Ellen Meiksins Wood – The Origin of Capitalism | Review

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

Ellen Meiksins WoodThe Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002)

Wood summarizes a debate among a certain subset of historians and economists about the origin of capitalism — favoring the theories of Robert Brenner.  This book is really meant as a partisan summary of a long-standing debate that she frames as now being mature and largely settled.  She lands some excellent jabs at some of the less plausible theories, like making the excellent point that critics of certain theories rely on aspects and assumptions underlying those very theories to make their criticisms. But much of her book rests on the insistence that the origins of capitalism must be explained by the rise of a specific, historically-observable economic mechanism.  She says that capitalism is really defined by dependency on a “market”, and any theory of the historical origin of capitalism must explain the rise of a market that did not previously exist.  In her own words:

“Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labour-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. *** Capitalism differs from other social forms because producers depend on the market for access to the means of production . . . ; while appropriators cannot rely on ‘extra-economic’ powers of appropriation by means of direct coercion . . . —but must depend on the purely ‘economic’ mechanisms of the market . . . . *** The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital.”

Mechanisms like double-entry bookkeeping are not significant enough for her to discuss in more than passing reference, despite the number of historians who have cited its importance.  This highlights Wood’s rather parochial framing of the debate about the origins of capitalism, ignoring whole swaths of seemingly important arguments.  One might agree with her statement that “The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital” yet disagree with her principal assertion that this means “all economic actors are dependent on the market” or that “[c]apitalism differs from other social forms because producers depend on the market for access to the means of production . . . .”  If — like me — you are unconvinced by Wood’s definition of capitalism and the limited purview of theories of its origin she deems worthy of discussion, then you will be unmoved by much of her book.

What if a working definition of capitalism is that it is a “social construct” (or a “social relation” if you will) in which society favors the accumulation and concentration of capital in private hands?  That is to say, when a favoring of the accumulation and concentration of capital in the hands of a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) becomes “typical” or a “law of tendency”.  Put yet another way, Nancy Fraser said that capitalism “is no mere economy . . . .  It is an institutionalized social order.” To quote Marx and Engels making more or less the same point, “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Marx wrote that “[i]t is . . . impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation.  It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.”  He also argued that “[t]he tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome.  Initially, to subjugate every moment of production itself to exchange and to suspend the production of direct use values not entering into exchange, i.e. precisely to posit production based on capital in place of earlier modes of production, which appear primitive [naturwüchsig] from its standpoint. Commerce no longer appears here as a function taking place between independent productions for the exchange of their excess, but rather as an essentially all-embracing presupposition and moment of production itself.”  He described markets as a tendency flowing from and constructed based upon (ideological) conceptions of capital, not the other way around.  Under this definition, specific mechanisms, like a “market”, are not central or solely determinative, and a patchwork of other mechanisms like brute force, adoption of fossil fuels and double-entry bookkeeping can assume important roles too (such as by generating “profit” through the externalization of costs).  In other words, this framing places “capitalism” in a different realm of abstraction than where Wood places it, despite many similarities to the wording of her definition.  As a social construct or social relation, it is neither a purely objective fact like temperature, wavelength, etc., nor is it a purely subjective individual belief — bearing in mind that even “objective” facts are only meaningful for non-objective reasons.  Moreover, by looking at a kind of tipping point at which this social construct becomes hegemonic so that society sufficiently favors private capital accumulation to reproduce that social construct over time, it is possible to look at the issue of its origins with reference to the philosophical concept of an “event”.  The philosopher Hegel called this “absolute recoil” that rests on self-positing “in which the cause is a retroactive effect of its effects”.  In a philosophical “event”, it is a bit like old Road Runner cartoons, in which Wile E. Coyote would chase Road Runner across a gorge, running over thin air and only plummeting into the gorge when he looks down and realizes there is no longer any ground beneath his feet.  The reason for the chase in the first place could be notions about survival or the usual struggles for power (as extensions of personal desires), with gaps or moments when no one was consciously paying attention that later take on significance.  Following this analogy, the origin of capitalism is the moment that a society with populations chasing after each other to get ahead looked down and decided that the old system was no longer under their feet.  In this sense, the possibility that “markets” were present before a society, collectively, decided that the old system (whatever that was) was no longer supporting its feet and it had fallen down into a market-based system is not as crucial as Wood insists because the significance and very meaning of a “market” had changed.  But, most importantly, this presents a question that is more a matter of sociology, philosophy, or political science than history, with origins in a power struggle, and Wood really had no particularly relevant expertise to answer that sort of question about the possible origins of capitalism, because these sorts of social constructs are not directly observable in the historical record.  She sticks with a dualistic framework of objective facts and subjective feelings, without recognizing social constructs as a third category and without acknowledging any reflexivity between categories.  In this sense Wood commits a scholastic fallacy, being unreflective of her own position as a privileged historian who personally gains from a theoretical framework that centers around historical analysis of “objective facts” rather than, say, socially or mentally constructed “illusions”.

