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Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5.

and

Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles)

Author(s):Devroey, Jean-Pierre
Reviewer(s):Grantham, George

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Jean-Pierre Devroey, ?conomie rurale et soci?t? dans l’Europe franque (VI-IX si?cles). Paris: Belin, 2003. 381 pp. ?22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 2-7011-2618-5. and Jean-Pierre Devroey, Puissants et mis?rables: Syst?me social et monde paysan dans l’Europe des Francs (VI-IX si?cles). Brussels: Academie Royale de Belgique, 2006. 725 pp. ?60.50 (cloth), ISBN: 2-8031-0227-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Grantham, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Most economic historians who do not specialize in the medieval period draw their understanding of its economic and social evolution directly or indirectly from the work of historians inspired by Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, both of whom viewed it as a decisive turning point in Western history. As set out by Georges Duby in his essay on the early growth of the European economy, the half millennium following the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West marks the crucial discontinuity in Western Europe’s economic and social history.[1] The notion was, of course, not new. Originating in the humanist philological critique of early medieval Latin, the notion of a decisive break in social, political, and economic institutions was extended to other domains in the debate between Abb? Du Bos and Montesquieu over whether the Franks were subject to royal taxation, and by early nineteenth-century efforts to construct historical typologies from the surviving diplomatic and legal texts as part of the project to place the French Revolution in historical perspective. That effort led to a consensus that the West experienced a major economic and institutional collapse in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that from the wreckage there emerged a more decentralized economic and political system based on the exploitation of the rural population by lords connected politically in hierarchies constructed from bilateral ties of mutual obligation and fidelity. That institutional space left little room for agricultural innovation and hardly any for economic organization founded on the legal egalitarianism of voluntary exchange. The historiography thus posed three questions: the first concerned the process by which the old world was transformed into a new one; the second concerned the nature of that new world as an economic and social type; the third was how it in turn gave birth to modern western capitalism. Since the dissolution of Roman civilization was an uncontested fact, most attention was devoted to the second and third questions. It is only in the past thirty years that the first has received the attention it deserves, with devastating consequences for the conventional wisdom.

The present works by the eminent Belgian historian Jean-Pierre Devroey represent a vigorous defense of the conventional view that the early medieval society and economy was a distinct social type fundamentally different from the societies that preceded and succeeded it. Explicitly inspired by the theories of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi, this vision is idealistic rather than causal or mechanistic, to use an old-fashioned dichotomy. It aims to explain “why” things worked in terms of their relation to a pre-existing whole rather than “how” they worked in terms of ordinary connections between cause and effect. For Devroey, the true history is sociology. The historian’s task is to show how relations between different elements of a society formed a coherent “whole” or type. The theoretical foundation of this approach to the past is Durkheim’s tenet that social cohesion is a necessary condition for the temporal persistence of a society. This makes the central task of the historian the identification of the sources and mechanisms of that cohesion. Since every society is unique, the mechanisms will differ, providing a basis for comparative analysis of societies. The project of these two works, then, is to construct an ideal type for that analysis. As Teggart pointed out long ago, this approach to history is essentially teleological, since it presumes the whole used to explain the meaning of the parts.[2] In the present case the “whole” is Frankish society. The books thus fall in the category of “stages” history, to which may be added work on the same period by the English historian Chris Wickham, whose approach is also inspired by Polanyi notions of reciprocity and redistribution as essential means of securing social solidarity in primitive societies.[3] Both authors read the early medieval record through the eyes of social anthropologists, and are thus blind to what the eyes of Machiavelli and Adam Smith detect in it.

Devroey’s work thus poses a direct challenge to the alternative vision of early medieval society proposed by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Jean Durliat and Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, who view the early Middle Ages from the perspective of the two great theorists of self-interested human behavior. That perspective reveals significant continuity with late Roman civilization in Frankish institutions of public administration and landholding.[4] The findings rest on a re-reading of the polemical and chronological texts, on prosographical studies of the leading Frankish families in the degree the evidence supports it, and on close analysis of the contemporary legal texts. It starts from the premise that the dissolution of the Roman state in the West was essentially an appropriation of its levers of power by German military leaders to whom the Roman state had unwisely subcontracted the defense of the Empire. Given that premise, the central historical questions turn on how the change in administration affected existing governmental apparatus and the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and how political legitimacy ? the ability to command and the willingness to obey ? was maintained in the presence of new and foreign rulers. Of the day-to-day life we know virtually nothing; but it seems plausible that in the core of the Frankish kingdom, things went on pretty much as before, except that, as would be the case down to the middle of the seventeenth century, there was fighting among elites for control of the state and its fiscal resources, and that for this and other reasons that part of the economy based on exchange imploded. On the sources of political legitimacy and the apparatus of administration, the texts are more loquacious, and everything thing they say supports the notion of continuity rather than the creation of a new society by force.[5] If so, the early medieval past was not a different country, but a place and time where men (and women) behaved in ways that are familiar to us. It did not constitute a “whole” whose meaning is accessible only through an exposition of its inner logic, but a congeries of institutions, practices, and attitudes evolving at different rates under the pressure of particular events.

From the perspective of economic history the main issues concern the nature of landholding and the organization of the state. Was land effectively “owned” by the elite and farmed by tenants on tenures determined by asymmetric bargaining, or was it mostly in the hands of small holders subject to their paying a property tax? To some that may be a distinction without a difference: taxes mainly went to support soldiers who the conventional historiography holds were granted land and rights of peasants in payment for their services. In either case the agricultural surplus went to the same people. But from the perspective of agrarian history the distinction is crucial. Taxes were based on assessments not easily altered, since they were regulated by law. On the assumption that they continued to be collected by tax farmers, the proceeds, or more commonly the tax base that generated them, could be securitized and alienated like any other asset, which would explain the exceptionally complex pattern of claims revealed by the sources. The issue turns on the continuity of law. The “primitivist” view of early medieval society espoused by Devroey considers the early medieval era to be fundamentally lawless and governed by relations of force in which the strong expropriated the weak. The “Romanist” view holds for legal continuity; the strong appropriated the tax base but within what must have been fairly wide bounds maintained the rule of law with respect to collection. The issue bears directly on the interpretation of terms relating to agricultural organization, which can be read alternatively as describing estates and farms or as units of fiscal assessment. According to Devroey, the “fiscalist” view is in his words “formalist,” because it rests on the explicit meaning of the legal texts rather than their presumed “real” meaning. He denies that view at great length and in great detail. The denial represents the core of both volumes.

Neither book is an easy read. ?conomie rurale is intended as a textbook for students preparing the aggr?gation, or state doctoral examinations in medieval history. Puissants et mis?rables is a treatise constructed on Weberian principles modified by late twentieth-century French sociology. Both deploy immense erudition to support the conventional view of a discontinuity and social primitivism against the hypothesis of continuity. Since the technical debate turns on etymological issues bearing on individual terms, it would be fruitless to attempt to summarize the argument in a short review. I am not persuaded by it, but as I am not a specialist in late Roman and early medieval Latin my judgment carries no special weight in the debate. Nevertheless, many of his arguments strike me as dogmatic assertions and special pleading. Heavy reliance on Polanyi as a source of theoretical insight raises further danger flags, as do abstract sociological arguments used to motivate description and analysis of institutions. One longs for a simple explanation of how things worked rather than why they worked. In terms of the issues raised, both books would have been better served by a clear exposition of the alternative points of view followed by analysis of facts bearing on them. They contain a lot of useful matter, but it is hard work to release them from their matrix of verbiage. The bibliography is magnificent. To cite the review of Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, the books give the impression that “there is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.”[6] There is, of course, much more to be said.

Of the two works, the textbook is more accessible to non-specialists, despite being disfigured by “boxes” containing further information of the kind familiar to users of elementary textbooks in economics. The other covers more ground and provides a splendid introduction to the huge explosion in scholarship since the 1960s. Neither book can be ignored. Though clearly not the last word in early medieval economic and social history, they represent a major contribution that no one pretending to an opinion on the period can afford to dismiss. They are, however, highly opinionated, and must be read in conjunction with the literature they criticize. This is hard work, but there are no short-cuts to mastering the secondary literature on early medieval economic history. The divisions among its main practitioners are important and deep. The best account in English is a recent survey by Goldsmith, who gives a clear exposition of the “fiscalist” hypothesis, and follows up its implications for the subsequent evolution of land tenure in France to the end of the Middle Ages.[7] This is the best place for beginners to start.

The early middle ages are a fascinating and central segment of the history of western civilization. Like all extended periods, they were a time of transition. The explosion of scholarship since the 1960s and the renewal of interest in classical antiquity have given new life to a subject whose general contours seemed to have been set in stone in the magnificent syntheses proposed by Pirenne and Bloch. It is time for a new synthesis that encompasses the new findings and interpretations in a plausible narrative account of the transformation of a society and economy over five centuries. That synthesis is within reach, but to attain it will require confronting these two large volumes that, like the Roman army in its latter days, defend the conventional wisdom on the several fronts of attack.

References:

1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century, London (1974).

2. Frederick J. Teggart, Theory of History, New Haven (1925).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400 – 800, Oxford (2005).

4. Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Naissance de la noblesse: L’essor des ?lites politiques en Europe, Paris (1998); Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier, Aux sources de la gestion publique. 1. Enqu?te lexicographique sur le fundus, villa, domus, mansus, Lille (1993); Jean Durliat, Les finances publiques de Diocl?tien aux Carolingiens, 284-889, Sigmaringen (1990).

5. Bernard Bachrach, Early Medieval Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Philadelphia (2001).

6. Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, London (2003).

