The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism
The Origins of American Capitalism: Selected Essays
Historians used to call it the Industrial Revolution; some social scientists labeled it modernization; the economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi termed it the “Great Transformation”; Marxists called it the transition from feudalism to capitalism. But by whatever name it has been known, scholars of all sorts have been fascinated with the emergence in the late eighteenth century of the great industrial or capitalistic market economies of the Western world. Now with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe this fascination has taken on a new relevance. In its struggle to invent capitalism and market societies in the present, does Eastern Europe have anything to learn from the way it originally happened in the West?
Marx thought that the destruction of a dependent agrarian peasantry and the emergence of a free labor force were crucial to the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe. Most other thinkers have followed Marx in believing that the essential secret of the transition lay in the changing nature of rural society. Despite differences of emphasis nearly all the more recent theorists agree, in the words of the French Marxist historian Guy Bois, that “the decisive part in the transition from feudalism to capitalism is played out in the countryside.” Nearly all, in other words, agree on the crucial importance of agricultural productivity in stimulating capitalistic development in the various Western countries. Only when the farming population could increase its productivity to the point where it could allow an increasing proportion of its members to engage in manufacturing and at the same time provide a home market for that manufacturing—only then, it is assumed, could the takeoff into capitalistic expansion take place.
If agricultural productivity is important for the transition to capitalism, then why did this transition occur first in England? Why was English agriculture more productive than that of the continent? Nearly twenty years ago the Marxist historian Robert Brenner offered a stimulating answer to these questions. In an influential article published in the historical journal Past & Present in 1976 Brenner argued that the production of peasants on small lots could not provide the agrarian basis for economic development. What was needed for a real agricultural breakthrough into economic development, he said, was some form of large-scale capitalist farming. As population grew in the late medieval and early modern periods, landholdings on the continent, particularly in France, were increasingly fragmented, and agriculturally inefficient petty proprietorships came to dominate the rural landscape with a corresponding decline in agricultural productivity. In England, however, the development was very different. Instead of fragmentation there the tendency was to build up larger and larger farming units, to consolidate holdings and lease them out to large tenant farmers who in turn cultivated them with the aid of rural wage laborers. It is Brenner’s contention that the emergence of this peculiarly English structure of class relations—of landlords, capitalist tenants, and wage laborers—made possible the extraordinary increase in early modern England’s agricultural productivity, and that “this, in…
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