The premises of contemporaneity



Capitalism is the relentless transformation of the conditions and means of accumulation, the perpetual revolution of production, trade, finance and consumption.

The emergence of the discipline called “contemporary history”, in secondary and higher education, happened with the teaching reform promoted by Victor Duruy in France, in 1867, defining it as “the study of the period from 1789 to the Second Empire”.[I] At the same time, with a similar date, the socialist leader Georges Sorel, outside official institutions, taught “contemporary history” at the Free School of Political Sciences since 1870.

In the century and a half that has passed, its understanding and formulation has undergone numerous modifications and precisions. The definition of the French Revolution (“1789”) as the founding act of contemporaneities was far from being taken for granted: the Italian fascist regime, enemy of the revolutionary, Jacobin-Communist or liberal tradition, dated its beginning, in secondary school textbooks, in the Restoration started in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna.[ii] The historiographic question was subordinated to the political cleavage: periodization and historical studies had to consider the emergence of a new era of history – whose nature was already the object of philosophical and political conceptualizations, and of literary and aesthetic reactions – with characteristics that were entirely assumed new. The concept of “new” was already dominant in science and philosophy since the beginning of modernity, associated, as we will see, with the idea of ​​“progress”.

The notion of “contemporaneity” presupposes the division of history into periods, preserving its unity and continuity. The periodization of history is as old as the first human societies – whether or not they are called “civilizations”. She never referred only to a chronology, when it existed, but also to the attempt to endow history with a sense and structure, even appearing under a mythical envelope. The idea of ​​an "original golden age" and a subsequent fall, on which the mythical account of the ages of the world was based, may be regarded as a universal basic manifestation of historical peoples; it was already found in Babylon, in ancient Iran, in China or in Amerindian peoples. It was with the Greeks (Hesiod, The Works and the Days) that the attempt of a “philosophical division of historical periods” (golden, silver, bronze – or heroic, in eastern peoples – and iron ages) arose, which was taken up and developed by the Romans. The cyclical idea, or of “eternal return”, was combined with that of a succession of different historical-cultural periods – of divine or human origin.

The Christian conception, originally based, like that of Judaism, on the Old Testament, had as its pivot point the reconciliation of humanity with God through Christ, who informs the world calendar up to the present. Saint Augustine (the city of god) distinguished, based on this, six eras of human history: childhood, childishness, adolescence, iuventus, senior aectas e senescence (from the revelation of Christ to the Last Judgment). Humanist-Renaissance thought discarded the idea of ​​a “final age” of history and proposed a “tripartite system” (Antiquity – Middle Ages – Modernity), which prevailed and paved the way for the classification and historical conceptualization of the “present time” : Philippe Melanchton, at the end of the XNUMXth century, already used the different expressions of “modern time” and “present time”. The humanist tripartite scheme entered history manuals in the XNUMXth century with Christoph Cellarius, who published the triad History Antiqua, History Medii Aevi e new story, at the end of that century.[iii]

In the most developed expression of the Enlightenment, Hegel divided the periods of history based on the succession of great States, expression of civilizations, following the model of the empires of the world: eastern, Greek, Roman, Germanic.[iv] Although inspired by Hegel, Karl Marx discarded the understanding (and periodization) of history based on “superstructural” criteria (States, religions or ideologies) placing work and production (in the first place, material) at its base. Here is an abundantly quoted fragment: “Broadly speaking, Asian modes of production; old; feudal and modern bourgeois can be qualified as progressive epochs of the social economic formation. Bourgeois relations of production are the last contradictory form of the process of social production, contradictory not in the sense of an individual contradiction, but a contradiction that arises from the conditions of social existence of individuals; however, the productive forms that develop within bourgeois society create, at the same time, the material conditions to resolve this contradiction. With this social formation, the prehistory of human society ends.[v]

Continuity and rupture of previous social forms, bourgeois society (or “capitalism”, as it is known today) was the most developed form of social production, the common basis of all human societies. The succession, progressive or not, of the modes of production, with the passage from one to the other via social revolutions, became the basis of the Marxist theory of history, although almost all Marxist historians rejected the idea of ​​a “universal model” of historical stages, which does not seem to have been the intention of Marx and Engels at all. Could this basic idea be combined with the existing periodization, which remained hegemonic in educational institutions?

The conception of a “historical contemporaneity” was expressed from the more or less victorious closing of the cycle of the great democratic revolutions in Europe and America, which tended to create a world based on its ideals (nation, representative democracy, partial or universal recognition of equality, basic human rights), although it was initially restricted to a small group of countries. The “contemporary era” was initially defined by non-contemporaneity, that is, by the stages of human development considered historically outdated; a consensus was reached in defining the “Contemporary Age” as the period whose beginning would go back to the French Revolution, ideologically marked by the Enlightenment, the defense of the primacy of reason and the development of science as a guarantee of civilizing progress, characteristics of a new era which surpassed the precedents.

