Capitalism as slavery and colonialism

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Oct 26 20:50:07 MDT 2000

>  >The unbroken succession of disasters threw Castile off balance.  The
>>ideals which had buoyed it up during the long years of struggle were
>>shattered beyond repair.  The country felt itself betrayed - betrayed
>>perhaps by a God who had inexplicably withdrawn His favour from His
>>chosen people.  Desolate and plague-stricken, the Castile of 1600 was
>>a country that had suddenly lost its sense of national purpose....
>Yoshie recommends the prose above to help us sharpen our Marxist
>understanding of Spain in the 16th century. If I found a phrase like
>"Desolate and plague-stricken, the Castile of 1600 was a country that had
>suddenly lost its sense of national purpose", I'd wonder if I was reading a
>Book of the Month selection rather than something of interest to Marxists.
>Louis Proyect

Lou, perhaps, it would help to focus the debate on a meaningful
question if you did not think in terms of "scoring points."  (I
wouldn't know how to score points even if I tried to, because I'm not
exactly sure what arguments of mine are actually making you
dyspeptic; exactly on what grounds you are disagreeing with me; etc.)
Instead, we might think how we can synthesize Dobbs & Sweezy, Brenner
& Williams, etc.

Epidemic diseases did have a large impact on the evolution of
capitalism, slavery, & colonialism, in that the diseases brought by
Europeans wiped out so many indigenous peoples in the so-called New
World.  This has to be more significant than the plague in Castile.

Which is _not_ to say that the plague in Europe had _zero_
significance in the origins of capitalism.  It is said that, after
its first emergence, the plague continued to ravage European nations
-- not just Spain -- until after the late 17th century.  This, I
believe, was in part caused by the fact that urbanization in the
early modern period in Europe came before science & effective public
health measures got invented.  Also, the scope and frequency of
devastations wrought by the plague tell us something about the
dreadfully poor living conditions of the poor in cities as well as
villages (here, the debate between Brenner and neo-Malthusians
becomes very interesting also).  According to Foucault (see
_Discipline and Punish_), the rise of modern instrumental reason in
service of social control was facilitated by the 17th century
struggles to come up with effective responses to contain the plague.

More broadly, the seventeenth century was a period of the general
crisis in Europe, and the plagues shortly before and during it may be
rethought in terms of their relation to it.  While I wouldn't
overemphasize the demoralization caused by the plague in the minds of
the ruling class (as Barbara Simerka -- the author of the article --
does; when a liberal academic speaks of a "country that had suddenly
lost its sense of national purpose," it usually means that its ruling
class got demoralized and was in political disarray), it must have
been a factor, in that the seventeenth century was a period of not
only economic but political crises.

BTW, here's another source -- from an angle of demographic & climactic studies:

*****   II  An Economic and Social Crisis

Most historians know about the 'Little Ice Age', once parochially
described in English school textbooks as 'the time the Thames froze'.
The problem has always been to explain it....Recent research on
glacier movements and harvest dates in Europe has shown that harvests
in the mid-seventeenth century occurred far later than normal, and
suggests long winters and excessive rain as the principal culprits....

In a world dependent largely on vegetable and cereal crops, such
correlations (between bad weather, scarcity of food, heightened
mortality, increased conflict, and enhanced migration) should cause
no surprise.  Between 80 and 95 per cent of the early modern
population depended directly on crop yields....

A fall of 1 degree Celsius in overall temperatures -- and that
appears to have been the magnitude of the change during the 'Little
Ice Age' -- restricts the growing season for plants by three or four
weeks and reduces the maximum altitude for the successful cultivation
of foodstuffs by about 500 feet.  In some sensitive or marginal areas
the impact could be even greater: in Iceland today, a 1 degree fall
in overall summer temperature reduces crop yields by 15 per cent.
The expansion of population in the sixteenth century had led to the
cultivation of many marginal lands; a run of colder summers in the
seventeenth century would have reduced or perhaps extinguished the
yield of such areas, leaving their populations on the threshold of
starvation.  Furthermore, diminished food reserves, producing (in
effect) serious overpopulation, presented a favourable terrain for
the spread of diseases....  A skillful reconstruction of disease
patterns in London between 1670 and 1830 suggests a dual mechanism:
the ravages of epidemic diseases such as bubonic plague kept pace
with food prices, while the impact of endemic diseases such as
dysentery varied with temperature.

