Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 8, 2011

The Birth of Capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Back sometime in 1998, the year that I created the Marxism mailing list, a University of Illinois at Chicago geography professor named Jim Blaut showed up touting a new book titled “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that I read with great interest since it dovetailed with my own research on American Indians at the time. Blaut maintained that Eurocentrist historians had given Asian, African and New World civilizations short shrift, an analysis I had read before in Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s “Before European hegemony: the world system A.D. 1250-1350”.

Abu-Lughod’s book was filled with fascinating details, such as the fact that all three of Columbus’s ships could have fit on the deck of the largest ship in a Ming Dynasty armada that made frequent trips to the coast of East Africa in the 1400s. Since Abu-Lughod had blurbed Blaut’s book as “absolutely spellbinding”, that was recommendation enough for me.

Soon after Jim made his initial appearance, his attention turned to Robert Brenner, a UCLA professor I had never heard of and who was targeted as a Eurocentrist in his new book. While most of the historians discussed there were non-Marxists, Brenner apparently had the reputation of being a big-time Marxist. I scratched my head trying to figure that out. Marxism and Eurocentrism seemed to be diametrically opposed (this was before I had been exposed to post-colonial scholarship.)

Not long after “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” came out, Jim followed up with “Eight Eurocentric Historians”, the second in a trilogy of books that would have concluded with one on writing non-Eurocentric history. Unfortunately, Jim died of cancer of the pancreas in November 2000 and was not able to complete that book.

One of the eight historians Jim took up was Robert Brenner who he had described as follows in an Antipode article (available online) that was later adapted for the new book:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

I would say that of all the people I grew to respect and admire through the Marxism list, Jim Blaut stood at the top along with Mark Jones, a self-professed Stalinist who died of cancer three years after Blaut’s passing. The passion that Jim directed toward his project has sustained me ever since. I only wish that he had been around to see the publication of Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book put out by the leftwing British Pluto Press, whose chief editor Roger van Zwanenberg was an old friend of Mark Jones. It’s a small world, after all.

Heller’s book is an amazing accomplishment. It serves as a very useful introduction to the “Brenner thesis” debates as well as weighing in with his own perspectives—including a critique of Jim Blaut’s analysis that I find persuasive. I only regret that Jim had not lived to read this book since his response to Heller would have been something to behold, I am sure. If there was one thing that Jim loved more than bird-watching, it was debate.

For me, the book is of particular value since it jibes in so many ways with my own amateur historian’s findings. I always thought I was on the right track but having a professional saying many of the same things I have said gives me a sense of vindication.

It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the left academy. Partially this is a function of the disillusionment with “Third Worldism” that took hold in the early 80s. It can also be traced to the decline of the Marxism that was associated with Paul Sweezy and the “dependency” theorists grouped around the Monthly Review. For the most part, they lacked the interest that someone like a Brenner supporter Ellen Meiksins Wood had in continuing the debate. In numerous articles and several books, she has even surpassed Brenner in carrying his thesis to its logical (or absurd) conclusion. Andre Gunder Frank, one of Brenner’s principal antagonists, had reached the point of abandoning Marxism altogether, arguing in “ReOrient” that the term capitalism had no meaning. I guess that’s one way of resolving the transition problem.

Other scholars who were explicitly or implicitly opposed to Brenner never had any commitment to Marxism to begin with. Most notable among them was Kenneth Pomeranz, a neoclassical econometrician and historian who argued in “The Great Divergence” that China was far more advanced than Britain in the 18th century. One of the best things about Heller’s book is his review of the Brenner-Pomeranz debate that has been focused on quite narrow questions about agrarian class relations in the lower Yangtze River region. As avid as I am to follow the Brenner debate, their articles have not whetted my appetite.

I sometimes felt that I was the only person in the world who cared enough to answer Wood or Brenner’s other acolytes. For some the debate seemed sterile. Who really cared where or when capitalism came into being? For today’s revolutionary, the burning question is how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism not to figure out how feudalism gave way to capitalism. Of course, the “transition” problem of 500 years ago can tell us a lot about how our own transition will take place, as Heller points out in his conclusion:

Writing in 2000 while the neoliberal experiment was still going strong, [medievalist and Brenner critic] Guy Bois saw neoliberalism as a symptom of deepening capitalist crisis. Toward the conclusion of his account of the late medieval feudal crisis, Bois offered a qualified comparison between that crisis and the contemporary crisis of capitalism. In doing so, Bois was able to suggest the gravity of the current situation from a historical perspective. Like the late medieval crisis, the current state of affairs is marked by ongoing large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization. The two eras are likewise characterized by outbursts of the irrational in the realm of culture in which the existing elites are fully complicit. At the same time, Bois hastened to distinguish the sources of crisis in each case: the one engendered by an insufficiency of production in an economy based on petty production, the other rooted in a crisis of over-production in an economy based on industrial capitalism.

