From Socialist Voice, September 2008


The origins of capitalism

Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002; ISBN 978-1-85984-680-3, £40; paperback, 978-1-85984-392-5, £13)
     Although this book has been in print for some time now, it is only recently that this reviewer has had the opportunity to read it. It is an important book that forcefully argues that the genesis, origins and, by implication, fundamental laws of capitalism have been considerably misunderstood by many, including Marxists.

     The beginning of capitalism is located in agricultural production in southern England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through a detailed analysis focusing on the variable rents for land following enclosure. Critically, these responded to market pressures, creating the composition of tenant-wage-labourer. Consequently, the sub-conditions of industrial capitalism were produced: propertyless wage labour, a considerable non-agricultural work force fed by domestic agricultural production, and a domestic market for consumer goods.
     The productive faculties and vitality of capitalism as a consequence resulted in the displacement of pre-capitalist forms of activity. Even where independent means of production remained, they became reliant on the market and were overwhelmed by the organising principle of capitalism. In the explanation, the dynamics and processes of societies such as France, Spain, Ireland and Holland are adroitly woven into the text as comparators.
     The author identifies the moment, processes and specificity of the creation of the new social system. She identifies what is particular to capitalism and what is common to other social systems, such as markets. She also locates capitalist transformation in the period preceding industrialisation, arguing that industrialisation was not possible without the establishment of agrarian capitalism. She further claims that this renders irrelevant the bourgeois revolution as the site of the origin of capitalism.
     There are aspects of this thesis that contradict many Marxist and non-Marxist accounts, which the author argues are characterised principally by (a) an inevitableness and a presupposition that feudalism contained within it the seeds of capitalism without critical disjunctures save bourgeois revolutions and with only barriers to capitalism’s emergence requiring explanation, and (b) the conflation of capitalism with markets, commerce, and exchange.
     Despite the great merits of this book, it has one or two shortcomings. Crucially, because the argument is sweeping on such a substantial issue, to become more convincing it requires a greater use of evidence through making use of the work of other writers. There is little in the way of evidence to substantiate the micro-level social processes by which agrarian capitalism triumphed in England and blossomed into critical mass. Equally, the contemporary or historical implication of her thesis on capitalism is not discussed.
     Nevertheless, in spite of these relatively minor weaknesses this is a strong book and will have much of interest for those with an interest in social theory and economic history.

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