The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 2)

In part 1 I attempted to give a sketch of Robert Brenner’s thesis on the origins of Capitalism. As Rodney Hilton himself does in his introduction to “The Brenner Debate”, I should have noted that this debate “might be regarded as a continuation of that other well-known debate concerning the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which had been sparked off by the criticism by the American economist Paul Sweezy of the analysis given by Maurice Dobb in his Studies in the Development of Capitalism.” It is clear that the pathway that Brenner treads in his quest to dislodge a gradualist thesis of transition that prioritizes the forces of production was cleared out by Maurice Dobb and the polemics that his book engendered. Brenner puts it most succinctly in his 1978 reply to Dobb in the Cambridge Journal of Economics:

Dobb argues that the formative impact of feudal surplus extraction relations characterised by extra-economic compulsion by feudal lords, in relationship to the potentialities and limits of its peasant forces of production, determined a distinctive pattern of economic evolution. In this way, he provides a basis in both method and historical analysis for surpassing the unilineal view of development, hitherto widespread among Marxists, in which the transition to capitalism is conceived as the gestation of an embryonic self-developing mode of production, alongside and external to a feudal agricultural mode—an approach characteristically bound up with techno-functionalist premises.

The key idea here being that the degree and manner in which lords and peasants organized their economic relationship would condition in a near-absolute way any movement towards “economic development” or the dissolution of feudal relations. Brenner then goes on to critique Dobb for not pushing his ideas to their limit:

 [Dobb] reasonably suggests that attention in this regard should be focused especially on the military resources of the nobility, the strength and character of the medieval state (especially ‘the extent to which the royal power exerted its influence to strengthen seigneurial authority or welcomed the opportunity to weaken the position of rival sections of the nobility’), and finally the sources of strength of peasant resistance itself.  Surprisingly, however, Dobb ends up by denying the fruitfulness of this line of inquiry. ‘But while they may have been contributory, political factors of this kind can hardly be regarded as sufficient to account for the differences in the course of events in various parts of Europe . . . All the indications suggest that in deciding the outcome economic factors must have exercised the outstanding influence’ (Dobb, 1946, p. 53, emphasis added).

The question then becomes how does one separate the political from the economic in a system in which the economic relationships are guaranteed by extra-economic compulsion.

the fact is that the attempt to maintain or increase controls over the peasantry was a widespread response of the landlords to feudal crisis throughout Europe, precisely because labour had everywhere become scarce. Yet the results were exceedingly various. In Eastern Europe, controls over the peasants were strengthened. In much of Western Europe, a significant section of the peasantry not only got freedom, but won virtual freehold rights to much of the land (although they were, in general, correspondingly re-subjected to a re-organised aristocracy through the construction of the absolutist state) (cf. Anderson, 1974B). In England, serfdom collapsed, yet the landlords maintained control over the land. To account for the foregoing divergences would require an account of the differential evolutions of lord-peasant class relations which lay behind the differential outcomes of class conflict in the different European regions.

This is exactly the account that Brenner continues in his 1982 article for Past and Present, “The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism” which mostly through a comparative analysis of different regional responses to the crisis of the 14th century orbits around the thesis that a very peculiar set of circumstances in England forced the lords into enclosing their property, driving the peasants off the land and beginning a process of leasing land to wealthier peasants or yeomen who would then go about hiring laborers in a non-feudal way.

It should be emphasizes that Brenner (and Dobb) employ a critical technique that strikes me as particularly “Marxist” in the sense of a critique  of political economy. Reading Capital is an exercise in immersing oneself in the theories and ideology of the political economists that Marx subjects to an analysis against his logic. Many of these ideas are found to be self-contradictory and fail to withstand scrutiny at the level of theoretical and empirical analysis. Brenner uses this same technique when he berates medievalists for accepting a theory of “demographic determinism” that on deeper analysis does not automatically lead towards self-sustaining economic growth and when he criticizes the “neo-Smithian” Marxists who assume that a wider sphere of trade, primitive accumulation in economies, etc, will necessarily lead towards capitalism. Much like Marx, Brenner’s technique is to take these theories at face value and then by pressing their logic forward discover that the logic fails to hold. What one is left with is the remainder, a constant or a blind spot that economists fail to see.

