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The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation

Author(s):Perelman, Michael
Reviewer(s):Clark, Gregory

Published by EH.NET (March 2001)

Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy

and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Durham, NC: Duke

University Press, 2000. 412 pp. $22,95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8223-2491-1; $64.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-8223-2454-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gregory Clark, Department of Economics, University of


One of our popular diversions here in California is “channeling” the thoughts

of those who have passed on to the spirit world. Michael Perelman has

seemingly by these methods made contact with Karl Marx himself. For his book

is a lively polemic directed at the Classical political economists, full of

allegations of double dealing and bad faith, that the master himself would

have been proud to deliver. Marx lives. He lives in Chico, California.

Perelman interprets Classical political economy as a political program in

search of an intellectual justification. Classical economists wanted to

promote the interests of the new capitalist class. To this end the Classical

system celebrated the virtues of the free market. But free markets were of no

use if the capitalist class could not recruit the wage slaves they needed for

their factories. So Classical economists simultaneously promoted intervention

in markets to strip the peasantry and handicraft workers of the vestiges of

their independence and reduce them to the wage labor. They advocated in Marx’s

terms (or at least in the terms of Marx’s English translators) “primitive

accumulation” as necessary to make a market economy. But they did not advocate

this openly: thus the “secret history of primitive accumulation.” Free

competition was optimal, unless it produced an independent peasantry unwilling

to submit to wage labor. “While energetically promoting their laissez-faire

ideology, they championed time and again policies that flew in the face of

their laissez-faire principles” (pp. 2-3).

Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the

Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the

countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to

take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial

property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more

severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted

under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR

agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor

of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of

support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did

so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not

a docile and dependable worker.

That is the Perelman claim. What is his evidence? The main evidence that

Classical political economy promoted the game laws to dispossess the peasantry

is their almost complete silence on the subject! Adam Smith, “that great

master of capitalist apologetics” (p. 49), was, writes Perelman, the only

Classical Economist to ever mention the Game Laws. Smith, however, condemned

the game laws as a feudal relic, noting that “The reason they give is that the

prohibition is made to prevent the lower sort of people from spending their

time on such unprofitable employment; but the real reason is that they

delightin hunting” (p. 50). In light of this Perelman concludes this

discussion by noting generously that “Although Smith refuses to acknowledge

any association between the Game Laws and the interests of capital, he

deserves some credit for broaching the subject, since all other political

economists failed to make any mention whatsoever” (p. 51).

Since Classical writers cunningly concealed their support and promotion of the

Game Laws by not discussing them, or pretending to be opposed to them, their

guilt is established by the silence of their friends in Parliament on the

issue. “When Parliament debated the Game Laws again in 1830, not one prominent

spokesperson for political economy called for their abolition” (p. 54). The

alternative hypothesis, that Classical economists really thought the Game Laws

were a feudal relic too minor to bother with, is not explored.

Exhibit B in the indictment of the Classical mob is their treatment of

household “self provisioning” or as Perelman also refers to it “the social

division of labor.” Here again we know of their bad faith in this matter in

the contrast between their obvious desire to destroy self-provisioning and

force all workers into the market and their public silence on the issue. Thus

“Smith, insofar as he addresses the subject, treated the social division of

labor as the result of voluntary choices on the part of free people” (p. 90).

On the other hand any random statement by anyone criticizing sloth or

indiscipline by independent producers is sign of a plan to eliminating

independence and create a proletariat.

It is true that Classical economists often wrote about the indolence of the

poor and of smallholders. But was this casual moralizing just a relic of

earlier modes of discourse, on the way to a more systematic way of thinking

about the economy? Here I read their general silence on the issue very

differently. It is the silence that shows that concern with forcing the poor

to labor for wages was a peripheral element of their system. Perelman, has to

transform this casual silence into a much more sinister conspiracy to conceal.

The book makes little progress in that direction. Indeed the bold links drawn

on the most tenuous of evidence are one thing that distinguishes the Chico

Marx from the original. Those connections are so bold that this book might

better be placed on the shelf with the “grassy knoll” and “Roswell” genres.

As a historian who has written on England in the Industrial Revolution period

I have a more innocent interpretation of the Classical conspiracy of silence

on the alleged expropriation of the peasantry. This is that the process

whereby independent peasants and artisans became wage laborers was already

largely complete in England by the time the Classical economists arrived on

the scene in the eighteenth century. Their silence on the issue is a silence

of true indifference. They had no need to conspire in the expropriation of

the means of subsistence by capitalists, because a free labor market was in

place. The issue of common rights, access to land, and self-provisioning had

been settled in favor of wage labor by 1700 in all but the rural fastnesses of

the Scottish highlands. Even before the formal Parliamentary enclosure

movement of 1750 and later common rights had mainly become private tradable

rights of access unlikely to be owned by the poorest workers. Truly common

areas with free access were limited and of little value (see Leigh

Shaw-Taylor, “Did Agricultural Laborers Have Common Rights?” forthcoming,

Journal of Economic History, and “Labourers, Cows, Common Rights and

Parliamentary Enclosure: The Evidence of Contemporary Comment, c. 1760-1810″

forthcoming, Past and Present).

Perelman, like Marx, suffers from a wildly romantic vision of a pre-industrial

England of laughter and leisure that accords little with reality. Marx had the

excuse that he was writing at a time when little was known about that past.

Gregory Clark is Professor of Economics at the University of California,


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century