Seeking a foundation beyond political, legal and ideological events (or history reduced to the evolution of States and religions, as Karl Marx critically qualified the historiography of his time), a definition of contemporaneity was reached through the development and consolidation of capitalism and the disputes of the great European powers for territories, raw materials and markets. This conceptualization undermined the initial model, as after two major world wars, skepticism undermined the belief in the inevitable progress of civilization: “advanced and educated” nations were capable of committing atrocities “worthy of barbarians”.

A second questioned aspect of this criterion was its natural Eurocentric position, since capitalism, although tending to be global since its inception, was undoubtedly born in (Western) Europe, which led to questioning the “validity of the European model of historical division”, based exclusively on capitalist societies (excluding, therefore, those that were not), that is, the division of history into periods based on a Euro-centered criterion, which would be the basis for ideological positions that legitimize the imperialist rise of the European powers. Finally, the dating initiated in the French Revolution or the American Revolution (1776), placing the history of capitalism at its methodological center, did not seem adequate, since the “age of capital” had its origin in the preceding centuries, being located in the sixteenth century, for example, by authors as divergent in terms of the origin and nature of capitalism as Max Weber or Karl Marx.

Within a controversial and controversial contemporaneity, a “history of the present time” has been developed in recent decades, dedicated to the investigation of permanencies and temporal ruptures that have not been overcome, although not always in an explicit or recognized way, seeking to place modern societies in their historical context. through the investigation of the construction of its past and its public and political uses: the present time would be permeated by pasts of the most diverse types, including very remote ones (pre-contemporary) or intentionally hidden by the “official historical discourse”. The political dimension of the “history of the present time” is quite evident, as it is linked to the emergence of memory policies, the investigation of national and global historical traumas, the growth of political claims for reparation (from descendants of slaves or victims of the Holocaust Jewish, for example) and the revaluation of the event to understand the historical process, overcoming an approach unilaterally centered on “long duration” (the unconscious or semi-conscious continuities of long term, behind the “smoke” of events) or on secular processes.[vi]

Even accepted, this approach does not eliminate the general categories of analysis of a delimited historical period, if we consider them the only ones capable of going beyond immediate experience and evidence, which is the meaning and foundation of the scientific claim of history. If we accept, as a starting hypothesis, that the development of capitalism, in its various spatial and temporal configurations, constitutes the interpretative axis of contemporary history, insofar as capitalism was the only historical system of production that expanded worldwide, we must admit that, if the history of capital can be traced back to remote times, the history of capitalism is much more recent, but not as recent as the last quarter of the XNUMXth century, and its origin is the subject of controversy.

Its founding social relationship is that between salaried work and capital: the history of contemporary societies would be determined by the relationships established based on this foundation, its dynamics and contradictions. Social mobility, career based on merit, link between education and social ascension, formal equality of opportunities, professional flexibility, general commodification, hedonistic selfishness, among others, would be its derived manifestations. They would even be a reformulation in new terms of pre-existing characteristics: “Although several institutions (money, writing, reading, religion) present in feudalism may have family resemblances with capitalism, only within the emerging capitalist relations, of historical grammar of capital, is that we started to find new social values ​​such as 'individualism', 'competition', 'profit', 'social mobility' and the new mode of production, with its new division of labor”.[vii]

The origin of the concept of “capitalism” is not difficult to trace. The term “capital” originates from the Latin capital, capitals (“main, first, chief”), which in turn comes from the Indo-European kaput, "head". It is the same etymology of the “capital city” (or “first city”) of modern nations, or the Italian boss. In a broad sense, the notion of “capital” was used as a synonym for wealth, in whatever form it was presented or however it was used. In its modern sense, the concept emerged in Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, designating stocks of goods, sums of money or money entitled to interest. In the thirteenth century, in Italy, there was already talk of the “capital of goods” of a commercial firm. The French jurist Beumanoir used the term in the XNUMXth century to refer to the “capital” of a debt. Its use was later generalized as the sum of the borrowed money, differentiated from the interest on the loan.

The term “capitalist”, in turn, refers to the owner of capital, its use dates back to the mid-XNUMXth century. O Hollandische Mercurius used it, pioneeringly (Holland was one of the pioneering nations of capitalism), between 1633 and 1654, to refer to the owners of commercial capital. David Ricardo, us Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (from 1817) also used it. His predecessor Adam Smith, however, did not use it in The Wealth of Nations (1776), where he referred to the new economic system as "liberalism". The term was used in 1753 in Encyclopaedia Britannica, as “the state of someone who is rich”; in France, it was already used since the XNUMXth century to refer to industrial owners.

