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Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
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Reproduction and the Problem of Periodization

For Structural Marxism, modes of production are the principles of variation by which the unbroken continuity of real history is analytically differentiated into periods or, more accurately, into a discontinuous succession of structures. Because variation, not continuity, defines change, our understanding of historical transformation is always differential, derived from a comparison of different unevenly developed conjunctures, not from the reconstruction of the evolutionary trajectory of an homogeneous essence. In the language of differential history, there is always a gap or dislocation between different conjunctures, as, for example, between the social formations of France in 1788 and 1815. We attempt to explain the gap between France in 1788 and 1815 by means of successive analyses of intermediate conjunctures—1789, 1792, 1795, 1799, and so on—and each successive conjuncture in terms of its own structural integrity. At the same time, we are also impelled by the dialectic of differential analysis to construct concepts of structural integrity across different conjunctures—for instance, the concept of the French Revolution as the period 1788 to 1815, which in turn exists in a differential relation to other periods, the ancien régime, the Restoration, and so on. Knowledge of historical transformation, for Structural


Marxism at any rate, is always a matter of an irreducible tension between the discontinuity of a succession of structures on the one hand and the structural integrity between two conjunctures on the other. Social formations, we must not forget, are unevenly developed structures; therefore, our knowledge of their development can never be reduced to the evolution or realization of an expressive totality. However, they are also structured wholes, and therefore their emergence and dissolution cannot be explained simply by constructing genealogies of their individual elements.

In Reading Capital , Balibar makes a bold initial attempt to elaborate this differential approach to historical development, without, unfortunately, managing to avoid certain pitfalls (whose notoriety has, unfortunately, precluded critical recognition of the nature of his project). Taking as his example Marx's analysis of the "primitive accumulation of capital," Balibar notes that there is a "different world" at the origin of capital where "knowledge of the laws of the development of capitalism is useless . . . because this is a completely different process, not subject to the same conditions" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 278). The study of primitive accumulation

takes as its guiding thread precisely the elements which were distinguished by the analysis of the capitalist structure: these elements are grouped together here under the heading of the "radical separation of the laborer from the means of production." The analysis is therefore retrospective, not insofar as it projects backwards the capitalist structure itself, presupposing precisely what had to be explained, but insofar as it depends on knowledge of the result of the movement. On this condition it escapes empiricism, the listing of the events which merely precede the development of capitalism: it escapes vulgar description by starting from the connections essential to a structure, but this structure is the "current" [capitalist] structure. . . . The analysis of primitive accumulation is therefore, strictly speaking, merely the genealogy of the elements which constitute the structure of the capitalist mode of production . . . . For this reason, the analysis of primitive accumulation is a fragmentary analysis: the genealogy is not traced on the basis of a global result, but distributively element by element. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 279)

"In Marx's analyses," Balibar notes, "we are never dealing with anything other than the combination itself and its forms. . . . [T]he subject of development is nothing but what is defined by the succession of the forms of organization of labor and the displacements that it achieves" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 247). Thus analysis of primitive accumulation does not and cannot coincide with the history of the previous


mode of production as known from its structure, but it does present us with the question of this structure, its tendencies and contradictions, which is precisely the question of a gap or displacement between two successive structured wholes or combinations. We cannot bridge the gap by means of the continuity of an evolution, because such a transition is thinkable only at the level of elements, not the level of structures. For Balibar, we can think a true history only on the basis of the mutual dependence of elements with respect to a structure, that is, as a structured combination, but similar elements inscribed within different social-historical combinations will be differentiated precisely by these distinct structural causalities. One important consequence of this theoretical impasse is the rejection of any evolutionary necessity linking the concepts of different modes of production—that the final triumph of capitalism, for example, is pre-ordained by the concept of feudalism. In opposition to such forms of deductive necessity, Balibar asserts the "relative independence of the formation of the different elements of the capitalist structure, and the diversity of the historical roads to this formation"—in other words, the fact that "the elements combined by the capitalist structure have different and independent origins" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 280).

