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The Origins of Capitalism, I

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.

Categories: Notes.

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5 Responses

  1. As far as I can tell, a big barrier to understanding how capitalism is historically distinct from previous economic orders is the (mis)identification of capitalism with trade, or that urge “to truck, barter, and exchange.” From my understanding of Capital V1, capitalism is distinctive in that it’s those who control one factor of the production process, namely investment capital, call the shots over all others, in particular labor. This can happen because of commodity fetishism (and Dog bless you for your discussion of it as metaphysical bewilderment over the locus of value vis-a-vis commodities: if I had a dime for every time someone used it as a high-falutin’ synonym for acquisitiveness, I could probably make a downpayment on a McMansion) obscuring the social relation between labor and capital, giving wages the illusion of the objective value of labor performed rather than an expression of the actual power of the capital owning class. There isn’t the direct expropriation (“I’m the fuckin’ king—gimme that, ya fuckin’ peasant!”) of product such as under feudal arrangements, and the power disparity between capital and labor—basically be exploited or starve—is papered over as a trade into which both parties entered freely. And because capital is covertly but radically dependent on labor, it’s crucial that what were human skills be constantly transformed into machine capabilities. If your skilled workers get uppity, you can just replace ‘em with unskilled workers tending the machines.

    That’s a (drastic) simplification, but I think in the large detail it’s correct. It’s not rocket science either, but just about every time I try to explain it to allegedly sympathetic ears, the reply is usually, “But it’s human nature to want to trade and have nice things…”

    You think I’d know better by now, or at least stop standing people beers when they say shit like that.

    Mean Joe Spleen9 June, 2008 @ 5:40 pmReply
  2. Definitely stop standing them beers, anyway. Ask them what they’re going to give you for it.

    I think separating trade from capitalism would go a long way in bringing people to a more systematic critique. I mean, once you grasp that capitalism isn’t about making stuff that other people want, all sorts of things start to make sense. Like how food can rot in silos while people on the streets are starving, etc.

    • durability only proves durability, not whether something is natural or aberrant. surely, many ‘aberrations’ have been durable, like pedophilia/pederasty, superstition, etc. — unless your view does not consider these ‘aberrations’. By your own argument, anything that endures is ‘natural’, not aberrant.

      LaSonn1 May, 2017 @ 1:07 amReply
  3. Socialists and socialist sympathizers will go to any lengths to try and demonstrate that capitalism is not ‘natural’ and is instead some kind of historical ‘aberration.’ Unfortunately for them, the durability of the fundamental institutions and practices of capitalism - private property, profit and the market - are surely proving them wrong, and they are surely vital to human liberty and prosperity. On the other hand, the disaster that was Soviet socialism has surely proved, until the end of modernity, that ‘capitalism’ is normative and socialism impossible.

  4. Ben, you didn’t read this post. I didn’t say that capitalism was an “aberration”; I commented on a specific interpretation of history that is posited by Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book. Whether or not capitalist social relations are abhorrent, they certainly are not “natural,” in the sense of the word used by the thinkers who came up with the concept of natural law and leveraged their rhetorical skills in order to justify things like enclosures and the expropriation of peasants.

    The point being that responsible history understands its concepts are not ahistorical. Your so-called “fundamental institutions” are neither universal nor necessary, and have themselves changed quite a lot within the societies in which they are supposed to be contiguous traditions — as have the conceptions of “liberty” and “prosperity” putatively established through them, and the range of political subjects supposedly empowered by them.

    Discussing the “disaster” of “Soviet socialism” isn’t going to win you arguments here; the choir that wants that sermon’s in another church. If you have any interest in actually engaging the substance of what was said in the original post, I’m game. Otherwise, take the good faith elsewhere.

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