The Eastern Origins of Capitalism?

1st Apr, 2017

How the West Came to Rule book cover

A review of Alex Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu's How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (Pluto, 2015)

For an alternative review, see our previous post by Jairus Banaji. Watch out for the symposium on the book forthcoming in the Historical Materialism journal. 

Spencer Dimmock is a historian of late medieval and early modern England working in the Political Marxist tradition. He recently published The Origin of Capitalism in England (Brill, 2014), He has published numerous papers on late medieval and early modern English and Welsh society and economy. He is currently undertaking research for a forthcoming book provisionally entitled England's Second Domesday: The Expropriation of the English Peasantry and the Inquisition of 1517 (Brill) which seeks to draw close attention to the uniqueness of the experience of the English peasantry and the political context of that experience c. 1450-1550.

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu have produced a remarkably ambitious book on the dynamics of pre-modern global socio-political and economic change which aims to account for how western Europe and North America (‘the West’) came to dominate the globe politically and economically.[1] At the heart of this transformation, they argue, was the emergence and development of capitalism in north-western Europe, notably in England, in the early modern period. Having said this, their main motivation has been to combat what they view as an unwarranted and pervasive Eurocentric bias by historians and historical sociologists in their analyses of the history of ‘modernity’. By treating the history of modern capitalist society as a linear development, internal to Europe, the technological, intellectual and economic contribution of the rest of the world to this achievement, notably that of the Middle-East and Asia (‘the East’), has been left out. They argue that this is not only flawed history, but it leads to an orientalist perspective which reinforces a stereotype of the East as perennially backward, incapable of change, and requiring the civilising touch of the West to bring it up to the latter’s universal standard of ‘modernity’. So the book’s main purpose is to ‘decentre’ or ‘provincialise’ Europe in analyses of the development of modernity (read capitalism), and to provide a ‘counter history’ to the conception of modernity as developed in the confines of Europe, subsequently spreading through its colonies and through military and commercial pressures to the rest of the world. The authors wish to highlight the fact that much of the East was more advanced economically, politically and culturally than the West before the emergence of capitalism and, moreover, to argue that the emergence of capitalism in north-western Europe was decisively dependent upon these progressive developments elsewhere.

Dimmock the Origins of Capitalism Haymarket cover

The authors address a range of theoretical perspectives – World Systems Theory, Political Marxism and Post-Colonialism – and conclude that each in their own way are Eurocentric by centring on Europe as either the harbinger or core of capitalist modernity. Their preferred method-cum-theory, which they argue goes beyond those they have addressed, and genuinely incorporates the pre-capitalist East in the origin of capitalist modernity, is Uneven and Combined Development, ultimately derived from Leon Trotsky’s explanation for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Applying this theory they view the origins of capitalism in north-western Europe (England and the Netherlands) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries primarily from a geopolitical or internationalist, intersocietal, perspective. For them, these origins were a value-added process generated by many societies interacting within and between different parts of the globe. All of these societies exhibited different or ‘uneven’ levels of socio-political and economic development, and as a result of their interaction they ‘combined’ to produce new social formations. It is this geopolitical interaction which provides the dialectic for change. As a result of the interaction less developed societies can benefit from ‘privileges of backwardness’ which enable them to skip centuries of development by drawing on or assimilating the best aspects of more advanced societies which then drives them forward. More advanced societies face the ‘penalties of progressiveness’, a result of their entrenched obligations and impulses etc., which holds them back. So, by applying this theory, the authors aim to demonstrate the asynchronic simultaneity of a plurality of existing societies (unevenness) came to interact in ways that generated further substantive sociological differences (geopolitical combinations), in turn leading to sharp divergences in their developmental trajectories. This is in fact a hallmark of any inter-societal system: they are generatively differentiating through the very interactive plurality of their units.[2]

The authors resist tying down a specific definition of capitalism, and instead wish to view it, quoting Marx, as ‘encompassing historically specific configurations of social relations and processes’, not as a singular social relation or a singular process. So,

we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation, but not reducible – either historically or logically to that relation alone. By placing an emphasis on such configurations and assemblages, we also seek to highlight how the reproduction and competitive accumulation of capital through the exploitation of wage-labour presupposes a wide assortment of differentiated social relations that make this reproduction and accumulation possible...We argue that an analysis of the making of capitalism should thus be one that seeks to disclose ever more complex webs, assemblages and bundles of social relations that feed into the origins and reproduction of capitalism as a mode of production.[3]

In other words, for the authors, the exploitation of wage-labour is central to capitalist origins, development and reproduction, but capitalism cannot develop without the incorporation of other ‘bundles of social relations’, whether slavery, serf or tribute-based, or all of these together. By making all of these social relations ‘co-constitutive’ of capitalism from its beginnings, the authors aim to ensure that the atrocities and racism associated with them, particularly in the New World from the seventeenth century, and in the East in the eighteenth century and thereafter, are viewed as necessary to capitalism, and not external to the social relations of capitalism as such.

The authors’ desire to develop a theory that ‘organically embraces both sociological and geopolitical factors in a unified conception of social historical development’ deserves attention and encouragement.[4] And their attempts to combat crude Eurocentrism and their stress on the importance of extra-economic force in the history of capitalism and capitalist accumulation (with all of its implications for the way we view capitalism) deserve praise. Within this approach, Uneven and Combined Development also has merits in drawing attention to the complex ways in which societies interact and develop, and has the potential to encourage historians of single countries and polities to rethink the nature of historical change within them. However, the authors’ explanation of the emergence and development of capitalism in north-western Europe, notably in England, through the theory of Uneven and Combined Development, has little to recommend it when confronted with the historical evidence. And the authors’ critique of Political Marxism (more specifically the work of Robert Brenner on the transition from feudalism to capitalism), which they use as their main platform from which to articulate their own perspective, is misleading and often contradictory. I will leave the critique of this work within the perspective of international relations (from which it is derived) in more capable hands. For the sake of brevity, I focus here on the authors’ critique of the latter, and on their analysis of the origin and development of capitalism in England.

Political Marxism and Social-Property Relations

Political Marxism takes seriously Marx’s emphasis in his later critique of classical political economy on the specificity of modes of production, that there are fundamental distinctions between historical societies or systems of social relations whether based on slave, feudal or capitalist modes of production. Moreover, these distinct structures of social relations give rise to specific strategies for the reproduction of these relations. As a starting point, the essential difference between feudalism/absolutism and capitalism, for example, is the mode in which surplus labour is extracted from the producer. In Marx’s words:

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers to ruled…it is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short the corresponding specific forms of the state.[5]

This mode takes fundamentally – but not only – political or extra-economic forms in feudalism/absolutism, and fundamentally – but not only – economic forms in capitalism. Because in an established feudal/absolutist society peasants possess the vast majority of the land, and are able to derive their subsistence from that land without becoming overly dependent upon the market for their inputs through wages or trade income, the surplus from their production can only be sufficiently extracted from them by political force or its threat. In an established capitalist society landless wage-workers are compelled not so much by political forces but by market forces to give up their surplus to capitalist entrepreneurs, because having lost possession of their own means of subsistence and production, they are forced to depend on those capitalists for work, and therefore for their reproduction. Nevertheless, that is not to say the capitalist mode of surplus extraction would survive without substantial political enforcement, or indeed that this ‘loss’ of possession was the result of market forces. Nor is it to say that these modes are the only ones that can be found within a particular society, or that all societies sharing the same mode within a specific historical context are identical.

