A very brief history of the means of production, from slavery, to feudalism, to capitalism
One thing that’s worth pointing out about revolutionary politics, is the role of the means of production. Recently, I heard Aubrey Sitterson, who identified as syndicalist, on Rob Rousseau‘s 49th Parahell podcast. He mentioned a couple times about how socialism is about ownership of the value you produce. He also stipulated some socialists would also be interested in seizing the means of production.
Before I go on, I want to say: I respect his position. I’m simply mentioning it, because it was the mental jumping-off point for this post (I mention both Rob Rousseau and Aubrey Sitterson, as a recommendation). I also don’t know if the position (socialism is about ownership of your produced value) is Sitterson’s personal position, or a more general pro-union position.
However, I wanted to use this post to explain why I think seizing the means of production is the defining socialist trait. The most useful way to understand this is by looking at the history of our relationship to the means of production, as well as our relationship to the objects of our productive labor.
Private ownership of the means of production is a historical oddity of capitalism. No economic system before, or predicted to exist after, entailed private ownership of the means of production. That’s why it’s the singular defining trait of capitalism. Yes, there are other defining traits, such as a system of wage employment, but that’s a side-effect of private ownership of the means of production.
Start with ancient slavery, which is simple. The masters would enslave a mass workforce to build something for the masters. Usually, these were people from foreign tribes or settlements. Slavery began when early society began having a surplus of material, ie they had enough food to sustain an enslaved workforce. Means of production at this time were so primitive, that there was no need for the slave masters to “own” them,. Thee means of production were ropes, pulleys, wheels, levers, wedges etc. At this time, labor itself was the closest thing to our modern conception of the means of production. Slave masters seek the value generated by labor, rather than the means of generating that value.
Eventually feudal economies developed. There’s a wide diversity in how feudalism worked, but generally, a lord would own large chunks of land. They then allowed vassals to a portion of their land, in exchange for other things, usually military support for the lord. Peasants would then work on the land, and then give most of the fruits of their labor the vassals. Neither lords nor vassals own the means of production, the peasants had that themselves. Instead, the lords and vassals, being something like a hybrid of a boss at work, landlord, and government, would “tax” the objects of productive labor. In other words, let’s say you farmed grain. The farmer would grow enough grain to feed their family, and maybe some to sell. However, the vassal would seize a large portion of the grain, and would similarly seize portions of everything generated on the lord/vassal’s property.
There are other ways feudalism and feudal-like systems occurred too. For example, there were fiefs which was a type of peasant who was bound to a piece of property. Also, it’s worth considering that feudalism worked in drastically different ways from when it first happened until it ended.
Throughout history, there has always been a merchant class, the people who bring goods to trade in market. In some sense, this class would eventually evolve into the capitalist class. Merchants, craftsmen, and guilds represent early progenitors of what would become the capitalist class. Mercantilism developed in Northern Italy, hand-in-hand with double-entry bookkeeping, the system that created debit and credit, the foundational accounting element of capitalism. The Dutch East India Company was the seed that became Imperialism/global capitalism. These developing systems allowed individuals to privately control more things that generate much more value than before.
As Industrialization happened, private ownership of value-generating material (the means of production) became more common. This undermined the control that the feudal classes had. For example, imagine a vassal claims control over a village of 10,000 people. The vassal takes value generated by those 10,000 workers. However, 100 of those 10,000 people are beginning to acquire proto-industrial equipment that greatly increases the rate of production. Those 100 people can’t work on all that equipment themselves, so they begin paying their neighbors to work the equipment, rather than the neighbors working on their independent farms. Imagine that process repeating and accelerating, then culminating in the capitalists revolting against the feudal lords.
The trait that defines capitalism, that defines it as a categorical shift from previous economic systems, is the private control of the means of production. It’s the “property-fication” of the market in the form of capital. Even in feudal times, the workers owned the means of production. That’s not to say that feudalism was a better economic system, but it shows that private ownership of the means of production is the peculiar and unique characteristic of capitalism.
I’ll close with a passage from Friedrich Engels’ brief text “The Principles of Communism”. This is “Section 8 – In what way do proletarians differ from serfs?”:
The serf possesses and uses an instrument of production, a piece of land, in exchange for which he gives up a part of his product or part of the services of his labor.
The proletarian works with the instruments of production of another, for the account of this other, in exchange for a part of the product.
The serf gives up, the proletarian receives. The serf has an assured existence, the proletarian has not. The serf is outside competition, the proletarian is in it.
The serf liberates himself in one of three ways: either he runs away to the city and there becomes a handicraftsman; or, instead of products and services, he gives money to his lord and thereby becomes a free tenant; or he overthrows his feudal lord and himself becomes a property owner. In short, by one route or another, he gets into the owning class and enters into competition. The proletarian liberates himself by abolishing competition, private property, and all class differences.