Rousseau used it in 1759 in his correspondence. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon used it in What is the property? (1840) to refer to landlords in general. Benjamin Disraeli, future Prime Minister of Great Britain, used it in his novel Sybil (1845), also called The Two Nations, in which the background was the atrocious conditions of existence of the new working class in England. Marx and Engels spoke of the Capitalist No. Communist Manifesto (1848) to refer to owners of capital. The term was also used by Louis Blanc, a republican socialist, in 1850. Marx and Engels referred to the capitalist system (Capitalistic System) and the capitalist mode of production (Capitalistische Produktionsform) On Das Kapital (1867). Finally, “around 1860, a new word entered the economic and political vocabulary of the world: capitalism".[viii]

As a social relationship between capital-owning entrepreneurs and “free” workers (free to sell their labor capacity, with nothing else to sell), embryonic forms of capital have existed since the first historical societies. Considering the “antediluvian forms of capital” (commercial or usurer capital) as fully capitalist, several authors postulated the timelessness and/or naturalness of capitalism, as an economic-social system that could project itself indefinitely towards the past,[ix] considering any society in which money and commercial or interest-bearing capital existed as capitalist. These societies, however, were not capitalist, although a large part of their production was directed towards the market, as they were not based on capitalist relations of production: “Speaking of ancient or medieval 'capitalism', because there were financiers in Rome or merchants in Venice It's language abuse. These characters never dominated the social production of their time, ensured in Rome by slaves and in the Middle Ages by peasants, under the various statutes of serfdom. Industrial production in the feudal era was obtained almost exclusively in artisanal or corporate form. The master craftsman pledged his capital and his work and fed his companions and apprentices at home. There is no separation between the means of production and the producer, there is no reduction of social relations to simple money bonds: therefore, there is no capitalism”.[X]

What was the historical differential of capitalism? Capital is a determinate form of value, it is value which expands indefinitely (indefinitely and without quantitative limits). In capitalism, due to circulation and competition, the simple preservation of value is not possible: it is necessary for capital to reproduce and expand, not only through reproduction simple (in which capital values ​​are permanently replaced in production, without increment or reduction), but as a reproduction enlarged, as accumulation of value and surplus value, as “reinvestment” of the surplus value obtained in the previous cycle and capital accumulation.

The feudal lord, on the other hand, was satisfied when he received enough income from his peasants to support himself, his family and his servants, within their way of life. The capitalist, on the contrary, has a “voracious appetite”, a “werewolf hunger for more work”, that is, for profits, which springs from the need to fight his competitors, with a view to surpassing them, or going bankrupt. (disappear from the market). In capitalism, the creation of value depends on the competition between goods and capital, which presupposes the generalization of the production of goods.

Capitalism was born from the appropriation of the sphere of social production by capital: “The subordination of production to capital and the emergence of the class relationship between capitalists and producers must be considered the watershed between the old and the new mode of production” .[xi] In this new economic system, the origin of profit is based on the exchange between capital and wage labor, on which modern production is based, which constantly reproduces and expands it: “The capitalist production process reproduces, through its own procedure, the separation between workforce and working conditions. It reproduces and perpetuates, with this, the conditions of exploitation of the worker”. Aspects common to all capitals arise from the expansion of value, a product of worker exploitation in production.

In the contemporary era, all economic categories are presented quantitatively, ultimately reduced to money; however, only in capitalism does the money form, much older than it, develop all its potentialities, and become the “absolute sign”, the general mediator of social relations. Money, however, is almost as old as commercial exchange, insofar as it surpassed the barter limit carried out between isolated communities; its origin dates back to the cult of sacrifices oriented towards the fertility of the land, animals and women.

In ancient Rome, money was minted in the temple of Juno, goddess of marriage identified with the Greek Hera, also called Currency, a name that has survived in all languages ​​of Latin origin: “Initially, coins were only minted in large quantities, those needed by temple officials for their foreign trade in cash. There was always a small bazaar where the temple stewards traded cows for produce from the land. Once the ceremony was over, the temple servants gathered the cows, which they could sell the next day. These sacrificial rituals allowed the authorities to accumulate great treasures through the exchange of votive animals for the products of the land, which gave rise to the motive and need for a very active trade, especially with distant lands; the administrators of the temple perforce were encouraged towards more and more audacious money deals”.[xii] Money, therefore, arose not only to facilitate exchanges, but with a view to profit, being itself “potential capital”.

