My post last week on livestock seemed to make a slightly larger ripple in cyberspace than my usual offerings. Ah well, it’s an issue that always has legs – unlike the meat alternatives proposed by George Monbiot. The whole kerfuffle about meat in the media last week stemmed from the Food Climate Research Network’s report Grazed and Confused, a title which aptly summarises not only a good deal of the ensuing media debate but also the state of DEFRA officials as they contemplate a post-EU future for British agriculture. Their boss Michael Gove has apparently been talking enthusiastically about ‘sustainable intensification’. Expect a future in which blandishments about ‘eco-friendly’ feedlot beef and ‘sustainable’ electric cars divert us from the truth that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before, which is what actually matters. I’m not sure that the FCRN is keeping its eye on the ball on this one: maybe they should have called their report The Wood for the Trees.

Still, what can I do? Get back to my history of the world, that’s what. But thanks for all the extra comments last time, and apologies for not responding to all of them – non-response is not indicative of ingratitude or lack of interest on my part. Anyway, this week I bring you an entirely non-controversial topic – European colonialism – so nothing much to comment on there, right? I’ll note as usual that a fully referenced version of the excerpt below is available here.


So, back to the main thread of my story: in weighing up capitalism’s historical record, it’s also necessary to reckon with the fact that capitalism has never confined itself to single national economies. Doubtless Stalin did everywhere except Russia a favour when he proclaimed ‘socialism in one country’, but there’s never been ‘capitalism in one country’. In one sense, we can look at this in terms of the kind of ‘ratchet effect’ mentioned earlier. Capitalist states are able to generate and direct more money, and therefore more power, than other ones – than agrarian ones in particular. So states that had sufficient resources and institutional capital to be able to play the same game as the leading capitalist powers (in the early modern world, the Netherlands and England) had an incentive to play catch-up, which they did either by imposing capitalism from above (the aristocratic ‘Prussian path’) or, in places conveniently free of aristocracies, building it from below (the ‘American path’).

The catch-up game is still a very common way of thinking about inequalities in the global economy. For whatever reason, the economies of the early capitalist powers ‘took off’, and all that’s needed now is for the ‘developing’ economies to take off too, and then everyone will be happy (…provided we assume that everyone in the ‘developed’ countries is happy). But another line of argument suggests that the early capitalist powers took off at the direct expense of other parts of the world – an idea pursued influentially in Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘uneven development’, Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, and Andre Gunder Frank’s dependency theory. In their different ways all these theories suggest that ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ are two sides of the same coin. The title of one of Frank’s papers – ‘The development of underdevelopment’ –encapsulates the key idea. ‘Underdevelopment’ isn’t something that exists in the absence of ‘development’, but in its presence. So a key question in this tradition is how international commerce created a capitalist world economy with dominant and subordinate geopolitical components – which is still true today, even as the dominance is shifting towards Asia. Since the 1820s, but never before, the average individual’s economic prospects have been conditioned more strongly by their country of birth than by the economic standing of their parents.

Wallerstein introduced the concept of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ into his analysis of the capitalist world system. Essentially, he argued that there was a geopolitical gradation of labour forms, from the ‘free’ wage labour of the European core, to peasantries and/or tenants in the semi-periphery, through to unfree labour (slaves, serfs) in the periphery, and thence foragers or ‘primitive’ agriculturists in the primal world beyond the capitalist world system. I think this remains a useful way of thinking about the geopolitics of contemporary capitalism. The capitalist economy requires a stratum of wealthy consumers who are able to buy its products (hence the ‘free’ wage labourers of the rich world, who have no means of subsistence except their own labour, but a large purchasing power as a result of that labour). But in order to attain the requisite returns on investment it also has to minimise labour costs – which it achieves where it can by giving workers nothing but their subsistence, if that. The geopolitical manifestation of this contradiction is the well-remunerated consumer-wage-labourers of the wealthy core areas, and the poor labourers of the periphery. This creates strong incentives for workers in the periphery to migrate to the core where it’s easier to become a wealthy consumer-labourer, but a capitalist world system can’t be all core and no periphery if it’s to survive – it requires the tension of centre-periphery relations. At the same time, the need for constantly compounding economic growth in the capitalist economy creates the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’ – the need to find ever new arenas for investment. This gives capital enormous transformative power in the periphery through its ability to create geopolitical linkage – for example, turning foragers into fur-traders, or self-reliant horticulturists into purveyors of coffee or frozen asparagus, with profound effects on local social relations. Such developments don’t often change the basic geopolitics of core and periphery, but over the longer historical haul sometimes they do. The capitalist economy is globally dynamic. In the long run, core may become periphery and vice versa.

