[Marxism] Fwd: Ed George's Question

Ralph Johansen mdriscollrj at charter.net
Wed Feb 6 12:34:56 MST 2013

Shane Mage wrote

On Feb 6, 2013, at 6:47 AM, Ed George wrote:

Me: Capitalists introduce technical change because it allows them (the 
innovators) to realise an above average rate of profit (at least for a 
period of time). Other capitalists are forced to adopt new techniques 
(through competition) to avoid being priced out of the market. My 
question is: why are capitalists *necessarily* driven to pursue 
surplus-profits? That they are is an observable fact; but why are they?

The answer is insecurity. In the competitive-capitalism model used by 
Marx (well reflecting the institutional framework of that epoch's 
capitalism) productivity-raising technological change allows its adopter 
to undersell the others and drive the weaker ones out of the market.


I looked quickly at this exchange. I sense that the point ignored which 
causes this circular discussion may be that the origins, as v the 
operative functions and mechanisms, of the system called capitalism are 
not front and center. So I dug out this exchange with Lou from several 
years back, in which we discussed the views of Jim Blaut as opposed to 
or complemented by those of Robert Brenner and Ellen Wood. If there is 
subsequent elaboration I haven't followed it:

* To: PEN-L at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
* Subject: Re: New territories for original accumulation: extending the 
boundaries of the exploitable
* From: Ralph Johansen <michele at xxxxxxxx>
* Date: Sun, 31 Aug 2003 08:36:07 -1000
* Comments: To: pen-l at galaxy.csuchico.edu 
<mailto:pen-l at galaxy.csuchico.edu>

Re: New territories for original accumulation: extending the boundaries 
of the exploitable by Carrol Cox
30 August 2003 15:51 UTC < < < Thread Index

Carrol wrote:

<Do read the books of Ellen Meiksins Wood.>

I second that: whether one agrees or disagrees, Ellen Wood's succinct 
account of how and why the unique phenomenon of capital accumulation 
occurred from a base point of the transformation from extra-economic to 
economic coercion, agrarian capitalism to industrial capitalism, 
surplus, rent and dispossession of landed tenants from their means of 
production, enforced sale of labor power in exchange for a wage, 
dominance of the commodity form produced for the market, competition, 
the dominance of the City of London, accumulation and 
profit-maximization, the ethic of "improvement", especially of property 
and as the justification for "dispossession" in the colonies, as 
enunciated by John Locke, and so forth, goes a long way in accounting 
for England's leg up.

It is also thoroughly consistent, by the way, with the painstaking 
documentation laid out by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English 
Working Class.

The argument centers about her assertion that "England, a society in 
which wealth still derived predominantly from agricultural production, 
the self-reproduction of both major economic actors in the agrarian 
sector - direct producers and the appropriators of their surpluses - 
was, at least from the sixteenth century, increasingly dependent on what 
amounted to capitalist practices: the maximization of exchange value by 
means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, 
accumulation, and innovation".

The main shortcoming asserted by her critics is that she treats of 
colonial accumulation in a summary way or not at all - aside from this 
at the end of her MR article in 1998: "without its growing wealth, 
together with wholly new motivations for colonial expansion - 
motivations different from the old forms of territorial acquisition - 
British imperialism would have been a very different thing than the 
engine of industrial capitalism it was to become" - there is nothing 
said about the wealth derived from colonial plunder: it is treated by 
her as coming AFTER the basic elements of a capitalist mode were already 
in place [or contemporaneous with them as well], and therefore not 
germane to her main thesis about "origins".

She adds: "And (this is no doubt a more contentious point) without 
English capitalism there would probably have been no capitalist system 
of any kind: it was competitive pressures emanating from England, 
especially an industrialized England, that compelled other countries to 
promote their own economic development in capitalist directions".

I don't know whether she felt it necessary to correct for that short 
shrift for external sources of accumulation in her writings subsequent 
to The Origins of Capitalism, which I haven't read since it came out. 
But nothing in her explanation seems to be inconsistent with sources of 
accumulation in its many external forms, whether generalized absolute 
surplus, slavery, the perdurance of merchant capital, financing of 
development elsewhere, or other colonial and external sources of wealth; 
and of course those aspects of accumulation also were important in the 
process of development of capitalism, IF NOT of the process of 
germination, inception or enabling.

To me, hers is as well a convincing differentiation of merchant capital, 
or buying cheap and selling dear, from industrial capital, and how one 
did not necessarily or at all arise from the other, which has stemmed 
from the fifties controversy, through Brenner, and which for me needed 
further clarification. And how the centralized state enabled a unified 
contiguous market in England, a unified legal system for security of 
property, contract and sale, and attenuation of the landed gentry's 
capacity for extra-economic coercion.

Blaut writes: "All of the important attributes of late-medieval English 
rural society, and its class struggles, were to be found in the same 
period in many parts of southern Europe, Africa, and Asia. This includes 
untied peasantry, cash tenancy, rural wage-labor, large-scale production 
for sale, peasant struggle, and much more -- not excluding a certain 
pace of agricultural innovation. The evidence demonstrating all of this 
is fairly abundant for the Mediterranean and Asia, and the African 
evidence is mounting".

And "On the eve of colonialism, in 1500, some non-European regions were 
as developed as Europe (Blaut 1993; Frank 1998). Colonialism truncated 
development in these regions; it did not bring development as a gift 
from the colonizers."

But I have not seen anything more specific that he wrote in which he 
systematically took these factors which Wood laid out and which he said 
were also present elsewhere and conducted an analysis leading to a 
conclusion as to the inner core dynamics of the process that led to 
conditions uniquely conducive to the inception and development of 
capitalism - no theory certainly that is as convincing as are the 
conclusions of Brenner and Woods. This is all offered by me without 
going back of the MR article cited by Lou, to other sources other than 
Blaut's articles online. Please tell me if you think I'm missing 
something, if possible tell it in no more words than I've used, and I'll 
go back and re-read and will have learned something more, and the 
exchange might also be of interest to others. Also, please explain why 
Blaut's thesis is not incomplete because circular, offering no 
alternative explanation.

Like others, he seems to "naturalize" capitalism, as Wood says, to 
disguise its distinctiveness as a historically specific social form, 
with a beginning and
(no doubt) an end.

Wood sees the English case as 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 she then explores the 
specific conditions surrounding that unique situation.

Wood says, "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 

She also says, "But even within a single, powerful, and relatively 
unified European kingdom like France, basically the same principles of 
non-capitalist 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. But why go on about this? Wood has done a real service in 
laying out an important case, and it seems to me that it's not necessary 
to juxtapose her account with Blaut's in any basic way, the impetus of 
imperial accumulation in the DEVELOPMENT of capital accumulation as 
opposed to its uniquely domestic origins.

They're a fine fit for the most part, even though Blaut didn't see it 
that way, and one does not have to be exclusive of the other; all 
assuming that one doesn't discount the CENTRALITY of what Wood offers as 
accounting for a uniqueness in the ORIGIN of capitalism that is 
certainly NOT "eurocentric" nor is it portrayed by her as the product of 
Anglo-Saxon "superior" attributes, but rather as quite explicitly 


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