It is important to recognise that, while the surplus-extraction relationship is central to a specific mode of production, the social relations of that mode of production are not reduced to the singular relationship between lord and peasant, or capitalist entrepreneur and landless wage-labour. What Robert Brenner terms ‘social-property relations’, rather than simply ‘social relations’, encompasses a three-way dialectical relationship between the direct producers and nature (raw materials, ecology), the ‘vertical’ exploitative social relation between the direct producer and the appropriator of the producer’s surplus, and also the ‘horizontal’ social relation within the main classes. The horizontal social relation from Brenner’s perspective is at least as important as the vertical, and much turns on its meaning and implications.[6] Classes, particularly ruling classes, do not simply compete, go to war, or collaborate or trade with one another within the boundaries of their respective polities, countries or nations. Social-property relations most certainly therefore encompass inter-societal interaction and the influence of that interaction on the reproduction or transformation of those relations.

The authors of How the West Came to Rule are well aware of this dialectical integration of the vertical and horizontal relations within particular social-property relations. However, during their discussion on social-property relations, one of Brenner’s key quotes, in which he attempted to clarify their meaning, is shuffled, unfortunately, to the endnotes in the back of the book, while in the main text the authors choose to rely on authors with misleading interpretations of the Political Marxist perspective. Using these misinterpretations as their platform, they unaccountably conclude that Political Marxism advocates, ‘the singular relation of exploitation between lord and peasant as the most fundamental and axiomatic component of the feudal mode of production, which in turn constitutes the foundational ontology and analytical building block upon which all ensuing theoretical historical investigation is constructed’.[7] This is indeed, as has just been explained, entirely misleading. Indeed Brenner explains in the quote in the endnotes that one of the reasons that he formulated his perspective on ‘social-property relations’ was precisely because ‘social relations of production’ in the classic or orthodox Marxist formulation seems only to refer to the singular relationship in the immediate social organisation of production in a particular mode of production or society. I will say more about this point below. Also, in the same endnote, the authors express their confusion over Brenner’s inclusion of ‘property’ in his formulation of social-property relations. They argue that ‘property’ is not a sufficient abstract indicator of all different modes of production because it cannot be applied to hunter-gatherer societies. To be clear, ‘property’ is central to a mode of production because who has it and who does not is clearly of central importance. And access to property, whether moveable wealth, land, housing, trading or production facilities, part of the state, or even the producers themselves, is determined by struggle within and between the main classes. Second, property features in hunter-gatherer societies in its absence. For the authors to cite this as a reason for its inapplicability to modes of production generally is odd, because one cannot apply ‘production’ or ‘class’ to such societies either.

As the foregoing (admittedly brief) exposition of Brenner’s social-property relations hopefully demonstrates, the stings of the authors’ criticisms completely miss their mark. Indeed the same misreadings are repeated in every critique of Political Marxism, whether Marxist or non-Marxist. The implications for the traction of the authors’ critique and therefore for the success of their own theory of Uneven and Combined Development are enormous. Given that they have incorrectly concluded that social-property relations encompass only the ‘singular relation between lord and peasant’, they are moved to say that Brenner’s thesis cannot comprehend intersocietal interactions or ‘the international’ other than as ‘an ad hoc addendum’ to his ‘methodologically internalist’ analysis, and that this analysis necessarily features a ‘linear developmentalism’ which is ‘hermetically sealed’ in one country. Moreover, because they say the origin of capitalism is reduced by Brenner to the appearance of wage-labour through the ‘freeing of labour’ from subsistence-based agricultural holdings, these origins are thereby reduced to the English countryside, immune from external developments (even from urban development in the same country). The result is ‘the obliteration’ of colonialism, slavery and imperialism from the history of capitalism. Any discoveries, commercial, technological and cultural drawn from outside this small area, for example those from the more advanced East, are in the authors’ view discarded.[8]

I will say more about these points later during the historical discussion. Firstly I want to pursue further the authors’ understanding of social-property relations with regard to questions of historical causation, particularly with regard to the productive forces.

Given the authors’ emphasis on intersocietal interaction, one gets the impression that, from their perspective, the ‘international’ has primacy in historical causation, over and above any determination of change within particular countries. And yet in their theoretical discussions on causation the determination is far from clear. For example, in the following quote, social-property relations within particular countries appear to have primacy:

For whether the ‘whip of external necessity’ translates into a privilege or disadvantage of backwardness – and relatedly the degrees by which the political and ideological effects are progressive or reactionary – is dependent on the outcome of social conflicts both within the ruling class and between the ruling and subordinate classes. Thus, as Ben Selwyn highlights, it is of ‘great importance’ to examine ‘how contending social classes shape and respond to development processes through struggles’, as the ‘outcomes of these struggles impact significantly upon process and outcomes of late development. And, because the outcomes of these struggles cannot be predicted in advance, neither can the process of uneven and combined development. To this extent the socio-political and economic effects of uneven and combined development are partly and necessarily indeterminate: we cannot say in advance exactly how the developmental pressures of intersocietal relations will impact on any given society without an analysis of the changing balance and struggle of class forces (in other words, human agency), among other factors. And that changing balance is itself shaped and partly determined by the wider intersocietal milieu.[9]

So the impact of intersocietal forces (‘the whip of external necessity’) on change in any given society or country is dependent upon the outcomes of struggles between and within the social classes in that society. This is of course Brenner’s thesis, although it is not referenced as such. It seems reasonable to suggest, and in fact Brenner has demonstrated as much in his comparative studies of medieval and early modern Europe, that unless a particular society or country is conquered, and a new set of social-property relations are installed by the conquerors, the established social-property relations – and the outcomes of vertical and horizontal struggles therein – will be determinate in the face of external pressure. In other words, the nature of the response to this pressure, and consequent outcome of this response, will depend upon the nature of the social-property relations.[10]

I will examine the applicability of the above point below in more detail in the historical discussion. Now we can turn to the authors’ theoretical discussion of the productive forces.

The authors state that Political Marxists ‘deny the development of the productive forces any causal role in explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism, since doing otherwise would inevitably run the risk of “technological determinism”, emptying human agency in the process’.[11] They then inform us that the productive forces do not only include the means of production – tools, techniques, raw materials from nature – but the labour process itself, the social organisation of production. Thus the determination of the productive forces cannot be equated with technological determinism.[12] The problem is, something that Robert Brenner had argued in the 1970s, by confining social relations to the vertical relationship in the immediate process of production, hence ‘social relations of production’, the impression is that social relations are determined by production itself. Brenner argued that it is as if technical changes in the immediate process of production naturally lead to a new and suitable division of labour to apply them, and in doing so create new relations of production. Class structures appear to be the product of technical changes in some kind of automatic response in the immediate process of production by ‘socio-technical managerial relations’ to commercial and demographic forces - that is, to price fluctuations and changing patterns of supply and demand.[13] The significance of the property relationship between appropriators and producers (the unequal allocation of land in feudal societies for example) is not fully appreciated, and the political organisation and power of the appropriators (monarchy and aristocracy) over that of the producers (peasants and artisans) has been mistakenly separated conceptually from class relations in the immediate process of production to another sphere, namely the political superstructure.

