Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

Agrarian Origins of Capitalism - The Origin of Capitalism...

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Unformatted text preview: The Origin of Capitalism Ellen Meiksins Wood XE v.1 ita _ '5- If; : t; 2- a a. . F3 ‘34 is ' $3? meg-mam» .22 anemic sawh- @ Monthly Review Press New York Copyright (c) 1999 Monthly Review Press All rights reserved Library of Congress Cataloging—in-Publication Data Index 132 Wood, Ellen Meiksins. ‘ The origin of capitalism I Ellen Meiksins Wood. g contents p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. .. ISBN 1-58367—000—9(pbk.)~mISBN1-58367-007-6 (cloth) ACkaledgmemS V” 1. Capitalism——History. I. Title. Introduction 1 HB501.W615 1999 330'12)2309"d‘121 9848940 Part One: Histories of the Transition CIP E. 1. The Commercialization Model and its Legacy 11 Monthly Review Press 2. Marxist Debates 27 122 we“ 27th Street 3. Marxist Alternatives 43 New York NY 10001 i Part Two: The Origin of Capitalism Manufactiired in Canada §-_ _ . ' ‘ . 10 9 3 7 6 5 4 3 2 4. The Agrarian Ongin of Capitalisni ' 67 5. From Agrarian to Industrial Capitalism: A Brief Sketch 93 6. Modernity and Postmodernity 105 Conclusion 117 Notes 123 Chapter Four The Agrarian Origin of Capitalism THE EMERGENCE OF CAPITALISM CERTAINLY PRESUPPOSED Western feudalism, not to mention the development of certain property forms in Graeco-Roman antiquity.1 But it is one thing to say that European feudalism was a necessary condition for the emergence of capitalism (as, indeed, were other factors, such as the existence of a trading network that included a world far beyond Western Europe), and quite another to say that it was sufi‘icient. Feudalism in Europe, even in Western Europe, was internally diverse, and it produced several different outcomes, only one of which was capitalism. It is not just a matter of different rates of “combined and uneven development” or even of different transitional phases. The autonomous city—states that emerged in Renaissance Italy, for example, or the absolutist state in France, were distinct formations, each with its own internal logic of process which need not have given rise to capitalism. Where and when they did issue in capitalism, it was only as they came within the orbit of an already existing capitalist system and the competi— tive pressures it was able to impose on its political, military, or commercial rivals. No entry into the capitalist economy could 67 THE ORIGIN OF CAPITALISM thereafter be the same as earlier ones, as they all became subject to a larger and increasingly international capitalist system.2 The tendency to take for granted that capitalism was an inevi- table, if antagonistic, outgrowth of European feudalism is, as we have seen, rooted in the conviction that the autonomous town which grew within the interstices of feudalism’s s“parcellized sov— ereignties” was not only the natural enemy that would destroy the feudal system but the “cuckoo’s egg” within it that would give birth to capitalism To detach ourselves from that presupposmon u-mM—u—v—h- "Hm—ma “WWW. Elf-infill??? to disentangle capitalist_ from bourgeois, and _capital ismhftom the city. 1 in, “NJ, its a «a at" my Valentin, Gift; .".v.;1"'{3-~'~’wk 1'“ ELL L... ‘J‘ Husk-{’5 ”4i": unwl‘ ,nflflgy {LL48 he» dmfi, l ‘0‘!” Maa§ Agrarian Capitalism 1: ,4 V- (Ni: 1.11:,“ The association of capitalism with cities is one of the most well~ established conventions of Western culture. Capitalism is sup— posed to have been born and bred in the city. But more than that, the implication is that any city—with its characteristic practices of trade and commerce—is by its very nature potentially capitalist from the start, and only extraneous obstacles have stood in the way of any urban civilization giving rise to capitalism. Only the wrong religion, the wrong kind of state, or other ideological, political, or cultural fetters tying the hands of urban classes have prevented capitalism from springing up anywhere and every- where, since time immemorial—or at least since technology has permitted the production of adequate surpluses. 5 What accounts for the development of capitalism in the West, according to this view, is the unique autonomy of its cities and of their quintessential class, the burghers or bourgeois. _In other words, capitalism emerged in the West less because of what was mm... .Mmmvw.” .M, w. present than because of what Was “E'absent constraints on urban ”H 6,. H14.