The question of Spain

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Oct 24 16:56:15 MDT 2000

>From Ellen Meiksins Wood's "The Origin of Capitalism" (MR, 1999):

Marxist historians have persuasively demonstrated, against many arguments
to the contrary, that the greatest crime of European empire, slavery, made
a major contribution to the development of industrial capitalism. But here,
too, we have to keep in mind that Britain was not alone in exploiting
colonial slavery and that elsewhere it had different effects. Other major
European powers—France, Spain, Portugal—amassed great wealth from slavery
and from the trade in addictive goods like tobacco which, it has been
argued, fueled the trade in living human beings. But, again, only in
Britain was that wealth converted into industrial capital—and here again
the difference lies in the new capitalist dynamic which had already
transformed the logic of the British economy, setting in train the
imperatives of competitive production, capital accumulation, and
self-sustaining growth.


>From the introduction to "The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century",
edited by I.A.A. Thompson and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla (Cambridge University
Press, 1994):

The seventeenth century has long been established as a key moment in the
economic development of modern Europe, a period of crisis, which was
decisive for the transformation of the European economy and its
differentiation into Atlantic, Mediterranean and Eastern models, for the
transition from ‘feudal’ to ‘capitalist’ economic formations, and for the
subsequent genesis of the industrial revolution.’ Yet, in the now extensive
economic historiography of this crucial period, the marginalisation of
Spain is one of the most striking and most deplorable failings. It is
enough to examine the bibliographical references of scholars such as
Brenner, Hobsbawm, North and Thomas, De Vries, or Kriedte, among others,
for whom the seventeenth century is central to their depiction of Europe’s
long-term economic development, to recognise how unsatisfactory is their
treatment of metropolitan Spain.

Yet Spain’s role in early-modern Europe was pivotal. The economy of
Castile, which was four parts or more of Spain in terms of manpower and
wealth, was in many ways the hub of the entire economy of Europe. Not only
did it sustain, as long as it was able, the military and political hegemony
of the Spanish monarchy, which was itself the raison d’être of so much of
Europe’s international finance and exchange, it was also the link between
the North and the Mediterranean and between Europe and America, a key
market for grain, naval stores, copper, woollens, silks and linen, an
important supplier of raw wool and the main source of Europe’s precious
metals. The performance of the Castilian economy was thus a crucial factor
in the performance of all the other major European economies. For the first
three-quarters or more of the sixteenth century Castile’s population
multiplied, the arable was extended, agricultural production increased, the
level of urbanisation rose, the manufacture of silks and woollens
flourished in the great textile centres of Toledo, Granada, Segovia and
Cordoba; wool exports remained buoyant until the 1560s, foreign trade until
the 1590s, and traffic with the Indies until the 1610s. In the last quarter
of the sixteenth century this expansion first petered out and then fell
back on itself. The progressive downturn of the Castilian economy was
arguably one of the triggers of the general crisis of the European economy
in the seventeenth century, the mark of the shift of economic preponderance
from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and the archetypical model of the
‘failed’ economy.

The experience of Spain is thus one of the keys to an understanding of the
dynamics of the early-modern European economy. Yet the economic history of
Spain is perhaps the worst known of all the major economies of sixteenth
and seventeenth-century Europe among early-modem historians. This ignorance
is undoubtedly related to the paucity of information that has been
available until quite recently, as well as to the limited accessibility of
original Spanish work to non-Spanish historians. In 1958, in a review of
the recent historiography of early-modern Spain, the authors, Jaime Vicens
Vives, Joan Reglâ and Jordi Nadal, drew attention to the enormous gaps in
our knowledge of Spanish economic history. Like J. H. Elliott in his
celebrated article on the decline of Spain three years later, they pointed
to the excessive concentration of historians on external influences on the
Spanish economy and the relative neglect of internal factors. Agrarian
conditions, land holding, methods and techniques of cultivation, crops,
yields and returns, regional differences, population structure and change,
organisation of manufacturing activity, of the trades and crafts,
investment, markets, the structure of demand were all key areas of the
economy about which solid knowledge was almost lacking; there was no
adequate modem study of any industry substantial piece of recent research
on any local or urban economy.

That lack they attributed in large part to the domination of Spanish
economic history by foreign scholarship with its own concerns and
preoccupations, which both skewed work in the direction of commerce,
foreign trade, monetary flows and the international credit system, and
filtered the explanation of the ‘decline of Spain’ through national and
religious prejudices and the interlocking prisms of Protestant
individualism, political liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and
the teleological perspectives of industrialisation and modernisation. Thus
the failure of the Spanish economy has in a long tradition that extends
from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth been
explained in terms of arbitrary government, a bad religion, the tyrannical
Inquisition, reactionary hidalgo values, the wretched laziness of the
people, the absence of a capitalist and entrepreneurial spirit and other
failings of the national character, as much as in terms of objective
economic analysis.

(more to follow)

Louis Proyect
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