Brenner, Ireland and Spain

I am not a scholar but I get to play one on the Internet.

That being said, I have always been much more interested in the political implications of the "Brenner thesis" rather than what it amounts to as a scholarly interpretation of the origins of capitalism. As a long time supporter of the Monthly Review, I have never quite gotten over Robert Brenner describing Paul Sweezy as a "neo-Smithian" in the pages of New Left Review. While Adam Smith symbolizes the tyranny of the marketplace, the Monthly Review--launched on the cusp of the Cold War during the Henry Wallace campaign--has been conducting a half-century battle against that tyranny.

The "Brenner thesis" is an outgrowth of the Sweezy-Dobb debate which was triggered by Sweezy's Science and Society review of Maurice Dobb's 1947 "Studies in the Development of Capitalism." Science and Society was (and is) a prestigious journal with loose connections to the Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s--less so today. Sweezy, a friend of the party, and Dobb, a long-time member, were the best that this tradition had to offer. The debate essentially revolved around rival explanations for the birth of capitalism. Dobbs set forth a new interpretation in his book: capitalism was essentially an internally generated system brought on by profound changes in class relations in the British countryside during the waning middle ages. Sweezy argued that it was primarily a function of expanding trade based in towns rather than the countryside.

Brenner placed himself in the Dobb camp in two articles published in an scholarly journal "Past and Present" during the 1970s. Probably this would have been seen as nothing more than a contribution to an ongoing debate had it had not been for a subsequent article by Brenner in the 1977 New Left Review. While recapitulating the "Past and Present" articles, it also included a slashing polemical attack on Paul Sweezy and the "dependency theorists" grouped around the Monthly Review, especially focused on the "development of underdevelopment" line of reasoning found in Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Eduardo Galeano and a host of others.

1977 was something of a turning point in Marxist politics. The Vietnam era protests were a thing of the past and the left was searching for a new orientation. New motion in the trade unions--especially around the Sadlowski campaign--seemed to promise a return to the "classic" alignment of forces in the developed capitalist countries but on a higher plane. So in a certain sense Brenner's swipe at the Monthly Review fit into a turn in the radical movement as a whole. But it also gave succor to elements in the academy who had no use for anti-imperialism of the Immanuel Wallerstein variety.

This was around the time that the late Bill Warren was arguing that capitalism still had a progressive role to play in the third world. While some defenders of the "Brenner thesis" lacked Warren's unflinchingly dogmatic style, they still managed to find good things to say about capitalism, albeit in a highly qualified, tweedy, pipe-smoking manner:

"If genuine growth is taking place, if the shape and pace of this change do reflect in good measure local and economic circumstances, and if the state is especially responsible for how these events transpire, then one quite plausible inference would be that the ability of imperialism to make these areas 'dependent' is declining, and that therefor the cardinal reference point of the dependency approach is fast losing its utility as a lodestar." (Tony Smith, "Requiem for Third World Studies or New Agenda?", World Politics, Jul. 1985)

When I first heard criticisms of the "Brenner thesis" from Jim Blaut, a subscriber to the Marxism list I moderate and author of "Colonizer's Model of the World," I decided to check it out for myself. As somebody with an intense interest in and sympathy for indigenous struggles, the thought that capitalism had origins in anything other than the pillage of the New World and slavery troubled me deeply. After writing two articles in response to the Brenner thesis for Internet mailing lists, I thought I had said everything I had to say on the matter.

About a month ago, a new discussion broke out on these leftist mailing lists, sparked initially by discussion of Eugene Genovese's writings on slavery. Genovese had been grouped with Brenner and Ernesto Laclau in the 1970s as thinkers who put forward rather strict guidelines as to what constitutes capitalism. They rejected the notion that slavery or debt peonage, the primary forms of class exploitation in the New World, had anything to do with capitalism. It appeared that despite Marx's admonitions to Vera Zasulich about the dangers of using the British experience as some kind of template for understanding the development of capitalism along universal lines, they had done exactly that. Indeed, despite Bill Warren and Tony Smith, the pure form of capitalism seemed to be a chimera when it came to most of the third world. Even after making a brief appearance in places like South Korea, the old patterns of 'dependency' soon returned.

