Samuel Knafo and Benno Teschke: "The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique"


In preparation for today's symposium on the work of Ellen Meiksins Woods, we're posting Samuel Knafo and Benno Teschke's essay 'The Rules of Reproduction of Capitalism: A Historicist Critique'. 

The essay charts the development of the Political Marxist approach, from the early work of Robert Brenner on the transition to capitalism in Britain to later work which developed and systematised Brenner's work. From this, they see the PM approach as increasingly reliant on a structural conception of the 'rules of reproduction' of capitalism which they seek to criticise in favour of the early historicism of Brenner.



Marxism has long been marked by two different legacies. The first rests on a strong exposition and critique of the logic of capitalism, which has been grounded in a systematic analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism conceived as a system. This structural critique has often led to an emphasis on the limited ability of capitalism to overcome its internal contradictions. The second legacy refers to a strong historicist perspective that derives from Marx’s Hegelian background and his own critique of the German philosopher’s trajectory.[1] This historicism is visible in the conception of social relations and an emphasis on the centrality of power and class struggle to analyse history. While most Marxists see themselves as heir to these two defining legacies of Marx, it is no secret that it has often been difficult to properly reconcile them. While this tension has generated fertile debates, it has also been systematically exploited by critics.

In this article, we challenge the prominence of structural accounts of capitalism inspired by the first of these legacies and argue for the need to radicalize the agent-centered and historicist contribution of Marx. Our claim is that Marxists operating within a structural framework systematically fall into economistic readings of capitalism, which hinder the practice of historicisation Marxism was supposed to buttress. Structural accounts, we argue, have perpetuated a problematic market fetishism and underestimate social change under capitalism. More fundamentally, they constrain our ability to use historicisation as a practice of theorization which we see to be the distinctive feature of the radical historicism we wish to put forward.  

This article focuses more specifically on how this tension has played out within Political Marxism (PM). Our choice here is motivated by our recognition of the innovative, iconoclastic, and seminal contribution of this approach to the historicist tradition, which we wish to reinvigorate. However, we contend that this project has been blunted by unresolved contradictions within the core premises of PM, which have fuelled a tendency among some Political Marxists to revert back to a problematic structuralism. We argue specifically that Robert Brenner’s concept of ‘rules of reproduction’, which was deployed originally in the Brenner I Debate to dispel the prevailing idea that feudalism contained an innate tendency towards a transition to capitalism, suffered from an in-built structural framing that became more pronounced and visible in the Brenner II Debate.[2] This relapse into structuralism meant that capitalism itself became increasingly reified, especially in the later works of PM’s early proponents and in some of their contemporary followers (Post, 2011;  Chibber 2011), leading to a fetishized conception of capitalism that left little room for earlier concerns with historicism and method. What is conceptually rendered as an auto-generative logic of action grates with the historical tracking of capitalism (and feudalism) as contested and concrete processes. In short, we argue that the original articulation of PM advanced an interpretation of Marxism that remains suspended between an abstract notion of theory, encapsulated in a rigid definition of social property relations and their attendant rules of reproduction, and analytically deduced logics of development or non-development, and a strong historicist commitment to a more contextualised and open-ended interpretation of social conflicts and their non-deterministic resolutions. This dualism played itself out over time in the prioritisation of a structural reading of capitalism – a nomothetic base-line – which stood either un-reconciled to or disabled the objective of historical specification. Theory and history progressively inhabited two separate worlds, with two different registers, and drifted more and more apart.

            In radicalizing the historicist agenda of Marxism through an internal critique and re-formulation of PM, we wish to open a broader debate within Marxism on the need for a more agency-based account of capitalism, which builds more explicitly on the concept of social relations. In short, we seek to open up space for rethinking capitalism as a historically open rather than a theoretically closed category. Coming to terms with social conflicts requires that we examine more carefully their role in constituting and re-constituting the dynamics of capitalism that we study without collapsing them back into rigid theoretical axioms. For this purpose, PM needs to recover and expand upon the historicist method developed, even if implicitly, in Brenner’s and Ellen Wood’s original contributions to the Transition Debate.

