Testing the Brenner Thesis against Colonial Spain and Modern South Africa

While Robert Brenner is associated with the controversy over his 1998 New Left Review article on the world economic crisis, there is an earlier "Brenner thesis" that likewise appeared in the NLR and which also continues to generate debate.

Despite the tendency to look at the two theses separately, Brenner sees them as complementary. Defending his 1998 NLR article against critics John Bellamy Foster and David McNally in the December 1999 Monthly Review, Brenner restates his original thesis on the origins of capitalism: 1

"[I]n economies where they are free from the extraction of their surpluses by extra-economic coercion (emphasis added), but do not possess their full means of subsistence (especially the land), direct owner-operator producers have no choice but to seek to sell competitively by maximizing their price-radio via specializing, accumulating their surpluses, and innovating to the extent they can."

In other words, capitalism, innovation and competition enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Competition not only explains the global economic crisis of 1998, it also serves as a sine qua non for capitalism origins. Without marketplace competition, a feudal ruling class is free to maximize its profits through war making, while their subjects might end up "choosing leisure instead of work." The key element is "extra-economic coercion," namely the marketplace. If profit maximization occurs as a result of forced labor (corvée, etc.) rather than the "invisible hand," precapitalist social relations must still dominate. To show how committed Brenner is to this approach, he even states that the presence of wage labor is itself no proof that capitalism has taken root:

"It should be emphasized that non-capitalist economies with substantial amounts of wage labor are not uncommon in world history (European feudalism being a good example). The point is that, in such economies, the employers (e.g., feudal lords and sometimes large peasants) who exploit wage labor are shielded from competition by their possession of the means to provide their own subsistence directly."

The purpose of this article is to challenge the ties between capitalism and competition, especially a free market in labor. While accepting the noncompetitive nature of the feudal system, does the absence of competition prove that capitalism does not exist? Whatever purpose the Brenner thesis might serve in distinguishing 16th century Great Britain from 12th century Great Britain, can it adequately explain societies where extra-economic coercion is almost totally lacking, but where commodity production for the world market has begun in earnest?

If extra-economic coercion was not present in 16th century Spain or its colonial territories in the manner understood by Brenner, can we conclude that precapitalist class relations existed? Also, if extra-economic coercion is a sine qua non for capitalist accumulation, then how would we describe the mode of production in much of Africa well into the twentieth century, including South Africa--its most advanced sector--where forced labor under virtually monopoly conditions was the norm.

Perhaps it might be useful to start with a re-examination of how feudal society operated. Brenner is correct to highlight the essentially stagnant character of feudalism, where competition's lash did not accelerate economic innovation. In "Invention of Capitalism," Michael Perelman identifies just one of among the many features that militated against the full exploitation of labor and raw materials:

"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."2

Did any such wasteful practices exist in the New World? Were Spanish lords this lenient with their indigenous subjects? Complicating these sorts of questions is the fact that the Spanish used a feudal lexicon, referring to the 'encomienda' or 'repartamiento' (kinds of vassalage or fiefdom respectively) in the same manner as in earlier periods.

However, the underlying class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World feudalism as described by Perelman. To dramatize the difference, we need only to look at the 'mita,' a corvee-like form of labor servitude that replaced the 'encomienda.' The 'mita' was based on the Incan 'm'ita,' a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, itself a legitimately feudal system with its own characteristics. 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 prevent 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."3

The Spanish 'mita' had virtually nothing in common with this. When a Spanish lord dragooned an Indian into the mine or 'obraje' (early sweatshop, particularly for textile manufacturing), he set production quotas at a level beyond what a 'mitayo' worker could produce through his own labor. 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 extreme cases, the working conditions in New Spain (Mexico), Peru and Bolivia anticipated Nazi slave labor camps of the twentieth century. Operating ostensibly on the basis of feudal social institutions, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish colonies were actually in the process of removing all of the "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" that Marx referred to in the Communist Manifesto.

By all standard capitalist measurements, the Spaniards were extracting enormous quantities of surplus value from forced indigenous labor. Rather than being wasted on extravagances such as jewelry or vast feudal retinues, profits from mining were plowed into in manufacturing throughout the New World. D.A. Brading's "Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico: 1763-1810" reveals the extent of the growth:

"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."4

Furthermore, the absence of a labor market based on wages did not exclude technical innovation according to the late Carlos Assadourian. Rather than seeing New Spain, Bolivia or Peru as stagnant feudal backwaters, Assadourian finds the colonies to be hotbeds of innovation despite the lack of marketplace competition in the sense understood by Brenner.

