On Banaji's "A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism"
8 min read

On Banaji's "A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism"

On Banaji's "A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism"

In A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism Jairus Banaji makes an argument for the need to reinstate commercial capitalism within narratives of capitalist accumulation and domination. Highlighting the way in which popular and scholarly accounts of capitalism have associated it with industrial capitalism, centred around industrial capitalists and the factory system, this has entailed a situating of capitalist power relations at the point of production and not within circulation. Against this Banaji seeks to tell a history of capitalism which highlights the role of circulation in the capitalist restructuring of societies. In doing so he offers another reading of the transition to capitalism which has relevance in the development of capitalism in Malaysia.

Central to this is the transition debate which took place between Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy in the 1950s which produced two different models for the transition from feudalism to capitalism. For Dobb the process was driven by contradictions within the feudal mode of production between lord and tenant, relations which slowly broke down and opened the way for the development of capitalist relations of production (principally free wage labour) at the point of production. For Sweezy on the other hand the transformation of feudalism was brought about in the realm of circulation with increases in trade producing external pressures on feudal lords to institute changes in production which formed the basis for a future capitalist mode of production. Whilst Dobb argued that it was productive relations which were key, Sweezy would argue that it was relations at the level of circulation which indirectly restructured production (and thus he would be accused of neo-Smithian Marxism). What both then accepted, however, was a separation between production and circulation.

A large part of Banaji’s book challenges this supposed separation, widely accepted in Marxist thought, between production and circulation in the functioning of capital. Focussing on the history of commercial capitalism from antiquity he seeks to highlight the way in which merchants have long intervened at the point of production, restructuring and determining the process of production from their position as merchants not industrialists. For Banaji this produces a strong historical overlap between the figure of the capitalist and the figure of the merchant.

Such a distinction was itself based on another distinction regarding the realisation of capital. In classical Marxist thought capital was increased at the point of labour through the exploitation of labour, and circulation then merely moved capital around, realising the value produced in production but without adding to it. This assumption however ignores for Banaji the fact that historically capitalist forms of circulation often preceded capitalist forms of labour organisation – suggesting then that capitalism wasn’t led by production but could have also been led by commercial elements.

What is important then about Banaji’s book is his revaluation of the work of commercial capitalists, centred around his analysis of the putting-out system. The putting-out system for Banaji is the place in which capitalist production “in the strict sense may be said to have begun”. Central to this is Marx’s own assumption that historically capitalism appropriated existing labour processes “as it finds it” yet for Banaji this isn’t reducible to Marx’s notion of either the real or formal subsumption of labour, as whilst the formal subsumption of labour accepted that labour was brought within capitalism whilst maintaining its pre-capitalist character, this incorporation remained centred on waged labour, leaving other forms of incorporation unthought. The role of the merchant in production, Banaji argues, didn’t concern the real or formal subsumption of labour (proletarianisaiton, wage labour, the factory system etc.) but rather the way in which the merchant “controlled, managed, and coordinated production itself”, offering then an indirect organisation of labour. As Banaji notes of the putting-out system: “The dispersal of living labor was re-totalized in the final commodity thanks to the merchant’s control and integration of production.”

This indirect capture of labour was driven for Banaji by two factors, firstly a control or monopoly on the raw materials/inputs of production, which made the putter-outer (in control of their own means of production) dependent upon the merchant for work (though not necessarily all of their work). Secondly such control was brought about by the power of the merchant to organise production, “in ways that would have been impossible for isolated groups of workers within it”, which talks to a managerial and bureaucratic aspect of commercial capital. Whilst then wage labour has been historically seen as key to the subordination of labour to capital, Banaji looks to highlight through the history of the putting out system alternative forms of subsumption.

In the final chapter this then leads him to place greater focus on the role played by large commercial firms in the history of capitalism. These firms with their “drive to monopolize markets, vertical integration, concentration of capital, and a striving for flexibility” can be seen as key agents in the growing concentration and domination of capitalism in the 19th century, particularly also in the role they played in imperialism, with Britain’s mercantile capitalism central to its empire. Yet through these processes Banaji will argue that there was developing in the late 19th century an “entirely new sort of capitalism, driven by modern industry but also bound up with more aggressive forms of expansion and unprecedented degrees of vertical integration industries like tobacco, rubber and oil, which dramatically reduced the dependence of manufacturers on merchant capital” which formed the basis for the new form of finance-monopoly capitalism which would then become dominant in the early 20thcentury.

How can we conceptualise the history of capitalism in a country like Malaysia? One way has been to focus on the history of the modern industrial sector and the often-limited nature of proletarianization, wage labour and factory production up until the 1970s. This was particularly true of earlier analyses by figures such as James Puthucheary, Li Dun Jen and later Stenson, who would highlight the under-industrialized nature of Malaysian capitalism, what Stenson would term its “underexploited” aspect. If modernising capitalist development was then to occur it would be led by the development of industrialisation and by the change in social relations this would bring about.

