Rethinking Capitalism: Class 3

I think there are two great questions to take away from Nancy Fraser’s approach to understanding capitalism, one small and one large. The smaller one concerns the analogy between feudalism and capitalism. This was not discussed last night but it seems to me important. Both belong to the same set of things, namely they are both examples of class society. What they have in common is that one class dominates and exploits another. In both cases the key is dispossession. In feudalism, the lords built castles, took surrounding land from peasants and enfoeffed the peasantry through various means. In capitalism we have the paradigm case of the enclosures, but we also have the idea of primitive accumulation, and, of course, slavery. Class societies rest on violence (because of dispossession). Further more, the violence is continuous not just originary, as we see in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. This does not mean that capitalist society—as well as feudal society—does not rest on law and contract (or vassalage oaths in the feudal case). On the contrary it helps explain law and contract to see the role of violence. Also, in considering “primitive accumulation” are we not considering a kind of mythic foundation for society. I believe Smith suggests this.

Second, Nancy presented a very clear, capacious and original conception of capitalism. In her view it is to be understood as a kind of tripartite unfolding of an abstraction — “the economy” — which properly has to be situated in relation to three environments or “preconditions,” to use Nancy’s word. The three are “nature,” or what I prefer to call the techno-material basis; political power; and social reproduction, including kinship and the family. All three of these “preconditions” are themselves abstractions or “separations,” which need to be understood in relation to “the economy.” All three have somewhat different normativities and all three give rise to social struggles at the boundary so to speak between the particular domain and the economy. A comprehensive view requires both respecting and challenging the relative autonomy of the three border domains.

Nancy’s presentation poses two questions for me: what does she mean by “the economy” and what does she mean by “precondition?” As to the economy, if we stick to the importance of the use value/exchange value distinction, does Nancy mean by “economy” both u.v. and e.v. or does she just mean e.v., in other words the monetized, quantified, part of economic life, which is generally what is meant by “the economy.” If she means u.v./e.v. then that has implications for her model.

As to preconditions, one idea that was posed is that these are transcendental preconditions for capitalism. I would reject that view out of hand. Kant is too clear to muddy that water. In my view there are two kinds of preconditions: 1) historical or temporal and 2) constitutive. Something can be an historical precondition and become constitutive. An example would be family life among peasants, slaves and workers. Social reproduction is an antecedent condition but it becomes constitutive.

One last example: women and capitalism. If we think of the economy as e.v., then we note that the housewife produces use values and is integral to capitalism. Not recognizing this is part of sexism. But only part. Women are not just disrespected in the development of capitalist accumulation processes, they are idealized: the cult of true womanhood. This idealization results from the fact that they do not produce exchange value. Perhaps, as Max Weber suggested there is a whole system of values built into the use value/exchange value distinction?

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Eli Zaretsky

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