The renewed discussion gave me an excuse to read Ellen Meiksins Wood's "Origins of Capitalism", a book that had been languishing on my shelves for over a year and that I was in no rush to read. I had heard all the defense of the Brenner thesis that I needed to hear on and off the Internet. Frankly, it was coming out of my ears. Overcoming initial inertia, I sat down and read the 120 page book in about 3 hours. Whatever else you want to say about Wood, she doesn't beat around the bush. Not only do I recommend it as an excellent introduction to the debate, I also recommend it as a useful illustration of how an over-enthusiastic embrace of the Brenner thesis can lead to all sorts of unfortunate omissions and unwarranted assumptions.

The omission that sticks out the most is slavery. If you look in the index, you will find two pages that reference "slavery." In the first instance, it is a single sentence that serves to supply the context of Locke's theory of property. In the second, it is a part of two paragraphs that dispense with critics of the Brenner thesis in a breezily self-assured manner:

"British imperialism also, of course, contributed to the development of the world’s first industrial capitalism. But while industrialization did feed on the resources of empire, it is important to keep in mind that the logic of imperialism did not bring about industrial capitalism by itself. Imperial power in other European states did not produce the same effects, and on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, the domestic market was still more important in the British economy than was international trade. Agrarian capitalism was the root of British economic development.

"Marxist historians have persuasively demonstrated, against many arguments to the contrary, that the greatest crime of European empire, slavery, made a major contribution to the development of industrial capitalism. But here, too, we have to keep in mind that Britain was not alone in exploiting colonial slavery and that elsewhere it had different effects. Other major European powers—France, Spain, Portugal—amassed great wealth from slavery and from the trade in addictive goods like tobacco which, it has been argued, fueled the trade in living human beings. But, again, only in Britain was that wealth converted into industrial capital—and here again the difference lies in the new capitalist dynamic which had already transformed the logic of the British economy, setting in train the imperatives of competitive production, capital accumulation, and self-sustaining growth."

After my initial shock at seeing scholarship in the Eric Williams tradition written off without even a token nod in the direction of quantitative analysis or historical counterfactuals, I found another thought nagging away at me: "What about Spain?" In previous discussions on the Internet, Spain was always set against England like a prodigal son, or as a frivolous grasshopper against a thrifty and hardworking ant. While England plowed New World wealth into a burgeoning industrial capitalism, the Spanish were frittering away their booty on golden carriages, diamond-studded slippers and baroque cathedrals they could ill afford. In the back of my mind I always pictured John Cleese of "Fawlty Towers" smacking the hotel's foolish bellboy Manuel while explaining to shocked guests, "Don't mind him--he's from Barcelona."

Taking advantage of my access to Columbia University's research libraries, one benefit of being a computer programmer there, I decided to investigate other stories about Spain. I was simply tired of hearing it described as a feudal basket case. It was one thing to make such allegations, it was another to back them up.

Curiously enough, Brenner had cited 15th century Catalonia in his first "Past and Present" article as one of the few examples of a "capitalist system based on large-scale owner-cultivators also generally using wage labour." Because of this, he argues, Catalonia was one of the few areas in Europe--besides England--that had escaped the "general economic crisis of the seventeenth century." There's only one problem with this analysis. It seems to be false.

At least that's what Jaime Torras argues in the Fall 1980 Review of the Braudel Center, edited by Immanuel Wallerstein. Based on recent research on Catalonia, the key element of agrarian success in the region--such as it was--was labor intensification and crop specialization rather than class relations or farm size. I say such as it was because evidence points to a general failure of Catalonian agriculture for most of the 17th century until the cited measures took effect.