Unlike Pomeranz or other anti-Eurocentric historians such as Jack Goody and John M. Hobson (the great grandson of John A. Hobson, who Lenin cited frequently in his article on imperialism), Heller situates himself within the Marxist tradition. He is equally at home discussing the fine details of early modern European history (his specialty is France) and Marxist theory. While his analysis is more “Hellerian” than anything else, it is clear to me that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is a major influence. While Trotsky’s theory was used to explain the contradictory character of a Russian capitalism that mixed feudal social relationships with some of the worlds most advanced industrial production facilities, Heller applies it to the 1500s and 1600s when ostensibly non-capitalist social relations including slavery were becoming essential—serving as midwife in many ways—to the birth of capitalism.

But even more importantly, Heller hones in on the contribution of V.I. Lenin whose groundbreaking 1899 study “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” is critical for understanding how much of a mistake it is to see the “British road” as the only possibility for a transition to capitalism. (Heller correctly points out that the term Eurocentric might not do justice to Brenner; “Anglocentric” is more fitting.)

Heller makes clear that Brenner and his followers view coercive “extra-economic” state interventions into the economy as typically pre-capitalist. So, for example, they assert that the East India Company is feudal even if they might not necessarily use that term–the same thing with Southern slavery, or other forms of forced labor including indentured servitude, debt peonage, etc. It ain’t capitalism if ain’t out of the pages of Adam Smith, in other words.

For Lenin, this distinction does not exist. He wrote about capitalism coming into existence “from above” and “from below”. The best hope for a Russian revolution would have been a transition to capitalism “from below” like the classic yeoman farmer dominated Anglo-American model but it was not excluded that a “Junker” model from above might be imposed. In line with both Lenin and Trotsky, Heller observes:

The Prussian instance demonstrates in turn how the state not only intervened to ensure the survival of its nobility, but aided them in making the transition to capitalism at the expense of the peasant producers. As their historical development has recently been fruitfully explored from the point of view of capitalism from above, the examples of Scotland and Japan are discussed with an eye to developing a comparative under- standing of alternative routes to capitalism. The decisive role of the state is illustrated by applying Trotsky’s conception of combined and uneven development to the Scottish path to capitalism. It illustrates the speed and contradictory nature of capitalist development in states with archaic social relations.

That was the first thing that came to my mind after reading Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that challenged Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and other “Third Worldists”. (It was an open question whether Brenner even considered them to be true Marxists, since Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism was regarded as “neo-Smithian”. It always occurred to me that the same adjective might have been applied to the Brennerites since they were so determined to make an equation between the capitalist mode of production and free markets.)

The words “Junkers” and “Meiji restoration” kept popping into my head. I said to myself, “Louis Proyect, this cannot be right. Capitalism arrived in Germany and Japan through a mixture of state coercion and market relations. Take yourself over to the Columbia University library first chance you get and follow up.”

The net result was the very first article I ever wrote about the Brenner thesis titled aptly enough “The Brenner Thesis”. It has a section with the subheading “The Meiji Restoration” that anticipates what would be written far more elegantly and with more erudition in Heller’s book. I wrote:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship, semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn’t add up here, does it?

There are so many good things in Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism”  that my readers would be foolish not to rush out and buy it at once. You have already been told that it serves as a primer to the Brenner debate and is worth having on you bookshelf as a kind of reference guide. Like a racing form at the track, it helps you know who the players are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

It also helps that despite his adversarial relationship to Brenner and his followers, he is always civil and respectful finding value in their various books and articles where it is appropriate.

Keeping in mind that much of the debate is taken up with relatively arcane matters, Heller writes with a clarity that is missing all too often in works directed toward one’s peers in the academy.

For those who are relatively up to speed on the debate, Heller provides tantalizing references to more specialized works that can open up avenues of further research. For example, he writes:

The deep-seated prejudice that capitalism represented a triumph of free trade over political imperialism goes back to Adam Smith. In fact as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson pointed out long ago, capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination depending on the historical and strategic circumstances.53

This will surely be of use to me in my own research. I did not know Gallagher and Robinson before this and am anxious to see what they have to say. Columbia University might not have the highest-paid programmers in New York (my old employer, the dreadful Goldman-Sachs, beat them on this score) but the library is worth gold to me.

