Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2007

Colonialism, monarchy and soil improvement

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:57 am


Over the past month or so I have shown that whatever the considerable merits of the “agrarian revolution” in Great Britain that is pivotal to the Brenner thesis, it has little to do with market imperatives. After reading part one (“Adam out of Eden”) of Richard Drayton’s superlative “Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World,” I am further convinced that neither was it peculiar to British tenant farmers, never mind its relevance to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Drayton makes a convincing case that monarchies all across Europe, going back to the middle ages, were all consumed with the need to “improve” soil and apply scientific techniques to the exploitation of the natural world. Furthermore, those trading monopolies like the East India Company specializing in “extra-economic” coercion and that are regarded by the Brenner camp as inimical to technical progress, were just as eager to innovate as the British gentry.



Dr. Stephen Maturin studying plants on behalf of the British Empire and Science

For those who have seen the excellent film “Masters and Commanders: the Far Side of the World,” this will certainly ring a bell. Whenever Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) lands on an island, the first thing that ship surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) does is conduct a scientific survey of the local flora and fauna. His interest is twofold. He is curious about the natural world, but he also is looking for valuable commodities. Wherever the British Empire set foot, its botanists and animal husbandry experts were soon to follow. The same thing was true for their mortal enemies, the French. It did not take “market imperatives” to lead to the improvement of soil or botanical innovation. It was part of the spirit of the age.

In many ways, Drayton’s book is a companion piece to Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science.” While Conner focuses on the efforts of common people to promote science and technology, Drayton is anxious to show how important colonialism was in furtherance of the same goals. When John Winthrop first encountered the indigenous peoples of New England in the mid-1600s, he was moved to write, “They inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries.” Of course, if these Indians hadn’t shown the British colonizers how to fertilize the soil with menhaden, they would have starved. Such are the ironies of history and “improvement”.

It is worth repeating a point made by Robert Albritton in his 1993 reply to Brenner, namely that unlike factory owners or software developers, the agrarian innovators did not believe in keeping their breakthroughs a secret. As soon as men like Jethro Tull and Charles “Turnip” Townshend made a new discovery, they trumpeted it to the world. In their own way, they sought the betterment of all humanity, not private profit. That is why  William Cobbett, one of Great Britain’s early critics of capitalism, identified with the “high farming” they pioneered. The turnip was Open Source, so to speak, while the industrial revolution was Micro$oft.

This did not come out of the blue. With the introduction of mechanical printing, agronomists all across Europe were anxious to share their knowledge. Royal families funded botanical gardens that were intended to display the latest breakthroughs, including seedlings brought over from the Americas. All of this took place under the rubric of Christian theology as the ‘improvement’ of agriculture and botanical experimentation became akin to creating a new Eden.

While there is little doubt that the Enclosures that took place in the British countryside were intended to enrich the landlord and tenant farmer, it is not so clear that the capitalist “bottom line” was the operating principle. Improving the land was seen as a civic duty, so much so that The Royal Society, founded in 1660, made agriculture and forestry its central concerns. There was a natural affinity between the monarchy, Whig politicians, and the rural bourgeoisie. Furthermore, God was on their side as Matthew Hale pointed out in a 1677 tract that likened the deity to a landlord. Anybody who got in their way, whether it was Irishmen or American Indians, had to be removed. In the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell’s bloody campaign against the Irish, Gerald Boate wrote that the conquerors were “improving” Ireland through proper drainage and manure. Robert Cushman, another apologist for genocide in the name of “improvement,” wrote that American Indians were not industrious, “neither having art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc…”

It should be obvious that the British colonists of the 17th century were rationalizing their crimes in the same manner as the 20th century Zionists who crowed about turning the desert into a garden with god on their side.

Many of the advocates of agricultural improvement were just as enthusiastic about the need to create an Empire. Primitive accumulation in the British countryside went hand-in-hand with plunder abroad. Drayton describes their ambitions succinctly:

Out of the economics of Eden had come an ideology of development which was fundamental to the making of the British Empire. The haphazard system of sugar islands, African and Indian trading outposts, Newfoundland fisheries, American bread and tobacco colonies was held together by an alliance of the farmer, the colonist, the merchant, religion, and science. God had given the world to any who was willing to apply labour and knowledge to making it ‘like to fruitfull Garden’. As John Locke argued in his Second Treatise of Government, while God had given the world to men in common, ‘it cannot be supposed that he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it for the use of the Industrious and Rational.

In contrast to Robert Brenner, the British ruling class of the “transition” period never drew the kind of distinctions between “internal” and “external” that he does. They saw British overseas initiatives as key to growth at home. Drayton notes:

The supporters of the 1688 settlement and of the Hanoverians recognized that overseas trade and colonies allowed Britain to wage expensive wars, and thus to secure its independence. The growth of the Royal Navy, expeditions to the Low Countries, and subsidies to allies depended on a tariff regime which in 1784, for example, placed a duty of 24 shillings on a hundredweight of sugar of 26 shillings value. Commerce with the West and East Indies, Africa, and America, and the re-exports it provided, allowed land taxes to remain relatively low, while fattening the banks and fundholders of the City of London, and filling the purses of placemen. West Indian sugar, Virginian tobacco, Carolinian rice, and Georgian cotton were, in any event, considered as British as Suffolk wheat. Pitt the Elder characteristically affirmed that ‘the sugar islands [are part of] the landed interest of this kingdom and it was barbarism to consider it otherwise’. East Indian and West Indian wealth, of course, had allowed the Pitt and Beckford families to enter politics, as much as they contributed powerfully, as Burke suggested, to national prosperity. It was not surprising that the ‘Country’ opposition joined agrarian themes to complaints that Walpole had neglected Britain’s Atlantic interests. Those who knew Rome’s history did fear that territorial empire could endanger liberty by creating a standing army which a Caesar or Cromwell might command against the people. But they had no quarrel with navies and trade, which were seen to complement the landed interest.

