Review: The Origins of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood

February 7, 2012 — Leave a comment

 This is a repost of a review I wrote elsewhere, with minor editing.


While I’m still waiting for someone to do a treatise on the alchemical language employed by Marx to explain Capital and the magic the Capitalists/Bourgeoisie employ (“everything that is solid melts into air…”), I’ve had to settle instead with general clarifications.

So in the meantime, TOoC was quite useful. This is the second time i’ve read it, though for some reason the first reading (about 6 years ago) really must have been inadequate. Or, rather say, I had at that earlier point less exposure to most of the historians and economic theorists she uses and conflicts. I’d heard of E.P. Thompson but never read him; Weber was un-opened on my bookshelf, and I hadn’t even read Das Kapital yet. But none of that adequately explains why, on the second reading, i held in my hands an entirely different book.

Her premise is simple: The birth of Capitalism was a recent historical event. Within that statement, however, exists a myriad of complications, and it’s a minority view.

The typical story of Capitalism goes like this: after massive european plagues, the printing press and the Reformation, so many people lived in towns instead of feudal arrangements that we all became somehow liberated to our own self-interest, investing surplus funds (“primal accumulation”) into our own improvement and, with enough people doing so, the rate of “technological progress” sped up to make most of us not need to raise our own food anymore. We all became Capitalists (after a few beheadings in France) and spread the good word to the rest of the world, constantly making life better for ourselves and others, though we were a bit sloppy and maybe shouldn’t have burned so much coal.

Capitalism in this scenario is a natural outgrowth, then, a step along the way (or the Final Step, if you aren’t a Marxist) towards democracy and space exploration and flat-screen tv’s and kidney transplants. Marxists point to the exploitation within the system and suggest another step (Communism, or central-planned economies, where our lives will finally be better), but either way, Progress will win out (or our cities will flood).

The very lazy or the very Ayn-Randian posit Capitalism as already-always existing, merely waiting to be freed by oppressive trade barriers (like Feudalism), but their further arguments still usually follow the aforementioned pattern. Evolutionary/Behavioural/Psychologist sorts also sometimes get into this, coming up with all sorts of Scientific ™ ways of explaining how well natural selection and Capitalism go hand in hand.

But Wood has none of it. For her, Capitalism began in England when rent for farms became a market, something which had never happened in recorded history. Landlords, with the death of feudalism (she argues that Capitalism did not destroy Feudalism, against most histories), had to collect “surplus” from tenants in the form of monied-rents without “extra-economic” coercion (i.e., taxes, levies, outright violence) because they had lost much of their legal/juridical power. Markets (and trade) had always existed, but economic coercion had not (Florence and the Dutch Republic were both massive urban areas with huge markets without Capitalism–even most of the “Commercialists” agree to this and call them “failed transitions”).

With the pressure from landlords now to collect surplus money, the farmers on their land found themselves needing to grow even more than before (previous feudal arrangements were typically one-third of all produce, but now the amount was set, regardless of what markets provided). Farmers suddenly had to compete with each other for profit, which destabilised prices and made some people lose their farms. The landlords, in response, could charge more for the land of the “productive” farmers, could re-lease unrented land to them, thus rewarding the successful competitor taking from the loser their very access to self-reproduction (substinence, etc.). Those dispossessed farmers became reliant on the market now for everything they used to be able to make for themselves before, thus creating “consumer-goods” markets.

The key-word for her is Imperative. Farmers didn’t take advantage of “opportunities,” they responded to imperatives (grow/make more or lose your land). Landowners also found themselves no longer in a voluntary position–once one landowner can’t farm out his land to tenants, his land is threatened by other landowners who can. Markets previously were governed not just by supply and demand, but community/social obligations and restrictions, but the pressure of so much displacement and imperative to earn/invest violently reduced these restrictions (Enclosure had happened before, but not with so much speed and legislative authority).

But therein lies another complication. Any Free-Market apologist will tell you that the state gets in the way of the market, though they still consistently rely upon central authorities to ensure the right conditions for their profit-taking. Without police, no one’s around to arrest the thieves or squatters, because the coercion of Capitalism is pristinely Economic. Political Coercion must come from outside of it, must serve it, and must not get too much in the way. The English State’s willingness to serve this role ensured capitalism’s naissance (consider Foucault’s point in Discipline & Punish about the number of “economic-crime” laws–and their commensurate violence-of-punishment–which did not exist before Capitalism took hold).

Capitalism didn’t take hold elsewhere for a little while, nor did it “spontaneously generate” anywhere else. Other states responded to the pressure eventually to the point we’re at now, but it’s vital for her that we continue to see the exact genesis point (in england, in the rural areas).

She makes a few other arguments, some of which almost seem extraneous and besides-the-point. Placing the birth of Capitalism in agriculture, rather than the cities, places into doubt the traditional/marxist understanding of the Bourgeoisie. She’s right to point out that the bourgeoisie in France were not fighting for capitalism, but rather access to extra-economic coercion (offices, titles, etc. that would allow the professionals of the city to collect taxes).

I’m willing to accept this, but I don’t like the consequences of her final conclusions. She separates the French and English Enlightenment (England had Locke–arguing that natives should be forced off their land because they refused to put it to productive use; France had Voltaire and Rousseau), and she can do this to a point, but by the time of the French Revolution i don’t think the differences continue. She makes a great argument for separating “modernity” from “capitalism,” believes as I do that most food shortages are due to capitalist profit-imperative, not productive capacity, and she almost completely destroys the notion of Progress.

But something suddenly stops her. The last two chapters find her shredding through her entire argument, leaving the pieces on the floor for us to paste back together in her search for some way to keep Human/Universal Rights as Progress.  She rejects much of the “post-modern” arguments about the meta-narrative concerning Capitalism because human rights/western secularism is something too important for her to destroy. She’s almost there, she’s about to axe them, and then you hear her gasp as she suddenly realises she’s throwing out what she thinks is the baby in the muddy water of the bath.  It’s not a baby, actually, there never was one. Capitalism used her tub as a toilet, and, perhaps exhausted from her brilliant intellectual work, she mistook one of the undissolved turds (the “progress” of human-rights”) for a drowning child.

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