On Marxmail Proyect writes that “The real problem with Brenner (Ellen Meiksins Wood is even worse) is in excluding this process described by Marx” and goes on to quote two paragraphs from Chapter 31 of Volume 1 of Capital  (“Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”) that elaborates the world-wide process of primitive accumulation in the age of “discovery” and colonialism that characterized the birth of capitalism:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

Proyect then adds that “If you argue that primitive accumulation only applies to what happened in Britain as a result of peculiar and contingent circumstances in farming, then you have a disagreement with Karl Marx.” But Marx himself would add that primitive accumulation alone is not going to result in a transition out of feudalism. Without entering into a session of Marx-quote-slinging, I think something is missed here in this passage from Volume 1 if you omit the analysis of Chapter 20 of Volume 3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”). In this chapter Marx contrasts merchant “capital” against industrial capital, which he sees as the necessary locus of Captal per se establishing its power over the entire production process. In a previous mode of production the merchant has the appearance of the capitalist because he is the one with an accumulation of money and trades on a large scale, yet it is in regions such as Portugal and Holland (quoted as regional powers above in the Volume 1 quote) where merchant capital dominates, but also where “backward” conditions dominate. Marx in Chapter 20 of volume 3 wants to make the reader aware of the specific nature of capitalism and its focus on the production process as opposed to circulation. In England specifically, Marx contrasts the flagging political power of the commercial capital Liverpool versus the industrial hotbeds of Manchester and Birmingham. But the transition into industrial capital is not a process which Marx in any way sees as necessarily stemming from an increase in trade and merchant activity:

The development of commerce and merchant’s capital gives rise everywhere to the tendency towards production of exchange-values, increases its volume, multiplies it, makes it cosmopolitan, and develops money into world-money. Commerce, therefore, has a more or less dissolving influence everywhere on the producing organisation, which it finds at hand and whose different forms are mainly carried on with a view to use-value. To what extent it brings about a dissolution of the old mode of production depends on its solidity and internal structure. And whither this process of dissolution will lead, in other words, what new mode of production will replace the old, does not depend on commerce, but on the character of the old mode of production itself…

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production. However, in its first period — the manufacturing period — the modern mode of production developed only where the conditions for it had taken shape within the Middle Ages. (Capital Vol. 3, chap. 20).

I don’t think Brenner denies what Marx here emphasizes as the necessity of the commercial revolution on the birth of capitalism. What Brenner zealously attempts to define, however, is precisely what is the “character of the old mode of production itself” and the “conditions” that had “taken shape within the Middle Ages.” This is precisely Brenner’s project and he locates this shape in the class struggle between peasants and lords, i.e., social property relations. I don’t necessarily think that Brenner deemphasizes the commercial interactions of trade because he is unaware of its importance. His 1992 study “Merchants and Revolution. Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653″  is a treatise on the English Revolution in terms of the new class of merchants and the evolving landlord class. The power of mercantile capital is obviously fundamental, but it seems clear under a theoretical and empirical analysis that it is the specific conditions in the countryside that allow this force to actually change the course of history and transform the relations of production. Knowing exactly what these conditions are is Brenner’s goal. It should be noted again that Dobb’s study also took an analysis of Volume 3 as his starting point and that the differences that emerge between Brenner and Dobb take the form of to what extent the genesis of capitalism required a new class of artisans and capitalistic farmers renting property positioned against the landlord class (Dobb) or a transformation of the old landlord class itself in coordination with new capitalist farmers (Brenner). But the agreement and starting off point of this critique takes Marx’s conclusion to chapter 20 of Volume 3 as self-evident:

The first theoretical treatment of the modern mode of production — the mercantile system — proceeded necessarily from the superficial phenomena of the circulation process as individualised in the movements of merchant’s capital, and therefore grasped only the appearance of matters. Partly because merchant’s capital is the first free state of existence of capital in general. And partly because of the overwhelming influence which it exerted during the first revolutionising period of feudal production — the genesis of modern production. The real science of modern economy only begins when the theoretical analysis passes from the process of circulation to the process of production.

