The Brenner Thesis as Iberiantalism
In Ellen Meiksins Wood's defense of the Brenner thesis over the past
several years, you can lose track of the issues that made it so controversial in
the first place. This was not simply an analysis of how capitalism began, it was
also an intervention into the debate around development strategy that was raging
in the 1970s. This article will consider Wood's defense in light of scholarly
material on the question of the transition to capitalism. It will also refocus
the discussion on the often tortured development debate itself, which in my view
has tended to reflect the class composition of the principals with all of the
obvious problems. Put simply, a North American or European professor in an
African university or on a United Nations assignment will be in a poor position
to analyze class relations in the host country and to recommend necessary
solutions. Ultimately, those sorts of solutions can only emerge from parties
such as the kind that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin sought to build. Finally, the
article will show how the Brenner thesis, if applied rigorously to modern South
Africa, can only lead to absurd conclusions.
If you examine Ellen Meiksins Wood's polemic against the late Jim Blaut
in the May-June 2001 Against the Current ("A Critique of Eurocentric
Eurocentrism"), you will notice something very odd. Other than a citation
of A.G. Frank's recently published "Reorient," all of the other six
footnotes refer solely to articles written by Blaut or Brenner.
In contrast, Jim Blaut's chapter on Brenner in "Eight Eurocentric
Historians" (Guilford, 2000) (about the same length as Wood's article)
includes fifty-seven citations often referring to specialized, scholarly
material. (1) For example, since Brenner's argument that capitalism began in the
English countryside relies heavily on Eric Kitteridge's "The Agricultural
Revolution," Blaut offers Titow's "English Rural Society,
1200-1350" as an opposing view. When David Harvey spoke at Jim Blaut's
memorial meeting in NYC recently, he said that while Jim was a dedicated
revolutionary, he was also a conscientious scholar. As he put it, he took all of
the baggage that went along with it quite seriously, including footnotes.
Either Ellen Meiksins Wood is unaware of countervailing scholarly
material or, being aware of it, considers the Brenner thesis of such divine
inspiration so as to be immune from counter-arguments. This, of course, is no
way to deepen our understanding of capitalism's origins. Since the Brenner
thesis rests on the uniquely capitalist and uniquely productive character of
British agriculture from the 15th century onwards, one might expect somebody
defending it to investigate alternative interpretations.
One can only wonder if Wood has stumbled across Philip T. Hoffman's
much-heralded "Growth in a Traditional Society: the French Countryside
1450-1815" (Princeton, 1996) in her peregrinations. Sifting through village
records in Bretteville-l'Orguelleuse, Roville, and Neuviller, Hoffman makes a
startling discovery. While at the outset he believed the failings of French
agriculture "derived from the small size of peasant farms" and
"the lack of English-style enclosures," the data gradually convinced
him that sharecropping, a typical form of property relations in these villages,
did not hamper productivity or innovation at all. (2) By all standard measures
of labor productivity, France was the equal of Great Britain.
Or has she seen Kenneth Pomeranz's "The Great Divergence: China,
Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy"? Pomeranz notes that in
the sixteenth to eighteenth century, "China was closer to market-driven
agriculture than was most of Europe, including most of western Europe." (3)
He adds, "much of western Europe's farmland was far harder to buy or sell
than that of China. Even in the nineteenth century, about 50 percent of all land
in England was covered by family settlements, which made it all but impossible
As fruitful as it would be to explore France and China as
counterfactuals to the Brenner thesis, my goal now is to subject Wood's rather
off-the-cuff remarks on Spanish 'feudalism' to careful scrutiny. For Wood, Spain
functions as an example of everything that can go wrong when you do not make the
transition to capitalism. Instead of using its colonial wealth productively,
Spain wasted it in "essentially feudal pursuits, especially war..."
(An interesting perspective on war from a world-renown Marxist intellectual.) In
contrast to Spain, the English were much more ruthless when it came to the
exploitation of the land for farming. Concerned with commercial profit, they
dedicated themselves to "improvement." Meanwhile, one would surmise
that the vainglorious Spanish hidalgos were happiest, when not wasting good
farmland, out looking for countries to pick fights with.
To put it bluntly, Wood's views on Spain and the Spanish colonies are a
caricature. What is at work here is the kind of national and ethnic stereotyping
that Edward Said attacked in "Orientalism." Perhaps we can coin a term
to describe Wood's approach: Iberiantalism.
