The Origin of Capitalism

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.

Ellen Meiksins Wood critiques accounts about the origin of capitalism—across the political spectrum, including Marxist’s—for overlooking the begging questions about what really drove the emergence of capitalism. She says accounts often present circular arguments in which capitalist dynamics were sort of always-already present and that particular historical conjunctures merely “unfettered” or quantitatively multiplied these extant tendencies and activities. Such accounts, she argues, naturalize capitalism and make it seem like system that is both inevitable and unshakeable. Her account emphasizes not the “opportunities” afforded by markets in the consolidation of markets, which she derides as the commercialization model, but rather the “imperatives” that market dependencies create and extend throughout the capillaries of social life and relations.

Her main argument is that a non-circular, denaturalizing account of the origins of capitalism must trace the origins of capitalism to the English countryside and its changing property relations beginning in the 16th Century. Contrary to most accounts, Wood writes: “It was not merchants or manufacturers who drove the process that propelled the early development of capitalism, The transformation of social property relations was firmly rooted in the countryside, and the transformation of English trade and industry was result more than cause of England’s transition to capitalism” (129).

Wood traces how changing property relations more than any other factor in the countryside drove the imperatives of “competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labor-productivity” and how these eventually came to “regulate not only economic transactions but social relations in general” (7). Indeed, changing property relations in the English countryside was what really set the conditions of possibility for capitalism.

She surveys the “commercialization model” of capitalism’s origins beginning with Adam Smith’s famous statement about the human propensity to truck and barter as well as classical political economists’ ideas about “original accumulation.” She mentions Marx’s critiques and moves to an extended review of the transition debate and Perry Anderson’s work on absolutism and capitalism. Wood next spends considerable time reviewing the Brenner Debate, defending his ideas as one of the few attempts to explain the emergence of capitalism without assuming in the argument precisely what needs to be explained—that is, he sought out an internal dynamic within feudalism that did not “presuppose an already existent capitalist logic” at work  (52).

Robert Brenner argued that the “dynamic of self-sustaining growth, and the constant need for improvement in labor productivity, presupposed transformations in property relations that created a need for such improvements simply to permit the principle economic actors – landlords and peasants – to reproduce themselves” (66).

While France and other European countries were mainly engaged in feudal-like surplus extraction through taxation of peasants and the seeking of profitable state offices, the greater concentration of property in England and a large number of tenants meant that landlords increasingly turned to money-denominated rents, creating a veritable market in leases and a reliance on money. The market of variable rents in which producers were compelled to compete for lands “stimulated the development of commodity production, the improvement of productivity, and self-sustaining economic development” (102).

Woods argues that these dynamics introduced market imperatives in which surplus extraction began to occur through “dull compulsions” rather than the “extra-economic” forms of (more coercive) extraction under feudalism or absolutism that involved the combination of economic, political, and military forces. With economic appropriation, landlords and other wealthy actors had incentives for promoting the productivity of labor since it afforded them the possibility of higher rents. “In pre-capitalist societies, appropriation – whether just to meet the material needs of society or to enhance the wealth of exploiters – took, so to speak, an absolute form: squeezing more out of direct producers rather than enhancing the productivity of labor” (150).

The 16th and 18th enclosures were thus a complimentary (almost culminating) process to already extant dynamics rather than the constitutive moment of capitalist relations. Wood nicely explores the ideology of “improvement”—not just betterment, but as Locke defined it in terms of profitability via exchange value—that justified such dispossession both locally and internationally with imperialism. Indigenous and other sorts of customary rights stood in the way of accumulation as it served the landlords.

“The most salutary corrective to the naturalization of capitalism and to question-begging assumptions about its origins is the recognition that capitalism, with all its very specific drives of accumulation and profit-maximization was born in the countryside, in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (95).


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