Yes, Socialists Should Support Industrial Policy and a Green New Deal

The capitalist system may be turbulent, inequitable, and antisocial. But there is no “iron law” of capital standing in the way of a program of economic planning for sake of the climate.


A few days ago, Dylan Riley wrote a post on New Left Review’s Sidecar blog that provoked a furious response on left-economics twitter. I largely agree with the criticism made by Alex WilliamsNathan TankusDoug Henwood, and others. But I want to try to clarify the larger stakes in this debate.

Riley’s piece starts from the suggestion that the failure of Silicon Valley Bank reflects a larger crisis of overcapacity and lack of investment opportunities. SVB, he writes,

had parked a huge quantity of its deposits in low-yield — but supposedly safe — government-backed securities and low-interest bonds. . . . The bank was overwhelmed by the massive growth in deposits from its tech clients — and neither it nor they could find anything worthwhile to invest in. . . . The SVB collapse is a beautiful, almost paradigmatic, demonstration of the fundamental structural problem of contemporary capitalism: a hyper-competitive system, clogged with excess capacity and savings, with no obvious outlets to soak them up.

This is an elegant framing, but it runs into a problem immediately, involving the ambiguous meaning of “invest.” The depositors in SVB were not venture capitalists, but the firms that they had stakes in. The reason SVB had such big deposits was not because finance was unable to find profitable outlets even in the tech world, but precisely because it had done so. The fact that SVB’s assets consisted of Treasury bonds rather than loans to its depositors reflects the shift in business financing, especially in tech, away from banks toward specialized venture capital funds — an interesting development, certainly, but one that doesn’t tell us anything about the overall population of businesses looking for financing.

Lurking behind Riley’s formulation here seems to be a crude version of commodity money theory, in which money is either out in the world being useful or being left idle in the bank. But money in the real world is always in the form of bank deposits — that’s what money is — regardless of how actively it is circulating.

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It’s Time for Black Women to #AskForMore

By demanding equal pay for equal work, and by practicing #AskForMore, Black women can take action to begin narrowing centuries-old income and wealth deficits.

Michelle Holder

In an area of study dominated by elite, white men, I am one of a small number of Black female economists in the United States. Black and Women’s History Months in the U.S. present an opportunity to uplift the issues that I am forced to grapple with as a Black woman and that I have chosen to study out of desire for change. Economists often ignore the double gap Black women face when it comes to salaries and wages; this group loses billions of dollars of what I term “involuntarily forfeited” compensation each year due to sexism and racism within the U.S. workplace.

The double gap endures not only due to sexist and racist employment practices, but also because proving this inequity is extremely challenging. While Black women may suspect they’re being underpaid compared to their white and/or male colleagues, it’s extremely difficult for most of us to know for sure, and if we don’t know, we can’t attempt to fix it.

I propose we stop waiting for our leaders to step up and instead flip the script ourselves: In this world of asymmetrical information and lack of national policies around pay transparency, Black women can turn among ourselves and begin to ask for more. I’m not suggesting it’s our problem alone to solve; we didn’t create it. I’m also not suggesting that you stick up your boss, since research shows when Black women assertively negotiate, employers don’t react well. I suggest that, when negotiating, you ask for 10 to 20 percent more than you would have. And keep doing this throughout your career.

I have a personal and professional investment in understanding why so much inequality pervades the economy. In the last few years, I’ve researched the salaries of white men and Black women with similar levels of educational attainment and experience in popular professions, and what I found was sobering.

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Trump’s Real Crime Is Opposing Empire

Christian Parenti

Within 24 hours of former President Donald Trump’s arrest on 34 overhyped felony counts related to hush-money payments made to conceal an extramarital dalliance, his re-election campaign raised $4 million, and he widened his lead in the Republican primaries to almost 30 percentage points. Yet a CNN poll also found that 60 percent of Americans approve of the indictment. These numbers are probably less important than they might appear. The trial will likely mobilize the base in both parties and pull swing voters in both directions—for a net effect of zero.

“The indictment does real harm to the American body politic.”

Even so, the indictment does real harm to the American body politic. It has already set off another Trump-centric media feeding frenzy, at the expense of issues far more serious than the former executive’s half-remembered infidelities, and it creates a dangerous precedent, further politicizing the judiciary and inviting escalation. Above all, it is a reminder that Trump has been investigated, impeached, and indicted not because of the crimes of which he is accused, but because he has dared to oppose the imperial foreign policy favored by elites.