To begin with, it is necessary to tackle the question of whether there
was such a thing as 'feudalism' in the Spanish settlements in the New World. One
of the things that might confuse Wood is that the Spaniards created institutions
such as the 'encomienda' (a kind of fiefdom) that had their origins--at least
nominally--in feudal Spain. However, the class relations that typified Spanish
colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World. To dramatize the
difference, we need only to look at the 'mita,' a form of labor servitude that
replaced the 'encomienda.'
Interestingly, the 'mita' was based on the Incan 'm'ita,' a form of
labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, a truly feudal system. In
"Peru's Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to
1640," Steve Stern is careful to retain two different spellings just to
make sure there is no confusion. He writes, "Traditionally, native society
supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system.
Peasants served a m'ita, or turn, out of the community's total labors. The
rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or
obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal
contributions of labor-time by the community's kindreds." (4)
The Spanish 'mita' had virtually nothing in common with this. When an
Indian was dragooned by the Spanish lord to go off to a mine or 'obraje' (early
manufacturer operated in sweatshop conditions), production quotas were set
arbitrarily at a level beyond what a 'mitayo' worker could produce. In order to
meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or 'obraje'
to work just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In other words,
Peru and Bolivia were turned into something like gigantic slave-labor camps.
Was this feudalism? If so, it was a peculiar form of feudalism
considering the way that the system operated in Europe:
"Although their standard of living may not have been particularly
lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional
people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained
innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk
estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third
of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky
offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were
celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria."(5)
It was exactly this kind of wasteful inefficiency of labor power that
the rise of capitalism in Europe was directed against. In effect, the Spanish
colonies were vast, early laboratories in which super-exploitation stripped of
what Marx called "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" in the
Communist Manifesto could be tested out.
By all standard measurements of capitalist profit, the Spaniards enjoyed
a roaring success. Profits from mining were invested in capitalist development
throughout the New World. If we turn to D.A. Brading's "Miners and
Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" (Cambridge Press, 1971), the proof
of rapid capitalist growth leaps off the page.
"In 1804 the corregidor of Querétaro counted 18 factories (obrajes)
and 327 workshops (trapiches) in his town, the former group operating 280 looms
and the latter up to 1,000. The larger firms wove woollen ponchos, blankets,
serges, and sarapes while the smaller produced coarse cottons. In addition,
there were another 35 workshops making hats and ten treating leather and suede
goods. Estimates as to how many people were engaged in this industry varied. In
1803 the factory owners admitted that they kept over 2,000 men shut up within
the walls of their prison-like establishments. In the same year the corregidor
stated that some 9,000 persons of both sexes were occupied in the spinning,
weaving and finishing of cloth. The industry’s consumption of wool averaged
about a million pounds and the value of its product was later reckoned to reach
over million pesos a year. These figures, moreover, excluded the 3,000 workers
employed by the tobacco monopoly."(6)
By what standard can these operations be called 'feudal' without making
a mockery of the English language? Furthermore, an unprejudiced view of the
mother country would reveal an entirely different reality than the one that Wood
would foist on her reader.
The Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed
to the new capitalist doctrines sweeping Europe. King Carlos III commissioned
the Sociedad Económica de Madrid to come up with a program for agricultural
reform and economist Gasper Melchor de Jovellanos took charge of the project.
His main principle, based on the physiocratic school, was that laws should not
attempt to protect agriculture but only to remove obstacles to its development.
While drawing from the physiocrats, he also echoed Adam Smith. He not only read
the "Wealth of Nations" in French, but translated it into Spanish.
"How admirable when he analyses!", he declared with respect to Smith.
(7) There was resistance to Jovellanos's program from the landed gentry, but no
more or less so than in any other country in Europe at the time, including Great
Britain. In any case, the notion of a 'feudal' Spain is utterly false. The Crown
only sought to limit the power of the landowners, who had long ago dropped any
connections to the sort of feudal paternalism described above. They were
involved with commercial agriculture, not production of use values. Even Robert
Brenner admits that capitalist agriculture was widespread in Catalonia more than
two centuries earlier.
