Agrarian Class Structures and the Origins of Capitalism

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Contextual Source

  • Robert Brenner “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in Aston, T.H. and C. H. E. Philp, The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Tom Keefer:

"In the 1970s, Robert Brenner developed a convincing thesis that capitalism had its origins in the English countryside, when after the devastation of the black plague in the 14th century the English landed class, consolidated and united by the Norman invasion of 1066, pioneered a new economic model fundamentally different than the tradition bound feudal system that it replaced. In this new system landowners enclosed common fields and pushed off peasant laborers, and then rented the land to capitalist farmers who in turn hired the displaced peasants as wage laborers to work the land.

Capitalism, Brenner convincingly argues, was thus in its origins, an agricultural system which drew its profits and surplus value from the agricultural working-class it exploited. As agricultural productivity expanded in England and peasants were displaced from their lands, capitalist relations shifted to new industries—textiles and handicraft production—in which new norms of work discipline and management were enforced and which laid the framework for industrial capitalism. While this may seem like ancient history to many activists today, the constraints the capitalism faced in its infancy can provide insights to its present contradictions as it faces a future of declining fossil fuel availability. Early capitalism — while it was still an agrarian system and before it become firmly established in the rest of Europe—faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to its further development. The first and most obvious of these barriers arose from the disruption of the old feudal and subsistence modes of production capitalism replaced and the ever larger numbers of people it dispossessed and exploited. Although forced migration to colonies absorbed a significant share of this “surplus” population, the fact remains that resistance to capitalist exploitation was very real and repeatedly took the shape of armed uprising—we can think here for example of the Beggars’ Christmas Riot of 1582, the Plaisterers’ Insurrection of 1586, the FeltMakers’ Riot of 1591, the Southwark Candle-Makers’ Riot of 1592 to name but a few. The openly revolutionary perspectives of the Levelers and Diggers in the English Revolution of 1648 took this to an even higher level in an attempt to overthrow agrarian capitalism itself. The other major problem for early capitalism was that it was creating an ecological crisis that threatened to destroy it. As the economy boomed, England’s forests were devastated as they were the primary source of both heating fuel and energy for smelting iron. By the 1600s so much of England’s forests had been cleared that capitalists were forced to ship English iron ore to Ireland where a plentiful supply of wood still remained. The second major ecological crisis arose from the intensive agricultural nature of early capitalism, which led to the declining fertility of the soil. A “metabolic rift” was created due to the fact that while city dwellers were fed with the fruits, vegetables and meat produced in the countryside, the nutrients contained in these foods were not returned to the fields, and this created a serious and increasing problem of soil depletion.

In an era before synthetic fertilizers, the failure to recycle nutrients represented a steadily advancing ecological disaster that was so serious that the British dug up human remains from Napoleonic battlefields to spread the bones of the dead on their fields as fertilizer and also initiated a global search for bird guano which was transported in the millions of tons to use as fertilizer. At a point when capitalism faced serious ecological limits and when working-class resistance threatened to overthrow the system altogether, capitalism was saved by the discovery of widespread and accessible fossil fuel resources within England."



Why the debates about the origins of capitalism, matter today

Chris Smaje:

" In an influential article first published in 1976, historian Robert Brenner argued that it started in England – nowhere else – in the late 15th century, when large-scale rural landowners established competitive tenancies for relatively wealthy peasant farmers, incentivizing them to increase the profits and productivity of their farming. This, Brenner argued, was the result of a longer-term class conflict emerging from medieval contests between landlords and peasants that took the unique turn in England of an only partial victory to the peasants. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the victory went to the landlords, whereas in France it went to the peasants, establishing different kinds of agrarian society that were only upended in later revolutions. But in England, says Brenner, and only in England, the stalemate between landlords and peasants produced – quite unintendedly on their part – a monetized, accumulative and self-transforming rural capitalist society.

Brenner’s intervention stimulated much research by agrarian historians of England, and the upshot of their enquiries was, in a nutshell, that he was wrong, and there was no simple competitive dynamic between landlord and tenant farmer – though historians usually give Brenner his due for re-energizing their field of enquiry. Brenner himself incorporated some of this revisionism into his later work, but his original formulation remains better known and more influential2.