“ ,s.. i... 6-- WWW. “I econgwrnicpractices In those conditions, it took onlya‘more or less natural expansion of trade to trigger the development of capi- talism to its full maturity. All that was needed was a quantitative 68 AGRARIAN CAPITALISM growth which occurred almost inevitably with the passage of time (in some versions, of course, helped along, but not originally caused, by the “Protestant ethic”). There are many questionable things in these assumptions about the natural connection between cities and capitalism, but foremost among them must be the tendency to naturalize capi— talism, to disguise its distinctiveness as a historically specific social form with a beginning and, potentially, an end. The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has, as we have seen, generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear a more or less automatic consequence of pracu tices as old as human history, or even the consequence of a “natural” inclination, in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter, and exchange” Perhaps meeastelneiiserrestatemtiessagmptwns and ,1": their ideological implications is t e recognition that capitalism, :3 with ‘flfii’iv Ey'spéeifi'c drives’lstéééiffifiutian and profit maxi— all: fiiiiaiiah, was borii‘iioE iii ate at?” 15qu iflfiEl'ieDEOuntrynde, in avery 3. Seglfiifififlhd Yerrlaeitiiiiaiiin hater Realities“ a i} in Ehe in st basic human relations and .._.__,.. .. '1"! practlces, a rupture in age: old patterns-”of hu ”an interaction virith~ as D 8111113,” .MM For millennia, human beings have provided for their materia'T‘jyj needs by working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in agriculture they have been divided into classes, *2 between those who worked the land and those who appropriated the labor of others That division between appropriators and producers has taken many forms, but one common characteristic is that the direct producers have typically been peasants. These mducers have remained in possess1on of the means of productionfswpem'v cally land. As in all pre capitalist societies, t ac ss to the mean of their own 'Mmim.“ thesfleflproducers have h “”W’Imm _me—flm __ n wu- rgpmduction This has meant that when their surplus labor has" 69 AGRARIAN CAPITALISM THE ORIGIN OF CAPITALISM , ,. t W "‘l‘: gegplator of social reproduction. The emergence of the market as m' ' x. __ .. Mme. .- um... _ M been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what Marx called “extra-economic” meansmthat is, by means of direct coer— cion, exercised by landlords or states employing their superior force, their privileged access to military, judicial, and political power. ngihflnhwthfihangidifference. between ‘Xkaflllhpre-capitalist tastiest.saésgiaitalam, It. has n.0fl1ing..t9.do.with iifiéihsi Pi'o: tuition is urban or ratatsnlsrsrniiias haematite.particular., ‘ 12! Opéfiflzéfitions bemetitnflggducersandappropriatorsmhethhg; fr' metermlnahtofsoaal reproduction presupposeditspefietr'ation S, intotheproductionflfihf£’§..HiQ§il?-ilsflékfiI é§31f§§"f66'df“ ’- 14“ / This unique system of market depen'deh‘ce‘entails specific sys- ’ *3 £7temic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode '2 t of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, 3’s: and profit maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean b"; J 3° that capitalism can and must constantly expand in ways and 2': degrees unlike any other social form. It can and must constantly (id accumulate, constantly search out new markets, constantly im— F—fl pose its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on all human beings and the natural environment. in industry or agEiEElUHC- Only in capitalism is the dominant modewoffip‘propriation based on the dispossession of the legally free direct producers, whose surplus labor is appropriated by purely “economic” means. Because direct producers in a fully developed capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction, even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their labor power in exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers’ surplus labor without direct coercion. TWWW.andnpprppriatorsis, of course, mediatedhxths.Tfmstkst:’il\4s£1$st§__stratum.kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as -w—w ,.. «mafia—.mmnmwmwa “Mr... 0... .. pegple have exchanged and ‘sbld {heir surpluses in many diffeient" wayswaiidwfor":nywdifferentpurposes But then-market "in Capital— i’si'ii" “as"a'i‘disunctive, unprecedented function. Virtually every- thing in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labor are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. Just as workers depend on the market to sell their labor power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labor power, as well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling the goods or services produced by the workerS- WenmrsirssmamuistEyepiece: dented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism . mnm‘w ........ .Wmmmvm‘WMW-,w-.. .. (malige or digiributionbut thekprinapal determinant and _ __ _____ WM)...“ ........