From the use of diverse objects in common use as currency, it moved to precious metals, and from there to fiduciary paper money promising to pay gold or silver, followed by forced currency paper money, experimented for the first time on a large scale, in the West, in France in the early XNUMXth century, although there is evidence of its use in China a millennium earlier. Precious metals conquered the role of money-commodity through a long historical process: “In origin, the commodity most exchanged as a necessary object serves as currency, the one that circulates the most, the one that, in a given social organization, represents wealth for excellence: salt, hides, cattle, slaves (…) The specific utility of the commodity, whether as a particular object of consumption (leathers) or as an immediate production instrument (slaves) transforms it into money. But, as development advances, the opposite phenomenon occurs: the commodity that is less an object of consumption or an instrument of production starts to play that role better, as it responds to the needs of exchange as such. In the first case, the commodity is converted into money because of its specific use-value; in the second, its specific use value stems from the fact that it serves as money. Durable, unalterable, capable of being divided and added, transportable with relative ease, can contain a maximum exchange value in a minimum volume; all this makes precious metals particularly suitable at this last stage”.[xiii]

Capitalism presupposes the transformation of money into capital, based on obtaining profit through the exploitation of other people's work, not on commercial deceit or usurious extortion. This conception of the qualitative transformation of the function of money in the age of capital was far from being consensual. Georg Simmel, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, published the “masterpiece of the philosophy of values”, the Philosophy of Money: trade would be the decisive element of civilization; civilized men would be “animals that practice exchange”. Exchange would absorb the preexisting social-animal violence in human beings, and money would universalize exchange. Modernity would be characterized by traits intrinsically linked to monetary life, such as the acceleration of time, the monetization of social relations, the expansion of markets, the rationalization and quantification of life and the inversion of means and ends.

Money would be the god of modern life, because in modernity everything revolves around money and, at the same time, money makes everything revolve.[xiv] Money would be, for Simmel, the transcendental category of human socialization. In this philosophy of values, capitalism would not be a break with previous historical phases, but a defining phenomenon of a “civilizing process” without a break in continuity. The nodal point of the passage to civilized society would be the passage from the natural economy to the monetary economy.

In capital society, however, the money commodity is not an end, but a means of capital accumulation. The capitalist is not the hoarder, but the investor (industrial or agrarian; commercial or financial). In the “investment society”, with the separation of the producer from the means of production and their accumulation at the opposite social pole, that of the owners of these means, money meets the conditions to act as capital, making possible the emergence of expanded reproduction and reproduction. capital accumulation, and unfurling all its potential functions. It was only under these conditions that the value of precious metals became, in a long process, the reference of fiduciary money, and gave rise to modern theories of money. The pioneering theory of the gold standard, the “quantitative theory of money”, was elaborated by David Hume in 1752, under the name of “model of flow of metallic coins” and it highlighted the relationships between quantities of money and price levels. It was assumed that each bank, an institution already developed in medieval fairs, was obliged to convert banknotes issued by it into gold (or silver), whenever requested by the customer.

Thus, only in bourgeois society did money develop its potential as an expression of the total or developed form of value (old commercial exchanges could take place without money, not like capitalist accumulation), potentialities already present in the money-commodity, socially recognized as monetary form of value. In the words of Marx: “Gold does not play the role of money in relation to commodities, except because it already played the role of merchandise in relation to them. Like them, it also functioned as an equivalent, sometimes accidentally in isolated exchanges, sometimes as a particular equivalent with other equivalents. Little by little it begins to function as a general equivalent, within more or less wide limits. As soon as it conquers a monopoly of this position in the expression of the value of the world of commodities, it is transformed into a money commodity, and it is only from the moment when it has already been transformed into a money commodity that the general form of value is transformed into a form of money. monetary”.[xv]

Modern forms of capital first developed in western Europe through a long process of transition. With the dissolution of the old Roman Empire, the economy of Europe came to be controlled by local powers; its internal and external trade went into decline: “The most evident effect of the economic and political crisis, in the first five centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, was the ruin of the cities and the dispersion of the inhabitants through the fields, where they could extract from the earth their sustenance. The field was divided into large properties (of five thousand hectares on average, or larger). In the center was the owner's usual residence, the cathedral, the abbey and the castle; possessions were often scattered over great distances. In this rural society, which formed the basis of feudal political organization, cities had a marginal place; did not function as administrative centers, and to a lesser extent as centers of production and exchange”.[xvi]

The European commercial and productive setback extended from the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century, in the High Middle Ages. Long-distance trade developed, reinvigorated, in emerging Islamic Arabia: the Arabs established long-distance trade routes with Egypt, Persia, and Byzantium. In the meantime, the European population was changing due to external invasions. Still, “even in the moments of greatest depression, Scandinavia, England and the Baltic countries continued their trade with Byzantium and with the Arabs, mainly through the Russians. Even the Carolingian Empire continued to sell salt, glass, iron, weapons and millstones to the north.[xvii] The remains of the ancient Roman Empire were a fortress besieged, from the south, by the Arabs, from the north by the Scandinavian Vikings, to the east by the Germans and Huns, whose territorial advances came to configure, through successive occupations and mixtures, the population of modern Europe, in whose trajectory capitalism originated.

