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Capitalism Conundrums [Re: Ricardo Duchesne on Ellen Meiksins Wood]
by Luke Rondinaro
25 September 2003 04:37 UTC
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Subject: Ricardo Duchesne on Ellen Meiksins Wood 

Very good post.  Let me suggest, though, that we need to distinguish a few things before we can get any further with this discussion.  We need to keep in mind:

1.  The historical development of an economic phenomenon [which has traditionally been termed as, and perhaps confused as, being CAPITALISM].

2.  A societal <socscient fr.* socscience* aka social awareness, consciousness> response by which a faction of elites came to the fore of European states by employing the tactics and strategy of this said activity CAPITALISM].

3.  The range of ideologically-geared behaviors [+ social/intellectual constructs] and psychologically-related motives that have accounted for both generic marketisms in the past and present and CAPITALISM from the early modern to today. 

If we don’t keep these areas straight … not surprisingly … the discussions we have, such as what it is being considered in the post below, become confused. 

I hate to keep beating the same dead horse, but we may be required to consider new, better terminology to distinguish these areas. 

However, let me make my point another way.  What have we to gain, analytically or theoretically, by conceptualizing/ considering/talking about this thing we call CAPITALISM in the first place and applying to all the three areas I’ve presented?

Ideas or insights? … (Luke R.)

Louis Proyect <lnp3@panix.com> wrote:

With the exception of an occasional article in Against the Current or
Monthly Review, most contributions to the "transition debate" occur in
journals that can only be read in research or university libraries. Such
is the case with Ricardo Duchesne's review of Ellen Meiksins Wood's
"Origins of Capitalism" that appeared in the September 2002 Rethinking

Rethinking Marxism (http://www.rethinkingmarxism.org/) was launched by
professors at the University of Massachusetts who were influenced by the
French theorist Louis Althusser and postmodernist trends in the academy.
They also sponsor conferences at their campus that allow tenured
professors who have never made a leaflet in their lives to lecture
audiences on how to achieve socialism.

Duchesne's article is not only worth tracking down as a very effective
rebuttal to Brenner and Wood but as a rarity in the academic world: a
witty and highly readable essay that entertains while it educates. For
veterans of PEN-L, it might come as some surprise to discover that he
has written such an article for in the past he was one of the most
vociferous opponents of James M. Blaut, both on that list and other
lists where the origins of capitalism was a hot topic. For example in
January 1998, he wrote the following on PEN-L:

"Now consider the dilemma Blaut finds himself: why did Europe came to
dominate the rest of the World? Answer: geographical proximity of Europe
to the Americas(!) gave it access to its metals and labor leading to the
industrial revolution. Obviously the notion that European capitalism
developed as a result of the exploitation of the Third World has been so
roundly refuted I need not elaborate this here. Just a handy, if
incomplete, stats: At most 2% of Europe's GNP at the end of 18th century
took the form of profits derived from commerce with Americas, Asia,
Africa! (I think source is K.O'Brien)."

However, Duchesne now believes:

"The major drawback of Wood’s Origins is its Eurocentric presumption
that explaining the transition to capitalism is simply a matter of
looking for those 'unique' traits that set Europe or England apart from
the rest of the world. Marxists can no longer rest comfortably with the
story that England and Europe emerged from the Middle Ages with an
internally generated advantage over the rest of Asia."

I have to salute Duchesne for having the integrity to change his mind on
a question in which he had so much prior investment. If other scholars
had the same flexibility, the world of academic Marxism would be much
more creative. As it stands now, there is tendency for positions to
become hardened because reputations are at stake. A willingness to
change one's mind might be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
Ironically, the same kind of rigidity is at work in the activist Marxist
realm as well, but instead of being driven by careerism it is driven by
a kind of "vanguardism" that refuses to admit error.

The other thing I respect about Duchesne was his willingness to conduct
a serious debate on the Internet, just as was the case with James M.
Blaut. For far too many academics, Internet mailing lists are a kind of
high-level chat-room where cleverness rather than rigorous thinking is
the goal. When I see one-liners from a professor who is taking a break
from his current print publication effort, I am reminded of the film
"Ridicule" set in the court of Louis XVI where aristocrats vied with
each other over who could come up with the most clever 'bon mot'.