_.u 70 Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes are, how different they are from the social forms which have dominated most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question—begging assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be iiberated from un- natural constraints. The question of its origins can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by appropriators in non~capitalist ways for millennia before the advent of capitalism, and given that markets have also existed “time out of mind” and almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appro- priators, and the relations between them, came to be so market dependent? _ Now obviously the long and complex histor ultimately led to this condition of market dependence could be traced back indefinitely. But we can make the question more manageable by identifying the first time and place that a new social dynamic of market dependence is clearly discernible. Even later than the seventeenth century, most of the world, including Europe, was free of the market-driven imperatives outlined here. A vast system of trade certainly existed, extending across the globe. But nowhere, neither in the great trading centers ical processes that 71 .1 -; 1" THE ORIGIN OF CAPITALISM of Europe nor in the vast commercial networks of the Islamic world or Asia, was economic activity and production in particular driven by the imperatives of competition and accumulation. The dominant principle of trade everywhere was “buying cheap and selling dear.” International trade was essentially carrying trade, with mer— chants buying goods in one location to be sold for profit in another. But even within a single, powerful, and relatively unified European kingdom like France, basically the same principles of non—capitalist commerce prevailed. There was no single and uni— fied market, a market in which people made profit not by buying cheap and selling dear, not by carrying goods from one market to another, but by producing more cost—effectively in direct compe- tition with others in the same market. a . 1" Trade still tended to be in luxury goods, or at least goods I y destined for more prosperous households or answering to the .n k eeds and consumption patterns of dominant classes. There was no m3%,???“qu59h??? .¢Y¢l‘l’dflY consumer produeEETrEEEQHt Hangers would typically produce not only their own 'foo‘d’but other everyday goods "like. ointhing. They might take their sur— plusesto 12931 markets, where the proceeds could lie-exchanged forflotlieflrwcorri'modi—tles Farm produce might even be sold in marketsfurtherafield. But here again, the principles of trade were basically the same as in manufactured goods. I Here readers might recall Karl Polanyi’s illuminating argument about trade before the advent of “market society,” about its fundamentally non-competitive character. But let me clarify some points here, which may not be entirely clear in Polanyi’s account. Take the. example of long-distance trade, the particular form of economic activity that defined the great commercial centers which are, according to all versions of the commercialization model, supposed to have been the precursors of capitalism. This kind of trade took the form of “commercial arbitrage between separate markets.”3 Buying cheap in one market and selling dear 72 AGRARIAN CAPITALISM in another was the operative principle here, not competition within a single, integrated market. If there was competition, it did not take the form of competitive and cost-effective production. Essentially “extra—economic” conditions, such as domination of the seas and other transport routes, or highly developed financial institutions and instruments of arbitrage, were the key to com— mercial advantage. This kind of trade, largely in luxury goods for a fairly limited market, did not in itself carry an impulse to improve productivity. The main vocation of the large merchant was circulation rather than production. Even when a major com— mercial center like Florence developed domestic production, in addition to its role in servicing external mercantile activity, the basic logic of economic transactions was not essentially different. It was still a matter of limited production for a luxury market and a recycling of wealth or “profit on alienation,” in the process of circulation, rather than the creation of value in production, and appropriation of surplus value, in the capitalist manner. These non-capitalist principles of trade existed in conjunction with non-capitalist modes of exploitation. For instance, in West— ern Europe, even where feudal serfdom had effectively disap« peared, other forms of “extra-economic” exploitation still prevailed. In eighteenth-century France, for example, where peas~ ants still constituted the vast majority of the population and remained in possession of most land, office in the central state served as an economic resource for many members of the domi- nant classes, a means of extracting surplus labor in the form of taxes from peasant producers. Even rent-appropriating landlords typically depended on various extra-economic powers and privi— leges to enhance their wealth. , So