7. James Lowth Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 500-1500, New York (2003).

George Grantham is Professor of Economics at McGill University, where he teaches economic history and the history of economic thought. His work on the present topic includes “The Early Medieval Transition: On the Origins of the Manor and the Early Medieval Transition,” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Economic Association, Nashville, 2003. He is currently revising papers on “What’s Space Got to Do with It? Distance and Agricultural Productivity before the Railway Age” and “The Prehistoric Origins of European Economic Integration.”

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community

Author(s):Marglin, Stephen A.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.NET (March 2008)

Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xvi + 359 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-674-02654-4.

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

This is an exceptionally learned, uncompromisingly contrarian critique of markets and economics by a member of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Stephen Marglin emphasizes the costs of market transactions and blames economics for supplying the associated frame of reference. The Dismal Science is patently the result of a lifetime of reading and cogitating about conceptual issues related to market exchanges and economists’ approaches to them. Some historical background is given but what is mainly offered is extended commentary on the history of thought and on everyday practice.

The “modern world view,” in Marglin’s opinion, derives from economics, which ignores the breakdown of community and elevates instead an obsession with productive efficiency. No accusation seems too gross for him to level at the economics profession. Economics distorts everything, he says, particularly human proclivities, although I found it hard to keep clear whether he thinks non-economists are too sensible to think like smart-alec graduate students or have been brainwashed by the economics’ mind-set seeping into every debate. In a meandering volume crammed with long quotations, he seems to qualify each assertion only to proffer some variant a few pages later.

His charges against economics boil down to the way the subject fosters individual maximization, ignores distributional concerns, and legitimizes “the market” behind a pretense of scientific detachment. Yet economics is a broad church and is always evolving, never more so than at present. Aha, the reader thinks, at least behavioral economics is not so crass as to accept the Homo economicus of Econ 101. Marglin is a step ahead, however, urging that all the behavioral economists are doing is altering one or two assumptions at a time. Theirs may seem a prototypically scientific procedure but Marglin will not agree. His mind is made up, right to lamenting that Adam Smith failed to entitle his book, The Wealth of Workers.

One of Marglin’s favored examples is the Amish, whose mutual dependence resists the market. The Amish exemplify community in his terms, which is to say there is no exit short of exorbitant personal cost. Who are the Amish? For practical purposes they are the community leaders. A world thus dominated is surely as likely to become that of the Lord of the Flies as a circle of benevolence.

While Amish community patterns survive, they are only patterns: Pennsylvania is not the eighteenth-century Rhineland, nor can it be when some Amish run tools off propane gas although they are forbidden electricity, install telephones in their barns although they are not to have them in their houses, and so forth. Thus, while they do so at a long remove, the Amish shadow American society. Theirs is often, so to speak, the world of the Shabbas goy, not the principled realm of community implied.

Marglin’s notion that a world of neighborliness was swept away by impersonal insurance markets does not fully capture reality. He thinks the neighbors would have rallied round to put up another barn for you if yours burned down ? a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ model of community help. No doubt there was mutuality in small places. But he does not refer to what actually preceded the development of fire insurance. Previous arrangements were less, not more, personal than the policy one might buy for oneself from an insurance agent. They relied on briefs for alms, instruments not abolished in England until 1828. Parish records are full of sums collected for briefs for distant places.

The system was non-compulsory but also non-local ? you subscribed for sufferers whom you would never meet and lived in hopes they would respond to your brief if you suffered in turn. People helped their neighbors but simultaneously belonged to vast networks of Christian support that can only be termed “community” by considerable stretching. This had little to do with the nation-state, which is one of Marglin’s innumerable betes noires: the instrument was previously the Papal Brief. Briefs did not supplant community, they supplemented it, while being less reliable than formal insurance. Moreover it is misleading to single out England as the home of insurance markets. Continental countries were writing insurance against losses of crops from hailstorms back in the eighteenth century. England, supposed fount of market ideology, did not do so until 1842.

Nor is the impression given of the English enclosure movement more persuasive. Landowners were eager to take land into ring-fenced holdings of their own but this did not preclude their raising productivity. Marglin thinks they were merely engrossing. Enclosure processes were long drawn out, he claims, because until 1688 peasants who resisted were backed by the Crown. Nevertheless we have to explain why progress was slow even afterwards. Copyholders were not instantly stripped of resources ? Marglin does not acknowledge that they typically held their farms on three lives. Nor were farmers necessarily averse to leaving the land in order to become shopkeepers in the market towns of a gradually expanding economy.

We must agree that markets entail costs, as Marglin endlessly insists, even if economists neglect the fact. Yet he rationalizes away the corresponding costs of being trapped in small groups that risk being inequitable as well as inefficient. The work of Jonathan Hughes on the colonial economy shows just how onerous non-market regulatory control was: we need not rely on gains in efficiency from the adoption of markets to reject the politicized allocation of resources and roles inseparable from “community.”

Marglin does advance some telling points against the practice of modern economics and, even leaving aside the political animus evident in The Dismal Science, it would take another volume (though not such a long one) to expound and contest its hundreds of propositions. Economists may be left to look after themselves; and while economic historians may wish to contemplate aspects of the critique, I suspect most of them will leave by the door through which they first came in. They may also be under-whelmed by some of the stylized historical facts on which the arguments depend.

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, and Visiting Professor, University of Exeter. He is the author of The European Miracle, Growth Recurring, and Cultures Merging.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862

Author(s):Isett, Christopher Mills
Reviewer(s):Vries, Peer

Published by EH.NET (August 2007)

Christopher Mills Isett, State, Peasant, and Merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. xiv + 418 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8047-5271-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peer Vries, Institute for Economic and Social History, University of Vienna.

Christopher Mills Isett is associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a specialist in the economic history of Manchuria, Taiwan, and China during the Qing dynasty. His book consists of three parts. The first one deals with the ideological, political and economic interests of the Qing rulers in their ‘homeland’ and with their actual policies. The second one shows what property and labor relations evolved in the region. The third part presents an analysis of the way in which those relations limited possibilities for economic development. By Qing Manchuria Isett basically means the provinces Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, especially the southern parts of these last two provinces. The period covered is from 1644, the establishment of Qing rule in most of China Proper, to 1862, the opening of the Manchurian port at Niuzhang.

The underlying, I am almost tempted to say ‘real,’ subject matter of the book, in my view, is how to characterize the economy of China ? for which Manchuria by and large simply functions as a pars pro toto ? as compared to that of Britain. Two models of economic (non)development act as points of reference, one that is called ‘Smithian’ and one that is called ‘Malthusian’ or rather ‘Malthusian-Ricardian.’

In line with a long tradition, Isett claims that the economy of early modern Britain operated according to Smithian principles. That means that it could and did grow via extension of the market and increasing specialization. Quite recently some historians, in particular Kenneth Pomeranz, have toned down this optimist view by claiming that Britain’s growth was not very impressive and certainly finite, and that Britain on the very eve of its industrialization was heading for a Malthusian cul-de-sac just as much, if not more so, than China. When it comes to characterizing the economy of China in early modern times, authors like, again, Pomeranz, Wong and Li Bozhong, have also urged for revision. In the case of early modern China too there is a long tradition, in this case to consider its economy as a clear example of a Malthusian economy in which a sustained increase of the population was bound to lead to over-population and crisis. While not denying that in the end China was heading for a Malthusian crisis, Pomeranz cum suis claim that its economy was just as ‘Smithian’ as Britain’s and in that way opt for a more optimist perspective on China’s pre-industrial economic history. According to them, the increase in its population, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, overall, had no negative effects on China’s wealth. If the revisionists are right, the two economies would have been strikingly similar in the early modern era, the only difference being that Britain had the ‘luck’ to be saved by its Industrial Revolution.

Isett clearly does not agree. For him the Smithian model, as he defines it, is a model of development, and English. The Malthusian-Ricardian model, as he defines it, in the end stands for non-development and it nicely fits most of the characteristics of the economy of early modern China, including Manchuria. In his approach he clearly is inspired by Robert Brenner. That means that he thinks the dynamism associated with a Smithian economy does not occur in a vacuum but only in specific social and political settings in which, in particular, the existing property relations are essential. To have a Smithian market economy, as he interprets it, the sheer presence of buyers and sellers does not suffice. When it comes to analyzing Malthusian dynamics one has to be aware that those too are not simply the result of the ratio between available resources and population, but have to be placed in a broader social and political context as well.

But let us first discuss the actual empirical content of the text. How did things actually work out in Manchuria? Basically the Qing wanted to keep Manchuria to themselves as a place that provided land, income and a ‘home’ for Manchu aristocrats and banner men. Their livelihood was supposed to be taken care of by a labor force primarily consisting of bonded labor. In an extensive and detailed analysis Isett shows that and how this policy failed: by far the biggest part of Qing land in Manchuria came in actual possession of commoners who worked it. The Qing state’s presence in the villages was not strong enough to maintain the agrarian regime it initially implemented. The bailiffs in charge of the manors did not heed official policy very much, and although the region from 1689 onwards was officially closed to permanent settlement, new settlers kept on coming in. What emerged was a peasant-dominated agriculture in which wage labor was quite exceptional. Manchuria in that sense became a replica of Northern China.