In "The Colonial Economy: The Transfer of the European System of Production to New Spain and Peru," Assadourian portrays a combined and uneven development more or less similar to late 19th century Russia. Highly advanced technologies were superimposed on extremely backward social conditions. With respect to mining, the most critical element of the New World economy, Assadourian writes:

"On the basis of the initial transfer of European knowledge, a relatively autonomous process of technological adaptation (or development) took place in colonial mining. In itself, the industrial application of the amalgamation method determined a process of technological development independent of European silver-mining, which was still based on smelting. Besides, the depth of the galleries, the different composition of the minerals and, above all, the scale of production in colonial mining determined an experimental continuum towards the perfection of processes of extraction, milling and refining of minerals. As early as the 1570s, experts who had contributed to the development of mining in New Spain or who had been trained there estimated that their specialist knowledge compared favourably with that of renowned German practitioners."5

With all the data pointing in the direction of a dynamic New World on the cusp of full-blown capitalist property relations, one might suspect that Spain itself might have been subject to the same inexorable processes since they were connected root and branch. Indeed, despite a paternalistic Catholic Church and the persistence of non-marketplace economic institutions in the mother country, the same exact social and economic forces were transforming Spain as well.

One can find ample support for this view in the collection "The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century." Armed with new archival material, including tax records, church archives, land titles, etc., the contributors present a compelling account of the period radically at odds with British exceptionalism, pace Brenner. Naming Brenner and E.J. Hobsbawm specifically, the introduction states that previous scholarship on Spain is "unsatisfactory." 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."6

Dramatic urban growth in the 16th through 18th century supposedly proves that something special was happening in Great Britain. For Ellen Meiksins Wood, who has been promoting the Brenner thesis vigorously for the past several years, the fact that the urban population of England doubled between 1500 and 1700 confirms the highly productive character of British capitalist agriculture.7 When fewer people are required to produce foodstuffs, they are then 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.8 ("Castile 1580-1650: economic crisis and the policy of 'reform'") This exceeds English urban growth by 100 percent.

Not only does Gonzalo Anes agree with Sanz's demographic analysis, he insists that it reflects substantial economic growth during a period that has traditionally been regarded as one of crisis wrought by feudal impasse:

"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."9 (p. 60-61)

Finally, with respect to comparisons of Great Britain versus Spain, we have to question whether the doctrine of land "improvement" was a uniquely British phenomenon. For Ellen Meiksins Wood, John Locke's writings on this topic are a natural outgrowth of changes in class relations in the English countryside that occurred nowhere else in Europe. She says, "it clearly reflects a condition in which highly concentrated landownership and large holdings were associated with a uniquely productive agriculture."10

But we find evidence that the Spanish government of the 1780s was fully swept up by and committed to exactly the same kind of 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. Not only had he read the "Wealth of Nations" in French, but also translated it into Spanish. Referring to Smith, the monarch exclaimed, "How admirable when he analyses!"11

With scant evidence for the notion that Great Britain was further down the road toward capitalism than Spain, it leaves the Brenner thesis vulnerable to a charge that it encourages stereotypical thinking about Spain akin to that diagnosed by Edward Said in "Orientalism." Perhaps it is time once and for all to dispense with an "Iberiantalism" that sees Spain in terms of "reactionary hidalgo values" or "the wretched laziness of the people." Why Great Britain eventually leapfrogged Spain is of course beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that in the period under discussion, the two states matched up closely in terms of class relations and economic productivity.

Let us now test the Brenner thesis against a case that is geographically and historically remote from 16th and 17th century Spain, where one would be hard put to find preening aristocrats wasting labor and resources. I speak here of 19th and 20th century colonial Africa, where mainstream scholarship would consider the likelihood of feudalism remote at best, despite the fact that extra-economic coercion was virtually the rule.

