Ellen Meiksins Wood on the spread of capitalism

The Origin of CapitalismMarxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, in an excerpt from her hugely interesting book The Origin of Capitalism, describes the spread of capitalism from its unique genesis in England and its impact on international relations (p.174-6). The section on the role of the state in promoting ‘late’ development beyond Britain remains particularly relevant to today’s poorest countries:

“For those who regard capitalism as the consequence of commercial expansion when it reached a critical mass, there is something paradoxical about the development of English capitalism. England was certainly part of a vast trading network. But other European nation states in the early modern period were also deeply involved in the system of international trade, as were non-European civilizations, some of which long had trading networks more highly developed and extensive than the European. What distinguished England – and what was specifically capitalist about it – was not, in the first instance, predominance as a trading nation or any peculiarity in its way of conducting foreign trade. England’s peculiarity was not its role in an outwardly expanding commercial system but, on the contrary, its inward development, the growth of a unique domestic economy.

What marked off England’s commercial system from others was a single large and integrated national market, increasingly uniting the country into one economic unit (which eventually embraced the British Isles as a whole), with a specialized division of labour among interdependent regions and a growing, and mutually reinforcing, interaction between agricultural and industrial sectors. While England competed with others in an expanding system of international trade, not least by military means, a new kind of commercial system was emerging at home, which would soon give it an advantage on the international plane too. This system was unique in its dependence on intensive as distinct from extensive expansion, on the extraction of surplus value created in production as distinct from profit in the sphere of circulation, on economic growth based on productivity and competition within a single market – in other words, on capitalism.

Capitalism, then, while it certainly developed within – and could not have developed without – an international system of trade, was a domestic product. But it was not in the nature of capitalism to remain at home for very long. Its need for endless accumulation, on which its very survival depended, produced new and distinctive imperatives of expansion. These imperatives operated at various levels. The most obvious was, of course, the imperialist drive. Here again, although other European states were deeply involved in imperialism, capitalism had a transformative effect. The new requirements of capitalism created new imperialist needs, and it was British capitalism that produced an imperialism answering to the specific requirements of capitalist accumulation. Above all, capitalism created new imperialist possibilities by generating economic imperatives, the compulsions of the market, which could reach far beyond direct political dominion.

Capitalism also expanded out from Britain in another and more complicated sense. The unique productivity engendered by capitalism, especially in its industrial form, gave Britain new advantages not only in its old commercial rivalries with other European states but also in their military conflicts. So, from the late eighteenth century and especially in the nineteenth, Britain’s major European rivals were under pressure to develop their economies in ways that could meet this new challenge. The state itself became a major player. This was true most notably in Germany, with its state-led industrialization, which in the first instance was undoubtedly driven more by older geopolitical and military considerations than by capitalist motivations.

In such cases, the drive for capitalist development did not come from internal property relations like those that had impelled the development of capitalism in England from within. Where, as in France and Germany, there was an adequate concentration of productive forces, capitalism could develop in response to external pressures emanating from an already existing capitalist system elsewhere. States still following a pre-capitalist logic could become effective agents of capitalist development. The point here, however, is not simply that in these later developing capitalisms, as in many others after them, the state played a primary role. What is even more striking is the ways in which the traditional, pre-capitalist state system, together with the old commercial network, became a transmission belt for capitalist imperatives.

The European state system, then, was a conduit for the first outward movements of capitalism. From then on, capitalism spread outward from Europe both by means of imperialism and increasingly by means of economic imperatives. The role of the state in imperial ventures is obvious, but even in the operation of purely economic laws of motion, the state continued to be an unavoidable medium.

Capitalism had emerged first in one country. After that, it could  never emerge again in the same way. Every extension of its laws of motion changed the conditions of development thereafter, and every local context shaped the processes of change. But having once begun in a single nation state, and having been followed by other nationally organized processes of economic development, capitalism has spread not by erasing national boundaries but by reproducing its national organization, creating an increasing number of national economies and nation states. The inevitably uneven development of separate, if interrelated, national entities, especially when subject to imperatives of competition, has virtually guaranteed the persistence of national forms.”