peasants had access to the means of production, the land, without having to offer their labor power as a market commodity. Landlords and officeholders, with the help of various “extra~eco- i, nomic” powers and privileges, extracted surplus labor from peasants h. directly in the form of rent or tax. While all kinds of people might 73 THE ORIGIN OF CAPITALISM AGRARIAN CAPITALISM several ways. First, the English ruling class was distinctive in two related respects.4 On the one hand, demilitarized before any other aristocracy in Europe, it was part of an increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a centralizing monarchy, without the par— cellization of sovereignty characteristic of feudalism and its suc- cessor states. While the state served the ruling class as an instrument of order and protector of property, the aristocracy did buy and sell all kinds of things in the market, neither the peasant— proprretors who produced, nor the landlords and officeholders who appropriated what others produced, depended directly on the market for the conditions of their self—reproduction, and the relations between them were not mediated by the market. But there was one major exception to this general rule. England by the sixteenth century, was developing in wholly new directions: Although there were other relatively strong monarchical states in Europe, more or less unified under a monarchy, such as Spain and France, none was as effectively unified as England (and the em» phasm here is on England, not other parts of the British Isles). In the eleventh century, when the Norman ruling class established itself on the island as a fairly cohesive military and political entity England already became more unified than most countries. In the Sixteenth century, England went a long way toward eliminating the fragmentation of the state, the “parcellized sovereignty” in— herited from feudalism. The autonomous powers held by lords municipal bodies, and other corporate entities in other Europearl states were, in England, increasingly concentrated in the central state. This was in contrast to other European states where power- ful monarchies continued for a long time to live uneasily along- srde other post—feudal military powers, fragmented legal systems and corporate privileges whose possessors insisted on theif autonomy against the centralizing power of the state. The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. Already in the sixteenth century, England had an impressive network of roads and water transport that unified the nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming disproportionatelylarge in relation to other English towns and to the total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe), was also becoming the hub of a developing national market. The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was English agriculture, which was unique in 74 x) :l .3, .4 Ell ‘\ not possess autonomous “extra— economic” powers or “politically constituted property” to the same degree as their continental counterparts. On the other hand, there was what might be called a trade-off between the centralization of state power and the aristocracy’s control of land. Land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion. This concentrated landownership meant that English landlords were able to use their property in new ways. What they lacked in “extra-economic” powers of surplus extrac» tion they more than made up for with increasing “economic” powers. i" This distinctive combination had significant consequences. On fill/the one hand, the concentration of English landholding meant that an unusually large proportion of land was worked not by peasant-proprietors but by tenants (the word “farmer,’ inciden— literally means “tenant”——a usage suggested by phrases fa- tally, ’). This was true even before miliar today, such as “farming out’ the waves of dispossession, especially in the sixteenth and eight— conventionally associated with “enclosure,” and eenth centuries, proportion was in contrast, for example, to France, where alarger s, of land remained, and would long continue to remain, in the hands of peasants. On the other hand, the relatively weak extra—economic powers of landlords meant that they depended less on their ability to squeeze more rents out of their tenants by direct, coercive means than on their tenants’ productivity. Agrarian landlords in this 75 THE ORIGIN OF CAPITALISM arrangement had a strong incentive to encourage—Hand, wherever possible, to compel—wtheir tenants to find ways of increasing their output. In this respect, they were fundamentally different from rentier aristocrats who throughout history have depended for their wealth on squeezing surpluses out of peasants by means of simple coercion, enhancing their powers of surplus extraction not by increasing the productivity of th...
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