Ellen Meiksins Wood radio interview
posted to www.marxmail.org on
I want to urge everybody to listen to the interview with Ellen Meiksins Wood that is online at: http://www.livingroomradio.org/. Although it is marred by the unwillingness of interviewer C.S. Sung to ask tough follow-up questions, it does at least allow this celebrated author to expound freely on ideas found in her latest book "Empire of Capital" available from Verso Press.
That this book is grounded in the Brenner thesis should come as no surprise. Wood has endeavored to popularize and generalize this theory on the origins of capitalism in contrast to the more specialized, almost Mandarin, efforts by Brenner. Brenner did try to broaden its implications in a NLR article over 25 years ago, but except for this has stuck to narrow questions of land tenure, etc. in journals like Past and Present.
Wood has a rather strict definition of capitalism. It is defined by market relations when the two major classes in society confront each other without mediating political, legal or military institutions. It should be obvious that feudalism did not work in that fashion. Under feudalism the serf was required by law to perform corvee services, which was labor performed in lieu of taxation such as mending fences, repairing roads, etc. Once the serf was freed, he could no longer be required to perform such services, nor would he be ceded land upon which he could sustain himself and his family. Under capitalism the worker receives a wage and the control that the boss exercises becomes much less transparent.
While this is a useful distinction, Wood goes completely overboard by failing to recognize that capitalism can just as easily revolve around non-market relationships when the need arises. For example, fascism was distinguished by an elaborate network of political, legal and military institutions--including slavery--that operated outside the framework of the marketplace. When Thyssen and Krupp employed slave labor during the Third Reich, they were just as much capitalist as they are today under bourgeois democracy.
More to the point, the colonial world never really enjoyed
market relations over an approximately 400 year period while capitalism of the
pure sort was being developed in
"These small stereotype forms of social organism have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-pinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia."
Betraying her professional academic background, Wood seems
intent on coming up with taxonomies that could be used to categorize different
forms of imperialism. Ancient
She seems almost obsessed with the figure of John Locke, who is turned into a kind of Major Prophet of capitalism in her writings. It is too bad that the interviewer was either unaware of or unwilling to mention the fact that this very same John Locke was embraced by Southern slave-owners as their main ideologist.
According to James Oakes in "Slavery and Freedom":
"The writings of eighteenth-century Southerners were
steeped in Lockean premises, never more thoroughly than during the American
Revolution. 'Men in a State of
Indeed, Locke, a slave-owner himself, wrote the state