History and Class, Part 1

Distinto, Differente



Capital distinguishes itself, its commodity production, its exchange, from that of predecessors and competitors through the separation of labor from the means of production. Capitalism begins this differentiation through the expulsion of labor from the conditions of its self-maintenance. Reproduction thus of any commodity entails reproduction of labor itself as a commodity, and reproduction of labor is only possible through its organization as labor time. Need, use as qualities are dissolved, subsumed in the continuous exchange between labor power and means of production. More precisely, need, use, and availability exist, converge in the market only tangentially through the exchange of the means of production as private property with wage-labor; and the exchange itself is simultaneously, immediately, and identically, the aggrandizement and expulsion of labor power from production.

Capital realizes itself, reproduces itself as a whole, only through the enforced separation of its parts. This and this alone is what constitutes the freedom of free labor. And this freedom alone is the surplus value, the self-expansion of capital. All other exchanges in the web of capital’s markets, those of commodities based on slavery, plantation production, precious metals extraction, mercantile advantage are given value only through capital’s ability to reproduce those exchanges in the basic aggrandizement and expulsion of wage-labor; by reproducing its fundamental social relation or production; by undermining the very foundations of those other systems.

In all its moments of contraction and expansion, crisis and boom, capital is driven by the constant relation and ever-changing ratio between the means of production organized as private property and labor organized as wage-labor. Thus at every moment, capital’s concerns, its hopes and fears, nostalgia and dread, its shortages and abundances are moments in class struggle.

The inability to recognize capital’s specificity determines not only that its past remains misapprehended, mystified; not only that its present predicament be misrepresented; but that its future, and the future prospects for its revolutionary replacement are obscured, submerged, lost. Opposition will become accommodation.

It is in fact the denial and rejection of the specificity of capital’s origin that is reproduced in the failures “anti-imperialism,” “nationalism,” “radical ecology,” and of course, my personal favorite, the pseudo-socialist Mal-en-thusiasm of the “left” Hubbertists. This miscomprehension itself is the product of the defeats of the workers’ struggles. Historical intelligence no less than personal intelligence is a social product.

Convergence and Conjunction: Venezuela

In 1498, Columbus, on his third voyage, first sighted Peninsula de Paria, leading to the land that would become Venezuela. Entranced by the pearl ornaments of the indigenous peoples, Columbus thought he had discovered the Garden of Eden and immediately compelled the native tribes into extended and dangerous diving for pearls around an island renamed Margarita, from the Greek word for pearl.

Exhausting the pearl beds before the labor source, Spain found little use for the land except for slaving purposes, warehousing the indigenous peoples for shipment to the Caribbean and Panama at Coro and El Tocuyo. Resistance was, and remained, fierce for more than a century, until the indigenous people were all but exterminated. Their resistance, nevertheless prevented the centralization of Spanish rule for two hundred years.

Without easily identifiable resources of precious metals to finance its wars, Spain was so uninterested in the land that it actually dispossessed its own slavers, and leased the territory to the German banking House of Welser.

Some Spanish slavers pushed eastward, and after defeating native resistance, the forces of Diego de Losada established Caracas 1567.

The “value” of Caracas to the mercantile, non-capitalism of the Spanish was not its location dominating the fertile agricultural lands nearby, but its access to the seaport of La Guaira. Reproducing the mercantile, non-capitalist path taken in the Philippines, the conquistadors and administrators ignored most of the territory that would become Venezuela. Instead, Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries explored and subjugated the Rio Unare Basin, the Rio Orinoco, and the Maracaibo Basin during the 17th and 18th centuries, introducing the landed-estate Catholicism so essential to the redemption of souls, and a “friarocracy.”

By the end of the 16th century, agriculture had become Venezuela’s major economic activity. The provinces of Venezuela, ruled from an the viceroyalty of New Granada centered in Bogota, were agriculturally self-sufficient. Surpluses in wheat, tobacco, animal hides, and meat however were of no interest to the Spanish crown, which could not reproduce the values therein contained. Spain could not support the trade of agricultural surplus to other countries. Britain, France, and the Netherlands could. And did.

In the 1620s, cocoa, indigenous to the coastal valleys and the tropical forests of the Orinoco and Amazon, became the major product for export. Cocoa maintained this primacy for two centuries, replaced by coffee after the years of civil war. The cultivation of cocoa however was patterned upon the social organization of production Spain employed in every arena– extraction for market, based on forced labor. The plantation and the mine; chocolate and silver were both products and producers of captured labor; labor chained literally to the implements of production; the system capable only of repetition, an arithmetic accretion, rather than expanding social reproduction.

The population of Venezuela was transformed along the historical lines of plantation production. The indigenous people, all but exterminated, reduced to 10 percent of the population, survived only in poverty, attached to the society in continued marginalization. The peninsulares, born in Spain, occupied the highest positions in church, state, and landed property. Criollas, born white but in-country, formed a secondary elite, occupying the professional, functionary, property-owning layers. White Canary Islanders, attracted to Venezuela by the opportunities for cocoa farming, wound up as wage-laborers in the cities or as small farmers, attempting to produce for more than subsistence with their own labor, some employing the labor of freed former African slaves.

By the middle of the 1700s, pardos, those of mixed race, made up half, and African slaves constituted a fifth, of the total population.

Cocoa became part of the triangle trade between Africa and Europe, and as was the case with most of the triangle trade, the Spanish again were originally unable to capture the profits. British and Dutch traders conducted the trades, transporting the cocoa to markets that included Veracruz.

The Spanish crown commissioned a Basque trading company, Real Compana Guipuzcoana de Caracas, known as the Caracas Company, as the sole authorized trading agent for Venezuela.

The Caracas Company was quite successful at monopolizing the cocoa trade. Yet it’s monopoly did nothing to facilitate the “progress” of Spain towards a capitalism similar to that of Britain or even Holland. In 1749, the “success” did provoke a revolt, a revolt led by a poor immigrant cocoa grower from the Canary Islands, Juan Francisco de Leon. He attempted to unify the lower classes against the landed-estate mercantilism of the peninsulares. Troops from Santo Domingo were sent to crush the revolt. The criollos stood silently to the side.

That the relations between city and countryside, agriculture and production, land and labor, were so uneven, so ill-formed, was a result not of the weight of advancing capitalism pressing down on the non-indigenous emerging bourgeoisie of Venezuela. These economic relations were the deformed offspring of the already determined yet still emerging obsolescence of the Spanish landed-estate crown economy. The centripetal forces inherent in the forced labor plantation system were supported by the administrative weight of mercantile royalism.

The underdevelopment so determined was an underdevelopment of the bourgeoisie, where landed property could not be liberated as an instrument of production through the separation of the laborer, through the dispossession of individual owners. The dispossession of such owners, the separation of the laborer entailed the emancipation of the collective laborers from very existence of private property itself. Thus the capitalization of land, as an integrated segment of production detaching, expelling labor from its process of reproduction, became an impossibility. And in Venezuela, the maintenance of the landed estate system through African slavery made every revolutionary impulse of the criollas a threat to their own privileged economic status.

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