Manchurian peasants, buying and selling products and, very occasionally, services, clearly and increasingly were integrated in markets. In absolute terms we are talking about a substantial amount of exchange. But for Isett that does not suffice to call Manchuria’s economy ? and for that matter the economy of China Proper ? a real Smithian market economy or to claim it would have known real Smithian growth. Firstly, this is because for him commercialization is a matter of relative and not of absolute amounts and his analysis of the main trade of Manchuria, that in soy beans, has convinced him that, relatively speaking, market exchange was fairly small and much less relevant in Manchuria than in Britain. Even a superficial reading of existing literature suffices to show that China Proper too was far less commercialized than Britain.

Secondly, however, quintessential to withholding the adjective ‘Smithian’ is the fact that Manchuria’s agricultural producers did not depend on the market. They were not forced to maximize their price-cost ratios and could ‘afford’ to think in terms of risk aversion. Manchurian peasants did not, to loosely paraphrase Smith, need to continually exert themselves to find out the most advantageous employment for what capital or labor they could command. The reason is simple: they were not, or at least not completely, deprived of means of subsistence. It therefore, according to Isett, need not surprise us that before long in Manchuria, as in most of China Proper, a process of ‘involution’ set in, with labor inputs by households increasing and the productivity of their labor decreasing.

Such a ‘peasant’ strategy of intensifying production as a rule is associated with small farms. In Manchuria, however, at least for Chinese circumstances, plots continued to be fairly big. Again, the broader context has to be taken into account. In the footsteps of Philip Huang, Isett claims that opting for intensification was not just, and not even necessarily, a matter of the land to labor ratio. It also was a result of a specific rationality of the peasant and his household. Overall, peasants tend to not systematically regard extra input of household labor in terms of calculable extra costs. When, as was the case in Manchuria, there simply are no opportunities to earn income outside the household, they are even less likely to behave in a ‘calculating’ way. But that is not all. What according to Isett also played a role, is the fact that, in Manchuria as well as in China, there was no primogeniture. This tended to diminish the size of the existing farms and, with state support, actually precluded the formation of big estates.

In the end, Manchurian peasants were integrated into the market under conditions that facilitated merchant extraction of their surplus instead of promoting ways of increasing their labor productivity. Capital costs were too high for the peasants. Direct investment in agriculture by people with capital was very scarce. The return on their capital was rather unsafe. It was easier to earn money by providing loans to peasants. In contrast to the tiny group of well-informed ‘monopsonistic’ merchants, peasants lacked sufficient knowledge and information to make the most of market conditions. Merchants were increasingly used by government to provide all kinds of services. In return they received significant powers over the market, which further weakened the position of the small producer and made the entire setting in which he operated even less ‘Smithian.’

Having read Isett’s book, no one can doubt that in Manchuria, as in China Proper, the elimination of the subsistence peasant ? which Marxist and ‘Marxisant’ historians like Isett and Brenner tend to regard as conditio sine qua non for the emergence of modern, full-blown capitalism ? did not take place. Britain, where the peasantry no longer existed as a major social class, developed in a completely different direction. Just think of its commercial farms whose survival as productive units depended on their success on the market; its massive proletarianization; the very substantial increase of labor productivity in the agricultural sector; the relative decrease of the number of people working in it; and the big increase in specialization. According to Isett, Smithian mercantile capitalism in Britain ‘worked’: at the end of the eighteenth century the country still was not even near a Malthusian crisis.

Let us come to a general evaluation and start on the positive notes. Isett is quite explicit, not to say somewhat repetitive, about his goals and results. His description and analysis of developments in Manchuria are detailed, clear and convincing. He clearly is keener on confirming his and Brenner’s points of view than on falsifying them. Reading this book, one would not suspect that ‘the Brenner thesis’ has engendered a fierce ‘Brenner debate.’ All this, however, does not detract from the fact that he clearly shows the existence of major differences between the relations of production and exchange in Britain and in China and offers a sensible explanation for those differences. His claim that the actual development of an economy along Smithian lines requires a very specific and persistent kind of behavior, that of the homo oeconomicus of (neo) classical economics, certainly is to the point. In all these respects Isett’s book simply is a good book.

But Isett clearly wants more in his book: he wants to engage the ‘California School.’ I cannot help thinking, however, that in a way he is fighting a bit of straw man. Much hinges on the concept ‘Smithian growth’ and how it is interpreted. The Californians use the term ‘Smithian’ in a much less strict sense than he does. For them, so it seems, the term refers to any situation where legally free people engage in substantial market exchange in conditions of (fairly) free and fair competition. In the specific context they are discussing, i.e. the organic economies of the pre-industrial world, they add the very important caveat that this market exchange as such, without technological breakthroughs and without a new energy-regime, can only lead to finite growth.

In both Britain and China market exchange between legally free people was the rule and in both this exchange was substantial, though relatively speaking much smaller in China than in Britain. When it comes to the kind of competition, the term Smithian becomes much more problematic … in particular for the British case! Let us only refer to the role of the state. After all the first word in the title of Isett’s book is ‘state.’ In the part of book dealing with migration policies and property rights in Manchuria that role is analyzed in detail. But considering the fact that Isett is so keen on comparing Smithian Britain and Malthusian China, opportunities are missed here. When one takes on board the role of the state, the use of the term ‘Smithian,’ by Isett as well as by members of the Californian School, is highly problematic for China and simply wrong for Britain.

All the talk about Britain’s Smithian growth not-withstanding, Britain’s government policies were fiercely mercantilist. Government interference in the market, in particular but not only in sectors of the economy that were relevant to foreign trade, was the rule rather than the exception. Even in agriculture, the sector that Isett focuses upon, there was tampering with the market, e.g. when it comes to the rules of strict settlement and entail. Britain at the time was a fiscal-military, highly interventionist state. The differences with China, where government policies can best be described as ‘agrarian-paternalist,’ were enormous, as for example shows in the fact that China’s government did hardly anything before 1862 to exploit the huge economic potential of Manchuria. But neither of the two governments can be described as a principled defender of the kind of ‘laissez faire’ that Adam Smith pleads for.

The California School focuses on (certain parts of) China Proper. The empirical research of Isett’s book deals with Manchuria. That also at least gives the impression Isett has a strange way of engaging with it. Is not all the information on Manchuria in that respect something of a detour? Personally I found the permanent switching from Manchuria to China and vice versa not always convincing and not always helpful. On top of that and finally, the ‘Californians’ focus on the ‘Great Divergence’ ? that is, the emergence of modern economic growth. In that respect Isett ought to have been more specific about the exact impact of the differences he has found. It would have been helpful had he distinguished between development, growth, and modern economic growth.

For Isett Smithian dynamics mean development and growth without any further specification. As such it is not difficult to imagine that a Smithian economy has more ‘potential’ than a Malthusian one. I think that nevertheless two comments are in order here. The first one is that, compared to Isett, Smith himself, with good reason, was much more of a pessimist and much more ‘Malthusian,’ as shows in his various references to the ‘stationary state’ of highly developed economies. Smithian development and growth, even in Isett’s definition, do have structural limits. In the long run they will inevitably peter out and hit a ceiling, as long as one is dealing with an organic economy. Both pre-industrial China-Manchuria and Britain were organic economies and both in that sense were ‘Malthusian.’ In that respect the Californians are right.

My second comment would be that in being so insistent that China’s economy was not ‘Smithian,’ it would have been natural for Isett to inquire – Consumption being the sole end of production, to put it in Smith’s own words ? whether that meant that China was poorer. This question is not extensively addressed, but everything in Isett’s texts suggests the answer must be yes. Neither is the question addressed of the connection between Smithian dynamics and so-called modern economic growth, i.e. the sustained and substantial increase, in real terms, of per capita income that is regarded as the product of the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly enough, Smith thought such growth to be impossible and in any case had no clue that an ‘Industrial Revolution’ was about to fundamentally change Britain’s economy. He, and most present-day economic historians, clearly would not claim such a revolution simply evolves out of commercialization. Isett is too optimist when he writes (on page 286) that England was already breaking free of Malthusian constraints in the early modern era. He may be right in claiming against the Californians that eighteenth-century Britain was not (yet) in a Malthusian cul-the-sac. But that does not imply that Britain had got rid of Malthus: it only had managed to keep him at some distance. Until industrialization its economy continued to operate according to a ‘Malthusian,’ organic logic.

The challenge ahead for Isett and other historians who are interested in the Great Divergence and who think its explanation resides in Smithian dynamics, is to look for the exact mechanisms by which these dynamics could have brought about a transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial economy. This is a major challenge, as that transition is not smooth or natural as Isett seems to suggest, while knowing that, for example, it did not occur in the Dutch Republic, nor a matter of sheer ‘luck’ as Californians claim. Isett has proven to be very qualified to take up that challenge.

Peer Vries is professor of global economic history, in particular for the early modern era, at the University of Vienna. Apart from various articles dealing with global economic history in that era, he published Via Peking back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution and China (Leiden 2003). In the spring of 2008 his A World of Surprising Differences: State and Economy in Early Modern Western Europe and China will appear on the market. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Global History and one of the founders of the Global Economic History Network

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915

Author(s):Williams, Stephen F.
Reviewer(s):Nafziger, Steven

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Stephen F. Williams, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime: The Creation of Private Property in Russia, 1906-1915. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2006. xiv + 320 pp. $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8179-4722-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steven Nafziger, Department of Economics, Williams College.

Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime, by Stephen F. Williams, is an interesting, interdisciplinary study of one of the largest property rights reforms in European history ? the famed Stolypin reforms of late-Tsarist Russia. Initiated in the wake of the first Russian revolution of 1905-6, the Stolypin reforms (named for their guiding personality and then presiding Prime Minister, Petr Stolypin) aimed to help alleviate the backwardness and inefficiency of peasant agriculture through land titling and the consolidation of scattered plots into unified farms. Williams, a retired Federal Appeals court judge (DC Circuit) and former law professor at the University of Colorado, offers an interpretation of the reforms that draws heavily on political science, law and economics, and the economics of institutions.

