In an article a few years ago in Historical Materialism, John Holloway encourages us to reconsider the opening sentence of Marx’s Capital as a path to reconsidering what is made possible by the book.1 Holloway argues, in his exegesis of the subject, verb, and predicate of the first sentence, that Marx’s intention and analysis begins before the commodity-form with the “wealth.”

That first sentence:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an ‘immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity.2


The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form.3

Holloway begins his analysis by focusing on the wealth as the subject of the sentence, modified by the particularity in which the capitalist mode of production prevails. He claims that the term wealth, or richness, is magnanimous, expansive, indicative of all the possibilities of human creativity. He draws this from a quote from the Grundrisse that is usually interpreted as a description of post-capitalist society. From this, Holloway builds to what for him is a broader view of Capital, unencumbered by the commodity-form and money, its general equivalent. Why unencumbered? Well, for Holloway the traditional focus on the commodity-form as the starting point of Capital leads theorists to posit that only through its total supercession can revolution, or post-capitalist changes be made. Without total abandonment of the commodity-form, this line of interpretation posits, there can be no revolutionary change. Which leads to lenin, stalin, mao.

Holloway wants to get beyond the need for revolutionary cessation of the commodity-form for the realization of a marxist politics, and suggests that the expansiveness of wealth or richness suggests a thing that both pre-exists the commodity-form, and exists still as a substratum below its appearance, some irreducible to the commodity that’s only now being perceived, experienced, presented as commodities.

If we accept this, that wealth is a category before commodity, and as such pre-existent, then how did it appear in those societies in which the capitalist mode of production had yet to prevail? This takes us back to the question of mediation. Under the regime of capital, social relations are mediated, following Postone’s interpretation of Marx, by abstract labor time, this is the innovation that realizes the full potential of the commodity-form. Power and wealth was still about labor, but not abstract labor and not time.

How could I rewrite that first sentence of Capital in a way that captures the extra-economic implications Holloway wants to pre-exist the commodity? Was the wealth of society before the commodity-form manifested by means not irreducible the commodity? Certainly in the case of the Spanish Empire, sparking that original, massive wave of primitive accumulation that fueled the transition to capitalism, the appearance of wealth was rooted much less in the exchange of commodities, and much more in the form of sovereignty or authority over labor control. This is part of the deconstruction that Sherwin Brown makes of the desire to separate different parts of the empire into the categories “slave society” (intensive plantation agriculture– largely sugar, but not exclusively) and “society with slaves” (places without large scale agricultural production). For Bryant, the distinction incorrectly differentiates legal theory of hierarchy and property. Here, though, what I’m more interested in is the way the theory of hierarchy and property that made enslavement possible either on the plantation or in the city connects to the other major coercive forms of Spanish imperial labor in the form of encomienda/tribute/mita labor. Wealth in this sense, appeared in the early Spanish empire as the ability to control labor directly, where the social domination of both enslaved captive and indigenous tributary was a direct expression of political power. For Marx, this is an important distinction, because the fetish that defines capital (in with a relation between people appears to be a relation between things) is central to capitalism.

If we re-wrote Marx’s opening sentence for the Spanish empire, it might be something like:

Wealth or status in colonial Spanish-American society appeared as the ability to adjudicate and administer as a proxy for the king. Administrative power mediated social relations because it vested certain individuals with the ability to allocate labor, but also to sequester it. In its original, most raw form, this was the power of the encomendero.

  1. @holloway2015, 3-26. 

  2. @marx1965, 35. 

  3. @marx1990, 125.