In capitalist societies, the market is not an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is an imperative. Its logic structures and impels society, and its fundamental tenets, though conventional, come to appear as expressions of natural laws. But capitalism itself is relatively novel: its genesis is most often traced to 17th century England, from where it has spread, over the past four centuries, to encompass the entire globe. Against the view that capitalism’s spread was inevitable, or even that it is latent in medieval commercial or traditional urban cultures, it can be argued that capitalist development amounts to a historical accident, an unintended consequence of pre-capitalist England’s internal arrangement. The argument that capitalism should not be conflated with commerce or even bourgeois benefits immensely from the juxtaposition of the case of England and the case of France. The nascent capitalist dynamics of English society reveal themselves to be quite different from those of absolutist France, and the archetypal “Bourgeois Revolution,” the French, shows itself to not be operating according to capitalist logic as those of its own absolutist way of doing things.

To see capitalism’s historical specificity and contingency, it helps to bear in mind its defining characteristics. Capitalist societies open up a sphere of dominance, the economic, that in other societies was more or less subsumed into other forms of power. So, while it is never the case that market forces can function without the threat of political or military coercion, with capitalism they obtain an autonomy that previously they lacked. People are dominated in capitalism not by the direct (at least, not the continually direct) application of force but by economic convention; the surplus they produce is not extorted from them by the King’s armed taxmen but in the fact that some have legal right to social product and others have legal right to sell their labor. Even political and military coercion come to be seen in terms of market logic: if you do not pay your rent, you will be forcefully evicted; in order to earn a good wage you must have a competitive skill set; “supply and demand” are used to explain the loss of one’s livelihood. In this way, the political maneuverings, legal decisions, and nepotism of power-jockeying take on an impersonal aura, as if society itself were subject to not the personal whims of a despot and his troops, but the objective workings of a natural law. People living under such conditions internalize the structuring logic of society in such a way as to maintain their livelihood: if you are the owner of a small business, you keep abreast of developments in your sector, lest you fall behind; if you are a hedge fund manager you look for the highest return on your investments; if you are a laborer, you attempt to acquire a set of marketable skills. These things are not so much free choices as what you must do if you are to survive: they are imperatives, and they follow from the “laws” of economics. The purpose of all this is, of course, the accumulation of wealth via sale of commodities within a single market frame.

This is in sharp contrast to all societies that are not dominated by the market. Comparing this picture of capitalism with pre-revolutionary France, we see that each operated according to different internal dynamics. In capitalism, the route to wealth was through economic means, through ever more efficient production; in absolutist France, the quickest road to wealth was through state office. Because of this, the French bourgeoisie came to loggerheads with the aristocracy, who enjoyed privileged access to wealth generating offices and special exemptions from taxes due to title. The bourgeois class revolted from these unequal social relations and sought to put the Third Estate on equal footing. Their ideological products reflect the internal dynamics in which they worked: the great treatises on private property do not come from France but from England; the French Revolution gives us the sweeping proclamations of Universalism, of equality of access, citizenship, the like against the entrenched privileges granted to the aristocracy because of particular birth, kinship, estate, or class.

As should be clear from this, the wealth forming social relations of absolutist France were not economic, did not work according to the laws of the market. They were constituted according to extraeconomic power: via political, military, royal, or religious rights or privileges. And the struggle for power, between the various classes, focused on these these extraeconomic privileges.

The case of precapitalist Britain is the same as in France: the respective classes of British society struggled to reproduce themselves according to their historical positions. Unlike France’s, however, Britain’s aristocracy did not weild a vast array of extraeconomic means of extraction; nor were they vying with the central monarchy for extraeconomic power. What they did have, and what their French counterparts lacked, was a highly consolidated grasp of land rights. Even before the enclosures, British landlords owned a far larger percentage of land than did smallholders and peasants. Gradually, the landlords shifted the terms of their leases from traditional amounts to those determined by market conditions. Tenants, in effect, had to bid for their leases. This introduced a market compulsion to the subsistence of the vast majority of the population. Since tenants had to compete, in economic terms, with their fellows to lease a piece of land from landlords, they had to adopt whatever techniques had been discovered to squeeze a bit more of a yield from the earth. These techniques originally may have been understood as innovations; yet due to the nature of market, they became imperatives: those tenants who were unable or unwilling to adopt them would lose their leases, as others would be willing or able to extract more from the earth and so pay more for the right to farm it. The extraeconomic domination that followed this initial arrangement, such as the enclosures, was carried out under the banner of market relations: the land could be more productively used according to market relations, or so the argument went, so it was in society’s (that is, the landlords’ and their capitalist tenants’) interest to close off traditional rights and subject the land wholly to market imperatives. From the initial severing of direct access of the means of subsistence and its mediation with market relations — in the countryside, in agrarian social relations — the course of capitalist development progressed. Unsuccessful capitalist tenants and dispossessed peasants first became laborers on farms, then migrated to the cities, where they became a supply of labor for newly functioning factories. But this movement was from the countryside, not the urban centers. And it has its genesis in the legal structures and social relations that determine how people are related to their most basic subsistence needs.

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