This was not the end of the story of the Spanish economy, at least with respect to its either validating or invalidating the Brenner thesis. "Past and Present," the journal that had provided the launching pad for the Brenner thesis, published a collection of articles by Spanish historians in 1994 titled "The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century." Edited by I.A.A. Thompson and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla, the book purports to present a "revisionist" account of the period based on the availability of new archival material. This was necessary since a review of scholars--including E.J. Hobsbawm and Robert Brenner--had revealed "how unsatisfactory is their treatment of metropolitan Spain." More to the point, the standard version of Spanish history, including that produced by Marxist historians, was one that argued:

"[T]he failure of the Spanish economy has in a long tradition that extends from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth been explained in terms of arbitrary government, a bad religion, the tyrannical Inquisition, reactionary hidalgo values, the wretched laziness of the people, the absence of a capitalist and entrepreneurial spirit and other failings of the national character, as much as in terms of objective economic analysis."

The articles contained in the volume do not add up to a unified version of what took place in 17th century Spain. Nevertheless, a careful reading leads to one conclusion: the Brenner thesis seems woefully inadequate for describing this period and this region.

Take for example the key question of urban growth. For Ellen Meiksins Wood, the fact that the urban population of England doubled between 1500 and 1700 confirms the highly productive character of British capitalist agriculture. When fewer people are required to produce foodstuffs, then they are freed up to work in the cities in burgeoning industrial enterprises. However, according to Angel García Sanz, the population of Madrid increased from 30,000 in 1561 to 130,000 in the 1630s. ("Castile 1580-1650: economic crisis and the policy of 'reform'") This beats English urban growth by 100 percent.

Perhaps the most 'revisionist' argument of all comes from Gonzalo Anes who argues that the Spanish economy grew during this period rather than decline. ("The agrarian 'depression' in Castile in the seventeenth century") Basing himself on tithe figures from parish archives, Anes makes a compelling case that:

"The increase of the urban population in the sixteenth century guaranteed the peasantry a firm market for their products and in some specific cases, as the demand from towns and cities grew, it elicited a response from the agrarian sector in the form of an extension of the area under cultivation and a diversification of crops. It also allowed, where possible, specialisation in the products in greatest and most regular demand by the urban population. To the increase in urban demand must be added the increase and diversification of overseas demand, which has in the past been given greater importance than it deserves. The figures we have for trade with the Indies, despite the uncertainty concerning the quantities of agricultural produce exported, are indication enough that exports could not have set off the growth of the agrarian sector. Nevertheless, overseas demand for Castilian and Andalusian agricultural produce did contribute to agricultural growth in areas from which it was profitable to export, since it promoted production for the market and the specialisation that followed from it. That demand helped stimulate a process of expansion which had its origins in behavioural changes within the rural population resulting from the readjustments that took place during the fifteenth century to changes in average yields, in labour productivity, in wages and consequently in the rents and dues demanded by the lords, and in the relative price of agricultural and manufactured goods."

Moreda produces some dramatic statistics. Figures for twenty Castilian cities in 1530 and 1594 show an increase of 84 percent, figures that seem consistent with Sanz's. While some of this growth reflects increased commercial activity related to colonial outposts in the New World, much of it has to do with exports to the rest of Europe.

This leads us to a key question which I find practically ignored in Brenner and Woods. Namely, does the growth of agrarian capitalism ensure a happy, upward path toward the industrial revolution and well-fed wage workers? Frankly, most of what I have seen in Brenner and Woods seems innocent not only what I have read in recent ecological analysis of capitalist agriculture but what Marx himself wrote. For Marx, capitalist agriculture is filled with contradictions. While yielding short term profits, it leads to the exhaustion of the soil and the rural work force. Looking back at Wood's essay on the agrarian origins of capitalism in the special Monthly Review issue on agriculture is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. While every other contributor was explaining the irrational destructiveness of capitalist agriculture, Wood seemed swept up by the bourgeois ideology of "improvement" that swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th century. For her there are obvious injustices associated with the growth of agrarian capitalism such as people being forced from their land by the Enclosure Acts. Yet this seems some kind of necessary evil to reach the goal of a modern industrial society--sort of like Stalin breaking the back of the kulaks in the 1930s.

