"But there was one major exception to this general rule"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Oct 26 08:19:38 MDT 2000

>From Ellen Meiksins Wood, "The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism", Monthly
Review, July-August 1998

For millennia, human beings have provided for their material needs by
working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in
agriculture they have been divided into classes, between those who worked
the land and those who appropriated the labor of others. That division
between appropriators and producers has taken many forms in different times
and places, but one general characteristic they have had in common is that
the direct producers have typically been peasants. These peasant producers
have remained in possession of the means of production, specifically land.
As in all pre-capitalist societies, these producers have had direct access
to the means of their own reproduction. This has meant that when their
surplus labor has been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what
Marx called "extra-economic" means-that is, by means of direct coercion,
exercised by landlords and/or states employing superior force, privileged
access to military, judicial, and political power.

Here, then, is the most basic difference between all pre-capitalist
societies and capitalism. It has nothing to do with whether production is
urban or rural and everything to do with the particular property relations
between producers and appropriators, whether in industry or agriculture.
Only in capitalism is the dominant mode of surplus appropriation based on
the dispossession of the direct producers whose surplus labor is
appropriated by purely "economic" means. Because direct producers in a
fully developed capitalism are propertyless, and because their only access
to the means of production, to the requirements of their own reproduction,
even to the means of their own labor, is the sale of their labor-power in
exchange for a wage, capitalists can appropriate the workers' surplus labor
without direct coercion.

This unique relation between producers and appropriators is, of course,
mediated by the "market." Markets of various kinds have existed throughout
recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold
their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But
the market in capitalism has a distinctive and unprecedented function.
Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the
market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labor are utterly
dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own
reproduction. Just as workers depend on the market to sell their
labor-power as a commodity, capitalists depend on it to buy labor-power, as
well as the means of production, and to realize their profits by selling
the goods or services produced by the workers. This market-dependence gives
the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a
simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but as the principal
determinant and regulator of social reproduction. The emergence of the
market as a determinant of social reproduction presupposed its penetration
into the production of life's most basic necessity, food.

This unique system of market-dependence entails some very distinctive "laws
of motion," specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no
other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and
profit-maximization. And these imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism
can, and must, constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other
social form-constantly accumulating, constantly searching out new markets,
constantly imposing its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of
life, on human beings and the natural environment.

Once we recognize just how distinctive these social relations and processes
are, how different they are from other social forms which have dominated
most of human history, it becomes clear that more is required to explain
the emergence of this distinctive social form than the question-begging
assumption that it has always existed in embryo, just needing to be
liberated from unnatural constraints. The question of its origins, then,
can be formulated this way: given that producers were exploited by
appropriators in noncapitalist ways for millennia before the advent of
capitalism, and given that markets have also existed "time out of mind" and
almost everywhere, how did it happen that producers and appropriators, and
the relations between them, came to be so market dependent?

Now obviously the long and complex historical processes that ultimately led
to this condition of market dependence could be traced back indefinitely.
But we can make the question more manageable by identifying the first time
and place that a new social dynamic is clearly discernible, a dynamic that
derives from the market dependence of the main economic actors. And we can
then explore the specific conditions surrounding that unique situation.

As late as the seventeenth century, and even much later, most of the world,
including Europe, was free of the market-driven imperatives outlined here.
A vast system of trade certainly existed, by now extending across the
globe. But nowhere, neither in the great trading centers of Europe nor in
the vast commercial networks of the Islamic world or Asia, was economic
activity, and production in particular, driven by the imperatives of
competition and accumulation. The dominant principle of trade everywhere
was "profit on alienation," or "buying cheap and selling dear"-typically,
buying cheap in one market and selling dear in another.

International trade was essentially "carrying" trade, with merchants buying
goods in one location to be sold for a profit in another. But even within a
single, powerful, and relatively unified European kingdom like France,
basically the same principles of noncapitalist commerce prevailed. There
was no single and unified market, a market in which people made profit not
by buying cheap and selling dear, not by carrying goods from one market to
another, but by producing more cost-effectively in direct competition with
others in the same market.

Trade still tended to be in luxury goods, or at least goods destined for
more prosperous households or answering to the needs and consumption
patterns of dominant classes. There was no mass market for cheap everyday
consumer products. Peasant producers would typically produce not only their
own food requirements but other everyday goods like clothing. They might
take their surpluses to local markets, where the proceeds could be
exchanged for other commodities not produced at home. And farm produce
might even be sold in markets further afield. But here again, the
principles of trade were basically the same as in manufactured goods.

These noncapitalist principles of trade existed side-by-side with
noncapitalist modes of exploitation. For instance, in western Europe, even
where feudal serfdom had effectively disappeared, other forms of
"extra-economic" exploitation still prevailed. In France, for example,
where peasants still constituted the vast majority of the population and
still remained in possession of most land, office in the central state
served as an economic resource for many members of the dominant classes, a
means of extracting surplus labor in the form of taxes from peasant
producers. And even rent-appropriating landlords typically depended on
various extra-economic powers and privileges to enhance their wealth.

