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Róbinson Rojas Sandford
Doctoral dissertation, London, 1985
[pp. 38-46]



The stage of emergence, development and consolidation of the colonial system in Latin America covers roughly three centuries, from 1500 to 1800. In this first section I will concentrate on that period, since it constitutes a historical process in which two modes of production collide. The collision originates the dissolution of both, a fusion of some of their original elements, and eventually, a new mode of production, which becomes the basis of a new social formation. The progress of my analysis will be as follows:

1.-The conditions of collision and dissolution. Spanish and Portuguese invasion, conquest and colonisation of Latin America were achieved within the framework of a world market dominated by merchant capital, the latter being a component part of the feudal mode of production prevailing in Western Europe. Therefore, the main aim of this conquest was not to impose on the defeated people a particular mode of production (feudal), but to appropriate commodities that could be produced in the continent, in order to accumulate monetary capital in the conquering countries. That is, firstly the plundering of gold and silver, and secondly agricultural products. The imposition of tribute on the Indian population was the first most important mechanism of exaction of commodities during the XVI and XVII centuries. The conquest and colonisation were achieved at the same time as the Absolutist State emerged in Western Europe, marking the last stage of the feudal mode of production. As a result of military conquests, the wars in Europe exerted increased pressure on the Absolutist State's needs for extra revenues, in order to pay the expenses of the huge armies they maintained and the bureaucracy they relied upon. For example, by 1550 over 80 per cent of Spanish State revenues were allocated to military expenditure. Consequently, there was a constant pressure on the Latin American production system for more gold, silver and cash crops. This pressure tended to disarticulate the Indian production system, and led to a search for new methods of organization of labour. Therefore, the Spanish and Portuguese American production system was submitted to a twofold constraint to maximise the appropriation of surplus-labour: pressure from the Absolutist State and merchants from Spain, and pressure from the Spanish conquistadores who were the direct exploiters in the continent. So, the latter had to work out a system capable of maximising the appropriation of surplus-labour, reproducing labourers at the lowest cost possible, and reproducing the conditions of domination of the new white ruling class. The direct labourers (Indians), instead, had to choose between being overworked to pay labour tribute whilst living in Indian communities, working as individuals for the white landowners, or alternatively rebelling against the white ruling class.

2.-The actors. Two types of societies existed in the continent when the Portuguese and Spanish invaders arrived: agricultural-sedentary and nomadic-hunting. The former ( in Central America and the western coast of South America ) were the maya, aztec and inca societies, and the latter ( in the Caribbean Islands, eastern part of South America, and today southern part of Chile and the whole of Argentina ) were the tribal societies in a classless stage of development. Maya, aztec and inca societies were in a process of transition from a classless to a class society, where the mode of appropriation of surplus-labour was in the form of tribute: maya and aztec direct labourers were submitted to tribute in kind and in labour, and inca direct labourers to tribute only in labour. Being the land property of the state and possessed communally, the relations of production and forces of production were related, roughly, as in the asiatic mode of production described by Marx. Upon these Indian societies, Spanish invaders built up the core of their colonial system, unlike the Portuguese conquerors who faced the tribal communities in north-eastern South America, destroyed them and repopulated the region through imports of negro slaves. The white conquerors came from Iberian Absolutist States, which, unlike the rest of Western Europe's Absolutist States which developed a steady pattern of dissolution of feudal mode of production during XVI-XVIII centuries, strengthened feudal relations of production during the same period, maintaining a society mainly composed of nobles, priests and peasants, highly inimical to capitalist development. The royal absolutism in Castile for instance, achieved its crucial victory against the town's revolt in 1520, which marked the course of Spanish monarchy as separate from its counterparts in the rest of Western Europe. As a result of this, Spain and Portugal's economies lagged behind their counterparts in Western Europe; this situation had very important effects on the development of the American colonies.