This leads me to my conclusion. As valuable as Henry Heller’s book is, it does not answer all the questions posed by the Brenner thesis, as I am sure that it was not intended to do anyhow.

Gallagher and Robinson’s research on how “capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination” matters to me because it addresses the ideas put forward by Ellen Meiksins Wood in “Empire of Capital”, a book that attempts to extend the Brenner thesis to imperialism. Bent as she is on demonstrating that “capitalist imperialism” operates mostly on the basis of market coercion, Wood misses the reality of international relations today—one that is dramatically illustrated by the gargantuan U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that is nearly as large as the Vatican. In fact, the decline of American economic hegemony can only lead to increasing “extra-economic” factors such as those that marked imperialism in its infancy. With the growing turmoil of a financial crisis that does not seem to show any signs of abating, we can expect the state to play a growing role. This might not amount to “feudalism”, but one cannot avoid the suspicion that Bois was correct when he referred to the current period as one of marked by ongoing “large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization.” With that to look forward to, no wonder young people are mobilizing to realize their hopes that “another world is possible”, the slogan for the transition so necessary in the 21st century.

19 Comments »

  1. Louis– what is interesting about Gallagher and Robinson is that they are actually cold war liberals who want to argue against both the Hobson and Lenin economic interpretations of late 19th century imperialism (eg . in G and R, “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, Economic HIstory Review, 1953, 2nd series, vol 6, pp. 1-15, perhaps the most influential single article in British imperial history) — but in spite of themselves they end up with a powerfully economic interpretation of their own. They assert that Britain’s priority in the post-1815 world was to open up markets, and either peacefully or by means of violent intervention (as in the Opium Wars, the gunboats sent up the River Plata against General Rosas etc.) to force open markets for trade. When Britain could do it without “informally” (as they put it), that is without bearing the expense of colonies and running up the flag they preferred to– and R and G. argue that Britain was actually at the peak of its power in the world in the early and middle of the nineteenth century and NOT when it acquired so many colonies after 1870.

    Comment by Richard — October 8, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  2. Some scholars come up with interesting findings of use in this debate regardless of their ideology. There are some truly fucked up things in Engerman and Fogel’s “Time on the Cross”, particularly the notion that slaves had it better than wage workers in the North, but the book still reveals how the plantations were run according to capitalist logic.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 8, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

  3. I remember Ellen M Wood writing a book stating that all slaves in ancient Athens were “domestic”, every citizen was a farmer, and that therefore it wasn’t a slave economy, and therefore Marx and Engels were wrong.

    Not worth a single minute of my life.

    Comment by Antonis — October 8, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

  4. One of the contradictions of capitalism is its close association with the rise of the nation state versus its international ambitions. This contradiction alone has led to world wars, will doom the Euro, and ultimate destroy the system without a nation state that can act as a hegemon. This is being played out in the various uses of the dollar today – as a median in the domestic market versus a store of value in SWF’s which create a demand (and price) for it far beyond what the competitiveness of the U.S. economy an support.The point being the nation state, with its interventions and protections, is a necessary part of capitalist development.

    Comparing the East India company, part of a politically unified British empire (in terms of its ruling class), with the neo-feudal South, a fanatically separatist rump that was subsumed within a more developed North, also makes no sense.

    As for protectionism, Britain turned to it when they ran into the German economic buzzsaw in the the late 19th century.

    Comment by purple — October 9, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  5. Thanks for this, Louis. “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” by De Ste. Croix has an interesting (I would go so far as to say invaluable) discussion on the catastrophic misuse of the term “feudal” which seems germane to this debate. It also has an interesting section on unfree labour.(It also makes the ancient world sound suspiciously like the present day, but that’s another matter). I still fail to see why Brenner/Wood and their acolytes seem so keen to separate out “capitalism” and “feudalism”, particularly when we have yet to rid the world of wage and debt slavery.

    Comment by Viktor — October 9, 2011 @ 10:55 am

  6. [oops, posted under the wrong article–the one following. sorry]

    Thanks for the tip on Heller, Louis—I’ll look for him. But this isn’t one of your best. The term “Eurocentric,” which you brandish through the first part of the article and then lay aside, is sloppy: it suggests either “Capitalism began in agrarian class struggle in the English countryside,” or “EUROPE FIRST! CAPITALISM STARTED IN EUROPE, AND ALL WORLD HISTORY WILL BEGIN THERE, TOO!” Brenner says the first, and you attempt to smear him with the second. That’s lazy. It’s like saying “X’s theory of imperial warfare is Eurocentric” because aerial warfare, tanks, and the machine gun were invented in Europe and America.

