Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
On Second Street
Susan peterson Gateley
Slippin' & Slidin'
Ellen meiksins Wood
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Monthly Review Press, 138 pp.
Review by Jim Cabral
Distinguished scholar and Monthly Review co-editor Ellen Meiksins Wood has written an important book, The Origin of Capitalism, that does much to improve our understanding of precisely that. Displaying an impressive command of both conventional and Marxist economic historiography, Wood challenges standard portrayals of capitalisms originin particular, those alleging its emergence from natural human impulses to maximize profit or increase labor productivityand rather presents it as historically distinguishable and socially created. This was no ephemeral metamorphosis of the free market arising either from the Enlightenments rationalism or the lofty aspirations of bourgeois French revolutionaries who followed. It was, as Wood so convincingly relates, a much more concrete process dated to the early modern period in agrarian England, where governmental restructuring and a revolution in social property relations uniquely combined to set the stage for the institutionalization of private property, wage labor, and market competition. Notably, Woods implicit messageif capitalism was thus socially established, it is also socially transcendableserves as a timely plea for intellectual sanity in an era marked by the purported inevitability of capitalism and the end of history.
In her introduction to The Origin of Capitalism, Wood stresses that capitalism is a historically recent phenomenon, one that has existed for barely a fraction of humanitys existence on earth few would say it existed in earnest before the sixteenth or seventeenth century This contrasts with more orthodox renditions of capitalisms origins, which often treat it as the natural realization of ever-present tendencies. Such tendenciesa profit-making rationality and a continuous, almost natural, progress of technological improvement in the productivity of laborare often assumed by scholars to be innately human qualities, so that the seeds of capitalism are at least implicitly understood as existing, for all intensive purposes, since the beginning of time. The result, Wood avers, is that in most accounts of capitalism and its origin, there really is no origin. Capitalism always seems to be there, somewhere, and it only needs to be released from its chains to be allowed to grow and mature.
In this conventional view, according to Wood, all that is left to explain are the obstaclespolitical, cultural, or ideologicalto capitalist development: These constraints confine the free flow of economic actors, the free expression of economic rationality. The economic in these formulations is identified with exchange or markets, and it is here that we can detect the assumption that the seeds of capitalism are contained in the most simple acts of exchange, in any form of trade or market activity.
But what, Wood asks, essentially is market activity? She takes issue with standard equations of markets with opportunity and freedom and counters that the distinctive and dominant characteristic of the capitalist market is compulsion. This is true in two senses: first, that material life and social reproduction in capitalism are universally mediated by the market, so that all individuals must in one way or another enter into market relations in order to gain access to the means of life; and second, that the dictates of the capitalist marketits imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit maximization, and labor productivityregulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general.
Wood proceeds to devote Part One of The Origin of Capitalism to a more detailed critique of the historiography, both conventional and Marxist, on capitalisms genesis. On the conventional side, the commercialization model (advanced by Belgian historian Henri Pirenne and later refined by Max Weber, Fernand Braudel, et al.), the demographic model (variants of which are articulated by so-called revisionist historians Conrad Russell and John Morrill), and recent historical sociology (e.g., the work of Michael Mann) come under her scrutiny. Whatever their differences, these schools of thought all suffer, says Wood, from the basic commercialization model pitfall of attributing capitalisms rise to absences: a lack of obstacles to assumedly pre-existing economic (i.e., capitalist) aspirations just waiting to be liberated. Here, as throughout, Woods command of the various economic histories is sure, and she is similarly impressive in rather accessibly distilling a broad array of highly academic writing.
At some length, Wood singles out The Great Transformation, written in 1944 by economic historian and anthropologist Karl Polanyi, as a notable exception to the above histories. Rather than presenting economic history as the progressive (if occasionally thwarted) evolution of innately human, capitalist-market aspirations, Polyani distinguishes between societies with markets, on the one hand, and market societycapitalismon the other. Wood lauds Polyanis emphasis on pre-capitalist societies employing other ways [kinship obligations, and the dictates of religious and/or political authorities, for example] of organizing economic life than through mechanisms of market exchange, and his insight that exchange as suchbarter, for exampledoes not constitute a market economy, or capitalism. Pre- capitalist forms of exchange were essentially non-competitive economic transactions embedded within social relations, as distinct from competitive, self-regulating capitalist markets driven by the price mechanism, where society itself becomes an adjunct of the market. Wood makes a plausible case for the importance of Polyanis delineati[ng]...the rupture between market society and the non-market societies which preceded it, even those with marketsnot only the differences between their economic logics, but the social dislocations which that transformation brought about.
