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Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe

Author(s):Lachmann, Richard
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.NET (January 2002)

Richard Lachmann, Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and

Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2000. xii + 314 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-507568-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Jones, Melbourne Business School and Graduate

School of International Business, University of Reading.

The entry price for writing “big picture” history is high. However novel his

or her own framework may be, the scholar is usually obliged to cite supporting

material reorganized from hundreds of books. Richard Lachmann’s contribution is

no exception, dealing as it does with the period of transition between 1500 and

1800, across England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Florence. Throughout

much of the volume his objective is to explain changes in the distribution of

income among social groups but ultimately he brings his thesis to bear on the

issue of economic growth, chiefly by contrasting alterations in English

agrarian relations with those in France.

Most of the time he is engaged in a sustained debate about competition among

elites with other sociological historians, Marxists and Weberians, though a

little surprisingly not with Mosca or Pareto. Although Lachmann steers away

from the Marxist fixation with expropriation by “the” elite towards his own

theme of conflict among elites, Capitalists in Spite of Themselves seems

to be a phoenix arisen from the ashes of Marxism. The argument seems couched in

the type of code that Marxists, or sociologists, or both, delight in affecting.

Economists will find it harder to follow, though it is vigorously expressed,

impressive in its consistency and grounded in detailed cases. Perhaps a little

too much is claimed for the guiding idea; everything fits neatly but accepting

the results depends on going along with some very encompassing social

categorizations. Almost everyone else is held responsible for sins of omission,

for failing to account for paradoxes said to be resolved here. As Marxist-style

writings often do, the rhetoric put me in mind of the quip about Winston

Churchill, “I wish I were as certain of anything as he is of everything.”

The heart of the analysis is “elite conflict theory.” “Elite conflict is the

bright thread of agency that propelled structural changes in all situations”

(p. 231). We are told to ignore the attributes of individuals in favor of

taking their behavior to be determined by their “structural positions in

networks.” Structural analysis accordingly seems to make individuals into

automata. Individuals are assumed to be rational maximizers, responding to

opportunities, and everything thus depends on what opportunities are actually

presented to them. This is not so much a finding, which is implied here, as an

assumption, and a strong one at that. It is a unifying behavioral postulate, a

little like Realism in International Relations. Elites, like nation-states, are

destined to fall on any weakling should it stumble, and refrain from doing so

only as long as they are dissuaded by coalitions of competing forces.

Patrician disunity is common enough in history; various groups are constantly

falling out. But where did the golden opportunities come from that turned the

past into something other than battles between kites and crows, in time to

transform the early modern world? Major candidates include population change,

technological change, and the Discoveries. They are all exogenous to the model.

They are what offer the new opportunities; elites, meaning individual

maximizers cemented together, must compete to secure them, in doing so

destabilizing societies and leading to new equilibria. The very boldness of

Lachmann’s exposition brings the mechanistic character of this to the surface.

An even deeper unease arises from the way elites are reified: They have

interests, not friends (Realism again), and culture and ideology exist solely

to commit individuals to the interests of the group, because — credibly, but

ironically given the rather deterministic framework — they cannot always spot

their own interests in the maze of social life. Aside from the postulated

mechanics of the processes, it is a little disconcerting to find that the

typologies of elites are asserted more than demonstrated. None of this fits

naturally into the thinking of economists and economic historians.

When we come to the divergence between England and France, we are told that the

clue lies in the relative power of the Crown to eliminate rivals and form local

ties. Lachmann’s account, which is based on work by Robert Allen (though his

conclusion differs), shows England navigating its way between two dangers. On

the one hand it escaped from a bucolic peasantry able to hold onto its plots

and consume the produce and on the other hand avoided a parasitic state elite.

The English gentry did not need to invest in politics in order to keep their

estates. They secured the proceeds of productivity growth engineered by the

yeomen, without suppressing productivity levels. According to Allen their

capital was not usefully invested, though Lachmann has found a source that

prompts him to emphasize the share going into the funding of state debt,

military campaigns to obtain foreign markets, and passive investment in


The issue would be usefully approached regionally, which Lachmann shies away

from doing. Indeed he chides Goldstone and Thirsk, of all people, for

over-simplifying English agricultural regions and by implication with bothering

with regionalization. It is scarcely justified to carry on the debate merely at

national and occasionally county levels. Both those units are semi-arbitrary,

like all divisions. Treating England as a single unit will not do for important

purposes. Only regionalization can hope to explain the paradox of so much

“gentry” capital and so much inventiveness coexisting with

deindustrialization across southern England, at the same time as

industrialization occurred in the north. Lachmann is also extremely categorical

in stating that capital from the gentry’s hijacking of the yeomen’s revolution

was the ultimate source of English economic development. The case against the

“gentry,” or the magnates, will probably turn out to be much stronger than it

seems already. Their capital was not so much created and wasted on the land as

immolated there by the purchasers of estates who continually brought it in from

London trade, finance, the law, and public office. Nevertheless, we do not

really know what the proportions were, how much passive investing outside the

countryside the landowners undertook, or where most industrial capital came


Once upon a time there was something called the Time magazine effect.

Whether it holds true now I cannot say, but the idea was that every

professional found the reports most enlightening — except with reference to

his or her own field. Despite my hesitations about method and tone mentioned

above, I had the opposite sensation with this book. With the exception of an

intriguing chapter on religious change, I admired the parts I knew most about

(English agricultural and economic history) more than those with which I was

less familiar. The approach reminded me of an older sociological history, not

listed in the Bibliography, Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of

Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), which caused considerable excitement in

its day. Lachmann, too, shines an unfamiliar light on the fundamental questions

of why historical processes take place when and where they do.

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow at Melbourne Business School and Professor

(part-time) at the Graduate School of International Business, University of

Reading. He is author of The European Miracle (Cambridge: third edition,

with a substantial afterword, forthcoming 2002) and The Record of Global

Economic Development (Edward Elgar, forthcoming 2002).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century