HM abstract

September 16, 2010

I was planning to attend and present at the London Historical Materialism this November – but it turns out, disappointingly, that I’m not going to be able to make it. I’m putting my abstract online here anyway, mostly as a way of pushing myself to write this material up, even if I won’t be able to deliver the paper at the HM event. Obviously this material is ultimately meant to be incorporated into the ‘Brief History of Capitalism’ project, in one way or another. (I don’t expect to be able to write this stuff up for a while yet, I should say, so this post is another promissory note.)

International Credit and the Origins of Capitalism

The recent global economic crisis has placed sovereign debt and international credit at the center of critical analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society. In this paper I aim to locate contemporary analyses of sovereign debt within a broader historical context, by revisiting canonical Marxist debates around the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I briefly outline the principal opposing theoretical positions in these debates: on the one hand a class-conflict analysis of shifts in relations of production within ‘feudal’ society; on the other hand an emphasis on the expansion of exchange relations, and a corresponding shift from autarkic to market-based economic structures. I argue that both of these understandings of the emergence and core characteristics of capitalist society fail to provide an adequate analysis of capitalism as an international dynamic, and that neither gives an adequate causal account of the social pressures behind “so-called primitive accumulation”. I then return to Chapter 31 of Capital I, to discuss Marx’s compressed but extremely rich analysis of the international credit system in the sixteenth century. I argue that international credit plays a far more pivotal role in Marx’s analysis of the emergence and reproduction of capitalist society than has often been recognised, and that contemporary Marxist analyses of global capitalist dynamics could profitably re-emphasise the central role of international credit in the capitalist drive to accumulation.

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