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The Invention of Capitalism: Classical…

The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret…

by Michael Perelman

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762246,775 (3.7)None
The originators of classical political economy--Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Steuart, and others--created a discourse that explained the logic, the origin, and, in many respects, the essential rightness of capitalism. But, in the great texts of that discourse, these writers downplayed a crucial requirement for capitalism's creation: For it to succeed, peasants would have to abandon their self-sufficient lifestyle and go to work for wages in a factory. Why would they willingly do this? Clearly, they did not go willingly. As Michael Perelman shows, they were forced into the factories with the active support of the same economists who were making theoretical claims for capitalism as a self-correcting mechanism that thrived without needing government intervention. Directly contradicting the laissez-faire principles they claimed to espouse, these men advocated government policies that deprived the peasantry of the means for self-provision in order to coerce these small farmers into wage labor. To show how Adam Smith and the other classical economists appear to have deliberately obscured the nature of the control of labor and how policies attacking the economic independence of the rural peasantry were essentially conceived to foster primitive accumulation, Perelman examines diaries, letters, and the more practical writings of the classical economists. He argues that these private and practical writings reveal the real intentions and goals of classical political economy--to separate a rural peasantry from their access to land. This rereading of the history of classical political economy sheds important light on the rise of capitalism to its present state of world dominance. Historians of political economy and Marxist thought will find that this book broadens their understanding of how capitalism took hold in the industrial age.… (more)



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Laissez-faire for you, State Intervention for us!

This is a very good book. It is the revised edition of a book I saw sometime in the (?) eighties. This book decisively shows how the birth of capitalism required the dispossession of both small-holders and landless peasants by closing off the commons and forest areas (through Enclosures and various Game Laws, for instance) and thus removing their supply of food (from hunting and gathering) and fuel (such as wood).
This expropriation forced them into the workforce, whether as craftsmen, factory workers or mere day-laborers is a matter of little import. They were now all trapped within the Capitalist System, under the yoke of wages, with no way either back or out. Also, the Corn Laws and Poor Laws continued the "work within the Capitalist System or starve" policy by making food more expensive and curtailing the (very) little aid the poor previously had received. In Marxist literature, this expropriation of the peasantry became known as 'primitive accumulation'.
My Libertarian friends tend to think of Capitalism as the salvation of the poor. As always, they were beaten and dragged into the supposed "salvation".
The first five chapters make this abundantly clear. After this, our author discusses how early modern capitalist thinkers (David Hume, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin and so on) were well aware of all this and thought it necessary. The study of Political Economy and its relation to primitive accumulation consumes the second half of this book.
And since (as I said) early political economists were aware of the necessity (from the viewpoint of Capital) of this dispossession, many fits of indignation ensue throughout the second half of the book regarding their 'dishonesty'. Too many. Obviously, I agree that state intervention through various laws and enclosures contradicts the laissez-faire ideology of emerging capitalism. But our author should have trusted his readers to react to the evidence on their own. James Steuart, who I have never read, comes off as the most forthright of these early-modern political and economic thinkers and philosophers regarding the necessity of dispossession and impoverishment of the rural poor (to force them into the capitalist regime) at the beginning of industrial capitalism. I think reading him alongside Smith would make for a fascinating comparison.
This is a very interesting book. Even though our author is a Marxist, I think anyone interested in the rise of the modern world (especially the Anglo-Saxon world) will find this book quite useful.
  pomonomo2003 | Apr 21, 2019 |
"The Invention of Capitalism" by Michael Perelman is a little odd. It essentially attempts to combine two books into one: on the one hand, a book proving necessity of the process of primitive accumulation for capitalism to develop, and on the other hand, a book showing how the classical political economists were not consistent in there pretenses to laissez-faire, instead preferring to either support primitive accumulation or to ignore it entirely.

Both books are a great success in terms of proving their own case. The chapters on primitive accumulation itself, mainly at the beginning of the book, explain both the nature and the extent of this process exceedingly well and add significantly to a by now quite extensive literature on the subject. In any case it becomes clear once again that the origins of capitalism are in no way either "natural" or "voluntary". On the contrary, they involved severe collusion between manufacturers, landlords and the government, as shown in the case of Britain.

The case against the classical political economists is less clear. Perelman succeeds wonderfully in showing the hypocrisy of these early economists, in particular Adam Smith, regarding the nature of the capitalist system they intended to support as "natural" and self-propelling, and their wilful ignorance as to its origins. Nevertheless, Perelman's hatred for Adam Smith seems excessive and surely spending three chapters on a frontal assault on this thinker alone is a little bit too much in a book about primitive accumulation. There is also quite extensive use of vague references and circumstancial evidence (Robert Torrens is apparently extra evil for being a Colonel of the Royal Marines) in Perelman's accusations, which do not really strengthen these chapters' overall impression. Nevertheless, it can be considered useful as a counterweight to the often rather hagiographical neoclassical descriptions of the works of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus etc., and it also deservedly reestablishes the stature of Sir James Steuart.

Overall, Perelman's use of data and sources is very thorough and extensive, and can be considered commendable. His argumentation on primitive accumulation is fine, and even his case against the classical political economists is strong. Yet the book would have been better had it been split into two separate ones: one on the primitive accumulation itself and its extent, and the other about the 'collaboration' of Smith et al. to this. As it stands now, it is a little incoherent. ( )
1 vote McCaine | Feb 2, 2007 |
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Duke University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Duke University Press.

Editions: 0822324911, 0822324547

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