            The article proceeds in five parts. We start by outlining Brenner’s original historicist contribution to the Transition Debate and how it departed from structural accounts of the rise of capitalism. Step two identifies a central ambiguity in Brenner’s approach, visible in the contradiction between a strict concept of capitalist rules of reproduction, which assigned determinate forms of agency and rationality to classes on both side of the capital-relation and posited a subsequent logic of development, and the simultaneous emphasis on the specificities of situated social conflicts. It proceeds by showing how this ambiguity was expressed over time in the adoption of a reified, de-historicised and de-politicised concept of capitalism: the notion of market-dependency. Step three suggests that this problem was already reflected in unresolved tensions in Brenner's early work on the transition to capitalism - an argument we establish by comparing Brenner's take on the transition to the more historicist account offered by George Comninel. We then turn towards two studies, which lean on the categories of market-dependency and rules of reproduction – respectively Charles Post’s recent work on the rise of capitalism in the US and Brenner’s and Glick’s critique of Regulation Theory – to further explore and exemplify the dangers inherent in the structuralist rendition of the concept of capitalism. The final section concludes by setting out how an agency-centered – rather than rules-centered or capital-centric - re-articulation of PM reconnects theoretically and methodologically with the original historicist promise of the Transition Debate in order to renew the PM tradition outside the structuralist trap.

The Historicist Breakthrough of Political Marxism 

It has been a firm belief among Marxists that the critique of capitalism must be a structural one, since the objective is often to identify the inherent and systemic contradictions of capitalism, which are held to exist in any capitalist society. This has been the anchor that traditionally motivated Marxists to continue approaching capitalism foremost from a structural perspective, abstracting from specific historical trajectories and the concrete role of social agents in shaping capitalist history. In this perspective, both are routinely seen as secondary, or at least, as associated with lower levels of abstraction. The primacy given to the idea of a structural capitalist logic implies that the history of capitalism is, in its essence, more or less the same wherever capitalism can be identified. Thus conceived, and this is central to the assumption that capitalism can be referred to as a system, capitalism entails a set of consequences which tend to be generated wherever it holds.

            PM initially made its mark as a reaction against this form of analysis. Rejecting structural models of capitalism, which were based primarily on deductive analysis (Brenner, 1977), Brenner adopted a comparative historical approach that was based on exploiting differences within social trajectories that seemed at first similar in order to challenge our understanding of capitalism (Brenner, 1985). This early work on the transition to capitalism set out a rich historicism, which sought to ground a concrete understanding of the spatio-temporally specific origins and courses of capitalism. By contrasting the trajectories of Britain and France, Brenner was able to recast what was at stake in developing an account of the transition by focusing on the distinctive features, which had made Britain stand out with its agrarian and industrial revolutions. The task then, he argued, was to explain the sustained improvement in productivity that had come to characterise these revolutions in Britain.

            This historicist strategy enabled Brenner to offer a much more concrete account of capitalism. The focus was no longer set on abstract market forces, but on the notion of contested and politically-constituted social property relations. This concept was meant to emphasise the institutional nature of social relations, in particular the legal and political dimensions of property. Brenner was specifically interested in the way social property relations had been redefined so as to make workers and producers dependent on the market. Needing means of subsistence, workers had to labor for capitalists under conditions which both limited their control over production and made them vulnerable to the demands of capitalist owners. The latter were themselves dependent on the market for accessing means of production and thus in need of systematically improving productivity through constant re-investments and technological innovations in order to compete. The result was a distinctive dynamic – a logic of development – which would come to characterise capitalism, most notably visible in the Industrial Revolution that became its hallmark.

            Brenner's initial attempt to break with traditional structuralist accounts was initially greeted with suspicion by Marxists who accused him of falling into a voluntarist conception on the transition that hindered the development of a ‘scientific’ account of history. The term PM was suggested by Guy Bois during the Transition Debate as a derogative label to denote that Brenner’s concern with politics and agency precluded the identification of deeper laws of motion of either feudalism or capitalism. This methodological choice, Bois insisted, was a source of confusion, which led Brenner to empiricist conclusions. For class struggles, when studied on their own, are ‘too complex and unpredictable’ to lead ‘to anything other than ideological short cuts’, based on isolated political events (Bois, 1987: 110). Since the incorporation of politics and agency as central aspects of differential feudal histories would have to be based on the acceptance of arbitrary theoretical choices, Brenner could not provide a theory solidly grounded in systemic and deeper properties of modes of production, including the ‘tendency of a fall in the rate of seigneurial levies’. Instead, Bois insisted on a structural abstraction to identify the key trends and contradictions at the level of the economic infrastructure of feudalism which could account for the transition to capitalism.[3] This critique essentially reproduced a classic understanding of the relationship of theory to history, as theory was held to constitute a superior mode of knowledge, generating an abstract and deductive model, which was said to help organise a messy and layered history through the identification of deep underlying and structuring trends.