Economists have termed this dilemma a 'high-level equilibrium trap'.
The inputs and outputs of the early modern agrarian system had
reached a balance that could be broken only be heavy capital
investment and new technology, and European agriculture lacked both.
As Niels Steensgaard notes..., yield ratios during this period
remained stable or fell.  In eastern and central Europe they stood at
four grains of corn harvested for every grain sown, which was
scarcely enough to feed those who produced it; yields in Atlantic
Europe rose somewhat higher, but until 1700 they still provided an
insufficient basis for economic diversification.  And wherever yields
did improve, whether through better methods or increased area of
cultivation, population growth soon swallowed up surplus production,
short-circuiting the process of capital accumulation necessary for
technical innovation or agricultural improvement.  A population
caught in this trap faced only three choices: migration, starvation
or revolt.

Even in 'ordinary' years, from the later sixteenth century onwards
population drifted from smaller villages towards towns and cities.
In the Montes region, south of Toledo in central Spain, 'Smaller
villages located in higher, less fertile regions became overpopulated
at an early date, with a consequent migration to larger settlements.'
The grain harvest records for the area reveal a dramatic, sustained
fall in yields from 1615 onwards, and entire hamlets in the uplands
were abandoned.  Many of the 'lost' inhabitants migrated to the
cities, especially to Madrid, which increased in size from 65,000
people in 1597 to 140,000 in 1646, thanks largely to the influx of
almost 5,000 migrants per year.  But Madrid constituted one of
seventeenth-century Spain's few success stories; most other towns
failed to increase and, in some cases, the growth of one town
involved the decline of others -- in particular, Madrid gained at the
expense of Toledo.  The urban history of England in the seventeenth
century differed little.  Perhaps 10 percent of the English
population lived in towns in 1500 and perhaps 20 percent in 1700, but
London alone, which grew from 25,000 to 575,000 people during this
period, accounted for over half of this increase.  In effect, these
economic migrants constituted _a permanently mobile population_: in
the small Essex town of Cogenhoe between 1618 and 1628, _52 per cent
of the population changed_.  _Much the same turnover rate_
characterized the much larger port city of Southampton.  The
literature of the period bristles with fear of these migrants, and an
awareness of their growing numbers.  Stories about engaging rogues
such as _Till Eulenspiegel_ or _Lazarillo de Tormes_ -- like the more
scientific _Vocabulario de Germania_ of 1609, which listed 1,300
special word used by Spanish beggars, and _Il Vagabondo_, an
encyclopaedic compilation of the customs and life of the Italian
underworld, published by Giacinto Nobile in 1627 -- all exuded an
undercurrent of menace and instability.

However, not all the 'missing' population packed their knapsacks and
took to the roads.  Many died in plague epidemics, which could remove
between 20 and 30 per cent of a region's population at a stroke; many
others were simply not born, for during the mid-seventeenth century
birth rates stagnated and even declined.  Contemporaries first noted
this phenomenon in Castile, where the population may have fallen by
50 per cent between 1600 and 1650.  In 1619 a puzzled canon of Toledo
Cathedral, Sancho de Moncada, first employed 'modern' methods to
measure depopulation; while consulting the parish registers of the
region he found 'in the years 1617 and 1618 not one half of the
marriages that there used to be'.  This, he felt, explained why there
were fewer children.  Moncada went on to suggest that the primary
reason for the persistent fall in marriages, and therefore in
population, lay not in migration, plague or the expulsion of the
Moriscos (as other authors had argued), but 'because the people
cannot support themselves'.  He postulated a clear correlation
between population decline and poor harvests, for poor harvests
caused the price of essential items -- above all bread -- to increase
beyond the reach of the average wage-earner....