Fans of the indictment insist that no man is above the law, not every case creates a precedent, and other countries indict their leaders. For example, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to jail, and France is still a democracy. But the Trump indictment is of a piece with other developments that should be cause for worry. Just to name one example, a few weeks before the former president’s arrest, Internal Revenue Service agents visited the home of journalist Matt Taibbi while he was testifying at a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

The IRS’s visit to the home of a prominent critic of the establishment on the same day he was testifying about government overreach is a highly unusual occurrence, and almost seems like the Biden administration flipping the bird to its critics. Outrageously, the mainstream and left media by and large have ignored the IRS bullying of Taibbi. Federal law enforcement has long been deployed in blatantly political ways against the activist left. Heterodox critics like Taibbi are now also targets, and there is ample evidence that it is also being wielded against the MAGA right.

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Tankus Challenges Powell?

Nathan Tankus is the research director of the Modern Money Network. He also writes the Notes on the Crises newsletter.

There has been more buzz about the trillion-dollar platinum coin since my last piece for FT Alphaville, where I argued that the Federal Reserve would have to accept the coin if the Treasury tried to deposit it.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was asked by the Wall Street Journal about the trillion dollar platinum coin; she said the Federal Reserve might not accept the deposit, and further claimed that it isn’t legally obliged to, either.

She didn’t say that issuing a trillion-dollar coin is illegal, however. This, in and of itself, is remarkable. It suggests that while she isn’t comfortable with the platinum coin proposal, she does not want to completely close the door to it by claiming it is not a legal option at all.

More generally, the responses to my argument have highlighted a normally neglected part of the Fed’s responsibilities: its role as fiscal agent. The most substantive engagement came from writer Josh Barro, who argued that other end runs around the debt ceiling such as issuing low face value bonds were better because they don’t require the Fed’s reluctant co-operation. I disagree with this claim, but it is understandable why Barro believes it. Most people do not realise that the Fed’s fiscal agent responsibilities extend beyond providing bank accounts for the Treasury Department and processing payments for it.

As the longtime house historian of the New York Fed Kenneth Garbade has documented, “Treasury securities” are in practice a book-entry system administered by the Fed, even as they remain the Treasury’s liabilities. They are held in “securities accounts” and when a bank or insurance company wants to sell a Treasury security, they use the Fed’s “Fedwire Securities Service”. The book-entry system, incidentally, was introduced in response to a couple of crises, including the disappearance of $7.5mn of Treasuries in 1963 and threats to liquidity from an “insurance crisis” in 1970.

The Fed is also integrally involved in Treasury auctions. As its services website explains: “the Federal Reserve assists in the auction by accepting and processing tenders, issuing securities to the successful bidders and serving financial institutions.” The New York Fed administers all of the Fed’s open-market operations, trading with a select group of bond dealers called “primary dealers” who, in exchange, are required to bid on Treasury auctions.

In other words, if you’re trying to avoid requiring the close co-operation of the Fed or its regional banks as a fiscal agent, auctioning a Treasury security is the wrong strategy. It may sound like a process that is more independent from the Fed than depositing a high-face-value platinum coin, but this is a myth generated by neglect of the details of how the Treasury market works.

Additionally, as Bloomberg’s Treasuries reporter Elizabeth Stanton pointed out, there are a number of operational issues with trying to modify the Treasury auction schedule and issue new types of Treasury securities, especially ones that would be clouded with the same (at best) legal uncertainties as the coin. In contrast, depositing the trillion-dollar coin is operationally simple even if its legal uncertainties are different from any unconventional-Treasury-security-related gimmicks.

Bottom line: issuing a weird bond may be more attractive to DC pundits and play well with an audience that likes needless complexity, but when you examine it up close it is not actually a more viable or less risky option.

Nevertheless, Barro’s commentary brings up a few questions that need attention: how seriously does the Fed take its fiscal agent responsibilities, and does it believe it can pick and choose which responsibilities to carry out? Perhaps most explosively, does the Fed believe it can interfere with the White House’s determination that breaking the debt ceiling is the least unconstitutional option?

Put differently, do Fed officials believe that their judgment on constitutional questions supersedes the executive branch?

Interestingly, former Fed chair Alan Greenspan said a number of times behind closed doors that the Fed was not independent in its role as a fiscal agent. In 1995, for example, he said: “On the issue of how we deal with the Treasury in this government, as fiscal agent we involve ourselves in various types of support for the Treasury and that does in one sense impinge on the independence of this institution.” In 2004 he reiterated these comments, saying “there are a number of awkward relationships that we have in our role as fiscal agent, none of which to my knowledge has ever triggered any event that would be of concern to us”.


This brings me to my questions for Fed Chair Jay Powell, which I hope journalists will ask at the press conference on Wednesday. These questions are important; it matters if the leadership of the Fed believes that it’s their prerogative to decide whether the government defaults, or to interfere with Treasury issuance under any circumstances.

