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Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
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Etienne Balibar: The Forces and Relations of Production

Taking Marx's discussion of the social form of production in volume 2 of Capital as his point of departure, Balibar defines a mode of production, at its highest level of generality, simply as a manner of producing a socially useful product. All modes of production, he maintains, are constituted by certain functional elements which are formally invariant but which in fact exist only in their "combination," that is, in their historically specific content and interrelationship. These invariant functional elements are (1) the laborer or direct producer, that is, labor power; (2) the means of production, that is, the object and the means


of labor; (3) the nonlaborer who appropriates surplus labor, that is, the social product (see Althusser and Balibar 1970, 212).

These three elements are always structured as a double relation along two axes or "connections" whose specific combination constitutes, for Balibar, the historical uniqueness of a mode of production: (1) A relation of real appropriation designates the structure of the labor process, that is, the relation of the laborer to the means of production by which the transformation of nature is undertaken. This relation constitutes the "technical division of labor" or the forces of production . (2) A property relation designates the mode of appropriation of the social product. This relation, the "social division of labor" or relations of production , implies the intervention of an individual or a collectivity, who, by the exercise of economic ownership, controls access to the means of production and the reproduction of the productive forces. Thus, within a given mode, it is the relations of production that are dominant. (See Althusser and Balibar 1970, 212-13.)

Unlike Marx's concept of the capitalist mode of production, Balibar's more general concept presupposes neither nonlaborers beyond infants, the elderly, and the infirm nor the existence of surplus labor beyond that minimum surplus necessary to reproduce the means of subsistence. The same individual can be both laborer and owner, the property relation may have a greater or lesser impact on the labor process, and the ownership function may be institutionally united or separate from the labor process. Moreover, the function of economic ownership should not be identified with any particular form of social control over labor and the means of production, no more than Balibar's use of the term property relation should be associated with any particular form of individual or collective ownership. It is also important to note that the terms property and ownership apply strictly to the realm of economic relations and should not be confused with juridical forms ("laws of property"), which are not, strictly speaking, expressions of production relations but rather of political and ideological relations not necessarily economic in nature. Property relations can take extremely varied forms, but all property relations imply social control over access to the means of production and the distribution of the social product. The necessary existence of a property relation therefore implies the possibility of economic classes and exploitation, although the universality of classes and exploitation remains controversial. For example, in so-called primitive societies operating at a subsistence level within an economy structured by kinship, the existence of exploitation in any form


(by men over women, by elders over juniors), much less class exploitation, is hotly contested even within the camp of Structural Marxist anthropology.

In the case of lineage-based societies, one must distinguish irregular appropriations of the social product such as raiding, which are merely forms of extortion external to a social formation, from institutionalized appropriation, which internally organizes the production of material existence within a social formation. Only the latter may be termed a mode of production in the strict sense. One must also distinguish a cooperative division of labor characterized by reciprocal exchanges of labor or product determined by necessity or utility, from an exploitive division of labor wherein labor power and economic surplus are appropriated by certain social classes without corresponding obligations or limitations. Of course this distinction is often difficult to specify in practice, not least because dominant classes always develop an ideological justification for their power and privileges couched in terms of historical necessity, social utility, or both. Balibar's formulation is particularly useful because it focuses analytical attention on the structural nexus of class exploitation, namely, access to the means of production and distribution of the social product, rather than on the ideological structures through which social subjects explain, justify, resist, and adapt to the forces and relations of production. If and when unequal distribution of the social product within a social formation serves to reproduce the conditions of that unequal distribution, then we are in the presence of class struggle and exploitation. It is sufficient—indeed, necessary—to speak of exploitation whenever direct producers are unable to determine either the volume or the appropriation of their own surplus labor.

According to Balibar, the forces and relations of production exist only in their "unity" as "simultaneous yet distinct" relations among laborers, the means of production, and nonlaborers. Not only is each of these elements related to the others, but it is also related to them in two different dimensions: "This double function is an index of what I shall call the double nature of the division of labor in production (the 'technical' division of labor and the 'social' division of labor); at the same time, it is an index of the interdependence or intersection of these two divisions . . . the fact that the two connections . . . both belong to a single 'Verbindung ' . . . to the structure of a single mode of production" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 214). By emphasizing the unity of the forces and relations of production, Balibar neatly resolves a longstanding Marxist debate as to whether technological development or class struggle is the motive force of history. For Balibar, such a debate


turns on a misleading identification of the productive forces with technological determinism and the property relation with class struggle.[2] In actuality, because technological development never exists apart from class struggle, nor class struggle apart from a specific level and organization of technology, any attempt to separate them is meaningless.[3] Only between rival modes of production (that is, rival unities of forces and relations) is the level of technological development decisive.

While Balibar insists that the relations of production are dominant within a given mode of production (because the ownership function controls the reproduction of the productive forces), this relation of dominance is neither reducible to a voluntaristic concept of class struggle nor open to criticism for having ignored the level of technological development. The dominance of the property relation implies the dominance of the class exercising the ownership function, but this is not to say that the dominant class can do anything it wishes nor that its dominance results from ownership alone. For Balibar, it is not a question of the "primacy" of the relations or the forces, in the sense of relations being somehow in advance of the forces; rather, it is a question of class struggle within both the forces and the relations. The class struggle is determined by the unity of a mode of production: the level of economic development defines the universe of class interests and powers, but economic development is nothing but the manifestation of the interests and powers of social classes. The primary contradiction between the forces and relations of production does not turn on the "primacy" of one or the other—economism or voluntarism—but rather on the antagonistic class interests and powers produced by both. Ultimately, class struggles within a given mode of production as well as those between classes of rival modes are settled in favor of the class most capable of developing the productive forces at a given time.

