Economists and politicians all argue that capitalism is the only economic system that works, that it is as natural to human life as the air that we breathe. Not only do they try and cover up the brutality of capitalist exploitation today, but they hide the true history of how it came about from the text books we get at school.
Turning Peasants into Workers
Four to five hundred years ago there was no such thing as capitalism. The economic system that dominated the world was feudalism. In feudal societies all the power and wealth lay in the hands of a small despotic elite who ruled over the mass of poor peasants. Most people were peasants, forced to scrape a living off the land which was owned by a feudal lord, who just took his cut of the food grown by the peasants. Under feudalism, the peasants were actually tied to the land from birth to death and not allowed to leave the Lord’s manor. This kind of semi-free labour, where people were not directly owned by their masters (slaves), but neither free to quit or move from their master’s estate, is called serfdom. Peasant families and villages were pretty much self-sufficient. The Lord would grant his peasants the right to stay, to use areas like hills and forests for their own economic activity like gathering wood, herding, hunting and using these raw materials to make such things as clothes and tools. It suited the lord because he would take a cut of all these products too.
This system had existed in various forms for thousands of years. So how did capitalism come about?
Capitalism began in England. It was a ruthless system that had to be imposed on working people by new property owners and the legal system they devised. It was so unnatural a way of living that people had to be robbed, beaten, locked up and hanged in order to comply with this new regime.
It is a system based upon industry where a small ruling class of millionaire capitalists own what Marx called “the means of production”: the factories, power plants, land and transport, all the means to produce the things we need. The rest of society is made up of people who own nothing but the ability to sell their labour. In order to survive workers are forced to work for the capitalist who in return pays the workers a wage, takes what the workers have made and then sells it on the market for a hefty profit.
Capitalism may be global today, but it started on this tiny island. How did this process begin, of turning peasants into workers?
To really take off it needed a captive labour force that had no land to live on, and so no alternative but to work for a boss. With the wage they received in exchange, they would buy food and shelter instead of producing it themselves. The capitalists didn’t need the peasants on the land, but they did need them in the factories. But to create a working class the capitalists had to throw the peasants off the land, which was the source of their livelihood, and it was not a peaceful process. It was an act of brutal force. They were forced off the land through the use of enclosures.
The enclosures: the biggest heist in history
You may of heard about enclosures at school. It went on for three centuries in waves. It was about forcibly stopping the communal use of the land for planting or pasture, and redefining it as private property: forests, grass, soil, water, wildlife, everything. The reason was that as towns arose and trade developed, the lords could get a lot more out of their land if they produced for the market, selling food and other agricultural goods for a profit, rather than just taking their cut from the peasantry. This economic incentive to produce food for a market rather than consumption was the driving force behind the enclosures.
They took place in 1450 on a massive scale and within 50 years half the country was enclosed and “a mass of free unattached proletarians hurled onto the labour market”. Between 1600-1760 a further 30% of the land was enclosed. Small plots gave way to big estates: by 1700 big aristocratic landlords held 75% of all cultivable land and were using it to farm for profit.
With the loss of the land began a new form of relationship to production. In 1400 the vast majority of peasants were tied for life to a feudal manor. By 1640 40% had been pushed off the land – about 2 million landless peasants. In 1560 only one in ten peasants were wage labourers, but by 1688 this figure was 56%. A proletariat was in the process of being born.
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For long time wage labourers could also work for themselves part-time and escaped full proletarianisation. Capitalism in land and industry had not developed to the point where it needed a massive force of full-time waged workers. But during the 1700s the global market expanded to the point where it did. The feudal system of industry under which production took place in small workshops and guilds no longer sufficed for the growing needs of the market and manufacturing took its place. Capitalist farmers wanted the rest of the land and early manufacturers needed labour to fuel their mills and mines. The result was one final all-out war on communal land, by means of Acts of Parliament beginning in the 1760′s. Anti-vagrancy laws said eveyone had to be employed, to force the landless into work. These were enforced by an extension of the death penalty and hangings, and using the army to suppress riots and put down revolts. In the 1780s the number of those in prison rose by 70 per cent and the number of executions almost doubled.