1) If the Treasury attempted to avoid default by depositing a trillion dollar coin at a regional Fed Bank, would the Fed’s Board direct that bank to reject the deposit of the coin?

2) Would the Fed fully co-operate with a Treasury attempt to avoid default by issuing consols or low-face-value, high-coupon bonds once the debt ceiling is reached?

3) If the Treasury attempted to avoid default by issuing more Treasury securities beyond the limit set by the debt ceiling, would the Fed interfere with their issuance in any way, including (but not limited to) its role as a fiscal agent?

I hope Powell gets asked these questions and answers them. They are profoundly important. The trillion dollar platinum coin — or the quirky Treasury bond proposals, for that matter — may seem silly. However, they have brought up fundamental constitutional questions which are very serious. Powell can clarify at tomorrow’s press conference that the Fed’s judgment does not supersede the President’s when it comes to questions of constitutional interpretation.

Original Article:

‘Diversity’ Is a Ruling-Class Ideology

We live in the age of diversity ideology, a worldview that ostensibly aims to uplift the socially marginalized. Diversity ideology’s advocates present it as a grassroots movement propelled by the downtrodden, but it is now the rhetorical currency of big business, the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, universities, powerful philanthropic foundations, h.r. departments everywhere, the Democratic Party, even many Republicans.

Diversity as ideology shouldn’t be confused with diversity itself, which tends to engender tolerance, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism. On the contrary, diversity ideology is narrow and parochial. It is a divisive, hollowed-out form of progressivism used to distract and channel legitimate popular grievances into destructive, often petty squabbles. Elites and elite institutions find diversity ideology useful because it keeps the working class divided and distracted.

One of the more striking aspects of diversity ideology is reluctance to criticize it across most of the American left. This, even as corporations and the state have been increasingly open in their appeals to diversity ideology to legitimize profiteering, mass surveillance, and imperial warfare. Recall progressive congressman Jamie Raskin’s letter describing Moscow as “a world center of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred.” Nonetheless, on the activist left, the conviction remains that identity politics somehow add up to a more “inclusive” form of class struggle from below. In reality, the opposite is true: Diversity ideology offers a highly effective way to wage class war from above—a ruling-class strategy with a long pedigree in the United States.

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Capitalist History, Capitalist Structure: On Integrating Historical Material and Theoretical Structure (Part One) — Bo Harvey

[This is part one of two posts by Bo Harvey. ]

The elaboration of a theory requires first of all the construction of a model. It is a problem which is the cause of numerous misconceptions in the field of the human sciences in general, and in the field of economic history in particular. Most historians do not recognize the need to construct a model, and every attempt in such a direction surprises them and even calls forth their indignation. -Witold Kula [1]

This lifeless bureaucratic conception, steeped in the methods of formalism, produced a history emptied of any specifically historical content, reduced by the formed march of simple formal abstractions to the meagre ration of a few volatile categories. Within five decades of Marx’s death, the history written by the Stalinists became as opaque and dream-like, and hardly as exciting, as the fantasies of surrealism. -Jairus Banaji[2]


‘One of the strangest intellectual paradoxes of all time’, writes Jairus Banaji, is how Marxism’s reticence in grappling with ‘merchant’ or ‘commercial’ capital has left the construction of a ‘History of Capitalism’ to non-Marxist historiography. ‘Marxists’, he writes, ‘talk a great deal about capitalism but hardly ever about merchant capitalism or commercial capitalism’.[3]

Banaji attributes this rejection and stigmatisation of ‘merchant capital’ partly to Mikhail Pokrovsky—broadly regarded as the most important historian of the early period of the USSR. Pokrovsky was forced by Stalin to recant his own research into a specific form of ‘merchant capitalism’ in 1931 and to focus instead on ‘industry’. Henceforth ‘merchant capitalism’ was understood as nothing more than ‘an illiterate expression’ because ‘capitalism is a system of production, and merchant capital produces nothing’.[4]

For Banaji, censorious and ideological scholarship then congealed into a post-Stalin historiographical orthodoxy. ‘Merchant’ or ‘commercial capital’ functioned only as an intermediary and was understood to not be productive in itself nor analytically determinative of capitalism or ‘the capitalist mode of production’. ‘Industrial capital’ became capital qua capital and ‘industrial capitalism’ became capitalism qua capitalism, according to, ‘that universal orthodoxy that writes the history of capitalism as a genealogy of industrial capital’.[5]

