Sheep and the rise of capitalism in England

Mark Jones jones118 at
Sat Jun 2 02:16:07 MDT 2001

Chris Burford wrote:

> Although Wood's book "A Trumpet of Sedition"  (with Neal Wood) is
> subtitled
> 'Political Theory and the Rise of Capitalism 1509-1688', the following
> passage shows that the issue of wool is important to her
> explanation of the
> basis of the rise of English capitalism prior to this period.
> On page 17 of the Pluto, London, pb edition of this book (1997)
> (preface by
> Christopher Hill) in the first chapter, entitled 'Two Centuries of
> Revolution' she wrote:
> " While agricultural advances could not be matched by those of the
> manufacturing and commercial sectors, even here headway was far from
> negligible. Capitalist agriculture was encouraged by the accelerating
> demand for the export of woolen textiles. Since the twelfth century raw
> wool had been the leading export, to be replaced in the fifteenth century
> by woolen textiles the production of which greatly expanded in
> the next two
> centuries, not only for sale abroad but also for the home market.
> Enormous operations by capitalist graziers, especially in the south and
> east, helped to satisfy the need for raw wool to be woven into
> textiles by
> the thriving industry of rural cottagers. The weaving, collecting,
> finishing and distribution of cloth for export and home consumption was
> organized by capitalist entrepreneurs. So rural England was the
> birthplace
> not only of agrarian capitalism but also of English capitalist
> manufacture
> in the production of textiles."
> This does not mean that Samir Amin, for whom I have a lot of
> admiration, is
> necessarily wrong in arguing that imperialism in the sense of
> colonisation
> of the rest of the world by Europe is inherent to the *expansion* of
> capitalism.

Amin surely does not argue merely that imperialism is "inherent" but
repeatedly says that it is a primary motor behind capitalist expansion. This
is not just a nuance.

What Ellen Wood is constantly trying to do, in the face of the evidence
which she herself often adduces, and which she then draws wrong or
unjustified conclusions from, is to claim that capitalism is a "wholly new",
"unprecedented" mode of production which arose uniquely in the English
countryside because of events and processes specific to England. This stands
reality on its head. English agrarian capitalism arose not because England
was isolated from the world, but because of a long prior development of
farming practice, and of rural social relations, which was moulded and
shaped by Britian's participation in an already-existing world-system. If
you only read Brenner, or only read Wood, you would find it hard to learn
the truth. But we have other sources.

Wood, like Brenner, argues that in England the emergence of outwork, "free"
waged labour, and a class of rent-seeking landlords, were some of the key
prerequisites which were allegedly absent elsewhere. This kind of argument
does not stand up as scholarship; what it does do is to try to enable and
legitimise a reformist politics, that is it argues for the kind of obsession
with the minutiae of domestic matters, of parliamentary business and the
struggle for small reforms in Congress, which is indeed very often and very
visibly the metier of exactly those folks who are ALSO loudly supporting the
"marxism" of Brenner/Wood and deploring the "philosophical idealism" and the
"unmarxist moralism" which some people are constantly and erroneously
complaing about.

The pattern this debate seems to have is that first the Brenner/Wood thesis
is presented and then it is subjected to a little scrutiny, whereupon it
falls apart. At this point, loud cries are heard that this is all
'irrelevant' anyway, and that we are getting swamped with 'history' and with
boring stuff about things like slavery, the genocidal extermination of First
Nations etc, which all happened long ago and cannot be compared in
importance with the fate of Bush's tax bill or with the question of what or
whom Andrew Sullivan does or does not do.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of awkward questions for the
Brennerites to answer. To take Chris Burford's excerpt from Wood's recent
book: Wood gives the impression that agrarian capitalism arose deus ex
machina, but the problem Wood has is that England was a monetised economy
locked into a global systems of capital movements, markets and a global
division of labour, long before shee seems to think was the case. In the
16th century England was far from the rural backwater stuck on the edge of
Europe which she repeatedly says it was. She has a way of canning the
awkward facts even while silently incorporating their consequences. It is
this kind of hackwork which arouses suspicions about her scholarship,

Wool, as a matter of historical fact, has a very long history as a commodity
exported from Britain and was one of the reasons why the ancient Romans
invaded the place. 500 years after the Romans left, the wool industry was
still so important to Anglo-Saxon England that control of its wealth was one
of William the Conqueror's main motivations for attacking Harold Godwinsson.
Wool was important to the breathtaking growth of industrial cities like
Bruges, Ghent, and the North Italian cities in the 12th century. Wool was
one of the main motivations for the persisting attempts made by the Normans
to crush the Welsh principality in the 12th and 13th century. Wool was
connected with a huge growth in European fulling, weaving and dyeing
industries. The population of Europe almost doubled and many towns and
cities date from this era. Woollen textiles were traded widely back down the
Silk Roads and by the 13th century there was a true world system of
mercantile trade, and a world division of labour,  stretching from Beijing
to Vienna and incorporating France and the British Isleas as
fully-integrated outliers. Janet Abu-Lughod is the definitive historian of
this period.