If there has been anything I've learned in the past 7 years or so since being won to the Green perspective, it is that capitalist agriculture is bound to produce anything but prosperity and a well-fed population. This is particularly true of 17th century Spain which seems to have suffered more from capitalist turbo-growth in the countryside rather than feudal stagnation.

According to Anes, profit-driven expansion of agriculture in the 16th century led to putting more and more land into cultivation. That made it necessary to convert more and more land into arable fields even when such conversion would ultimately undermine the ecological health of agriculture overall. Specifically, "the ploughing up, sowing and cultivation of woodland, scrub and pasture reduced the area of permanent grazing, and necessarily also reduced the number of cattle and sheep maintained in each village in line with the loss of feed." Furthermore, with more land to plow, more plough-teams were required. However, with less grazing there were inevitably fewer oxen that could be supported. Eventually, oxen were replaced by mules which were more expensive. For poorer farmers this was a mixed blessing. The oxen were not only cheaper, their hides and flesh could be used once their useful working lives were done.

The relentless drive toward more and more land for crop cultivation led to burning woods, much as takes place in contemporary Brazil. Anes writes, "In reply to petitions of the Cortes in 1555 and 1560 against the burning of woods in Andalusia, Extremadura, the kingdom of Toledo and elsewhere, to provide young shoots for better grazing for goats, Philip II ordered that animals should not be allowed into the newly burned wooded areas for five or six years in order to preserve the holm-oak and other trees. Despite the heavy penalties, it was not a success." Of course not. Profit is a merciless dictator.

As this process spread across Spain, as more and more land became exhausted due to lack of fertilizer, the eventual result was predictable: a depression in the countryside. There were other factors that impinged on the Spanish farmer, including steep taxes to support the imperial adventures of the Crown and tithes for the clergy. Spain also had to contend with dwindling imports of silver from the New World, an exhaustible resource just like land. At any rate, the last thing one can say about Spain in this period is that it was some kind of "feudal" historical counterfactual to England. Spain, in this period, was a victim of its own early agrarian capitalist success.

Apparently agrarian capitalism had a happy ending in England, unlike Spain. As part of the effort to explain this success "internally," colonial holdings are given minimal importance. While Jim Blaut has criticized this failure, the brunt of his attack has focused on the New World. Reading Wood's defense of Brenner, one might detect another kind of failure closer to home. In a passage that does not exceed one page, she raises the question of Ireland:

"Forward-looking [sic] public servants, like the political economist William Petty, saw Ireland as a testing ground for agrarian capitalism, a laboratory in which to test the effects of transforming property relations, whatever the consequences for the multitudes of dispossessed."

While nobody would ever dream of accusing Ellen Meiksins Wood of being insensitive to the plight of Ireland, there is a more important question from the standpoint of political economy. Does it make any sense to refer to Ireland as a "testing ground of agrarian capitalism"? For it to be a testing ground, the accumulation of capital would serve the class interests of the Irish bourgeoisie, not the British, wouldn't it? If anything, Ireland would tend to confirm the "development of underdevelopment" thesis of Monthly Review writers. With the extraction of capital indirectly from Spanish colonies in the New World, directly from slavery in the Caribbean, and from dispossession in Ireland, England catapulted itself into the first ranks of European powers and laid the groundwork for industrial capitalism.