3.-The collision. The first contact between the Spanish and Portuguese invaders and the Latin American Indian communities occurred in areas where tribal hunting communities lived ( the Caribbean Islands and the Northeastern coast of Brazil ). As the main aim of the colonial undertaking was mining ( extraction of gold and silver ), the invaders tried to supply themselves with labour power, submitting the Indians to forced labour and the tribal communities to tribute, in order to supply the scarce white population with food and clothing. The Indians reacted by running away to the hills or mounting armed uprisings against the conquerors. As a result, the Indian population was decimated in less than twenty years, and the conquerors had to introduce negro slave labour both in the mines and cash crop fields (plantations) and in the production of food and shelter. It was only after the second contact (Mexico) that the main collision between two different class stratified social formations began. Following the defeat of the Aztec empire, the white conquerors replaced the Aztec nobility as the ruling class and submitted Aztec labourers to the same system of labour service and tribute in kind which was in use before the Spanish invasion. The same pattern was followed in the conquest of the Inca society (Peru-Bolivia). But even when the mode of appropriation of surplus-labour didn't change fundamentally, this was not the case with the mode of accumulation; most fundamentally, the main industrial activity shifted from agriculture to mining. Unlike Aztec- Maya-Inca's mode of accumulation which was within the boundaries of collective ownership of means of production, the Spanish's was within the boundaries of private ownership of the means of production, thus bringing about a dislocation between an individual mode of accumulation of surplus-labour and a collective mode of production of surplus-labour. This dislocation led to a continuous scarcity and misallotment of labour-power during the period in which encomiendas (grants of Indians to the Spanish on individual grantee basis) were the main units of colonial production.

It was in the mining sector where the dislocation appeared in its main form, taking in Indian labour displaced from the agricultural Indian communities , thence impairing the reproduction of direct labourers to an extent that the encomiendas were almost depopulated in the XVI century. The Spanish State tried to remedy this problem reviving an Inca system of labour allocation, putting the distribution of native labour under colonial bureaucratic management, in the form of a sham public labour market (repartimiento). Repartimiento was bound to fail as a feasible solution to the problem of dislocation, since it was merely a different form of that dislocation.

The only way the colonial ruling class could maintain the dislocation as a component part of the colonial production system was by relying upon imports of means of subsistence and production from Spain and/or utilising slave labour to reproduce the ruling class and the remaining Indian labouring class. Given the economic crisis in Spain and Western Europe in general during the XVI and XVII centuries, and the high costs of a slave labour system as compared with a rational utilization of an already available supply of labour power, the most adequate solution for the white colonial ruling class had to be one that sought to erase the main dislocation of the new system.

4.- Dissolution and fusion. The Spanish were facing a collective peasant economy, unlike the Western European one based on individual peasant economy. Thus, the former's capacity to produce surplus-labour was far more limited than the latter. Consequently, when this collective peasant economy was required to pay higher tribute than in pre-colonial times (both in kind and labour), part of its necessary labour was expropriated from it, and the whole system began to collapse, being incapable of feeding all its members. Members of the Indian communities were forced to look for their survival outside those communities. As the conquered people had no right to possess land, their only way of survival was on the Spanish's private land (outside the framework of the encomiendas, which were not grants of land). This was the main source of labour power Spanish private landowners tapped to build up what was called haciendas. There was not need to use force in order to obtain labour power for the haciendas, now.

Two methods were utilized by the hacendados to make sure a steady supply of labour was available: firstly, by granting loans (in kind and/or in money) to individual indians in exchange for their labour on the hacienda, and buying their labour power (in kind and/or in money) well below the subsistence level. As a result of this, indebtedness emerged, and the labourers became attached to the hacendados land; secondly, by ceding a small plot to the labourer, as a compensation for the obligation to till the landlord's hacienda. Eventually, both methods became one, and the small plot, just enough to raise subsistence crops, became the main compensation for the direct labourer. The hacienda succeeded in removing the dislocation described above, and it appeared in the Latin American colonial system as a unit of production with an individual mode of accumulation (hacendado) facing and individual mode of production of the surplus-labour (peon).

