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Ellen Meiksins Wood and ‘Political Marxism’

On 14th January 2016 Ellen Meiksins Wood, a prominent Marxian historian and political economist, died. Her book 'The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View' presented a compelling argument that the roots of our present system of society lay not, as is often presumed, in  a steady and inevitable increase of mercantilism, but instead with the historically specific conditions that existed in 17th century rural England, where traditional fixed rights to land gave way to variably priced market based leases. For tenants, this meant having to respond to market imperatives by taking an interest in agricultural ‘improvement’ and increasing productivity, which often involved the enclosure of common lands and an increased exploitation of wage labour. The effect being that producers and landowners became solely dependent on the market for their own sustenance.

This set the dynamic through which our world has been transformed, with market imperatives rather than market opportunities being the driving force. Tenant farmers specialised in competitive production for the market because they needed to in order to be able to continue leasing. Those who failed to compete successfully were eventually made landless. The landless became not only labourers but also consumers as they needed to buy goods in the market which they had previously been able to produce themselves. And so began the cycle where more and more people, and eventually the whole world, is brought under the sphere of market dependence.

Along with Robert Brenner and other colleagues, Ellen Meiksins Wood was associated with ‘Political Marxism’ which was developed in reaction to more mechanistic and teleological tendencies in Marxism. Political Marxism seeks to highlight the importance of the class struggle and the active social role that groups played within this as they reshaped society. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was the result of a process that was far from automatic. Such a change could only be brought about by a complete rupture with the old relations of human interaction, by forcibly removing the rights that peasants had to their land. The subsequent dependence of both the producer and consumer on the market, something which is specific to capitalism, creates the conditions in which all social struggles are fought.

In order to simply avoid being driven out of the market, employers must maximise profits and cut their costs; this means that there is a constant pressure to cut expenditure on wages and other employee benefits. It is the logic of the market, not the greed or callousness of executives, that causes the interests of the capitalist and the wage worker to become mutually antagonistic. Far from being a neutral place where good enterprise is rewarded, the market is a highly coercive mechanism which dominates both capitalist and worker.

Her other work included studies of ancient Greek society and an Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize-winning criticism of postmodernism. For anyone interested in history and modern society her work remains an essential resource.

DJP