Re: origins of capitalism

From: Howard Engelskirchen (hengels@ZOOM-DSL.COM)
Date: Fri Jul 04 2003 - 15:27:58 EDT

Hi Rakesh,

Many thanks for the materials on the origins/eurocentrism debate.  There is
a fundamental question presented in this connection that so far as I am
aware has not been explicitly raised.  I'll state the question and then
explain it.

Roman Law developed a law of contracts but never developed a theory or
practice supporting the general enforcement of promises.  That is, promises
could be enforced for particular transactions or if quite specific formal
steps were taken, but a contract in Rome would never be enforced just
because one person and another exchanged promises.  This happened in England
in the mid-16th century and counts as an authentically world historic
change.  Did such development occur in India or China or elsewhere?  My
impression is that it did not.  If so, what accounts for the difference?
Why was 16th century England able to accomplish what Rome and the rest of
the world were not?

Plainly commodity production in any form requires at least some primitive
form for enforcing promises.  We assume the autonomy of persons who enter
exchange.  The interests of parties on either side of a bargain are at the
moment of agreeing coincident.  So they make an exchange.  But suppose the
performance of one party or the other takes time.  Say goods have to be
delivered next week or I want to pay tomorrow.  If one of the performances
must be delayed for whatever reason, then, given their reciprocal
indifference to one another, unless there are institutions to enforce
promises, such bargains cannot be made.  But unless such bargains can be
made, production for exchange must be very narrowly constrained.

That is, the flowering and full development of commodity production, the
ability of commodity production to become the universal and dominant form of
production, requires a framework for the general enforcement of promises and
this requires something more than whatever characterizes even highly evolved
forms of market exchange.  If it were just markets that were at issue, then
the thing would have happened in Rome.  So what was it about England in the
mid 16th century that made the difference?

The question can be approached from another direction -- what explains the
enforcement of promises in the capitalist mode of production?  One writer
suggests that increased industrial and market activity in the late 18th
century meant a greater need for legal protection for careful planning.
Horwitz suggests that promises became important for allocating risks during
this same period -- futures contracts became a device to insure against
price fluctuations and to facilitate speculation.  But probably neither of
these explanations captures persuasively what was distinctive about England
in the mid-16th century.

A theoretical explanation rooted in Marx would undoubtgedly look to what
Marx identifies in the Grundrisse as the tendency to reduce the costs of
circulation to zero.  Time spent in circulation is time lost to production.
So there is a tendency that operates to reduce the metamorphoses of
circulation to the ideal limit of zero, and there is no more efficient way
to do that than by promising.  If the producer produces to the buyer's order
no time is spent idly in the market at all.

Putting this point together with the question above suggests that
enforcement of promises will become legally significant when production is
specifically for exchange and, more particularly, when the dynamic of
production for exchange has developed to the point that time spent in
circulation is a barrier to it.  This doesn't happen, for example, in
connection with days set aside for market in the medieval world, or where,
as in the ancient world, social reproduction does not finally depend on
market exchange.

The Wood/Brenner thesis makes this point:  what differentiated English
development was not simply the flowering of market exchange, but that
production became dependent on exchange.  Perhaps that dependence alone is
enough to make time spent idly in circulation a barrier.  Or perhaps there
were specific forms of production in English development that tended to
chafe more intensely at the barrier posed by circulation.

In any event it seems clear that a successful resolution of the origins
debate would need to include an explanation of the emergence of the general
enforcement of promises.

I raised some of these points without reference to the Wood/Brenner thesis
in a piece on the legal doctrine of consideration in 27 Seton Hall Law


----- Original Message -----
From: "Rakesh Bhandari" <rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU>
Sent: Wednesday, July 02, 2003 12:57 PM
Subject: origins of capitalism

> Eurocentric Anti-Eurocentrism by Ellen Meiksins Wood
> The Trouble With Capitalism in One Country Theories Capitalist
> Origins: A Comment by Christopher McAuley
> Colonialism, Capitalism and Eurocentrism: What Made Capitalism Win?
> Closing the Circle of Violence by Peter Drucker
> predating this important debate by five years:
> Capitalism in History by Irfan Habib

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