Marx thought clearly not. Instead, “value” was a social dynamic specific to the modern world. And it was these predominant tendencies of “value,” and not technical innovation, that distinguished the capitalist era from its predecessors. By the time of the Victorian age, society was now shaped by the “universalization” of the “commodity-form”: seemingly everything was now for sale and thereby subjected to competitive pressures towards efficiency.
What was the historical threshold for such a transformation? In the running dialogue in the margins of Capital, we learn that Marx’s answer was the emergence of hired labor for the production of goods. Now, the pivotal status of wage labor to the history of capitalism is a common argument among economic historians, especially those shaped by the work of Robert Brenner—we’re largely in agreement there3For examples in Chinese and Indian history, see Andrew B. Liu, “Production, Circulation, and Accumulation: The Historiographies of Capitalism in China and South Asia,” The Journal of Asian Studies 78, no. 4 (November 2019): 767–88.. But the reasoning why wage labor mattered so much, I believe, deserves a second look.
For most historians, wage labor was historically important because it was more efficient than its counterparts of slavery, serfdom, and peasantry from a technical standpoint. Rather than provide shelter and food to unfree workers, managers could simply fire and hire them at will. Or, because workers divorced from the land faced higher costs of living, they demanded higher wages, which in turn drove innovation.4This technicist argument can be found in the works of Robert Brenner, Robert Allen, and Sven Beckert. See Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review I, no. 104 (1977): 25–92; Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014).
This technicist perspective is certainly important, but it misses a critical aspect of Marx’s historical argument. As he wrote in chapter 6 of Capital: “this one historical pre-condition [of wage labor] comprises a world’s history,” continuing in the footnotes that it was “only from this moment that the commodity-form of the products of labour becomes universal.”5Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (New York: Penguin, 1976): p. 174n4.
For Marx, the most crucial consequence of wage labor was that human labor itself had now become a commodity, and thus commodities now animated the entire cycle of capital accumulation from beginning to end: purchasing labor in order to produce goods in order to earn a profit in order to hire more labor. In earlier formations, people may have made and sold commodities, but the labor behind them was acquired through non-commercial measures, secured through coercion, family obligation, or independent production. The commodification of labor changed that. As Marx wrote in an earlier draft known as the Resultate:6The Resultate was a section of Marx’s draft written between June 1863 and December 1866 but left unpublished until 1933.:
[W]hen a worker’s labour-power has been converted into a commodity for him…. Only then does all produce become commodity and the objective conditions of each and every sphere of production into it as commodities themselves. Only on the basis of capitalist production does the commodity actually become the universal elementary form of wealth.7Karl Marx, Capital, pp. 950–51.
In short, the more human societies depended upon the sale of labor and purchase of goods for survival, the more their activities were folded into the logic of commodification and “value.” The prices of goods thereby settled into regular patterns based upon the unconscious calculation of the average amounts of labor needed to produce them. There naturally emerged impersonal, competitive pressures to cut production costs, often through innovations in technique and organization—but not always. And while it is easy to connect the dots from this abstract social logic to concrete technical improvements, economic histories that fixate on the technical dimension of industrialization by contrast rarely have much to say about the underlying social dynamic of value. But it is “value,” and the subtle, underlying dynamics of accumulation that enables us to understand capitalism more holistically, in all its historical dimensions, including the realms of ideology, culture, and social relations: what Sewell called “economic life.” For Marx, then, the transformative power of the “commodity form” was a more fundamental feature of the capitalist era than the spectacular innovations that historians have long equated with the substance of capitalism itself.
Admittedly, this reading of Marx may sound too abstract for some readers. For that very reason, however, I find it more flexible and useful for writing global history. Rather than a modular stage theory based upon the experience of England, from dispossession to proletarianization to mechanization, this reading emphasizes the abstract and qualitative dimensions of capitalist transformation on a world scale, to be concretized through empirical analyses. In particular, it opens up the possibility that modern accumulation could have reshaped and subsumed social arrangements such as fin-de-siècle China and India—which did not tidily fit the model of free wage labor—in historically specific ways.