Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 21, 2007

British farming and market imperatives

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

William Cobbett, early British radical
Loved British farming but hated capitalism

Robert Brenner applies the “case study” approach to defend the “agrarian capitalism” thesis. This is the stock and trade of PhD dissertations. My wife is just finishing up her own, which compares financial crises before and after Bretton Woods in order to answer the question whether the U.S. is in decline. By the same token, Brenner compares Great Britain and France in the 16th through 18th century in order to answer the question whether big tenant farms or small family farms are better hotbeds of capitalist growth.

All in all, the methodology seems to owe a lot to the physical sciences. For example, you might take two mice and feed one with a diet of McDonald’s Big Macs for a month and the other a nice vegetarian diet. The one eating Big Macs will end up a total wreck, much like France with its inefficient small family farms. However, there are significant differences between the mouse and society. The scientist can be relatively assured that the two mice he is testing are pretty much alike. He can also test their blood and cell samples during the testing period to see how they are responding to the diets. But France and Great Britain were not exactly alike in the early 16th century, were they? An even more decisive difficulty is establishing the link between tenant farming and subsequent economic development in Great Britain. Gentlemen farmers were notoriously neglectful when it came to keeping financial records–the mice blood of capitalism. Of course, the Brenner camp has never felt any great need to track capital flows. They are much more comfortable saying things like this:

So in England, a society in which wealth still derived predominantly from agricultural production, the self-reproduction of both major economic actors in the agrarian sector—direct producers and the appropriators of their surpluses—were, at least from the sixteenth century, increasingly dependent on what amounted to capitalist practices: the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation.

When you frame things in this fashion–an excerpt from Ellen Meiksins Wood’s July-August 1998 Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism“–there is obviously no need to examine anything as mundane as bank records. Her article is distinguished by its utter lack of quantitative data. If my wife was this neglectful in her dissertation, she would have washed out of the PhD program long ago.

As far as case studies are concerned, I think it would be far more useful to compare Great Britain with colonial America. In the colonies, you had small family farms in the North and slave labor in the South. Despite these economic equivalents of McDonald’s sandwiches, the U.S. emerged as the most powerful capitalist nation in world history. In any case, I don’t find such case-study type comparisons all that useful. The major failing of the Brenner school is the lack of a general economic history of Great Britain of the kind that Maurice Dobb produced. We of course should remind ourselves that Dobb put as much emphasis on colonialism and town-based manufacturing as he did on the so-called agrarian revolution. In this respect, he was simply following Marx.

In his article on Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Jim Blaut wrote:

Brenner has in mind the marvelously rapid technological advance which accompanied capitalism during and after the industrial revolution, the process which Marx identified as a central feature of modern capitalism, new technology being a crucial strategy for firms in their competition with other firms; Brenner (quoting Marx) insists that the “rational” process of constantly revolutionizing technology is an essential attribute of all capitalism, then casts all of this back into a time when, in fact, constant revolutionary technological advance just did not take place. The mysticism of his concept of capitalism overrides the facts, and the 18th century is pushed back into the 15th.

Although Jim was right to challenge Brenner’s errant timing, I think that there is a bit more that can be said about British farming in the 18th century. Although this is clearly a time in which capitalist property relations pervade throughout Great Britain, there is evidence that the large tenant farms so enshrined as exemplars of capitalist rationality defied the norms of the Industrial Revolution, a period characterized by the triumph of free market dynamism.

In chapter 47 of V. 3 of Capital (Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent), Marx writes:

Large-scale industry and large-scale mechanised agriculture work together. If originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and destroys principally labour-power, hence the natural force of human beings, whereas the latter more directly exhausts the natural vitality of the soil, they join hands in the further course of development in that the industrial system in the countryside also enervates the labourers, and industry and commerce on their part supply agriculture with the means for exhausting the soil.

This is the capitalist agriculture of the Industrial Revolution but it is not that of the earlier period. Indeed, the distinguishing characteristic of British farming prior to “large-scale mechanised agriculture” was its adherence to sound environmental norms even if they defied marketplace imperatives. Those large tenant farms were very careful to integrate natural fertilizers with crops. This practice was discontinued as farming became more and more market-oriented. After reading German soil chemist Liebig, Marx became convinced that a return to prior practices was necessary but also understood that it had to rest on socialist foundations. Once genuine capitalist agriculture became the norm, humanity would continue to face one crisis after another. The only resolution was to reintegrate town and country so as to overcome the metabolic rift that capitalism had produced.

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

A.G. Street, a Wiltshire farmer, wrote a memoir titled “Farmer’s Glory” that celebrated pre-Industrial Revolution type farming of the type that “didn’t consider whether the crop one was sowing would pay a profit over the cost of production or not. That never entered anybody’s mind.

Keep in mind that William Cobbett was one of the first anti-capitalists in the 19th century who supported the Captain Swing riots that involved impoverished farm workers destroying threshing machines, one of the first genuinely mechanical breakthroughs that improved the productivity of labor. But Cobbett was also a champion of the “high farming” practices of the earlier period. His “Rural Rides” attacked the industrial revolution and called for a return to an agricultural-based economy. How does he fit into the Brenner thesis? Not very neatly, I am afraid.

Finally, it is necessary to say a word or two about the Settlement Laws, which tied farmland to the English gentry’s extended family for generations. These laws were basically a revival of the feudal ‘entail’, a form of primogeniture. It not only stipulated who would get the land, it also prescribed how it would be used–in many instances quite wisely from an environmentalist standpoint. For example, there were rules against cutting timber without provision for replacement. When I discovered this, I wondered how much progress we have made since the 18th century.

Duncan characterizes the Settlement Laws in a manner that seems quite at odds with Brenner’s belief that the agrarian revolution of the 15th to 17th century foreshadowed our own epoch:

Being perpetually mere stewards for the next generation, the members of the English landlord class whose estates were settled thereby incidentally prevented themselves from taking the short-term view on land use. Arable land especially had to be passed to the heir in a condition at least as good as before. To a remarkable extent this class lived in the most literal accord with the Green Party slogan “We do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”


  1. I’ve created a wikipedia entry on Paul Bairoch citing his main published writings here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bairoch

    It may be useful for your research.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — June 24, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  2. […] I pointed out in a previous blog entry in this series, British farming operated under radically different rules than those prevailing […]

    Pingback by More on the turnip « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 5, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  3. […] were written for popular consumption on the Internet. For example, in an article titled “British Farming and Market Imperatives”, I […]

    Pingback by A response to an Ellen Meiksins Wood article in Jacobin | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 8, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

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