Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice

Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice

Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice

Agrarian Capitalism in Theory and Practice


Susan Mann focuses on a longstanding controversy in sociological theory: why has agriculture been traditionally resistant to wage labor? Capitalist develoment has been slower and more uneven in agriculture than in other spheres of production, and major parts of the rural economy remain almost preindustrial in their reliance on family labor, lack of separation between industry and household, and failure to develop a highly specialized division of labor. Emphasizing the agriculture of the American South, Mann adopts an interdisciplinary approach, drawing insights from history and economics as well as sociology.

Mann points out that most theories of agrarian capitalism -- both Marxist and non-Marxist -- ignore the implications of agriculture as a production process centered in nature, with natural features that cannot be synchronized easily into the tempos required by industrial production. She argues that various natural and technical features of agricultural production, such as the relatively lengthy production time of certain crops and the irregular labor requirements imposed by seasonal production, make some types of farming particularly risky avenues for capitalist investment.

To test this pioneering theory of natural obstacles to rural capitalist development, Mann creatively combines diverse research methodologies. Analyzing U.S. Agricultural Census data, she shows the correlations between type of agricultural commodity or crop produced, the natural and technical features of these rural commodities, and the use of wage labor. Using an historical-comparative approach, she investigates the persistence of nonwage labor in American cotton production after the Civil War. She examines why sharecropping, rather than wage labor, replaced slavery in the older cotton-producing regions of the southeastern United States. She then discusses the domestic and international factors that finally led to the demise of sharecropping and the rise of wage labor in the decades following the Great Depression.

In this historical study of the rise and demise of sharecropping, the interplay between nature, gender, race, and class is highlighted. By closely examining both natural and social obstacles to wage labor within the context of a global economy, Mann presents not only an intriguing analysis of agrarian capitalist development but also an entirely new framework for examining the social history of the American South.

Originally published in 1990.


All theories of progress and modernization, left, right and centre, subscribed to the belief that. . . the free wage labourer represents the "vision of the future" for all those who are not yet wage labourers and for most of mankind. But. . . the proletarian wage labourer is a minority phenomenon. . . and is limited to a few areas of the earth. --Claudia von Werlhof, Women: The Last Colony (1988)

The so-called "Agrarian Question," as posed by late-nineteenth-century Populist and Marxist theorists, was essentially a question of the nature of capitalist development in agriculture. Much of the contemporary interest in this question stems from the reality of a world still marked by uneven capitalist development almost a century later. This book is about such uneven development. It is about the survival and revival of traditional forms of production as an integral part of the modern world. Indeed, the very forms of production that many nineteenth-century social theorists predicted would be swept away by modernization and industrialization have not become remnants of the past; some simply never passed away, while others have been resurrected unexpectedly in the modern global economy.

The term "traditional" has often been used by social scientists to refer to forms of production that failed to adopt certain key features of modern industrial production, such as the separation of industry from household; the development of a highly specialized division of labor; and the replacement of personal, patrimonial, or familial labor relations by impersonal wage contracts. Such diverse social theorists as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx all viewed these features as central to modern industrial capitalist development. Durkheim's treatise on the division of labor in society, Weber's notion of the rationalization of the modern world, and Marx's predictions regarding the concentration and centralization of capital share the general view that traditional forms of production would wither away in the face of the greater efficiency and competitive superiority of the modern industrial enterprise. As Marx put it, the cheap commodities produced by capitalist enterprise "compel all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production." Hence, modern capitalism "creates a world after its own image" (Marx 1970, 39).

Yet, in fact, modern capitalism has created a world that appears gro-

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