In the books second chapter, Wood deftly critiques some of the Marxist debates about capitalisms originsin particular, the transition from feudalism to capitalismfocusing on arguments put forth by Maurice Dobb, R.H. Hilton, Paul Sweezy, and Perry Anderson. While the illuminating qualities of these accounts are not lost on Wood, she nevertheless finds in each (as with the commercialization model) a discernable, underlying assumption that capitalism is already there, just waiting to be released: a question-begging assumption of the very thing that needs to be explained. For example, in the case of Dobb and Hilton, who locate the emergence of capitalism in the class struggles won by relatively autonomous serfs engaged in petty commodity production, what is it that prompts the serfs to produce, ultimately, like capitalists? In Sweezys argument, which finds capitalisms origin in trade networks external to feudalism, what prompts the early merchants to metamorphose into capitalists? Anderson, who sees capitalisms origin corresponding to an upward displacement of feudal political power to an absolute state unconcerned with the sundry economic activities of burghers residing in the earliest towns, similarly fails to explain how burghers become capitalists. Wood convincingly shows that, despite their Marxist ideological orientation, all these accounts ultimately share the commercialization models assumption of a pre-existing capitalist impulse, which germinates as soon as fetters are removed.
In the next chapter of The Origin of Capitalism, Wood continues to display her impressive command of economic historiography in commending the work of historians Robert Brenner and E.P. Thompson. Brenner and Thompson present fledgling capitalist markets not as opportunities to be seized but rather more accurately as imperativesessentially, to increase productivity and profitimposed upon social groups. Wood lauds Brenner for recognizing the geographic and historic specificity of capitalisms origin, situating it as he does in the English countryside in the early modern period. Equally important, says Wood, is that Brenner presents this agrarian capitalism as a political economy originating in a radical transformation of social (landlord-peasant) property relationsincluding the payment of rents and a marked increase in landlessnessoccurring in tandem with the new market coercions which themselves emerged in a context of Englands uniquely centralized and unitary state.
Wood later shows Thompson taking a similar tack in emphasizing the changing social relationsparticularly the intensification of work and work disciplinethat set the stage for the development of industrial capitalism in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In Woods view, Thompsons work is no less enlightening in relating how free market ideology (as articulated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations) and the coercive powers of the state (applied often to beat back protests against high prices and unfair market practices) served to legitimize social relations under nascent industrial capitalism.
Adeptly incorporating and amending the most pertinent contributions of the above theories, Wood goes on to present her own account of the origin of capitalism in Part Two of her book. Like Brenner, she stresses the unique character of social property relations in agrarian England by the 16th century: the decline of politically constituted property in the countryside in the wake of upwardly displaced, centralized state power; the corresponding diminution of political leverage available to aristocratic landowners for appropriating surplus labor from peasants; the consequent market-dependence of landowners now faced with the imperative of designing and enforcing purely economic methods of surplus extraction; and the resulting increase in the imposition of rents on peasants, who, to afford such leases, had an obvious interest in increasing their productivitynot so much to seize market opportunities as to secure access to land as a means of subsistence. Wood thus comprehensively shows how economic necessity coerced both landlord and peasant to redefine their relationship to property and to each other, changing the very nature of class struggle and setting in motion a totally new, capitalist economic logic.
That English landlords direct extra-economic power declined throughout the 16th century should not be interpreted to mean that agrarian capitalism emerged in some kind of political vacuum, or that aristocratic landlords were politically weak. Indeed, Wood reminds that the state continued to be quite sympathetic to landlords throughout this period, acting on their behalf often by abrogating traditional land use rights for peasants, defining property in such cases as something whose rights accrued exclusively to private owners. This narrow view of property was epitomized by the enclosure movement, a landlords political-judicial tour de force characterized by Wood as the most vivid expression of the relentless process [the birth of capitalism] that was changing not only the English countryside but the world
Wood presents a compelling argument that agrarian capitalism in England at the very least provided the conditions of possibility for the subsequent emergence of industrial capitalism in the late 1700s-early 1800s. As to whether agrarian capitalism made industrial capitalism in England a necessary outcome, she concludes: there was a strong historical impulse in that direction. An integrated market providing cheap necessities of life for a growing mass of consumers and responding to already well-established competitive pressures constituted a new and specific logic of process, the outcome of which was industrial capitalism. That market, and the social property relations in which it was rooted, provided not only the means but the need to produce consumer goods on a new scale, and to produce them cost-effectively, in ways determined by the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit maximization, together with requirements for improving labor productivity.
The market Wood describes here was national (and only peripherally international), dynamic, and self-sustaining. In this account, more and more cheap foodstuffs and related basic necessities were competitively produced by a shrinking agricultural population for a simultaneously expanding mass of largely London-based consumers no longer engaged in agricultural production themselves. Certainly, some of the disfranchised and otherwise landless rural population whose displacement facilitated this agricultural productivity flocked to London and came to constitute part of the new consumer base. Moreover, they also added to the low-wage labor force that would later toil in Englands first large-scale factories. So cogent is this scenario Wood presents that it indeed becomes hard to imagine industrial capitalism emerging apart from it.
