[Marxism] The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 7 13:37:20 MDT 2007

I have begun reading Eric Mielant’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the 
Rise of the West.” The book reminds me that the “transition debate” is 
not just about dry, academic disputes over whether turnips were more 
critical to the rise of capitalism than sugar. As should be obvious from 
the title, “the rise of the west” addresses the question of how Great 
Britain and then the United States became hegemonic. There is obviously 
an ideological imperative from bourgeois historians and sociologists to 
prioritize the “internal” factors in Europe–Great Britain in 
particular–because none of them wants to admit that the rise of the west 
was accomplished by stepping on the backs of slaves and the corpses of 
indigenous peoples.

In the 19th century, when social Darwinism was at its peak, the rise of 
the west was explained in terms of the survival of the fittest. There 
was a certain genius to northern Europe that helped it to dominate the 
rest of the world. In the 20th century, particularly under the impact of 
the colonial revolution, it was no longer impossible to be so crass. 
Instead, there were efforts to be more “scientific”. For example, Jared 
Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” in order to show that the 
Europeans were not more intelligent or creative than those they came to 
rule, only more resistant to germs. You find a similar approach with 
Robert Brenner, who tries to prove that an accident of history–namely 
the rise of lease farming in Great Britain–led to the rise of capitalism 
and hence the rise of the west.

The latest explanation for the rise of the west is about as “internal” 
as you can get. As reported in today’s NY Times , Gregory Clark, a 
historian at U. of California/Davis, says it is all in our genes!

     If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s 
behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the 
Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve 
the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.

     Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity 
could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in 
some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. 
“Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial 
Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern 
economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the 
modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or 

Gosh, some people have all the luck. The British rose to the top of the 
heap because it was in their genes. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and 
Charles Murray wrote “The Bell Curve” to demonstrate that genetic 
differences between Blacks and whites accounted for economic and social 
inequality. I doubt that Clark is as reactionary as these two bastards, 
but he does seem to have it in for any attempts at a class analysis of 
the rise of capitalism. In his review of Michael Perelman’s “The 
Invention of Capitalism,” Clark dismisses the idea that game laws were 
used in order to force British peasants off the land:

     Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case 
of the Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in 
the countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 
1670 to take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very 
substantial property qualification. In both England and Scotland these 
laws became more severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more 
people were convicted under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new 
capitalist class and their PR agents, the Political Economists, support 
these feudal restrictions in favor of the country squires? They did so 
because it took away the sources of support that kept the poor in the 
countryside from the factory door. They did so because a hunting peasant 
was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not a docile and dependable 

(I should mention that Michael’s book is excellent in all respects, but 
that it too tends to identify primitive accumulation strictly in terms 
of the “internal” changes taking place in the British countryside. 
Perhaps he might consider writing a follow up one day that is inspired 
by the other aspect of primitive accumulation, namely the slave trade 
and the expropriation and murder of indigenous Americans.)


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