            By contrast, it was precisely the way in which Brenner, in his early interventions, had destabilized this relationship between theory and history that proved seminal for the development of a new approach. Indeed, the feature perceived as a weakness by Guy Bois (i.e. the historicism based on a commitment to the study of socio-political conflicts) was embraced explicitly by scholars who sought to build upon the legacy of Brenner's work (Wood, 1995; Comninel, 1987), inter alia by drawing out its implications for historicising the practices of polity-formation and geopolitics (Teschke, 2003; Lacher, 2006). The term PM was adopted to highlight the irreducibility of historically distinct class struggles in opposition to a more generic conception of class struggle as the passive manifestation of a deeper structural logic. This amounted to a rejection of deterministic and economistic approaches that pervade structural accounts of the transition. At the root of this new political approach to Historical Materialism, PM offered a radical questioning of the apparently universal features of capitalism - a social system which had too often been loosely generalised to all societies where markets seemed to play a significant role. Opposing this focus on markets, Political Marxists were keen to redefine capitalism on the basis of social relations, or more specifically social property relations. Their main point was that the secret of capitalism was a political one: it concerned the nature of power in capitalist social relations (Wood, 1995).

            However, the path pioneered by Brenner and Wood would in turn create its own set of pitfalls. For the ability to ground concretely the analysis of capitalism in the study of social property relations gave incentives to the first generation of Political Marxists to stylize theoretically the implications of this historical work. Robert Brenner, in particular, formalised his conception of capitalism in the form of an ideal type (Brenner, 1986), which was in turn stereotyped in Wood’s distinction between pre-capitalist markets as an opportunity and capitalist markets as an imperative (Wood, 1994). In time, the elaboration of a more substantial conception of capitalism with its inner logic was to become a structural impediment to the original historicist aspirations of PM.

The Problem with Structural Approaches to Capitalism

Formalising the theoretical implications of historical work is always a difficult task for historically minded scholars. There is an inherent tension in the desire to remain close to the historical material while extricating theoretical principles that can be projected beyond the specific case studied. Brenner often struggled to negotiate this difficult translation as he took his rich historical work on the transition as a means to peer into the nature of capitalism. The result was a gradual reification of capitalism as Brenner inflated key insights for explaining a transition in England and its outcomes, a historically specific process, into an essential process and features of capitalism itself. With this reifying move, a historical pattern came to be generalised as the core DNA of capitalist societies leading to three problematic consequences: the conceptual reification, de-historicisation, and de-politicisation of capitalism.

These three problems were products of the demands that structural frameworks place on scholars and which severely handicap one's ability to historicise. A structural model of capitalism can only be derived if all the key parameters are independent from concrete historical settings so that the logic can be translated to various contexts where we find different social institutions. This is the classic positivist trap. For taking a theory or a proposition that is useful in one context and for a specific purpose in order to turn it into a generalisation, as if it captures an essential logic that applies to multiple cases (Knafo 2010), leads to the standard bifurcation between an abstract conceptual definition, which is meant to ground the explanation, and case-specificities, which are then demoted to the status of accidental accretions, superficial appearances, or un-typical anomalies, rather than accepted positively as presences that defy the general abstraction. In this way, a contextualised observation is made to stands on its own, but only at the cost of severing the rich tension between theory and history (Teschke 2014).[4]

In Brenner’s work, the result was first a conceptual reification which hindered historicisation. The attempt to anchor the rules of capitalist reproduction beyond any specific institutions led him to gradually substitute a non-context specific idea of market dependency for the actual study of social property relations.[5] As the concrete study of the social property relations with their institutions took a back seat, much of the work of contextualisation (i.e. to determine what type of society or context people are operating in) was done by invoking an abstract notion of the market to set the scene.[6] This yielded a universal model that was not fully dissociated from the tradition of Analytical Marxism and its rational choice leanings. The conception of the rules of capitalist reproduction had much in common with mainstream economics in the way it conceived the inner logic of the market as driven by rational imperatives that were logically derived through deductive reasoning and then generically ascribed to market actors (Brenner, 1986).