These criticisms might seem curious given that Wood basically makes many astute statements about ideological hegemony in her book.  She even goes so far as to acknowledge the reproduction of ideologies.  But the problem is really that she makes such comments as passing asides, as if they are effects and symptoms of the economic mechanisms (markets) she elevates to a primary position.  In brief, her incessantly repeated tu quoque criticism that other theorists assume what they need to explain can be leveled at her as well!  She pursues a typical orthodox Marxist base/superstructure framework in which things like “markets” determine an economic base that guides and determines cultural superstructure — ironically, she might be known for objecting to that simplistic framework but here it is implicit in her analysis (in much the same way she criticizes people who hypocritically offer critiques that assume aspects of the commerce model of the origin of capitalism).  But the problem is that she is very consciously trying to denigrate by omission the great bulk of 20th Century politically left theoretical advancements in sociology, psychoanalysis and philosophy.  Her complete lack of discussion of the psychological mechanisms that link individuals to the origin and reproduction of class hierarchies in capitalism or to the distributions of power that produced and were reproduced under capitalism (in terms of being presupposed by individual subjects as a virtual point of reference; that is, workers unconsciously accept themselves as mere appendages to capital) suggests that these things are unimportant.  It is at precisely this point that it can be said that she assumes what is really in need of explanation.  Also, her assumption that “markets” represent a neutral mechanism that explains the origins of capitalism in a way that other theories do not seems to adopt the sort of Karl Popper-like neoliberal perspective that markets are non-ideological.  This opens her to yet another tu quoque criticism.  It also raises some very real questions about how she conceives of a proletarian revolution — underestimating the ways proletarians have a psychological link to the reproduction of capitalism that cannot be overcome simply by substituting this or that alternative non-market mechanism in a purely economic sense.

Her emphasis on “markets” as the central feature of capitalism is also curious in a few other ways.  Isn’t the term “capitalism” a reference to social significance of “capital” and a capitalist class?  Wood would almost have us rename “capitalism” as “marketism”!  But, more deeply, the problem is that Wood puts rather too much gloss on the concept of “capital”, going so far as to appear to conflate it with wealth generally.  The so-called Cambridge Capital Controversies were an arcane dispute between economists that nonetheless refuted some of the things that Wood appears to assume.  This problem is most apparent in her analysis of the Dutch vs. English cases regarding historically competitive locales around the time of the origin of capitalism.  Her analysis is glossed at such a high level that it is difficult to see where the factual support for her “market” thesis lies, while at the same time even her skeletal description suggests that the Dutch were concentrating (non-capital) wealth rather than capital and the difference seemed to arise from the hegemony of different social constructs in those different locales.  Marx argued that in capitalism the (continued) circulation of money as an end unto itself (as opposed to mere consumption) was important.   That is, accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake — including the ideological fantasy of the automatischem Subjekt (automatic subject) of his famous money-commodity-money (M-C-M) formula.  Engels wrote about this in terms of the origins of capitalism in England.  More recently, Ernest Mandel has explained how under capitalism social surplus takes the monetary form of surplus value and how capitalists need to convert a significant part of that surplus value into the accumulation of additional capital rather than to use it for their own unproductive consumption (Mandel also has drawn a distinct between “limited markets” and “unlimited markets” that would have gone a long way in clarifying various points that Wood stumbles through).  Using a contrasting example, “In the finale of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni triumphantly sings: ‘Giacché spendo i miei danari, io mi voglio divertir. / Since I spend my money freely, I want to be amused.’ It is difficult to imagine a more anti-capitalist motto. A capitalist doesn’t spend his money to be amused but to get more money.”  Frédéric Lordon has also given a useful example of how the same bread oven can be “capital” when used an industrial bakery but not capital in other usage.  In the Dutch case, Wood portrays the Dutch as a society concerned with accumulating wealth to support consumption, that is, breaking the cycle of circulation/reproduction and thus not being capitalist under a Marxist framework.

