Thinking About the Weather (Underground)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jul 29 15:22:28 MDT 2002

>2) It was simply impossible to carry on a discussion with Weather. They
>didn't listen. (Lou Proyect speaking of Brenner or Wood gives the flavor
>of Weatherman style.)

For those who are interested in my take on Brenner and Wood, go to:

Here is a sample of my "weatherman" style:

The Brenner Thesis as Iberiantalism

In Ellen Meiksins Wood's defense of the Brenner thesis over the past 
several years, you can lose track of the issues that made it so 
controversial in the first place. This was not simply an analysis of how 
capitalism began, it was also an intervention into the debate around 
development strategy that was raging in the 1970s. This article will 
consider Wood's defense in light of scholarly material on the question of 
the transition to capitalism. It will also refocus the discussion on the 
often tortured development debate itself, which in my view has tended to 
reflect the class composition of the principals with all of the obvious 
problems. Put simply, a North American or European professor in an African 
university or on a United Nations assignment will be in a poor position to 
analyze class relations in the host country and to recommend necessary 
solutions. Ultimately, those sorts of solutions can only emerge from 
parties such as the kind that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin sought to build. 
Finally, the article will show how the Brenner thesis, if applied 
rigorously to modern South Africa, can only lead to absurd conclusions.

If you examine Ellen Meiksins Wood's polemic against the late Jim Blaut in 
the May-June 2001 Against the Current ("A Critique of Eurocentric 
Eurocentrism"), you will notice something very odd. Other than a citation 
of A.G. Frank's recently published "Reorient," all of the other six 
footnotes refer solely to articles written by Blaut or Brenner.

In contrast, Jim Blaut's chapter on Brenner in "Eight Eurocentric 
Historians" (Guilford, 2000) (about the same length as Wood's article) 
includes fifty-seven citations often referring to specialized, scholarly 
material. (1) For example, since Brenner's argument that capitalism began 
in the English countryside relies heavily on Eric Kitteridge's "The 
Agricultural Revolution," Blaut offers Titow's "English Rural Society, 
1200-1350" as an opposing view. When David Harvey spoke at Jim Blaut's 
memorial meeting in NYC recently, he said that while Jim was a dedicated 
revolutionary, he was also a conscientious scholar. As he put it, he took 
all of the baggage that went along with it quite seriously, including 

Either Ellen Meiksins Wood is unaware of countervailing scholarly material 
or, being aware of it, considers the Brenner thesis of such divine 
inspiration so as to be immune from counter-arguments. This, of course, is 
no way to deepen our understanding of capitalism's origins. Since the 
Brenner thesis rests on the uniquely capitalist and uniquely productive 
character of British agriculture from the 15th century onwards, one might 
expect somebody defending it to investigate alternative interpretations.

One can only wonder if Wood has stumbled across Philip T. Hoffman's 
much-heralded "Growth in a Traditional Society: the French Countryside 
1450-1815" (Princeton, 1996) in her peregrinations. Sifting through village 
records in Bretteville-l'Orguelleuse, Roville, and Neuviller, Hoffman makes 
a startling discovery. While at the outset he believed the failings of 
French agriculture "derived from the small size of peasant farms" and "the 
lack of English-style enclosures," the data gradually convinced him that 
sharecropping, a typical form of property relations in these villages, did 
not hamper productivity or innovation at all. (2) By all standard measures 
of labor productivity, France was the equal of Great Britain.

Or has she seen Kenneth Pomeranz's "The Great Divergence: China, Europe, 
and the Making of the Modern World Economy"? Pomeranz notes that in the 
sixteenth to eighteenth century, "China was closer to market-driven 
agriculture than was most of Europe, including most of western Europe." (3) 
He adds, "much of western Europe's farmland was far harder to buy or sell 
than that of China. Even in the nineteenth century, about 50 percent of all 
land in England was covered by family settlements, which made it all but 
impossible to sell."