This was a curious move, which departed from the spirit of Brenner’s initial contribution that had sought to convert the abstract category of the market into a historically rich analysis as a politically constructed phenomenon, grounded in the relationality of politically-constituted social property relations. Ellen Wood objected later to this drift towards the idea of market dependency in the context of the debate on the ‘failed’ transition to capitalism in the Low Countries (Wood, 2002). For here, Brenner had concluded on the basis of the level of market dependency of the peasantry in maritime Holland that this country was also set on a capitalist course early on only to see this development blocked because of the lack of a sufficiently robust demand from the surrounding feudal economies (Brenner, 2001). Such an argument placed Brenner on a slippery slope since the transition to capitalism was now turned into a quantitative issue regarding the degree of market dependency, rather than a qualitatively based concern with specific and institutionalised social property relations. This would make it increasingly difficult for Brenner to maintain the argument of the historical specificity of capitalism, since market dependency is not a sufficiently precise criterion. Indeed, market dependency was not an uncommon phenomenon, even in the late Middle Ages or the early modern era and is often read as a classical indicator of Smithian logics of market development (Persson, 2014). Focusing on market dependency makes it difficult to resist seeing budding capitalisms in places where markets played a prominent role. This naturalising bias was reflected in a subtle shift in the argumentation, as Brenner was forced to fall back on obstacles or ad hoc circumstances (i.e. insufficient demand and the inability to develop a vibrant enough domestic market), which blocked what came now to be posited as the ‘normal path’ towards full market development.[7] This was essentially a return to the form of argumentation so powerfully criticised by Wood whereby capitalism was posited as the expected norm and historicisation turned into a story of how capitalism had been postponed or hindered by social and institutional obstacles. 

Secondly, the reification of capitalism was entrenched in a problematic structuralism, which isolated the theory of capitalism from the work of historicisation. For the abstraction required in order to construct structural models necessarily requires that one reduce the points of contacts between theory and history. When we work to abstract from a concrete historical setting and thin out the social determinants that are considered significant in order to produce general models that are amenable to a variety of social contexts, we always face a problem to re-connect theory with history (Knafo 2002). Structural theories usually have little to say about history for they cannot account for the specific circumstances that define historicity. For example, a theoretical strategy aimed at deriving the logic of capitalist development, which applies as much to 16th Century Britain as to 20th Century New York or contemporary Malaysia, can only rest on very abstract propositions: the higher the abstraction, the thinner its content, the lesser its capacity to place history in perspective and generate rich insights. The limitation becomes explicit when confronted with the discerning and discriminatory grid of comparative history, because general abstractions are just not equipped to deal with contrasting developments, which are the bread and butter of historicisation. When asked to account for history, one is forced to rely on further mediations to establish this connection, assigning an ever more non-substantial role to the abstraction. Ultimately, it is the mediations themselves which have to bear most of the burden to explain history. While the mediations are expected to reconcile the theory with history, the logic itself has little to say about history for it provides no ground to engage with the specific trajectories of capitalist social formations.

Structural theories are not only weak at accounting for history, they also tend to downplay the theoretical significance of history. This can best be seen in relation to a second aspect of history that fares poorly in structural frameworks: agency and the changes brought by social innovations. In the case of the first generation of PM, the rules of capitalist reproduction derived at a theoretical level often came to be seen as a barometer for assessing social change. This is a common outcome in structural approaches which tend to measure change according to the extent to which they transform the rules of reproduction. But such a framing downplays the importance of social innovations because the high standard set by what is often an overly general structural logic means that historical changes rarely stand out. Does the development of financial securitization really change the logic of capitalism? What about the development of the assembly lines and Fordist techniques of production? Historical circumstances can be easily subsumed under a logic defined in abstract terms as simply a variation under a common theme. Within a structural reasoning, history is thus often demoted to an auxiliary of theory, selectively mobilised as instances of a logic. For the expectations set by the rules of capitalist reproduction mean that innovations usually appear trivial in the grand scheme of things (established by pre-conceived structural theories). As we wait for dramatic transformations, we tend to discount a whole lot of small changes which often add up to something much more important than we assume. As we peel away the layers of history along the lines of this procedure, under the pretence that they constitute secondary details, all we are left with is our common sense.