Thus, the “secret scandal of capitalism”, as David Graeber puts it, is that “at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor”. In the Atlantic world system organised by the early modern capitalist powers of western Europe, the chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas was a key dynamic – bequeathing disastrous long-term consequences across large parts of the African continent and a host of problems in American societies down to the present. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams first mooted the idea that the profits of colonial slavery in the Americas opened the way for the industrial revolution in Europe – and his general thesis, if not the precise details of his analysis, have gained considerable acceptance.

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, cereal export production for the lucrative markets of a prosperously capitalist western subcontinent reinvigorated serfdom. That was one extreme of the peasant experience under capitalism, but overall the picture was complex and mixed. In some times and places, peasants left or lost their land and became wage labourers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. In others, things went in the opposite direction – the destruction of local polities in the capitalist world-system led to a ‘re-peasantisation’ of local labour, a process which some argue is ongoing, even in wealthy parts of the world such as Europe. Elsewhere, the capitalist economy merely co-opted and re-directed the peasant labour process. Whereas before peasants had produced their own subsistence and then provided surplus in the form of crops, money or labour-service to local polities, under the emerging capitalist world-system many peasants continued to produce their own subsistence, while surrendering their surplus to an increasingly globalised economy – often in the form of new cash crops demanded from the core like sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, indigo, rubber and tropical fruits, which were grown either directly as peasant cash-crops, or on plantations whose labour demands articulated with local peasant economies. Clifford Geertz’s influential study of ‘agricultural involution’ in Indonesia is a case in point. Geertz argued that yields of wet rice are enormously responsive to additional labour inputs (in technical terms, the marginal productivity of labour remains quite constant – wet rice is a relatively non-Malthusian crop). With the subsistence needs of a crowded peasant populace thus taken care of, local and European entrepreneurs working through existing channels of political authority imposed an ecologically complementary but economically extractive sugar cash-cropping regimen on the rice-growing peasantry. This, in Geertz’s opinion, resulted in stasis and ‘involution’, a blocked economic ‘take-off’, with the vast surpluses generated by peasant production once again going elsewhere, just as they did in Goubert’s 17th century France. This kind of peasantry remains widespread today, and it’s important to understand the manner of its insertion into the global capitalist economy. It’s all too commonly believed, even among those who ought to know better, that poor peasant farmers in the world today have been “left behind by modernity”. The truth is that ‘modernity’ has them exactly where it wants them.

Britain emerged in the early modern period as the dominant capitalist-colonial power, perhaps symbolised by its victories across far-flung territories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), which has sometimes been called the first ‘world war’. But not long after that, it got itself in a tangle trying to remember whether to be a tax-state or a tribute-state, losing the USA to the first and perhaps the most successful modern anti-colonial revolt. Doubtless the US revolt was successful in part because it was essentially a family argument within a group of colonizers. The second modern anti-colonial revolt was the slave uprising that turned French Saint-Domingue into Haiti, but it proved much less successful – nervous colonial and slaveholding powers played their part in making sure of that.

It’s tempting to think of the emerging USA as its own geographic world-system in the manner of Wallerstein, with wage labour in its northeastern core, peasant labour in its western semi-periphery and enslaved labour in its southern periphery – which is possibly illuminating, provided it’s not turned into an evolutionary sequence from a ‘backward’ south to a ‘progressive’ northeast. Criticisms of slave plantation production on the grounds of the superior efficiency of free labour as well as the inhumanity of human bondage have long been made, not least in the antebellum politics of the USA out of which emerged the civil war between the ‘free’ north and the slave south. But, just as in early modern Europe, the truth is that capitalism has components of both industrial wage labour and colonial commerce – deciding which is the ‘purer’ form is of less consequence than the historical reality of how people chose to operate in their given circumstances. The western ‘semi-periphery’ was another front in the battle between proponents of slavery and freedom, though the modernist or humanitarian credentials of those struggling to keep it free from slavery shouldn’t be overstated. The Free Soil Party gained the support of black leaders like Frederick Douglass, but its call was to salvage the west “for the Caucasian race” – and racially-divided politics of this sort continued to invest agrarian populism later on in US history.