Unfortunately, Balibar's insights into the differential nature of our concepts of historical development are presented in terms of a Structuralist opposition between synchrony and diachrony, an opposition that ultimately makes it impossible to preserve the primacy of uneven development (contradiction) within the framework of structural causality. Balibar is driven by the logic of the synchrony/diachrony distinction toward an essentialism of the concept of a mode of production; he progressively transforms contradictions within a mode of production (the uneven development of the forces and relations of production) into "tendencies" of a mode of production conceptualized as a unified, evenly developed synchronic system. This essentialism collapses the relative autonomy of the elements into a monolithic and homogeneous totality. It is accompanied by a tendency toward philosophical rationalism with respect to the articulation of the elements; Balibar progressively eliminates the gaps between different levels of analysis (the whole and each of the elements) in order to derive the specific effectivity of each element from the totality viewed as a logical universal, the absolute ground of all contingent attributes.

Balibar's problems begin with his attempt to develop a scientific concept of periodization based on the concept of reproduction . His central


concern is to avoid the pitfalls of "simple" history, which has always conceptualized historical process and periodization within a problematic of continuity and linear time. For Balibar, it is not a question of finding the "right breaks" or "best periods," those artificial (but not arbitrary) cuts into linear time that traditionally emphasize either the primacy of the historical event (a "single criterion of brevity") or distinctions between the "long term" and the "short term" (a distinction based on the "insertion of the latter into the movement of the former"); it is rather a question of finding a "principle of variation" that will constitute history as a comparative science of discontinuous combinations determined by modes of production. Balibar finds this principle of variation in Marx's analysis of the extended reproduction of capital: "reproduction appears to be the general form of permanence of the general conditions of production, which in the last analysis englobe the whole social structure" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 259). Balibar interprets Marx's method as one of englobing the isolated and seemingly contradictory activities within a capitalist mode of production within a synchronic system capable of reproducing its own conditions of existence: "To move from the isolated act, from the immediate production process, to the repetition , to the ensemble of social capital, to the result of the production process, is to install oneself in a fictive contemporaneity of all the movements, or, to put it more accurately . . . in a fictive planar space , in which all the movements have been suppressed, in which all the moments of the production process appear in projection side by side with their connections of dependence" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 264). Reproduction is thus the synchronic essence of articulation circumscribing all the contradictions of capitalist circulation: "In a single movement reproduction replaces and transforms the things, but retains the relations indefinitely. . . . The relations . . . comprehend the hitherto disjoined 'moments' (production, circulation, distribution, consumption) in a necessary and complete unity" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 268-69).

Balibar's intentions are legitimate enough. He wants only to define the criteria by which to distinguish "successive" combinations, and he argues, with considerable justification, that this definition should be done by differentiating between different principles of structural integrity or modes of production. However, by attempting to conceptualize structural integrity in terms of reproduction, Balibar lapses into a form of essentialist thinking fundamentally at odds with Althusser's concept of structural causality. Structural causality conceives the structural in-


tegrity of the complex whole in terms of its elements, or, more precisely, in terms of the place and function assigned to each element by its conditions of existence, the complex whole. Thus there is a certain tendency to reproduce the structural integrity of the complex whole since each element bears within itself the trace of its conditions of existence. However, there is a countervailing tendency—contradiction or uneven development—stemming from the relative autonomy each element possesses by virtue of its independent nature and structural integrity, which cannot be reduced to the place and function assigned to it by the complex whole.

There is, in short, an irreducible tension between the reproduction of the existing complex whole, a tendency imprinted in the structured interrelationships of the elements, and the production of new relations inherent in their relative autonomy and uneven development. For Althusser, history is a necessarily limited and incomplete science. Structural causality provides knowledge of the relation of forces at a given conjuncture, but it can have no concept of the necessity of any particular outcome. Possessing no teleology, structural causality cannot grasp change as an essence or the essence of change. Change can be grasped only comparatively, in terms of greater and lesser degrees of discontinuity between two conjunctures. Balibar, of course, is not unaware of all of this. Indeed, he attempts to develop a non-teleological approach to the problem of periodization with his concepts of correspondence and non-correspondence between the forces and relations of production. However, as we shall see, he makes a fatal mistake by inscribing these relations within a false either/or of synchrony (reproduction) versus diachrony (production). Predictably, once the distinction between synchrony and diachrony is introduced, it raises the pseudo-problem of their reconciliation, and it is this pseudo-problem that sends Balibar down the slippery slope of rationalism and essentialism.

