Friday, August 7, 2015

Kerem Nisancioglu - Theory as History: Jairus Banaji’s contribution to Marxism

Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation
by Jairus Banaji; Winner of the 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize

Reviewed by Kerem Nisancioglu

Spanning thirty-odd years of academic endeavour, Jairus Banaji’s Theory as History is a collection of essays exploring the role of labour and exploitation within the wider research programme of historical materialism. Having become the latest recipient of the prestigious Isaac Deustcher Prize, this ambitious and rich monograph has already made a splash in the seemingly never ending debates surrounding the historical transition to capitalism, as well as crucial Marxist concepts such as ‘mode of production’ and ‘relations of production’….

…The breadth and depth of Banaji’s historical research is nothing short of staggering, making extensive use of primary archive material while also avoiding an overreliance on solely English-speaking secondary sources. In this regard, Banaji’s work is an example to many in the Marxist tradition (and beyond) that have been content with lazily applying pre-given abstract concepts to concrete reality as a substitute for proper historical study. But it is further to Banaji’s credit that such historical detail at no point eschews theoretical issues. 

Through his analysis of Islamic traders and the Deccan peasantry, Banaji rises to the long avoided post-colonial challenge of integrating the history of non-Western societies into the historiography of capitalism. At a time when authors across all political spectrums are returning to historical questions surrounding the ‘Rise of the West’ in order to explain its so-called 21st century ‘decline’, Banaji’s intervention reminds us of the inherently international character of capitalist development. And in the midst of an historical epoch in which imperialism is being legitimated through Islamaphobia and the supposed ‘Clash’ of Western and Eastern civilizations, Theory as History is a timely corrective to the view that ‘the East’ is an eternally intractable and inherently incompatible foe of the West...

Such observations are crucial to challenging the notion, widely prevalent in Stalinist orthodoxy and capitalist ideology, that the supposed backwardness of the ‘Global South’ is due to a lack of capitalist development. In contrast Banaji contends that Caribbean plantations, Latin American latifundia and Egyptian ezbas were not aberrations or hangovers from precapitalist societies, but were fundamental to the inner working and reproduction of capitalism in the 19th century and beyond. And through a stimulating reading of Sartre’s critique of the ‘free contract’ Banaji deconstructs the related notion that coerced labour is something external to capitalism. In an age where Workfare, sweatshops and unwaged domestic labour are still prevalent, an analytical sensitivity to the variability of capitalist exploitation is of paramount importance. This also warns us against the pitfalls of reformist illusions and points us in the direction of revolutionary practice that resists capitalist exploitation in all its forms.

Indeed, Banaji’s principle theoretical breakthrough also has crucial political consequences. As numerous Smithian and Marginalist economists (and to a lesser degree Weberian sociologists) have argued, there is extensive historical evidence for the existence of wage-labour and capital prior to the modern, capitalist epoch. For such authors this proves the transhistoricity of capitalism, and consequently acts as a rebuke to the most basic of Marxist claims – that capitalism is transient. Banaji skilfully negotiates this historiographical blind spot, not by denying the historical evidence, but by critically reworking it in a Marxist framework. 

In this sense the greatest insight of the book is a reaffirmation of the historical changeability of society, and why the rigorous, critical and theoretically informed study of that changeability, in all of its complexity, is of fundamental importance to understanding – and transforming – the present. In short, it provides an important theoretical foundation to an overtly anticapitalist politics seeking to move beyond this epoch of exploitation.

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