If our conception of capitalism essentially boils down to market dependency, profit-seeking and productivity growth, the history of capitalism will appear banal, since we always have the impression that we already know more or less the script. Nothing appears surprising within such a template as we comfortably travel through a landscape that has been normalised by the highly abstract lens of the rules of capitalist reproduction. From this vantage point, everything looks monochromatic as history becomes treated as a supplementary ingredient that can always be later added to the mix in order to produce ‘a more complete picture’ if needed. And, indeed, it became a recurrent theme within PM to dismiss any suggestion of a profound transformation under capitalism, whether we examine the rise of Fordism (Brenner and Glick, 1991) or Post-Fordism (Wood, 1996: 37) by claiming that these were simply natural and logical outcomes of a generalising and deepening capitalism. Notwithstanding the problems of the approaches rightly criticised by Brenner and Wood in such articles, the striking feature of the latter’s argumentation was that they insisted on normalising the developments held up by others as transformative. From their vantage point, these lower-level transformations of capitalism came to look like just another means to 'make more profits' and 'produce cheaper products'.[8] The gap thus cultivated between theory and history often serves more to protect assumptions than to generate new insights.

This disconnect between theory and history was well illustrated in the context of the Brenner II Debate launched by the publication of Global Turbulence, which deployed an explicit structural framing in order to account for the trajectory of post-war capitalism in the United States, Germany and Japan (Brenner, 1998). The key contribution of this piece was to show how successive waves of new market competitors in the global economy had contributed in fuelling a secular logic of over-accumulation[MTP1] , which systematically pushed the profit rate down. Brenner was particularly interested in the dynamic of inter-capitalist competition, which sees capitalist producers locked into specific lines of production even when these turn out to be less and less profitable. The reason for this, Brenner argued, is that fixed costs often lead capitalists to reduce dramatically their mark up instead of investing in different ventures, because of the one-off costs involved in shifting lines of production. This creates the conditions for over-accumulation since capitalists continue to produce even when the venture is proving overall un-profitable, as long as future investments remain marginally profitable once the sunk costs have been written off.

This argument, however, would produce the two classic failings of structural approaches: a limited ability of the theory to account for history and a propensity to dismiss the theoretical significance of historical evidence. By this point, Brenner had grown more comfortable with a much stronger structural framing and this was reflected in the way this later work flipped the script of the previous Brenner Debate on the transition to capitalism: instead of using comparative history to challenge general assumptions and explain differential outcomes, Brenner focused on cross-national structural trends to anchor his main claim that regardless of what states and capitalists do, they cannot circumvent the structural conditions of over-accumulation. In other words, instead of tracing how an apparently similar logic – increasing entry into markets driving down profit-rates - could have opposite outcomes, he set out to show that despite the apparent diverse trajectories of the United States, Japan and Germany, there was a similar structural logic at work which gradually led to a declining aggregate profit-rate across the core capitalist zone, despite the nationally distinctive and divergent efforts to overcome the problem.

That Brenner would frame this study in this way was surprising considering that he had earlier dismissed the commercialisation thesis for relying on structural trends that were said to apply irrespective of their contexts. He had then expertly used comparative history to show that the same logic, which was invoked to explain the dissolution of feudalism in the West, had in fact resulted in an opposite outcome in Eastern Europe. But when it came to the contemporary history of capitalism, Brenner remained wedded to a structural script, despite the fact that he was well aware of the diversity under capitalism, as reflected by his careful analysis of the respective trajectories of these countries. This made him liable to the same critique he had once directed against the commercialisation thesis. For one can find under capitalism an endless series of instances where similar or identical pressures and crises led to radically dissimilar outcomes. For example, the United States saw a systematic process of de-skilling of labour in the early decades of the 20th Century, at the time when Germany was following the opposite path promoting vocational training (Thelen 2004). Similarly, if the logic of specialisation under the pressures of competition is seen as a key feature of capitalism according to Brenner, there are many examples of the opposite from the rise of large American conglomerates in the 1960s accumulating lines of business as if they were assets in a well-diversified portfolio (Fligstein, 1990), to the Korean Chaebols diversifying their product lines because they competed on the basis of market shares rather than profit making per se (Bernard 1999). Translated into the terms of the Transition Debate, his argument about over-accumulation amounted to saying that although lords followed different strategies in Western and Eastern Europe (dissolution or intensification of serfdom), in both cases they were subjected to an identical market logic of competition with its imperative to remain profitable.[9] In this way, his work on the contemporary history of capitalism elided the conclusion of what was the crucial theoretical insight of the Brenner I Debate: namely that class politics proved the decisive explanatory differentia specifica in these cases.[10]

