The Origin of Capitalism: the ‘cunning of reason’, law and form

October 13, 2009

One of the central tenets of Wood’s book is that capitalism is different from feudalism is several respects – most importantly that under capitalism the market acts a compulsive force, while under feudalism it is and opportunity to be taken; that under feudalism property is “politically constituted” and surplus is extracted via extra-economic means (law, force custom), whereas under capitalism the property relations legitimized by the state constitute it such that the economy becomes its own means of surplus extraction. The consequences of this thesis are felt in regards to the state as well as ‘modernity’.

In the case of the former, one must first take into account the contradictions that are part and parcel of capitalism. Wood mentions at least two: first, proletarianization created a market of people that needed to buy the basic means of survival (where the would previously have made these necessities themselves), but were too poor to pay much for these necessities. Capitalists then had to produce their commodities in large numbers to make these goods cheap enough for these people to afford (i.e. rely on economies of scale). This created the need to increase labour productivity. Based on this Wood concludes that “This was, in other words, the first economic system in history in which the limitations of the market impelled instead of inhibiting the forces of production” (140). Or as Marx describes the significance of capital’s internal contradictions in the 3rd volume of Capital, “the limit of capital is capital itself.” This logic is proven to be that of the other contradiction Wood presents.

The second contradiction that Wood acknowledges is the need to expand into new markets (imperialism) and then limit that expansion as it threatens that capital’s existence (e.g.: the threat of colonized Ireland becoming a strong competitor for English enterprise), something Wood calls “one of the founding contradictions of capitalism” (155). This contradiction is repeated again with reference to globalization: as capital expands beyond the limits of whatever nation in which it is found, it needs the protection of nation states in order to maintain itself as it grows (177). That is, capitalism needs the state, the ‘extra-economic’, to maintain the conditions (the legal, infrastructural, and social – i.e. maintaining the populations capital destroys that they might continue to be exploited) that make it possible even as it dissolves those laws (179).

More than this, Wood argues that the state was not created by capital, nor capital created by the state (as Anderson’s discussion of the French Absolutist state would have it) [note, however, that Wood concedes that the Absolutist state perhaps prepared the way for capitalism in centralizing the state and removing trade barriers, but perhaps only served as a means to transition because of the influence of the pre-existence of capital and its influence on France in England – page 121], but that the particular conditions in England were such that the modern state and capitalism grew-up together (unevenly, however, with capitalism helping the state “mature”) (173). This is to say that there was another process that made both happen at once (“the particular form of English state formation belonged to the same process that brought about capitalism” – page 173).

This process is not entirely clear in Wood’s description – one surmises that it is clearer in The Brenner Debate, from which the primary arguments of Wood’s work are drawn. She provides only the following hint in Origins:

…it is a matter of lords and peasants, in certain specific conditions particular to England, involuntarily setting in train a capitalist dynamic while acting, in class conflict together, to reproduce themselves as they were (52). [see also page 58, and to a lesser extent pages 38 and 66]

That is, a Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’ sees class conflict unintentionally giving birth to the logic of capitalism. The consequence of the attempt of these classes to reproduce themselves was a lease system that functioned according to capitalist market-logic (“It could even be said that there existed a market in leases” – page 53; see also page 100). Where in France office-holders in the Absolutist state were able to use their ‘extra-economic’ powers (military, juridical, political – page 100) to extract more surplus from the existing output of the peasants within their charge, English landlords had no such ability. In England, the state was more centralized than anywhere else is Europe, which meant that the ‘parcellized sovereignty’ of French feudalism did not exist, or at least didn’t exist to the same extent. In addition to this, landholdings in England were particularly large (Wood doesn’t give the reason for this) such that much of the agricultural work in England was not done by land-owning peasants, but land-renting tenant-farmers (i.e. the triad of landowner, capitalist tenant and wage labourer as found in, for example, the third volume of Capital). In the English context extracting surplus then meant not merely taking more of the existing yield of the tenant through ‘extra-economic means’ (which were less available to English landowners than French ones) but by encouraging higher productivity in their tenants in order to extract more rent (99-100). That is, English landowners began to lease their lands based on one’s ability to pay the more than other people for the use of the land. In this way, rents determined by custom were phased out and “economic-rents” – rental rates based on competition – took their place. In this Wood sees the first capitalist market (one that does not provide opportunities, but compulsions), the logic of which would come to dominant the world.

(Though it is briefly mentioned here, Wood does not explain the genesis of a commodity market: It is her contention that French peasants were less likely to begin focusing on commodity production because they could do well enough on the land which they owned and for which they paid low rents set by custom. The English that worked the land however, were more likely to start focusing on commodity production in part because of the reasons given above. A discussion of this development is left out, however, but likely to be found in Brenner’s work….)

It is Wood’s contention that it is class-struggle that births capitalism from within the logic of feudalism (though she rejects the notion that the French revolution of 1789 was a capitalist revolution – she constantly refers to George Comninel’s book on the subject [It was his dissertation at York, and I think she supervised it], and argues that the term ‘bourgeois’ is not to be confused with ‘capitalist.’ The gist of this argument is that there were indeed class conflicts behind the French revolution, but these were not capitalist in character). The problem with this book is that this history is generally glossed (though one supposes it is given in her Pristine Cultures of Capitalism and Brenner’s papers in The Brenner Debate). Given the above, Wood’s burden is to show 1) how and why the English state and economy became more centralized and 2) how land became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. One supposes that these might be part of the same cause/tendency, but the latter (as far as I can see) is not discussed in this book. The former is given, albeit in broad strokes. Her thesis in this regard is given in the following statement:

The feudal ruling class was eventually compelled to consolidate its fragmented political power in the face of peasant resistance and the plainly untenable disorder of aristocratic conflict. Parcellized sovereignty gave way to more centralized monarchies in some parts of Europe and to the “modern” nation state. The centralizing monarchies of Europe created territorial states in which the central more or less sovereign power exerted is predominant coercive force over a more or less well-defined territory. But the fluid boundaries of feudalism were never firmly fixed until personal rule was replaced by an impersonal state, and that could never be fully accomplished until the separation of the “political” and “economic”, the moments of appropriation and coercion, private property and public power. That separation would be completed only in capitalism (168-9).