Be that as it may, underlying Brenner’s whole project on the transition from feudalism to capitalism has been his recognition that the productive forces had indeed developed impressively in medieval and early modern non-capitalist Europe. This is witnessed by the commercialisation of the European economy between 1050 and 1300, developments in trade thereafter, both in Europe and the New World, and in relations with the East, both in Asia and the Baltic. And yet even with all of this dynamism, most of the European economy was characterised between 1050 and 1750 not by capitalist development but by demographic cycles that were marked by falling labour productivity in agriculture. The outcomes were subsistence and related socio-political crises, first in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (‘the feudal crisis’), and second, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (‘the general crisis of the seventeenth century’). Only a few countries or regions, namely England and parts of the Netherlands, achieved a breakthrough to self-sustaining growth in the face of these same demographic patterns and the same economic (and cultural) context. For Brenner, it was not the case that feudal/absolutist social-property relations were not able to develop the productive forces, including technologies. The problem was that they did not generate the imperative to systematically develop technology in order to cut costs through rounds of systematic investment and accumulation. Only in this way would the Malthusian cycle of overpopulation on finite resources combined with intensifying extra-economic forms of surplus extraction from the peasantry be overcome, thereby leading to sustained growth. An emerging system where both appropriators and producers were market dependent was required for this to begin to happen. The alternative would be the removal of lordship and the appropriating class, thereby leaving the surplus in the hands of the producers. This alternative has implications for increases in innovation and productivity while avoiding expropriation and enforced market dependence.

It is important to note that these specific demographic cycles, determined by specific feudal/absolutist social-property relations, form no part of the authors’ perspective and analysis. There is of course no clear geo-political explanation for them, and I will say more about them below. The authors’ desire to incorporate the East in the origin of capitalism necessitates highlighting the driving force of the productive forces in this transformation. When this is done, it can be argued that the advanced East provided the required expertise and technologies for the West to develop capitalism. The West benefited from ‘privileges of backwardness’ in this way. The other transformative role given to the productive forces in the origin of capitalism is the related topic of the history of warfare. Warfare not only develops the productive forces by increasing the need for technological developments in order for rivals to stay one step ahead of each other, it also creates a large wage-labour force with which to build things like ships, harbours and fortifications. Indeed, the authors do not quite go so far as to say that there was ‘a symbiotic relationship between war-making activities and the rise of capitalism’, but they come very close to it.[14] Warfare and the development of the productive forces through commerce are, of course, the chief means of intersocietal interaction, and so these are accorded primacy through the theory of Uneven and Combined Development, as opposed to factors generated by social-property relations within particular societies and countries.

With their focus on warfare and trade, and without addressing Malthusian explanations of demographic change in pre-capitalist societies, the authors risk being firmly installed in the commercialisation thesis/Neo-Smithian Marxist canon. The significance of social-property relations crops up here and there in the book, but, as I hope to demonstrate in the following section, only in contradiction to their thesis of Uneven and Combined Development.

The Origin of Capitalism in England: Part One

The authors reject the viewpoint that nomadic peoples are savages and uncivilised, one traditionally attributed to the latter by their conquerors and modern Eurocentrics. Indeed, they argue that ‘the influence of the nomadic Mongol Empire is central to any analysis of how the modern capitalist world came into being’. For them, it was a ‘crucial “vector” of uneven and combined development which contributed to the making of capitalist modernity over the longue durée’. The authors trace the origin of capitalism directly from the development of the Mongol Empire during the ‘long thirteenth century’ (1210-1350), that is, from the first interactions of nomads in the eastern steppes with more advanced societies in Asia, including China. This development had the effect of disabling China’s potential trajectory towards capitalism, of halting the socio-political and economic development of eastern Europe, and opening crucial trading links and opportunities between East and West for western European traders. Thus, while having an extremely negative impact on development in the East, it allowed for the development of the productive forces, capital accumulation, and the spread of ideas in the West. In fact in this way ‘it was the “Fall of the East” that set the conditions for the later “Rise of the West”’. Crucially, however, it ‘unified the globe with disease’, because the opening up of the East through warfare and trade led to the Black Death in the West in 1348-9. As a result of the ravages of this plague, at least a third of the population of Europe died within two years, and thus ‘engendered significant institutional and socio-economic developments and a transformation of the balance of class forces which directly led to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the English countryside’. The changing balance in class forces led, during the fifteenth century, to the end of serfdom in England and polarisation among the peasantry. Wealthier peasants accumulated vacant holdings and took on large leases thus paving the way for capitalism. In their explanation of why this should be the particular outcome of the Black Death in England and not elsewhere, the authors appear to follow Brenner in pointing to the peculiarity of English social-property relations. However, they pull him up short in regard to one aspect of those relations: the relative cohesiveness of the political organisation and institutions of the English monarchy and aristocracy. While they concur that it was something peculiar to England, they argue that intralordly cohesiveness was a sixteenth and seventeenth-century development, caused by the isolation of England from warfare, and contingent on the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into south-eastern Europe.[15]

I will leave the latter point to one side for now, because it is of central significance to how the authors say agrarian capitalism developed in England in the sixteenth century, in contrast to Brenner’s thesis. For now it is of great importance to address the authors’ theory of the geopolitical origin of the feudal crisis because it gets to the heart of the applicability of the authors’ geopolitical theory of Uneven and Combined Development.

The authors follow a number of scholars, including Brenner, in describing the Black Death in 1348-9 as a major factor in the crisis of feudalism in Europe and subsequent remodelling of social relations in the fifteenth century. The authors are aware that the Black Death hit at a time of depression, malnutrition and famine, and that while this plague was an exogenous shock, emanating from the development of the Mongol Empire, it bit deeply because of the particular vulnerability of peasant populations in Europe at this juncture. They also appear to recognise (although it is not clear to what extent) that ‘the crisis of feudalism’ was already systemic, before the Black Death.[16]  However, they do not feel the need to explain what they mean by this, perhaps because it would pull them into the uncomfortable waters of ‘methodological internalism’. And yet the origins of the famine and malnutrition they describe require an explanation. The population-centred Malthusian explanation pointed to the naturally rising population between 1100 and 1300 which led to rising rents, falling wages, the severe fragmentation of peasant holdings and declining labour productivity due to overpopulation on finite resources. Hence famine and plague was a natural ‘check’ to this crisis. However, in opposition to this view, Brenner argued that this ‘overpopulation’ ceiling leading to crisis was not the result of independently-generated demographic factors, but a function of feudal social-property relations and the specific conflicting ‘rules for reproduction’ strategies that those relations engendered.[17] The nature and implications of these rules for reproduction will need to be explained in detail before we can go further.