    Brenner has been immersed in real, sure’nuff marxist debates that go back at least to Dobb-Sweezy, but really to Marx himself. It comes down to this: did capitalism originate in a single particular spot (Brenner), in multiple particular spots (Heller here, and others), or in the mercantile movement among those spots, or in a free-floating market imperative (Sweezy, Wallerstein, others). A related question: did primitive accumulation occur only once (in the British countryside), leading to a global process of colonization and exploitation; or does it occur again and again and again, as peasants and small producers (including Africans captured by slavers, and Native Americans) are dispossessed, creating “free” workers and absolute property? Brenner holds to the first, obsessively. Marx, in CAPITAL 1, Section 8, seems to hold to both, contradictorily. (Do you also find his discussion of the/an origin of capitalism in the fields of England “Eurocentic”?).

    It’s too cute to suggest that Brenner is Anglocentric or possibly even pro-imperialist and racist simply by juxtaposing his arguments with contemporary “Third Worldist” explanations, as if they were his secret enemy. His actual and declared enemies were those “neo-Smithian” marxists who argued that capitalism arises because of a semi-autonomous development of the productive forces, or, in Smith’s words, an innate human impulse to “truck and barter.” He replaces this with a model emphasizing class struggle—i.e., the organization and deployment of class instruments in order to gain control of the means of production. Brenner isn’t so good at showing that battle itself, and he’s particularly weak at showing the peasant and proletarian counter—offensive, both in England and elsewhere. For that, we need to turn to historians of revolution, including the British marxist historians, C. L. R. James, and other historians who focus on “vernacular socialism” and the actual forms of resistance. But the “political marxist” model he’s following deserves acknowledgement.

    So does his later work—i.e., that of the last 1/3 century. MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION (1993) presents a strangely “Third Worldist” argument that puts the capitalist New Merchant organization of New World trade and production by slaves at the very center of that classic “bourgeois revolution,” the English Revolution. In other words, Brenner does for the English Revolution what C. L. R. James did for the French Revolution. But he IS very much at fault for not acknowledging the precedent, engaging with James’s work, and talking about slave resistance.

    I also think you get Wood wrong: it’s not that “market coercion” alone explains capitalist imperialism as you say here, implying the Wood is soft on imperial conquest. It’s that the more successful capitalist imperialists spread by extra-market conquest AND by organizing production, not just by looting. Compare the world historical implications of North American and Caribbean plantation production with the more circumscribed results of the conquistadores’ efforts in Latin America.

    I also have trouble understanding your anti-historical tone here in saying “Who really cared where or when capitalism came into being?” though that may just be the voice of the “some” you are voicing. It is indeed important, as Heller says, to understand that earlier transition if we want to work for a later one, OUT of capitalism and into socialism. But it would be nice to note that Brenner and Wood have made the same point in defending their focus on the feudal-capitalist transition.

    [P.S.: I think that Brenner is wrong in his England-focused explanation. Kevin Anderson’s MARX AT THE MARGINS shows the ever-staggering breadth of the old man’s interests, passion, and expertise.]

    Comment by Jim Holstun — October 9, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

  7. It’s too cute to suggest that Brenner is Anglocentric

    This is what Heller says about this:

    England became the final station in a movement across the face of Western Europe, which as it developed came to involve more than the mere expropriation of the peasantry from the soil.

    In the light of this more global conception, Perry Anderson recently criticized Brenner’s Anglocentric view for what he describes as a ‘capitalism in one country’ approach. It makes only slightly more sense, according to him, than the notion of socialism in one country.5 While the latter makes nonsense of socialism as a transcendence of the limits of capitalism based on the territorial state, the former not only ignored the sequencing of primitive accumulation across Western Europe that Marx traced, but also forgot Lenin’s insistence that no state has ever become capitalist without connection to the world market.