This marriage between agricultural improvement, Empire and the monarchical state was not limited to Great Britain. The various Crowns of Europe sponsored expeditions across the planet in pursuit of science and wealth. In the literature of the period, the statesmen and King were often likened to gardeners. Drayton states that “By the 1740s in central and northern Europe, in the 1750s and ’60s in France, and in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian peninsula afterwards, reform programmes made agriculture and science central to the renovation of the state. From the 1760s, and with particular force from the 1780s, these experiments, and the ideologies at their heart, would influence policy in Britain and its empire.”

The political philosophy that guided this sort of royal agrarianism was known as Cameralism, which had supporters in both France and Germany. Schroeder, a German Cameralist, wrote:

A ruler is in fact the same as a Hausvater, and his subjects are, in respect of their having to be ruled his children. . . . Now a Hausvater has to plough and manure a field if he wishes to reap a harvest. . . . Thus a ruler has to assist his subjects in obtaining a sufficient livelihood if he wishes to take something from them.

François Quesnay (1694-1774) , honorary Brennerite?

In France, Cameralism was superseded by the Physiocrat School, which was led by Quesnay who believed that agriculture was the source of all wealth and contributed several articles on farming to Diderot’s Encyclopedia. He held views that sounded positively Brennerite. As Drayton put it, Quesnay believed that land provided food for everybody, raw materials for industry, while generating rent that could be used for commerce and manufacturing.

As a convert to the Physiocratic cause, King Louis XV ordered a major expansion of the Jardin Royal des Plantes in 1772. If the edifice of feudalism was about to come crashing down around his head, one can certainly not put forward indifference to modern farming techniques as a factor. He was just as big a fan of soil improvement as Jethro Toll or any other British gentleman farmer. The King had created a vast array of plant laboratories and the agronomists to work in them, even if the lowly French farmer had more interest in getting his boot off their neck than in the discoveries he fostered. The King’s Royal Gardens provided the inspiration for the Kew Gardens in London, a tourist landmark that I visited myself the last time I was there.

The affinity between British Hanover and French Bourbon was genuine. Guided by god and science alike, they were determined to increase the wealth of their respective nations through agricultural improvement. Drayton writes:

That the Hanoverians might quietly imitate the style of the Bourbon court lay surprise less than the suggestion that they took from it an enthusiasm for agriculture. English agriculture, after all, was the model which others sought to emulate. It was through travel in that island, and through authors such as Evelyn and Tull, that Dufay, Buffon, and Duhamel began their agricultural experiments. They envied the efficiency of English agriculture, and in particular its intensive use of horses, cattle, machinery, and crop rotations. The Physiocrats, one might argue, wished the Crown to assume the providential responsibilities with which the English agrarians had invested the private entrepreneur. What had Britain, particularly after its remarkable victories in the Seven Years’ War, to learn from Europe?

The English agrarians, however, found much to admire in the French commitment to making agriculture scientific. Arthur Young in A Course of Experimental Agriculture (1770) argued indeed that Jethro Tull’s work would probably have been forgotten, ‘had not some very spirited writers in France, gone into the practice of it with so much ardour, as to draw the attention of all Europe’. He praised, in particular, Duhamel de Monceau’s treatises on agriculture: ‘I heartily wish we had as large a collection of equal authority made in England.’ Equally Young drew English attention to the articles in the Encyclopedie on ‘fermier’, ‘froment’, ‘culture’, and ‘graines’, and to Patullo’s Essai sur L’Amelioration des Terres (1758). If Young and others admired the intellectual seriousness with which the French approached agriculture, they clearly also approved of Quesnay’s or Mirabeau’s assertion that land stood at the economic and political foundation of society. The advocates of the expansion of the French Crown’s powers were speaking the language of the English Whigs.


  1. “In their own distorted way, they sought the betterment of all humanity, not private profit.” Just this morning I read a chapter from Helvetius de L’Esprit about the more noble and true values of serving humanity and the Patrie. So we are talking about the an explicit and central part of the Enlightenment materialist program. In that regard, might there be a more precise qualification in place of ‘distorted’?

    Comment by Chuckie K — July 10, 2007 @ 5:51 pm

  2. Howdy do, Louis, I read your posting about “Amazing Grace” and thought you’d dig my latest lill’ YouTube vid.

    Click my name or copy & pastte

    Stay on Groovin’ Safari,

    Comment by Tor Hershman — July 11, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

  3. Oh, no need to copy & paste

    Comment by Tor Hershman — July 11, 2007 @ 11:27 pm

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