The Western European feudal mode of production's main feature (feudal rent), along with the asiatic mode of production's main feature (a tax in labour and kind) dissolved themselves in the hacienda, producing a new main feature (compensation in land) after the process of fusion. Furthermore, this solution to the dislocation enabled the remaining indian communities to be used as unlimited sources of labour power, achieving the objective of maintaining the value of the social necessary labour at the lowest possible level. A new mode of production developed around the hacienda, a dominant mode in a new social formation.

5.-Development. During the XVII and XVIII centuries a social structure developed out of the reproductive requirements of this new mode of production; the basic class antagonism was determined by the structure's fundamental relation of production: that between landowner and peon. Remnants of other modes of production -such as slave labour (in plantations), collective labour (in Indian communities), guilds in the towns, and handicraft in the indian villages- co-existed alongside this new mode of production. At the same time, there were some trades where wage labour was utilized (mining, cattle raising, manufacturing) as a supplement to the basic organization of labour referred above.

A major characteristic in the development of this mode of production was the presence of a declining system of production (the indian communities) in a subordinate position, servicing the former with a provision of added labour-power. The final stage of dissolution (XIX-XX centuries) led to the emergence of the minifundio (a small rural property reproducing itself at/or below the level of subsistence farming), which eventually assumed the role formerly played by the indian communities as a source of labour-power. Thus, the unity of the opposites hacienda-indian communities transformed itself into that of hacienda-minifundio, or, as is generally known, latifundia-minifundia. This basic structure of landed property became the most important component part of the new mode of production in its period of consolidation (XIX century). It is important to note here the similarity between the minifundio and the plot ceded to peones (a subsistence- subsubsistence piece of ground) in the haciendas; the first as the property of direct labourers, the second as the property of hacendados but possessed by the direct labourers as a compensation for the latter's labour-power; both preventing the direct labourer from accumulating surplus-labour.

Consequently, unlike the FMP in which the development of the forces of production was determined by the dynamics of independent peasant production (1), in the LAMP this development was determined by big rural estate production using recompensed labour power. In the FMP the basic form of the forces of production is the labour of the individual tenant cultivator, whilst in the LAMP it is the collective recompensed cultivator (2). The former saw the system as expropriating part of the product of his labour, the latter did not. As the recompense took the form of subsistence land, the most adequate way to increase production for the landowner was to utilise intensive labour instead of increasing the productivity of labour. This feature crippled the potential for primitive accumulation and impaired technological development of the forces of production.

This unique mode of organization of labour led to a mode of distribution of the means of production, in which the ruling class had the monopoly of its ownership; a mode of appropriation of surplus-labour, in which the ruling class had the monopoly of its accumulation; and a mode of circulation, in which the collectively recompensed cultivator was maintained outside the domestic market of commodities and circulation of money. Therefore, it can be argued that at this stage of development of the colonial production system in Latin America, there existed specific relations of production, forces of production and an articulation (social connection) between them; a specific mode of production, that is.

The social structure derived from this mode was based upon an extreme polarization between the landowners and the peasants, with no room for significant development of middle sectors, impairing the growth of a "burgher class" as separate from the landowning class. The landowning-ruling class exerted its domination over the society from town to countryside, the opposite to that in the FMP. Thence, the landowners were at the same time "burghers", taking over the roles of both merchants and manufacturers. This unique process produced a cohesive ruling class, a dependent small middle sector, and a dispersed class of direct labourers. From this point of view, unlike the FMP in which there was room to develop the forces of production in a capitalist direction (primitive accumulation), in the LAMP development in that direction was always impaired (crippled) both in countryside and town.

In the early XIX century, when the emerging capitalist mode of production in Western Europe was in a position to fully extend its penetration in Latin America, and the social formation in the latter was in the process of consolidating its dominant mode of production, there occurred a new collision of modes of production in the continent. The effects of this collision were increasingly felt during the whole of the XIX century, and it eventually led to the XX century state of "underdevelopment" in Latin America. We will deal with this point in the Second Section of my thesis.

In the next three chapters I will develop each of the above five points in turn.


1) See Hindess and Hirst, op. cit., pp. 249-252

2) Ibid. p. 243

( Róbinson Rojas, "Latin America: Blockages to Development", PhD Dissertation, 1984), pages 38-46