The traditional explanations of society’s transition to capitalism have tended to assume that the driving logic that impels it forward — those wonderful traits attritubed to men and women by Adam Smith, “to truck, barter, and exchange” — always was there, but was restrained by previous, largely primitive, societies. Capitalism, set loose from its fetters, is the natural way of things. The fetishism attached to economic concepts that Marx describes is but one symptom of this; social historians who look back to ancient Greece and Rome and see nascent entrepreneurs are another. Both proceed with an essentializing, ahistorical logic and attempt to force the progress of history comply with their ideas. As a result their explanations are incoherent and flawed. The catalogue of such attempts is revealing.
Ellen Wood writes, in The Origins of Capitalism, that the first method used to explain the rise of capitalism was the “commercialization” model. Revolving around the notion that capitalist logic is a natural law, and that it has always existed in some form or another, the commercialization model looks at history as a gradual liberation of unnatural social barriers to the movement of capital. Things like superstition, religion, irrationality, spectres, feudalism, & barbarians are sands that get in the gears of the capitalist machine, and stop it working. It’s no surprise, then, that the commercialization model finds them to be aberrant.
This view also held to the city as site of the origin of capital. This is in holding with the facination with the Greek polis, and its agora, and the myth of the marketplace. As the location of the burgher class, proponents of the commercialization model argue, the city was and is an inherently capitalist location, inimical both to feudalism and any other restraint against money-logic. Only in the city could our burgher forebears exercise freedom and cast off the superstitious, unreasonable feudal chains.
With Max Weber’s work, the commercialization model gets significant development: he understands that capitalism did not always exist, that it was brought about historically. All the same, he maintained that it was tied to cities and Europe, and that its development remained enfettered elsewhere, as if it were the natural end to all human social arrangements.
Wood claims that the “notable exception” to the naturalization of commodity-logic in traditional explanations of the genesis of capitalism is Polanyi. He dedicated his research to showing that the notion of individual profit through exchange was not the structuring logic of society until the modern period — previously there was a conceptual distinction between society and market, and there were motives besides economic gain behind economic action, for instance prestige and profit. Polanyi directly challenges Smith regarding people’s predisposition for economic calculation. While his work was incredibly important when it was published, Wood notes that Polanyi is incorrect in some areas (medieval land tenure, Speemhamland system, mercantalism, etc) and argues that while he recognizes that the market is created, his theories are a bit technological-determinist. He assumes that technological advances had to involve the commodification of labor. Wood will argue that radical shifts in social organization preceded industrialization and its contemporaneous boom in technological progress.