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