Yet even a cursory literature review of post-1960s historiography that attempts to deal with ‘early capitalism’ will find concepts like ‘commercial capitalism’ and ‘merchant capitalism’ as being central to their argument.[6] ‘Marxist reticence (Perry Anderson, Robert Brenner, and a host of others)’, so Banaji argues, ‘is thus strikingly at odds with much of the historiography that has evolved’.[7] ‘The whole field of “early capitalism” was left entirely vacant for other traditions of historiography to move into and occupy firmly’.[8]

Banaji has been making this point for decades, and his comments in A Brief History of Commercial Capital (2020) repeat those expressed nearly fifty years ago, now published in the collection Theory as History.[9] In early methodological essays he described how Marx’s project for a historical materialism and the establishment of ‘scientific foundations of socialism’ ran up against the imposed limits of the positivism that dominated early twentieth-century century social science—one which was not limited to Plekhanov and Stalin, but also defined mainstream understandings of Marx’s intentions.[10]

For Banaji, ‘historical materialism’ (Plenkhanov, Bukharin) and its ‘liberal-bourgeois historiography’ (located classically in the work of Leopoldo Von Ranke) were therefore complements rather than rivals: ‘Liberal-bourgeois historiography…proceeded as if theory could be derived from “facts”; in this positivist conception, “facts” were objects outside theory, constituted, like matter, independently of consciousness. For vulgar Marxism, infected by the illusion which Engels noted, history, already endowed with its theory (“historical materialism”), consisted in the application of this theory to “facts”’.[11] For liberal historiography then, ‘the collection of these facts would lead spontaneously to the framing of general “laws.” For Marxism’s more vulgar tendency these laws were understood to be already known and the task of history lay in the verification of these laws by facts. So whereas vulgar historical materialism moved arbitrarily from abstract laws to concrete events, liberal-historiography moved in the opposite analytical direction—a process of accumulating concrete facts was understood to somehow, eventually, spontaneously generate an appropriate theoretical structure. 


Hamstrung by this generalised epistemological vulgarity, ‘the pioneers who explored, colonised, and subjugated the “continent” of history discovered by Marx’, Banaji writes, ‘were not Marxists, by and large’.[12] The most significant example was the Annales school. Founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, their methodological pluralism and rejection of the previously predominant emphasis on war, diplomacy, and politics, ‘came far closer to the conceptions of Marx than the whole tradition of abstract historical formalism which passed for “Marxism” and which, in the period of its confident domination, decisively shaped all later discussions of the “mode of production”’.[13] And while the Annales school certainly felt the influence of Marx, they drew as much on methodological standpoints derived from Weber and Sombart.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Annales school arguably had nothing to do with a specific methodological or ideological standpoint but rather their interdisciplinary orientation. According to William Sewell, ‘from the beginning, the Annales was dedicated not only to the development of social history but to fostering contact and cooperation between historians and other social scientists—principally economists, geographers, and sociologists’.[14]

Mid-century France was certainly unique in Europe in its academic openness to Marxism and left politics more broadly. In contrast to Britain (which, in a Cold War context, simultaneously featured a distinct Marxist historiographical school but also more fervent anti-Communist intellectual pressure), Sewell argues that it was ironically France’s openness which ‘tended to inhibit the development of a specifically Marxist historiography. Even the work of Annales scholars who maintained their Marxist political convictions—for example, Michael Vovell—normally lacked an explicit Marxist intellectual apparatus’.[15]

This interdisciplinary orientation, in other words, managed to immunise Annales historiography from the supposed formalism that, as Banaji argues, was passed off as the Marxism of the day. Marxism as a specific standpoint was instead absorbed and synthesised into a broader interdisciplinary apparatus rather than articulated as a distinct historiographical standpoint. This came at something of a paradoxical cost: ‘in a country whose intellectual life was broadly open, indeed favourably inclined, to Marxism, there was virtually no attempt to develop a specifically Marxist form of historical reflection’.[16]

For Banaji, in general, there has therefore been little progressby Marxists in constructing a theoretically and historically sufficient specificallyMarxist historiography: ‘our intellectual prejudice against commercial capitalism is so deeply rooted that whole swathes of the history of capitalism are ignored by Marxists, with the result that there is no specifically Marxist historiography of capitalism’.[17]

Banaji, notably, mentions one exception to this Marxist reticence in uttering the phrase ‘commercial capitalism;’ namely, Eric Williams in his Capitalism and Slavery. Williams concluded his 1944 classic with the argument that

the commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in so doing it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery, and all its works. Without a grasp of these economic changes, the history of the period is meaningless.[18]


Whether one agrees with Banaji’s rather sweeping characterisation of the Marxist tradition, the question of how precisely one is to integrate the continued existence of non-capitalist social forms encountered by historical or sociological study into an abstract theory of the specificity of capitalism as a set of economic relations remains significant across multiple intellectual disciplines.