For their reproduction, peasants desired to maintain the possession of their lands and in the best conditions possible. Brenner argues that the desirable conditions for peasants were full property rights on the land and payment of a small fixed, non-economic rent. Peasants aimed to achieve this goal by strengthening their local communal organisations or institutions of self-government, and by defending the force of custom in their lord’s manorial and borough courts; not by specialising and competing against each other on the market. The lords’ goal was to maintain or improve their controls over the peasants’ surplus, and also over peasants’ bodies, in order to restrict a market in peasant labour power, thus avoiding competition between lords for peasants. Lords did so by strengthening serfdom, and by generating income channels through their broader manorial jurisdictional capacity - founding market centres and small towns or boroughs, for example. The ability for lords to strengthen serfdom (squeeze and control the peasantry) could only be achieved by an increase in their military and legal powers. Their means for achieving this was what Brenner describes as ‘political accumulation’. It was the accumulation of territory, government offices, and political alliances that determined the level of power feudal lords and monarchs wielded, not only over each other, but over peasants. Political accumulation and state building increased social cohesion amongst lords, but it was difficult because of the decentralised, fragmented nature of power in feudal societies which forced lords to compete with each other for power, resources and peasants.

For Brenner, feudal social-property relations gave rise to other crucial strategies for reproduction. Peasants’ most pressing concerns were the survival of their families and the continuity of the family line in the property they possessed, and they had to do this in very challenging conditions. This point cannot be emphasised too strongly. If peasants got this wrong they faced debilitating poverty and potential starvation. So they tended to have large families to ensure security in old age; and where the size of holdings allowed, they tended to subdivide holdings in order to provide the means for young heirs to get married early and set up for themselves. This strategy served both to enable the continuance of the family line and to ensure young heirs were not a burden for too long on their parents. This occurred even where the custom was primogeniture. Rather than specialise, peasants typically diversified their production of necessities to meet as many of their subsistence needs as possible and to avoid market dependence and the insecurity it brought in the face of potential bad harvests. They marketed only surpluses, if there were any. For lords, in addition to political accumulation through warfare, state building, and hegemonic display, which enabled them to maintain their status and political power both in relation to other lords and to the free and unfree peasants on their estates, their main strategy for reproduction was ‘extensive’ economic growth. Because peasants possessed the vast majority of the land, and because of the political nature of the relationship between lords and peasants, lords were denied any opportunities to invest productively on land outside of their demesnes in order to increase the labour productivity of the peasantry. They were therefore compelled to extend their lands by taking them from other lords (and monarchs) or by new colonisation in which peasants were encouraged to break new ground, either by being offered favourable tenurial terms or by the use of force. As a result of these reproduction strategies,

feudal economic development manifested a two-sided conflictive interaction: between a developing system of production for subsistence through which the class of peasant possessors aimed to reproduce themselves and provide for the continuity of their families, and a developing system of surplus extraction by extra-economic compulsion for non-productive consumption, by which the class of feudal lords aimed to reproduce themselves as individuals and as a ruling class.[18]

So these reproduction strategies were determined by feudal social-property relations. Most importantly for our purposes - and we need to be very clear on this point - these in turn, determined overall demographic and economic development patterns peculiar to feudalism from the establishment of these relations in the tenth and eleventh centuries to around 1300. These patterns were rapid population growth, the extension of production and colonization of new lands, urbanization and the increasing sophistication of international trade due to lordship demands for military equipment and other luxuries, and increasing political centralisation and state formation. In turn, however, these feudal development patterns led to feudal forms of crisis. Feudal crises were characterised by overpopulation and severe underemployment on materially finite and jurisdictionally defined resources, declining labour productivity in the face of limited application of available techniques (even while land productivity benefited from the increase in the number of workers able to attend to it in the thirteenth century), reduced demand for manufactured goods and a consequent decline in urban production and trade, a declining rate of increase in the feudal levy on peasants over time, and an increase in warfare as lords sought to compensate for the reduced income derived from an increasingly debilitated peasantry. These elements of feudal crisis led to a downward economic spiral through the increased fiscal and jurisdictional pressure on peasant production which had already been pushed beyond the capacity that resources allowed. This, the actual systemic ‘feudal crisis’, was compounded by terrible weather between 1315 and 1318 which caused a series of bad harvests, animal disease, and famine which killed 10 percent of the population. It was then that a series of devastating plagues in 1348-9 and again in the 1360s killed between a third and a half of the population of Europe, and certainly half of the population of England where conditions were comparatively more oppressive.

Like the Smithians, the authors have nothing to say about demographic patterns engendered by the feudal/absolutist mode of production across the period 1015 to 1750. This is understandable, given what seems to me to be an overemphasis on modes of productions as combinations of previous and future modes, containing numerous forms of surplus extraction, where even the core social relationships are barely granted sufficient weight. Their modes of production are in continuous flux and never appear to become established.

It is also understandable therefore why the authors choose to follow, with qualifications, S. R. Epstein’s emphasis on the Black Death as ‘watershed’, rather than address the causes of the prior systemic feudal crisis.[19] Epstein has produced a Smithian analysis of economic growth in medieval and early modern Europe, although one more complex than standard commercialisation theses. He equates the Black Death with the feudal crisis because he rejects the idea of a subsistence crisis in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. While Epstein recognises that there was a downturn in European economies at this time, he states that there was no link between increasing population densities and poverty, no Malthusian cycle. On the contrary, for him, increased population did not lead to lower productivity but to higher productivity and increased use of technology. For him, the existence, by the end of the thirteenth century, of large numbers of underemployed, immiserated peasants reveals that market dependence was as natural to peasant society as subsistence, and that this dependency had implications for structures of demand and growth. For Epstein, it was lack of market integration due to jurisdictional fragmentation between many political centres (lords, towns) which prevented peasant innovation and specialisation for the market because it created high transaction costs. State formation through warfare was a countervailing force to this fragmentation, and warfare increased at the end of the thirteenth century as these forces came to a head at this time, not because of the levelling off of lordship income due to feudal crisis as Brenner had argued. Indeed, Epstein argues that if it was not for those exogenous shocks, famine (bad weather) and plague (infection), there would have been a continuity of the ‘slow evolutionary path’ between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries lifting constraints, unifying institutions, and promoting ‘a higher growth path’, presumably towards capitalism. Instead the exogenous shocks set in train an even more rapid period of change, of ‘creative destruction’, during the fifteenth century. The problems with Epstein’s thesis, not least his understanding of labour productivity, are numerous, but it is not the purpose of this paper to review him as well.[20] For now it is worth pointing out similarities between the authors’ Marxist thesis, and Epstein’s Smithian thesis, given that they both place most emphasis on the history of markets and warfare, and do not give sufficient, if any, credence to the crisis of feudalism as a systemic crisis.