In both capitalist and non-capitalist societies the combination of economic ownership (relations of production) and a labor process (forces of production) specifies the determinant economic function or instance of the social formation. Defining a mode of production in this way differentiates the general functional term economic from historically specific economic terms such as market economies, private property, and so on, which have been frequently employed with the unfortunate result of reading capitalist characteristics into other modes of production.[4] The Structural Marxist concept of a mode of production attempts to reveal the historical specificity of economic determination within different social formations, not to eliminate or distort it. The economic instance in feudal society, for example, is determinant in the last in-


stance even though the relations of property and the labor processes constituting the feudal mode of production are defined by neither market values nor private property (even where market mechanisms and private property exist). The subordination (subsumption in Balibar's terminology) of the social and technical divisions of labor to market mechanisms and private property is the characteristic feature of a capitalist mode of production, not a universal or necessary form of economic determination in all social formations. Economic ownership and the labor processes may reside in different social structures and institutional apparatuses, and within these structures and apparatuses they may coexist with a variety of non-economic functions. As we have seen, this is the basis of Althusser's distinction between the concepts of dominance and determination: the term structure in dominance always denotes the structure exercising the function of economic ownership (whether or not this structure is the site of actual production), whereas the term determination in the last instance always denotes the primacy of the economic function, that is, the deep structure of the mode of production (whether or not the structures that exercise the functions of ownership and production are primarily political or ideological).

Balibar argues that the juxtaposition of three elements and two relations gives a high degree of theoretical precision to the concept of a mode of production: "By varying the combination of these elements according to the two connections which are part of the structure of every mode of production, we can reconstitute the various modes of production, i.e., we can set out the 'presuppositions' for the theoretical knowledge of them, which are quite simply the concepts of the conditions of their historical existence. . . . The final result would be a comparative table of the forms of different modes of production which all combine the same 'factors' " (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 216). However, Balibar also insists that the "invariant formal characteristics" of his general concept not be mistaken for a denial of the historically specific character of every concrete mode of production. Balibar is especially concerned that the development of concepts be appropriate to distinct determinate levels of generality and specificity and not restricted to any single level. He cites approvingly Marx's observation that the general concept of the capitalist mode of production, which deals with properties common to every capitalist system, "does not prevent the same economic basis—the same form from the standpoint of its main conditions—due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influ-


ences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances " (Marx, quoted in Althusser and Balibar 1970, 256).

In defending the need for concepts pitched at different levels of generality as well as the validity of such concepts, Balibar rejects the extremes of empiricist nominalism and essential forms. Denial of the historical specificity of its constituent elements, Balibar maintains, would reduce the concept of a mode of production to a Structuralist "combinatory" (combinatoire ) as opposed to a Structural Marxist "combination." For Balibar, the former term refers to the tendency of many Structuralist theorists to itemize elements of a social system as a formal pattern of relations and arbitrarily occupied places that appear and reappear throughout "history" in such a way that, while the places of the elements and their relations may change, their nature remains constant, indifferent to the effect of changes within the structure as a whole. As a result, by means of a combinatory, it is possible to bypass the historically specific elements and proceed directly to an a priori knowledge of all possible articulations of the structure. A combination, by contrast, insists on the fact that the nature of the elements themselves is altered by their historically specific structure. With a combination, Balibar insists, "we do not find the same concrete elements when we move from one variant to the next. Nor is their particularity defined by mere place, but rather as an effect of the structure, differing every time; i.e., an effect of the combination which constitutes the mode of production" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 241).

Balibar's contrast between the Structural Marxist concept of combination and the Structuralist combinatory is not entirely satisfactory.[5] Although certain Structuralists, Lévi-Strauss for example, may be justly criticized for imposing a combinatory consisting of ahistorical elements on each and every social formation, many others are willing to concede, even to insist on, the fact that individual elements derive their character from the system within which they exist: this is, after all, a fundamental property of the linguistic sign according to Saussure and a basic axiom of semiology. Balibar's combinatory/combination opposition therefore misses the central weakness of Structuralism, which is not its inability to see the individual element as determined by the structure of the whole but rather the fact that it has no theory of the transformation of the structure, no concept of contradiction, and no concept of dominance and subordination. For Structuralism, it is certainly conceivable for elements to be seen in interaction with each other, but this interac-


tion, like that of functionalist sociology, is static; the system adjusts but it never changes, its movement circumscribed by invariable relationships or at least relationships whose variation cannot be theoretically accounted for by the structure itself.

The weakness of Balibar's attempt to distinguish the Structural Marxist concept of a combination from a Structuralist combinatory stems from the fact that his own analysis of the problems of periodization and articulation is deeply flawed by a rationalist and essentialist attempt to theorize both problems in terms of the Structuralist opposition of synchrony and diachrony instead of the Structural Marxist concept of contradiction. Therefore, before moving on to the important positive advances realized by Balibar's concept of a mode of production and the subsequent deployment of this concept by anthropologists and historians, it is useful to examine carefully Balibar's attempt to work out the implications of the Althusserian problematic with respect to the problem of historical process. Readers less patient with theoretical detours may wish to skip the next two sections.

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Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
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