    There is an unfortunate parochialism in Brenner’s viewpoint, and its negative consequences are many. It allowed Brenner to make exaggerated claims about the role of competitive markets in the early development of capitalism. It led him to fail to take proper account of politics – in particular the centrality of a unified territorial state and the influence of capitalist merchants and manufacturers over its policies. This chapter will begin to remedy this by viewing the origins of capitalism from a Europe-wide perspective. Accordingly, we will examine the development of capitalism in Italy and Germany in the first place. Failing to take permanent root in these places, these capitalisms must be understood as prologues to the development of capitalism in England. These failed or partially successful transitions on the Continent help to illuminate the reasons for England’s ultimate success. They also show that the development of capitalism is uneven – that success in one place comes at the expense of failure elsewhere. Finally it shows how historically contingent its full development was. This chapter also discusses the case of capitalism in France, whose development did not miscarry so much as retreated into hibernation under the seventeenth-century Bourbon monarchy. The great influence of Brenner’s Anglocentricism has meant that the origins of capitalism in that country in the early modern period have been denied, helping to foster the serious misconception that the French Revolution was not a capitalist revolution. The discussion of Holland is left to the next chapter, where its history better fits in the sequence of early modern bourgeois revolutions.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 9, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  8. Heller’s argument doesn’t make much sense to me here. Brenner argues precisely for “the centrality of a unified territorial state and the influence of capitalist merchants and manufacturers over its policies” in seventeenth-century England. Incidentally, Heller is quoting from Perry Anderson’s enthusiastic but also critical chapter on Brenner in SPECTRUM, which focuses on a review of his MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION. Two paragraphs later, he says, “The historical intelligence that has generated both the comparative logic of THE BRENNER DEBATE and the narrative depth of MERCHANTS AND REVOLUTION is without close counterpart.” Anderson’s review is a great pleasure, and underlines the importance of MERCHANTS (a tough slog, by any standard) better than the book itself does.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — October 9, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  9. “The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base”, in regards to Meiji Japan, “intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development.” And also accounting for the outflux of Japanese farmers throughout the North Pacific and South America in this period, including California.

    This is the meaningful crux of the questions that swirl around “transition” and the various writers’ theories on this question. This “primitive” accumulation, “outside” the “normal” wage labor / capital social relation of production, is actually an essential and ongoing attribute of actually existing capitalism, dialectically overlapping with wage labor (as Rosa Luxemburg correctly perceived, even if her theoretical formulation was in error), contributing surplus value to the accumulation of capital in a process that David Harvey chose to label “accumulation by dispossession”. Its analysis is therefore not merely a historical question of the transition, but of the present day structure of capitalism, imperialism and the world working class.

    As Charles Post correctly states in “The American Road to Capitalism”- even as a “Political Marxist” – the “Anglo-centric” form of capitalist agriculture failed to take root in the U.S. Hence the German “Junker” or Japanese kizoku role in primitive accumulation was played by the slaveocracy – but, unlike in Western Europe and Japan – also by the Northern subsistence and later, by the commercial agriculture in the North, whose farmers, together with the ever present gaggle of speculating mineral prospectors, acting often as a settler vanguard, also practiced “accumulation by dispossession” of the native lands, and who also realized a portion of the surplus profits extracted from slave labor in the capitalized rent value of their own farm land, mediated by land speculation by merchant capital backed by the Federal state – this part precisely as Post describes, though he does not fully grasp the dialectics of the surplus value connection between the two, and of the flow in the form of surplus profits from South to North. Thus the Southern slaveowner can be said to have dug his own grave in dialectically raising up the Northern farmer who then came to kill him in the Civil War. Thus also were the Southern “extended” slave household and the Northern Yankee family household dialectically united as the two branches of the same process of *imperialist* geographical expansion and accumulation by dispossession – something that Post does not clearly characterize it as.

    And in the wake of this essentially imperialist process of accumulation by dispossession – of African slave and sharecropper labor and of native land – there developed the U.S. working class, whose wages at least up until WW2 were effectively subsidized by this process and, afterward as this process ended in the interwar crisis of U.S. capitalism, was substituted for by the effective subsidy provided by the global hegemony of U.S. imperialism itself, together with the rising influx of migrant non-European labor paid wages “below par”, especially from Mexico and Central America. Consequentially this has always been a working class that from its very inception has been a positive beneficiary of the expansion of U.S. imperialism, first in continental and then in global scope: an imperialist working class – unlike that of Britain, which had to be won over to imperialist ideology in the 19th century – that was imperialist in ideology from the start.

    Until, potentially, NOW, in the new general crisis of U.S. capitalism, essentially the crisis of its imperialism.

    Comment by Matt — October 10, 2011 @ 12:15 am

  10. “..did primitive accumulation occur only once (in the British countryside), leading to a global process of colonization and exploitation; or does it occur again and again and again, as peasants and small producers (including Africans captured by slavers, and Native Americans) are dispossessed, creating “free” workers and absolute property? Brenner holds to the first, obsessively. Marx, in CAPITAL 1, Section 8, seems to hold to both, contradictorily.”