Was the mode of production in colonial Africa precapitalist or capitalist? To begin with, we face something of the same problem that we encountered with Spanish colonialism. In Africa, the Europeans insisted on borrowing from the feudal lexicon, despite a clear capitalist agenda. For example, the French counted on corvée labor to lay railway track or perform other tasks associated with colonial infrastructure. Without reliable rail lines, crops and minerals destined for the seaports would languish at their source. Regardless of the label, such forced labor was not only integral to the colonial capitalist system, it had the same devastating impact on the local population as Spanish practices had three centuries earlier. Colonial administrator Emile Baillaud reported in 1905 that:

"At this moment in West Africa, the necessary hands . . . are easy to be had; and also at the coast the towns overflow with men going about looking for work. The captives having listened to our advice, and finding the way to freedom without dying from hunger, have come in numbers towards our enterprises, wherever it was possible to find work with the Europeans. They not only leave their masters, but also their countries."12

Without extra-economic compulsion, primitive accumulation would have not taken place. The indigenous peoples would have subsisted through the means available to them outside of the cash economy. If the colonial powers had relied exclusively on market competition, the local population would have found ways to ignore them.

One of the most infamous colonists, King Leopold of Belgium, saw himself as following in the footsteps of Spanish colonialism. At the age of twenty-seven, he visited Seville in March 1862 in order to study court records preserved in the Casa Lonja, or Old Exchange Building. According to Adam Hochschild:

"For two centuries Seville was the port through which colonial gold, silver, and other riches had flowed back to Spain; some eighty years before Leopold's visit, King Carlos III had ordered that there be gathered in this building, from throughout the country, all decrees, government and court records, correspondence, maps and architectural drawings, having to do with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Collected under one roof, these eighty-six million handwritten pages, among them the supply manifest for one of Columbus's ships, have made the General Archive of the Indies one of the great repositories of the world. Indifferent to his schoolwork as a boy, with no interest whatever in art, music, or literature, Leopold was nonetheless a dedicated scholar when it came to one subject, profits."13

When he wrote home to a friend, the monarch demonstrated that he understood the goal was profit, not traditional values: "I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies." For Hochschild, the monarch is a "man whose future empire would be intertwined with the twentieth-century multinational corporation began by studying the records of the conquistadors."

For all of its devotion to British exceptionalism, the Brenner thesis would seem ill equipped to explain why British rule failed to abolish extra-economic forms of coercion in its most important colonial holding: South Africa. Indeed, it was here where non-market forms of exploitation helped to successfully propel the nation into the front ranks of capitalism on the continent.

In keeping with laws already enacted in the rest of the British Empire, slavery was abolished in 1834. But the devotion to freedom was only lukewarm. Great Britain soon found ways to reintroduce other forms of labor conscription.14

Bristling at the abolition of slavery, Boer farmers withdrew into the east and northeast, where they would be allowed to pursue religious freedom while trafficking in human beings. Their KhoiKhoi slaves could be relied on for the dirty work on their farms. According to Bernard Magubane, "the Boers stood for outdated slavery on a petty scale, the foundation of their patriarchal peasant economy, the British colonist represented large-scale capitalist exploitation of the land and Africans."15

For the British, abolitionism was not entirely altruistic. The Reverend Thomas Farrell Buxton, a prominent abolitionist, explained his goals in a letter to the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa:

"We determined to form two associations, perfectly distinct from each other, but having one common object in view, putting an end to the slave trade. One of these associations to be exclusively philanthropic in character, and designed mainly to diffuse among the African tribes the light of Christianity, and the blessing of civilization and free-labour-the other to have a commercial character, and to unite with the above objects the pursuit of private enterprise and profit."16

Emulating the old masters of the Spanish empire, British colonial administrators in South Africa employed indigenous feudal institutions on behalf of capitalist exploitation. The Spaniards made cunning use of the Incan 'mi'ita' while the British co-opted local chiefs to supply labor gangs. Peter Lionel Wickins writes:

"Some justification for the use of forced labour was found in tribal custom, which allowed for service to a chief (tribute labour) or to the community (communal labour). The purpose of tribute labour was to support the chief in his office and to enable him to perform his public duties, such as hospitality to strangers and the relief of the hungry in time of dearth. But with the spread of a money economy chiefs became acquisitive and the system was abused. Tribesmen found themselves compelled to cultivate their chief's land, not in the tribal interest, but purely for his personal gain; or even sent off to work as contract labourers on the, mines, either individually or, as was sometimes the case in South Africa, in age-regiments."17

Just one year after abolishing slavery, the British colonial government in South Africa passed an ordinance in 1835 requiring ex-slaves to become apprentices to their previous owners. The blacks reacted by deserting or damaging property. The British followed up with a new ordinance in 1841 that established criminal sanctions for breach of contract, but this solution proved short-lived as well. The ruling class next toyed with the idea of importing convicts from England, a practice that had succeeded in Australia. Finally, they passed an 1853 ordinance that provided means of subsistence and a small cash wage based on contract. Violations of the contract were punishable by a stiff prison sentence.