The void left by the end of the Roman Empire was finally filled. The Arab-Islamic conquest, which began in the XNUMXth century, broke the unity of the Mediterranean that existed in antiquity and destroyed the “Christian-Roman synthesis”. With the expansion of Islam from the XNUMXth century onwards, long-range trade spread rapidly to Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Asia, forming what came to be called the “world-economy”, with a extra-European centre: “It is difficult to give figures for ancient [extra-European] long-distance trade, when compared with production. This uncertainty allowed minimizing its importance, considering these exchanges as limited only to luxury products, that is, marginal deals between ruling elites. This negligence is very regrettable and in solidarity with Eurocentrism. It allowed us to consider anecdotal, in the economic evolution of Europe, its retreat from the great trade between the fourth and twelfth centuries, approximately. In these eight centuries, the rest of the Eurasian continent experienced an unprecedented expansion of distance commerce, and a sophistication of its actors and techniques”.[xviii]

From the twelfth century onwards, the rebirth of large European trade affected its internal economic and social relations, determining the decline of feudalism and the tendency towards organizing the economy into broad units based on the monetary and mercantile economy. Italian cities broke the Arabs' maritime monopoly in the Mediterranean. A series of events precipitated a new economy and a new society: “From the seventh to the eleventh century, the West had emptied itself of precious metals, but gold and silver returned with the Crusades. Monetary means grew, gold coins began to circulate again. São Luís made it official in France; the duchy of Venice and the florin of Florence, gold coins, played a role only comparable in ancient history to the drachma in Athens”.[xx]For its external expansion, Europe took advantage of knowledge and maritime routes traced by the Chinese: the post-medieval European West created, based on these and other appropriations, a “new civilization”. Because the peculiarities of the process gave rise to the passage to an economic-social system in which purely mercantile relations took over the productive sphere, through the generalized sale of the workforce, as did not happen, for various reasons, in other societies in which the internal and external trade reached important dimensions.

By placing capital at the driving center of contemporaneity, its opposite is also objectively located there, social work based on freedom of hiring (and dismissal). It was thanks to this that, in the modern era, the idea of ​​work being the only active element for the creation of wealth was arrived at (in the early stages of society, material work was not conceived as a producer of wealth). Christian, work was presented as a burden, penalty and sacrifice imposed due to the loss and fall of man to a condition of misery in earthly life. When Christianity was imposed on the Roman Empire, this tradition became functional to the society that emerged from the decline of the Empire. In medieval society, wealth was not identified with work: the essential issue was the security of goods and people, which could no longer be guaranteed by imperial power.

Thus big trade, currency, profit and primitive forms of wages preceded capitalism; Protocapitalist economic sectors existed in the ancient world, and early aspects of merchant capitalism flourished in Europe during the Late Middle Ages. Modern capitalism, however, made its first appearance in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries in Mediterranean cities, especially in Italian coastal cities, but the historical era in which it was projected worldwide dates from the XNUMXth century, when capital accumulation became the lever of economic transformation of some societies, affecting both production and distribution and consumption: its emergence was due to the strong commercial emergence of Northern Europe, which corresponded to the shift from the preponderance of the Italian city-states to that of organized and “rationalized” states. ” of the European seventeenth century.[xx] During these centuries, the conditions of capitalism were brought together as the dominant mode of production, with the two poles of capitalist society, the owners of the means of production and the workers dispossessed of the means of work.

Ideologically, the Protestant Reformation religiously expressed the idea of ​​work in the nascent bourgeois society, in which work was distinguished for the first time from other human activities. The status of work has changed with this development.[xxx] “Work”, as an abstract concept defining a very varied set of activities, was “an invention of modernity”.[xxiii] Since the exercise of work in any social regime is a physical expenditure of energy, only in the capitalist regime does the human workforce come to have the particularity of being a source of value as a social phenomenon; the value of a product has become a social function, not a natural function acquired by representing a use value or work in the physiological or technical-material sense.

The measurement of the support of value, work, is carried out by time: its measurement and division have specificities in capitalist society, in which time is measured in hours, minutes, seconds and even fractions of a second: “The clock is not just an instrument that measures the passing hours; it is a means to synchronize human action. The clock, not the locomotive, is the key instrument of industrial modernity. In terms of the determinable amount of energy, standardization, automatisms, its peculiar product, accurate measurement of time, the clock was by far the most important machine of modern technology. It is first on the list because it achieves a perfection towards which all other machines tend”.[xxiii]

The modern clock (as opposed to ancient clocks based on the sun, water, sand, mechanical systems) was born out of a scientific revolution, “the Great Invention: the use of an oscillating movement (up and down, forward and backward). back) to fix the temporal flow. Something quite different would have been expected: to measure time, a continuous and unidirectional phenomenon, the most suitable instrument should also be based on a continuous and unidirectional phenomenon”.[xxv]