More to the point, it is seems curious to bracket out discussion of the conquest of Ireland when discussing the rapid growth of England and its well-fed urban population at the very time hunger and depopulation were occurring in Ireland. This problem seems to be endemic among historians who prioritize "internal" explanations for the early rise of England. In E.J. Hobsbawm's article on "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" in Trevor Aston's "Crisis in Europe: 1560-1660", Ireland receives about as much attention as it gets from Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Could this inattention be attributed to the influence of British Stalinist historians on the New Left Review where Wood served as an editor and where Brenner still serves? Philip Ferguson, the editor of Revolution magazine in New Zealand and formerly a full-organizer for Sinn Fein, sizes up the record of the NLR on the Irish question:

"The school of British Marxist historians associated with the CPBG - Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill etc - certainly wrote some great stuff, but they always had a massive blind spot when it came to colonialism and imperialism, especially British rule in Ireland. The NLR also reflected this. When you consider that a revolutionary struggle was ongoing in Ireland from about 1968-1994, the number of articles in NLR on Ireland during that whole period could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and probably still leave a few digits free.

"This is an extraordinary blind spot. I mean, can anyone imagine American Marxist intellectuals simply ignoring the Vietnam War when it was raging and producing journals that said nothing about the war?" (Posted to the Marxism list on Nov. 2 2000)

(Perhaps these intellectuals had taken the plot of another Fawlty Towers episode too literally. When Basil Fawlty hires Paddy, an Irish contractor, to make urgently needed repairs to the hotel at a cut-rate price, it turns out that he botches the job. After Basil's wife Sybil calls in a legitimate British contractor to bail them out, she throws Basil and Paddy out the front door.)

Not every English Communist was as negligent as the historians singled out by Phil Ferguson. Thomas Alfred Jackson, author of "Ireland Her Own", was born in London in 1879 and was one of the founders of the British Communist Party. Although he had no Irish ancestors, he was a tireless promoter of Irish freedom. After meeting James Connolly on a tour of England, Jackson was won to the cause. Afterwards he was closely associated with Connolly's lieutenant Con Lehane who suggested that he write a Marxist history of Ireland. That book became "Ireland Her Own," which is dedicated to Lehane.

In a passage that eerily seems to anticipate Lenin's anecdote about Cecil Rhodes seeing the need for imperialism after witnessing a raucous rally of the unemployed in 1895, Jackson cites a 12th century English monk on the eve of Henry II's accession: "It was a time when any rich man made his castle and when they filled them with devils and evil men. They were days when wretched men starved with hunger. In those days the earth bore no corn, for the land was all foredone by such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his Apostles had gone to sleep." With such a grievous situation, it was no wonder that Ireland, according to Jackson, was seen as a place to "dump the potent cause of mischief--the unemployed problem peculiar to feudalism--the problem of the younger (and the illegitimate) sons and the redundant descendants of the feudal lords."

For the next four centuries, overlapping feudalism and the emergence of capitalism, England did everything it could to plunder Ireland. In the 14th century The Statue of Kilkenny was enacted. Besides making intermarriage with Irish an act of treason, it punished Irish farmers whose cattle grazed on Crown land with forfeiture.

During the 15th century, a time of special importance for the rise of those "internal" factors that would explain English success from the Brenner perspective, all sorts of events were transpiring in "external" Ireland that could help to explain that success. While the conditions for agrarian capitalism were being met in England in this century, a feudalization was being imposed on the Gaelic Nation. The native clans were converted into fiefdoms by the crown and forced to pay tribute to their masters in London. This pattern was practically identical to that followed by Spain in the New World where the "mita" (a form of feudal labor obligation) was used for capital accumulation in the silver mines. In Ireland feudalization was used to crush peasant resistance and divide Irish lords among each other.

After the indigenous threat to British rule was either co-opted or destroyed, it became much easier to proceed with the pillage of Ireland. In the late 16th century, rebels were forced to surrender to a much more powerful invading military force. Cattle were impounded and in one campaign, a £1,000,000 of crops were destroyed.