    Contradictorily, but only as Marx here, as with so many of the other questions he had time only to open in passing, never got around to developing a full theory of the dialectics of accumulation by dispossession in its relation to the emergence of wage labor and capital. But it could be argued that, in the total span of human economic history, truly juridically “free” wage labor was rather a relative “luxury”, i.e., difficult to develop and sustain – just as, but even more so, is modern socialism, whose social sustainability the working class movement has yet to work out – as the “free” worker, unlike the slave or serf, could withdraw their labor power prior to the advent of a mass proletariat.

    Consequentially the appearance of the wage laborer required the process of accumulation by dispossession in order to create the conditions for its own sustained existence in those countries who managed to be the ultimate imperialist beneficiaries of the surplus profits that came of that dispossession.

    Comment by Matt — October 10, 2011 @ 12:50 am

  11. Capitalism and the great class divide.

    The best way to describe today’s struggle is in an area of the country known for this divide long before the recession and long before the Occupy movement.

    8 Mile Road in Detroit, Michigan.

    The road is known for the wealthy who live on the suburbian side and the inpoverished who live on the urban city side.

    Many Americans today are living on the wrong side of the road.

    The whole country has turned into an 8 Mile Road.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 11, 2011 @ 1:14 am

  12. Often we are asked the question at some point in our lives of what our dream life would be.

    When I’ve answered this question, my friends look puzzled by my answer.

    My dream life would be working in a factory on the 3-11 shift in Detroit (when they had jobs there)
    and coming home to my trailer with my partner and sharing my life with him.

    I’m often asked is that all you want?

    Yes it’s an honest living and a simple life.

    I was never like my super over achieving cousins who looked down on me and were best selling authors and pharmaceutical aids drug developers who dined with George W. Bush or who were in consideration for a Nobel Prize.

    No I have always preferred a more simple life by estrangement from a family that represents all that I think is wrong with the privileged social class.

    The class divide within my own family represents just one of the many reasons that led me to become the radical I am today.

    I should thank them for that because it’s something I’m most proud of.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 11, 2011 @ 4:18 am

  13. Speaking of capitalism, Obama and the DNC raised 70 million dollars this quarter as reported today.

    Isn’t that great? As unemployment and poverty rise nationwide, the money just keeps on rolling in for the campaigning clowns in Washington.

    Ain’t capitalism great?

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 13, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

  14. […] a useful Marxism mailing list and maintaining an active blog. In a recent entry titled “The Birth of Capitalism” which reviews a recently published book of that name by Henry Heller there are several […]

    Pingback by The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 1) | guavapuree — October 19, 2011 @ 4:32 am

  15. Thanks for writing about this. I am late to the game, but here are my first thoughts about this post (more to come soon)

    http://guavapuree.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/the-brenner-debate-a-reply-to-louis-proyect-part-1/

    Comment by guavapuree — October 19, 2011 @ 4:34 am

  16. […] in his post claims that “It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the […]

    Pingback by The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 2) | guavapuree — October 21, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  17. Louis – I can assure you that you are not the only person in the world who cares about the transition debate! It is at the core of my revived PhD project, which deals primarily with Wallerstein. I am in the process at the moment of writing a longish piece about Wallerstein’s view of production in the world-system, which will also directly critique a great deal of the Marxist criticism directed at him – a crticism which is IMHO as much theological as anything else. (By theological I mean along the lines of refusing to understand the inner logic of Wallerstein’s model and conducting an internal crtique instead relying on talking about their own catgeories. Effectively it boils down to “he doesn’t agree with me so he must be wrong” kind of argument.) Anyway I will post the piece in my new blog as soon as it is finished and tag you in Facebook accordingly. I would be very happy to discuss the topic with you at any length! I have not yer read Blaut’s “colonizer’s model”. I think I skimmed through “8 Eurocentric historians” a while back but can’t recall many details. Need to get back to it. Comradely greetings – Cedric

    Comment by Cedric Beidatsch — February 28, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

  18. […] spoke about his book on “The Birth of Capitalism” that I couldn’t recommend highly enough. ( https://louisproyect.org/2011/10/08/the-birth-of-capitalism/ ) It is the definitive answer to the Brenner […]

    Pingback by Left Forum 2013 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 19, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

  19. […] gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to […]

    Pingback by The tide turns against Political Marxism | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 12, 2014 @ 7:52 pm


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