At the same time, the development of capitalist industry disqualified work (the concrete skills of each worker became secondary in social production, as machinery developed), making its abstraction possible, the birth of the modern concept of “work”. From it, Marx considered work in general as the mediator between social man and nature and as a primordial factor in the self-construction of humanity. Work was a “completely simple category”, the “simplest and oldest in which men appear as producers”. The objective universal character of the category of work predated capitalism, but not its modern economic meaning: “Work seems to be a totally simple category. Also the representation of work in its universality – as work in general – is very old. However, considering this simplicity from an economic point of view, work is as modern a category as the relations that give rise to this simple abstraction”.[xxiv]

Only in its modern form, when human effort was presented as indifferent to a specific job, as an ease of moving from one job to another due to the predominance of the machine (with work transformed into an appendix to it), as a general means of creating wealth, how abstract work and not as a particular destiny of the individual, it is possible to theoretically produce a category “as modern as the relationships that give rise to it”. The distinction between the functions that different types of labor played in the reproduction of capital already existed in classical political economy; the distinction between simple and complex (skilled) work, and between productive and unproductive work, nevertheless reached its maturity with capitalism. With him, industry became the dynamic pole of capital reproduction; commercial profit or bank interest cease to be its dominant moment. The categories of productive and unproductive work acquired their maturity, being productive the work that produces surplus value (capital profit), and unproductive the one that does not.

Capitalism, on the other hand, has the peculiarity of not having mechanisms through which society could collectively decide how much of its work will be devoted to particular tasks. The development of the division of labor means that production at each workplace is separated from other locations: each producer cannot satisfy his needs from his own production. The reproduction of capital, therefore, is not identical with the reproduction of social being. By transforming labor power into merchandise, capital created a mode of production based on universal exploitation.

Marx established this analytical premise: “Labor power was not always a commodity. Work was not always paid work, that is, free work. The slave did not sell his labor power to the slave owner, just as the ox does not sell his efforts to the peasant. The slave is sold, with his labor power, once and for all, to his owner. It is a commodity that can pass from the hands of one owner to the hands of another. He himself is a commodity, but labor power is not his commodity. The serf only sells a part of his labor power. It is not he who receives a salary from the landowner: on the contrary, the landowner receives a tribute from him. The servant belongs to the land and yields fruit to the owner of the land”.

The situation under capitalism is different: “The free worker sells himself and, moreover, in parts. He sells at auction eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his life, day after day, to whoever pays the best, to the owner of raw materials, instruments of work and means of livelihood, that is, to the capitalist. The worker belongs neither to an owner nor to the land, but eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his daily life belong to whoever buys them. The worker, whenever he wants, leaves the capitalist to whom he has hired himself, and the capitalist dismisses him when he sees fit, when he no longer takes advantage of him or the profit he had hoped for. But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor power, cannot leave the buyer class, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class, and it is up to him to find someone who wants him, that is, to find a buyer within that capitalist class.[xxv]

The revolution in industrial production (which, as Adam Smith pioneered, was first and foremost a revolution in the division of labor)[xxviii] it was prepared by a commercial revolution and an agrarian revolution. It was in Western Europe, from the twelfth century onwards (which is why several historians date the beginning of capitalism to that century), that the process that gave rise to a unique and new social and economic system, oriented towards the accumulation of wealth based on the permanent growth of productive capacity: “Like all societies, capitalism manages to employ its labor and distribute its product more or less systematically.

Uniquely for other societies, this is done unintentionally, without overall planning. And this is happening while maintaining an exceptionally rapid rate of growth despite an internal and disruptive class struggle. From whatever point of view you look at the matter, this is an extraordinary result.”[xxviii] According to Angus Maddison's estimates,[xxix] considering a reference value equivalent to 100 in 1500, world production would have reached a value of 11.668 in 1992, a hundredfold of social production in five centuries (those of the capitalist era), the initial reference “100” having been reached after millennia of human history.

Jean-Baptiste Say, in the first half of the XNUMXth century, already defined the “capitalist” (the term “capitalism” was not yet used) as that owner who “reinvests his profit” instead of spending it or hoarding it. For Marx, on the other hand, capitalism is not just endless accumulation for the sake of accumulation, but the relentless transformation of the conditions and means of accumulation, the perpetual revolution of production, commerce, finance and consumption. What distinguishes capitalism from the other ways in which social production has developed is surplus value as the specific way in which unpaid surplus labor is extracted from producers. This form was first consolidated in England, with consequences that forced other countries to adopt it.