...In almost every community of early modern Europe where historians
have studied the complete data, the unpredictable yet irresistible
rhythm of bread prices appears to have controlled the level of
marriages, conceptions and deaths; whenever bread prices and deaths
rose, marriages, conceptions and therefore births all fell.  The
experience of Bauge in Anjou (France) between 1691 and 1695...offers
a typical example of the demographic consequences of the 'subsistence
crises' that apparently struck most European communities at least
once per generation during the early modern period.  But the
frequency of crises could sometimes increase dramatically.
Significantly, no less than three occurred in the mid-seventeenth
century: one in 1643-4, a second (the worst of the entire century) in
1649-50, and a third in 1652-3.  These harvest failures affected all
Europe, from Poland to England and from Sweden to Italy....

In many cases harvest failure also precipitated industrial and
commercial crises, for the sharp rise in food prices led to a falling
demand for manufactured goods, which in turn led to widespread
unemployment among wage-earners.  Many families therefore lost their
main source of income just as the price of essential items escalated.
Niels Steensgaard..., Sheilagh Ogilvie...and Ruggiero Romano...all
agree that these recessions became particularly common during the
seventeenth century.  Romano, writing originally in 1962, saw the
crisis of 1619-22 as the decisive break, since in its wake
international trade, industrial output, silver imports from America,
and coinage issues all fell.  Recovery was inhibited, he argued, by
_a crisis in agriculture_, when _tillage had lost ground to
stock-raising and refeudalizaiton_ had spread (especially in eastern
Europe).  Steensgaard, however, writing in 1970, perceived a problem
of distribution, rather than of production, caused by _the enormous
growth in the public sector_.  Government spending rapidly increased,
causing the diversion of economic endeavour to meet the demands of
the public sector through the transfer of resources to the state via
heavy taxation.  Ogilvie, in 1992, demonstrated that neither model
entirely fits Germany -- an area omitted from most accounts of the
General Crisis -- where regional diversity makes any generalization
hazardous.  However, her data largely support Steensgaard's argument
that _the growth of taxation to finance armies_ put pressure on
economies lacking large surpluses, causing both widespread suffering
and, in many cases, in Germany as elsewhere, rebellion.

'The peasant revolt,' wrote Marc Bloch, 'was as common in early
modern Europe as strikes are in industrial societies today.'
Astonishing numbers of rural uprisings took place in certain areas:
Provence, for example, saw 108 popular rebellions between 1596 and
1635, 156 between 1635 and 1660 (16 of them associated with 'Fonde'
of 1648-53) and a further 110 between 1661 and 1715.  For a region of
barely 600,000 people, a grand total of 374 revolts over scarcely
more than a century is impressive!  Certain German and Dutch towns
also experienced numerous uprisings in the seventeenth century.
However, an important difference distinguished popular revolts from
strikes: the latter aimed to influence the employer, landlord or
owner for whom the strikers worked, while the early modern revolt was
directed overwhelmingly against the state, particularly during the
period 1625-75.   (emphasis mine, endnotes omitted, Geoffrey Parker &
Lesley M. Smith, "Introduction," _The General Crisis of the
Seventeenth Century_, 2nd ed., eds. Parker & Smith, London:
Routledge, 1997, pp. 7-13)   *****

Here's a clue for a synthesis of Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson, &
Eric Williams.  The necessity of military expenditures -- in part
with a view to gaining imperial supremacy -- caused the states to
increase taxation, exacerbating the already heated class conflicts,
aggravated by bad weathers, poor harvests, epidemics, & migration.
Diverse outcomes of class struggles created in some parts of Europe
capitalist social relations while leading to refeudalization in other


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