22 November 2013

Pre-Capitalist Relations of Production

Pericles, 495 – 429 BC


Pre-Capitalist Relations of Production

Work is Central to Our Existence and Who We Are

            Modern human beings have existed for at least 50,000 years. About 11,000 years ago, our ancestors learned to grow crops and raise animals. Today, almost all adults still spend most of their waking hours hard at work earning a living and raising their children. The struggle to pay for housing, food, medical care, schooling, transportation, etc. still dominates our lives. All over the world, workers still exert their physical, mental, and emotional efforts, sometimes up to 14 or 16 hours per day, often 6 or 7 days per week, producing, transporting, growing, selling, serving, cleaning, and creating. Work is indeed central to our existence and identity.

            It is through work that we build human civilization. Our work changes the “object” of our labor, whatever that object may be. A barber improves the customer’s appearance; the farmer helps the crop grow; the bus driver moves passengers from one place to another; the electronics assembler makes a computer from parts; the theoretical scientist increases our knowledge.

            Human beings are social animals and tool-using animals. These two characteristics shape the way we work. We work together to gather and reshape nature’s resources, and we use means (tools) and methods of production that other human beings have already produced. Our work creates goods and services for immediate consumption and semi-finished products and tools/machinery for future production.

            Now, in the 21st century, all work is part of an elaborate worldwide division of labor in which each of our efforts is a tiny but significant part of a mighty production and distribution system that enables seven billion people to live and reproduce.

Pre-Capitalist Relations of Production

            To understand any society, we must understand both the technical level (means and processes) of production and the relations of production. “Relations of production” refers to the relationships between the major groups (classes) of people in the production and circulation of goods and services (production process).

            Relations of production change, just as means and processes do. The dominant (main) production relationship in a society gives its name to the society. So far, humans have built hunting and gathering, slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist societies. Different relations of production instill different belief systems (ideologies), laws, and customs. The transition periods, when competing relations of production battle for dominance, are times of great class struggle and instability. The winning set of production relations will shape human consciousness and behavior for a long time to come.  
            Hunting and gathering was the earliest type of production. People had Stone Age technology, so they could not regularly produce and store a surplus (extra, for later use). Means of production were primitive tools (hatchets, arrows, throwing tools) made from stone, bone, and wood. Anthropologists theorize that the main division of labor was between women (mostly gatherers) and men (mostly hunters), and that relations of production were mainly cooperative.

            Slavery appeared in human history at the start of the Bronze Age, which began about 3300 BCE (Before the Common Era) in Asia and the Middle East. Slave owner/slave relations of production became dominant when slaves produced a surplus on a regular basis. This occurred when humankind grew crops and domesticated wild animals into herds. Slavery is a form of exploitation, in that the slave’s owner appropriates the surplus. The production relationship between slave and slave owner is “antagonistic,” as opposed to “cooperative.”

            Slavery likely existed in every ancient civilization, from the Middle East to China and India, in Africa, Europe and the Americas. On an intermittent basis, it even continued as feudal and then capitalist production relations became dominant. For example, until the US Civil War abolished slavery in 1865, both slave and capitalist relations of production competed for dominance in the United States. Their ideologies, legal systems, and customs also competed.

            Within slave societies, other relations of production also existed. Non-exploitative relations of production included self-employment for the family (peasants, artisans) as well as hunting and gathering for the clan. Class-based (exploitative) relations of production included feudal (lords/serfs) and capitalist (employers/wage-laborers).

            In the modern era, slavery was outlawed in Russia (1723), Germany (1822), Mexico (1829), Britain (1834), Tunisia (1846), United States (1865), Brazil (1888), China (1910), Iraq (1924), Saudi Arabia and Yemen (1962). The world is now officially free of slavery, as Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981. However, the effects of slavery are still felt. For example, in the United States, 150 years after a bloody civil war ended slavery, racially discriminatory attitudes and practices remain. And, as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently stated, “Debts, trafficking in humans, sexual exploitation, child work, forced marriages and children soldier recruitment [continue] as contemporary tactics for slavery.”[i]

            Feudalism and feudal production relations came to dominate in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere during the Middle Ages. Feudalism appeared in China as early as 1122 B.C.E. and in Europe from about 900 A.D.

            Feudal relations of production are between landowners (king, nobility, church, non-cleric landlords) and serfs (peasants). The landowners are “masters.” Serfs are “servants,” primarily agricultural workers who are partly slave and partly free. The serfs lived on their masters’ land and were required to farm it without compensation, and feudal law prohibited them from leaving. They farmed some land for themselves but were required to pay taxes of 50% or more on production from that land. Serfs also had to serve in their masters’ armies and labor on their rulers’ construction projects, such as irrigation systems, temples and churches, castles, military fortifications, and burial chambers.

            In feudal societies, serfdom co-existed with slave labor, wage labor, tenant farming, independent peasantry, free artisans, mercantile capitalists, long-term apprentices, and hunting and gathering.

            France abolished serfdom in 1789, Russia in 1905, and China in 1911 with the Xinhai Revolution. However, feudalism’s influence over people’s lives carried forward. For example, the feudal belief that nobility are entitled by God to rule society carries over to the capitalist notion that the wealthy are wealthy because they are the best, smartest, most capable people.

1.         Pre-capitalist
6.         Exploitative relations of production
2.         Means of production
7.         Antagonistic relations of production
3.         Relations of production
8.         Hunting and gathering societies
4.         Ideology
9.         Slavery
5.         Surplus
10.       Feudalism

Discussion Questions

1. Which type of worker is more productive, a slave or a serf? Discuss.
2. Describe two ideas that you think slave owners used to strengthen slavery.
3. Describe feudal ideas that have carried over to capitalism and/or socialism in your country.

[i] March 25, 2012, United Nations, “First International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”


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