The young Karl Marx reconstructed this path: “Until 1825 – the time of the first universal crisis – it can be said that the needs of consumption in general advanced faster than production, and that the development of machines was the inevitable consequence of market needs. Since 1825, the invention and application of machines is nothing but the result of the war between the bosses [masters] and the workers. And yet this is only true of England. As for the European nations, they were forced to apply the machines by the competition that the English made them, both in their own market and in the world market. Finally, as for North America, the introduction of machines was brought either by competition with other peoples or by the scarcity of arms, that is, by the disproportion between the population and the industrial needs”.[xxx]

Capitalist industrial production, as has already been said, is a production ad infinitum, in which the capitalist recovers the capital invested during the production cycles by obtaining a profit, reinvested in production. Before these processes became dominant, one could not speak of capitalism, a concept that prevailed over other definitions (liberalism, industrial society, free society, open society) for good reasons: “Industrial society and capitalism cannot be considered synonymous, although both notions are closely linked. The capitalist process is the original variant of the industrialization process, since it was capitalist societies that historically appeared as the first industrial societies”.[xxxii] Capital created large-scale industry, guided by the systematic and limitless expansion of trade, not the opposite: it had its historical precondition in capital. The concept of capitalism was imposed and generalized only in the second half of the XNUMXth century, when the subordination of industrial production to capital became an economically and socially dominant and evident fact.

The relation between history and this fact is not, however, evident; it needs to be unraveled, for the laws that govern capitalist production are not immediately perceptible; their social relations are expressed through fetishized categories: “Where work is communal, relations between men in their social production do not manifest themselves as 'values' of things”. O commodity fetishism it consists in the fact that, for producers, exchange relations exist and are realized by characteristics intrinsic to the goods themselves: “Social relations between individuals appear in the false form of social relations between things; the social action of the producers takes the form of the action of the objects that dominate the producers, instead of being dominated by them”.[xxxi] “The absence of direct regulation of the social production process necessarily leads to indirect regulation of the production process, through the market, through the products of work, through things… The materialization of production relations does not arise through 'habits', but of the internal structure of commodity production. Fetishism is not just a phenomenon of social consciousness, but of social existence.”[xxxii]

In European feudalism, on the other hand, as well as in other pre-capitalist social formations, “work and products enter the social gears as services and payments. in natura (…) However one judges the masks that men put on, the social relationships between people in their work appear in any case as their own personal relationships, and are not disguised in social relationships of things, of the products of work”. In capitalism, the relationship between men who own goods appears as a relationship between commodities, independent of human action and will.

The formulation of this idea took place in the same place and period in which Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland in the late 1860s, and Through the mirror in 1871, stories full of absurdities, of malleable time, in which living creatures and material things could change shape, a sheep become an old woman, a baby become a pig, a chair take on a life of its own. Madness could overcome reason, appearance reality, the inanimate world the animate.

At the same time and place, Karl Marx explained that “the shape of wood is changed when making a table. However, the table remains wood, a sensible and banal thing. But as soon as it appears as a commodity it becomes a sensible-supersensible thing. She doesn't keep her feet on the ground, but puts herself upside down in front of all other merchandise, and in her wooden head worms are born that haunt us much more than if she started dancing of her own accord. The mystical character of the commodity does not, therefore, result from its use value.[xxxv] In capitalist production, where the production process becomes autonomous from use value, the social character of men's work appears as an objective characteristic of the product of this work, the commodity; the relationship of producers to the product of their labor appears to them as a social relationship that exists, not between them, but between the products of their labor. Because of this, production “encompasses at the same time the reproduction (ie maintenance) of the capitalist class and the working class, and therefore also the reproduction of the capitalist character of the global production process”. The reproduction of the immediate factors of production (means of production and labor power) and the reproduction of capitalist social relations of production (separation between producer and means of production, private appropriation of the social product) are two sides of the same coin.

The great rupture that gave rise to it took place when human history began, at least tendentially, to take place on a single, world stage, with the “European expansion”, which preceded the universal expansion of capital. As Earl J. Hamilton admirably summarized: “Although there were other forces that contributed to the birth of modern capitalism, the phenomena associated with the discovery of America and the Cape route were the main factors in this development. Long distance voyages increased the size of ships and the technique of navigation. As Adam Smith pointed out, the enlargement of the market facilitated the division of labor, and led to technical improvements. The introduction of new agricultural commodities from America and of new agricultural and manufactured goods, especially oriental luxury goods, spurred industrial activity to obtain the counterpart to pay for them. Emigration to the colonies of the New World and to establishments in the East lessened the pressure of population on metropolitan soil and increased the surplus, the excess of production in relation to national subsistence, from which savings could be drawn. The opening of distant markets and sources of supply of raw materials was an important factor in the transfer of control of industry and commerce from guilds to capitalist entrepreneurs. The old union organization, incapable of dealing with the new problems of purchase, production and sale, began to disintegrate and finally gave way to the capitalist enterprise, a more efficient means of management”.[xxxiv]

Thus, the era of world history, in which all regions and societies on the planet began to interact, directly or indirectly, with each other, integrating themselves into a single historical process, had its basis in the emergence of capitalism and fueled its development. The productive forces aroused by capitalist production were not contained within the confined areas of the old dynastic states of Europe where they originated. The development of capitalism and industrialization generated a world market and an international division of labor. The constitution of the world market was defined as the historical mission of liberation and explosion of social production carried out by capital. It was through their relationship with the world market that the national States acquired their specific physiognomy, and that the less developed areas, as they came into contact with the world market, assumed a position of dependence.