In this crisis-ridden seventeenth century, one that, according to E.J. Hobsbawm, England avoided because of its "internal" strengths, there is all kinds of circumstantial evidence that point to powerful "external" factors at work in Ireland. English landlordism in Ireland had the net effect of fattening England while reducing Ireland to hunger and misery. Perhaps I am a dogmatic "dependency theorist", but this explanation makes more sense than capitalist property relations which--after all--fared so poorly in Spain in the long run. English estates in Ireland not only absorbed unemployed vagrants infesting the British countryside, they made possible profitable sheep-walks that profited the incipient agrarian bourgeoisie.

Not only do Hobsbawm, Hill and Thompson fail to live up to the example of T.A. Jackson, they seem to have forgotten the lessons imparted by A.L. Morton, the Dean of British Communist historians, who gave the proper emphasis to Ireland. In the seventeenth century, Morton--unlike Hobsbawm--sees the connection between English success and Irish failure. Quoting J. R. Green, author of "A Short History of the English People," Morton makes the ties specific:

"Enormous profits fell to the planters, who could get three times as much gain from an Irish as from an English estate by a fierce exploiting of the natural resources of the island and its cheap outlawed labour. Forests of oak were hastily destroyed for quick profits: woods were cut down for charcoal to smelt the iron which was carried down the rivers in cunning Irish boats, and what had cost £10 in labour and transport sold at £17 in London. The last furnace was put out in Kerry when the last wood had been destroyed.2 Where the English adventurer passed he left the land as naked as if a forest fire had swept over the country."

The subjugation of Ireland was completed by Oliver Cromwell, a symbol both of Britain's "bourgeois democratic" revolution and Ireland's downfall. His role, of course, is a perfect symbol of the rather questionable value of explaining England's rise in "internal" terms. Put briefly, the rise of English capitalism was coterminous with the rise of colonialism and imperialism.

After Cromwell's soldiers took possession of the Irish land, the country became a source of cheap food and raw materials for England. Morton writes, "At first cattle were reared, and by 1660, some 500,000 head were being exported to England. When these exports were found to be causing a fall in agricultural prices and rents, an Act was passed in 1666 forbidding the export of cattle, meat or dairy products. This act crippled the Irish cattle industry and when cattle began to be replaced by sheep a further Act forbade both the export of wool to any other country and the export of anything but the raw wool to England. Later still, the Irish cloth industry was deliberately destroyed when it became a dangerous competitor."

No wonder England managed to bypass the crisis of the seventeenth century. It was taking it out of the hide of Ireland.

I have as much difficulty understanding the original motivation for the Brenner thesis as given by him in 1977 as I do in Ellen Meiksins Wood's latest presentation. For Brenner, the notion that capitalism was born in the British countryside in the 15th century was supposed to act as some kind of prophylactic against collaboration with the national bourgeoisie in third world countries. That seems a bit of a stretch to me, but what do I know.

For Wood, the importance is to separate the project of modernity from that of capitalism. By showing that capitalism had a specific birth in a specific place, one can begin to distinguish the differences between French and English Enlightenment thought. For the France of the 18th century, Enlightenment thought was a weapon against non-capitalist forms of exploitation. For England it was always an ideology of the "invisible hand" of political economy and the philosophy of British empiricism. The English obsession with "improvement" leads to the subordination of all human values to productivity and profit. To drive this point home, she writes, "Might we say that it is no accident that the mad cow disease scandal happened in Britain, the birthplace of 'improvement'?"

Well, okay. I have no problem with fighting against mad cow disease. My problem is with economic history which minimizes the importance of colonialism and imperialism. I don't think that Brenner and Wood are apologists or any such thing. They are committed to a particular world view and I find it highly commendable that they stick to their guns over the decades. The last time I saw that kind of commitment was in the world of Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties where a position taken on "socialism in one country" occupies the same kind of paramount importance that the Brenner thesis does in left academia.

My own view is that many of these questions will always remain a matter of conjecture. How can only possibly *prove* or *disprove* that capitalism originated in England in the 15th century? Our goal should be focused on eliminating it today and despite the scholarly peccadilloes of Wood and Brenner, they remain on the side of the working class.