In the absence of this historical footing, Brenner's theory proved limited in its explanatory power. While it highlighted the way in which imperatives built up to pressure these countries into making social changes, it could not account for the distinct trajectories they had taken. There was nothing straightforward about these specific responses that could be derived directly from the theory in terms of causality. Why did Germany not cut labour costs in the 1980s when international pressures intensified? Why did Japan continue to stoke overproduction instead of purging productive capacity in the 1990s, as they did in the United States in the 1980s, despite an ongoing economic crisis (Taggart Murphy & Akuni, 2002)? Brenner himself conceded at various points how these trajectories could not be read or interpreted in a straightforward way, but he failed to draw the theoretical conclusion that these different historical trajectories undermined the generic explanans of capitalist imperatives. In practice, this meant that he could not count on the logic of over-accumulation to explain history.

It was also noteworthy that Brenner grounded the analytical narrative in Global Turbulence only minimally in the insights about capitalism he had suggested in the first Brenner Debate. Recall that Brenner concluded there that strong rules for reproduction prevailed wherever capitalist property relations held, driving a series of rational responses grounded in market dependency that would generate a determinate ‘logic of development’. Now, the analysis was framed by re-invoking this ‘premise’ but then qualified by the suggestion that they – the rules of reproduction – historically face problems of ‘realisation’ (Brenner, 1998, p.24), including the capacity of firms to switch the line to restore profitability. This seemed to contradict the notion central to the idea of the rules of reproduction that less efficient producers would be displaced through competition, a claim which helped ground the emphasis on generalising labour-saving tools and methods and the re-allocation of labour power accordingly (see Post, 2013: 14). But rather than drawing the conclusion that real history overthrows rigid ‘rules of reproduction’, successive rounds of post-war international trade liberalisation had then to be posited as theoretical externalities, which drove a theoretically un-secured account of crisis outside the rules of reproduction. While the acceptance of the historical ‘realisation problem’ should have lead towards a dismissal or a re-articulation of his premises and to an argument for the primacy of history over theory, Brenner does neither, but shifts the resolution towards a half-way escape. The historical evidence is stylised into a mid-range theoretical argument about over-accumulation, which, in turn, is not unsettled by the further evidence that ‘real history’ shows that the general phenomenon of over-accumulation panned out differentially in various countries due to different policy responses (which also remain outside the theoretical remit).

 Although the ‘rules of reproduction’ were supposed to capture the fundamental logic of capitalism, it turns out that they had little to add for helping us understand the actual history of capitalism. There was nothing surprising here again, for accepting ‘rules’, or any other form of structural logic, forced Brenner to move at such a level of abstraction that the general theories he derived were of limited use for explaining history.[11] Theory and history drifted apart, as the explanandum became something uniform - the persistence of the decline of the aggregate profit rate across the core capitalist zone anchored in increased entry to markets - rather than something multiform: a demonstration of how a general crisis-context led to differential social conflicts and policy mixes in the actual histories of nationally and institutionally diverging capitalisms. And to the degree that the diverging political responses to the global downturn translated into different national velocities of recovery and stagnation, the real history came to affect the general explanandum.

This in turn led Brenner to systematically discount the theoretical significance of history even when Global Turbulence was filled with fascinating insights about the trajectory of the US, Germany and Japan. For placing the emphasis on the structural dimension meant seeing the profit downturn as the conclusion of the analysis rather than the starting point. Instead of seeking to analyse the evolution of capitalism as a series of differential responses and innovations to the pressures of over-accumulation, Brenner insisted that, regardless of the path chosen, capitalists and their states were unable to overcome the crisis-prone tendencies of capitalism. This suggested that all these strategies and innovations were analysed from the perspective of being inadequate, temporary, and epiphenomenal, implying that Brenner would often neglect their transformative effects. When Brenner adjusted his argument to account for financialisation in a series of later contributions, most notably in the Boom and the Bubble (Brenner, 2002), he kept emphasising that the changes were mostly cosmetic and a further demonstration of the failure to overcome the inexorable long downturn. They came to be analysed ex negativo as the desperate efforts to sustain accumulation in a context of heavy over-accumulation. Ultimately, this ended in the discounting of this new chapter in the history of capitalism as a mere coda to a script, which had already been written out.

