Review Article

The Genesis of Capitalism

Anirban Biswas

Any student of European economic history is definitely aware of the protracted and voluminous discussions and debates on the origin and growth of capitalism. This *book, though rather small in volume, must be considered as an important contribution to the subject. First of all, it critically examines the earlier contributions in a succinct but penetrating manner, e.g. contributions such as those made by Max Weber, Karl Polyani, Perry Anderson, Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Robert Brenner, E P Thompson and others. To the relatively uninitiated, the book, particularly chapters 1&2, part 1, should serve as an important primer for understanding the literature on the subject, and should inspire the reader to study the contributions in their original form. Its approach is emphatically historical, and it distinguishes between market as an opportunity and market as an imperative, laying stress on the latter as crucial to the genesis of capitalism. All through the book, the author has conscientiously tried to apply the Marxist method of class analysis, but not in a mechanical and dogmatic way.

In her examination of the earlier contributions, the author has devoted more time to explain Brenner's contribution to the subject, which is really path-breaking and free from any kind of trans-historical notion, but has not hesitated to point out what she considers an important gap in Brenner's analysis, which emphasises change in property relations through class struggle. "One especially important point demanding exploration is that although the commercialization model may be fatally flawed capitalism did emerge within a network of international trade and could not have emerged within that network. So a great deal still needs to be said about how England's particular insertion into the European trading system determined the development of English capitalism". (pp 63-64) In chapter 4 (Commerce or Capitalism?) the author has elaborated this point further. She has argued that neither the growth of towns, nor their relative autonomy was an important factor. This point is well taken. Those who are informed of the growth of urbanisation in Mughal India can well appreciate the point; there was no capitalist development in Mughal India although the merchant community accumulated enormous amounts of wealth. On the question of autonomy, the author's observation is pertinent, "Free urban communes in Europe may have provided fertile ground for trade, prosperous burghers and urban participates, but there is no obvious correlation between the success of such autonomous commercial centres and the rise of capitalism. Vastly successful commercial city-states like Florence did not give rise to capitalism, while capitalism did emerge in England, whose cities, in the context of a precociously centralized monarchical state, were arguably among the least autonomous in Europe". (p 75) The author has paid particular attention to the commercial development of the Dutch Republic and has commented, "The level of commercial and technological development in the Dutch Republic set it apart from other European economies. It certainly pushed to their utmost limits the possibilities of commercialization and it certainly made maximum use of market opportunities. ..... Yet the fate of the Dutch economy ultimately depended not on the successes or failures of competitive producers but on the interests of commercial profit-takers and elite of office-holders. ....England was at the outset less advanced in commerce and technology than its Dutch rival, but its further development, both its successes and failures, was shaped by a distinctive system of social property relations, which made both producers and appropriators irreducibly dependent on competitive production". (pp 93-4)

In chapter 5 (The Agrarian Origin of Capitalism), the author offers an interesting interpretation of Locke's theory of property, which linked the right to property with 'labour' which essentially meant the labour of the entrepreneur and its application to commercial profit. As the author points out, Locke's theory was a product of time and 'very well-suited to the conditions of England in the early days of agrarian capitalism. Another interesting observation is on the nature of class struggle that led to the genesis of agrarian capitalism. Certainly, it is wrong to assert, in view of the enclosure movement, 'that class struggle by peasants against landlords promoted capitalism in England throwing off the shackles of feudalism. And liberating commodity production...' Rather the victory of landlords against the peasants' claim to customary rights was what advanced agrarian capitalism. In France, on the other hand, there was no such class dependent on market imperatives; there the surplus appropriating classes were the office holders (the bourgeoisie) and the aristocracy. The author makes an interesting comment seemingly requiring much more discussions and analyses.

"At any rate, given the class interests of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, it is tempting to say that the French bourgeoisie was revolutionary precisely because and to the extent that, it was not capitalist". (p 121)

In chapter 6, the author describes how agrarian capitalism laid the foundation of industrial capitalism in England by creating a mass of propertyless labourers and a mass market for industrial goods, and as she argues, it became possible due to a transformation of the social property relations, a transformation that was unique to England. Once capitalism assumed its industrial form, the phenomenon of market imperatives spread to other countries hitherto very much dependent on their international trading networks.

In chapter 7, the author has outlined how the first capitalist country undertook imperialist projects like colonisation of other nations and expropriation of their people. For the English, Ireland was the classic model of this. The author has outlined other imperialist ventures also, and the theoretical justifications provided by the colonialists. 'There can be no doubt that the English colonial experience, first in Ireland and then in the New World, was a major inspiration in English theories of property and value, the basic tools for understanding their own domestic capitalism—which is nowhere more obvious than in the work of Petty and Locke". Chapter 8 (Capitalism and the Nation State) is particularly interesting because the author challenges the view that what is called globalisation has undermined the functioning of nation states. The meltdown that started in 2008 has made many supporters of this view rethink about their position. But here the author's contention is not dependent on the emergence of such a crisis. "Global capital, no less than 'national' capital, relies on nation states to maintain local conditions favourable to accumulation as well as to help it navigate the global economy". The author, however could and should have elaborated this point a bit further.

In short, the book, though not a large one, is an insightful work and bears testimony to the author's grasp of the subject. All the formulations put forward by the author should be tested by serious readers by means of further study so as to broaden their knowledge of history.

*The Origin Of Capitalism : A Longer View
Ellen Meiksins Wood
Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013, 213 pages, Price-Rs 295

Vol. 50, No.42, Apr 22 - 28, 2018