Invention of Capitalism

Review: Gregory Clark on Michael Perelman

Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000. 412 pp. $22,95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8223-2491-1; $64.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8223-2454-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gregory Clark, Department of Economics, University of California-Davis.
Published by EH.NET, March 2001.

One of our popular diversions here in California is "channeling" the thoughts of those who have passed on to the spirit world. Michael Perelman has seemingly by these methods made contact with Karl Marx himself. For his book is a lively polemic directed at the Classical political economists, full of allegations of double dealing and bad faith, that the master himself would have been proud to deliver. Marx lives. He lives in Chico, California.

Perelman interprets Classical political economy as a political program in search of an intellectual justification. Classical economists wanted to promote the interests of the new capitalist class. To this end the Classical system celebrated the virtues of the free market. But free markets were of no use if the capitalist class could not recruit the wage slaves they needed for their factories. So Classical economists simultaneously promoted intervention in markets to strip the peasantry and handicraft workers of the vestiges of their independence and reduce them to the wage labor. They advocated in Marx's terms (or at least in the terms of Marx's English translators) "primitive accumulation" as necessary to make a market economy. But they did not advocate this openly: thus the "secret history of primitive accumulation." Free competition was optimal, unless it produced an independent peasantry unwilling to submit to wage labor. "While energetically promoting their laissez-faire ideology, they championed time and again policies that flew in the face of their laissez-faire principles" (pp. 2-3).

Exhibit A in Perelman's indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not a docile and dependable worker.

That is the Perelman claim. What is his evidence? The main evidence that Classical political economy promoted the game laws to dispossess the peasantry is their almost complete silence on the subject! Adam Smith, "that great master of capitalist apologetics" (p. 49), was, writes Perelman, the only Classical Economist to ever mention the Game Laws. Smith, however, condemned the game laws as a feudal relic, noting that "The reason they give is that the prohibition is made to prevent the lower sort of people from spending their time on such unprofitable employment; but the real reason is that they delight in hunting" (p. 50). In light of this Perelman concludes this discussion by noting generously that "Although Smith refuses to acknowledge any association between the Game Laws and the interests of capital, he deserves some credit for broaching the subject, since all other political economists failed to make any mention whatsoever" (p. 51).

Since Classical writers cunningly concealed their support and promotion of the Game Laws by not discussing them, or pretending to be opposed to them, their guilt is established by the silence of their friends in Parliament on the issue. "When Parliament debated the Game Laws again in 1830, not one prominent spokesperson for political economy called for their abolition" (p. 54). The alternative hypothesis, that Classical economists really thought the Game Laws were a feudal relic too minor to bother with, is not explored.

Exhibit B in the indictment of the Classical mob is their treatment of household "self provisioning" or as Perelman also refers to it "the social division of labor." Here again we know of their bad faith in this matter in the contrast between their obvious desire to destroy self-provisioning and force all workers into the market and their public silence on the issue. Thus "Smith, insofar as he addresses the subject, treated the social division of labor as the result of voluntary choices on the part of free people" (p. 90). On the other hand any random statement by anyone criticizing sloth or indiscipline by independent producers is sign of a plan to eliminating independence and create a proletariat.

It is true that Classical economists often wrote about the indolence of the poor and of smallholders. But was this casual moralizing just a relic of earlier modes of discourse, on the way to a more systematic way of thinking about the economy? Here I read their general silence on the issue very differently. It is the silence that shows that concern with forcing the poor to labor for wages was a peripheral element of their system. Perelman, has to transform this casual silence into a much more sinister conspiracy to conceal. The book makes little progress in that direction. Indeed the bold links drawn on the most tenuous of evidence are one thing that distinguishes the Chico Marx from the original. Those connections are so bold that this book might better be placed on the shelf with the "grassy knoll" and "Roswell" genres.

As a historian who has written on England in the Industrial Revolution period I have a more innocent interpretation of the Classical conspiracy of silence on the alleged expropriation of the peasantry. This is that the process whereby independent peasants and artisans became wage laborers was already largely complete in England by the time the Classical economists arrived on the scene in the eighteenth century. Their silence on the issue is a silence of true indifference. They had no need to conspire in the expropriation of the means of subsistence by capitalists, because a free labor market was in place. The issue of common rights, access to land, and self-provisioning had been settled in favor of wage labor by 1700 in all but the rural fastnesses of the Scottish highlands. Even before the formal Parliamentary enclosure movement of 1750 and later common rights had mainly become private tradable rights of access unlikely to be owned by the poorest workers. Truly common areas with free access were limited and of little value (see Leigh Shaw-Taylor, "Did Agricultural Laborers Have Common Rights?" forthcoming, Journal of Economic History, and "Labourers, Cows, Common Rights and Parliamentary Enclosure: The Evidence of Contemporary Comment, c. 1760-1810" forthcoming, Past and Present).

Perelman, like Marx, suffers from a wildly romantic vision of a pre-industrial England of laughter and leisure that accords little with reality. Marx had the excuse that he was writing at a time when little was known about that past.

Gregory Clark is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis.

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Posted: 7 March 2001