The peasants of the US western semi-periphery weren’t much like the ones of Geertz’s Indonesia, still less those of Wickham’s medieval ‘peasant mode of production’. In historian Geoff Cunfer’s words the pioneers of the plains “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”. Cunfer does, however, emphasise the skill with which they figured out how to farm the prairies, and defends them against what he sees as over-simplified censure for soil erosion and the dust bowl, arguing that this stemmed fundamentally from longer-range climatic cycles. It’s an interesting point when set alongside the US tradition of agroecological critique, which sees the arrival of European farming methods with the settlers as inherently unsustainable and destructive. Cunfer’s view that settlers steeped in European peasant farming traditions were able to devise a workable new agriculture on the prairies within a few decades is suggestive for future peasant adaptation – as, alas, is his analysis of their failure to work out an effective property regime around water use, and their susceptibility to larger order climatic constraint. Not for the first time in this essay, though, the strongest force for change that emerges was the socio-economic linkages these farmers had to the wider world system, and not the immediate ecological circumstances.  What Cunfer is describing here is essentially the ‘American’ path to capitalism mentioned earlier, pursued on a sparsely populated, demilitarised and expanding colonial frontier by settler-colonists of peasant extraction, often attempting more or less self-consciously to escape the Geertzian fate courted by their counterparts in their countries of origin. Or perhaps we could draw a parallel with debates on the origins of capitalism in England – was the prime mover the ‘lords’ of the northeast, the ‘peasants’ of the west, or the ‘merchants’ of the south? Probably all of them. There’s a lot more that could be said, of course, about the numerous logics of peasant production in the colonial and post-colonial Americas – but for the purposes of this essay, regrettably it’s time to move on…

…Because we need to look at those parts of the world where there was apparently no path to capitalist development, ‘American’ or otherwise. There’s a long intellectual tradition in Europe or ‘the west’ which contrasts European ‘development’ with the stasis or backwardness of other places. It goes at least as far back as 18th century Enlightenment figures like Montesquieu, and despite influential critiques of this ‘Orientalist’ tendency in western scholarship it’s alive and well today among numerous writers, including public intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Jared Diamond. But it’s now fairly clear that modern economic dynamism originated neither in England nor in Europe alone (and national boundaries can mislead: even though ‘England’ was an early capitalist player, capitalist relations were much stronger in some parts of England than others). Even if we retain a traditional obsession with the emergence of capitalism as the sine qua non of ‘development’, a more even-handed contemporary scholarship suggests that there were incipient forms of capitalist development in China, Japan, India, and the Middle East contemporaneously in the early modern period. It can’t be denied that Europe in general and England in particular – along with its colonial offshoots in the New World later on – did rise to global dominance, but historians’ answer as to when this ‘Great Divergence’ occurred in the fortunes of Europe vis-à-vis other civilisations such as China keeps getting later, and is often now put towards the middle of the 19th century.

The question of why it was Europe and not China that became the core region of the modern world system has attracted much – some might say too much – attention in recent scholarship in view of China’s apparent technological and economic superiorities. I don’t propose to assess this literature in great detail – attention has focused mainly on themes such as the Dylanesque ‘leapfrogging’ that a divided European culture area of nascent nation-states was able to achieve over the more unified imperial structure of China, the Geertzian ‘land-sparing’ efficiency of Chinese wet rice cultivation that dampened the need for territorial expansion on agrarian/Malthusian grounds, the rational-bureaucratic structure of imperial China that prevented an alignment of social forces towards high-risk overseas adventures, and the superior revenue-raising capacities of European-style royal absolutist tax states, which doubtless are all relevant considerations.