Thirdly, the naturalisation of capitalism underpinned by the separation of theory from history would finally contribute also to its depoliticisation as Brenner was forced to drift towards economism. It is common for structural types of reasoning to de-politicize and de-socialise their object since the level of abstraction they demand forces us to discard much of the contextual material which frames politics (Knafo 2010). To be able to cover a large variety of cases and capture the inherent rationality of capitalism, one needs to push politics down to lower levels of abstraction, functional by-products, and ultimately to the rank of historical details.

            In the case of Brenner, this de-politicisation became quite explicit as he sought to anchor his opposition of pre-capitalist societies based on political accumulation and capitalism based on economic accumulation. As the notion of market dependency took on a central importance in his analysis, he thus came to insist that the nature of capitalist competition is an economic one (by contrast to a political one in the pre-capitalist era). According to him, capitalism is marked precisely by the limited ability of capitalists to use power in order to compete, forcing them to focus on production and investment. But this generic insight morphed over time into a classic liberal argument, not all that dissimilar to the Commercialization Thesis, which saw property rights and institutional developments as central in limiting the ability of agents to use power or violence to 'cheat' and avoid competing on a purely economic terrain. The end product was a de-politicized account which neglected power struggles, especially among capitalists or more generally dominant social classes, and discounted wider power struggles and institutional changes in order to restrict the analysis to abstract market forces. Politics and institutions were read instead as superficial attempts to circumvent the logic of the market and mostly analysed as transient, unsustainable, and thus irrelevant to our theorisation of capitalism (Konings, 2005b: 195).

            Here, we can concretely identify the source of Brenner's limitations in his incomplete account of market dynamics. He focuses primarily on the first half of the story, which relates to the imperatives of capitalism and the market, for example in the form of a market dependency to access means of subsistence or means of production. But when stopping the analysis at this point, we follow an economistic template, which assumes that there is a set of universal strategies, emanating directly from market pressures when allowed to operate (Konings 2005a). From this perspective, the need to be economically efficient dictates that capitalist producers specialise, re-invest in cost-cutting technologies, intensify the labour process, de-skill labour and more generally increase their power over labour, and concentrate capital. Yet, thinking simply in these narrow terms leads astray, because it presumes a definitive rationality on the part of capitalists and a certain linearity to capitalist development very much like neoclassical economics. It suggests an image of agency that conceptualises people as passive rule-followers, rather than creative rule-makers.

            If market dependency may provide a glimpse into the problems that people face, it does not tell us much about the solutions they develop to respond to it (Knafo 2002). We then come to the second part of the story, one which features agency, power and a much greater role for history. This involves greater attention to social resources that people can mobilise in order to develop strategies to compete. Here, institutions, regulations, customs, and discourses all become central and the object of numerous forms of mobilisation that cannot be derived from the structural logic of the market. One could go even further and emphasise that the rules of market competition are not set in stone. To compete on the market is inherently indeterminate as an idea. People never fully compete on all fronts at once. What creates order on the market is precisely that this competition is always channelled in socially specific ways which profoundly transform what types of strategies become privileged (Knafo, Hughes and Wyn-Jones, 2013). In that respect, markets are profoundly political institutions. As in any other social realm, agents use and manipulate regulations and institutions as means of empowerment to exert power over others. They do not simply struggle to compete economically, but struggle over the definition of the rules of competition or the rules of reproduction. For these do not emanate from the existence of some abstract and purified entity named the market, but result from struggles over the institutions and regulations, which define markets as concrete sites for economic activity.

This is difficult for Brenner to take on board fully for it would put into serious questions the later singular focus on market dependency. In this respect, the story of capitalism was always a story of social property rights. For it was not market dependency, which created the patterns of capitalist development, but the form of practices that could be mobilised in order to respond to it. This conclusion would emerge most strongly from George Comninel's re-interpretation of the Transition Debate, which better captured the historically rooted nature of the transition to capitalism.

To read the essay in full click here.