It is not lost on Wood that international trade (including slavery) and English imperialism contributed to the development of industrial capitalism in that country, and many conventional accounts of capitalisms origins claim that these rather represent the primary engines of Englands industrial revolution. However, if this is the case, what of Holland, Spain, or France, each with similarly extensive investments abroad at the same time? Why not a contemporaneous emergence of industrial capitalism in those countries? Partly, asserts Wood, because international trade, even in late 1700s, was still essentially a carrying trade limited chiefly to luxury items consumed by the proportionately small elite classes of those respective countries (including England). Such trade can hardly be considered to have had the dynamism to drive such a massive social transformation as industrialization. However, in Woods view, far more important was that other European national economies continued operating according to pre-capitalist social arrangementsinvolving various forms of politically constituted propertylong after England had undergone its unique revolution in agrarian property relations described above. Woods basic proposition regarding the birth of industrial capitalism in England would seem hard to refute: that the wealth created by Englands increasingly productive agrarian capitalism, the accompanying creation of a landless mass forced to sell their labor for a wage, and the exceptional market-dependence and integration of Englands national economy all combined to provide fertile breeding ground for the birth of industrial capitalism there, and not in other Western European nations.
In the final chapter of The Origin of Capitalism, Wood ably critiques a tendency of many cultural historians to naturalize capitalism in a manner similar to that of some economists mentioned earlier. Just as the latter dubiously explain capitalisms origin by presupposing a natural capitalist impulse, cultural scholars commonly conflate modernitytypically dated to the ideological universalism and intellectual rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the French Revolutionwith the simultaneous rise of a presumably long-suppressed, capitalist economic rationality. In such cases, the loftier social aspirations of Enlightenment-modernist thought are misinterpreted as capitalist aspirations, which are in turn unquestionably ascribed to bourgeois revolutionaries in Francefar removed, geographically, economically, and culturally, from the revolution in social property relations concurrently transforming the English countryside.
As Wood suggests, the bourgeois French revolutionarieseven as they invoked the ideal of universal emancipation in railing against the aristocratic particular- ism of the French nobility and the churchcould hardly be considered a group of budding entrepreneurs. (Wood earlier makes the salient point that bourgeois, or burgher, literally means nothing more than town dweller.) Wood credibly presents these professionals, office-holders, and intellectuals as primarily concerned with lowering their taxes and improving their access to lucrative positions in the state bureaucracy monopolized by the aristocracy. It is by glossing over these details that many cultural historians can simplistically equate the emergence of capitalismat once liberating and economically rationalwith the emancipatory spirit of the French Revolution and the rationalism of the Enlightenment that preceded it. This peculiar synergy is misleadingly portrayed as a kind of template for the intellectual and cultural strains of modernism that only too naturally followed.
Also in the final chapter, Wood persuasively maintains that fashionable expressions of post-modernismthe rejection of both comprehensive world-views and universalistic political projects, and perceptions of rebellion limited merely to very particular struggles against very diverse and particular oppressions, for examplesimilarly gloss over the historical specificity of capitalism. Often, the detached, disaffected, wry postmodernist pretentiously reacts against dubious modernist assumptionsand so validates those very assumptions. Wood compellingly argues that this is because, in challenging modernism, postmodern intellectual conventions frequently represent mere inversion[s] of modernity that still rest on the latters flawed view of history, a view of history that cuts across the great divide between capitalist and non-capitalist societies as if they were universal laws of history and lumps together various different historical developments, capitalist and non-capitalist So post-modernity follows a modernity in which bourgeois is identical with capitalist and Enlightenment rationalism is indistinguishable from the economic rationality of capitalism [and] entail[s] assumptions that capitalism is already present in bourgeois rationality, just waiting for the moment of release The specificity of capitalism is again lost in the continuities of history, and the capitalist system is naturalized in the inevitable progress of the eternally rising bourgeoisie.
If, as Wood asserts, capitalism is not some natural phenomenon whose evolution depends merely on the absence of fetters; and if, however dynamic and productive, it is inexorably rooted in inequality, dislocation, and exploitation, it would then scarcely seem credible to promote as the only desirable social system. Nevertheless, this outlook continues to inform the discourse promulgated by the worlds most influential policy makers and the corporate media. Woods The Origin of Capitalism puts a resounding chink in this rhetorical armorand in the tradition of the best radical analyses is itself a political statement. As transnational corporations enjoy near universal state sanction to invade ever more remote corners of the globe, Woods economic historypenetrating yet concise, erudite yet accessibleprovides an enlightening point of departure for anyone interested in considering democratic alternatives to this new world order. Z
Jim Cabral teaches political economy at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.