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Robert Brenner - The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism

Robert Brenner - The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism

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Published by Paul Heideman
Robert Brenner's classic critique of the 'dependency theory' school of Marxist economics.
Robert Brenner's classic critique of the 'dependency theory' school of Marxist economics.

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Published by: Paul Heideman on Sep 09, 2010
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Robert BrennerThe appearance of systematic barriers to economic advance in the course of capitalist expansion—the ‘development of underdevelopment’—has poseddifficult problems for Marxist theory.* There has arisen, in response, a strongtendency sharply to revise Marx’s conceptions regarding economic development.In part, this has been a healthy reaction to the Marx of the
whoenvisioned a more or less direct and inevitable process of capitalist expansion:undermining old modes of production, replacing them with capitalist social pro-ductive relations and, on this basis, setting off a process of capital accumulationand economic development more or less following the pattern of the originalhomelands of capitalism. In the famous phrases of the
Communist Manifesto
: ‘Thebourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the wholerelations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in an alteredform was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrialclasses. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all
The Origins of Capitalist Development: a Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism
social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish thebourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. The bourgeoisie...draw all, eventhe most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of itscommodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down allChinese walls...It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt thebourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it callscivilization into their midst, to become bourgeois themselves. In a word,
it creates a world after its own image
.’Many writers have quite properly pointed out that historicaldevelopments since the mid-nineteenth century have tended to belie this‘optimistic’, ‘progressist’ prognosis, in that the capitalist penetration of the ‘third world’ through trade and capital investment not only has failedto carry with it capitalist economic development, but has erected positivebarriers to such development. Yet the question remains, where did Marxerr? What was the theoretical basis for his incorrect expectations? Ascan be seen from the above quotation and many others from the sameperiod,
Marx was at first quite confident that capitalist economicexpansion, through trade and investment, would inevitably bring with itthe transformation of pre-capitalist social-productive relations—i.e. classrelations—and the establishment of capitalist social-productive relations,a
capitalist class structure
.It was clearly on the premise that capitalistexpansion would lead to the establishment of capitalist social relations of production on the ruins of the old modes, that he could predict world-wide economic development in a capitalist image.But, suppose capitalist expansion through trade and investment failed tobreak the old modes of production (a possibility which Marx laterenvisaged
); or actually tended to strengthen the old modes, or to erectother non-capitalist systems of social relations of production in place of the old modes? In this case, Marx’s prediction would fall to the ground.For whatever Marx thought about the origins of capitalist social-productive relations, he was quite clear that their establishment wasindispensable for the development of the productive forces, i.e. forcapitalist economic development. If expansion through trade andinvestment did not bring with it the transition to capitalist social-productive relations—manifested in the full emergence of labour poweras a commodity—there could be no capital accumulation on an extended
*I wish to thank Alice Amsden, Johanna Brenner, Temma Kaplan, Barbara Laslett,Richard Smith and Jon Wiener for reading this manuscript and offering criticisms andsuggestions. I am also grateful to Theda Skocpol for sending me, in advance of publication,her review essay on Immanuel Wallerstein’s
The Modern World System
,which was veryhelpful to me, especially on problems concerning the early modern European states.
See, for example: ‘England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, theother regenerating—the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the materialfoundation of Western society in Asia.’ In ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, inKarl Marx,
 Surveys From Exile
, p.
See, for example: ‘The obstacles presented by the internal solidity and organization of pre-capitalistic national modes of production to the corrosive influence of commerce arestrikingly illustrated in the intercourse of the English with India and China...Englishcommerce exerted a revolutionary influence on these communities and tore them apart, onlyin so far as the low prices of their goods served to destroy the spinning and weavingindustries, which were an ancient integrating element of this unity of industrial andagricultural production. And even so, this work of dissolution proceeds very gradually.And still more slowly in China, where it is not reinforced by direct political power.’
in three volumes, New York
, III, pp.
scale. In consequence, the analysis of capitalist economic developmentrequires an understanding, in the first place, of the manner in which thecapitalist social-productive relations underpinning the accumulation of capital on an extended scale originated. In turn, it demands acomprehension of the way in which the various processes of capitalistexpansion set off by the accumulation of capital brought about, or wereaccompanied by, alternatively:
. the further erection of capitalist classrelations;
. merely the interconnection of capitalist with pre-capitalistforms, and indeed the strengthening of the latter; or
. the transformationof pre-capitalist class relations, but without their substitution by fullycapitalist social-productive relations of free wage labour, in which labourpower is a commodity. In every case, it is class relations which clearlybecome pivotal: the question of their transformation in relationship toeconomic development.
I. Introduction
I shall argue here that the
of an entire line of writers in the Marxisttradition has led them to displace class relations from the centre of theiranalyses of economic development and underdevelopment. It has beentheir intention to negate the optimistic model of economic advance de-rived from Adam Smith, whereby the development of trade and the divi-sion of labour unfailingly bring about economic development. Becausethey have failed, however, to discard the underlying individualistic-mechanist presuppositions of this model, they have ended up by erectingan alternative theory of capitalist development which is, in its centralaspects, the mirror image of the ‘progressist’ thesis they wish to surpass.Thus, very much like those they criticize, they conceive of (changing)class relations as emerging more or less directly from the (changing) re-quirements for the generation of surplus and development of production,under the pressures and opportunities engendered by a growing worldmarket. Only, whereas their opponents tend to see such market-determined processes as setting off, automatically, a dynamic of economicdevelopment, they see them as enforcing the rise of economic back-wardness. As a result, they fail to take into account either the way inwhich class structures, once established, will in fact determine the courseof economic development or underdevelopment over an entire epoch, orthe way in which these class structures themselves emerge: as the out-come of class struggles whose results are incomprehensible in termsmerely of market forces. In consequence, they move too quickly from theproposition that capitalism is bound up with, and supportive of, con-tinuing underdevelopment in large parts of the world, to the conclusionnot only that the rise of underdevelopment is inherent in the extension of the world division of labour through capitalist expansion, but also thatthe ‘development of underdevelopment’ is an indispensable condition forcapitalist development itself.
Frnk and Capitalist Development
It has thus been maintained that the very same mechanisms which set off underdevelopment in the ‘periphery’ are prerequisite to capitalaccumulation in the ‘core’. Capitalist development cannot take place inthe core unless underdevelopment is developed in the periphery, because

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