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Terray: The Primacy of the Labor Process

In Marxism and "Primitive" Societies , published in 1969 (English translation, 1972), Emmanuel Terray attempts to clarify the structural relationships of Guro society as described by Meillassoux. While fully acknowledging the importance of Meillassoux's work, Terray contends that Meillassoux's "general description" of the economic system of kinship or lineage communities is incomplete and too general. Meillassoux describes "self-sustaining" societies in terms of "cultivation of the soil, self-subsistence, the use of very short-term production techniques, and of human energy as the main source of power" (Meillassoux, quoted in Terray 1972, 97). For Terray, such a general concept, while in some ways adequate, suffers because it offers no "principle of variation" or structural characteristic whose historical specification would render the broad range of different kinship societies both comparable and comprehensible. To accomplish this latter task, Terray argues, it is necessary to recognize the existence of multiple modes of production within primitive social formations and to conceptualize the nature of their articulation and the social relations that "realize" or "represent" them. The key to the discovery of the dominant factor or factors in primitive societies is the study of their various "instruments of labor" from which hypotheses regarding the nature of their mode or modes of production might be derived. "It would then be possible," Terray concludes, "to analyze the concrete social formations . . . and to begin to reconstruct the relations of production of which these structures are one realization" (Terray 1972, 104).

Terray proceeds to reinterpret Meillassoux's findings by means of a detailed "inventory" of various economic activities described by the


latter (hunting, crop cultivation, animal husbandry, food gathering, and handicrafts) in order to ascertain the various functional-technical relations or "modes of cooperation" operative within each activity. These activities are then classified into two general forms of cooperation, "complex cooperation" (defined by use of a collective work implement—for instance, the net) and "simple cooperation" (teams of individuals, including the "production community" itself, performing identical or analogous labor). There are also solitary activities, such as hunting with a bow. From these labor processes Terray deduces two modes of production: a "tribal-village system" and a "lineage system." The former "realizes" relations of complex cooperation in the collective hunt and is characterized by voluntary cooperation, the availability of the means of production (nets and territory) to all, an egalitarian power structure (rotation of leadership of the hunt), equal distribution of the product after the hunt, and the dependence of non-producers (children and elders) on the producers. The lineage system, "realized" primarily in extended cooperation in agriculture, is characterized by the control of the means of production (the exercise of use rights in cultivated land, control over livestock, appropriation of necessary knowledge) and distribution of the social product by elders of the lineage.

While he insists on the articulation of both modes of production, Terray does not specify any relation of dominance and subordination between them; rather, he speaks of their mutual interrelationship or "cross-dominance." In a later self-criticism, Terray acknowledges that the tribal-village system would have been better understood as subordinate to the dominant lineage system. The elders of the lineage, having recourse to ritual, are able to "isolate hunting from other sectors of activity and thus neutralize its effects" and "control hunting, to the extent of making the hunting net a sacred object, a symbol of lineage continuity and thus under their control and surveillance" (Terray 1979, 32).[10] The tribal-village system, Rey admits, is therefore marginal, and the reproduction of the lineage mode of production determines the limited place of the tribal-village system in hunting and in war.

For Terray, as for Meillassoux, the kinship system of the Guro is economically determined by production insofar as the former adapts to the exigencies of the latter (biological families being modified into social families to keep production units intact). Terray, however, is concerned to avoid the idea that kinship is derived directly from the economy as well as the opposite notion that it is independent of the modes of production:


I am not saying . . . that kinship relations are class relations, . . . I am saying that both are the complex result of the interplay of the economic, juridico-political, and ideological phases of the mode of production. . . . [A]nalysis . . . should distinguish:

—An economic aspect or level in which all the following are "realized": the division of the labor force . . . into kinship groups . . . corresponding to . . . production units; the division of the means of production between these units; the organization of consumption units; the structures of direction and control of production.

—A juridico-political level in which the following are "realized": the determination of the personal status of individuals; the regulations governing property and inheritance; relations of authority and their effects on the formation of those organizations . . . which ensure the smooth running of social life in general.

—An ideological aspect or level in which the ideological conditions for the functioning of the system are "realized." (Terray 1972, 144-45)

Terray relies here on a vulgar pluralist interpretation of the concept of overdetermination to avoid both economism and politicism: "concrete kinship relations must be seen as the product of a three-fold causality [economic, juridico-political, ideological] operating upon a given substratum [Meillassoux's "genealogical base"], as the combined effect upon it of the action of the three phases of the mode of production" (Terray 1972, 143). While Terray is correct to defer determination in the present to the matrix effect of the previously existing determinations of the complex whole, his explanation is inadequate to the extent that he fails to acknowledge a hierarchy among determining effectivities in either the past or the present. Terray also rejects Godelier's claim that kinship may function as a relation of production seemingly unaware of the theoretical advantages of Godelier's distinction between the function of economic ownership and the apparently non-economic character of the institution that exercises it. Godelier's framework, as we have seen, allows us to formulate a hierarchy of determinations within the framework of overdetermination. Terray's use of the term overdetermination, by contrast, cannot move beyond the unhelpful truism that everything causes everything else. Terray's methodology, admirable both for its insistence on the specificity of concrete labor processes and for its demonstration of the relevance of Marxist concepts to lineage-based, agrarian societies, cannot fully escape the charge that it has analytically separated the forces and relations of production at the expense of a satisfactory account of their articulation as a mode of production.

Terray considers the control over the means of production and the distribution of the social product exercised by elders to be cooperative


rather than exploitive. The relations of production, or property ownership, are interpreted as egalitarian, with elders having little or no power beyond the necessary administrative task of coordinating production and distribution. According to Terray, power is "vested" in the elder as a "representative of the productive community." Similarly, Terray interprets the elder's control over elite goods—goods such as gold, loincloths, ivory, and guns, which serve as a medium of exchange for nubile women—in terms of functional-cooperative responsibility rather than exploitive power. Finally, Terray views the elder's control over the distribution of women as functionally subordinated to their control over production: because elders control production, it logically follows that they would be granted control over reproduction as well. These positions place Terray at considerable variance with Meillassoux, who grants elders real power and locates it in their determinant place in reproduction rather than production. According to Meillassoux, the low level of productivity and the overwhelming importance of human energy in self-sustaining agriculture mean that human beings and the physical reproduction of the production unit are the axis of the entire production process. Control of the economy by the elders is objectively real, Meillassoux insists, but it operates indirectly, through control of the producer rather than the means of production, and is achieved via control over eligible women rather than over the producers themselves. While Meillassoux refrains from labelling the elders' power over women exploitive, he does view this power as the fundamental contradiction within "self-sustaining" societies and the source from which class relations might eventually develop. Terray concedes that elders possess a limited amount of power—they can delay the moment when the junior can have a wife and enter the lineage system—but because they cannot refuse it altogether, and because juniors eventually achieve independence, Terray insists that the elders' control over women is ultimately cooperative.

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