The main virtue of Duchesne's article is its ability to answer Brenner
and Woods on their own terms. While the question of land tenure 500
years or so ago might appear as dry as the parchment their deeds were
written on, it is vital for understanding the underlying issues.

He begins by putting the debate in the context of the original exchange
between Dobb and Sweezy during the 1950s. A common interpretation of
this debate was that Dobb had a more consistently Marxist approach than
Sweezy who supposedly believed that capitalism grew out of expanded
commerce during the waning of the middle ages, especially between cities
like Venice and Antwerp. Together with Rodney Hilton, Dobb looked to
embryonic forms within feudalism itself that were unleashed as peasants
struggled to free themselves. This led to class differentiation,
competition and all the other now familiar traits of the capitalist system.

Duchesne shrewdly observes that if a "logic of accumulation" was already
present in the Dobb-Hilton version of feudalism, then it was subject to
the same failings as the Sweezy "commercialization" model. If capitalism
is supposed to be such a radical departure from everything that came
before it, then it is self-defeating to look for precursory forms in
either trading centers like Venice or in the British countryside.

For Wood, the Brenner thesis avoids these problems by positing a kind of
British exceptionalism. Unlike the rest of Europe, British lords were
deprived of extra-economic powers as far back as the Norman Conquest in
1066. Stripped of their military force by a centralizing state anxious
to maintain control over newly conquered land, the lords were forced to
resort to a novel use of land under their control. Rather than seizing
tribute from the serf, they leased out their land to yeoman farmers who
were forced to introduce all sorts of technical improvements to ensure
that the land produced sufficient revenue to satisfy the leaseholder.
So, in other words, the seeds of Chase Manhattan Bank and General Motors
were planted in the days of Ivanhoe. Perhaps the only way that the deus
ex machina goals of Brenner and Wood could truly be satisified is the
discovery of an invasion from outer space that introduced commodity
production as if they were the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

The Brenner thesis rests on the assumption that the British gentry had
accumulated vast amounts of land in the 14th to 17th century that could
be leased to a yeoman. In other words through a kind of monopoly they
were able to impose leaseholding on a landless class of aspiring tenant
farmers in much the same way that postbellum plantation owners in the
South were able to force freedmen to become sharecroppers.

There's only one problem with this interpretation. It appears that
freeholders, or small proprietors to use contemporary language, rather
than leaseholders, promoted the kind of technical innovations that
distinguished British capitalist farming. Since Brenner regards small
proprietorship as the enemy of capitalist farming, the evidence of such
a mode of production would undermine his entire thesis. These peasants
were frequently defended from landlords bent on enclosure by Parliament
itself. As masters of their own land, "They were quite innovative and
obtained higher yields per seed through extensive use of leguminous
plants and complex crop rotations."

This jibes with Blaut's understanding of peasant small proprietorship,
wherever it occurs.

"Next there is a very serious difficulty with Brenner's conception of
medieval technology. He holds a very contradictory image of the
peasantry. He thinks that medieval peasants were not at all innovative
as to technology, but that some peasants became marvelously innovative
as soon as they were touched by the magic wand of capitalism. The
reasoning here is that peasants are conservative and unchanging,
'traditional,' so long as they own the means of production, the land,
and gain their livelihood from it…This error aside, the fact is that
peasants were not hidebound and traditional. We can infer this from
modern research which disproves the contemptuous attitude which European
'modernization' theorists hold about peasants and their supposed
'irrationality,' 'traditionalism,' and the like --an attitude which
Brenner evidently shares. We know this also from the painstaking
research which has uncovered a broad array of peasant-generated
technological advances in the Middle Ages."

I will have more to say about the question of land and productivity when
I post the concluding article in my series on slavery, the Civil War and
the Brenner thesis. Suffice it to say at this point, the equation
between big agricultural estates operated as industrial enterprises and
technological dynamism is very much part of the legacy of a kind of
Marxism. Whether this is the kind of Marxism we need is another question


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

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