Particularly relevant in this context is a broader debate about Marx’s conception of ‘free labour’ as a defining characteristic of a proletariat as well as the non-Marxist association of waged labor with increased economic productivity and technological advancement. Tom Brass for example has criticized Banaji’s conflation of ‘free labour’ with waged labour as arising from the latter’s adherence to a concept of freedom that follows not from Marx but rather from liberal legalistic notions of freedom of contract.[19] In Brass’s view certain forms of waged labour should be categorized instead as ‘unfree.’ An example would be the sorts of seasonal migrant labour traditionally employed by major US agribusiness.[20] Against both Marxists and non-Marxists who see an unbreakable connection between ‘free’ (i.e., waged) labour and both skilled labour and broader gains in productivity, he argues that capitalist firms actively seek out unfree labour.[21]

Indeed, Marxists have frequently defined capitalism via recourse to ‘market dependency’.[22] This has led to definitions of the ‘working class’ that, in their most extreme versions, tend to simply include an urban proletariat; less limited versions tend to exclude all those who do not reproduce themselves via wage-labour. Unwaged slaves clearly exist within capitalism at a global level but clearly do not reproduce themselves via wage labour.[23] At the same time, Marx was willing to describe American slaveholders as capitalists.[24] In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels refer to the ‘vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists’.[25] Further, social-reproduction theorists have called attention to the key role domestic and unwaged work—mostly performed by women—have played in reproducing capitalist sociality more broadly.

What would it mean for there to have been a Roman working class? Can there be capitalists without workers? Can there be a working class without capitalism? Was there a working class before it and might there be one after it? How does one integrate the widespread presence of rural agrarian pre-capitalist forms of labour (including slave labour) and ‘free labour’ of an urban ‘proletariat’ into a universal theorisation? What would it mean if some capitalistic relations are simply eternal; or, what’s more, natural? Questions about historical periodisation are treated with such importance because latent within them are always hopes or fears about political possibility.

An obvious place to search for answers to these questions would be in the ‘origins of capitalism’. An inability to grasp the transition from capitalism and that which came before it would have obvious and drastic consequences for Marxism’s ability to grasp what a transition from capitalism to socialism would begin to entail. In a wider non-European context, this would mean grasping the different forms of transition between pre-capitalist modes of production and the capitalist mode of production. The almost existential political weight given to seemingly arcane debates about French and English grain yields is however clear enough: if capitalism is defined by ineluctable trans-historical laws, then what hope is there to move beyond it?

In the historiographical summary that opens her Origins of Capitalism, the Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood goes to great lengths to emphasise the historical, qualitative specificity of capitalism, accusing hitherto historiography of reducing the birth of capitalism to ‘the natural realisation of ever-present tendencies’.[26] To explain the profit-motive, historians have ‘presuppose[d] the existence of a universal profit-maximizing rationality’; to explain capitalism’s relentless drive towards technological innovation, they have ‘presuppose[d] a continuous, almost natural, progress of technological improvement in the productivity of labour’.[27]

Wood describes how non-Marxist accounts of capitalism define capitalism without reference to historically specific social relations nor reference to any specific aim of capitalist economic production beyond the dominance of markets. Non-Marxist histories therefore tend to be mere histories of the removal or overcoming of obstacles or limits (such as those faced by trade and commerce in previous periods) which, once removed, allowed for capitalism to simply arise as if it was always already immanent to previous modes of production. She argues that in assuming what they attempt to explain, their explanations are fundamentally circular.

Wood also extends this critique to an array of explanations grouped under the umbrella of the ‘commercialization model,’[28] but to other explanations as well: Weberian,[29] demographic,[30] World-Systems Theoretical,[31] Historical Sociological (à la Michael Mann),[32] even Polaynian explanations.[33] Importantly, Wood extends this to other Marxists as well, for ‘Marxists have been no less wedded to the old commercialization model as anyone else’.[34] Robert Brenner has made a similar point in describing the way in which Marxists have absorbed the assumptions of the ‘commercialization model’ and its tendency to treat the specific dynamic of capitalism as an inevitable outcome of sheer commercial expansion—that is, as the result of some quantitative change. Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Paul Sweezy are found guilty of falling prey to this ‘neo-Smithian’ tendency of asserting some ever-present tendency to ‘truck and barter,’[35] which suddenly became ‘capitalism’ when it reached a critical mass.