Does all this mean “markets” don’t matter to capitalism?  Hardly.  They are clearly important to the functioning of capitalism and part of its tendencies.  But so is “commodity fetishism” and the creation of demand through advertising premised on an ideology of individualized spending.  We can partly look at Wood’s thesis as (implicitly, in its framing) overly focused on the specific neoliberal form of late capitalism, with its financialization, state integration, and mature market mechanisms.  Ole Bjerg‘s Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism is a somewhat more convincing, if more theoretical, view of the role of the fantasy of “being in the market” under contemporary neoliberal capitalism.  And for that matter, Wood’s book does not address the insight of Thorstein Veblen‘s The Theory of Business Enterprise, which astutely noted how business people impose markets on everyone else but want neo-feudal monopolies for themselves.  They are happy with everyone else being subject to the arbitrary ravages of the market but want special privileges and status that spare themselves from its ravages in important ways.  This is a bit like wanting both economic and political power for themselves and wanting everyone else to (preferably) have neither — which suggests that there is more to what Perry Anderson has argued (and less to what Brenner argued) than Wood admits.  In a way, capitalists tend to want the end of capitalism as much as any communist, they just want to see it end by reverting to some form of feudalism (with themselves as the new aristocrats, of course).  Current historical evidence even seems to support this.  Veblen’s framework also perfectly explains the Dutch vs. English cases.

Taking this critique a bit further, sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have posited that there are multiple forms of “capital”, including things like “cultural capital” (he elaborated additional types of capital over the years), that contribute to symbolic domination — a way of describing hierarchical concentration of power very analogous to market relations.  If we accept this, despite a lack of complete alignment with Marxist frameworks, then even in a communist (non-capitalist) society might there still be a “market” for certain types of capital, much like the well-known saying about a “marketplace of ideas”?  This is an intriguing question, with some examples available from the former Soviet bloc, but it is one that Wood’s framework structurally precludes, which casts some doubt on Wood’s theoretical framework.  Bourdieu also extended the analysis of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology to explain how intellectuals and professionals are the thinkers, guardians and gatekeepers of the capitalists class, showing how the bourgeoisie are subdivided into class fractions.  Wood flatly rejects this, arguing that attorneys and such are qualitatively different from the bourgeoisie.  Her comments to this effect are absurd, not to mention conclusory (once again she assumes what is in need of explanation, because “what is in need of explanation” is itself a function of ideology).

Now, the alternative working definition of capitalism mentioned here might not be correct.  But it does seem like Wood’s definition is probably wrong.  At times the book feels like it criss-crosses important concepts, mentioning them in passing but always focusing attention on other, adjacent topics that seem unimportant by comparison.  For instance, she does state that “The basic objective of the capitalist system, in other words, is the production and self-expansion of capital.”  But she strangely insists that this point must be proven by the appearance of a market, exclusively, rather than through a broader analysis of social power in a sociological or political science framework.  What falls flat is very precisely her insistence that there are “purely” economic mechanisms — entirely free from the sorts of indirect power of threatened coercion that people from Leo Tolstoy (see the last chapter of The Kingdom of God Is Within You) to C. Wright Mills (see this summary of his work) have explained — that provide the only way to analyze “the basic objective of the capitalist system”.  This tacitly adopts neoclassical and neoliberal conceptions of economics and politics.  And her analysis is quite reductionist in its focus on “markets” as the sole explanation for hegemony of the interests of a capitalist class.  Despite such handicaps, her book does still serve a useful purpose in highlighting the simplistic and even more thoroughly wrongheaded views of the origin of capitalism advanced by the boosters and cheerleaders of capitalism.  While these merits might make the book worthwhile to academics (though it is written in a tone suited more for introductory audiences), this can’t be unequivocally recommended because of questions that remain about the underlying theoretical premises.  Her normative judgments as to which theories are major and which are unworthy of discussion are unconvincing.  If she had instead presented her summary about certain debates over the origins of capitalism as partisan, rudimentary, and partial rather than objective, settled, and mature (in need of only follow-on confirmation and refinement of small details) her credibility would have been greatly enhanced.  Readers should, if nothing else, walk away from this book with a conviction that Wood and Brenner were wrong, and should take up an investigation of the work of Frankfurt School and post-structuralist/Althusser-inspired Marxist theorists whom she mostly tries to denigrate by refusing to recognize them.