Capitalist Markets

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Jesse A. Myerson:

"It wasn’t until hundreds of years after Marco Polo’s travels that the dramatic transformation of the system of production began—and in a curious place. Wood demonstrates that the capitalist “laws of motion” did not emerge in urban commercial centers, as is normally supposed, but in the countryside. Specifically, the English countryside. English landholding was inordinately concentrated, so “an unusually large proportion of land was worked not by peasant-proprietors but by tenants,” as Wood explains. For most of the feudal age, English tenancies were “Freehold leases,” with rents fixed by a legal or customary standard, but by the sixteenth century, a growing number were “Copyhold leases,” auctioned by landlords to the highest bidder, their rental value set at whatever the market would bear. The more competition there was in the market for rental land, the more notice landlords and their surveyors began to take of the “value above the oulde Rentes” that could be extracted through this market. And so England underwent great waves of land enclosure, separating the masses from direct access to the means of their own subsistence.

At this point, in addition to competing in a market for consumers, tenants were obliged to compete in a market for access to land. In the system emerging out of the particularly English invention of a land-rent market, farmers were subjected to a “systematic need to lower the costs of production in order to prevail in price competition.” Those who failed to compete in this market found themselves dispossessed of all but their own capacity to perform labor, which they flocked to cities to sell, or else to starve.

This, and not the availability of markets, is the essence of capitalism, the engine motoring in its depths. From this imposition, and thus this dispossession, capitalism sprang to life. Now the masses were at the mercy of a job market to obtain the means to reproduce themselves socially. Now the process of production was systematically subordinated to market imperatives: “competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization, and hence a constant systemic need to develop the productive forces.”

These imperatives, in turn, give capitalism its ability (and charge it with the necessity) to relentlessly expand in unprecedented ways and degrees. “It can and must,” as Wood insists, “constantly accumulate, constantly search out new markets, constantly impose its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on all human beings and the natural environment.” (