Opening our eyes to how capitalism began

All systems of inequality and exploitation require violence. When we peer into the past, such a statement is not controversial; it is only when we turn our attention to the present that selectivity is applied.

Capitalism, however, has weaved a vast web of mythology about itself. If we are talking about ancient enough history — say the nineteenth century in the context of the Industrial Revolution — some acknowledgement of brutality is accepted. Inconsistently, the beginnings of capitalism are shrouded in mists of rose-colored haze despite lying further back in time.

Slave memorial in Saint-Paul, Reunion Island (Photo by Tonton Bernardo)

Slave memorial in Saint-Paul, Reunion Island (Photo by Tonton Bernardo)

But think about it: Does the idea that peasants, used to self-sufficiency albeit under often difficult circumstances, would willingly take subservient jobs in inhuman sweatshops make any more sense than today’s apologists who claim that people in developing countries wish to work back-breaking hours for pitiful wages? Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings.

Peasant uprisings repeatedly broke out across medieval Western and Central Europe, sometimes with explicit demands for equality and sometimes in the form of religious movements challenging the feudal order and, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church that provided the local ideological glue. In response, the church stepped up its Inquisition and its burning of non-conforming women as “witches” as part of the effort to subjugate peasants and town-dwelling working people and to foster divisions within those large groups.*

Entering the new factories at gunpoint

English feudal lords began throwing peasants off their land in the sixteenth century, a process put in motion, in part, by continuing peasant resistance. The rise of Flemish wool manufacturing — wool had become a desirable luxury item — and a corresponding rise in the price of wool in England induced the wholesale removal of peasants from the land. Lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

This process received further fuel from the Reformation — the Roman Catholic Church had owned huge estates throughout England, and when these church lands were confiscated, the masses of peasants who were hereditary tenants on these lands were thrown off when the confiscated church lands were sold on the cheap to royal favorites or to speculators.

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours.

Force was the indispensable factor in creating the first modern working class. Late feudalism was hardly a paradise for small farmers, but Western European peasants, some of whom were independent smallholders, had wrested better conditions for themselves. They had no reason to enter willingly the new workplaces and the Dickensian conditions they would endure there.

The historian Michael Perelman, in his appropriately titled book The Invention of Capitalism, wrote:

“Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Supplementing these laws were displays of military power. A widely quoted document claims that 72,000 were hanged during the early sixteenth century reign of King Henry VIII, throughout which England experienced a series of peasant uprisings. Regardless of what the true number may have been, Henry, who reigned as the enclosures reached their peak, did have large numbers of people executed for being “vagabonds” or “thieves” — in reality for not working.

Force of the state backs the powerful

Systematic state force enabled factory owners to steadily gain the upper hand against artisans, although those nascent capitalists possessed no production innovations at the time. Economist Herbert Gintis wrote:

“Early factories employed the same techniques of production as putting-out [assemblers of finished products working from home] and craft organization, and there were no technological barriers to applying them to these more traditional forms. The superior position of the capitalist factory system in this period seems to derive not from its efficiency sense, but its ability to control the workforce: costs were reduced by drawing on child and female labor, minimizing theft, increasing the pace of work, and lengthening the workweek.”

A process of intensifying exploitation enabled early factory owners to accumulate capital, thereby allowing them to expand and amass fortunes at the expense of their workforces; they were also able to force artisans out of business, forcing artisans to sell off or abandon the ownership of their means of production and become wage laborers. Greater efficiencies can be wrung out through economies of scale, which in turn leads to the ability to introduce new production techniques because the accumulation of capital also provides funds for investment. Such efficiency, in turn, is necessary for the capitalist to take advantage of opportunities for trade.

The gathering pressures of competition eventually ignited the Industrial Revolution and fueled the rise of the factory system. A flurry of inventions useful for production shaped the Industrial Revolution that took root in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution emerged not only due to technological and economic factors, but also as a result of capitalist class relations that had already become established. The introduction of machinery was a tool for factory owners to bring workers under control — technological innovation required fewer employees be kept on and deskilled many of the remaining workers by automating processes.

