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Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism

by Bill Dunn on May 25, 2015
Past & Present

The transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist property relations…must be understood as an unintended consequence of the acts of … pre-capitalist classes, Robert Brenner, ‘The Social Bases of Economic Development’, in John Roemer (ed.) Analytical Marxism, p. 26.

The origins of capitalist social-property relations in the US…was the unintended consequence of the class-conflicts that followed the American Revolution of 1776-83, Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism, p. 249.

Robert Brenner famously argued that the origins of capitalism lie in class struggles and in the countryside in the 14th and 15th centuries. Neither feudal lords nor peasants set out to make capitalism. Where lords defeated peasants, in Eastern Europe, they imposed the ‘second serfdom’. In Western Europe, notably in France, better peasant organisation won a considerable measure of independence. Less clear-cut outcomes produced the middle road in England. Land-tenancy took money form, allowing stronger peasants to emerge as capitalist farmers, while the weaker suffered enclosure and the loss of their land. The ‘Brenner debate’, which this stimulated, is far from settled but has become an essential point of reference for Marxist historians.

44822In a remarkable collection of essays, Charles Post’s The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620-1877 follows Brenner in depicting the ‘social relations of production’ as the key to explaining historical development. This is ‘Political Marxism’: political in the sense of stressing the development of the relations rather than forces of production. Post initially even posits the outcome of struggles as ‘random’ (p. 2): a step further against determinism than most others would go and further than alternative formulations here suggest. Most ambitiously, Post uses the same theory to reach the same conclusions as Brenner. Just as in Europe four centuries earlier, the origins of US capitalism lie in the countryside.

American capitalism did not have a feudal ancestry so Post needs to show that the colonial era and early republic was marked by a similar stagnation. He argues explicitly and convincingly that although British imperialism was the first specifically capitalist imperialism, it failed to reproduce capitalist relations in the colonies. Self-sufficient yeomen farmers in the North did not face the compulsion of the market. Owning their land, even successful commodity production elsewhere was no threat. Meanwhile, slavery in the South, while producing cash-crops for Europe’s industrial capitalists, lacked any internal capitalist dynamic. The plantations themselves were self-sufficient, with slaves growing their own subsistence crops. Slave production created a disincentive to (labour-saving) innovation and only a geographical expansion could increase production—an expansion that would eventually bring the slave producers into conflict with the North.

Market compulsion, which for Post and others in this tradition is the defining characteristic of capitalism, only comes later. There is some ambiguity about the timing, with important changes identified from the 1780s and 1790s. But increased land prices and property taxes in the late-1830s and early-1840s seem key, while processes of technical innovation did not really take-off until the 1840s and 1850s. When, much later, industrialisation did come, it would remain small-scale and oriented more toward making farm machinery than products like textiles. The final and most recently written parts of the book then provide brilliant Marxist accounts of the civil war and its aftermath respectively.

Fallen_timbers

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, 1794

This brief synopsis is hugely inadequate and I should stress that I am unqualified to write a proper review. I don’t know the subject matter. Indeed, reading this book as a group, our recurring gripe was that we wanted more evidence and we scrambled to catch-up, sharing essays, maps and movies. I wanted more evidence particularly of the process of transition, the international context and the role of the state. I’ll briefly elaborate.

How did America move so quickly from systemic stagnation, when it took Europe so many centuries? Post insists on distinguishing between ‘market-opportunity and market-coercion’ (p. 167). This seems useful but I wonder if it is overdrawn. Even before widespread commodity production, Post does give us rich merchants, ‘self-sufficient’ farmers buying ‘salt, gunpowder, coffee, tea, glass, patent-medicine’ and ‘additional land’ (p. 48), and Northern farmers selling ‘large surpluses’ (p. 185). In the South, the slave owners’ profits were presumably also being spent. Might there be more of a continuum between the compulsion of the market and its apparent inconsequentiality?  Without irony, Post chides other scholars, John McCusker and Russell Menard, in The Economy of British America, 1607-1789, for failing ‘to provide empirical data to support their claim that the British-colonial economy experienced intensive economic development’ (p. 163). So here is a factoid from Angus Maddison: US GDP per capita more than doubled between 1700 and 1820. This takes us to a time slightly after Post accepts that capitalism began but it indicates that over the entire period productivity growth was already much faster than Britain.

The perspective remains overwhelmingly national and I wanted more on the global context. How and to what extent did the existence of an already dynamic industrial capitalist economy across the Atlantic, with which the US was trading, fighting and in other ways competing, alter the outlook compared with the pioneer capitalisms of western Europe?

USTerritorial-acquisition-uscensus-bureauThe state comes in to Post’s narrative but I remain unclear how it comes in analytically. The politics of ‘political Marxism’ is properly one of production rather than grand politics but that opens up questions of how the state is then understood. Post’s discussion of John Ashworth on the class bases of political alignments in the Civil War, articulated across the two-volume Slavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, seems particularly thorough and convincing but the state’s presence in the earlier chapters, in particular, was rather ghostly. For example there is little on how it won the wars against Britain, against Native Americans and against Mexico, or on its vast land purchases or on its ability to tax or to support industrialisation. We are presumably invited to think such things were relatively unimportant but this is left frustratingly implicit.

To raise such questions might appear to cavil. It is always a bit of a cheap shot to identify things an author has not done and the book’s sweep is already remarkable. But its own extraordinary ambition seemed to me to demand at least a bit more mutual interrogation of the theory and the evidence.

Bill Dunn
Bill Dunn works in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His principal research interests are in the contemporary global political economy of labour, crises, international trade and Marxism.

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