Liberal Reform argues that the measures taken under Stolypin failed to truly modernize Russia’s economy because they were undertaken by a fundamentally illiberal regime that did not guarantee the enforcement of property rights or allow markets (especially in land) to freely function. Broadly comparative, especially to property rights issues in the modern developing world, the book implicitly and explicitly compares the Stolypin reforms under Tsar Nicholas II to recent reform efforts (or the lack thereof) in Russia under Vladimir Putin. As such, Williams’s analysis will appeal to scholars interested in property rights, land reforms, and the political implications of both, especially in authoritarian states. However, economic historians with an interest in Russian development are unlikely to be persuaded by the structure of the argument or the evidence brought to bear.

After 1905, Stolypin and his allies in the administration and the Duma passed a series of decrees and statutes aimed at transforming the prevailing regime of peasant property rights, thereby improving production incentives and the allocation of resources. This effort was motivated by the perceived inefficiencies of open-field agriculture and the communal organization of rural society. Since the reforms of the 1860s, which emancipated the peasants and endowed them with collective property rights (typically at the village level), Russian peasant agriculture appeared increasingly backward in comparison to the best practices in Western Europe and North America. The reforms were meant to spark technological modernization by enabling peasant households to shift from communal property rights and practices towards individualized farming and land tenure. This meant the establishment of individual title to land that was previously under collective community control and consolidations of scattered, open-field holdings into unified farms. The reforms set forth administrative and financial support for the millions of farmers and thousands of entire villages that undertook one of a menu of possible changes: from full enclosures of villages under individualized titles, to exchanges of intermingled fields among neighboring villages, to the resettlement of interested households in Siberia.[1] Alongside these changes in land-holdings and property rights, the reforms ended collective responsibility for tax and land obligations, forgave arrears on existing obligations, and officially did away with many other juridical limitations on peasant civil rights.

Given the epic scale of the reforms, historians have long argued over whether Stolypin’s efforts mattered (or would have, if not for World War I and the Bolsheviks) for Russian economic development. To Alexander Gerschenkron (1965), establishing private property rights and ending the commune’s hold on peasant initiative enabled Tsarist Russia’s belated turn towards modern economic growth.[2] In contrast, Williams argues that any productivity benefits, as well as peasant “freedoms” (Chapter 1) more generally, were undermined and ultimately failed to take root because they were enacted by a non-democratic, non-liberal state. He builds his study around a thematic question: is it possible for fundamental grass-roots reforms (enabling “freedom” and “liberal democracy” in his view) to take place under a centralized and “illiberal” regime such as Tsarist Russia. Williams eventually answers this potentially interesting query, recently investigated by economists such as Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), in the negative, but he bases his conclusions on theoretical musings and secondary sources, rather than any detailed analysis of available documents or official statistics.

After introducing the reforms and instrumental concepts such as “liberalism” in Chapter 1, Williams describes the agricultural and social context of pre-1905 Russia in Chapters 2 and 3. Overall, his review of a vast literature is well-done, but problems do emerge here that spill over the rest of the study. In several places, the book exhibits small but significant lapses when either describing historical developments or applying economic theory to explain them. For example, in Chapter 3 (pp. 104-06), a puzzling discussion of the positive correlation between grain and land prices puts much of the blame for high land prices on the Peasant Land Bank ? a fairly limited institution that definitely did not have market power when it came to credit or land. Moreover, although Williams acknowledges that practices of collective fiscal responsibility and land management were fairly flexible, he eventually accepts Gerschenkron’s association of the commune with agricultural backwardness and labor immobility. In contrast, recent studies (see Nafziger, 2006) have drawn on archival and statistical evidence to question these interpretations by econometrically testing for linkages between communal practices and economic inefficiencies. Finally, Williams refrains from discussing or analyzing his sources ? both secondary and primary ? in much depth. This allows him to either brush aside contradictory evidence or to qualify his conclusions to such a degree that the argument of the book becomes difficult to maintain and, eventually, to prove.

In Chapter 4, Williams describes the political context of the efforts by Stolypin and his supporters to enact property rights reforms. This chapter usefully outlines the views of the main political groups at the time (the nobility, the various parties of the left, the liberal Kadets, etc.) regarding land reforms, but these synopses exist in something of a vacuum, without much historical context to help the reader. Moreover, this chapter, along with Chapter 1, focuses almost exclusively on politics at the highest levels, often through the allusions to the personality and decisions of Stolypin, himself. The resulting depiction of events is rife with many quasi-counterfactual statements regarding what the reformers might have done differently, but little documentary evidence is analyzed beyond public speeches and memoirs to explain exactly how and why various choices were made.

This birds-eye focus on the mechanics of reform continues in Chapter 5, where Williams describes the particulars of the statutes and decrees and the take-up of different options by peasants and villages. The account is complemented by data at the provincial level, but the micro-level process of the reform process is left as a black box. In Chapter 6, which returns to the issues of reform design, the exclusive focus on legislation and decrees contrasts sharply with Pallot’s (1999) impressive study of the enactment of the Stolypin reforms. In her work, Pallot puts the emphasis squarely on how peasants encountered the reform through their interaction with surveyors, administrators, and each other. Unlike Williams, she views the failures of the Stolypin reforms to revolutionize rural society and economy as the outcome of peasants rationally choosing to retain communal practices and to resist certain aspects of the reforms. At the end of the day, this reviewer is much more convinced by Pallot’s careful study of the reform process based on archival and primary evidence, than by Williams’s analysis.

In Chapter 7, Williams concludes by studying the effects of the reforms, both immediate and long-term. Likening the Stolypin reforms to the English enclosure movement (although misinterpreting the state of the literature regarding productivity benefits of enclosure), Williams jumps from noting the lack of evidence on positive productivity gains to asserting that the reforms must have not gone far enough in liberalizing land markets or privatizing land holdings.[3] Besides this logical leap, Williams puzzlingly points to state support of the cooperative movement in the 1900s and 1910s as additional evidence that the regime was not really committed to becoming a liberal capitalist democracy (really now?). This leads him to conclude that although the intent of the reforms was very much “liberal” (p. 250), the “illiberalism” of the Tsarist state undermined Stolypin’s laudatory goals. The book ends with a consideration of property rights and liberal reforms in Putin’s Russia that is overly brief and highly conjectural. As a result, the book ends rather abruptly, without adequately summarizing what the reader should take away.

Overall, Liberal Reform in an Illiberal Regime is a significant contribution to our understanding of a critical moment in Russian economic and social history. Stephen Williams offers an impressive distillation of a large amount of secondary literature on the Stolypin reforms. He sheds deserved attention on the political context of what ended up being the last chance for the Tsarist regime to effect modernization in rural Russia before the October Revolution. Unfortunately, the limited use of original sources, several conceptual difficulties arising from not delving deep enough into the reforms’ context or process, and the polemical undertones of the study (published by Hoover Press) detract from this book’s usefulness as either an introduction to the Stolypin reforms or as a specialized study of the political implications of enclosing and privatizing communal land-holdings.

Notes:

1. The “take-up” of the reforms did involve millions of households and a large number of villages. However, these totals still only included a minority of the vast Russian peasant population. Pallot (1999, pp. 190-192) and Williams (2006, Chapter 5) review the relevant numbers. 2. This “Gerscheknronian” view has recently been questioned by Gregory (1994) and Nafziger (2006), based on aggregate and micro-evidence, respectively. 3. Surprisingly, Williams does not mention the only work this reviewer is aware of which “tests” for positive agricultural productivity effects of the Stolpyin reforms. The empirical work in Toumanoff (1984) is limited by significant identification problems, but it could have usefully served as a starting point for Williams’s research.

References:

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Alexander Gerschenkron. “Agrarian Policies and Industrialization, Russia 1861-1917.” The Cambridge Economic History of Europe. Vol. VI, Part II. Ed. H. J. Habakkuk and M. Postan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. 706-800.

Paul R. Gregory. Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation to the First Five-Year Plan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Steven Nafziger. “Communal Institutions, Resource Allocation, and Russian Economic Development: 1861-1905.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University. 2006.

Judith Pallot. Land Reform in Russia 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin’s Project of Rural Transformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Peter Toumanoff. “Some Effects of Land Tenure Reforms on Russian Agricultural Productivity, 1901-1913.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 32, 4 (1984): 861-72.

Steven Nafziger is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Williams College. His research focuses on institutions and economic development in Imperial Russia before 1917.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000

Author(s):Topik, Steven
Carlos Marichal
Frank, Zephyr
Reviewer(s):Baskes, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank, editors, From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. v + 378 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3766-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Baskes, Department of History, Ohio Wesleyan University.

The field of Latin American history has been slow and reluctant to abandon the dependency paradigm (and its world systems sister). Conceived largely by Latin American scholars who used the region as the prime example to illustrate the alleged underdevelopment of the periphery caused by international trade, dependency theory came to be the nearly universal model influencing textbooks as well as monographs on regional trade.

For some time, scholars of Latin America have grown dubious of the claims of dependency theory. The model seemed too rigid, too dogmatic and too flimsily based on statistical data, which when actually compiled did not necessarily corroborate the paradigm’s dismal predictions. Despite the discrediting of dependency theory, Latin American scholars did not find a suitable alternative, rejecting the triumphant claims of neoliberalism as equally unrealistic.

