Book Review of Xavier Lafrance & Charles Post’s Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism



This is an interesting book which focuses on an old but very important topic: the origins of capitalism. It does so by adhering to a firm ideological commitment to Political Marxism and aspires to update the insights formulated several decades ago by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood (to whom this volume is dedicated). That most of the authors featured are so theoretically aligned is perhaps a result of the fact that almost half of them have at one point been affiliated with York University (yet surprisingly, its prominent Marxist, George Comninel, is not featured). But this alignment is also evident in the collection of chapters which, rather unusually, refer to or even quote one another, producing a more coherent orthodoxy than is often the case in similarly edited volumes which often approach such a complex topic from a variety of angles. This intellectual coherence is undoubtedly one of this volume’s strengths but, to this reviewer, also one of its shortcomings.

The editors’ introductory chapter sets the tone for some of what follows: a denunciation or dismissal of other competing theoretical perspectives whether Weberian, Smithian, Malthusian, Wallersteinian or even Trotskyite (Anievas). They argue that only Political Marxism can offer a correct understanding of the issue. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on social, political and economic developments in Britain. Spencer Dimmock analyzes, in chapter 2, the late Middle Ages, exploring the significance of English capitalist social property relations and the role of privatizing enclosures, especially in the 16thcentury with the emergence of a capitalist transformation of agriculture. Michael Andrew Žmolek focuses in chapter 3 on how the ‘unique development of English agrarian capitalism’ (p. 72) made the Industrial Revolution possible through the commodification of land and the state’s use of coercive powers to enact various pieces of legislation such as Workhouse Test Act. In chapter 4, Stephen Miller summarizes developments in peasant farming during 18th and 19th century France, closing with state policies to promote an agricultural revolution in the 1950s and 1960s. In chapter 5, Xavier Lafrance focuses more specifically on how the French Revolution of 1789 consolidated non-capitalist social property relations and how its industrialization only occurred due to controversial state actions in the second half of the 19th century. Javier Moreno Zacarés analyses the transition to capitalism in Catalonia in chapter 6, specifically its proto-industrial path during the 18th century while explicating some theoretical differences between Brenner and Wood (which he labels a ‘schism’).

After this traditional focus on early modern Western Europe, the second half of the volume shifts to the settler states of the Americas and more recent developments in Asia. Chapter 7, by Charles Post, reviews the American road to capitalism with a focus on the antebellum origins of US capitalism and the significant differences between plantation slavery in the South and petty capitalist agriculture in the North, concluding that ‘the subordination of merchant to industrial capital in the US economy made the expansion of slavery and capitalism irreconcilable’ (p. 183). In chapter 8, Jessica Evans discusses the transition to capitalism in Canada and its relation to colonialism as well as the production of racialized subjectivities, provocatively claiming that the 19th century (and not 1492 and its aftermath) is key to the structuration of settler/indigenous relations along racially defined lines in tandem with a concurrent reorganization of social property relations due to competitive pressures from the global economy.  In chapter 9, Mark Cohen explores the case of rural capitalism in Meiji-era Japan and the peasantry’s subjection to the discipline of competitive production through relations of debt and tenancy as the state started to enforce the economic power of property owners.

In chapter 10, Chris Carlson considers the Brazilian case in the context of rural property relations, arguing that despite long-term differences between the prosperous southeast and the impoverished northeast, it is not colonialism or the international division of labour but developments in the 20th century that are crucial for understanding the dynamics behind the emergence of capitalist agriculture in that country. Eren Duzgun analyses the political economy in the Ottoman Empire as well as Turkey in chapter 11, claiming that both pursued a non-capitalist path to modernity until the 1950s when a transition to capitalism occurred. In this, he particularly focusses on the National View Movement and the Justice and Development Party. In chapter 12, Christopher Isett scrutinizes the late development of Taiwan. Isett offers a balanced view of internal developments (import substitution policies, land reform, political power) and external processes (access to US market and capital) which allowed Taiwan to experience rapid upward mobility in the global division of labour.

Nicole Leach’s chapter 13 is a very different piece altogether. She offers a refreshing comparison of Brenner and gender analysis. Using social reproduction feminism, Leach provides an interesting critique of Brenner (and Political Marxism), emphasizing that the organization of biological activity (birth, childbearing, lactation) is historically and socially conditioned yet traditionally omitted from the conceptualization of capitalism’s genesis as well as its continuing modus operandi. I found this critical reading the most interesting chapter of all.

Chapter 14, a brief conclusion by the editors, re-emphasizes the significance of the states on a case-by-case basis. What we are therefore left with, ad infinitum, is methodological nationalism that argues that every state is unique due to its specific socio-legal and political history (p. 345) and because of the changing inter-societal context and variations in social reactions, no single path to capitalism can ever be considered (p. 267). When pressed to account for exogenous factors or the ‘international’ to explain the transition (in addition to state-specific social relations and class configurations), they theorize that the ‘capitalist transformation of imperialism promoted the spread of capitalism to what we today call the Global South’ (p. 347). Yet they insist on stating that England is enmeshed in a non-capitalist international system (p. 348). By the end of the 20th century, however, it is argued that ‘global imperialism had compelled most ruling classes in the Global South to adapt capitalist social property relations’ (p. 349). It is not clear from this all too briefly outlined theoretical vision in the concluding part of the book if the co-editors believe the entire world is now capitalist, or if there are states or geographic areas still completely pre-capitalist and, therefore, likely to experience a transition in the years to come. As Lafrance and Post get closer to the present with its huge multinational organizations, the relevance of foreign direct investment, significant labour flows and the commodification of the environment leading to a global climate crisis, their sole theoretical focus on endogenous social relations (class) to explain a transition becomes more difficult to uphold. One does get the impression that when it comes to transitions in the global South, Lafrance and Post are more willing to consider exogenous factors than endogenous ones, but perhaps this is just indicative of a Eurocentric legacy embedded in mainstream Political Marxism. The world’s second largest economic power and the most populous country, the People’s Republic of China, with an official Marxist-Leninist ideology, is a notable and unfortunate omission from this collection of essays.

Moreover, the editors do admit towards the end of this volume that ‘Marxism needs to grapple with the relationship of race and gender to capitalist property relations.’ (p. 350). Yet with the exceptions of chapter 13 (Leach) which engages with gender and of chapter 8 (Evans) which engages with race, these questions are invisible in all of the text, which is regrettable. To conclude, this volume therefore tends to read more as a series of essays for the already converted Marxists (though given the stated list price not in reach for every proletarian) than genuine critical attempts to rethink old paradigms or even engage in dialogue with other visions also firmly rooted in historical materialism and international political economy that are not in agreement with Brenner’s dictum. (Why he did not contribute a single chapter to this volume is also a bit of a mystery.) As such, despite the inherent quality of the scholarship in all essays, the overall volume remains a missed opportunity. That said, perhaps the editors’ choices are just a reflection of the Old Left’s political position more generally and not limited to the topic of the origins of capitalism.

Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism, edited by Xavier Lafrance and Charles Post. New York: Palgrave. 2019. xvii + 355 pp. 104 euro. ISBN 978-3-319-95656-5

Read the complete review here.

Eric Mielants is at the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Fairfield University, USA