The enclosures laid the basis for large scale, capitalist agriculture that ultimately, through its efficiency and use of machines, freed the majority of humanity from the endless, repetitive drudgery of farming and the narrow horizons of village life, with its superstition, ignorance and oppression of women and children. Whether such a thing could have occurred through a voluntary, just process is debatable, but what emerged was progressive compared to all previous societies. It provided the possibility of developing a society where we have many different things we can do and buy, and many different opportunities open to us: not the single option of a lifetime of backbreaking labour to make just enough food to eat and remain vulnerable to famine, disease and plague. But the enclosures were at the same time a “massive violence exercised by the upper classes against the lower”. Marx called it an act of “ruthless terrorism”.
The rise of industry: turning people into machines
By 1600 industry was already developing out of agriculture. Rural society along with the growing cities provided the mass market for industry (small tools, house fittings, footwear and textiles). Up to around 1700 these things were made by farming households, as a part-time profession of farmers and their families. Metalworking and textiles developed in the North on this basis. Peasant craftsmen were gradually transformed into merchants and employers who then employed the many more of their kind who were being pushed off the land by lords or by their inability to compete on the market. Those who were more efficient and invested and concentrated production (and their workers) into one or a few workshops gained over those who remained locked into primitive and small-scale methods of production.
Until well into the 18th century most exploited workers did not work in factories. This form of work was still exceptional: it was seen as a form of punishment and loss of independence. Early factories were set up as a sort of “houses of correction”, sucking in child labour since people would not easily volunteer to go and work in these hell-holes. Between 1786 and 1805 a third of all apprentices died, ran away or went back to their parents.
But that changed as the market grew larger and the scale of operations grew larger to feed the market; new machine techniques increased the productivity of each worker and lowered the cost of the product, allowing greater profits and driving the building of more and larger factories.
Inside the factories work discipline was resisted. The habit of punctuality and not stopping for breaks and working steadily had to be drilled forcibly into people. The capitalists’ ideal was to “make such machines of the men as cannot err”, to quote Josiah Wedgewood, one of the first large-scale pottery manufacturers. His harsh system of factory discipline meant that in 1783 he had to call in the army to deal with a workplace revolt against his rules – one leader was hanged.
Again, at the time, the propagandists of capitalism did not try to hide the shameful facts. As one admitted: “the modern industrial proletariat was introduced to its role not so much by attraction or monetary reward, but by compulsion, force and fear forged over a fire by the powerful blows of a hammer.”
This system didn’t just come about. It had to be forcibly imposed on the people. The old feudal state, based on the landed aristocracy which stood in the way of capitalist production had to be swept away too. The English Revolution of 1649 was the first of many bourgeois revolutions that swept Europe and ushered in a new epoch – capitalism.
And it’s still happening…
Of course, this bloody story is not just a history tale. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America hundreds of millions endure these very same horrors as they are being forced to flee the poverty of rural life to the equally miserable city slums and shanty-towns.
In China many peasants are being pressganged into factories as capitalism is being forcibly imposed on the country. Trade unionists are imprisoned. In Colombia thousands of peasants are cleared by deathsquads and the army off the land to make way for big capitalist ranchers.
One of the key components of the growing anti-capitalist movement is the peasantry of the third world – from the KRRS Indian farmers association struggling against Monsanto’s expensive GM seeds to the Brazilian Sem Terra movement of landless peasants. The Zapatistas began their revolt as an insurrection of the indigenous peasants of Chiapas in Southern Mexico, where the NAFTA free trade agreement threatened to take away the last remnants of land left to them after centuries of enclosure.
We must support these struggles for the right of peasants to work their land. However we don’t want a return to the village where everyone farms for subsistence.We want to take what was progressive about capitalism – technology and mass production – and use it to meet human need instead of profit.
A socialist system that does not rely on the forcible exploitation of the many by the few but relies instead on the planned collective use of the earth’s limited resources would release the millions of desperately poor from a life of servitude and begin to raise the quality of life for all across the globe.