The essays in this excellent collection seek to illustrate the value of examining Latin America’s international trade through the lens of “commodity chains,” the trajectory through which commodities passed from producers to consumers. While this method cannot possibly “answer” as many questions as dependency theory purported to address, the authors leave little doubt that a commodity chain approach can prove rewarding.

As the authors demonstrate, the examination of commodity chains serves to rupture historians’ tendency to focus exclusively on the national level. Too often, Latin American historians have focused on the supply side of the region’s exports, and have consequently been ignorant of the broader forces affecting the industries. The essays in this book demonstrate clearly the value of examining the entire commodity chain.

From Silver to Cocaine contains twelve essays penned by fifteen authors, each of them highly respected scholars. Each essay focuses on a single (or complementary) commodity and attempts to follow its path from producer to consumer. Four of the pieces examine colonial products. Carlos Marichal writes on both silver and Mexican cochineal; David McCreery compares Salvadoran and Bengali indigo and Laura Nater explores Caribbean tobacco. The remaining essays discuss Latin American commodities that, for the most part, took off in the second half of the nineteenth century. Steven Topik and Mario Samper contrast the Brazilian and Costa Rican coffee industries; Horacio Crespo examines the world market for sugar; Mary Ann Mahony investigates Bahian cacao; Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read focus on Central American bananas and especially the United Fruit Company; Rory Miller and Robert Greenhill compare and contrast Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrates, both used as fertilizers; Zephyr Frank and Aldo Musacchio consider the Brazilian rubber boom; Allen Wells looks at the demise of the Yucatecan henequen industry; and, finally, Paul Gootenberg explores coca and cocaine.

It would be impossible to summarize adequately these rich and detailed chapters. One issue emphasized by a number of the authors is the social transformations undergone by commodities as they move from producer to consumer. Coffee became the preferred beverage of French revolutionaries who thought little about the enslaved workers who produced it. Cochineal was employed to dye the clothing of kings and popes, yet was produced by poor indigenous peasants in southern Mexico. Tobacco and coca were considered spiritual products by their Caribbean and Andean producers but consumed by Americans and Europeans for their medicinal or intoxicant value.

A central issue examined by most of the essays was the “agency” of producing countries. Dependency theory suggests that decisions of significance are made in the “metropolis” and that the “peripheral” producing countries have little control over their destiny. These essays clearly extinguish this notion demonstrating that “Latin American producers were much more than simple marionettes set to dance by overseas commands and demands. They were not simply passive victims” (p. 3). While wealthy capitalists and multinational companies undoubtedly wielded significant influence, producers and governments in Latin America exercised considerable market and other power. The massive expansion of Bahian cacao naturally responded to growing international demand, but was also influenced by government policies and the gradual conclusion among planters that it was their most advantageous commodity. The coffee industry of Costa Rica and Brazil followed very different paths due to distinct domestic conditions. Costa Rica opted to produce high quality coffee while Brazil took advantage of ample territory and an interventionist state to become by far the world’s largest producer.

More generally, the essays convincingly show the greater understanding that arises through an examination of the entire commodity chain. The boom and bust of the rubber trade in Brazil is much more comprehensible and much less tragic when one takes into consideration the evolution of the automobile industry. Considerable light is shed on the Salvadoran indigo industry by examining its major competitor, Bengal, India. While substitute products might have contributed to henequen’s decline, corruption and mismanagement in Mexico sealed its demise.

An additional matter addressed in the essays is the distribution of profits between core and periphery. Dependency theory predicted that profits from international trade invariably accrued in the more developed countries. While none of the essays goes so far as to suggest that the opposite was the case, for the most part they reject dependency’s predatory claim, arguing that reasonable profits accumulated and development occurred in Latin America. The arrangements of production and the networks of distribution were rational solutions given the different endowments of the various actors. According to Miller and Greenhill, for example, the nitrate and guano industries came to be organized in the most efficient manner conceivable, benefiting from the technological, financial, and informational advantages enjoyed by the multinational companies engaged in the trade. Despite multinational control over marketing, the authors conclude that each government extracted reasonable rents and that no alternative organization of the trade “would have provided significantly better rewards for Peru and Chile” (p. 261).

The death of dependency theory in Latin America is long overdue. It answered lots of questions, but the answers were most often facile. The essays in this excellent collection illustrate the potential rewards of reexamining old topics and offer a compelling way to help shape this new research. Unlike so many edited collections that lack cohesion or seem poorly conceived, the essays in From Silver to Cocaine are remarkably well integrated and address similar questions and themes. As such, the reader is well rewarded from comparison of the differing commodity chains.

Jeremy Baskes is Professor of Latin American History at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Indians Merchants and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750-1821 (Stanford University Press). His current research examines the ways that merchants in the Spanish empire organized their transatlantic commerce to mitigate risk.

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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540

Author(s):Langdon, John
Reviewer(s):Beek, Karine van der

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

John Langdon, Mills in the Medieval Economy: England, 1300-1540. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xx + 369 pp. $150 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-926558-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Karine van der Beek, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Mills represent one of the largest and most significant investments in physical capital in the pre-industrial European economy. Nevertheless, economic aspects of milling have received little scholarly attention so far and most studies in this field are dedicated to technological aspects of milling and to their pattern of diffusion.

Mills in the Medieval Economy by John Langdon, professor at the University of Alberta and a leading figure in the field of medieval economy and technology, is a well-written study, based to a great extent on original data, that not only provides an exceptional survey, but also explores key economic aspects of medieval milling and offers the reader an overall understanding of the industry.

This book focuses on England from 1300 to 1540 and examines various aspects of milling in a period that saw a dramatic peak in mill numbers and in population. Through skilled and convincing use of numerous documents and other sources, Langdon shows that the development of the industry displayed continuity over the period, both in terms of technology and investment, rather than a radical breakdown, as has often been emphasized in Marxist analyses of the Middle Ages.

Langdon’s book is obviously of great value to technology historians and social historians in general. Nevertheless, I find it to be of prime interest to economic historians. It presents an interesting case of entrepreneurial organization of a capital-intensive key industry that was characterized by low profitability and that was highly sensitive to periods of instability.

In successive chapters that examine most aspects of milling, it is shown for the first time that mills, which were traditionally seen as the symbol of peasant exploitation and as an important source of feudal income, were in fact hard to uphold. Their construction and maintenance required vast resources, and their revenues were highly volatile. The milling industry was widely exposed to demographic disasters caused by bad weather, wars, and plagues, which were commonplace from the mid-fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth centuries. These features of milling, which are noticed by Langdon but which should have been more emphasized throughout the book, are what makes the observation of continuity in this industry interesting, to my opinion.

The total number of mills in 1300 was about 10,000. This number remained relatively unchanged in the half century leading up to the Black Death. Yet, although the number of mills was clearly affected by the catastrophic demographic outcomes of the Black Death, the overall impact was not as critical as one might expect and it declined by only 10 percent in the first decades following the plague.

Langdon sees this moderate fall and quick adjustment of the industry as a testimony to what he refers to as “the determined entrepreneurial spirit” (p. 236). He explains it by an adjustment of the use of mills, which he observes in the documents. Mills, which had been most commonly used for grain grinding, were widely converted into industrial activities, such as textile fulling, after the Black Death. Such use was more profitable than grain grinding in periods of demographic crisis due to the relative rise in real wages.

Nevertheless, mill operation involved regular and costly maintenance, which was difficult to maintain during long periods of instability and low profitability. This is why, from the late fourteenth century to the early sixteenth, following a long period of instability that delayed the recovery of the milling sector, many mills were abandoned and mill numbers shrank by another 10 percent.

The different managerial strategies of dealing with the volatile profitability of mills are described in depth by Langdon in chapter five. This chapter demonstrates to the reader once again that medieval entrepreneurs were no different than modern ones. It shows that owners tended to lease the mills for a fixed rent. The relative bargaining power of mill owners, usually feudal lords, and lessees was reflected in the contract, in the degree of risk imposed on each part, revealed in the repair agreements. Langdon provides extensive data concerning the level of risk sharing and how it has changed over the period. The data show, for example, that as the situation in the milling industry worsened and revenues declined in the beginning of the fifteenth century, owners began to take a larger share of the maintenance costs.

Langdon also examines the extent to which the legal framework affected peasant demand and challenges the thesis posited by Marc Bloch. He argues that customers generally came to mills because they wanted to, not because they were coerced by lords to do so. There is much evidence that supports this claim, particularly in areas where feudal lords were holding small scattered estates and could not prevent peasants from going to nearby rival mills, such as in the South of England.

To conclude, Mills in the Medieval Economy is an in-depth study of late medieval milling which deals with the wider nature of industrial change. It is an admirable study that provides economic historians with a comprehensive description and thoughtful analysis of the medieval milling industry and of pre-modern entrepreneurship in general.

Karine van der Beek is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, as part of the CEPR Economic History RTN: “Unifying the European Experience.” Her research focuses on early European growth and on the effects of political structures on institutional formation, market organization, and productivity. Her recent papers include: “Political Fragmentation and Technology Adoption: Watermill Construction in Feudal France,” and “Political Fragmentation and Investment Decisions: The Milling Industry in Feudal France (1150-1250).”

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in the Later Middle Ages

Author(s):Dyer, Christopher
Reviewer(s):Huffman, Joseph P.

Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Christopher Dyer, An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. vi + 293 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-822166-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joseph P. Huffman, Department of History, Messiah College.

