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Hor ·i zont al Rel at i ons: A Note on
Br enner ' s Her esy
El l en Mei ksi ns Wood
One fundamental assumption seems to underlie - explicitly or implicitly
- every critique of Brenner I have seen: that there can be no such thing
as a Marxist theory of competition, the 'horizontal' relation among
many capitals, that does not presuppose the 'vertical' class relation
between capital and livinglabour. To start (if not also to end) with the
relation between capital and living labour is the only way to establish
one's Marxist credentials (establishing those credentials does, by the
way, seem to be the-critical, even the sole, issue for those who engage
Brenner's argument on that plane, without considering the empirical or
explanatory power of his argument). In support of that assumption,
more than one critic has invoked Marx's comment that competition
does not produce or explain capitalist laws of motion but merely
executes them, as their visiblemanifestation in the external movements
of individual capitals. Predictably, too, some critics havegleefullyturned
against Brenner the charge he has famously levelled against other
Marxists: that his focus on competition and the market makes him a
In this note, I simply want to propose that there is indeed a way of
thinking in Marxist terms about the relation among capitals, as distinct
from, and even in some respects independent of, the relation between
capital and livinglabour.
The deduction from the relation between capital and living
labour: what it can and cannot accomplish
Let me start with an observation made by Mike Lebowitz in his lucid
and trenchant critique of Brenner. The main 'theoretical requirement'
for Marx, he suggests, was to derive the introduction of machinery 'out
of the relation of capital to living labour, without reference to other
capitals'. 'Nothing', he says, 'could be easier' than deducing the
introduction of machinery from competition and the need to reduce
Now, it hardly needs saying that the reason 'nothing could be easier'
than deriving the need to increase labour productivity from the
pressures of competition is that the connection is so self-evident. The
difficult question is what underlies those pressures. In particular, to
1 Lebowitz in this issue.
Hi st or i cal Mat er l aUsm
what extent and in what ways do they presuppose and depend on the
relation between capital and livinglabour?
First, we have to be clear about the 'theoretical requirement' to
deduce the nee<;lfor machine production and increasing productivity
from the relation between capital and livinglabour. We have to be clear
about what that deduction can and cannot accomplish. It certainly
locates an imperative to increase productivity within the relation
between capital and labour, an imperative that is invisible if we think
capitalist profit derives from the process of circulation. Of course
identifying that imperative already requires us to presuppose certain
features of capital that distinguish it from other forms of exploiting
wage-labour, forms that do not entail the same imperatives. But, once
we take those features as given, we learn about the ways in which the
compulsion to increase the productivity of labour is affected by the
employment of wage-labour and the need to extract maximum surplus-
value from it. We learn that when,as in a mature industrial capitalism,
wage-labour is employed for a fixed period of time, the pressure to
increase productivity by technical means becomes that much greater, to
ensure the maximum extraction of relative surplus-value. And Marx
makes very clear that living labour has its own very specific
consequences deriving from the capacity of living, conscious human
beings to resist.
But how much does this tell us about where the pressure to increase
labour productivity comes from in the first place? The particular
imperative rooted in the mature relation between capital and living
labour has certain presuppositions which cannot be explained by any
deduction fromthat relation, and without which the imperative deriving
from that relation itself remains inexplicable. In fact, the very existence
of the relation between capital and livinglabour in its mature capitalist
form (and Marx's model clearly does assume that form) would be
inexplicable if it had not been preceded by already existing pressures to
The argument that follows here will proceed on the premise that the
two claims I havejust made - one about causal presuppositions and the
other about historical preconditions - are connected. Since it has long
been obligatory in various strains of Marxism to insist on driving a
methodological wedge between historical and causal explanations, this
procedure probably requires some clarification. Without engaging in a
methodological debate, let me simply· explain why it seems to me to
make sense to proceed as I do.
I am, indeed, making two distinct claims: that the mature relation
between capital and labour has certain historical preconditions, and that
the operation of capitalism's systemic laws of motion as they operate in
the mature relation between capital and labour have certain causal
presuppositions. At the same time, while these claims are distinct, I am
insisting that they are related. This is so because both rest on the
specificity of capitalism, the specific laws of motion that distinguish it
fromother social forms.
To explain the origin of capitalism ~ as I understand what a
historical explanation entails - is to isolate, so to speak, the moment of
difference, to bring into sharp relief the process of transformation by
which one social form with its own specific laws of motion (or what
Brenner calls its own rules for reproduction) becomes another social
formwith different laws of motion and reproductive rules. It would be
meaningless to talk about the origin of capitalism without identifying
the essential principles that define capitalism as a specific social form.
And it would be meaningless to talk about the explanation of capitalist
development if it were simply a matter of chronological sequence or
narrative and not also of systemic causes.