The Origin of Capitalism in England: Part Two

As I have mentioned in the foregoing, the authors follow Brenner’s perspective on social-property relations in order to explain why social relations were remodelled in England after the Black Death in a dramatically different way to those on the continent – that is, in a way conducive to the origin and development of capitalism. However they are highly critical of Brenner’s assertion that it was the relative cohesiveness of the political organisation and institutions of the English monarchy and aristocracy stemming from the Norman Conquest in 1066 that enabled English lords to maintain controls over their relatively large demesnes and peasant customary tenures in the fifteenth century. Brenner argued that it was these controls which proved to be their trump card in the transition to capitalism, and that the transition was an unintended consequence of struggles to maintain these controls, maintain their income and estates, and ultimately reproduce themselves as they were. The authors say that ‘Remarkably, Brenner cites a distinctly international determination – the Norman conquests of the 11th century – as the central causal factor behind England’s uniquely intralordly cohesion’. They are surprised because ‘for nowhere does Brenner’s treatment of this external determination enter into his theorization of the development of capitalism. Instead, it appears as an ad hoc international addendum’.[21]

Hopefully this complete misreading can be put to bed once and for all. The first point is that the Norman Conquest is not used by Brenner as an ad hoc international addendum to a methodological internalist analysis. As the authors are well aware, and as I have explained above, international warfare and conquest were key elements in the rules for reproduction of the feudal ruling class – that is, taking territory from one another, gaining lucrative ransoms, promoting defensive alliances etc. And this international determination does not appear out of the blue in Brenner’s analysis in any case. As he has said ‘English feudal centralisation was no mere legacy of Anglo-Saxon rule, although this may have been an important contributing factor’. He recognised that, as a reflection of this centralisation and cohesion, ‘Already in the tenth and eleventh centuries, most English peasants were of dependent status...since they were obliged to do significant labour services and were subject to the appropriation of their lands by the lord at their death. The Norman occupation of England appears to have brought a further strengthening of feudal controls and the imposition of increased levies’.[22] State centralisation, which was accompanied by a revolution in feudal tenures, was the outcome of Anglo-Saxon England’s response to the turmoil of the Scandinavian/Viking invasions between the eighth and early eleventh centuries. The Anglo-Saxon great estates were fragmented into village or part village sized estates, and they were devolved to, or usurped by, an enlarged class of knights. The fragmentation of estates, and the increase in the number of knights who were supported by the multiplication of smaller estates (worked by both slaves and increasingly enserfed peasants), was a means by which Anglo-Saxon kings and nobles could generate successful fighting forces against the invaders. A similar process took place on the continent with the break-up of the Carolingian Empire. Chris Wickham has recently pointed out that the precocious cohesiveness of the English aristocracy and royal control over political structures is revealed in the finding that ‘England had ... moved from being the post-Roman province with the least peasant subjection, in 700, to the land where peasant subjection was the completest and most totalising in the whole of Europe, by as early as 900 in much of the country, and by the eleventh century at the latest elsewhere’.[23]

The centralisation of the English state and development of national institutions which accompanied these changes was,

grounded on the effective resistance to the Danes by King Alfred’s Wessex in the late ninth century, on the conquest of the eastern Danelaw by his son Edward the Elder between 917 and 920, and on Æthelstan’s more tentative successes in the north. Eadred’s later expulsion of the restored Norse king Eric Bloodaxe from York in 924 set the seal on the territorial expansion of what had been merely the kingdom of Wessex. Within the boundaries of the new kingdom, though more to the south of the Humber than to the north, royal control was imposed through a common pattern of institutions: shires and hundreds, boroughs and mints, ealdormen and (by Æthelred’s day in the 990s) sheriffs. Beyond its borders lay British and Viking kingdoms in the north and west over which English kings from Æthelstan to Edgar intermittently claimed lordship. Here the instruments of power were not administrative units, their courts, and officials, but armies, fleets – especially fleets – periodic submissions, and tribute, such as the twenty pounds of gold and 300 pounds of silver that, according to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan was able to exact annually from the Welsh princes. The quarter-century on either side of the year 950 saw the kingdom of England at its pre-Conquest apogee.[24]

Had this not been the case, the whole of England would not have fallen in one battle on the south coast in 1066 (although the Conquest was not without subsequent resistance, ruthlessly put down). Be that as it may, the authors somehow allow themselves to disallow the possibility that peculiar social-property relations in England, specifically the relative cohesion and organisation of the feudal ruling class and monarchy, that led to the particular outcomes of struggle after the Black Death (which the authors have already recognised), and yes to the remodelling of social-property relations in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century, may be traced back to the final establishment of these feudal social-property relations in England in the eleventh century. They view this as ‘temporal tunnelling’, accusing Brenner of essentially explaining the origin of capitalism by the Norman Conquest. For them ‘This leaves numerous questions over how far this picture of intralordly unity going back to the eleventh century stands up when tested against the evidence of the intervening years. What for example’, they question, ‘explains the fits of intralordly struggle during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses’.[25]

So the authors are not concerned to understand the complex ways in which the relationships within the English ruling class affected socio-political and economic developments after the Conquest, through the feudal crisis, and in the aftermath of the Black Death. Nor do they wish to know how these socio-political and economic developments, generated by highly specific relationships in England, compare with those on the continent where the outcomes of struggle were very different. What they demand is an explanation of particular bouts of dynastic warfare. Now, when Brenner talks about the political cohesion among feudal ruling classes in Europe, the extent of decentralisation of sovereignty for example, or jurisdictional fragmentation, to use Epstein’s words, it is always in a relative and comparative context. So it comes as no surprise to find dynastic infighting, even in England. The Hundred Years’ War, traditionally dated between 1337 and 1453 began during the feudal crisis, although warfare had intensified more generally from the late thirteenth century, along with taxation to pay for it at a time when peasants had least means. It was fought between the realms of France and England on French soil over territories in France, and indeed over the French crown itself. It ended with a resounding defeat of the English in 1453 after the French had overcome their serious divisions of the earlier part of that century and the ‘renaissance’ of the French monarchy had begun. The authors are no doubt referring to the factional conflicts which led to the deposition of Richard II in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). The so-called Wars of the Roses began in 1455, soon after the loss of all territories in France except Calais, although they were essentially a continuation of what happened in 1399. They ended in 1485 with the death of the Yorkist king Richard III on the battlefield, thus inaugurating 118 years of Tudor rule. One could also include the problems in King Stephen’s reign (1135-54). His usurpation of Henry I’s daughter Matilda’s hereditary right to the throne led to serious dynastic warfare. The point is that, on account of the developed structures and institutions of the English state, unity was maintained in the short or medium run. Hence the lords maintained controls over the land and tenures, including importantly their own relatively large demesnes, through the fifteenth century, during these troubles. In fact some gentry took advantage of the lawlessness in the localities during the second half of the fifteenth century to push through evictions and enclosure.