Despite verbal commitments to transforming South Africa along free market lines, reality somehow fell short of the ideal. As happens almost universally in colonial settings where there is a surplus of arable land and a shortage of labor, the bourgeoisie resorts to extra-economic coercion to extract raw materials for export. In South Africa, this took the form of forced migrant labor, particularly in the gold mining sector. In another volume, Wickins once again unveils the actual practices that evolved despite the British verbal commitment to free labor:

"In the later nineteenth century, when the shortage of labour for White enterprises was becoming acute, three forms of compulsion were attempted: firstly, taxation - capitation (poll) or hearth (hut) tax - which served a dual purpose of providing revenue and forcing Blacks to earn sufficient cash to meet their obligations; secondly, so-called squatters laws to restrict the number of Africans resident on European farms; and thirdly, attempts to substitute individual tenure for communal title in the reserves. To these forms of coercion must be added the pass laws. These were not conducive to the labour mobility that hard-pressed employers were anxious to foster, but they did give those who had labour a hold on their workers. This control was strengthened by other legislative measures, such as the Masters and Servants Laws and the Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911. The best-known example of a labour tax was the annual poll tax (of 10 shillings) imposed by the Glen Grey Act of 1894 in the Cape on all African men in certain districts who were not freeholders or regular lessees or who had not served a stipulated minimum period in wage labour during the year. The labour tax was in fact ineffective and was repealed in 1905. The Act also authorised the issue of individual title deeds in the Glen Grey district near Queenstown, at least partly with the intention of forcing on to the labour market those unable to acquire and exploit individual plots efficiently. This part of its provisions, too, did not fulfil the hopes placed in it. There was no marked drift from the countryside of people deprived of access to land by the spread of individual tenure."18

The stakes were incalculable. According to South African economist, the Witwatersrand would have yielded 6,000 pounds worth of gold if a sufficient labor force had been deployed to dig it from the earth. The reserves and the migrant-labor system made the realization of such a bounty of surplus value possible. Migrant workers were snared in the same web that colonists had set from the very beginning whenever they initiated the process of primitive accumulation: they were forced to seek work in the mines in order to avoid arrest for failure to pay taxes. Ironically, Magubane cites Maurice Dobb, whom Brenner describes as a forerunner, to explain the need for forced labor in South Africa:

"When the supply of labor for any new enterprise was insufficiently plentiful, for example in mining, it was not uncommon for the Crown to grant the right of impressments to the entrepreneur or to require that convicts be assigned to the work under penalty of hanging if they were refractory or if they absconded."19

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 utterly necessary for the growth of capitalism, since free market compulsion would have not sufficed.

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). And if an African preferred subsistence farming to mining, legislation could bend his will to the greater good of capitalist development. 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.

From the standpoint of class relations, contemporary South Africa and colonial Spain have much in common. Capitalism is not about advanced technology. Until relatively recent times, a miner worked with a pick and a shovel. Nor is capitalism about "freedom". It is about producing surplus value. If a work force is not available to work for a wage, then the capitalist state will pass laws ensuring that various forms of unfree labor keep the system going. It is our job as Marxists to develop a class analysis that can maximize the power of the laboring classes politically. Quibbling over whether the worker is really a worker or not based on the peculiarities of a given country's history not only constitutes a form of pedantic quibbling, it is a detour from our task as revolutionaries. Notes:

1. Monthly Review, p. 42

2. Michael Perelman, "The Invention of Capitalism", Duke University, 2000; p. 17

3. Stern, pp. 80-113

4. Brading, 232

5. Assoudarian, p. 59-60

6. Castilian Crisis, p. 3

7. Wood, p. 97

8. Castilian crisis, p. 17

9. Castilian Crisis, p.60-61

10. Wood, p. 88

11. Richard Herr, "The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain", Princeton University, 1958; p. 377

12. Watts, 265-266

13. Hochschild, 36-37

14. Robert Miles, p. 121 (explain importance of Miles.)

15. Magubane, p. 43

16. Magubane, p. 64

17. Wickins, (Africa 1880-1980: An Economic History, p. 57)

18. Wickins article in (Economic History of South Africa, 21-22)

19. Magubane, p. 94