Peasant sluggards

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 16 17:09:36 MDT 2000

>From Michael Perelman's newly published "The Invention of Capitalism:
Classical Political Economy and the Secret of Primitive Accumulation" (Duke
University Press):

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish,
the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional
people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained
innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan
Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,
about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in
leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204
annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Despite these frequent holidays, the peasants still managed to produce a
significant surplus. In English feudal society, for example, the peasants
survived even though the gentry was powerful enough to extract something on
the order of 50 percent of the produce. As markets evolved, the claims on
the peasants’ labors multiplied. For instance, in southern France, rents
appear to have grown from about one-fourth of the yield in 1540 to one-half
by 1665. Although people increasingly had to curtail their leisure in order
to meet the growing demands of nonproducers, many observers still railed
against the excessive celebration of holidays. Protestant clergy were
especially vocal in this regard. Even as late as the 1830s, we hear the
complaint that the Irish working year contained only 200 days after all
holidays had been subtracted. Time, in a market society, is money. As Sir
Henry Pollexfen calculated: "For if but 2 million of working people at 6d.
a day comes to 500,000 which upon due inquiry whence our riches must arise,
will appear to be so much lost to the nation by every holiday that is kept."

Zeal in the suppression of religious festivals was not an indication that
representatives of capital took working-class devotion lightly. In some
rural districts of nineteenth-century England, tending to one’s garden on
the Sabbath was a punishable offense. Some workers were even imprisoned for
this crime. Piety, however, also had its limits. The same worker might be
charged with breach of contract should he prefer to attend church on the
Sabbath rather than report for work when called to do so.

In France, where capital was slower to take charge, the eradication of
holidays was likewise slower. Tobias Smollett complained of the French:
"Very nearly half of their time, which might be profitably employed in the
exercise of industry, is lost to themselves and the community, in
attendance upon the different exhibitions of religious mummery." Voltaire
called for the shifting of holidays to the following Sunday. Since Sunday
was a day of rest in any case, employers could enjoy approximately forty
additional working days per year. This proposal caused the naive Abbe
Baudeau to wonder about the wisdom of intensifying work when the
countryside was already burdened with an excess population. How could the
dispossessed be employed?  Of course, changes in the religious practices of
Europe were not induced by a shortage of people but by people’s willingness
to conform to the needs of capital. For example, the leaders of the French
Revolution, who prided themselves on their rationality, decreed a ten-day
week with only a single day off. Classical political economists
enthusiastically joined in the condemnation of the celebration of an
excessive number of holidays. The suppression of religious holidays was but
a small part of the larger process of primitive accumulation.


>From the back cover:

The originators of classical political economy—Adam Smith, David Ricardo,
James Steuart, and others—created a discourse that explained the logic, the
origin, and, in many respects, the essential rightness of capitalism. But,
in the great texts of that discourse, these writers downplayed a crucial
requirement for capitalism’s creation: For it to succeed, peasants would
have to abandon their self-sufficient lifestyle and go to work for wages in
a factory. Why would they willingly do this?

Clearly, they did not go willingly. As Michael Perelman shows, they were
forced into the factories with the active support of the same economists
who were making theoretical claims for capitalism as a self-correcting
mechanism that thrived without needing government intervention. Directly
contradicting the laissez-faire principles they claimed to espouse, these
men advocated government policies that deprived the peasantry of the means
for self-provision in order to coerce these small farmers into wage labor.
To show how Adam Smith and the other classical economists appear to have
deliberately obscured the nature of the control of labor and how policies
attacking the economic independence of the rural peasantry were essentially
conceived to foster primitive accumulation, Perelman examines diaries,
letters, and the more practical writings of the classical economists. He
argues that these private and practical writings reveal the real intentions
and goals of classical political economy—to separate a rural peasantry from
their access to land.

"This study is to be admired for its comprehensiveness, scope, and the
amount of unearthing and excavation Perelman provides. The indictment of
political economists who addressed themselves to the matter of primitive
accumulation is masterful."—H. T. Wilson, York University

"Michael Perelman’s excellent book is well documented and theoretically
sound. After reading it we see our world in different colors. The origin of
market capitalism is the product of strategies pursued to take away from
people the conditions for developing alternative ways to live and produce.
We also discover that classical political economy has been so instrumental
in guiding these strategies. One is left to wonder how the same mechanisms
are reproduced today, and since market capitalism was not inevitable but a
result of policies, we are induced to look at the future as open. A blow of
fresh air amid the stale cultural environment of today’s neoliberal
capitalism. "—Massimo De Angelis, University of East London

Michael Perelman is Professor of Economics at California State University,

His books include The Natural Instability of Markets: Expectations,
Increasing Returns, and the Collapse of Markets.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list