As industrial resistance gathered steam in the early nineteenth century, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity — more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

This period coincided with a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away by Parliament; the measure of independence rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing full dependence on wage work. Organizing, in the forms of unions and other coordinated activity, soon supplanted machine-breaking, reinforcing capitalists’ desire to use technical innovation to make their workforces docile.

Fortunes built on slavery, colonialism

The process of accumulation by European capitalists was greatly accelerated by slavery and colonialism.

Gold and silver were the mediums of exchange in Europe, Asia and Africa, and currencies were based on these metals. Indigenous peoples in Mexico and the Andes were skilled at mining, creating a supply of both metals that they themselves used for ornamental purposes. Silver shipped to Spain from Latin America by 1660 totaled three times more than the entire pre-existing supply in all of Europe. During this period, silver production in the Americas was an estimated ten times that of the rest of the world combined, all of which was shipped to Spain.

This vast wealth enriched the empires and monarchies of Europe, except for Spain — the metals it imported mostly were delivered to foreign creditors, and the rest spent on the Crusades, the Inquisition and importing manufactured items. Spain imported everything it needed while other countries threw up trade barriers and developed their industries.

The brutality with which this extraction of wealth was carried out led to the reduction of Indigenous populations by an estimated 95 percent. The imperial solution to this genocide was to import slaves from Africa. A steadily increasing number of slaves were shipped from the early sixteenth century as plantations grew in size. During the seventeenth century, Caribbean sugar supplanted mainland precious metals as the mainstay of wealth extraction; for three centuries the European powers would engage in continual struggle for possession of these islands. This sugar economy was based on the slave labor of kidnapped Africans; conditions were so horrific that one-third of the slaves who made it to the Caribbean died within three years — it was more profitable to work slaves to death and buy replacements than to keep them alive.

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

The triangular trade
(Graphic by Sémhur)

The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems — early industrialists had extremely large needs for investment capital and commercial credit because of long delays in returns on investment due to the slow pace of trade transport.

Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Wealth for colonial masters, poverty for the colonies

The sociologist Robin Blackburn, in his comprehensive study The Making of New World Slavery, wrote:

“Britain undertook a major series of investment programmes: in the merchant marine, in harbours and docks, in canals, in agricultural improvements and in developing new industrial machinery. The profits of empire and slavery helped to make this possible, enlarging the resources at the command of public authorities, [land-]improving landlords, enterprising merchants and innovating manufacturers. Because of the prior transformation in agriculture, and in British society as a whole, colonial and mercantile wealth could be transmuted into capital employing wage labour.”

This extraction process had opposite effects in those colonies undergoing the most intensive exploitation. The Caribbean countries were reduced to monoculture production, forbidden to manufacture anything, because their agricultural products were so profitable. The mainland colonies that would one day become the United States, by contrast, were allowed to develop the industry and varied agriculture that would in the future enable rapid growth of their economy. African development also was stunted because rulers of coastal kingdoms could buy goods and weapons from Europe while profiting by enslaving Africans from other kingdoms; wealth there was used to buy from imperial powers and thus did not stay in Africa.

The widespread use of slave labor also necessitated that further social divisions be instituted, while institutionalizing global trade. Marxist feminist theorist Silvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch, wrote:

“With its immense concentration of workers and its captive labor force uprooted from its homeland, unable to rely on local support, the [Caribbean and Latin American] plantation prefigured not only the factory but also the later use of immigration and globalization to cut the cost of labor. In particular, the plantation was a key step in the formation of an international division of labor that (through the production of ‘consumer goods’) integrated the work of slaves into the reproduction of the European workforce, while keeping enslaved and waged workers geographically and socially divided.”

On such roots is modern inequality built.

* The remainder of this article consists of extracts from the “Explorations in theories of transition to and from capitalism” section of my book It’s Not Over: Learning from the Socialist Experiment. Footnotes omitted. In addition to the works directly quoted, sources include Karl Marx,“Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land”; David Dickson, The Politics of Alternative Technology; Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean; Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent; John C. Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World; and David McNally, Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique.

Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]