One way in which a Brennerite view remains influential is a coarsened popular version whereby our modern capitalist ills in England are imputed to ‘the enclosure of the commons’, when profit-seeking landlords moved to stop peasants from accessing land and producing their subsistence. I’ll talk more about commons when I get to Part III of my book in this blog cycle, but the bottom line is that while the extinction of common rights did sometimes occur at the expense of peasant subsistence, enclosure was a hugely complex process, often involving peasants enclosing their own land, and the more you look in detail at its processes in the English countryside, the less clearly related they seem to the emergence of capitalism3.

All this prompts two questions. First, if capitalism didn’t arise in England through rural class conflict, then where and how did it arise? And second, why does any of this matter today? I’ll attempt a brief answer to the first question, which will lead to an answer to the second.

Very broadly, I’d suggest that capitalism arose, to quote from my own book, “out of a confluence where the great trading empires of Asia connected with the fiscal-military states of Europe and their seaborne empires that brought first precious metals and then plantation produce from the Americas into global circuits of exchange, much of it via the super-exploited labour of enslaved Amerindians and Africans” (p.62).

This alternative approach to capitalist origins was pioneered by thinkers of the left like André Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. A couple of points to notice about it. First, it’s less Eurocentric or Anglocentric than Brenner: capitalism wasn’t the achievement of any single country or region, but resulted from relations between many – albeit relations greatly influenced by colonial domination enthusiastically prosecuted by European powers. Second, unlike the Brenner thesis, this approach makes the role of centralized states key to the emergence of capitalism. Again, despite powerful narratives to the contrary, capitalism has always been a state project – in fact, a project of commercial linkage between states. Brenner wrote an article criticizing this approach and its leading theorists for “neo-Smithian [i.e. commerce-emphasizing] Marxism”. In this, he built on a long left-wing tradition of claiming superior status through greater loyalty to the thought of Karl Marx, and of disdain for left-wing thinkers who look beyond it – a tradition that unfortunately still seems to be with us. But, unlike Brenner’s thesis, the ‘neo-Smithian’ approach now commands more general support among economic historians, leftwing and otherwise, despite ongoing disagreement about the details4.

Anyway, if we go back to English history with this more state-centred view of capitalism in mind, it becomes easier to notice that the Tudor state took steps to protect English peasants from expropriation by aristocratic landlords. This arose less from benevolence than from conflicts between state and aristocracy over command of resources, conflicts that England’s unusually weak aristocracy generally lost. It also becomes easier to notice how the early modern English state was locked in fierce battles with other European states – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal etc. – to grow its economy through imperial control of wider trade and monetary networks.

I’d argue that capitalism arose more as an unintended consequence of this emerging system of competitive states than as a consequence of rural class conflict in England specifically. A look at the English countryside from the late medieval through the early modern period does show an increasing commercialism across all classes, with more monetization, capitalization and consumerism, and I’m not suggesting this had no bearing on the state’s trajectory towards capitalism. I’d nevertheless argue that the real motor of that trajectory was in the dynamics of the state and its competitors.

Why do these events of many centuries ago and the different explanations for them matter today? Because I think we’re now living in the twilight of global capitalism, arising out of its unsustainable dynamics of capital accumulation and their consequences in terms of energy, climate, soil, water, economics, politics and other things (in other words, all the crises that I discuss in Part I of my book). This forces us to consider how our societies might transcend these unsustainable dynamics, and here the different approaches to capitalist origins push in different directions and lead their proponents to emphasize different issues. I won’t trace these differences in all their ramifications here, but I’ll conclude by homing in on a few of them which seem to me particularly important to frame politically.

It’s often said nowadays that the old divisions between left-wing and right-wing politics are breaking down, which I think is true in many ways. I find class versus state approaches to capitalist development quite helpful in thinking through this reconfiguration."


More information

  • Brenner’s contributions and early responses to it are collected in T. Aston & C. Philpin’s The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985). His later work includes Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, 1993). Other assessments, contestations and counternarratives to his earlier writing on English agrarian class structures include Jane Whittle (Ed) Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (Boydell, 2013) – especially the essay therein by David Ormrod; Christopher Dyer A Country Merchant, 1495-1520 (Oxford, 2012); J. Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000); Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism (Pluto, 2011).
  • Robert Allen Enclosure and the Yeoman (Oxford, 1992); J. Yelling Common Field & Enclosure in England 1450-1850 (Macmillan, 1977).

Robert Brenner. 1977.

  • The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-93; Immanuel Wallerstein. 1974. The Modern World System; Ronald Findlay & Kevin O’Rourke. 2007. Power & Plenty; Heller op cit.; Blaut op cit.