This is to say that class conflict within feudalism was between the lower and upper classes and within the upper classes; that when capitalism began, the separation between political and economic power was not complete, but that market compulsion was the dominant tendency; that (as already noted) capitalism is needed to bring the modern state into existence.

All this is to open up the question of the relationship of the state to the economy that is dialectical rather than linear: it is not that the economy transforms the state, nor that the state creates a new type of economy, but that one presupposes the other. It is here that the idea of “form” becomes important: Wood consistently asserts that capitalism is a particular “social form” made distinct by particular property relations (e.g :24; 47; 68; 74; 76; 97; 125; 141; 143; 146; 178; 183). This relation is the destruction of communal/traditional/customary property (i.e. Feudal relations in which the peasant still owns their own means of production) and the establishment of capitalist private property (i.e. the enclosure movement and the separation of peasants from their means of production – the land). To put it otherwise, the change in social form is the transformation of enjoyment in the legal sense of access to property. This is, of course, one of the senses that is included in Lacan’s use of the term, and perhaps the above discussion aids in grounding the ‘four discourses’ that he presents in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: though he chides his audience against any hunt for origins, it is possible to see in the history of the transition from feudalism to capitalism a (literal) transformation of enjoyment, where access to property is transformed with great consequence to human interaction, both with ourselves and our environs. The way in which surplus is attained is not the same under a feudal master or for the “masterless men” of capitalism (i.e. peasants “freed” in Marx’s double sense of ‘from the feudal masters’ and ‘from the means of life’).

What is immediately important is the relation between the state and the economy. As quoted above, Wood asserts that one process belied the creation of these two spheres: “the particular form of English state formation belonged to the same process that brought about capitalism” (173). Wood formulates this slightly differently a few pages earlier: “the social transformation that brought about capitalism, with its characteristic opposition between economic and political spheres, were the same ones that brought the nation state to maturity” (171). What Woods says immediately after this, however, is that this separation (mentioned above – economic power separate from the state such that wealth from surplus extraction must come from the economy rather than from holding state-office, etc) exists before the market logic of capitalism is established. This separation is then the ‘contingent’ condition that is necessary for market-logic to emerge, a ‘contingent’ separation that then becomes necessary for the continued existence of capital (see the discussion of the expansion of capital beyond its original national borders). This necessity is seen in the creation of law: another conclusion that follows from Woods argument is that the enclosure movement and proletarianization is the consequence of capitalism, and not its condition, its effect and not its cause. That is, the laws imposed to maintain and enable enclosure came afterward; the laws that maintain capital’s existence and expansion come after and not before capital’s existence. Might we then say that the law is the formalization of capitalism, that capital as a “social form” – as a regulation of enjoyment – only when it becomes law. If this is the case, then it is not simply that there is an economic base and a political, juridical, etc, superstructure, but that the base becomes ‘form’ only in the superstructure. (Q: could “superstructure” be thought of as the content of the “base”? There would be Hegelian consequences: i.e. form and content as one…Time to re-read the 4th chapter of Tarrying with the Negative…).

In this sense, then, is it correct to say that Wood’s assertion that the ‘maturing’ of the modern state is a consequence of the existence of capitalism is to say that the state becomes capitalist only in the transformation of its laws? This is a thesis that might be confirmed in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which Marx emphasizes the importance of the Constitution and “organic law” [see e.g. page 30 of EBLB] – the former of which is also, it should be added, the focus of Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Perhaps more pertinently, it is a thesis that might also find tenure in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in which Marx claims that it is the material conditions of production that change first, with law and the rest of the superstructure (politics, religion, art, philosophy – the “ideological forms of the class struggle”) following suit:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure (Early Writings, 425-6).

It’s also worth noting what Marx here says about Hegel’s POR, if only because someone like Poulantzas dismisses this early work because of Marx’s use of “civil society” and because he didn’t include “class struggle”:

The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law…. My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations not political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term ‘civil society’; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy (425).

The question is then how these laws come about. Wood writes that they are the result of litigation and ideology: i.e. peasants and landlords turn to the courts to settle disputes, and judges rule in favour of enclosure and define private property (which also existed in pre-capitalist formations) as exclusive (which pre-capitalist property was not – see pages 107-8). Judges accepted as arguments the ideology of “improvement” – the philosophy that land was ‘waste’ if not producing profit for its holders – and tended to rule in favour of enclosure. Wood gives a summary of the ideas of John Locke as an example of this ideology, pointing out that Locke’s ideas were compatible with his class position: i.e. they didn’t come before capitalism, but as a product of it.

(A discussion of ‘improvement’ also takes up a notable chunk of McNally’s Against the Market. McNally is, of course, another student of Wood).

The timeline is somewhat sketchy to me, but this is followed by the English civil war (1642-52) in which enclosure was a major issue, and the “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89), which saw the overthrow of a state ruled by divine right and its replacement with a state based in parliamentary right (set forth in the Bill of Rights of 1689). In the latter case (i.e. the Glorious Revolution), the state was the rule of England’s large landholders, who used the parliament to further entrench enclosure and definitions of exclusive private property. I.e., the state became “the dictatorship of the ruling class”.

To be continued… (re: modernism)


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