The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


One of the most well established conventions of Western culture is the association of capitalism with cities. Capitalism is supposed to have been born and bred in the city. But more than that, the implication is that any city - with its characteristic practices of trade and commerce - is by its very nature potentially capitalist from the start, and only extraneous obstacles have stood in the way of any urban civilization giving rise to capitalism. Only the wrong religion, the wrong kind of state, or any kind of ideological, political, or cultural fetters tying the hands of urban classes have prevented capitalism from springing up anywhere and everywhere, since time immemorial - or at least since technology has permitted the production of adequate surpluses.

What accounts for the development of capitalism in the West, according to this view, is the unique autonomy of its cities and of their quintessential class, the burghers or bourgeois. In other words, capitalism emerged in the West less because of what was present than because of what was absent: constraints on urban economic practices. In those conditions, it took only a more or less natural expansion of trade to trigger the development of capitalism to its full maturity. All that was needed was a quantitative growth which occurred almost inevitably with the passage of time (in some versions, of course, helped along but not originally caused by the Protestant Ethic).

There are many things to be said against these assumptions about the natural connection between cities and capitalism. Among them is the fact that they tend to naturalize capitalism, to disguise its distinctiveness as a historically specific social form, with a beginning and (no doubt) an end. The tendency to identify capitalism with cities and urban commerce has generally been accompanied by an inclination to make capitalism appear as a more or less automatic consequence of practices as old as human history, or even the automatic consequence of human nature, the "natural" inclination, in Adam Smith's words, to "truck, barter, and exchange."

Perhaps the most salutary corrective to these assumptions - and their ideological implications - is the recognition that capitalism, with all its very specific drives of accumulation and profit-maximization, was born not in the city but in the countryside, in a very specific place, and very late in human history. It required not a simple extension or expansion of barter and exchange but a complete transformation in the most basic human relations and practices, a rupture in age-old patterns of human interaction with nature in the production of life's most basic necessities. If the tendency to identify capitalism with cities is associated with a tendency to obscure the specificity of capitalism, one of the best ways of understanding that specificity is to consider the agrarian origins of capitalism.

What Was "Agrarian Capitalism"?

For millennia, human beings have provided for their material needs by working the land. And probably for nearly as long as they have engaged in agriculture they have been divided into classes, between those who worked the land and those who appropriated the labor of others. That division between appropriators and producers has taken many forms in different times and places, but one general characteristic they have had in common is that the direct producers have typically been peasants. These peasant producers have remained in possession of the means of production, specifically land. As in all pre-capitalist societies, these producers have had direct access to the means of their own reproduction. This has meant that when their surplus labor has been appropriated by exploiters, it has been done by what Marx called "extra-economic" means - that is, by means of direct coercion, exercised by landlords and/or states employing superior force, privileged access to military, judicial, and political power.

Here, then, is the most basic difference between all precapitalist societies and capitalism.

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