A Response to Christopher McAuley’s on Capitalist Origins

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Ellen Meiksins Wood

I do appreciate your effort to clarify your views, but I really don’t see how it affects anything I said. So let me just make a few points in response to yours:

1) It’s an odd conception of history which seems to suggest that, before capitalism, labor was typically free, while the great impetus to unfree labor came with capitalism. Ancient slavery? Feudal serfdom? Forced labor in just about any powerful non-capitalist kingdom or empire, east, west, north or south that you can name?

Until the advent of capitalism and the generalization of wage labor, one or another kind of dependent labor, enforced by landlords or states, by one or another form of extra-economic coercion, and with varying degrees of legal and political dependency, was the primary means of exploitation, more the rule than the exception.

You might want to argue, as I have done on various occasions, that slavery was encouraged in times and places where other forms of dependent labor were unavailable — such as ancient Athens and even Rome, where the citizenship of peasants precluded their subjection to the kinds of dependence that existed elsewhere.

But to the extent that this applies to capitalism, it’s precisely because of its tendency to generalize the commodification of labor power and to present the relation between capital and labor as a contractual relation between free and equal individuals.

For a time, especially when indentured labor in the colonies declined or became too expensive, and before the emergence of a mass proletariat, without other forms of dependent labor available at home or in the colonies, the effect of Britain’s growing capitalism increased the demand for slave labor as the best option in sectors requiring intensive exploitation.

This prevailed in the large-scale production of highly marketable commodities like tobacco and sugar. But this occurred because the dominant forms of labor were juridically free and the spectrum between the extremes of legal freedom and chattel slavery was disappearing, while there was still no mass proletariat to provide a concentrated and intensively exploitable “free” labor force.

As capitalism developed further and the availability of wage labor grew, that development militated no less against slavery than against other forms of legally dependent labor.

2) The examples from the Crusades, whatever else can be said about them, don’t have much to do with capitalism. The Venetian exploitation of sugar production by slaves in Crete and Cyprus, for instance, was perfectly in keeping with the logic of feudal commerce; and in any case, the situations you describe, in which exploiters were not constrained by customary limits, is a perfect description not of capitalism but of the late and intensified feudalism implanted in places that lacked those historic constraints, like the “second serfdom” in eastern Europe — which was also quite commercialized.

3) The question of whether or how colonialism and slavery were involved in the origin of capitalism is different from the issue of how capitalism could and did make use of them, and even increased them at a certain stage in its development, after its own imperatives were already in motion.

Of course slave plantations in the British colonies played an important part in the development of capitalism (quite a while after the emergence of capitalism in the English countryside); and of course the nature of slavery was affected by its insertion into a larger capitalist economy (in contrast, for example, to ancient Greek and Roman slavery). But what does this have to do with the origin of capitalism?

Just to make this as clear as possible: The critical point in the debate about the origin of capitalism is how capitalist laws of motion were set in train. There’s not much point having a definition of capitalism that isn’t about its distinctive laws of motion or its “logic of process.”

So, if you want to insist that plantation slavery somehow generated capitalism (or at least “protocapitalism,” whatever that might be), you have to show how it could and did set in motion a pattern of development characterized by things like constant technical improvement to enhance the productivity of labor, incessant investment of surpluses in new plant and equipment, the breakdown of tasks (detail labor), the growth of the domestic market, and so on.

It’s clear that the slave plantation system didn’t and couldn’t have those effects, but it could be and was used, by and in the interests of a developing capitalist economy, at least for a time and in certain specific historical conditions.

4) There is still no logical connection between the role played by people of color in the origin of capitalism and their role in the struggle against it today. It would be strange and supremely illogical to deny the role of African Americans in the struggle against capitalism now just because Africans weren’t involved in the emergence of a capitalist system centuries ago in the English countryside.

5) Your suggestion that those who have undertaken “serious studies” of non-European societies are more inclined to stress their role in the origin of capitalism is, at best, debatable.

First of all, it’s not clear what you mean: Are you saying that specialists tend to believe that non-European societies actually experienced capitalist development themselves, or do they tend to believe that the proceeds of European imperialism in non-European societies gave rise to the origin of European capitalism?

I don’t think you could make either proposition stick about some kind of consensus among specialists. There’s nothing like that kind of agreement on either point. There’s certainly no such consensus on the first point; and there has been more than enough scholarly controversy among specialists — about the role of, say, the proceeds from the slave trade in the development of capitalism, or the role of the British Empire in India in the development of industrial capitalism, let alone the origin of capitalism.

Chances are that you could find just as many specialists as non-specialists taking either side of the question. (Does it, by the way, matter at all how much these scholars know about economic development in Britain?)

But a more fundamental problem is that the proposition begs the question: for instance, the arguments you’re thinking of tend to be based on precisely the confusion of commerce with capitalism which is being challenged by an argument like Brenner’s or mine.

Incidentally, let me make one thing clear: The issue, as I see it, isn’t Europe vs. non-Europe. The contrast that interests me<197>and the one that Brenner has so clearly laid out — isn’t between Europe and the rest of the world but between one specific European case (Brenner might say two: the English and the Dutch) against the rest of Europe, as well as the non-European world. (By the way, Brenner has now produced a “serious study” of Chinese development, in contrast to English.)

5) Finally, and most importantly, I still find accusations of “intellectual racism” pretty disgraceful, but it’s also what philosophers call a non-falsifiable proposition, and is therefore essentially meaningless. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the charge is, consciously or unconsciously, racist, and there’s no conceivable way of disproving it.

As I said in my first reply, there’s more than enough to debate about, in a constructive and comradely way, among people who are basically on the same side, without resorting to fruitless pseudo-psychoanalytic “speculation.”

So let me put it this way: Anyone can “speculate” as much as you like about what’s going on in my unconscious, but the fact remains that I believe very strongly that people of color and victims of imperialism, old and new, have an essential part to play in the struggle against capitalism, whatever their role may or may not have been in its origin.

ATC 101, November-December 2002