Ellen Meiksins Wood:The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

Ellen Meiksins Wood is co-editor of Monthly Review.

One of the most well established conventions of Western culture is the association of capitalism with cities. Capitalism is supposed to have been born and bred in the city. But more than that, the implication is that any city—with its characteristic practices of trade and commerce—is by its very nature potentially capitalist from the start, and only extraneous obstacles have stood in the way of any urban civilization giving rise to capitalism. Only the wrong religion, the wrong kind of state, or any kind of ideological, political, or cultural fetters tying the hands of urban classes have prevented capitalism from springing up anywhere and everywhere, since time immemorial—or at least since technology has permitted the production of adequate surpluses.

What accounts for the development of capitalism in the West, according to this view, is the unique autonomy of its cities and of their quintessential class, the burghers or bourgeois. In other words, capitalism emerged in the West less because of what waspresent than because of what was absent: constraints on urban economic practices. In those conditions, it took only a more or less natural expansion of trade to trigger the development of capitalism to its full maturity. All that was needed was a quantitative growth which occurred almost inevitably with the passage of time (in some versions, of course, helped along but not originally caused by the Protestant Ethic).

There are many things to be said against these assumptions about the natural connection between cities and capitalism. Among them is the fact that they tend to naturalize capitalism, to disguise its distinctiveness as a historically specific social form, with a beginning and (no doubt) an end. The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear as a more or less automatic consequence of practices as old as human history, or even the automatic consequence of human nature, the “natural” inclination, in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter, and exchange.”

Perhaps the most salutary corrective to these assumptions—and their ideological implications—is the recognition that capitalism, with all its very specific drives of accumulation and profit-maximization, was born not in the city but in the countryside, in a very specific place, and very late in human history. It required not a simple extension or expansion of barter and exchange but a complete transformation in the most basic human relations and practices, a rupture in age-old patterns of human interaction with nature in the production of life’s most basic necessities. If the tendency to identify capitalism with cities is associated with a tendency to obscure the specificity of capitalism, one of the best ways of understanding that specificity is to consider the agrarian origins of capitalism.

For more please see:  MONTHLY REVIEW  Home  1998  Volume 50, Issue 03 (July-August)  The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

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