In Etienne Balibar’s section of “Reading Capital” there is an interesting section on the transition between different modes of production within the Marxist view of history.
Balibar begins by drawing an outline of the generic elements which form the structure of a mode of production. These are:
- means of production;
- object of labour;
- means of labour;
- property connexion;
- real or material appropriation connexion;
[Reading Capital Althusser & Balibar, Verso London 2009 p241]
Any given period in history can then be defined in concept by the structure that these elements form in combination to create a specific mode of production. Note however that this is as a concept rather than as a linear sequence described empirically. In principle this though process could be used to define not just historically existing modes of production but also to outline all possible modes of production, including those which have not (yet) been seen in history.
Balibar subsequently outlines the mechanism for transforming one mode of production into another. For this he uses the term ‘displacement’. By this he means that there is not necessarily a smooth linear evolution between one mode and another. As an example he uses the movement from handicrafts to manufacture to mechanisation. While there is a recognisable progression from handicrafts to manufacture, the process of production remaining much the same but being reorganised to create more surplus value, there is no such transition to mechanised production. The old process is instead displaced by the new. The machines do not re-create the human process, but instead create a new and more efficient process to which the human labourers must now conform.
This is a very ‘structural’ view of historical change. It delivers a clear focus on how the different elements of a specific period of history might interact. For example how parts of the ‘superstructure’ might be driven by the overarching structure of society – driven by the mode of production – without being directly determined by the ‘economic base’. This makes it a reasonable alternative to ‘vulgar’ economic determinism.
It is however a very static alternative. It is the dynamism and sense of motion that Marx gives to thinking about history which is what makes his work so interesting. Balibar (and Althusser) in seeking to focus on structure have lost sight of that structure’s articulated nature, that it is in perpetual motion.