Medievalists for some time now have been about the business of questioning the traditional boundaries between the medieval and early modern periods. It all started with taking down the Renaissance a few pegs in Charles Homer Haskins’ The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) and has been followed by such works as Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), Joseph R. Strayer’s On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970), Pierre Chaplais’ English Diplomatic Practice (1982), Colin Morris’ The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 (1987), and Giles Constable’s The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (1996), all of which argue persuasively that characteristics and trends we have deemed “modern” appeared much earlier than the post-1500 western world.

What these scholars have wrought in the areas of cultural, political, technological, and religious history, the eminent historian Christopher Dyer (University of Leicester) has accomplished in the area of English socio-economic history. Originally delivered as the Ford Lectures (University of Oxford, Hilary Term 2001), this book’s fundamental thesis is “that many of the tendencies of the end of the Middle Ages had their roots in a much earlier period … [and that] the advance of commercialization, as towns grew and markets multiplied in the thirteenth century, has led to doubts about whether the changes of the long fifteenth century were of much significance” (p. 3). He continues on to assert that “Just as the commercial growth of the thirteenth century prepared the way for the structural changes of the fifteenth, so developments before 1500 can be connected with the trends of the early modern period” (p. 3). Prosperous rural yeomen, wage laborers, innovative farming techniques, occupational specialization, and the rise of a consumer economy were not the turning points of the early modern period but rather quite typical of England before 1500.

Dyer is not fashioning a wholly new thesis here about English economic history, but rather offering a wonderfully detailed yet thoroughly readable account of the scholarship produced by a generation of Anglo-American socio-economic historians (himself perhaps foremost among them) in the past fifteen years or so: Richard H. Britnell, Bruce M.S. Campbell, Stephan R. Epstein, John Hatcher, Edward Miller, David Palliser, Derek Keene, Mavis Mate, Jim Masschaele, Mary Ann Kowaleski, Wendy Childs, and Jenny Kermode, for example. These scholars have produced ground-breaking evidence of a rapidly commercializing economy in thirteenth-century England — a trend overlooked in the past because it was hidden in the local and regional economies of towns rather than documented in multiple metropolitan areas as one finds on the continent. Based on this relatively recent scholarship, the picture of England’s socio-economic development looks much more matured before 1500 than previously believed and the crisis of the fourteenth century proved to be a period of economic innovation and advancement by the lower ranks of society even though the aristocracy experienced decline.

Chapter one, entitled, “A New Middle Ages,” articulates the thesis in more detail. Dyer emphasizes the active agency of the lower ranks of society in overcoming the challenges faced in the later Middle Ages, as they used the market to their advantage. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries no longer appear as a “false start” of a modern economy, but rather as the foundation that weathered the storms of the fourteenth century; continuities in urbanization, commercialization, and transportation infrastructure remained the norm well past 1500. Although the aristocracy lost economic ground and social control in the later Middle Ages, the more entrepreneurial among the social ranks beneath them proved resilient and even prospered as a result of the crisis period. Dyer concludes, “the ‘new middle ages’ contradicts the strongly held belief that decisions were made by the powerful elite, and that change was directed from above … many features of the period, from family structures to farming methods, bear a strong resemblance to those prevailing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (p. 40). It should also be obvious that traditional views of the “transition from feudalism to capitalism” are no longer viable, since the peasantry appears every bit as entrepreneurial and commercial-minded as the gentry and urban middle classes of the late fifteenth century.

The remainder of the book contains topical chapters of real interest to economic historians. Chapter two considers the shifting boundaries between private property and communal welfare. Dyer’s case studies reveal that conflicts driven by individual self-interest were not early modern phenomena; indeed, peasants (not just lords) pressed for ‘privatization’ of common fields, and their retirement, inheritance, and landholding practices reveal a desire for privacy and independence between generations. Yet while a high rate of migration and the transformation of the land market in the later Middle Ages recalibrated communal village life, evidence shows that parish life was vibrant with church ales, entertainment, fraternities, and a great deal of church building and repair. Thus while family bonds were weakened, civic bonds of sociability were actually strengthened in this period.

Chapter three considers the relationship between authority and freedom as magnates abandoned direct demesne farming and village management in the later Middle Ages in response to a declining capacity to extract wealth from a shrinking rural population. Economic dynamism and market-based entrepreneurialism existed among the gentry and peasantry, however, which collectively responded to the new economic conditions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Before royal government filled the political space vacated by the magnates, the peasantry in particular enjoyed a period of unparalleled freedom of migration and economic innovation. High wages, low prices, low rents, and population decline as a result of the plagues enabled untold peasants to migrate, to be freed from serfdom and compulsory labor services, and to benefit from opportunities in land and agricultural markets. Because of such political and economic changes, Dyer argues that the peasantry developed “puritan” social attitudes and a sense of belonging to the political community as early as 1450.

Chapter four explores the results of recent research in the areas of late medieval consumption and investment. Much of this evidence has come from archaeological investigation of structures and artifacts, and it entirely refutes the traditional view that consumerism did not exist until the “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth century. As Dyer asserts, “There is no value in announcing yet another revolution, but we can recognize consumerism in the Middle Ages, and identify episodes and characteristics in the material culture of our period which have some similarity with those of the eighteenth century” (p. 128). Of course the contracted economy of the later Middle Ages (ca. 1375-1500) does not compare in size with that of the eighteenth century, but when viewed from the point of view of consumption rather than production, remarkably similar patterns emerge. After the Black Death, likely because of lowered prices and the concomitant increase in spending power, the pattern of consumption changed markedly. Per capita expenditure for foodstuffs and manufactured goods increased significantly: wheat bread replaced rye and barley, more meat was consumed (indeed, more fresh meat and fish), and more ale brewed (now from barley malt instead of oats). New building, metal products, and ceramic pottery (replacing wooden cups and bowls) are signs of changing manufacturing patterns. Even fashion became a significant aspect of consumption, with shops beginning to advertise in order to create demand: one need only think of the notorious poulaine shoe with its four-inch long toes and the close-fitting short garments of the era. Increased expenditures on consumer goods, however, did not in fact inhibit investment. Again, although lords invested less in the later Middle Ages, new groups (farmers, entrepreneurs, artisans) spent much more on infrastructure, textile mills, ironworks, and even facilities to brew hopped beer on a large scale.

Dyer extends the economics of consumption and investment further in chapter five, which considers the relationship between subsistence living and markets in this period traditionally understood as one of economic contraction. He concedes that the volume of economic activity obviously shrank during this period. Yet he persuasively argues that the “ingrained habits of marketing and the employment of credit and money continued” (p. 173). Though it was an era of economic contraction for some, it was also an age of opportunity and prosperity for many (like entrepreneurial farmers, artisans, and even wage-earners), who in time subverted the social hierarchy by dressing and eating above their traditional status. We are reminded of the Statute of Laborers, the sumptuary laws, and the Canterbury Tales in this context.

What attitudes toward work and leisure developed among the lower ranks of society during this period? In chapter six Dyer considers this question, and though he rejects the view that a “proletariat” class of wage earners emerged in the later Middle Ages he does assert that definite attitudes toward the value of work and leisure appeared, which had profound implications for the traditional ethic of charity. “Voluntary idleness” became unacceptable given a strong work ethic; therefore charity was increasingly reserved for the “deserving poor” with vagrancy and begging frowned upon as mere laziness. In a rather modern-looking development, familial care at retirement diminished given the smaller number of children and their mobility during this period and so the community was turned to for support. The net affect was one of pragmatism rather than charity, akin to our modern attitudes toward welfare. For their part, employers conceived of a “work ethic” because of the labor shortage (i.e. they needed to maximize their labor resources). But we also find this ethic among wage-earners who were seeking to better themselves through hard work. Dyer concludes, “‘Modern attitudes towards leisure and social security, which are so often thought to have developed under Protestant influence, were emerging in association with the work ethic” (p. 241).

Dyer does a masterful job of using new types of sources that shed light on the dynamic and vital aspects of late medieval economic history. Reliance on traditional sources of estate records from the aristocracy and church obviously renders a picture of slow economic decline and decay of social control. Yet inclusion of wills and archaeological sites of buildings provides additional dimensions that reveal continuity and even entrepreneurial adaptation to changing economic times among those below the aristocracy and upper clergy. Thereby Dyer has effectively defended the thesis that “the supposed turning point around 1500 has been given excessive importance, as many features of the early modern period can be observed well before 1500 and even before 1300” (p. 244).

The socio-economic patterns Dyer articulates so well in this monograph are by now well known to medievalists. The historiographical aspects have been anticipated by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey’s Modeling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development (Oxford University Press, 2001). Indeed, one will find this understanding of late medieval economic trends throughout histories that include continental Europe; for example, Fran?ois Crouzet’s A History of the European Economy, 1000-2000 (University of Virginia Press, 2001) has already asserted, “The European economy of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period … was not fundamentally different from the one that had emerged in the thirteenth century.” Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe (Thames & Hudson, 2002) has also declared, “The whole period from this commercial revolution [i.e. of the thirteenth century] to the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries possessed an economic unity …” Though the bibliography of this volume is extremely thorough when it comes to English historiography, Dyer could have taken his volume beyond the Hatcher/Bailey historiography by connecting late medieval England’s economic history with that of the larger economic history of Europe (and of contemporary continental historiographies). The signal benefit of this book, though, is that we see English economic patterns in line with those on the continent, even though England only had one major metropolitan region.