Furthermore, to speak of capitalist laws of motion is to acknowledge
that there are certain essential systemic imperatives that drive both the
'synchronic' processes of capitalism and its 'diachronic' movements.
For instance, both the pressure to increase surplus-value that drives
capital's relation with wage-labour, and the impetus that historically
propelled capitalism from its early forms to its mature industrial form,
or, say, from the 'formal' to the 'real' subsumption oflabour to capital,
are rooted in a fundamental imperative to improve labour productivity.
The question we are canvassing here is precisely this: what are the
irreducible conditions of that common systemic imperative?
Suppose weagree that capitalism ischaracterised by distinctive laws
of motion such as the need constantly to increase labour productivity in
ways unlike any other social form. We might then ask what precisely it
is in the nature of capitalism that determines this need. The deduction
from the mature relation between capital and labour cannot by itself
answer that question. It can either beg the question by entirely circular
reasoning, or it can begin with certain presuppositions and show how,
given those presuppositions, the relation between capital and labour
affects the imperative to increase labour productivity.
The proposition. that 'nothing could be easier' than deriving the
need to increase labour productivity from the pressures of competition
among capitals, and that the real task is to deduce that need from the
relation between capital and labour, is just another way of saying that
the latter presupposes the former, that the .exploitation of wage-labour
without competitive relations entails nO need to improve labour
productivity. Whether the former also entails the latter is the question
we are here trying to answer, and the answer cannot be deduced from
the relation between capital and labour. It is self-evident that, where
both competition among capitals and the relation between capital and
labour are present, there is an imperative to increase labour
productivity. But this is not necessarily· to say that only where both
conditions are present will that imperative obtain.
More particularly, what the deduction from the mature relation
between capital and labour can never do is demonstrate that nothing
1 7 3
Hi st or i cal Mat er i aUsm
short of that relation, or nothing but that relation, or even that no other
condition in the absence of that relation, can set in motion the
imperative to increase labour productivity. Above all, that deduction
cannot demonstrate that the imperatives of competition have their
source in the relation between capital and labour.
One obvious way of breaking out of an endless question-begging
circularity is a historical analysis of the conditions in which the
imperative to increase labour productivity first came into play. A
historical analysis allows us to follow the causal chain back from the
dual relations of a mature capitalism, tracing the imperative to its
minimal preconditions. We may stilI not be able to say with certainty
that no other conditions could, in principle, have had the same effect.
But (provided we can offer, as Brenner has offered, a systematic
explanation of howand why those conditions caused those effects - and
not just a contingent narrative of chronological sequences) we are at
least entitled to conclude that the imperative will operate where those
conditions obtain. So, for instance, if it can be shown (as Brenner has
shown) that market-dependent producers have been subject to that
imperative even in the absence of wage-labour, certain conclusions
seem to follow. We cannot conclude that the presence of wage labour
would have no specific effects on that imperative, but we are surely
entitled to make certain deductions about the autonomy of those
imperatives from the relation between capital and wage labour. The
argument that follows here will proceed on that basis.
The deduction fromthe capital/labour relation does not - and is not
meant to - tell us where the systemic imperatives of competition and
increasing productivity come fromin the first place. It can tell us about
(to quote Lebowitz) 'capital's tendency to increase productivity inorder
to generate relative surplus-value', but it cannot tell us why capital is in
a position that requires it to generate relative surplus-value. It cannot
tell us about the imperatives that precede, historically and causally, the
need to generate relative surplus-value. By the way, there is a
telescoping of historical processes implicit in the conflation of 'relation
between capital and livinglabour' ~not to mention 'exploitation' - and
'relative surplus-value'. Exploitative relations even between capital and
labour have not, needless to say, always taken the form of relative
The mature relation between capital and labour, then, has
presuppositions that remain to be explained, and among those
presuppositions is a system of competition. The deduction from the
capital/labour relation certainly meets an important 'theoretical
requirement', but not the only one, or even the first one. Even the
passage from the 'formal' to the 'real'subsumption of labour to capital
would be hard to explain in distinctively Marxist terms without taking
account of some compulsion prior to the imperative derived from the
mature relation between capital and living labour. The formal
subsumption itself would be even harder to explain. Instead of a
distinctively Marxist explanation of how the relation between capital and
labour came into being in the.firstplace, Marxists - not excluding Marx
himself - have often resorted to arguments not unlike those of classical
political economy or liberal historiography, before Marx's revolutionary
critique of political economy: arguments having to do with
transhistorical processes of commercialisation or technological
Here comes the tricky part. It may be that Marx himself never fully
met all the 'theoretical requirements' of his own argument, his own
critique of political economy. We not only needto deduce an imperative
to increase labour productivity from the relation between capital and
labour. We also need an explanation of the underlying imperative to
increase labour productivity presupposed by the relation between capital
and labour. Marx obviously went a long way in providing an
explanation, but perhaps he did not do it all. He did not elaborate a
comprehensive and consistent theory of capitalist imperatives that
spelled out all thepresuppositions of competition.
