukanis, work by Bob Fine and Geoffrey Kay (Fine, 1984) (Kay, 1988). Note also Daniel Bensaïd’s remark: ‘It is indeed the case that right, while it is not reducible to force, is never wholly foreign to it, even in the initial establishment of its legitimacy.’ (Bensaïd, 2002, p. 134)

19 Of the classical political philosophers, it was Rousseau, in his Discourse on Inequality, who stressed this most strongly. The point is made very clearly in an old Glaswegian joke. A shipyard worker is ordered off land owned by a Scottish laird:

What makes it yours, Jimmy?’
‘I inherited it from my father, my good man.’
‘And where did he get it?’
‘He inherited it from his father, and so on back eleven generations.’
And where did he get it?
‘He fought for it.’
Right, Jimmy, I’ll fight you for it…

A bibliography will be published in the final part of this article along with PDF and e-reader versions of the text. 


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