The Silk Roads were the axis of this fully-functional world-system. The real
source of Mongol power--and the fact that Genghis Khan's empire happened --
was because of the accident that Mongolia straddled the
strategically-crucial Silk Routes. The struggle to find a way around the
Mongol empire by sea became  an obsession of Western scholars, mapmakers,
financiers and merchant-adventurers who since the time of the Crusades had
sought to enter the trade and production powerhouse which then stretched
from Byzantium, to the Caspian to southern China and Korea. Marco Polo was
only one of many who sought an answer to the problem of reconstructing this
world system on more European terms. Columbus was another.

In fact, England was a monetised economy by early Norman times, and the
whole thrust of Norman policy was to develop English markets and the
productivity of English agriculture, including primarily of course, wool. To
read Wood, none of this quite happened. What she and Brenner are concerned
about was what to them seems almost a miraculous thing, namely the emergence
deus ex machina of an English landed interest based on rent.

Of course, there were very few rentier landlords in pre-Reformation England,
altho there were indeed large pools of "free" waged labour. So there is a
big difference between the social relations of the ''English countryside"
before and after the 16-17th centuries. But what was the crucial event which
led to the change? The Reformation.

Well, it is very difficult indeed to show that what Henry VIII (1491-1547)
wanted to do was to create English capitalism, and that that was why he
reformed the churched and dissolved the monasteries, in the process
privatising their huge landholdings. Henry had an odd attitude to his wives.
By an accident of birth, he tended to father girls. This was a dynastuc
headache and he blamed (wrongly) his queens. If Henry hadn't produced the
wrong kind of sperm, the Reformation might not have happened, and where
would Brenner/Wood be then?

Because it was the Reformation and the Dissolution which above all other
events, triggered the succession of events which did lead to Enclosure, the
loss of the commons, the creation of an English capitalist agriculture and
the class of rent-seeking landlords. This shows, if it shows anything, that
the events and processes which led to the emergence of English capitalism
were (a) dominated since ancient times by the existence of a world-system
which connected Europe, the Middle East and Asia and whose main commodities
were textiles and silver -- and this world-system was the objective,
material context within which the contingent events, the flow of accident
and coincidence on the historical surface-- was embedded.

Thus (b) the events which catalysed the emergence of industrial capital in
Englad rather than elsewhere where often fortuitous, coincidental, and
completely unrelated to the final outcome (unless you can find another way
to connct up Henry VIII's anger at Ann Boleyn to the Industrial Revolution).

Wood is seemingly capable of saying "Since the twelfth century raw > wool
had been the leading export" and then of going on to almost at once speak of
"rural England [as] the > birthplace > not only of agrarian capitalism but
also of English capitalist > manufacture > in the production of textiles",
and not see that what she herself is describing is how from the very first
days, English society and agriculture and English civilisation generally,
was dynamically linked to a burgeoning world system, and that it was
precisely this which energised the successive waves of transformation of the
"English countryside", making it, even by Shakespeare's time, a mere
appendage to London--which was already (after Edo, Japan) the world's
biggest urban centre, one completely devoted to international trade, finance
and colonial affairs, a city and a court whose eye was turned not inland but
towards France, the middle East, Asia, and finally, crucially, towards the

History-writing as bad as Wood's must be bad for a reason: and that is that
Ellen Mieksins Wood is trying to provide a political cover for a crass and
primitive and parochial reformism.

If you want socialism, you have to understand that capitalism is a
world-system which was formed by and emerged from earlier world-systems
(effacing them in the process), and that imperialism was present from the
beginning and is determinant now. But that requires a different kind of
politics, in practice.

As Samir Amin indeed puts it in his article in the June 2001 Monthly Review:

>>Imperialism is not a stage, not even the highest stage, of capitalism:
from the beginning, it is inherent in capitalism’s expansion.<<  What he
means is not, there's this thing, capitalism, and this other thing,
imperialism, which is a result of it. He means that imperialism has always
since early times been the formative influence in the cretaion of
contemporary world-systems and that capitalism, too, is an imperialist
world-system, and the illusion that capitalism emerged spontaneously in
England or anywhere else, and is therefore logically and historically prior
to imperialism, is just that-- a convenient illusion.

Mark Jones

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