The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 1)

In a recent entry on Louis Proyect’s blog titled “The Birth of Capitalism” he reviews a recently published book of that name by Henry Heller. Unfortunately there are several misrepresentations of what is known as the Brenner Debate –in particular misrepresentations of 1) what is precisely being debated;  and 2) the specific ramifications the debate has on questions of contemporary organization and political strategy.

Misrepresentation of Brenner’s ideas is so common because he fails to situate his thesis in a familiar historigraphic framework . Although a Marxist, Brenner moves against the “standard” theory of gradual historical change through a development of the forces of production as formalized by the Second International– But he is also not anti-Marxist in a way that many historians prioritize cultural interactions, trade, guns, germs, steel, geography, etc. This very fact should warn readers to approach Brenner’s work carefully as the nuances of his argument defy an easy explanation. Brenner has not really formalized his theory in an explicit magnum opus, it is not as difficult to explain as, say, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but in what follows I will come as close as I can to briefly outlining his thesis as succinctly as I can.

In pushing Marx’s ideas to a logical extreme, the Brenner thesis of historical change moves beyond the conflict of material productive forces of society with the social relations of production of the Marx’s “notorious” preface to his 1859 “Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy”. (Marx himself moved beyond much of the framework of this preface, which also includes the die-hard dyad of base-superstructure) — In particular what is at stake in the Brenner thesis is the category of “productive forces.” Looked at from the perspective of capitalism, it would appear that because we are here in a world where astonishing invention is common place, productivity increases are manifest, and history appears almost autonomous from human society that “productive forces” are as old as human society. Cultures interact; a discovery here is imported there and revolutionizes that culture. The preface to the 1859 Critique provides an easy way of viewing historical change as humanity’s innate desire to improve (if not truck, barter and exchange) coming into conflict with traditional societal matrices, aka “relations of production”, what Brenner has called “social-property relations.”

From the viewpoint of capitalism it seems reasonable that technological changes developed in one area, say China, that are propagated through trade routes around the world would alter the way peasants produced their subsistence, eventually increasing labor productivity which would allow for a surplus of food to eventually feed townspeople who could concentrate on crafts. As the towns grow a new class of “bourgeois” rises up and confronts the old peasant-lord relationship in a revolutionary way. Brenner would perhaps grant that, yes, there were advancements in technology throughout the first millennium into the medieval era, culminating in an astonishing growth of population in the 13th century in Europe, resulting in the growth of towns and small cities. (Brenner’s critics would also emphasize here the importance of China, the flourishing state of its technology, Islam, India, on European growth in this period.) In short, despite hiccups of famines and disasters such as the Black Death, productive forces keep advancing against the feudal system by creating new classes of economic actors.

Brenner emphasizes, however, that as long as peasants are farming the land in a self-sustaining way while giving a surplus to support their lord, there is a very small chance that the development of windmills or a new crop, or even the discovery of a new continent or country will significantly alter this fundamental economic relationship. What is most astonishing and what Brenner wants his readers to feel is shocking is that a system in which self-sufficient producers of food who give a percentage to their lords (feudalism) would EVER be abolished. That it would be abolished in favor of a system where the workers of the land no longer have any claim to that land whatsoever and are forced into purchasing their own food through wages is a transition that seems even more painful and terrible as one reads Brenner. Marx gives voice to the violence of this movement into capitalism in chapter 27 in the first volume of Capital, “Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”.  Although Brenner would not use this language, after reading his works this particular transition in England starts to take on the complexion of a strange genetic mutation that can only survive in an inhumane and bloody way, but grows to slowly bring a region under its power. This is not a gradual transition, but a strange anomaly that nearly defies the laws of gravity.

Brenner’s “laws of gravity”, or to put it milder, rules of feudalism would amount to this: The peasants are in control of the production of food and the lords’ relationship to this production is to extract a surplus by extra-economic means, which amounts to armed force. This system, with the peasants holding the knowledge and fruits of agriculture and the lords demanding a share of this production, proves to be extremely resilient in the face of all manner of “external” agitation, change, demand, war.  Brenner’s method is to show in case after case that almost every external cause creates an effect of either A) greater peasant power (increase in free holding; more peasant rights; death of serfdom; a reduction in “rent”; or B) greater lord power (increase in rent; increase in penalties; re-enserfment). From the viewpoint of capitalism it would seem that a feudal “landlord” would want to evict his tenants and hire wage laborers instead whom he could easily exploit, but from the viewpoint of feudalism this almost seems laughably impossible. Extremely rare is the instance of a lord taking interest in the method of farming in order to increase agricultural productivity when one could quite simply press the peasants for a greater share, or invade one’s neighbor. Most of the increases in productivity were conducted by the peasants themselves; Most lordly activity and expenditure was for luxury goods and warfare.