Balibar begins by defining periodization as a "non-linear diachrony" that "replaces historical continuity with a discontinuity, a succession of temporarily invariant states of structure" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 204). Balibar attempts to explain what a "temporarily invariant" structure might be by introducing the concept of a "transitional mode of production," taking as his example handicraft or labor-intensive manufacture. Balibar argues that manufacture, as a transitional structure between feudal and capitalist modes of production, cannot be understood under categories of either feudal or capitalist modes of production, that it is itself "a completely different mode of production" (Al-


thusser and Balibar 1970, 278). This must be so, he contends, since the period of transition between feudalism and capitalism cannot very well be conceived as a hiatus within which a social formation ceases to exist as a structured whole. Because all social formations must be structured, this transitional period must be conceived as a mode of production in its own right. To account for the difference between a "synchronic" mode of production, such as feudalism or capitalism, and a "diachronic" or transitional mode of production, such as manufacture, Balibar next introduces the concepts of "correspondence" and "non-correspondence" between the relations of production and the forces of production. When in correspondence, the forces and relations of production are in a relationship of "reciprocal limitation" such that the social formation reproduces both relations essentially unchanged. In the case of non-correspondence, by contrast, the reproduction of the relations of production induces a progressive transformation of the productive forces and, eventually, a displacement of the instances within the social formation.

Setting aside Balibar's claim regarding the primacy of the relations of production (a problem to which I will return later), the concepts of correspondence and non-correspondence appear to be expressions of uneven development within the mode of production itself. The problem, however, is that Balibar can never really integrate uneven development into his notion of a transitional mode of production because he has already committed himself to conceptualizing modes of production in synchronic terms of reproduction. Assuming for the moment that Balibar might be able to distinguish clearly between synchronic modes of production and diachronic transitional modes of production, it is still necessary to explain the shift from correspondence to non-correspondence. Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, whose argument I am following here, point out the impossibility of reconciling the synchronic "eternity" of Balibar's idea of structural determination (the functioning of the structure to reproduce the conditions of its existence) with its diachronic "finitude" (the production of the dissolution of these conditions as structural effects): "any theory of transition from one mode of production to another requires a concept of correlative movement from non-transition to transition, from eternity to finitude. It is precisely this movement that is unthinkable in Balibar's problematic" (Hindess and Hirst 1975, 274-75).

Given that a shift to a transitional mode of production has somehow taken place, it is immediately subjected to inexorable synchronic ten-


dencies because of Balibar's insistence that any mode of production, including a transitional one, is a unified system reproducing its own conditions of existence and therefore incapable of internal dissolution: "the transition from one mode of production to another . . . cannot consist of the transformation of the structure by its functioning itself, i.e., of any transition of quantity into quality" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 274). By positing the transitional period as a distinct social formation with a distinct mode of production, Balibar has emptied non-correspondence of its antagonistic quality until it has become its opposite, a static process of reproduction devoid of internal contradiction and transformation: "what we have recognized as distinct in essence [the transitional mode of production] shall not become a single process [a stage in the evolution of the succeeding mode of production]. . . . [T]he concept of transition (from one mode of production to another) can never be the transition of the concept (to one other-than-itself by internal differentiation)" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 274).

Balibar has completely abandoned differential history for philosophical rationalism—a problematic wherein uneven development cannot exist except as an illusion of "inadequate" knowledge. Grasped "adequately," that is, from the standpoint of the now thoroughly essentialist totality of a mode of production, contradictions are simply "tendencies," internal temporalities and rhythms of a synchronic structure. For Balibar, "the development of the structure according to a tendency, i.e., a law which does not only (mechanically) include the production of effects, but also the production of effects according to a specific rhythm, therefore means that the definition of the specific internal temporality of the structure is part of the analysis of the structure itself. . . . It is now clear what is 'contradictory' about tendency. . . . Marx defines the terms between which there is a contradiction as the contradictory effects of a single cause " (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 288). Contradiction is simply the "unity of two contradictory terms" grounded in the "nature of the structure . . . as a law of production of the effects themselves" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 289). Such a definition implies the subordination of contradiction to structure: "there is only a contradiction between the effects, the cause (the structure) is not divided against itself, it cannot be analyzed in antagonistic terms. Contradiction is therefore not original, but derivative" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 290). Because the cause that produces the contradiction is not itself contradictory, the result of the contradiction is always a certain equilibrium: "contradiction has a status analogous to that of competition in


the movement of the structure: it determines neither its tendency nor its limits, rather it is a local, derivative phenomenon, whose effects are pre-determined in the structure itself. . . . [T]he only result of the contradiction, which is completely immanent to the economic structure, does not tend toward the supersession of the contradiction, but to the perpetuation of its conditions" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 290-91).

