Cooking the Books 1: When did capitalism start?

When did capitalism start?

In an interview in In These Times (10 May) about his latest book Bullshit Jobs, celebrity anarchist David Graeber raised an interesting point. After digressing to say that he was currently working with people campaigning for a basic income and wondering whether asking the state to pay people money was compatible with anarchism, he suggested that we might be living in a long period when capitalism was transforming into some other form of society (but ‘which might be just as bad’); but how would we know? He went on:

‘I remember having this argument with conventional Marxists about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Okay, say that capitalism started around 1500. And the Marxists insist that capitalism is organized around wage labor. But wage labor was marginal until the industrial revolution, around 1750. How can you say that wage labor is central to capitalism if, for 250 years, it was a tiny element?’

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He said he got the reply:

‘Well, you’re not thinking dialectically. From 1500 to 1750, people were in a process that was going to lead to wage labor, they just didn’t realize yet.’

We were one of the ‘conventional Marxists’ he discussed this with, in the October 2012 Socialist Standard. But this can’t have been us, as our reply was that capitalism is a market society in which all the elements of production, including human labour power, are bought and sold, but that this would not complete until the actual producers had been separated from the means of production, whether land or tools; which was a gradual process.

On the question of whether the elites in control of political power up to 1750 understood where society was going, we replied that a section of them were indeed consciously seeking to spread market relations and the concept of the individual free to enter market relations with other individuals; which did include the right to sell their ability to work.

Another reply (again, not ours), would be that of Immanuel Wallerstein and the world-system theorists that the essence of capitalism was not wage-labour but production for sale on the world market with a view to profit, whether carried out by serfs (as in Eastern Europe) or chattel slaves (as in the Americas) and not just by wage-workers. However, while capital investment in production of cash crops by serfs or slaves was viable, this was not the case for manufactured products; here wage-labour was more efficient from a capitalist point of view (which of course is why the slave trade and then slavery were abolished in favour of wage-slavery).

Capitalism is a system where money-capital is invested in production for sale with a view to a monetary profit. ‘Merchant capitalism’, which in previous discussions Graeber said some Marxists had suggested was what existed from 1500 to 1750, was where merchants invested money-capital with a view to profit, not in production, but in buying (or looting) products from one part of the world and selling them in another part at a higher price. It might have been a transition to capitalist production but it wasn’t what Marx meant by ‘the capitalist mode of production’.

In any event, to say that capitalist production first appeared in the 16th century is not the same as saying that capitalism as a socio-economic system started then. The capitalist ‘mode of production’ gradually spread, with the aid of the state, until it became the dominant one. That would be the point at which it could be said that capitalism as a society had come into being. 1750 seems about right for this. Adam Smith, writing in 1776, was already using a three-class model, even for agricultural production, of landowners, tenant farmers and wage-workers.