The authors wish, however, to retain the thesis that intralordly cohesion in England was a central factor in the origin of capitalism in that country. So if, in their view, England did not have a relatively unified kingdom and cohesive monarchy and aristocracy since before the eleventh century, and especially afterwards - something that is recognised by all specialists in medieval European history - the authors are required to search for a more recent origin of this phenomenon. They find it in the Middle East; not the Mongol nomads this time, but the Ottomans. They argue that ‘England’s internal ruling class unity was in fact predicated on its relative seclusion from the geopolitical tumult that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death’ and that ‘on closer inspection we shall find that England’s isolation had distinctly international roots’. The Ottoman Empire expanded rapidly through the Balkans after its conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and by the 1520s it was laying siege to the gates of Vienna in Austria. It came no further into western Europe, but it changed the latter’s geopolitical balance. The Habsburg Empire, a recent composition (by means of various marriage alliances) of the Spanish kingdoms, the Burgundian Netherlands, and Austria, became preoccupied along with the Venetians and Genoese for decades with this Muslim threat to the south-east of western Europe. This provided France, the Low Countries and especially England with the ‘geopolitical space to conduct modern state-building practices’, and most importantly it had the effect of ‘isolating England from Habsburg geopolitical pressures’. According to the authors this ‘isolation’ was conducive to the development of capitalism in England. Isolation per se led directly to the reduction in military resources held by the state and the demilitarisation of the nobility. The effect of this was to remove the need for a strong tax-appropriating state (such as those of the French and Spanish who were always at war with each other and with the Ottomans), it forced lords to seek market mechanisms in order to exploit peasants in the absence of effective military means, and it led to an unusually homogeneous ruling class because the latter had become as a whole more commercial and civilian in background.

These three factors help to explain one of the fundamental propositions of Robert Brenner’s argument on the origins of capitalism: that it was in England alone that agrarian revolts were met with a unified and successful attempt by the state and landed class to remove the peasantry from their land through enclosures. As peasants were dispossessed, they turned to an alternative means to secure their means of subsistence and social reproduction: selling their labour to landlords and capitalist tenants in return for a wage. The persistent success of the state-nobility alliance in dispossessing the peasantry of the means of production led to the emergence of a ‘free’ class of wage. The social property relations through which the surplus were [sic] appropriated was thus transformed, from the extra-economic means of feudalism to the ‘economic’ or ‘market’ mechanisms of agrarian capitalism.

The authors therefore conclude that it was the geopolitical isolation of England due to pressures by the Ottomans on the south-eastern part of western Europe that ‘gave rise’ to this ‘peculiar social form...that underpinned the exceptional growth of agrarian capitalism in England’.[26]

To begin with, the idea that from the 1520s England was isolated militarily from the continent hardly stands up to the facts given Henry VIII’s wars with France, as well as with Scotland and Ireland. These wars continued under Protector Somerset and Mary, and were followed by the Elizabethan wars with France and Habsburg Spain, as well as those with Ireland and Scotland which were to a large extent proxy wars for the continental powers.[27] England too fell to some extent under the Habsburg Empire for a time under Mary (1553-8), thanks to her marriage to Charles V’s son Phillip, although safeguards against dictatorship by the latter were inserted in the pre-nuptual arrangement. Henry VIII became bankrupt as a result of his military exploits which he only overcame with the plunder of the monasteries and debasement of the coinage, thus leaving problems for later reigns. Indeed England’s reduction in military status in Europe was a result of the comparatively increased power of an increasingly centralised France and the construction of the Habsburg Empire. So the loss of England’s military status with the continent, in comparison to its apogee in the fourteenth century, was not self-imposed. As a result of these changes, the English state, strongly circumscribed by parliament as it was, was cautious about entering into costly wars, particularly wars of territorial conquest on the continent which it no longer had any chance of winning. Indeed, most of the motivation for this caution was imposed on the monarchy by the broader English population. Demands for heavy taxation for another costly and unwinnable European venture in 1525 would have led to serious widespread rebellion if these demands had not been withdrawn at the last minute. This underlying resistance determined foreign policy for the next two decades, with no other serious ventures abroad being undertaken until 1543.[28] Under Elizabeth, and especially the early Stuarts, were there more prolonged periods of peace for the English. Even then, however, England experienced five more years at war under Elizabeth (between 1559 and 1603) than during a similar time period under Henry VIII, Mary and Edward VI (between 1509 and 1559).[29]

Even less convincing is the idea that this so-called isolation led to the demilitarisation of the nobility, which then forced them into capitalist methods of extracting a surplus from their peasants as an alternative means of gaining income. The authors argue that, having foregone their earlier ability to squeeze peasant surpluses through a militarily-backed serfdom, a ‘persistent state-nobility alliance’ nonetheless enabled the nobility to evict the peasants wholesale. In order to address these ideas I would make the following points. As we know, serfdom had virtually disappeared in England already by 1440, a long time before the 1520s, and so this certainly had nothing to do with the Ottomans. With regard to the demilitarisation of the nobility, what actually happened was that from the beginning of the Tudor regime in 1485, in the aftermath of what turned out to be the end of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII took sustained and often ruthless steps to outlaw private warfare and the building of castles, and he reinforced earlier injunctions against the keeping of retainers (large entourages of armed servants wearing the lord’s colours) that had been introduced during the Wars of the Roses by Edward IV in 1468. Offenders were sometimes executed but more often saddled with punitive financial obligations and recognisances and this strategy was pursued by subsequent monarchs. Nobles were also weaned off private warfare through the increasing availability of royal offices (the number of which expanded with the size of the royal demesne from Henry VII’s reign), the increase in parliamentary seats, and the generation of new royal courts which gradually provided legal channels to resolve disputes. But the fact remained that the monarchy was still very much reliant on a militarised nobility and its ability to generate armies of dependents to serve it in foreign wars. Significant changes did not occur in this respect until last decades of the sixteenth century, and so this was a long and drawn-out process.[30]

More importantly, many lords were already by the end of the late fifteenth century transforming their estates into the capitalist triad structure of commercial landlord, capitalist tenant and wage-labourer. So for these reasons (among others) from the later fifteenth century, and during the sixteenth century, the old power bases and affinities and values that drew together groups of noble families and their military retainers gradually declined. During this period the increasingly capitalist landed class allowed the monopoly of force and warfare to be held by the state, subject to parliamentary taxation to pay for it in addition to the monarch’s own income from its estates, remaining feudal prerogatives (controls on wards etc.), and customs on overseas trade. So the country remained militarised, but the military’s social, political and technological organisation changed. While the aristocracy still supplied the leadership, increasingly under Elizabeth and early Stuarts the army itself was formed from trained soldiers who were drawn from local militias. The latter were subjected to the new royal ‘Lords Lieutenants’.

Nevertheless, while English land forces had become relatively weak, English sea-power by the time of the Spanish Armada in the 1580s had become a match for anyone. The royal navy had been substantially developed under Henry VIII in the 1530s as a defensive measure to protect the coast. However, the greatest amount of the expansion of English sea-power in subsequent decades was driven by private profit. Traditional revenue from plundering the continent by land forces had dwindled, but the opportunities for plunder at sea had massively increased thanks to the expansion of commercial trade, particularly by the Spanish. So the English nobility and gentry, relatively lightly taxed under Elizabeth, diverted their energies and investment into building ships for privateers, and these were supported by a relatively small royal navy. In the following centuries the latter of course became preeminent. Changes therefore in English military organisation, at land and sea, had little or nothing to do with the preoccupation of the continental powers with the Ottomans but rather with the increasing weakness of the land armies that the English and their tax-payers could muster, or were willing to muster and sustain on the continent, in the face of superior powers.[31] Any conscious process of ‘demilitarisation’ of land forces was the result of struggles power struggles within the English state and aristocracy, namely during the establishment of the Tudor Regime.