2. THE SEARCH FOR A PROGRESSIVE BOURGEOISIE IN KENYA
The Brenner thesis was not only an analysis of how capitalism got
started, it also became a polemic against the "dependency theory"
school that had emerged in the 1960s. Economists on the staff of the United
Nations and visiting professors in third world countries had become pessimistic
about the possibility of development. Some, who had become radicalized by Cuba
and Vietnam, decided that socialist revolution was the only path forward. Key to
their analysis was Monthly Review author Paul Baran's concept of the
"development of underdevelopment" in the colonial or neocolonial
world. Since "dependency theory" was focused on contradictions between
the imperialist North and the "periphery," it became vulnerable to the
charge that it lacked a sufficient grounding in the kind of class analysis that
was necessary to transform an underdeveloped country. The reaction against the
Monthly Review theorists was posited as a return to a kind of classical Marxism.
Unfortunately, this kind of Marxism was one that predated the Russian
Revolution. Essentially, it tried to resurrect Marx's famous dictum in Capital
that "The industrially more developed country shows the less developed one
merely an image of its own future."
Since many of the critics of the dependency school occupied the same
social position as their targets, it is not surprising that they would be in a
poor position to conceive of a truly Marxist solution to development, namely
proletarian revolution. A job as a visiting lecturer at a university or in a
United Nations office hardly puts you in a position to see social contradictions
from below, as a trade union activist or peasant leader would. For these
privileged foreigners, the colonial man and woman of the subordinate classes
becomes a subject for study rather than an independent actor on a par with their
The most interesting example of this sort of evolution is Colin Leys,
who transformed himself from dependency theorist into critic all within the span
of a year. Written in 1975, "Underdevelopment in Kenya: the Political
Economy of Neo-Colonialism" puts forward views similar to those found in
Samir Amin. Only a year after the publication of the book, Leys had changed his
mind completely and affiliated himself with critics such as Robert Brenner, Bill
Warren and Ernesto Laclau. What had changed his mind?
Evidently, other students of Kenyan society--also scholars from
outside--had decided that not only was capital accumulation proceeding apace in
the country, but that it predated imperialist control of the country which had
been removed through revolutionary force in the 1950s. Reading their arguments,
Colin Leys did a self-correction and announced that the local bourgeoisie was
not so decadent and beholden to imperialism after all.
You can find his post-conversion views in a 1978 Socialist Register
article titled "Capital Accumulation, Class Formation and Dependency: the
Significance of the Kenyan Case." To start with, Leys tries to find some
value in the writings of the wretched imperialist apologist Bill Warren:
"The conclusion which Warren's critics drew. . .was that the
manufacturing growth rates of these countries were not evidence of 'autonomous
industrial growth' in the Third World, as Warren believed. But this is a case of
too much zeal. Britain, too, was once an 'exceptional' case."
After making a place at the table for Bill Warren, Leys then proceeds to
declare on behalf of the Brenner thesis:
"Brenner, correctly in my view, stresses the centrality of the
class relations which [Adam] Smith took as given. On this view, what is decisive
for the development of capitalist production relations is the prior
configuration and character of classes--for instance, the availability or
otherwise of 'free' labour, the respective political power of non-landed and
landed classes affecting the possibility of capital investment in land, and so
All these theoretical declarations are merely a prelude to his main
task, which is to demonstrate the vibrancy of Kenyan capitalism. His notion of
the centrality of class relations is less about identifying and focusing
attention on potential gravediggers of the system, but on how the system can
"develop" under the auspices of the native ruling class.
He makes much of the transfer of expatriate-owned ranches and coffee
plantations to African owners. "Passenger road transportation was also in
African hands by 1977 as were tour companies, laundries and dry cleaning, and a
rapidly growing share of the hotel and restaurant sectors." This leads Leys
to endorse comments made by an identified Kenyan state official, "In 15
years, if the political climate of Kenya and the world economy stay stable, 90%
of manufacturing will be Kenyan owned." In the conclusion to Leys's
article, he states, "In less abstract terms, Kenya appears, from this
analysis, as a modest example of a 'systematical combination of moments'
conducive to the transition to the capitalist mode of production."
The "moments" Leys is referring to are those mentioned by Karl
Marx in the chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist in volume one of
Capital. Specifically, they are the different "moments" of primitive
accumulation which are "systematically" combined at the end of the
seventeenth century in England. They include colonial plunder, slavery,
extermination of the American Indian, etc. What this has to do with Kenyan
ownership of laundries, etc., is anybody's guess. Rather it seems more akin to
what Richard Nixon once tried to promote, namely black capitalism.
3. PRECAPITALIST SOUTH AFRICA?
As Leys correctly notes, the availability or otherwise of 'free' labour
is key for Brenner. Without free labor, there is no capitalism. Unfortunately,
this fails to adequately deconstruct the relation between freedom and labor. The
capitalist, above all, seeks labor to exploit. Freedom, no matter what the
ideologists preach, is entirely secondary.
