Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Brenner debate revisited



One of the defining controversies in the field of economic history in the past 35 years is the Brenner debate.  Robert Brenner published "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe" in Past and Present in 1976 (link) and "The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism" in 1982.  In between these publications (and following) there was a rush of substantive responses from leading economic historians, including M. M. Postan and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  (Many of the most significant articles are collected in Aston and Philpin's The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.)  Brenner's theories injected important new impetus into the old question: what led to the advent of capitalism?  (Maurice Dobb had stimulated a similar burst of scholarship on this topic with his 1963 Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (link).  Brenner's discussion of the Dobb debate can be found in his essay, "Dobb on the transition from feudalism to capitalism" here.)

The core issue of the debate is large and important: what were the social factors that brought about the major economic transformations of the European economy since the decline of feudalism?  Feudalism was taken to be a stagnant economic system; but in the sixteenth century things began to change.  There was something of an agricultural revolution in England, with technological innovation, changes of cropping systems, and significant increase in land productivity.  There were the beginnings of manufacture, leading eventually to water- and steam-powered machines.  There was a population shift from the countryside to towns and cities.  There was industrial revolution.  (Marx describes much of this process in Capital; here's an earlier post of his concept of "primitive accumulation.")  So what were the large social factors that caused this widespread process of social and economic change?  What propelled these dramatic changes of economic structure?

The great economic historian M. M. Postan offered a simple theory: “Behind most economic trends in the middle ages, above all behind the advancing and retreating land settlement, it is possible to discern the inexorable effects of rising and declining population” (Medieval Economy and Society: An Economic History of Britain in the Middle Ages, p. 72).  Against this view, Brenner writes: "Under different property structures and different balances of power, similar demographic or commercial trends, with their associated patterns of factor prices, presented very different opportunities and dangers and thus evoked disparate responses, with diverse consequences for the economy as a whole. Indeed, . . . under different property structures and balances of class forces . . . precisely the same demographic and commercial trends yielded widely divergent results" (Brenner 1982:16-17).  Key to Brenner's argument is the fact that agricultural change was substantially different in England and France; so he insists that an adequate causal explanation must identify a factor that varies similarly.

From the distance of several decades, the dividing lines of the Brenner debate are pretty clear.  One school of thought (Postan, Ladurie) attempts to explain the economic transformations described here in terms of facts about population, while the other (Brenner's) argues that the central causal factors have to do with social institutions (social-property relations and institutions of political power). The demographic theory focuses its attention on the factors that influenced population growth, including disease; the social institutions theory focuses attention on the institutional framework within which economic actors (lords, peasants, capitalist farmers) pursue their goals.  The one is akin to a biological or ecological theory, emphasizing common and universal demographic forces; the other is a social theory, emphasizing contingency and variation across social space.

A voice that doesn't come into the debate directly but that is highly relevant is that of Douglass North. His book (with Robert Paul Thomas), The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History, offers a theory of modern economic development that falls within the category of "social institutional theory" rather than demographic theory.  But whereas Brenner finds primary causal importance in the institutions that define local class relations (a Marxian idea), North argues that property relations that create the right kinds of incentives will stimulate rapid economic growth (a Smithian idea). And North finds that this is the innovation that took place in England in the early modern period.  It was the creation of capitalist property relations that stimulated economic growth.

This schematic representation of the strands of argument in the Brenner debate suggests competing causal diagrams:
  • population growth => economic activity => sustained economic growth (Postan)
  • weak peasant farmers, strong capitalist farmers => enclosure and farming innovations => rapid agricultural growth (Brenner)
  • enhanced protections of property rights => incentive for profitable activity => sustained economic growth (North)
But it seems clear in hindsight that these are false dichotomies. We aren't forced to choose: Malthus, Marx, or Smith.  Economic development is not caused by a single dominant factor -- a point that Guy Bois embraces in his essay (Aston and Philpin, 117).  Rather, all these factors were in play in European economic development -- and several others as well.  (For example, Ken Pomeranz introduces the exploitation of the natural resources, energy sources, and forced labor of the Americas in his account of the economic growth of Western Europe (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy).  And I suppose that it would be possible to make a climate-change argument for this period of change as well.)  Moreover, each large factor (population, prices, property relations) itself is the complex result of a number of great factors -- including the others on the list.  So we shouldn't expect simple causal diagrams of large outcomes like sustained economic growth.

