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The Origins of Capitalism, II

Against the traditional interpretations of the transition to capitalism — the ones that Wood labels as “transhistorical determinist” and “market voluntarism,” that essentially said that capitalist social relations were always already there, waiting in the wings to proceed to center stage — Marx and others in the radical tradition have tried to understand it as something engendered by historical forces, by the dynamic way people have organized their society. Our understanding of how capital comes about fundamentally informs how we understand it itself, so it is no surprise that the traditional and radical views of capitalism are quite contrasted. Whereas the former sees the urges that make capital work as transhistorical, outside of contingent social arrangements, and so, essentially necessary, the latter sees them as fashioned in history — as essentially contingent on the human activity that makes them work in a given society. This means that capitalism is traditionally seen as eternal and unavoidable, and radically critiqued as a novel phase that, yes, even too shall pass.

There are schools of thought whose critiques of capitalism embody a transhistorical determinist understanding of how capital itself works. In fact, Wood notes that this view permeates Marx’s earlier writings. And it’s against this that many people direct their critique of Marxism as teleology. However, the noteworthy studies of capitalism within the radical tradition ditch the assumption that capital is eternal, and work to expose how capitalism social relations were brought about.

Central to traditional accounts — that capital was simply waiting to be unfettered or enabled — is the notion of “primitive accumulation.” Such accumulation, in this view, was the sort of trucking and bartering into which people entered before they could afford the sort of investments required for capitalism proper. We might consider this the building up of a ‘principal’, from which the interest of capital proper is earned. It was this view specifically that Marx called into question in his later work. The long and short of his argument is that no matter how shrewdly and cleverly a feudal lord saved up his directly expropriated grain, he would never reach a tipping point and become a capitalist. Even if he were sitting on a mountain of gold that he acquired through brilliant mercantile exchanges, he would remain only a feudal lord. In order for him to make the step from lordship to capitalist entrepreneur, the social relations between him and peasants would have to be fundamentally altered. Marx saw this as occurring first in the development of ground rent.

A lot of fingers have riffled through the archives and a lot of articles written by scholars following Marx’s argument regarding ground rent. The so-called ‘transition debate’, between Dobb and Sweezy, and their students, is one of the more significant exchanges. While both were critical of capitalism, Dobb argued that the ‘prime mover’ that drove the transition to capital was the class struggle between peasants and lords within European feudal arrangements; Sweezy maintained a sort of quasi-commercialization approach and saw the increase in trade activity and urbanization as the most important factors, things that were external to feudalism as such. Wood believes that though both approaches are slight improvements

In the wake of the transition debate, Brenner began another that became known as the ‘Brenner debate’ when he published an article laying out what he saw as the problems with traditional commercialization and demographic explanations of the transition to capitalism. Neither, he argued, could account for the sometimes opposite effects that demographic shifts or trade increases had in different countries. Thus, he argued, what really brought about capitalism was not simple demographic change or a quantitative increase in trade, but a qualitative restructuring of property relations. This, he worked to show, took place in agrarian England in the 18th century.

To do this, Brenner followed Dobb and his student Hilton in holding that there was an internal dynamic to feudalism that brought capitalism about — namely, the class struggle between peasants and lords. However, unlike them, he did not argue that capitalist social was the intended result of this dynamic. Peasants and lords did not set about to recreate themselves as landlords and free tenants; rather they were trying to reproduce themselves as they had existed in feudalism. Capitalism came about as an unwelcome side-effect of this process.

The reason this happened in England, and not, say, France, which didn’t become capitalist so much as absolutist, were the specific conditions of English landlords and their tenant farmers. English landlords did not have recourse to the direct methods of expropriation that their French counterparts did; and, at the same time, rental rates became decoupled from traditional amounts, becoming subject to money and market conditions. Hence, they would have an interest in squeezing their tenants not with thugs but with economics, and farmers would be compelled to increase productivity in order to pay rent. The basic dynamics of market-logic thus set in place, rural England began to be consolidated into large holdings and peasant farmers became either completely severed from their means of production — as in the case of the swelling ranks of the urban proletariat — or tethered to it via a market relation — as in the case of yeoman farmers. It’s important to note what Brenner’s argument does: it makes the motor driving the transition to capitalism internal to feudalism, and it makes it a distinctly historical arrangement.

Categories: Notes.

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