In Great Britain, labor had to be free because feudal ties to the land
stood in the way of deployment for factory labor. It was more efficient to build
factories in coastal cities, where ships could carry manufactured goods overseas
to markets. If somebody was tied to the land, they couldn't very well be forced
to move to the city in order to work 14 hours a day. They had to be free first.
However, under other circumstances force was required to make the
hapless peasant from a feudal or communal village do their duty on behalf of
capitalist civilization. This was especially true when the peasant was native to
a colonized country and knew his way around in the forests or fields where he
could hunt and fish in order to survive. Under these circumstances it was
necessary to pass laws that forced the indigenous peoples to stay put and not
run away from their duty. With these laws in place, work gangs could now extract
minerals from the soil or pick crops on a plantation for the rest of their life,
now that they were wedded to an estate or corporation. This is not feudalism. It
is called chattel slavery or indentured servitude.
While it is easy to get confused about such questions when the people
ordering indigenous peoples about lived in the good old days and referred to
themselves as "Don" or "Sir," there should be no such
confusion when it comes to modern South Africa. There was no feudalism in this
country, but there was plenty of forced labor.
The entire history of South Africa has been about how to force the
indigenous population to be successfully exploited by the white capitalist
class, when all sorts of obstacles presented themselves, starting with the
abolition of slavery in 1834 in keeping with laws already enacted in the rest of
the British Empire.(8)
An ordinance passed in 1835 requiring ex-slaves to become apprentices to
their previous owners did not fare too well as the kaffir ingrates insisted on
deserting or damaging property. A new ordinance was passed in 1841 that
established criminal sanctions for breach of contract by the servant but this
solution proved short-lived as well. The ruling class next considered importing
convicts from England, the Australian solution and one that the contemporary USA
is moving towards as well. Finally, in a generous spirit they passed an 1853
ordinance that provided means of subsistence and a small cash wage based on a
contract. Violations of the contract were punishable by a stiff prison sentence.
One of the consequences of such humanitarian legislation was the exodus
of Dutch farmers into the east and northeast, whose religious convictions made
them predisposed to traffic in human beings. When they migrated into their new
home, they were sure to take their KhoiKhoi slaves with them who could be relied
on for the dirty work on their farms.
The development of mining also created opportunities for the capitalist
class, especially in light of the inexplicable desire of native Africans to
subsist through farming rather than dig for diamonds or gold at a pittance. This
led to the establishment of a mixture of wage and forced, contract labor. An
1872 proclamation declared that mine owners were obligated to pay a wage to a
miner, while he would be forced to carry a pass when he was not at the site.
Since diamonds were extremely valuable, labor conditions became prison-like. All
sorts of extra-economic controls were instituted to keep workers in line. These
controls were not feudal, nor was the system anything other than capitalism.
The biggest obstacle to the mine owners' plans, however, was the
relative prosperity of the African peasant who was able to not only subsist on
the fertile soil but sell a surplus in the commercial marketplace. This
development was most pronounced in the Cape Colony. Taking pity on the
understaffed gold mining companies, the state enacted a migrant labor system in
the 1890s. Contracts to work in these prison-like compounds were made more
palatable through prostitution and saloons (shebeens). Once a miner was
recruited, he had to carry a pass around with him wherever he went.
And what of those stubborn souls who decided that they preferred to till
the fields rather than dig for gold or diamonds? Thoughtful legislation took
care of that. The Glen Gray Act of 1894 imposed a ten shilling tax on all men in
the Cape colony who could not prove that they had been in wage employment for
three months in every year.
These sorts of laws persisted throughout the twentieth century as South
Africa was entering the ranks of the developed world. The vast wealth of South
Africa rests on mining and mining, which in turn rested on unfree labor through
the 1970s. Workers who quit a contract were characterized as
"deserters" by the authorities and subject to arrest. A boycott by
American unions finally abolished such "master and servants" acts, but
long after the damage had been done.
(1) pp. 68-72
(2) p. 15
(3) p. 70-73
(4) pp. 80-113
(5) Michael Perelman, "The Invention of Capitalism", Duke University, 2000; p. 17
(6) p. 232
(7) Richard Herr, "The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain", Princeton University, 1958; p. 377
(8) Robert Miles, "Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or necessity?", Tavistock Publications, 1987; pp. 118-142