Yet whilst today we see in Malaysia a highly-developed capitalist economy which has transformed the ways in which people work and consume, this has not been predominantly brought about by levels of industrialisation which made wage labour a hegemonic category or proletarianised significant elements of the country. Whilst wage labour has significantly grown in the decades since independence forms of informal, family or subsistence labour have continued to be reproduced, yet without, I would argue, limiting the capitalist nature of the country. This isn’t perhaps surprising. As Terry McGhee would argue in the 1970s, with limited industrialisation the development of capitalism in Malaysia would likely occur at the level of circulation and consumption, as against production, as it was in those areas where transformations were already taking place (concentration of consumer goods, marketing monopolies etc.). At the same time those like Puthucheary writing in the late-1950s were already highlighting the ways in which the non-industrial, non-modern sectors of the economy weren’t traditional subsistence economies but were by that time solidly within the cash and market economy, driven particularly by rural moneylenders and traders, producing already forms of capitalist incorporation. So too would he argue that it was the commercial clearing houses which commanded the economy.

There has been a lot of writing in Malaysian economic history about the importance of these commercial forms, from the colonial clearing houses and plantation companies to the post-colonial state-owned corporations which have continued much of this commercial legacy, yet there has been little reflection on these commercial forms as an expression of commercial capitalism, with capitalism forming a social-economic system and not simply a model of economic organisation. Yet in focusing on the centrality of commercial capitalism in Malaysia we can start however to have a better understanding of the forms of social change and power dynamics which it brought.

Two examples would here be relevant, the first that of FELDA, today a major agribusiness corporation, the second that of Grab, a major gig economy corporation.

FELDA was from the 1950s onwards one of the principal ways in which the peasantry was brought within modern economic development. Yet an understanding of the nature of this incorporation has been lacking. Halim Salleh would argue in the 1990s that FELDA was an incorporation of the peasantry into state capitalism focusing however on the fact that FELDA was run for profit and advanced money to tenants as loans, charging interest and holding them in debt. Seen however from the perspective of merchant capitalism we can find more at work. From this perspective FELDA was a form of agricultural production without the subsumption of labour or the entry of the peasantry into wage labour. In this reading FELDA operated more like a commercial trading house, advancing capital to smallholder peasants to realise returns on this capital through the marketing of FELDA produce after production, and in doing so FELDA played an important role in economic development. Oil Palm is here instructive, between 1960 and 1976 oil palm production grew from 135,016 acres to 1,540,716 acres, with FELDA plantations forming 1/3rd of oil palm land by 1976, and became a significant crop in the Malaysian economy. Beyond loans then FELDA would make its money through the founding of mills for processing and controlling the marketing of the produce, particularly for export. By the 1970s FELDA then began to move from a developmental to a commercial model, forming corporations in areas of transportation, milling, marketing, storage etc. This enabled vertical integration and economies of scale within FELDA which allowed for a greater commercialisation of activities and venturing into commercial plantations directly controlled by FELDA which helped then form the basis for commercial diversification and the formation of large publically-traded investment companies which are financialized global corporations in the 1990s and beyond.

A similar perspective could also be brought about Grab, a company which has recently commercialised a whole series of services which were often in the informal sector (food delivery, ride services, cleaning etc.) and has changed the way in which whole sectors of the economy are organised whilst realising new areas of accumulation for capital. Grab sells and organises services yet without the subsumption of labour or the direct intervention into the labour process, yet as in Banaji’s understanding of commercial capital, still managing and exercising control over labour and production. One-way Grab has done this is through its control over resources, notably capital. This has allowed it to bring in and keep drivers and merchants using its service through the provisions of loans, smartphones and cars on credit which both tie users to its service but also act as an advance of capital on future labour. Through GrabKitchen’s they have moved from just linking up drivers, merchants and customers to providing facilities for food merchants and more directly organising production. Another key aspect has been its near monopoly on marketing and organising services through its app. Able to revolutionise the older systems of ride sharing and food delivery, it has increasingly tied drivers and merchants to its own services, and through this technology it has vastly increased the ways in which labour can be directed, organised and even disciplined, without the use of waged labour. Key also to Grab’s role in capitalist integration has been its diversification into financial products, eWallets and ePayment systems, tying more and more small businesses, which have long been part of the informal sector and the cash economy, within Grab’s network, increasing therefore dependency on this network, and transforming the ways in which the small merchants and hawkers work and produce.

What is important to note however is that way in which this transformation is/has been changing the shape of service provision and forms of production in Malaysia without the category of wage labour or the subsumption of labour under capitalism, rather the control and exploitation of labour has been effected by commercial capital, and the ways in which through vertical integration and concentration these organisations have become very dominant in determining the nature of capitalist development in Malaysia. These are of course only two (very incomplete) examples of commercial capitalism in the Malaysian context, but Banaji’s insights into its development can, I think, provide both a historical and contemporary framework to discuss the nature of Malaysian capitalism.