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Industrial policy in developing countries: some key issues

Tilman Altenburg of the German Development Institute discusses a range of issues related to industrial policy in developing countries. He is promoting his book, but that aside, he highlights some important points in the debates on industrial policy and its role in accelerating development.

The book itself is sitting on my bookshelf, and I hope to post on it at some point. In my view industrial policy, or at least state intervention to promote development, remains vital in both rich and poor countries. If it is to be successful, its form must necessarily change as countries approach the technology frontier in particular industrial sectors, but the need for it never really goes away.

It will also tend to vary depending on the structure of industry, the nature of technology and institutional and political factors.

The ‘organised hypocrisy’ of US industrial policy

“[O]rganised hypocrisy…characterises American industrial policy…mostly tucked away from public and academic attention, the US government has not had to navigate the tensions inherent in telling other countries–directly in bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements and indirectly through structural adjustment programmes in the interstate organisations where it is the dominant actor–‘do as I say, not as I do’. It says simply, ‘do as I (say I) do’. And so, ever since the 1980s, American and other Western governments have applied strong pressure on developing countries to ‘follow comparative advantage’ and keep specialising in exportable primary commodities, tourism and cheap-labour assembly manufacturing and to stop pressing for ‘policy space’ to develop production capabilities. This pressure continues imperial countries’ long history of trying to stop peripheral countries from entering dynamic sectors. The post-1980s push relies not on gunboats, colonial restrictions and racial ideology, but on conditional lending, ‘free trade’ agreements and neoclassical theory-the latter apparently justifying the proposition that developing countries should stick to their sectors of comparative advantage in their own best interest. This is a prescription for sustaining the core-periphery structure of the world economy, in which the activities with increasing returns, high linkages and high price and income elasticity of demand are located mainly in the core, sustaining the core’s prosperity relative to the periphery. One lesson…is that policy communities in other countries and interstate development organisations such as the World Bank and IMF should push pack when American policy makers and academics urge them to stick to the Washington Consensus ‘fundamentals’, whose efficacy can be seen from the economic success of the USA. The key point is this. For a developing country to sustain movement of the production structure into higher value-added activities (deploying technologies mostly developed elsewhere) the Washington Consensus agenda–opening the economy to the international economy and improving institutions of exchange–is at most a necessary condition. The American experience, and that of just about all the post-Second World War success stories, underlines the need for public policies to incentivize the production of some activities over others. Creating a level playing field does not ensure that the players turn up to play.”

Robert Wade, Cambridge Journal of Economics, May 2017

Large-scale immigration: the costs and benefits

workersImmigration can be a divisive but also a sensitive issue. Arguments surrounding last year’s referendum here in the UK on EU membership could not avoid it. Media hysteria, particularly from the right, has focused mainly on the negative impacts, and rational debate has been drowned out. The right seemed to shout loudest, and the left often ended up talking to itself.

This post aims to make a small contribution to rational debate, drawing mainly on an interesting little book by Cambridge Professor Robert Rowthorn, published in 2015 by the think tank Civitas.

The overall findings of the study suggest that, at least in the UK, the overall net economic and fiscal (tax and public spending) outcomes from large-scale immigration are small when compared with the effects of more rapid population growth. Rowthorn argues that considerations of the latter should play a more important role when deciding future government policy. Continue reading

John Weeks on the Economics of the 1%

Below is a useful excerpt from the book launch of Professor John Weeks‘ Economics of the 1%. It came out in 2014, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. The book is aimed at the intelligent general reader, and contains plenty of ‘debunking’ of myths in economics from a left perspective, as well as the author’s ideas for economic reform.

Weeks has written other more technical books for those who are interested, most recently Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis and The Irreconcilable Inconsistencies of Neoclassical Macroeconomics. The first is Weeks’ constructive take on Marx’s theory of capitalism and crisis, while the second is a thorough critique of neoclassical macroeconomics, as the title suggests.

Mark Blyth on Bernie and Scandinavian welfare

Another clip from the engaging Professor Mark Blyth. Here he shares his thoughts on taxes, public spending and welfare in Scandinavia. He paints a positive picture, but admits that he wouldn’t want to live there and finds it ‘boring’, because ‘everything works!’