It is easy enough to see how Marx differentiates his analysis from
classical political economy in his explanation of the relation between
capital and labour, and it is not hard to understand how his conception
of surplus-value affects the theory of competition. It is not so easy to
seehow a Marxist theory of the relation among capitals can distinguish
itself frombourgeois economics without relying.onthe relation between
capital and living labour. But a Marxist theory that differentiates itself
from bourgeois economics only by introducing the relation between
capital and labour isessentially circular.
'Horizontal' and 'vertical' relations
To break out of the circle requires us, first, to think about how the
imperatives of competition were first established, the imperatives that
first created the need to increase labour productivity ~setting in train a
process in which the need to generate relative surplus-value, with its
effects on the development of machinery, is not the first cause but the
Brenner's historical work lays a foundation for a Marxist theory of
the relation among capitals by explaining the conditions in which direct
producers were first subjected to market imperatives and competition.
This is something Marx himself never really did. In his own historical
accounts of the origin of capitalism, for instance, he sometimes
reproduces bourgeois ideology, the commercialisation model or
technological determinism. Or else, in the discussion of primitive
accumulation, he seems to treat expropriation as a largely 'extra-
economic' process of coercion, so he never really analyses the original
conditions of market-dependence and market imperatives.
That is what Brenner set out to do, and his historical insights have
wider theoretical implications, as he makes clear, for instance, by
constructing an explanation of the current global economy based on
those insights. His analysis of 'economic turbulence', which locates the
original mechanism of overproduction/overcapacity in the 'horizontal'
relation of competition among capitals, starts from the premise that the
differentia sped fica of capitalism is the market-dependence of all
economic actors and of producers inparticular. Only in capitalism does
access to the means of subsistence and self-reproduction depend on the
market, and, hence, only capitalism is subject to the imperatives of
But - and here is the critical point - market-dependence does not,
in the first instance, derivefroma 'vertical' relation between capital and
labour. The essential theoretical point, derived fromhis historical work,
is two-fold: on the one hand, market-dependence and competition will
give rise to specialisation, accumulation and innovation even in the
absence of exploitation. On the other hand, in the absence of
competition, no formof exploitation will produce those effects.
Brenner's focus on the 'horizontal' relation among capitals in his
analysis of the long downturn is therefore (notwithstanding the
anonymous - though dare I say it has Perry Anderson written all over
it? - editorial introduction to the NLR text) not a departure from his
earlier work and the centrality it accords to 'vertical' relations of class.
On the contrary, the one follows directly from the other. His history of
the origin of capitalism exposes, in historical materialist terms, the
foundations of competitive relations.
Brenner's history shows how economic units became market-
dependent, in historically unprecedented ways, not because of the
relation between capital and labour but before the widespread
proletarianisation of the work force and as a precondition to it. In the
specific property relations of early modern England, landlords and their
tenants became dependent on the market for their self-reproduction and
hence subject to. the imperatives of competition and increasing
productivity, whether or not they employed wage-labour.
The crucial point here is that market-dependence, and the
imperatives of competition that went with it, did not depend on the
complete separation of the producers from the means of production.
The essential determinant was separation from non-market access to
the means of subsistence, the means of self-reproduction. A tenant
could, for instance, remain in possession of land, but his survival and
his tenure could nonetheless be subject to market imperatives, whether
he employed wage labour or was himself the direct producer. This kind
of market-dependence was a cause of complete dispossession, a cause,
not a result, of the expropriation of the English peasantry. People in
possession of land were driven off the land not just by direct coercion
but also by the operation of economic forces, the forces of an
increasingly competitive market. Let me emphasise, in case it is not
already blindingly obvious, that to detach these 'economic' forces of
competition from the relation between capital and labour is not to
detach the 'economy' or the competitive market from social property
relations as such. On the contrary, the whole point is that they were
rooted in, and emanated from, very specific property relations, very
specific conditions of access to the means of subsistence and self-
In other words, the 'so-called primitive accumulation' was achieved
not only by acts of extra-economic coercion but, increasingly, also in
response to economic imperatives, rooted in specific property relations,
which drove out uncompetitive producers by the sheer force of market
pressures and/or provided larger, more powerful landowners with a
new incentive to concentrate property by direct coercive means. So a
mass proletariat was the result, not the cause, of those market
The pressure to increase labour productivity, then, was not caused
bythe relation between capital and wage-labour. If anything, the reverse
is true: the pressure to increase labour productivity brought about the
generalised relation between capital and wage-labour which we now
regard as essential to capitalism. The capital/wage-labour relation
characteristic of a mature industrial capitalism, once established,
certainly increased the need to revolutionise the technical forces of
production, the pressure to intensify exploitation and with it working-
class resistance and struggle. But we cannot understand the emergence
of that mature formof capitalismwithout understanding theimperatives
that preceded it. If we fail to acknowledge the imperatives rooted in
property relations that preceded the mature relation between capital and
labour, weare, for instance, reduced to talking about the 'industrial
revolution' as an essentially technical process, a process of
'industrialisation' rather than aprocess of capitalist development.
