From the origins of agriculture itself there has always been a margin of cultivation – the edge of the farmstead, wild nature beyond.
For the purposes of our analysis we are looking at the edge of the margin of commercial agriculture – cash crops – under circumstances where this can lead to capital accumulation.
To move beyond subsistence agriculture, production of the immediate demands of the household, there has to be an agricultural surplus. But this does not automatically translate into immediate trading of crops for cash. Farmsteaders can trade through barter, enabling the formation of settlements where the barter takes place, and where manufactured goods are traded for food and for each other. But this is inefficient and properly requires a means of exchange and a means whereby wealth can be stored, accumulated and invested – money.
The extraction of an agricultural surplus does not even require free trading, it can be done through slave labour, with latifundia owners, as in Ancient Rome, trading the agricultural surplus through merchants for profit and then transported on to cities.
The full fledged adoption of capitalist methods in agriculture required the buying and selling of land, the buying and selling of surplus agricultural products, and the buying and selling of labour, not tied to the land, but able to work in factories with a surplus above subsistence to feed them.
There are therefore social preconditions for the existence of capitalism that relate to the organisation of agriculture. This creates a conundrum and a potential circularity. Capitalism appears to require several social relations to be in place simultaneously to ensure a circulation of goods. The advance of Capitalism appears to drive the adoption of these social relations, but what first sparked the rise of Capitalism in pre-capitalism relations?
This has caused a real problem and much discussion in recent years amongst Marxist historians. Why did not capitalism arise earlier, if capitalism is seen as arising from social relations which are more ‘efficient’ in agriculture (the so called commercial thesis) does this imply that capitalism is natural, or alternatively if raw exercises of power are needed to create the preconditions of capitalism (so called primitive accumulation) does this not fundamentally undermine the Marxist materialist view of history?
The problem becomes one of having a ‘bootstrap’ view of history, where Marxian ideas can explain everything about capitalism, because of its totality, except for how capitalism arose before it became totalistic.
It is perhaps no wonder that thinkers have argued on the origins of capitalism, and their is no consensus on the definition of capitalism in historical writing.
For example Capitalism’ was a word was not used by either Adam Smith or Ricardo, or even the youthful Marx. Capitalism was a late 19th-century term. The Oxford English Dictionary (Vol II, p 863) locates its first usage in English in 1854 by William Makepeace Thackeray in his novel, The Newcomes.
The shares were at a premium, and gave a good dividend. The Prince de Moncontour took his place with great gravity at the Paris board, whither Barnes made frequent flying visits. The sense of capitalism sobered and dignified Paul de Florac: at the age of five-and-forty he was actually giving up being a young man, and was not ill pleased at having to enlarge his waistcoats, and to show a little grey in his moustache.
For Thackery, as always, Victorian pretentions were a magnificent opportunity to satirise snobbery. The lack of previous reference, even amongst Ricardian Socialists, may even mean that Thackery used the term as a joke.
Of the word ‘capitalist’, this was first used in English in 1792, byArthur Young (Travels in France) and it was used by Turgot (in French) in his ‘Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Riches’ LXIII-IV, 1770.
Marx wrote much on hunger, and on the economics & fertility of land, but wrote little on the issue of increasing the supply of food That great concern of the 19th century bourgeoisie.
Perhaps his antithesism to Malthus and obsession of the earlier generation of economists with obsessive use of ‘corn models’; turned him against this subject.
In ill health in the last years of his life he did develop an obsession with agricultural economics, gathering cratefuls of data, to the great puzzlement of his executors. He did not live to write significantly on the matter. Perhaps he realised there was a central unresolved issue here.
In 1867 Marx presented his theory on the emergence of capitalism in an essay – ‘The Origins and Development of Capitalism;. He identified the 16th and 17th centuries as being periods of intense capital accumulation as a direct consequence of the discovery, colonisation and exploitation of the Americas, and the development of maritime trade with the East Indies and China. Thus began a process in the development of commercial capitalism, in contrast to the feudal capitalism that preceded it.
For Max Weber the origins of capitalism began with industrialism.
This was criticised by Schumpeter – that it confused industrial capitalism with earlier marcantile capitalism. For him the roots of capitalism lay in 14th century italian cities.
For Sombart Jews were key, that idea makes us sit up in our chair, but for him the key was them not being bound by usury. To him also the rise in ground rents, rural and urban, were critical.
For historians working in the earlier part of the 20th Century the origins of capitalism could be pushed back into ancient times.
In a series of works which were highly influential, but sadly never translated into english, Guiseppi Salvali wrote that capitalist forms existed in the ancient world, including the Roman Empire. Farmsteaders sold surplus production, merchants traded, people bought and sold land, and manufacturers employed labour: but it was never dominant and systemic because feudalism predominanted and such relations could always be supplanted by conquest.
These ideas were expanded by Henri Sée in ‘Modern Capitalism, Its Origin and Evolution (1923), a strikingly modern work.
In the time of the Empire there were, to be sure, some organizations of artisans in the towns; but their membership (composed of freedmen) found great difficulty in competing against slave labor. Under a system of domestic and servile industry, both economic and social conditions were such that industrial capitalism could not develop.
But why did they find it difficult to compete? If a materialist view is taken then capitalism, as a more productive form, should have predominated. In recent time someone has even won a Nobel prize for suggesting that slavery was rational and productive. This apparently is the ‘new economic history’.
To be sure we will come back to this issue.
The role of money is central to Sees account. It appears on almost every page. For him where there is money there can be capital. For him the key events were the rise in international trade following the crusades.
For Polyani – in ‘the Great Transformation’ the state in early modern England played a key role.
Fernand Braudel – In Capitalism and Civilisation, a work of synthesis rather than theory – posited that capitalism arose and was transmitted in a series of cycles of growth and decline that arose in Europe in the 12th century. With particular cities, and later nation-states, following each other sequentially as the focus of these cycles: Venice and Genoa in 13th through 15th centuries (1250–1510), was followed by Antwerp in 16th century (1500–1569), Amsterdam in 16th through 18th centuries (1570–1733), and London (and England) in 18th and 19th centuries (1733–1896).
For modern historians the critical place and time was the Dutch republic, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, its golden age. When the Helvetican republic arose as first capitalist state.
So when did commercial agriculture begin – the answer may surprise you, and well look at it next,Ancient Rome was surrounded by commercial market gardens.