[1] This Hegelian legacy splits itself into two traditions, one emphasizing the historicist praxis-perspective inherent in Hegel and adopted by the early Marx, and one more logicistic strand, which uses ‘dialectics’ in order to justify a reading of the concept of capital as a self-unfolding category, which relegates history to mere illustration. The latter is exemplified in ‘systematic dialectics’ and other strands of value-form theory.

[2] The idea to derive determinate and rational strategies of reproduction from specific sets of social property relations, which translate into patterns of development or non-development, was first suggested in the Transition Debate (Brenner 1985b, p. 213-15), and subsequently systematized in the concept of the rules of reproduction (Brenner, 1986). These ‘rules’ – often raised to the status of ‘imperatives’ - are repeatedly re-affirmed in Brenner’s and Ellen Wood’s later works as part of PM’s basic premises (Brenner 1998, p. 24; 2001, p. 281; 2007, p. 58 ff.; Wood 2002, p. 55 ff.; Wood 2003, p. 9 ff). For early misgivings regarding these structural rules see Teschke and Lacher 2007.

[3] For a critical discussion of Bois’ own account of the ‘birth of the market’, see Teschke 1997.

[4] This history-theory problem is acknowledged in PM (and many other Marxisms), but ultimately ‘resolved’ unsatisfactorily in favour of logical theory. ‘We cannot simply read off the empirical specificities of any given society from its economic “base”, nor can we predict the outcome of social interactions and struggles that take place within the constraints of “basic” social-property relations; but it also means that the logic of those social-property relations operates, and is discernible, throughout those empirical manifestations’ (Wood 2011, p. xiii.).

[5] Where these actual property relations were historically examined, as in the magisterial study on 16th-17th Century England, the mode of analysis returned to a rich historicist register in which social groups constructed their strategies in dense socio-political and institutional contexts, which could no longer be captured by determinate ‘rules’ (Brenner 1993).

[6] In some cases, this idea of a market/capitalism is invoked precisely to be counterposed to institutionalist conceptions, as if a market (or capitalism) can exist as an extra-political tangible reality when abstracting from the institutions that mediate social relations. See Konings, 2005a for a critique.

[7] This was again the source of an important critique directed by Wood to Brenner’s account of the Dutch case where much of the explanation for the ‘limited’ nature of the transition relied on the lack of critical mass in terms of demand (Wood, 2002).

[8] As Wood dismissively argued in relation to the so called post-fordist era of capitalism: 'The old Fordism used the assembly line as a substitute for higher-cost skilled craftsmen and to tighten the control of extracting more value from labor. Now, the new technologies are used to the same ends: to make products easy and cheap to assemble' (Wood, 1996: 37). 

[9] A similar problem can be found in the work of Chibber, which seeks to address explicitly the question of difference under capitalism. Here again one sees a subtle articulation which leads him to subordinate difference to the logic of capitalism, even when he goes to great length to argue that there can be a wide range of forms and practices under capitalism. Having started from the premise of market dependency, Chibber posits that greater submission of a wide range of societies to market imperatives should be read as a process of capitalist universalisation (2013: 100). This argument can only be defended as long as the nature of the logic that is being universalised remains considerably under-defined. More importantly, it serves to cast difference as a variation of a common theme (the logic of capital), rather than use difference as the very object of a historicist account, that is the challenging aspect of history which requires explanation.  

[10] Knafo has argued that one can make a productive reading of Brenner’s account by re-interpreting his dynamic of over-accumulation as an outcome of the creativity of agents in adjusting to growing capitalist imperatives. The point, he argues, is precisely that capitalists demonstrate creativity in responding to market pressure and are thus not easily discarded. From this perspective, the trajectory of post-war capitalism can be read as a series of differentiated trajectories defined by the distinct institutional innovations and social property relations which come to define socio-economic dynamics. This is, in other words, an attempt to re-read the second Brenner Debate from the angle of the first Brenner Debate (Knafo 2013). Here, the emphasis is placed on the different trajectories which can explain how global imperatives are constituted without assigning a determining logic to them.

[11] Although we argue that these rules can be formalised as a heuristic device at a very general level of abstraction (for example to distinguish between feudalism and capitalism), historical trajectories under feudalism or capitalism cannot be subsumed under or derived from the general category. In fact, the promise of historicisation resides precisely in showing how the general category looses its explanatory power when it is expected to account for specific empirical cases.