Balibar's obsession with reproduction results in a systematic expansion of synchrony at the expense of diachrony. If contradictions within a mode of production are a function of synchronic processes, they cannot appear as determinations in the separate field of diachronic process. Therefore, in order to break this "correspondence," another structure is needed, one whose delimitation is "absolutely absent" from the existing mode of production. The movement implied by the term non-correspondence must be sought elsewhere, in the "system of interventions . . . of one practice in another" whose result "is to transform and fix the limits of the mode of production" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 306). This move simply throws the entire problem onto the level of the social formation, where dislocations between different practices and modes of production become, in their turn, mere tendencies of this higher synchronic structure. In the end Balibar embraces this outcome, as if the problem of diachrony had never actually existed in the first place: "the problems of diachrony . . . must be thought within the problematic of a theoretical 'synchrony': the problems of the transition and of the forms of transition from one mode of production to another are problems of a more general synchrony than that of the mode of production itself, englobing several systems and their relations" (Althusser and Balibar 1970, 307).

Balibar's attempt to reconcile synchrony and diachrony by means of philosophical rationalism finally ends in a crude essentialist caricature of Spinoza's substance. Indeed, Balibar's analysis is a most graphic example of what Althusser calls "theoreticism." Balibar has since criticized the Spinozist conception of tendency he put forward in Reading Capital :

Behind the argument there is an old philosophical representation, and it is no accident that throughout this work I was guided approximately by certain reminiscences of Spinozist formulae. There is the idea that identity with itself, persistence (including in the form of the persistences of relations implied in a cyclical process), needs no explanation since it explains itself by itself , needs no cause (or production) since it is its own cause . Only "change" as "real" change, i.e., abolition-transformation of the essence,


could need a cause and an explanation. Let me say that this is a survival of the "principle of inertia," of substance and the ontology argument. (Balibar 1973, 65)

But if the problem of reconciling synchrony and diachrony produced a rationalist and essentialist response, it was the initial deployment of the Structuralist opposition of synchrony and diachrony that created the problem in the first place. The final triumph of synchrony—the common ground of both Spinoza and Structuralism—resulted from an essentialist attempt to privilege the reproduction of the whole over the uneven development of the elements. Structural causality—which views the complex whole as an "absent cause" manifested only as the simultaneous effectivities of its elements, and each element as possessing a nature and effectivity that cannot be deduced from the place and function assigned to it by the complex whole—cannot permit such an essentialist reduction. Althusser acknowledges the mistake in Essays in Self-Criticism , where he insists on a much more rigorous distinction between Structural Marxism and Structuralism than the one put forward in Reading Capital : "Marxism is not a structuralism, not because it affirms the primacy of the process over the structure (although formally this is not false) but because it affirms the primacy of contradiction over the process" (Althusser 1976, 130).

Furthermore, Structural Marxism rejects the identity of concepts and things and therefore the rationalist notion that social structures are of the same nature and obey the same logic as the concepts by which we have knowledge of them. Social contradictions, therefore, are not a function of the differential dislocations and epistemological limits within scientific discourse; rather, social contradictions are the concept of something objectively real and outside discourse, namely, the social practices of human beings who have become class subjects by virtue of the class and class-biased structures that constitute their habitus. The primacy of the mode of production within the field of social structures is manifested as the primacy of class struggle within the field of social practices, yet neither the result of economic determination nor the outcome of class struggle is guaranteed by the concept of their origin. Balibar makes this realist position clear in Cinq études du matérialisme historique :[6]

There is only a real historical dialectic with the transformation of the concrete social formation, a process which implies the real interdependence of the different social practices (by giving them the form of being internally overdetermined by the processes of transformation of each social practice).


However, social formations are not simply the "concrete" place (or the milieu) in which an abstract, general dialectic realizes itself. Rather social formations are themselves transformed and are self-transforming because they themselves consist of the history of class struggle. This point is decisive. (Balibar 1974, 229)

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Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
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