Review: The Origins of Capital: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso, Reprint 2002)

Wood recent death and my own interests in longer view of capitalism strangely overlapped and I revisited this gem of historiography. Wood and Brenner have been key in getting me to re-think some over-generalizations about capitalist teleology assumed in both liberal and Marxist circles. Many Marxists after Marx have made the same assumptions as liberals about the natural development of capitalism out of feudalism as if it were an innate process of development to economics. Wood not only contested this view, but her synthesis of Brenner with E.P. Thompson explains many otherwise hard to explain traits of capitalism: Why was capitalism so much more tied to England and England’s settler colonies than to Spain or to the various early modern European merchant states like the Italian city states or the Dutch Republic, why did France require a bourgeois revolution whereas England had a religious revolution, why do Locke’s myths about property origins seem so crucial to capitalist thinkers?

This book is divided into three sections. The first is an excellent overview of the various models for the origins of capitalism including most of the figures around the various liberal models, the world-systems quasi-Marxist answers, and the key figures on the transition debate (Paul Sweezy, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Georges Lefebvre, and Kohachiro Takahashi) as well as the Brenner Debates on Agrarian capitalism. While knowledge of these debates that happened between late 1950s and late 1990s does help, Wood presents them clearly and without assuming much prior knowledge. Through these debates, one can see that part of the issue is that the definition of capitalist pre-conditions isn’t settled. Is capitalism the existence of a market or the social compulsion for the market to dominate? If it is the former, then capitalism does seem natural as markets between societies for certain goods have existed in almost all societies. If it is the latter, then such systems as early modern French absolutism or the merchant systems that liberals often call mercantilism are not actually capitalism.

The second section book more clearly lays out this option while Wood acknowledges her intellectual dependence on E.P. Thompson and Robert Brenner more clearly. This section discusses how specific political arrangements after the Tudor period led to English aristocracy being dependent on value from land-holdings on the market instead of pure taxation from extra-economic forces to increase their wealth. This agrarian model creates the pre-conditions for the industrial model but did not exist elsewhere in Europe nor really even outside of England until colonialism pushed it out in search of my growth. Woods focuses on the fact that most of Europe, even colonial states like Spain, put its surplus into the military or into the use value of aristocrats, whereas the legal structures of England required re-investment and improvement to be profitable. This was power was more centralized in the hands of land-owners in the English civil war (revolution), and even after the monarchy was restored, this power was not lost. Woods also goes into why the Dutch and Italian merchant states did not give up extra-economics means of enrichment and thus didn’t develop the same culture or reinvestment. Then Woods convincing shows John Locke laying out a argument and a myth that naturalized these English developments after the English Civil War.

Admittedly, one can become slightly frustrated with Wood here. Here argument is sound, but she does not show specific instances. While she does do this in other books, one gets the feeling that this is only to lay out the logic and the minimal of empirical evidence for her position on the debates but not necessarily go deeply into the empirical historical case. Some people may be frustrated by this tendency, but she does go into these details in other works.

In the third section, Wood talks about the relationship to Enlightenment and Modernity. Wood uses Weber’s arguments about the collapsing of various kinds rationality into instrumental rationality, but unlike someone like Horkheimer or Adorno, does not assume this was the only direct of Enlightenment thinking. If French absolutism were more sustainable, a different model may have been developed. In this sense, Wood seems to argue against critics like Adorno or Frederic Jameson that only one modernity was possible. This also opens her to be combined with theorists who don’t necessarily agree with her on the origins of capitalism when talking about capitalist development outside of Europe. For example, Jairus Banaji’s critique of overly simplistic schemas being read unto the development of capitalism in Asia can work with Wood even though the two thinkers disagree on the origins of capitalism. This third section, however, does seem to be less historiographical and more into taxonomic debates in popular left philosophy and thus seems slightly out if place in the book.

While I regard this book as excellent, it does leave a few areas unexplored. What exactly was primitive accumulation needed for it? Were the enclosures a form of primitive accumulation or something else? How crucial was the Protestant reformation for the differences in aristocratic privilege to have developed in England but not France? The timing seems to indicate that it was crucial but the direct relationship is never discussed even though it seems the breaking of church property tithe systems were just as vital as enclosures to making property the key vision of liberty in England and English speaking colonies? Another question, how crucial was US chattel slavery and what was it relationship to agrarian capitalism? Wood does mention that there is a relationship but doesn’t go very deeply into it. She explains, for example, that US slavery and primitive accumulation accelerated capitalism because of its reliance on the English model whereas the Spanish model did not even though it accumulated and enslaved as much. However, she doesn’t go into specifics here in how the developments were related.

These caveats aside, however, this book is particularly helpful at getting a grip on global capitalism origins and why it seems so related to Anglo-culture in specific and to Western Europe in general without completely Eurocentric exceptionalism being involved. It is clear and readable and presents a complicated but convinced argument.