But this is asking more than was intended for this fine book. Dyer was hoping to build bridges with Anglophone socio-economic historians of the early modern era rather than with medievalists, and we can only hope that they will take up this book and engage with him anew the subject of the “age of transition” toward a modern economy. If this book becomes mandatory reading for all scholars of English economic history, as it should well be, we can be sure that there will emerge a clearer and more unified view of English economic history from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

Joseph P. Huffman is academic dean of the School of the Humanities at Messiah College and Professor of European History. He has authored Family, Commerce and Religion in London and Cologne: Anglo-German Emigrants, c. 1000-1300 (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Social Politics of Medieval Diplomacy: Anglo-German Relations (1066-1307) (University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Korea Under Siege, 1876-1945: Capital Formation and Economic Transformation

Author(s):Chung, Young-Iob
Reviewer(s):Cha, Myung Soo

Published by EH.NET (October 2006)

Young-Iob Chung, Korea Under Siege, 1876-1945: Capital Formation and Economic Transformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. xv + 390 pp. $74 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-517830-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Myung Soo Cha, School of Economics and Finance, Yeungnam University.

Korea Under Siege, 1876-1945 claims that Japanese imperialism triggered an industrial revolution in Korea, highlighting capital accumulation as a key force driving the transition. Following a brief introduction, Young-Iob Chung, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Eastern Michigan University, begins by describing poverty persisting in traditional Korea (Chapter 2). Japan forced dynastic Korea to be open to international trade in 1876, allowing modern technologies to flow into the country, but living standards hardly improved before the beginning of Japanese rule in 1905 (Chapter 3). Modern economic growth in Korea required institutional reforms stimulating saving and education, which included legalization of property rights and modernization of pubic finance and the monetary system as implemented during the first decade of the colonial rule (Chapter 4). The next three chapters take a closer look at investment: Chapter 5 estimates sectoral investment; Chapter 6 explains measures taken to encourage investment and identifies sources of funds for different types of financial institutions; and Chapter 7 calculates how much of the investment was financed by domestic (or foreign) savings and by private (or public) savings. The capital accumulation resulted in per capita output rising 1.2% per year and primary sector output as a share of GDP contracted from around 90% to less than 50% during the colonial period (Chapter 8). Beneficiaries of the industrial revolution included Japanese landlords, entrepreneurs and skilled workers, while living standards enjoyed by Korean peasants and unskilled workers hardly improved (Chapter 9). Chapter 10 concludes by claiming that in terms of economic development the colonial rule was a “blessings in disguise” bestowed on Koreans by Japanese taxpayers.

The tale of Japanese colonialism rescuing Korea from a Malthusian trap sounds not only plausible (if not politically correct in Korea), but also familiar. What makes this volume unique is its focus on capital accumulation. Unfortunately, the author does not make any attempt to validate this important claim, confining himself to presenting aggregate input and output growth estimates. Had he used these numbers to do growth accounting, the outcome would have been quite misleading, because they are at best ballpark figures.

First, Chung conjectures that the Korean aggregate output grew 3% per year under Japanese rule, taking an average of two very different estimates: the growth rate of output from primary and secondary sectors as estimated by Suh (1978) and the aggregate output growth rate taken from an obscure conference paper. Chung apparently is unaware of Mizoguchi and Umemura (1988), the outcome of the first serious effort to estimate the national accounts of colonial Korea, which portrays the colony as growing considerably faster than Chung’s estimate – i.e., 4% per year. A more recent and refined calculation by researchers at the Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research (full details published in Korean as Kim (2006) and English summary included in Cha and Kim (2006)) produced a somewhat slower growth rate, 3.7% per year.

Second, Chung offers a population growth estimate – 1.8% from 1904-43 – calculated from the number of residents as published in the Statistical Yearbook of the Colonial Government. This is an overestimate, because the first census taken in 1925 revealed that the pre-1925 enumeration left out a considerable number of Koreans. Projecting backwards the downward trend in mortality found in census results, Ishi (1972) argued that population expanded significantly more slowly than Chung believes – 1.4% per year from 1906-44. This, in combination with the recent output growth estimates, implies per capita output growing twice as fast as Chung claims.

Finally, drawing on paid-in capital as published in firms’ financial statements and capital spending as recorded in public accounts, Chung estimates that investment from 1905-38 amounted to 6.4 billion yen. This figure is about twice as large as the sum of investment (estimated as a spending item in the national accounts of colonial Korea) from 1911-38. Young (1995: 651) observed similar inconsistency between investment in the South Korean national accounts and capital stock in the South Korean national wealth surveys, the latter being the sum of the value of asset ownership as declared by individual firms. Then he chose to use the investment figures in the national expenditure accounts, the reason being that they are at least constrained by the production accounts, while there is no way of checking the reliability of numbers offered by firms.

Chung’s assessment of the trends in colonial living standards sounds unduly pessimistic as a result of not paying enough attention to the mortality decline occurring under Japanese rule. Incomes earned by unskilled workers and tenant farmers did fail to rise as a matter of trend, which together with rising life expectancy implies improving living standards. The mortality decline also should have been highlighted in Chapter 4 as an important aspect of human capital accumulation, in addition to the spread of modern education. Chung presents falling per capita food availability as another piece of evidence proving that the benefits of economic growth failed to trickle down to a large majority of Koreans. The downward trend may well be a figment of the overestimated population growth, however. A recent estimate of pre-1925 population (based on demographic information from genealogies) suggests a growth rate even slower than Ishi (1972) – 1.3% per year – removing the negative time trend in per capita food availability (Cha (2006)).

Justly portraying the colonial government as bringing about modern economic growth in Korea through institutional modernization, Chung at the same time launches unjustified critiques of some of its policy measures. Most primary prices fell in the late 1920s and early 1930s all over the world, which makes it implausible to attribute falling rice prices in Korea to policy interventions to stimulate rice production. The external shock (known as the interwar agricultural depression) appeared to cause a number of irrigation associations to go bankrupt. While Chung explains the debacle in terms of the colonial government enforcing wasteful investment in irrigation, investigations using financial records of individual irrigation associations found no evidence to support the assertion (Chang, et al (1992)).

References:

Cha, Myung Soo. 2006. “Kyongje songjang, kujopyonhwa, soduk punbae,” in Nak Nyeon Kim. ed. Han’guk ui kyongje songjang 1910-1945. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.

Cha, Myung Soo and Nak Nyeon Kim. 2006. “Korea’s First Industrial Revolution,” Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research Working Paper no. 2006-3.

Chang, S. Matsumoto, T. Miyajima, H. and Rhee, Y. eds. 1992. Kundae choson suri chohap yon’gu Seoul: Ilchogak.

Ishi,Yoshikuni. 1972. Kankoku no jink? no bunseki. Tokyo: Keis? shob?.

Kim, Nak Nyeon. ed. 2006. Han’guk ui kyongje songjang 1910-1945. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.

Mizoguchi, Toshiyuki and Mataji Umemura. eds. 1988. Kyu nihon shokuminchi keizai t?kei. Tokyo: Toyo keizai shuppansha.

Suh, Sang-Chul. 1978. Growth and Structural Changes in the Korean Economy, 1910-1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Young, Alwyn. 1995. “The Tyranny of Numbers: Confronting the Statistical Realities of the East Asian Growth Experience.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 110 (3): 641-80.

Myung Soo Cha is Professor at School of Economics and Finance, Yeungnam University. He is currently working on the pre-colonial demographic history of Korea and the spread of modern education in colonial Korea.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan

Author(s):Smith, Thomas C.
Reviewer(s):Saito, Osamu

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Thomas C. Smith, The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959. xi + 250 pp.

Review Essay by Osamu Saito, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.

A Peasant Economy and the Growth of the Market

In the 1950s, when the late Professor Thomas Smith wrote this book, peasant farming was portrayed as a mode of production and livelihood incompatible with the market economy. Japan before Meiji was regarded as a typical example of such peasant economies. As Smith notes in the opening sentence of the book, this was to some extent true because “In the course of its long history, Japanese agriculture has in some respects changed remarkably little”: farming was a family enterprise, holdings tiny and fragmented, and cultivation methods simple — all features of a typical peasant society. Of course, there were some changes but they were never as dramatic as the agrarian changes the West experienced, so that for many scholars “it is tempting to dismiss as unimportant such changes as in fact have taken place.” Against this historiographical background, Smith argues in the book that the changes that actually took place in Japanese history, especially in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), were in fact of great importance. His argument is that “their central feature was a shift from cooperative to individual farming” and that “if one of its causes may be singled out as especially important, it must be the growth of the market” (pp. ix-x; emphasis added).

The book is about these changes and, based largely on a body of evidence uncovered by Japanese historians, traces their social and economic consequences. It begins with a model of the traditional village society in the seventeenth century, which is set out in Part I. At the core of village society, according to that model, was a large landholder’s domestic group. It was composed of three concentric circles with the inner one being the family of the holder, the main household. The second circle consisted of a group of relatives outside the direct line of descent, and the third circle of hereditary servants and similar subordinate persons who were related to the holder by neither blood nor marriage but were nonetheless registered as part of his family group. In every village such large holder households were not many; only a few took this form of “extended family.” Other villagers were all small holders whose family form was, according to Smith, in most cases “nuclear”; and they were in all likelihood households created by partitioning. Since the partition of family land, even when practiced, was never made on an equal footing, those “new” groups of branch-family households were bound to be small holders who had to rely on resources provided by the main household as well as the village itself. Thus the structure of the traditional village was both cooperative and hierarchical, with “clusters of interdependent interests that clung together with great force and were broken up only when competitive inducements of trade began, much later, to dissolve the internal ties” (p. 54).

