Dominant and other modes of production

A discussion from the Marxism list, December 2006

From Thu Dec 28 20:00:10 2006
From: “ george snedeker” <>
To: <>
Date: Thu, 28 Dec 2006 19:36:30 -0500
Subject: [Marxism] dominant and other modes of production
Reply-To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <>

Sociologists often talk about capitalist society, but Marx used the concept of the capitalist mode of production not society. We often talk about the world as being under the capitalist mode of production especially with the hegemony of the concept of globalization. I wonder how much of the world is actually under the dominance of the CMP. This is certainly the case in the core of the world system but less and less so in the semi-periphery and periphery of the system. I have been wondering what to call the other modes of production which currently exist in the world today. We might call them , feudal, slave and communal as has been done in the Marxist tradition. For example Cuba and China in very different ways have both a capitalist and socialist mode of production. what about the rest of Latin America and Asia as well as Africa? In terms of numbers of people, millions are still living under something other than the capitalist mode of production. Even the slave mode of production persists. The CMP is dominant and is the most dynamic force on the planet but is only part of the story. Some Marxists seem to believe that socialism can only come about after the entire world is under the capitalist mode of production while others no longer even talk about socialism or claim that it exists in individual countries like Cuba. My point here is about how to conceptualize the world system of capitalism in terms of modes of production. There are, of course, political consequences to be drawn from any conceptual analysis.

From Fri Dec 29 11:30:11 2006
Subject: Re: [Marxism] dominant and other modes of production
Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2006 10:33:24 -0500 (EST)
From: (Haines Brown)
Reply-To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <>

> My point here is about how to conceptualize the world system of
> capitalism in terms of modes of production. There are, of course,
> political consequences to be drawn from any conceptual analysis.

George, a very good question. There's an enormous literature on the subject, but it strike me that there has never emerged from it any consensus, and I'm persuaded that the whole subject is not well understood. I can't offer any great insight, but I hope that others in the group will be able to do so.

It seems to me that the notion, “mode of production” as employed by Marx involved several assumptions that have become well understood in the sciences and widely employed by them, although that has not enabled Marxist historians to use them to their advantage.

For example, it seems clear that Marx thought of modes of production in what we would call “systemic” terms. The conventional understanding of the approach suggests that that parts of a system interact in such a way as to give rise to a whole, and the existence of the whole is empirically manifest in the behavior or novel characteristics of its parts. The problem with this empiricist approach, which works to some extent (World Systems Theory, for example), is that unobservables (such as the whole itself and causal mechanisms) are not treated as real objects. This means that causal mechanisms are left out and we are therefore left without any real explanations (this point is hotly debated, but is commonly held in the philosophy of science). I suspect that in the history of the discussion of modes of production, the idea of a “structural causality” was introduced to correct this, but the effort does not strike me as having been very successful.

This brings up a second feature of Marx's discussion of modes of production, which is that it adopted a position we would today refer to as scientific realism. Again, that unobservables are real was not entirely novel at the time Marx wrote (Bergson, James, Pierce), but explorations along this line were quickly submerged by the growing hegemony of positivism. Scientific realism only revived again toward the end of the 20th century.

Marx saw socio-economic systems as emergent, and therefore they must also be contradictory. Today we could put this by saying that all social development is necessarily driven by a thermodynamic engine, which explains why emergent development (that is, development toward greater potentials) depends on exporting entropy, which means dissipation of a social and ultimately the natural environment.

Finally, Marx's approach was materialist. Merely saying this does not carry us very far today, for while Marx obviously rejected various kinds of idealism, that was beating a dead horse. Rising at the time was positivism, which was materialist, and since then, almost all of us are materialists in the sense of adopting an ontological monism. However, Marx was not a materialist in only this sense. His materialism went further by representing all things as processes (what Engels described as a universal motion) rather than as merely things. This clearly distinguished him from the positivists. Ontological monism in his hands did not just refer to identities (things), but also the causal relation of identities. He always aimed to explain emergence (such as surplus value), and to define things as emergent processes they have to be defined in terms of their causal relations rather than their empirical identity. For example, “social class” for him was a relation of people to the material source for their development—their relation of production, not the empirical qualities which groups of people might happen to share. Modern industrial workers have no relation to the material forces of production (they don't own or control the means of production), but they do bring to bear social forces of production, and their development depends on them (social solidarity).

A mode of production therefore seems to be a representation of society in terms of the causal relations that are taken to be real and so account for (that is, explain rather than just describe) its development. This development rests ultimately on the dissipation of the natural environment that we call economic production, which is true for all modes of production. However, the actual development that does take place depends on the totality of causal relation, the mode of production, which constrains the social potentials of economic production.

My point here is that we probably get into trouble if we look at a given society in strictly empirical terms and reduce it to various forms of production, such as slavery, latifundia, or artisanry in combination with capitalism. Such forms certainly exist, and they surely play a role. However, I believe it is a mistake to break the whole down into interacting economic domains, for we need to look at the forces that shape the development of society as a whole. Given that capitalism is, generally speaking, far more productive than pre-capitalist forms of production, capitalism would seem to characterize a society as a whole, even if it happens to contain archaic economic forms. It would therefore be called a capitalist mode of production even of it contains and to a degree depends on the presence of pre-capitalist forms of production.

Now George in particular brings up socialist societies. What are we to do with them? There are no communist societies in the world today, but an array of socialist societies that include capitalist elements maintained in an uneasy relation with more progressive economic trends such as public ownership of some means of production. There is no “socialist mode of production”, and so what are we to do with these socialist societies? Off hand, it seems to me that we need to distinguish whether the capitalist elements or the communist elements are the main force for development. However, this does not reduce to which is the more productive of wealth, but which is the basis for social development. For example, if the state's social policies depend primarily on income that derives from the capitalist sector, then I suppose we still have a capitalist mode of production.

But I’m merely speculating here and hope that someone else will be able to shed more light.

Haines Brown, KB1GRM
Dialectical Materialist

From Fri Dec 29 11:30:14 2006
Date: Fri, 29 Dec 2006 11:11:06 -0500
To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <>
From: Louis Proyect <>
Subject: Re: [Marxism] dominant and other modes of production
Reply-To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition <>

Generally speaking, I have found the term “capitalist mode of production” applied to a given country rather than to the entire world system. When your context is global, it makes more sense to talk about the capitalist system which can incorporate various modes of production. It is also somewhat problematic to look to Marx's writings for support one view or the other. Marx was preoccupied with explaining how capitalism evolved in Western Europe and Great Britain in particular. I doubt if anybody in his immediate milieu ever asked him how to define the mode of production in Peru and Bolivia in the 18th century. For that matter, when he strayed from Europe, he was often wrong. The Asiatic Mode of Production that he harped on has turned out to be fallacious.

On Cuba and China both having a capitalist mode of production. I am not sure what this means exactly. If we are talking about the co-existence of state-owned property and private property, then I suppose you can group the two countries together. However, the private sphere in China is responsible for 70 percent of GDP and the state-owned sphere is mostly involved in operations that are natural monopolies in any society: communications, banking, etc. On top of this, the state-owned firms in China are pretty much the fiefdoms of highly paid managers who run them like the typical capitalist firm and enjoy the privileges of their private sphere counterparts. A news article I posted a while back revealed that some of them belong to the polo clubs that are sprouting in China.