*Osvaldo Coggiola He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History and Revolution (Shaman).


[I]Octave Dumoulin. Contemporary history. In: André Burguière (ed.). Dictionary of Historical Sciences. Rio de Janeiro, Imago, 1993.

[ii]Osvaldo Coggiola. History and contemporaneity. Between Past & Future nº 1, São Paulo CNPq/Xamã, May 2002.

[iii]See Charles-Olivier Carbonell. Historiography. Lisbon, Teorema, 1992; Guy Bourde and Herve Martin. Les Écoles Historiques. Paris, Seuil-Points, 1983.

[iv] GW Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of Universal History.Madrid, Revista de Occidente, 1974 [1830].

[v] Carl. Marx. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. São Paulo, Popular Editions, sdp.

[vi]François Dosse. History of the present time and historiography. Time and Argument Magazine, Florianopolis, vol. 4, No. 1, 2012.

[vii]Mauro Lucio Leitão Condé. The grammar of history: Wittgenstein, the pragmatics of language and historical knowledge. Intelligere nº 6, São Paulo, University of São Paulo, December 2018.

[viii] Eric J. Hobsbawn. The Age of Capital. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1988.

[ix]See, for example: Paul Johnson. Humanity has capitalism in its blood. Veja, São Paulo, December 27, 2000.

[X] Pierre Vilar. The transition from feudalism to capitalism. In: Charles Parain et al. Transitional Capitalism. Sao Paulo, Morais, sdp.

[xi] Maurice Dobb. The Evolution of Capitalism. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1974.

[xii] Horst Kurnitzky. The Libidinal Structure of Dinero. A contribution to the theory of femineidad. Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1978.

[xiii] Karl Marx. Fundamental Elements for the Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse). Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1987.

[xiv] Georg Simmel. Zur Philosophie der Kunst. Potsdam, Kiepenheur, 1922.

[xv]Karl Marx, The capital. Book I, Vol. 1. São Paulo, Nova Cultural, 1986 [1867].

[xvi] Leonardo Benevolo. City history. São Paulo, Perspective, 1993.

[xvii] Francisco C. Teixeira da Silva.Feudal Society. Warriors, priests and workers. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1982.

[xviii] Philippe Norel. L'Histoire Economique Globale. Paris, Threshold, 2009.

[xx] Albert Dauphin-Menier. History of the Bank. Paris, PUF, 1968.

[xx] Jean Meyer. Les Capitalismes.Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1981.

[xxx] Pablo Rieznik. Work, economics and anthropology. Between Past & Future nº 2, São Paulo, Xamã-CNPq, September 2002.

[xxiii] Rolande Pinard. La Révolution du Labor. De l'artisan au manager. Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2000.

[xxiii] Lewis Mumford. Techniques and Civilization. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[xxv] David. S. Landes. L'Orologio nella Storia. Milan, Oscar Mondadori, 2009.

[xxiv] Karl Marx. Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (1857). Córdoba, Past and Present, 1973.

[xxv] Karl Marx. Salaried Work and Capital. Beijing, Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1976.

[xxviii] Adam Smith defined the division of labor as the driving factor of the economy, without conceiving it as a division social, but only as division technique; technical/productive progress was a result of that, and not the other way around. The entrepreneur, not the inventor or engineer, was the decisive actor in social progress: “The merchant or merchant, moved only by his own interest (self-interest), is led by an invisible hand to promote something that was never part of his interest: the well-being of society”. As a result of the operation of this “invisible hand”, the price of commodities should fall and wages should rise. Smith's doctrines exerted a rapid and intense influence on merchants, industrialists and financiers who wanted to end feudal rights and mercantilism (Ian Simpson Ross. Adam Smith. A biography. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 1999).

[xxviii] Michael Kidron. Capitalism and Theory. Lisbon, Initiatives, 1976.

[xxix] Angus Madison. Monitoring the World Economy1820-1992. Paris, OECD Development Center, 1995.

[xxx] Karl Marx. Letter to Pavel V. Annenkov, December 28, 1846. Germinal vol. 9 nº 2, Salvador, Federal University of Bahia, 2017.

[xxxii] Raymond Boudon and François Borricaud. Capitalism. Critical Dictionary of Sociology. Buenos Aires, Editorial, 1990.

[xxxi] Ronald Meek. Study sulla Theory of Valore-Lavoro. Milan, Feltrinelli, 1973.

[xxxii] Isaac Illich Rubin. The Marxist Theory of Value. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1980.

[xxxv] Karl Marx. The capital, cit.

[xxxiv] Earl J. Hamilton. The Flowering of Capitalism. Madrid, Alianza Universidad, 1984.

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