At any rate, English 'agrarian capitalism', as described by Brenner,
not only reveals the historical preconditions of the capitalist relation
between capital and labour. It also demonstrates how the market-
dependence of producers, with or without wage-labour, can subject
them to the imperatives of competition. This provides at least a
historical reason for thinking that we miss something fundamentally
important about market-dependence, market imperatives, and capitalist
competition if we fail to recognise the ways in which they are not
connected to the relation with wage-labour, as well as theways inwhich
they are. The fact that market-dependence and competition preceded
proletarianisation tells us something about the relations of competition
and their autonomy from the relations between capital and labour. It
means that producers and possessors of the means of production, who
are not themselves wage-labourers, can be market-dependent without
employing wage-labour. This clearly has implications for the pressures
that affect capital evenabstracted fromits relation to wage-labour.
Hi st or i cal Mat er l aUsm
But I want to go beyond that claim. The fact that market-
dependence can exist without complete dispossession of the direct
producers has other implications. For instance, it tells us something
about the impossibility of so-called market socialism. I think market
socialism is impossible - I think the term market socialism is a
contradiction interms - because, even inthe absence of a class division
between capital and labour, even if the means of production are
returned to the direct producers, as long as the market regulates the
economy there will always be imperatives of accumulation and
competition. Once the market becomes an economic 'discipline' or
'regulator', which requires that producers remain market-dependent,
even workers who own the means of production, individually or
collectively, will be forced to respond to the market's imperatives - to
compete and accumulate, to exploit themselves, and to let so-called
'uncompetitive' enterprises and their workers go under. (Marx, by the
way, suggested just this possibility in a discussion of workers'
cooperatives and how they would be self-exploiting in the presence. of
market imperatives.) To the extent that these competitive pressures
demand the intensification of labour to maximise labour productivity,
hierarchical relations in the process of production will be generated
even in the absence of vertical relations between classes. And it even
seems likely that the end result would be to reproduce the vertical
relations of class. J ust as market imperatives expropriated direct
producers in the early days of capitalism, so they could have similar
effects in 'market socialism'.
To sum up: wehave to acknowledge that market-dependence and
market imperatives existed before direct producers were expropriated.
And we also haveto acknowledge that market-dependence and market
imperatives could exist even if workers were reconnected with the
means of production ~in other words, even in the absence ofa vertical
relation between capital and labour.
The point here is obviously not - or not only.- that the deduction
from the relation between capital and living labour cannot provide, and
is not meant to, ahistorical explanation of the origin of capitalism. The
point is that - or also that - it does not, and is not meant to, find the
irreducible source of theimperative to increase labour productivity.
So it is not enough to say that the primacy Brenner gives to
competition as a relation among capitals is contrary to Marx's own
insistence that competition does not cause capitalism's laws of motion
but is simply their executor or their external manifestation in the
movements of individual capitals. The point is that no other social form
has laws of motion that work through the mechanisms of competition.
No other social formis subject to the imperatives of accumulation and
innovation, which are driven by competition. And competition is the
mechanism of capitalism's basic laws of motion because, in capitalism,
as in no other system, the irreducible condition of access to the means
of self-reproduction is market-dependence and subjection to market
imperatives. We cannot even understand capital's perennial efforts to
circumvent competition without taking account of that irreducible
condition of market-dependence and the competitive imperatives that
go with it.
Competition plays a central role in capitalist accumulation because
capitalism is, in its essence, a systemof market-dependence, a systemin
which the sphere of circulation is directly implicated in the sphere of
production and in relations of exploitation as it is in no other mode of
production. A Marxist theory of competition must, in other words, take
account of the fact that market-dependence is capital's ultimate
condition of existence, and that market-dependence is historically and
causally prior to therelation between capital and livinglabour.
This does not mean, as Brenner's critics seem to think it does, that
class struggle has been relegated to themargins of contemporary history
and politics. On the contrary, his analysis represents apowerful case in
favour of militant class struggle. But that isanother story.3
Ref er ences
Wood, Ellen 1999, 'The Politics of Capitalism', Monthly Review. 51, 4:
2 Wood 1999.
3 Wood 1999.
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