Ellen Meiksins Wood radio interview


posted to www.marxmail.org on September 25, 2003


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 England. Wood pretty much admits this when she tells the interviewer that India was never really capitalist when ruled by England. By virtue of the fact that the British army ran the country and forced unfavorable trade agreements on a subject population, it was outside the realm of market relations and hence outside the realm of capitalism. Now obviously none of this makes sense. Even in Karl Marx's flawed articles on India, he was clear about the nature of what was going on:


"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 Rome was an "empire of property" because it relied on seizure of land. The next type of empire to appear on the stage of history was the "empire of commerce", which included both Holland and the Arab-Muslim principalities. These empires are characterized by buying cheap and selling dear, so the argument goes. This analysis is drawn from Marx's musings on mercantile capital, which in contrast to his discussion of 17th to 19th century British economic history, are rather barren of empirical data. This is completely understandable since he was consumed by trying to understand British society, where a powerful working-class was fighting politically and open to the ideas of socialism. It is doubtful that Marx had the time or the inclination to really understand how 17th century Peruvian or Bolivian societies were organized. Of course, Ellen Meiksins Wood has no excuse and it is singularly disappointing to find so little interest in her writings about class relations between silver miners and their bosses.


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 Nature are absolutely free and independent of one another as to sovereign Jurisdiction,' Richard Bland of Virginia wrote in 1766. They enter into society 'by their own consent,' he explained, just as 'they have a natural Right to quit the Society of which they are Members . . . [to] recover their natural Freedom and Independence.'" (p. 60)


Indeed, Locke, a slave-owner himself, wrote the state constitution of South Carolina in 1669 that stipulated: "But yet no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master hath over him, but be in all things in the same state and condition he was In before."