And the process of production in this era overwhelmingly meant the production of food.

Several more points:

Proyect in his post claims that “It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the left academy.” On the contrary as this debate between Chris Harman and Robert Brenner records, there is quite a lot of disagreement over Brenner’s thesis and criticism of his position from a host of British Marxists such as Alex Callinicos and Paul Blackledge. (Callinicos’ description of Ellen Meiksins Wood, “for whom god visited England and inaugurated capitalist relations of production there and then abandoned the world until some time in the late 19th century when capitalism begins to appear in other parts of Europe. This is a wholly inadequate perspective. It is not Bob’s” certainly shows his contempt for a disciple of Brenner’s whose work I have read with some interest–but more on her later.) Rodney Hilton in his long career as a Medievalist never was swayed by Brenner and approached the controversy from a cool distance. I am unaware of Brenner’s influence on French historians, but the vehemence of Guy Bois and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s responses in “The Brenner Debate” collection show two scholars with little time for Brenner’s attack on these historians’ tacit acceptance of a demographic determinism. An unscientific look at Brenner’s stats on Google Scholar (how many other works of scholarship cite his works, etc.)  show him to be cited about half the number of times as historians such as Perry Anderson and Giovanni Arrighi who also write of historical transformation. Brenner’s works on the transition to capitalism, however, are mostly spread over a handful of articles. There is no attempt at developing a systematic study that synthesizes his critical/theorical polemics with his historical study of the English Revolution.

A brief remark about Japan, which Proyect mentions in his first essay on the Brenner debate– In the debate with Chris Harman mentioned above, Brenner does mention Japan twice in a way that shows that he is now aware of research on the feudal structure of Japan and its potential similarity to what was developing in England:

The problem is that, despite the ubiquity of the involvement of peasant agriculturalists in the markets, far from quasi-universal or even common, the autonomous onset of capitalist economic development is, historically, quite rare. Not until the early modern period—and then only in parts of western Europe and probably Japan—does one witness either the rise of capitalist social-property relations or a breakthrough to self-sustaining economic growth…

By contrast, feudalism in Europe was very peculiar, paralleled I think only by that of Japan and perhaps a few other places. Here, at least through most of the medieval period, the ruling class took its surplus individually from peasants, who also possessed individually. As a consequence, members of the ruling class, supported by their feudal group, confronted their peasants one on one, so to speak. So there was at least the potential for their having an interest in expropriating their peasants’ land.

There is also an article from 1993 by Richard Grabowski titled “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Preindustrial Japan” that attempts to link Brenner’s thesis to the development of Japan.

I think instead of continuing into probably the most interesting terrain (“What does this mean for us?”) I will again pause here. This installment elaborated how exactly Brenner came to the conclusion that relations of production have a central determining factor on potential self-sustaining economic growth by sketching out some of the terrain covered by Maurice Dobb and also Marx’s comments on the potential of commerical “capital” and also its inadequacy to revolutionize a mode of production.

In the next installment I hope to concentrate more on the critiques of James Blaut, which have to do with Brenner’s so-called “euro-centrism” and what this means in relation to the peasant movements of the mid-20th century.

Again, I have not read the Henry Heller book under review. I look forward to it (Heller is also mentioned by Harman in the ISJ debate above as a theorist of France whose findings contradict the Meiksins-Wood / George Comninel interpretation of the French Revolution) but only want to get my own ideas down first —

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2 Responses to The Brenner Debate – a reply to Louis Proyect (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Occupy “occupy” | Guava Purée

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

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