Not all the heat of this debate derives from a polemic between a neo-Marxist theorist and the Malthusians; there is also a significant disagreement between Brenner and another important Marxist economic historian, Guy Bois.  Bois' Crisis of Feudalism appeared in 1976 -- the same year as Brenner's first paper in the debate.  The crisis to which Bois refers is an analogy with a classic Marxist claim about capitalism: where Marx discerned a crisis in capitalism deriving from the falling rate of profit, Bois found a crisis in feudalism deriving from a falling rate of feudal levy.  (Here is an interesting review by Chris Harman of another of Bois' books, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: The Village of Lournard from Antiquity to Feudalism.)  Bois criticizes Brenner's account for being excessively theory-driven.  He argues that Brenner begins with a commitment to class struggle as a fundamental explanation, and then forces the facts of French and English rural life into this framework.  Better, he argues, to let the complexity of the historical situations emerge through careful evaluation of the evidence.  "Brenner's thought is, in fact, arranged around a single principle: theoretical generalization always precedes direct examination of historical source material" (Aston and Philpin, 110).  And Bois argues that the evidence will suggest that it is the declining feudal levy rather than the capacity for resistance by French peasants that best explains the course of events in France.

In short, one important consequence of the Brenner debate was the renewed focus it placed on the question of social causation.  Brenner and the other participants expended a great deal of effort in developing theories of the causal mechanisms that led to economic change in this period.  And in hindsight, it appears that a lot of the energy in the debates stemmed from the false presupposition that it should be possible to identify a single master factor that explained these large changes in economic development.  But this no longer seems supportable.  Rather, historians are now much more willing to recognize the plurality of causes at work and the geographical differentiation that is inherent in almost every large historical process.  So the advice that Bois extends -- don't let your large theory get in the way of detailed historical research -- appears to be good counsel.

4 comments:

Michael said...

It's perhaps a fundamental cognitive bias that singular events seem to cry out for single causes. In fact singular events are more likely to be the product of multiple, time-varying factors. These factors aren't likely to be very well-correlated (if they were, the event wouldn't be singular or rare.) Climate change as one factor among several interests me because it might spur innovation, or the acceptance of innovation (social, legal, technical) among *all* classes, since adverse weather (especially cold weather) and stunted crop growth affects all classes (albeit unequally) to some extent.

matteo said...

The "foundamental cognitive bias" towards single causes is very simple to explain: by corollary of its logical definition, an event cannot be effect of two causes that are opposite. In turn, only partially opposed causes need to be decomposed to find what they have in common and eliminate the paradoxical (contradictionary) element of the explanation. Keep going this way and you will end with only one cause for one effect.

Another way to understand that is to think that in every occasion in which the idea that the are multiple, equally plausible causal explanations for one event, is asserted, the debate almost immediately (and understandably) shifts on the issue of detecting the most important/relevant cause with respect to other causes. The language used may change, discussant speak about "relative importance" and other linguistic devices like that, but the issue of causality is exactly the same.

Third, you can say "okay, there are equally good explanation, everyone is a good and different way to look at the event. I chose this one". Using this conventionalist approach one simply cannot justify why chosing one argument and not the others.

Fourth, one can try to make a synthesis of all possible hyphotheses of causal explanations available, unifying them in a single explanation. But this sounds like a simple linguistic stick as far as there is not logical inside ordering of sub-arguments into the one, great argument. If this is not achieved, the synthesis is incoherent, unstable and incapable of explaining anything.

So, looking for single causes is not at all a caprice; it is just logic. You just need to think for a second what the consequences of accepting that every single *alleged* multicausality are and you get what I'm saying. You simply cannot accept that the are multiple causes for one effect. How do you know that further research will not be able to single out a true cause, eliminating the other ones from the explanation? You cannot read into the future, so you do not have a reasonable justification to accept pluralism on causality.

To accept multiple causes is to say "ok, on this we now stop to do research and act to discover further truths, and we start to speculate naively about interpretation comment". This is sterile for every kind of scientific knowledge, history comprised.

Anonymous said...

A good introduction to the historiography, thanks.

J said...

"There is no need here to rehearse the terms and vicissitudes of what has come to be called 'the Brenner debate' about the agrarian origins of capitalism... the mere mention of its subject matter is sufficient to indicate a radical alteration of emphasis in the search for the beginnings of modernity" (The Corrupting Sea, Horden & Purcell)

Lucky for me you found need *here* to rehearse these terms and vicissitudes. If only every term/concept returned a result like this on google first results page...

Thanks!