The growth of early medieval industry and even early modern industry (which mostly produced luxury goods) was strictly limited by a peasant agriculture that had definite limits on how much agricultural surplus could support the towns.  In case after case Brenner shows how a “Malthusian crisis” would arrive in the form of a demographic crisis in which, say, because of the need to create more luxuries for export the silk industry would grow, but eventually a crop failure would result in massive famine and starvation. Peasants must feed themselves first and can do so as they control their land although the degree to which they control it differs in many ways. It is the specific class power of the peasants vis a vis their lords after the demographic catastrophe (aka mass death) of the Black Plague in the second half of the 14th century when land was relatively plentiful, labor was scarce and feudal lords were in retreat where Brenner sees a historical opening for capitalism. This period of the late 14th century shows the lords regrouping across “Europe” in an attempt to bring their peasants (who are happy to be alive and know the value of labor when workers are scarce) back in line. In France the peasants succeed for the most part and secure their property against their lords, who then end up retreating to and reinforcing the absolutist state in order to secure the income that they are unable as individuals to extract from the peasants. In East Germany the lords succeed in re-enserfing their weak peasant population, most of whom were lured to the region in previous centuries with shady promises of free land.

In England, however, Brenner pinpoints a specific relationship between the peasants, the lords and their king that results in landlords actually evicting peasants from their property and the growth of a landless wage earning agricultural labor force grow in a way that Brenner finds unique. The lords fail to submit their peasants to serfdom because of uprisings such as the peasant revolt of 1381, but through their coordination with the monarch are able to begin a process of enclosing their property, evicting tenants in a way that was impossible in France. The nuances of exactly how this happens in England are kept fairly vague in most of Brenner’s writings on the transition and this probably fuels the disagreements so many have with his work.

I’ll reinforce this hazy lacuna by skipping over the precise conditions of England that perhaps gave birth to what we now know as capitalism– But it is worth pondering over some very difficult questions, the first of which is: Can you have self-sustaining growth, i.e., capitalism, without a revolution in agriculture? Brenner says “No”, and I believe that it is very difficult to disagree with him. They key move in the transition to capitalism is providing for the sustenance of a laboring population that is not creating their own sustenance. This is only possible through a revolution in agricultural technique. Brenner argues that self-sustaining growth is impossible without a system of agriculture in which competition induces those who are conducting the growing to develop new methods in which more food can be produced per acre. This growing output can then create the incentives for industrial production that is geared for farmers and a growing mass of wage earners. So long as the peasants control the land or so long as feudal lords see increased pressure on peasant output (or war) as their only means of guaranteeing a surplus, a system of capitalistic agriculture under the classic landlord-capitalist farmer-wage laborer triad is a near impossibility.

English population was about 2.2 million in 1450; it exceeded 5 million by 1700. At the same level of population in the fourteenth century there had been chronic famine and crisis. By 1700 subsistence crisis had already been, for a long time, a thing of the past. The last even relatively severe one had occurred in 1597, but even this was not serious by Continental standards. Meanwhile, by 1700, perhaps up to half the population was in non-agricultural pursuits, having to be supported by agricultural producers. At the same time, England had become one of Europe’s largest grain exporters. (The Brenner Debate, p. 318)

It is this shocking datum, 50% non-agricultural population by 1700 in England, that needs explaining, especially as it moves through the 18th century to provide the support for a hegemonic position in industrial development. As Anglo-centric as it is, and as unpalatable as it may be, the Brenner debate forces our gaze to historical accidents that result in exceptional potentialities that change the course of history. Underlying this change is the productivity of agriculture, and a rapid increase in the productivity of agriculture is only possible when a new class of capitalist farmers leasing land from landlords and employing laborers introduced new techniques and also began to have the freedom to concentrate on a single product. What accidents in particular gave birth to this new relationship in the mode of production may still be hazy, but the effect of its transformation is clear.

I realize that after this cursory introduction to the Brenner Thesis, which is probably not as good as the one Henry Heller provides in his book Proyect reviewed, I should stop here and post in a “part 2” my specific quibbles with how the transition debate is characterized in that blog post. I’ll also have the chance to explain my take on the political ramifications of this debate, both the context of Brenner and the “Third-world” peasant movement debates of the 1970s and the transition out of capitalism, of course! Glad to have the opportunity to engage others over these vexing questions.

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3 Responses to The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 2) | guavapuree

  2. Pingback: Occupy “occupy” | Guava Purée

  3. Pingback: Primitive Accumulation: The Musical | Guava Purée

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