One analysis I do want to examine in this arena because of its wider ramifications is Mark Elvin’s influential book The Patterns of the Chinese Past. Elvin argued that imperial China experienced ‘high level equilibrium traps’ (HLETs) where the relative rates of income and population growth created equilibrium points that prevented the accumulation of surplus capital – the economy is ‘trapped’ in a state which is stable and efficient, but with no inherent tendency to per capita income growth, which is pulled back to equilibrium by a declining rate of income growth relative to population. This is different from a Malthusian or low-level equilibrium trap where population growth pulls down per capita income, though in some respects the two equilibria can look similar – in both, there’s a pool of cheap labour which militates against automation and technical radicalisation. In the case of the HLET, however, we find an efficient, dynamic and differentiated but intrinsically labour-intensive economy. Such a ‘trap’ has been common in global agrarian and industrial history. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries provides a detailed agronomic overview of what an HLET looks like from a peasant farming perspective in China – a book which, interestingly, has been influential in the contemporary western permaculture and alternative agriculture movements. In any case, in an HLET situation an invention that raises labour productivity may have an appealing engineering logic but it won’t get adopted unless it occurs within an economiclogic that favours increased labour productivity. That logic was alien to the Qing China of the early modern world, despite its surpassing technical sophistication, but did manifest in parts of Europe for the reasons described above. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy was ‘static’ – it was historians of East Asia who originally coined the term ‘industrious revolution’ to capture this different, labour-intensive and more agrarian path towards prosperity – a term later adopted by De Vries to capture an aspect of the rather different ‘western’ development path. In the hands of (Orientalist?) western scholars, more pejorative terms are applied to the ‘Asian’ path – the language of ‘traps’ or of an ‘involution’ reliant on hard manual labour on the farm, which is easily transmogrified into putatively anti-romantic dismissals of small-scale farming in favour of the western path of industrial farming. I’ll come back to this point presently – and use Elvin’s thinking on HLETs in a different context to tracking Europe’s divergence from China. Still, Elvin’s thesis that capitalist development in Europe enabled it to overcome the ‘trap’ of agricultural involution, ultimately giving it the economic and military power to dominate the Asian empires, is certainly thought-provoking.

But maybe a more plausible approach to explaining the ‘great divergence’ would focus less on what didn’t happen in China, and more on what did happen in Europe – not so much in relation to capitalist developments in the countryside of the kind emphasised by Brenner, but the structure of its colonial commerce. The arguments that I find most convincing go something like this: the eclipse of the Roman Empire and the travails of feudalism left the European sub-continent rather behind the game compared to the great empires of Asia, but its internecine conflicts within the shadowed shell of Rome produced a handful of competing, tightly-organised and militarily sophisticated proto-‘national’ polities remote from the main currents of the Asiatic trading world, which enabled them to innovate with new political economies – another case of the historical ‘leap-frogging’ I mentioned earlier. Blocked from commercial expansion eastwards by powerful Islamic states, instead they developed trans-oceanic empires, which were given a considerable boost by the discovery of the New World. Trans-oceanic trade was risky, fearfully expensive and offered only long-term (but potentially spectacular) returns on investment, thus prompting the development of complex new fiscal instruments around risk, debt, state-private partnerships and joint stock organisation which were unknown in the east (Qing China didn’t develop debt finance). David Graeber has argued that the violence of Europe’s colonial-commercial expansion, which at times reached almost demented levels, is explicable in terms of these dynamics of debt in highly militarised societies. Maybe so – or else one might look to the specifics of European racism. Whatever the case, trans-oceanic colonial-commercial conquest fed into Europe’s spiral of capital accumulation and ultimately enabled it to win key confrontations in the east – Commodore Perry in Yokohama, the Opium Wars in China, the East India Company turning the tables on India’s textile industry. ‘The imperialism of free trade’ is often an apposite term.

An important issue in the expansion of European trade is what was actually being traded. Attention often focuses on the ‘preciosities’ of bullion and spices driven by elite demand, but as the economy capitalised itself the incentive was for agriculture in the ‘core’ to focus on higher value products (eg. meat and vegetables) while displacing the production of staples to more peripheral areas such as Eastern Europe (and, later, North America). Again, this can be told as a dark story of peasant dispossession by commercially-oriented landowners – most famously in Britain in relation to the Highland Clearances of a later period – but also as a brighter story of peasant release from the travails of growing the lord’s grain on his demesne in favour of a more remunerative small-scale agriculture. And even in Scotland, though it’s true that sometimes ‘the sheep ate the people’ the ‘modernisation’ of Scottish agriculture is a somewhat more complex tale. Ironically, with the advent of mechanised agriculture and the relative costs of fuel and labour the situation is now reversed, with agriculture in the core dominated by the large-scale mechanised production of staples, and agriculture in the ‘periphery’ contributing more of the high value, labour-intensive products.

Another part of this story concerning the focus of European capitalist trade is the way that elite commodities such as sugar were turned into cheap mass commodities available to ordinary working-class people (and indeed crucial to their changing role within the economy). Champions of capitalism often highlight this ability to furnish high value elite items to ordinary people, but maybe sugar – an environmentally-destructive quasi-narcotic crop with negative health consequences, produced historically by millions of chattel slaves and wage slaves – works as a metaphor for what’s left unsaid in this sunny version of the capitalist vision.


Teaser photo credit: By PericlesofAthens at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,