Less discussed in the historiographical literature is the ‘law of the transformation of quantity into quality’, [36] a point derived from Hegel’s analysis of the transition of quantity into quality within nature in his Science of Logic.[37]Engels, in a discussion of the same point, takes an example from the natural sciences—the change of water from liquid into gas by the amount of heat applied: ‘water … changes at 0° C from the liquid into the solid state, and at 100°C from the liquid into the gaseous state, so that at both these turning-points the merely quantitative change of temperature brings about a qualitative change in the condition of the water’.[38]

However convincing that example may be, this concept of transition from quantity to quality—and the question of a ‘mere’ quantitative increase leading to qualitative change—is referenced by Marx himself within the context of what he understood to be the medieval guild system’s forcible prevention of the transformation of the ‘master of a craft’ into a properly capitalist producer. In Marx’s analysis, there was a limit to the number of workers a single master could employ under the guild system, thus rendering this ‘master of the craft’ qualitatively different than a capitalist because of the quantitative amount of money each owns, such that ‘the possessor of money or commodities actually turns into a capitalist only where the minimum sum advanced for production greatly exceeds the known medieval maximum.’[39]

Marx goes further and argues this quantitative maximum is mediated historically[40], noting that, ‘certain spheres, even at the beginnings of capitalist production, require a minimum of capital which is not yet to be found in the hands of single individuals’.[41] He cites two examples: ‘state subsidies to private persons’ and ‘the formation of companies with a legally secured monopoly over the conduct of certain branches of industry and commerce—the forerunners of the modern joint-stock company’, thus opening a complex vista onto the history of both capitalists and capitalism that cannot be ‘economic’ strictu sensu, insofar as it involves the history and function of law (including definitions of the corporation; i.e., of ‘legal personhood’) and the state.[42]

Marxist and non-Marxist historians have largely avoided this Hegelian terrain and one is tempted to attribute it to a lack of philosophical or theoretical sophistication.[43] Perhaps however this avoidance has more to with an intellectual division of labour that divides, on the one hand, the discipline of economicsfor which certain laws are taken to be valid transhistorically (for example, supply and demand) – and, on the other, the discipline of historyhaving to do with descriptions and narrations of qualitative change.

As the combination of the two, ‘economic history’ would then find itself uncomfortably straddling two differing disciplinary orientations but also philosophical tendencies. With the Neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband we might call this a division between nomothetic (typical of the natural sciences) and idiographic (typical of the historical sciences) knowledge; between a theoretical orientation with a tendency towards abstraction and the construction of timeless but always valid systematic models and one with a tendency towards concretion that attempts to narrate change and understand the meaning of unique phenomena as distinct from general laws.[44] ‘One comprises the science of law, the other sciences of events; the former teaches what always is, the latter what once was’.[45] Theodor Adorno describes a similar separation between forms of knowledge concerned with genesis or origin and forms of knowledge concerned with validity being more broadly representative of two fundamentally different philosophical impulses; namely, on the one hand, ‘realism’ and, on the other, ‘nominalism’.[46] While divided,

both share the view that truth and history have nothing essentially to do with each other, that truth and history are external to one another…truth finds itself as something fixed and congealed…one party comes down on the side of truth, which is supposed to contrast with history and to have nothing essentially to do with it, while the other comes down on the side of history, which is supposed to have nothing essentially to do with truth.[47]

In his essay “History, Law, and Justice,” Reinhart Koselleck poses a strikingly similar division—not between the natural and social sciences or philosophical standpoints but within the discipline of history itself:

We know empirically that the history of law follows different temporal rhythms than political history, just as the latter follow different rhythms than social or economic history…We should thus hold onto the theoretical point that the history of law as well as of all individual legal determinations are dependent upon repeated application and subject to the necessity of repetition, and the history of law thus thematizes longer-term frames of time and relative duration, that it thematizes structures, if you will, rather than events.[48]

Indeed, at stake generally here is not only the thematization but also theorization of abstract structures but also narration of events. If Koselleck is correct in pointing out the differing temporalities of economic and legal history, then a history of capitalism properly speaking—consisting of both specific relations of production (which includes law) as well as forces of production—surely should account for both. Writing the history of capitalism therefore involves a complex process of mediation across different temporalities.

In Part II, the essay will turn to how a notable contemporary theorist has contextualized this question of how to think together economic structure and the contingency of history events. It will then pose three suggestions for non-Marxists and Marxists interested in writing a History of Capitalism. Finally, it will suggest that both ‘transition debates’ – among Marxists regarding the transition to capitalism and among non-Marxists regarding the transition to ‘developed (capitalist) democracies’ – were bound together by certain conceptions not only of temporality but also of space.

Bo Harvey has studied at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), Kingston University. He lives in New York City. Please note that early sections of this essay appeared as a review of Westra (2019) in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books.

