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The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View

How did the dynamic economic system we know as capitalism develop among the peasants and lords of feudal Europe?
In The Origin of Capitalism, a now-classic work of history, Ellen Meiksins Wood offers readers a clear and accessible introduction to the theories and debates concerning the birth of capitalism, imperialism, and the modern nation state. Capitalism is not a natural and inevitable consequence of human nature, nor simply an extension of age-old practices of trade and commerce. Rather, it is a late and localized product of very specific historical conditions, which required great transformations in social relations and in the relationship between humans and nature.

Reviews

  • The Origin of Capitalism was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments. Wood was an extraordinarily rigorous and imaginative thinker, someone who breathed life into Marxist political theory and made it speak—not to just to me but to many others—at multiple levels: historical, theoretical, political.”
  • “The writing is so supple and accessible, and the argument so persuasive, it’s like watching a cloudy mixture of ideas being turned into a clear solution.”
  • “This extremely valuable book offers an insightful tour of the historical debates surrounding the transition from feudalism to capitalism … a must-read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the origins of capitalism, or economic thought in general, from undergraduates through professionals.”
  • “Brilliant book … Into the central thread of her argument, Ellen Meiksins Wood has woven a wonderfully rich texture of comment on the arguments and debates that preceded her … not just a valuable new interpretation of an old history, it carries important lessons for our own times.”

Blog

  • General Election 2017: Essential Reading



    “Strong and stable!” is Theresa May’s slogan for the upcoming election, empty words for most considering the current Tory landscape of soaring cuts, poverty and inequality.

    Here we present our essential reading: featuring leading voices dealing with issues ranging from privatisation, inequality, capitalism, neo-liberalism, socialism, migration, and more.

    All these books are 50% off until May 15 at midnight (UTC). Click here to activate your discount.

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  • "Economic System" and "Theory of an Economic System"

    In An Economic Theory of the Feudal System, published in 1976 by Verso in a translation by Lawrence Garner, Witold Kula constructs a model of the Polish economy as it developed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Introducing the book, Fernand Braudel wrote:

    Kula's demonstration proceeds step by step. It analyses the very dynamic of the feudal economy, and its functional possibilities for the seigneurial economy oriented towards the export trade; for the peasant plots which sought to produce a surplus for the local market; for the craft guilds with their difficulties in a relatively unurbanized society. Numerous Polish monographs-studies of production and prices-provide documentation for Kula's hypotheses. His model is then submitted to the test of the "long-term dynamic.” The problem for it is to ascertain “the constant or recurrent phenomena whose cumulative action determined structural transformations.” For each of the parties to the system, nearly always unconsciously, by merely adapting their historical calculations to changing economic or political conjunctures, to their particular situation, to the resistances of the others, eventually falsified the inter-play of the system and altered the model so much that in the end it disintegrated. Thus from 1820 to 1860 the whole system was overthrown in a Poland that remained “feudal,” yet where the landowners had become capitalist entrepreneurs whose behaviour would have been aberrant and impossible in 1780 or so.

    Kula demonstrates the possibility of sudden ruptures in an economic model, once its resilience has been tried too repeatedly by a number of contradictions working in the same direction — contradictions some of which may be internal or inherent to the system itself, and others external and sometimes unpredictable (for example, the halt of European purchases of Polish cereals during the Continental System). His analysis of these is unerringly subtle and logical.

    Kula's work is thus an example of a Marxist problematic mastered, assimilated and elevated to the level of a lucid and intelligent humanism, and a broad explanation of the evolution of the collective destiny of men. All the findings of Polish and non-Polish economic and historical research are gathered here in an effort of objective and patient reflection, of unusual intellectual honesty. The subject of this book — in effect, underdevelopment in modern history — is of such great interest that this novel approach to it, at once very general in its analysis of a phenomenon of long duration, and very concrete in its account of the daily economic calculations of peasant, lord, magnate or squire, is an important event for historians.

    In the excerpt below, Kula defends the concept of an "economic system" and the theorization therof. 


    "Grain Doesn't Pay." Detail from the obverse of a two-sided Polish painting illustrating the falling profitability of agriculture over the course of the eighteenth century. via Wikimedia Commons

    In the preceding chapters we have studied the mechanism governing the operation of the Polish economy during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. We, therefore, regard this work as contribution to the economic theory of the feudal system. Theoretical construction is not possible where there are no recurring phenomena, and traditional historical science denied on principle the existence of any such phenomena.

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  • Verso's History Bookshelf




    A round-up of some of our history reading, from new to old.

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