So peasants had access to the means of production, the land, without having
to offer their labor-power as a market commodity. Landlords and
office-holders, with the help of various "extra-economic" powers and
privileges, extracted surplus labor from peasants directly in the form of
rent or tax. In other words, while all kinds of people might buy and sell
all kinds of things in the market, neither the peasant-proprietors who
produced, nor the landlords and office-holders who appropriated what others
produced, depended directly on the market for the conditions of their
self-reproduction, and the relations between them were not mediated by the

But there was one major exception to this general rule. England, already in
the sixteenth century, was developing in wholly new directions. Although
there were other relatively strong monarchical states, more or less unified
under the monarchy (such as Spain and France), none was as effectively
unified as England (and the emphasis here is on England, not other parts of
the "British Isles"). In the sixteenth century, England-already more
unified than most in the eleventh century, when the Norman ruling class
established itself on the island as a fairly cohesive military and
political entity-went a long way toward eliminating the fragmentation of
the state, the "parcellized sovereignty" inherited from feudalism. The
autonomous powers held by lords, municipal bodies, and other corporate
entities in other European states were, in England, increasingly being
concentrated in the central state. This was in contrast to other European
states where even powerful monarchies continued for a long time to live
uneasily alongside other post-feudal military powers, fragmented legal
systems, and corporate privileges whose possessors insisted on their
autonomy against the centralizing power of the state.

The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material
foundations and corollaries. First, already in the 16th century, England
had an impressive network of roads and water transport that unified the
nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming
disproportionately large in relation to other English towns and to the
total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe),
was also becoming the hub of a developing national market.

The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was
English agriculture, which was unique in several ways. The English ruling
class was distinctive in two major and related respects: on the one hand,
as part of an increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a
centralizing monarchy, they did not possess to the same degree as their
Continental counterparts the more or less autonomous "extra-economic"
powers on which other ruling classes could rely to extract surplus labor
from direct producers. On the other hand, land in England had for a long
time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually
large proportion of land. This concentrated landownership meant that
English landlords were able to use their property in new and distinctive
ways. What they lacked in "extra-economic" powers of surplus extraction
they more than made up for by their increasing "economic" powers.

This distinctive combination had significant consequences. On the one hand,
the concentration of English landholding meant that an unusually large
proportion of land was worked not by peasant-proprietors but by tenants
(the word "farmer," incidentally, literally means "tenant"-a usage
suggested by phrases familiar today, such as "farming out"). This was true
even before the waves of dispossession, especially in the sixteenth and
eighteenth centuries, conventionally associated with "enclosure" (about
which more in a moment), in contrast, for example, to France, where a
larger proportion of land remained, and long continued to remain, in the
hands of peasants.

On the other hand, the relatively weak "extra-economic" powers of landlords
meant that they depended less on their ability to squeeze more rents out of
their tenants by direct, coercive means than on their tenants'
productivity. Landlords had a strong incentive, then, to encourage-and,
wherever possible, to compel-their tenants to find ways of increasing their
output. In this respect, they were fundamentally different from rentier
aristocrats who throughout history have depended for their wealth on
squeezing surpluses out of peasants by means of simple coercion, enhancing
their powers of surplus extraction not by increasing the productivity of
the direct producers but rather by improving their own coercive
powers-military, judicial, and political.

As for the tenants themselves, they were increasingly subject not only to
direct pressures from landlords but to market imperatives which compelled
them to enhance their productivity. English tenancies took various forms,
and there were many regional variations, but a growing number were subject
to economic rents, that is, rents not fixed by some legal or customary
standard but responsive to market conditions. By the early modern period,
even many customary leases had effectively become economic leases of this

The effect of the system of property relations was that many agricultural
producers (including prosperous "yeomen") were market-dependent, not just
in the sense that they were obliged to sell produce on the market but in
the more fundamental sense that their access to land itself, to the means
of production, was mediated by the market. There was, in effect, a market
in leases, in which prospective tenants had to compete. Where security of
tenure depended on the ability to pay the going rent, uncompetitive
production could mean outright loss of land. To meet economic rents in a
situation where other potential tenants were competing for the same leases,
tenants were compelled to produce cost-effectively, on penalty of

But even those tenants who enjoyed some kind of customary tenure which gave
them more security, but who might still be obliged to sell their produce in
the same markets, could go under in conditions where competitive standards
of productivity were being set by farmers responding more directly and
urgently to the pressures of the market. The same would increasingly be
true even of landowners working their own land. In this competitive
environment, productive farmers prospered and their holdings were likely to
grow, while less competitive producers went to the wall and joined the
propertyless classes.

In all cases, the effect of market imperatives was to intensify
exploitation in order to increase productivity-whether exploitation of the
labor of others or self-exploitation by the farmer and his family. This
pattern would be reproduced in the colonies, and indeed in
post-Independence America, where the independent small farmers who were
supposed to be the backbone of a free republic faced, from the beginning,
the stark choice of agrarian capitalism: at best, intense
self-exploitation, and at worst, dispossession and displacement by larger,
more productive enterprises.

Louis Proyect
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