Original Article:


[1] Witold Kula, An Economic Theory of the Feudal System (London: Verso, 1976), 19.

[2] Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 48.

[3] Banaji, Theory as History, 272.

[4] Banaji, Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020), 4.

[5] Banaji, Theory as History, 272.

[6] Banaji gives an extensive list: Brief History, 8–9.

[7] Banaji, Brief History, 8.

[8] Banaji, Brief History, 4.

[9] Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).  

[10] Banaji, Theory as History, “Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History,” 45–95. See also WM Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963).

[11] Banaji, Theory as History, 47.

[12] Banaji, Theory as History, 49.

[13] Banaji, Theory as History, 49–50.

[14] William Sewell Jr. Logics of History: Social Theory and Transformation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 35.

[15] Sewell, Logics of History, 37.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Banaji, Theory as History, 272.

[18] Quoted in Banaji, Brief History, 6. Beyond the quote above, the phrase appears one other time in Williams’ text. ‘The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies’. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Penguin, 1994), 142.

[19] This leads Banaji—inappropriately, in Brass’s view—to extend the category of ‘free-labour’ trans-historically all the way back to Ancient Rome, thus robbing capitalism of its specificity. “Each book [A Brief History as well as Banaji’s earlier Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity]contributes to the central argument that a pan-historical form of capitalism stretches from ancient society to the present, in effect negating Marxist theory about the dynamics leading to a transition from one mode of production to another” (Tom Brass, “Do All (Capitalist) Modes Lead To Rome?” Critical Sociology 47, no.3 (2021): 515. The debate between Brass and Banaji has raged between the two for decades and, while certainly at odds, they share similarities as well. On the debate between Banaji and Brass and the relation between free/waged & unfree/unwaged labor and its relation to capitalist periodization, see Bo Harvey, “Review of A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism,” H-Net (forthcoming).

[20] Tom Brass, Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism and Primitive Accumulation (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 187–193.

[21] The key insight for the purposes here is that business owners, when faced with the option of either hiring cheap (or indeed, unfree) labor or shouldering the time lag involved in the cost of some expensive investment in fixed capital, will choose the latter. Insofar as it does not significantly disrupt consumer demand, this even extends to slavery. Slavery within a certain sector or as exploited by an individual firm is therefore perfectly compatible with capitalism insofar as they have a sufficient consumer base elsewhere. Against the teleological assumptions of both Marxist and non-Marxist orthodoxy this has in some sense become even easier over the history of capitalism with the massive expansion and increased exposure capital has to labor markets globally. While wage labor may be generalized at the level of the capitalist system as a whole, there is therefore no logical necessity that capitalism leads to the abolition of unfree labor. Clearly the ‘wage-form’ is highly differentiated globally, taking different forms depending on the sector or geographical context. The ‘freedom’ or ‘unfreedom’ of the various forms of monetary remuneration for labor is essentially abstracted from with the equation of ‘free’ with ‘waged’ and ‘unfree’ with ‘unwaged.’ Whether this is a fair critique of Banaji is secondary to the issue here but is addressed in the aforementioned review.

[22] See, for example, Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘The question of market dependence’, Journal of Agrarian Change 2, no 1 (2002), 50–87; Wood, ‘From opportunity to imperative: The history of the market’, Monthly Review 46, no 3 (1994), 14–40; Robert Brenner, ‘Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe’, Past & Present 70, no 1(1976), 30–75; For a critique of Brenner with specific reference to Catalonia see Javier Moreno Zacarias, ‘Beyond market dependence: The origins of capitalism in Catalonia’, Journal of Agrarian Change 18, no 4 (2018), 1–19; John Clegg, ‘Credit market discipline and capitalist slavery in antebellum South Carolina’, Social Science History 42, no 2 (2018), 343–376.

[23] On the role of slavery in contemporary capitalism, cf. Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[24] Banaji, Theory as History, 127

[25] See Karl Marx, German Ideology, online at ‘Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists.’ Quoted in Banaji, Theory as History, 127.

[26] Ellen Meiskins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2017), 3–4.

[27] Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 3.

[28] Where the origin of capitalism ‘does not in this model represent a major social transformation so much as a quantitative increment’. Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 13.

[29] Who while not falling to see that ‘a fully developed capitalism emerged only in very specific historical conditions…always discussed the rise of capitalism in terms of the removal of obstacles which constricted the development that existed immanent and in potentia within some other developmental process (of kinship forms, forms of domination, religious traditions, etc.)’. Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 17.

[30] Where the origin of capitalism is determined by the supply and demand laws determining the growth and decline of population and where, ‘the transition to capitalism is still a response to the universal and transhistorical laws of the market, the laws of supply and demand’ Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 18.