The authors cite Brenner for their assertion that England’s ruling class became unusually homogenous as a result of these changes.[32] Brenner argued that the English landed class had become largely capitalist by the early seventeenth century. As such its developing homogeneity with increasingly capitalist features was a result of increasingly similar interests regarding property, the constitution and religion. Regarding the latter, it is crucial to note that the Protestant or Anglican settlement at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign very importantly helped to protect the large swathes of secularised property which came into lay lords’ hands following the dissolution of the monasteries from being seized and granted back to the Catholic Church. Now, Brenner laid out this thesis on the causes of capitalist homogeneity among England’s nobility, gentry and their tenant farmers in England in his book, Merchants and Revolution.[33] And yet, curiously, the authors’ source for this homogeneity in their thesis is Brenner’s earlier work, ‘Agrarian Roots’, which provides the important discussion on the cohesiveness of the English feudal ruling class in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. This precocious cohesiveness in the eleventh century was of course something the authors had vigorously argued against. Hence their assertion that English ruling class homogeneity was only something that occurred during the sixteenth century in its capitalist phase.

This serious confusion aside, we are left to address the authors’ assertion that isolation due to the preoccupations of the Hapsburgs with the Ottomans from the 1520s, demilitarisation of the nobility, and the homogeneity of the ruling class, explains how the state and landed class were able to remove the peasantry and transform feudal into capitalist social-property relations. The first point concerns periodisation. As I have sought to explain at length in my own work cited earlier, evictions and enclosure in England had already by the 1520s remodelled social-property relations profoundly in many areas of England. This had nothing to do with England’s isolation, but was the unintended consequence of lords seeking to maintain controls over their estates and generate income for their reproduction during the fifteenth century. This impulse took place in the context of the decline of serfdom and reduction in customary rents in the face of peasant resistance. Already in 1489, the changes had proceeded to such an extent that an alarmed state introduced a statute outlawing illegal eviction and enclosure. That being ignored, in 1517 the state set up royal commissions in every county apart from those on the border with Scotland to investigate and bring to court every case going back to 1488-9. The results of these commissions form the basis of current research.[34] The second point is that, as indicated by the first point, the state did not ally with the nobility to evict the peasantry and enclose manors and common fields but, on the contrary, it was opposed to eviction and enclosure for a number of reasons: namely, the potential loss of a taxation base, increasing lack of security against invasion given the depopulation of coastal regions, and more broadly, and ideologically, the breakup of a traditional commonwealth of harmonious orders. We are left to question, why would military isolation, even if that were the case, lead to ruling class cohesion in this period? It is usually warfare that galvanises the feudal ruling class not its opposite. And even then, why would cohesion per se lead to the evictions of peasants and the development of capitalism?

The fact of the matter is that the uniqueness of the origin of capitalism in England requires a detailed understanding of the peculiar nature of feudal social-property relations in that country from their establishment. The outcomes of international and domestic socio-political and economic forces can only be examined, as Brenner has said, through the prism of these relations; their development through the period of feudal expansion in the thirteenth century, and their response to the feudal crisis and plague. The authors’ attempts to fit this origin into a framework of geopolitical conflicts emanating from the East ignore essential details in the histories of the countries that they are trying to explain, and we end up with a distorted picture.

The Development of Capitalism in England

The authors also apply their geopolitical theory to the development of capitalism in England during the seventeenth century and to the English Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They argue that given the limits of agrarian capitalism, without extra-economic force and the development of slavery in the New World, capitalism in England would most likely have been ‘choked off’ as there would have been nowhere for the dispossessed peasants to go. And that, without the massive capital accumulation derived from the profits of slavery and the raw materials produced by it, there would have been no industrial revolution. Sounding very much like Adam Smith’s theory of primitive accumulation they argue that ‘the American colonies and slave plantations generated both the markets and the needed surpluses that assisted, through reinvestment, in jump-starting the engine of industrial accumulation’.[35]

To address these points in detail would require a piece of work beyond the purposes of this paper. However, some important points need to be made. The authors’ view of ‘agrarian capitalism’ is too one sided, as is their view of the English countryside. What they miss is that agrarian capitalism, and capitalist development in England more generally, only developed in symbiosis with industry, and that industry developed in the countryside from the late fifteenth century around small towns, and away from many of the traditional medieval towns. The latter worked mostly as distribution centres for rural industrial produce as well as rural produce, with London eclipsing them all in this respect. This is why the industrial heartlands of Britain were and are agglomerations of small towns and these rural industrial districts, not the extension of medieval cities.

The authors place emphasis on the forceful dispossession of peasants by landlords, and I welcome this, something that is usually missing from accounts, both Marxist and non-Marxist. However, because they focus on towns and not rural industry, they assume that these peasants had nowhere to go except perhaps London. And that while they recognise that this dispossession created - uniquely in England - a strong source of demand for food because increasing numbers of people could not grow it themselves, they assume that these people were unable to act as consumers and pay for it because they had no work. For them, the estimate that 200,000 people migrated to the New World from England alone during the seventeenth century is evidence of the limits of English agrarian capitalism because it was unable to absorb them.[36] Now I myself am currently undertaking research which points to the trauma and sometimes death caused by the ruthless expropriation of peasants, sometimes of whole villages including elderly and children, in England from the late fifteenth century. So I do not wish to gloss over the catastrophic effects on the peasantry of the emergence of agrarian capitalism. In fact, the purpose of my work is to draw more attention to it. But there is another side to this story, and that is the introduction in England during the hundred years following the 1540s (after the major anti-enclosure rebellion across England of 1549) of over a hundred new industries. These created hundreds of thousands of new jobs and thus aided a strong structural demand. Often introduced by the state, at the recommendation of ‘Commonwealthmen’ economists, initially as a means of finding work for the poor and dispossessed, and in the face of stagnating cloth exports after 1550, industry in England became unprecedentedly diversified. Instead of relying on imports of an increasing number of consumer items, beyond traditional staples for survival, these became produced in England for an unprecedented growing home market. Initially the demand came from the growing ‘middling sort’, farmers, clothiers and merchants (it was also the latter that stimulated the expansion of trade by the Levant-East India combine in the East and Baltic from the 1550s), but during the seventeenth century it increasingly came from all classes as wages moved closer to prices. It is of course this mass consumer base and the creation of a strong internal market that is key to capitalism becoming self-sustaining in England, and its avoidance of the demographic ravages that affected most of the rest of the continent in the seventeenth century. By the early seventeenth century many of these successful industries were exporting to the continent and then to the New World. England even briefly became a net exporter of grain before the unprecedented population rise from the late eighteenth century.[37] In this way it was also the strong home demand in England especially, more than elsewhere in Europe, which stimulated the development of plantations in the New World for commodities like tobacco and sugar, and which in turn provided outlets for commodities produced in England.[38]