As fruitful as it would be to explore France and China as counterfactuals 
to the Brenner thesis, my goal now is to subject Wood's rather off-the-cuff 
remarks on Spanish 'feudalism' to careful scrutiny. For Wood, Spain 
functions as an example of everything that can go wrong when you do not 
make the transition to capitalism. Instead of using its colonial wealth 
productively, Spain wasted it in "essentially feudal pursuits, especially 
war..." (An interesting perspective on war from a world-renown Marxist 
intellectual.) In contrast to Spain, the English were much more ruthless 
when it came to the exploitation of the land for farming. Concerned with 
commercial profit, they dedicated themselves to "improvement." Meanwhile, 
one would surmise that the vainglorious Spanish hidalgos were happiest, 
when not wasting good farmland, out looking for countries to pick fights with.

To put it bluntly, Wood's views on Spain and the Spanish colonies are a 
caricature. What is at work here is the kind of national and ethnic 
stereotyping that Edward Said attacked in "Orientalism." Perhaps we can 
coin a term to describe Wood's approach: Iberiantalism.

To begin with, it is necessary to tackle the question of whether there was 
such a thing as 'feudalism' in the Spanish settlements in the New World. 
One of the things that might confuse Wood is that the Spaniards created 
institutions such as the 'encomienda' (a kind of fiefdom) that had their 
origins--at least nominally--in feudal Spain. However, the class relations 
that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old 
World. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the 'mita,' a 
form of labor servitude that replaced the 'encomienda.'

Interestingly, the 'mita' was based on the Incan 'm'ita,' a form of labor 
servitude that existed in the Incan empire, a truly feudal system. In 
"Peru's Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 
1640," Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to 
make sure there is no confusion. He writes, "Traditionally, native society 
supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation 
system. Peasants served a m'ita, or turn, out of the community's total 
labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute 
collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local 
reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the 
community's kindreds." (4)

The Spanish 'mita' had virtually nothing in common with this. When an 
Indian was dragooned by the Spanish lord to go off to a mine or 'obraje' 
(early manufacturer operated in sweatshop conditions), production quotas 
were set arbitrarily at a level beyond what a 'mitayo' worker could 
produce. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children 
into the mine or 'obraje' to work just as is the case in places like 
Bangladesh today. In other words, Peru and Bolivia were turned into 
something like gigantic slave-labor camps.

Was this feudalism? If so, it was a peculiar form of feudalism considering 
the way that the system operated in Europe:

"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."(5)

It was exactly this kind of wasteful inefficiency of labor power that the 
rise of capitalism in Europe was directed against. In effect, the Spanish 
colonies were vast, early laboratories in which super-exploitation stripped 
of what Marx called "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" in the 
Communist Manifesto could be tested out.

By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed a 
roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist 
development throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading's "Miners 
and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" (Cambridge Press, 1971), the 
proof of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.

"In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes) and 327 
workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms and 
the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets, 
serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition, 
there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and 
suede goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry 
varied. In 1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men 
shut up within the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same 
year the corregidor stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were 
occupied in the spinning, weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry’s 
consumption of wool averaged about a million pounds and the value of its 
product was later reckoned to reach over million pesos a year. These 
figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers employed by the tobacco 

By what standard can these operations be called 'feudal' without making a 
mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the 
mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that 
Wood would foist on her reader.

The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to 
the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned 
the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural 
reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the 
project. His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that 
laws should not attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles 
to its development. While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam 
Smith. He not only read the "Wealth of Nations" in French, but translated 
it into Spanish. "How admirable when he analyses!", he declared with 
respect to Smith. (7) There was resistance to Jovellanos's program from the 
landed gentry, but no more or less so than in any other country in Europe 
at the time, including Great Britain. In any case, the notion of a 'feudal' 
Spain is utterly false. The Crown only sought to limit the power of the 
landowners, who had long ago dropped any connections to the sort of feudal 
paternalism described above. They were involved with commercial 
agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert Brenner admits that 
capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than two centuries 

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