[31] ‘Just as the old model treated the emergency of “commercial society” as a more or less natural process in the absence of obstacles, this world systems theory to a significant extent share that view or simply inverts it: if some already well-developed economies failed to produce a mature capitalism, it was because they were thwarted by obstacles in their way’ Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 19.

[32] ‘According to which industrial capitalism is prefigured in medieval European social arrangements’. Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 19.

[33] ‘What fails to emerge…is an appreciation of the ways in which a radical transformation of social relations preceded industrialization’ rather than vice versa. ‘The more fundamental failure suggests a failure to treat the capitalist market itself as a specific social form’. Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 26.

[34] Wood, Origin of Capitalism, 34.

[35] Robert Brenner, ‘The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review, 1/104, July/August (1977), 25–92.

[36] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol 25. 365.

[37] ‘It is said that there are no sudden changes in nature, and the common view has it that when we speak of a growth or a destruction, we always imagine a gradual growth or disappearance. Yet we have seen cases in which the alteration of existence involves not only a transition from one proportion to another, but also a transition, by a sudden leap, into a … qualitatively different thing; an interruption of a gradual process, differing qualitatively from the preceding, the former state’. Quoted in Nikolai Bukharin, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (New York: International Publishers, 1925), 79–80. The point is also taken up by Engels throughout his Dialectics of Nature. See Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, Collected Works: Vol 25, Engels (Anti-Duhring, Dialectics of Nature, (London: International Publishing Co. Ltd, 1987).

[38] Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (Moscow: Progress Publishers, [1878] 1947).

[39] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol I (London: Penguin, [1867] 1990), 424.

[40] ‘The minimum sum of value the individual possessor of money or commodities must command in order to metamorphose himself into a capitalist changes with the different stages of development of capitalist production, and is at given stages different in different spheres of production, according to their special technical conditions.’ Marx, Capital, Vol I: 424.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Henry Heller’s The Birth of Capitalism is a good example of an attempt to foreground the role of the state and politics more broadly against an ‘economism’ he takes to be characteristic of Brenner. ‘The emergence of capitalism as a self-sustaining ‘economic system’, separated from politics, was the consequence of a centuries-long process in which, pace Brenner, political coercion played a major role’; ‘the importance of competitive markets and the extraction of relative surplus value in the early development of capitalism have been exaggerated, while the significance of force and the assertion of state power have been largely overlooked’. Henry Heller, The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 9, 10. While a welcome reminder of the role of state violence more generally—which Marx touched upon with his discussion of ‘primitive accumulation’ and with which Banaji would agree in —one difficulty that might follow from Heller’s emphasis is the inverse of economism; namely, a tendency for an overly pure concept of politics that exists separately from economics to bear too much explanatory weight. For Lenin, ‘the question as to whether these changes are either “pure economic” or “non-economic” (e.g., military) is a secondary one, which does not in the least affect the fundamental view on the latest epoch of capitalism.’ V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: Imperialism of the Highest Stage, (New York: International Publishers, 1939): 75. 

[43] Perhaps there is one, however I have yet to find a historiographical discussion that connects the ‘transition debate’ specifically to this broader set of questions having to do with the Hegelian philosophy of history.

[44] In terms of economics’ relationship to natural science—and the desire of the former to emulate the latter—see Phillip Mirkowski’s classic More Light Than Heat: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[45] ‘For the student of nature, the single, given object of his observation never has scientific merit in itself; it serves him only insofar as he considers himself justified in regarding it as a type, as a special case of a categorial concept and to further develop the latter from it. In this he reflects only on those features which lend insight into a lawful generalization. For the historian, the task consists of bringing to life in an imagined present some or other artifact of the past in its entirely individual character…from this it follows that the tendency toward abstraction dominates in the thinking of natural science, while that toward concreteness dominates in history’. Wilhelm Windelband, ‘History and Natural Science’, Theory & Psychology 8, no 1(1998): 13–16.

[46] One weakness of the social constructivist—and therefore nominalist—impulse on the Left is that there is a tendency to equate the (often morally dubious) historical origins of a social phenomenon with its social function. By demystifying what is taken to be naturalised (and therefore understood wrongly to be universal), the ‘truth’ of a social phenomenon is revealed to instead be historical (and therefore particular). The right-wing propagandistic motif is to take this negative critical impulse and claim it is merely destructive (because relativistic and historicising), rather than grapple with the complex relationship between construction and destruction that runs through not only the history of critical but also political thought.

[47] Theodor Adorno, Philosophy and Sociology (London: Polity Press, 2022), 193.

[48] Reinhart Koselleck, Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, edited by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018), 131.