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.”