a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A commune with a leader?


The following lenghty quote is an epic footnote (No. 112, pp. 373-375) from Jack Amariglio's dissertation Economic History and the Theory of Primitive of Socio-Economic Development (University of Massachusetts, 1984) and it pertains to the theoretical status of the so-called Asiatic Mode of Production (AMoP). For Amariglio, the AMoP is not a distinct mode of production like capitalism, feudalism, etc., but rather a form of the commune. In bringing this footnote 112 to our attention my aim is not to revitalize an old Marxist debate on the theoretical status of AMoP, but rather to address Kenan's comment to my earlier "appropriation" of Fassbinder's remarks on the question of commune and the status of leader in relation the commune. Both Fassbinder and Kenan seems to believe that a commune, perhaps by definition, must be without a leader. Whereas the footnote quoted below articulates a different position. According to Amariglio, it is possible to imagine forms of the commune organized around leaders who are "communally designated" as the appropriators of surplus. [The image, with all due respect to the gap between the text below and the image, is the cover of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse (1602-1676) and the inner quote from Marx is from The Grundrisse.]


The question of whether Asiatic state appropriation is a form of Asiatic communal appropriation (a "primary" appropriation), or whether State "appropriation" is really a "distribution" of communally extracted surplus-labor to the Asiatic State as a subsumed class distributed share [a "tribute"], or whether Asiatic State appropriation is non-communal (perhaps feudal) opens up a wide range of related questions, such as what communal appropriation means, whether or not the Asiatic State may include a fundamental class process, and how communal redistribution takes place. Marx states: "A part of their [the "small" commune's"] surplus-labour belongs to the higher community, which exists ultimately as a person, and this surplus-labour takes the form of tribute, etc., as well as of common labour for the exaltation of the unity, partly of the real despot, partly of the imagined clan-being, the god" (p. 473). On close examination, the questions raised above cannot be resolved by reference to Marx's formulation.

It is possible, for example, for individuals within the Asiatic State to be conceived as occupying one or more subsumed class positions for which they receive in the form of tribute, a distribution of already communally appropriated surplus-labor. But there is a problem in this formulation. For this formulation presupposes a clear distinction, realized in the appropriation of surplus-labor, between the "higher" and "small" community (or commune). However, if the Asiatic commune takes the form of both the "higher" and "small" commune, then the distinction between them is purely formal and/or designed to call attention to their different constitution (overdetermination) as forms of the commune. We cannot call the village communities the "real" commune upon which the "imaginary" (higher) commune exists unless we wish to argue that the "real" commune is not itself ideologically constituted or, rather, that its constitution is natural, organic, and so forth, hence, "objective." What would make the village (here "small") commune less of an ideological representation to the commune members or less culturally bound together than its "higher" manifestation? What could it mean to say that the village community is the "real" appropriator of communal surplus-labor and that the Asiatic State (as higher community) merely receives a distributed share of this real appropriation but does not itself communally appropriate surplus-labor? For us, the village commune is every bit as much an ideological manifestation as is the Asiatic State (since the former is both constituted by and represents itself as a commune through various cultural designations, such as kinship).

As we discuss below, in a crude materialist sense, there is no communal appropriation if what is meant by the commune is not an ideologically constituted social body but, instead, is the group of direct producers, stripped of all cultural designations. The notion of a socially designated group of agents stripped of their cultural determinations is nonsensical. However, this is the confusion that is brought about when appropriation is presented as a purely physical act (what could this mean?) and when the direct propducers are treated as acting individually or as a group of individuals (a most ideological concept) who share only the act of appropriating, hence, as the "real appropriators." For Marx, appropriation is a social process done by socially constituted agents. Therefore, to say that only directly producing agents rather than families, communities, or classes, appropriate surplus-labor is, first, not to comprehend the social constitution of direct producers as appropriators (and as individuals) and, second, to make impossible the conception of appropriation by bodies that comprise non-producing as well as producing agents.

We treat below the Germanic and ancient forms of the commune in terms of communal appropriation despite the "fact" that individual agents (peasants and not the entire families or communities) may be said to "really" "appropriate" surplus-labor. Again this notion of peasant appropriation substitutes the supposedly "objective" observation of the physical act of appropriation by "one-sided" agents for the theorization of the social constitution of the process of appropriation and of the agents who produce and appropriate surplus-labor. That is, if peasants appropriate surplus-labor through membership in the commune (and, therefore, are communally designated as the producers and "immediate appropriators" of surplus-labor), then we treat this appropriation as communal appropriation. Thus, what is often treated as "individual" appropriation, we consider merely a form of communal appropriation, since this appropriation takes place in and through the culturally designated bodies of family, clan, and commune. And, we argue that if we conceive the family, clan, and commune to be comprised of more than the population of abstractly conceived direct producers, then communal appropriation is never reducible to appropriation by these direct producers (but it must include appropriation by communally designated direct producers).

Hence, what is meant by communal appropriation can not be grounded in an appeal to the supposed "real" producers and extractors, as if the relations of these producers to each other, to nature, and to non-producers are not mediated by and through the ideological/cultural processes that comprise the commune. The problem for the Asiatic commune, then, is interpreting the distinction "higher" and "small" community to see whether Asiatic communal appropriation can be attributed to either or both forms of the Asiatic commune. We have chose to treat the Asiatic state as a form of the Asiatic commune, arguing that it participates in the communal appropriation of surplus-labor as subsumed class payments.

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