Reading Notes: The Origin of Capitalism

Today at 2 a.m. I’ve finished reading “The Origin of Capitalism” by Ellen Meiksins Wood. It’s a must read if you really want to understand capitalism. A quick note:

Trade is not inherently capitalist. Profit is not inherently capitalist. Accumulation is not inherently capitalist (that’s why Marx refer to Smith’s terminology as “the so-called primitive accumulation”). Imperialism is not inherently capitalist. As this book clearly shows in history, there existed pre-capitalist imperialism, or perhaps we may also say non-capitalist imperialism. And bourgeois is not the same with capitalist, please read the history, it is absolutely different. Bourgeoises were office holder in France while capitalist refers to the tenant in English countryside. Even capital is not inherently capitalist, it depends on the term in which you relate to that capital. Because, capitalism is essentially social relationship. So what we need to think about is the social structure, the way society operates, its hierarchies and the implications.

It is important to understand this clearly, so at least we can allow the imagination of “reversing” capitalism without limiting ourself by thinking that such effort is impossible. It is possible to be non-capitalist but still do trade, for example, etc.

Capitalism is definitive when market has become an imperative, this is the keyword. Compulsion not opportunity. It happens when in order to access my means of self-reproduction (and survival), I depend on the market and have to make myself as effective and productive as possible under the principle of market competition. Let’s give an example. Because in real life I don’t have property, let’s say I am a labour. Capitalism means, as a labour, to utilize my labour and be able to reproduce my own subsistence, I am in a situation which, for example, there are one employee and two labour including me, and capitalism means I have to (to give an extreme example) pay some money to the employee to give the job to me. The amount of money that I have to pay depend on market mechanism, meaning it depends on how much I am able to pay and how much my competitor is able to pay. The highest bidder wins. To win the bid and have more dear sum of money to pay in order to get the job, both of us (me and my competitor, both labours) have to push ourselves to be as effective and productive as possible with the labour that we have.

Such illustration was what happened in the English countryside in sixteenth century. There was a unified monarchy and there were “landlords” that, unlike in other countries, depend on rents instead of tax. They hired surveyor to calculate the market price of lease, so lease price was not decided based on custom nor a fixed rate. And then there were capitalist tenant that have to bid and compete in order to get a lease of land, this is what a “farmer” means, so farmer is not someone who get their hands dirty to cultivate the land, they were people who employ others to work the land. The workers were, I read somewhere in this book, sometimes “seasonal” worker who were very common at that time. And there were also “peasants” who have access to common land or perhaps owned land and worked on it themselves for their subsistence, but I assumed that beside working on their own land, they were also permanently or occasionally worked for the capitalist-tenant-farmer. Capitalism happens because as the tenants depended on market (market as imperative) to get lease, they had to submit themselves to the principle of competition, productivity and effectiveness. They squeeze the farm workers (so labour in capitalism is not identical with factory workers in the city) “surplus” until the land concentration that was already extraordinarily very high became even more highly concentrated. At the end, it brought dispossession of a lot of rural people who had common use rights (for example), and these people went to inhabit London.

If only I’ve read this book earlier, I would have a different perceptions when I visited Somerset in 2011 for study trip. That was the closest encounter I’ve ever had with British countryside. As an Indonesian, it is very difficult for me to imagine British society in the sixteenth century. I mean, how did such social structure come about? I imagine at first nobody own the land, so why suddenly someone could become an aristocrat, someone else a landlord without extra-economic power but have to depend on the income from rent, someone become a tenant (who were these?), someone was a peasant. I think the most difficult one to imagine is the tenant. Were they used to be a peasant and had to lease larger land? Were the peasants sometimes also a tenant and other times also a worker? Thank goodness I have a dear friend who is a very intelligent native British who are coming over to my place on the 30th of January who might offer some clear explanation.

Otherwise Ellen Meiksins Wood herself had made a book, “Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment.” Perhaps I have to read that too, only the chapter that talks about English countryside in sixteenth history. Or, for a shorter and more direct, quick answer for my confusion, maybe this article by her will also helps: (2009). ‘Peasants and the Market Imperative: The Origins of Capitalism,‘ in A. Haroon Akram- Lodhi and Cristóbal Kay (eds), Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, rural transformation and the Agrarian Question, Routledge: London and New York, pp. 37-56.

It is important for me to understand capitalism because things that are inherent of capitalism is its “crisis cycle” and “internal contradiction”. In my research, the conservation that we’re talking about is supposed to be “responding” to such crisis (financial crisis, and environmental crisis that capitalism evokes). So despite my wild guesses and having new questions on the British society, I had an absolutely great time absorbing “The Origins of Capitalism”. The new knowledge that I acquire and the new self-realization of what I don’t understand is important for me and illuminating for my research journey. I can’t wait to study more.

Featured photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/136203181@N04/21658193349/

RIP Ellen Meiksins Wood

Ellen Meiksins Wood is my hero in the academic world. I am saddened by her passing last week, not only because I look up to her and want to be like her (though this is a far-fetched dream), but also because I wanted to meet her one day … and shamelessly ask for her autographs, maybe.

The first time I’ve come to know her work was when I studied at ISS (International Institute of Social Studies) in 2010. It was one of our earliest and basic course, “Development Histories, Theories, and Practices”. As usual, before class, students have to read some stuffs to answer the question of that particular session. Her article, “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism” was to be read to answer the question of why capitalism first emerged in English and not elsewhere. It was a very intriguing question, typical ISS, and it’s an important question as it made us learn the distinctive features of capitalism that is often misunderstood (what makes it different from mercantilism, for example).

Now that she’s gone, I am preparing a tribute for her. I’ve finished reading two of her essays and I’ve been reading the longer version of her article that I mentioned above. It’s a book titled “The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view”. Today, I’ve finished 4 out of 10 chapters. Because I am already on her side, for me, the earlier part of this book is very lengthy and meticulous in explaining the flaws of opposing arguments that tried to teleologically explain the origins of capitalism by assuming that capitalism is “already there” and comes about by freeing its hindrance. She called it “the commercialization model”.

After reading that much of this book, I realized that it was not easy being her because a lot of (academia, highly educated! even Marxist!) people misunderstood capitalism, meanwhile she’s trying to be rigorous, precise, and accurate in understanding capitalism based on historical materialism approach. She got a lot of attacks on her rigidness, but her rigidness is exactly what makes me fall in love because it gives me the answer that makes sense and convincing, not just tiptoeing around the question and giving compromised sidetracks that abandons the real question.

I realized that her argument is standing strong to hold on to, as compared to the rests. She’s like a lone voice in her rigidness and she really slays the bullshits of other teleological arguments. If you read her works you know that she’s one of the most brilliant political theorist in our era. Another plus point is she has a strong integrity, in the sense that she didn’t feel obliged to be influenced by other arguments when it’s not consistent, although such arguments might be popular or having strong political supporters. But she’s not simply dismissing such arguments, she took the problem of really understanding what’s “missing”. For her, the most important thing is to deal with the core and she handle it radically (I mean to the root of the problem) without compromise.

I can imagine that she’s a person who never stop asking questions, at least in her mind. I can also imagine that she’s really studying everything to the core, at least starting with the right historical account.

From her book and articles, I got some idea and additional questions for my PhD research. Of course I will have to understand the history of what I am studying. I am really looking forward to be studying as hard as her!