The authors argue persuasively for the importance of slavery in the New World for the development of industrial capitalism in England. And as I have said earlier, their emphasis on the appalling extra-economic means by which English capitalists obtained super-profits from plantations in the New World and elsewhere in the developing British Empire in the eighteenth century is an important one. However, I disagree with the authors’ contention that slavery and other forms of extra-economic surplus extraction in the New World and later in India through colonial subjection were intrinsic to capitalism per se, although they are certainly to be included in the history of capitalism as it actually happened. Hence I do not see this as a stick with which to beat Political Marxists. It comes as no surprise that such a capitalist class would take the chances and opportunities offered by slavery, particularly driven by competition from other great powers. After all, the expropriation of the English peasantry itself was largely the result of innumerable acts of violence. Therefore, accusing Political Marxism of treating the English slave trade as yet another ad hoc internationalist addendum to a methodologically internalist theory of capitalist development in one country is overegging the theoretical pudding. It is something that can be explained historically rather than theoretically. Political Marxism does not need to view the capital relation as some ideal-type abstraction leading to a history of capitalism from which all other forms of social relations must be expunged. The point is that the capital relation, where appropriators and producers are market dependant, and labour is a commodity, led during its emergence from the fifteenth century to fundamentally different patterns of economic and demographic growth in contrast to elsewhere. These patterns were self-sustaining and, in contrast to non-capitalist patterns, generated growth in labour productivity even while population rose. Without the super-profits of slavery, the history of capitalism and industrial development may have taken a different course. But given that the symbiotic development of agrarian and industrial capitalism had already taken great strides by the 1620s, when Virginia and Bermuda were only just emerging, and that the social structure of England had been irreversibly transformed by then, it is difficult to see how the force of this structure could have been restrained or ‘choked off’ so easily.

Unlike some recent histories of capitalism produced by standard forms of Marxism, there are ways in which the authors’ thesis on Uneven and Combined Development connect with Political Marxism. It has always been of interest why England, the first country to develop and sustain capitalism through to the industrial revolution, had a relatively backward economy at the outset of and during the emergence of agrarian capitalism. It is also relevant to note that the diversification of England’s industrial economy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which was a symptom and a cause of the emerging structures of demand, was to some extent dependent upon the superior skills possessed by continental artisans. These were either invited to England by the Crown or fled there as Protestant refugees from the Counter-Reformation in France or during the Dutch Rebellion against the Spanish Empire. The Crown awarded them patents in order to renew, develop and improve industries in England that had previously been only of local significance. The authors’ thesis may have important things to say about these issues. Uneven and Combined Development also gets around the standard orthodox Marxist idea of a linear development of the productive forces leading to capitalism via an urban division of labour which then transforms the countryside. In fact, the authors’ argument, inadvertently or not, sets itself against such accounts which allocate the leading role in the transition from feudalism to capitalism to revolutionary classes. In those accounts the latter are drawn from subordinate groups, and developed and driven by changes in the productive forces.  So rather than going beyond Political Marxism, the authors could fruitfully work with it. It seems to me, however, that the authors’ desire to combat Eurocentrism, and at the same time to retain an orthodox Marxist, productive forces, perspective, obliges them to overreach their method cum theory far beyond the controls of the historical evidence; for example, by granting the origin of capitalism to the Mongols and Ottomans.

It also seems to me an important point that, given the association of slavery and other atrocities with the making of capitalism, countries in the East would be queuing up claiming to have made a contribution to it. In this sense the crime of Eurocentrists is to unfairly claim capitalism solely for themselves. I can only explain this by reference to the often ingrained assumption that capitalism is a progressive form of society, and thereby the sine qua non for the development of a socialist society. So it follows that any association with capitalist origins needs to be identified in order to be included in the list of contributors towards humanity’s progress towards socialism. I reject this view, first because it justifies the expropriation of peasants as progressive and therefore necessary. And second, while certain aspects of life in capitalist society may appear to be ‘enlightened’ and ‘democratic’, capitalism cannot be seen as progressive per se, and in that sense it cannot be equated per se with ‘modernity’. Any progressive aspects present in capitalist societies stem from resistance to the dependency-creating, de-skilling logic of capitalism, and from ideological, legal, political and physical resistance to capitalist excesses right from its emergence. But this does not mean that such resistance will necessarily lead to the flowering of a more enlightened, non-market classless society, although that is certainly possible. In fact, the logic of Uneven and Combined Development suggests that it is in relatively ‘backward’ societies that the key to the future lies, perhaps as the knowledge of modern production techniques combines with non-market and communal ideas, sensibilities, and ways of living.


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[1] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015.

[2] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 250.

[3] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 8-9.

[4] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 253.

[5] Marx 1991, p. 791.

[6] See, for example, Brenner 2007, p. 58.

[7] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 24, pp. 289-90, n. 76.

[8] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015 p. 24.

[9] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 50-1.

[10] Brenner 2005; Brenner 2007.

[11] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 28.

[12] I too am included in this charge of reducing the productive forces to techniques and yet I had set out, on the first page of the chapter that the authors cite in my work, the same definition of the productive forces that the authors themselves advocate: see Dimmock 2014, p. 157.

[13] Brenner 2007, p. 58; Brenner 1977, pp. 25-93.

[14] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 28-9.

[15] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 65-6, pp. 67-72, p. 76, pp. 81-5, pp. 88-91.

[16] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 77-9.

[17] Brenner 1985, p. 232.

[18] Brenner 1985, p. 232.

[19] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 77, n. 101-2.

[20] Epstein 2000, pp. 38-49, pp. 54-5. For a detailed critique of Epstein see Dimmock 2014, pp. 48-61.

[21] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 89. I too come in for similar treatment in Anievas and Nişancioğlu 2014, p. 9, n. 20.

[22] Brenner 1996, p. 259, p. 261. See also Brenner 1985, pp. 254-8, on the significance of the Norman Conquest for England’s medieval political cohesion.

[23] Wickham 2009, chapter 22. The quote is on pp. 469-70.

[24] Maddicott 2010, 2010, pp. 2-3. See also Stafford 1989, for more detail.

[25] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, pp. 88-9.

[26] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 90, p. 115, pp. 117-19.

[27] For good overviews see for example, Doran 1999; Gunn 1995.

[28] Bernard 1986, pp. 154-6.

[29] Doran 1999, p. 36.

[30] Stone 1965, pp. 199-272; Brenner 1993, p. 648.

[31] Williams 1979, pp. 129-135.

[32] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 118, n. 219.

[33] See the ‘Postscript’ in Brenner, 2003.

[34] Dimmock, (forthcoming, 2018-19).

[35] Anievas and Nişancıoğlu 2015, p. 152, pp. 162-73.

[36] Robin Blackburn estimates that between 170,000 and 225,000 people left the British Isles for America and the Caribbean between 1610 and 1660, and says that England was exceptional in the mobility of its population and its willingness to emigrate: Blackburn 1997, p. 228. Contrary to the authors’ analysis, it is not true that these people were ‘dumped’ there by the English ruling class as a means of removing vagrancy and sedition. This may have happened in some cases but, as Blackburn shows, generally people were attracted by the offer of substantial landholdings following the serving of up to seven years as indentured labourers.

[37] Thirsk, 1978; Clay 1984; Broadberry et. al., 2015.

[38] Blackburn 1997, p. 219.