Such “competitive inducements” came from market growth in the countryside, which, it is suggested, was concomitant with urban growth. Thus, Smith begins Part II with a survey of the extent of commercial farming (cultivation of cotton, indigo, mulberries, oilseeds, tobacco, and other cash crops) and farm family by-employment (spinning, reeling, weaving, straw plaiting, etc.), both of which are supposed to have spread in the rural provinces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then in the subsequent chapters Smith traces the consequent changes: how agricultural technology changed, how labor was transformed, how wealthy landlords emerged within the village society, and how the traditional ties between households dissolved. The underlying tendency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was for some branch families and hereditary servants to become separate from the main household. They formed their own households. Their landholding was sometimes too small to feed themselves on the farm, but thanks to the expanding market economy, they were in all likelihood able to find either by-employment opportunities or wage jobs, or both, as former labor service was increasingly replaced by live-in servants on yearly contract, who were eventually substituted by workers employed by the day. Sometimes, especially in crisis years, they had to borrow money from large holders in the village with a parcel of land placed in pawn, which in many cases ended up with the loss of its holding right: they became tenants of the large holders. The latter half of the Tokugawa period saw their numbers increasing, but at the same time it is not unlikely that increased tenancy in turn allowed them to stay on the land. With these significant, if not revolutionary, tendencies established, Smith devotes the final chapter to relating them to the making of modern Japan, placing particular emphasis on what commercial farming and expanding labor markets taught peasants in relation to the forthcoming age of the factory.

The book’s major points, such as the supposition that the weight of non-agricultural income in the rural economy had become substantial by the early nineteenth century, have subsequently been confirmed by his own and other historians’ works (Smith 1969/88, Nishikawa 1987, Shimbo and Saito 2004). From an early twenty-first century vantage point, however, it is not surprising that the progress of research since then has made some of the other propositions no longer tenable. One such example is his description of a shift from “extended” to “nuclear” family. Each of the cooperative groups in seventeenth-century documents that he regarded as one large and complex family household was probably nothing but an estate organization accommodating several separate domestic groups together, most of which were family households in a much simpler form and possessed their own hearth and living space. As a unit of production, however, the structure of the seventeenth-century estate organization may have been not much different from what he described in the book: it was hierarchical and there were extra-economic ties between those households. On the other hand, the family form that he considered “nuclear” should now be taken to mean “stem family,” since by the term “nuclear” Smith meant a small family that had no lateral extension but tended to extend vertically. As far as the family system is concerned, therefore, there seems to have been little change throughout the Tokugawa period. What actually changed was the way in which farming was organized and its tasks carried out, which was not associated with a transformation in the system of family formation. Another point I have to make concerns the extent of urbanization and the role given to it as an engine of market growth. In the chapter on “The Growth of the Market,” Smith noted that “in the two centuries after 1600, urban population grew with astonishing speed” (p. 67). Probably it did as far as the seventeenth century is concerned, but we now know, from Smith’s own research work published later, that urban population did not grow in the one and a half centuries after 1700: Edo, Osaka and some of the castle towns even recorded a population decline. Market-led output growth — “Smithian growth” in recent terminology (named after Adam Smith) — that took place in the latter half of the Tokugawa period should now be considered “rural-centered” (Smith 1973/88; see also Shimbo and Saito 2004).

Such necessary revisions notwithstanding, The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan remains a landmark achievement in Tokugawa economic history. It is not just because the book is still very informative and makes lucid reading, but chiefly because what Smith delineated with respect to “what changed” and “what remained unchanged” is largely accurate. Given the intellectual milieu of the 1950s and the 60s, however, this publication may have been considered a book about “what changed” only — a work fitting very nicely in the framework of modernization theses such as the rise of individualism and the transition from status to contract, since the “growth of the market,” the guiding concept of the book, has long been regarded as an important component of the modernization process.

However, Smith makes several important points that do not necessarily fit with the modernization scenarios. First, he makes it clear that Tokugawa Japan’s path of agricultural progress was distinctly different from the Western one, suggesting that they would never converge on a single model. As he describes in the chapter on “Agricultural Technology,” farm output rose with the expansion of commercial farming, which was closely associated with the more intensive use of fertilizers, widening plant varieties, proliferation of farming tools, and the extension of irrigation. The irrigation work, i.e. construction of dikes, ponds, ditches, devices for lifting water into paddy fields and for other purposes, required a substantial amount of capital, much of which was provided by overlords and wealthy merchants. At the same time, however, the construction work itself required a substantial input of labor. And all the other improvements in farming methods were also labor intensive. Some individual innovations may have reduced labor requirements per unit of cultivated land, but the overall effect was to intensify the use of labor. All this made farming even more labor intensive and the unit of farming even smaller, the characteristics that remained unchanged throughout the period from Tokugawa to Meiji. To put it differently, “the character of agrarian change [in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan] … was determined as much by what did not change about farming as by what did” (p. 208; see also Ishikawa 1978, Francks 1983).

Secondly, while Smith examines in detail the rise of landlord-tenant relations and its accompanying phenomenon of increasing differentiation of landholdings within the agrarian society, and also the processes of hereditary subordinates evolving into servants for yearly wages and of service agreements becoming from long-term to short-term contracts, thus describing a long-run transition to wage labor, he never speaks of the emergence of a wage earning class of landless agricultural labors. This may be interpreted as suggesting that those tendencies, together with the above-mentioned move towards the intensification in farming and the spread of non-agricultural by-employments in the rural districts, resulted in keeping the peasantry from disintegrating itself (Saito 1986).

Thirdly, therefore, all this “kept the agricultural population a relatively homogeneous class of small peasant farmers despite the presence of landlords and obvious differences in wealth; [and] it preserved the organic unity of the village community despite the growth of a nonfarming population within it” (p. 107). In other words, the coming of commercial farming and the associated growth of labor markets in the Tokugawa period did not signal the end of a peasant economy. Rather, in the Japanese past peasant farming evolved towards more uniformity as the market grew.

Thus, this 1959 book suggested that the Tokugawa peasant household, as an integral unit of production and reproduction, had a modus operandi distinctly different from those found for other early modern agricultural populations, and also that it emerged in the process of interactions with the growth of the market. Smith addressed this research question later when he worked on demography and on the history of time discipline (Smith 1977, 1986/88). In the first, he demonstrated how the Tokugawa peasant families tried, with a dim idea of family planning, to adjust their size and composition to alternating life-cycle stages and also changing economic circumstances, and in the second, how they developed a stringent sense of time discipline within the household in order to cope with the increased intensity of labor in farming and by-employment activities and, hence, an increased need for planning over the whole farming year. This latter point implies that Meiji Japanese workers did not need to be taught time discipline in the factory, which strongly suggests that there was continuity from Tokugawa to Meiji. In the former demographic study, Smith made a strong argument that Tokugawa peasants adjusted their family size and composition by means of sex selective infanticide. This provoked a debate, but as I have commented elsewhere (Saito 1989), the gist of his entire argument was that the Tokugawa peasant family household tried hard to balance its numbers with farm size and to secure the right composition in the family workforce, for which purpose infanticide was only one of the options accessible to the family. There were some other means of demographic adjustments such as abortion and the timing of marriage-out of non-inheriting children, as well as economic ones such as sending children, both male and female, into service in the village and in cities and towns, or getting them to take up an industrial by-employment at home. Those economic opportunities increased with the growth of the market, and with changes that accelerated after the Meiji reforms. This consideration, therefore, points to another element of continuity from the early modern to the modern period, the theme already explicit in the writing of The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan.

Smith noted, retrospectively in the preface to a collection of essays he had published since the 1950s, that while writing on “how Japan became a modern society … with a generalized notion drawn from Western history of how much transformations occur,” he had “paid particular attention to factors that contributed to making modern Japanese society similar to but profoundly different from Western counterparts” (Smith 1988, p. 1; emphasis added). As such, therefore, his work collectively made a pioneering contribution to the on-going debates in global economic history.

References:

Francks, P. (1983), Technology and Agricultural Development in Pre-war Japan, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ishikawa, S. (1978), Labour Absorption in Asian Agriculture: An Issues Paper, Bangkok: Asian Regional Programme for Employment Promotion of the International Labour Office; reprinted in S. Ishikawa (1981), Essays on Technology, Employment and Institutions in Economic Development, Tokyo: Kinokuniya, 1-149.

Nishikawa, S. (1987), “The Economy of Choshu on the Eve of Industrialization,” Economics Studies Quarterly 38 (December), 323-37.

Saito, O. (1986), “The Rural Economy: Commercial Agriculture, By-employment and Wage Work,” in M.B. Jansen and G. Rozman, eds., Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 400-420.

Saito, O. (1989), “Bringing the Covert Structure of the Past to Light: Review Article of T.C. Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920,” Journal of Economic History 49 (December), 992-999.

Shimbo, H. and O. Saito (2004), “The Economy on the Eve of Industrialization,” in A. Hayami, O. Saito and R.P. Toby, eds., The Economic History of Japan, 1600-1990. I: Emergence of Economic Society in Japan, 1600-1859, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 337-68.

Smith, T.C. (1969), “Farm Family By-employments in Preindustrial Japan,” Journal of Economic History 29 (December), 687-715; reprinted in Smith (1988), 71-102.

Smith, T.C. (1973), “Pre-modern Economic Growth: Japan and the West,” Past and Present 60 (August), 127-160; reprinted in Smith (1988), 15-49.

Smith, T.C. (1977), Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717-1830, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Smith, T.C. (1986), “Peasant Time and Factory Time in Japan,” Past and Present 111 (May), 165-197; reprinted in Smith (1988), 199-235.

Smith, T.C. (1988), Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century