Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: Meiksins Wood

Comment* on Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing historical materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Ellen Meiksins Wood examines capitalism as a specific type of social and political system that, over time, is characterized by variable but definite restrictions on democratic participation. She finds that “the defining characteristic of capitalism as a political terrain is the formal ‘separation of the economic and the social.’”[1] Her historicization of capitalism takes place within a materialist framework. Post-modernist approaches, in her view, cannot adequately address critical aspects of capitalism’s form.

Her criticism of post-modernism as a line of inquiry argues that the ‘knowledge effects’ it generates with respect to capitalism are limited and limiting. She cites the concept of ‘the market’ as an example of unacknowledged paradox at work within postmodernism. She notes that post-modernist practice is dedicated to demonstrating that contingencies, fragmentations, and heterogeneities render attempts to delineate and construct unified categories of, and for, analysis misleading. But, post-modernists have not devised a language that supplies ways and means to describe the market in all its complexity. It has been left as an unexamined, hence unexplainable, abstract whole. The end result is that discussion of the market as a factor in capitalism can only allude to ‘economic power’—a practice that differs little from resorting to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ In contrast to post-modernists, Wood is interested not only in outlining what capitalism does—basically, she suggests it thrives on a ‘divide and conquer’ basis—but how this pattern is instituted and transmuted over time. She moves beyond the question of how capitalism is known, to ask instead about what needs to be known and why.

Wood begins by examining a cue from Marx: that “the ultimate secret of capitalist production is a political one” [italics in source].[2] At the core, capitalist production is “a process of class struggle and coercive intervention by the state on behalf of the expropriating classes.”[3] The object of the struggle is control of the means of production —a control that is wrested from the producer. The economic sphere is therefore not separate from the political sphere, and, both exist as a “set of social relations.”[4] Thus, the economic, the political, and the social are not only interconnected but also co-extensive. Wood therefore sets out to demonstrate that, historically, differentiation of the economic from the political in Western societies is indicative of activity within the political sphere that, whether initially intentioned or not, effectively enabled and continues to enable, the exploitation of one sector of a society by another. Class is thus reinstated as a central tenet.

That much is relatively easy to say with respect to Wood’s work. However, the manner in which she presents her argument and the range of evidence she accesses make for a complex mix. She ties together theoretical aspects of Marxism, Thompsonian historical materialism, capitalism, democracy, and the history of western European development. In addition she points to the significance of agrarianism as a foundational determinant of historical development (in terms of cultural proclivity), and makes allusions that suggest the dynamics of empire (again culturally supported) are equally important.[5] The basic framework that Wood organizes opens possibilities for establishing additional connections and extending inquiry. For example, tying-in Harold Innis’ work on empire would allow the area of communication to be expanded to include how and why cultural predispositions channel enthusiasms within a capitalist societal system—a question central to the debate on agency, consciousness, and mass motivation.[6]

Although she touches on consciousness (primarily to describe Thompson’s conception of it as it relates to class) and motivation (principally to dismiss Weberian ‘rationality’), agency is not prominent in Wood’s discussion.[7] In isolating and examining essential characteristics of capitalism, she employs a relatively high level of abstraction. While Wood’s analytical style is well-suited to describing her theoretical vantage point, it cannot account for the contingent and untidy variables of lived history that range beyond her immediate concern—to delineate general features of capitalism that serve to undermine the attainment of democracy. While it is it unfair to expect that Wood’s analysis must account for more than what she sets out to do, she allows stylistic abstraction to drift towards conceptual closure. Because the vagaries of lived responses to the capitalist system are not fully accommodated, her argument displays a pronounced tendency towards suggesting economic determinism—perhaps to a degree not intended. The promise of Wood’s framework is that it need not be regarded as a collection of orthodoxies welded into a ‘totalizing meta-narrative.’ Rather, working from a Thompsonian perspective it can be regarded as “historical discourse” about historical process that, though it brings to bear “expectations,” does not foreclose on possibilities. The framework allows ‘problematics’ to be confronted by way of applying “historical logic.”[8] That being said, there are three points that Wood makes regarding capitalism about which I have reservations. One point I find too vague, a second I suspect imposes too rigid a constraint. The third strikes me as made in contradistinction to her objection to over-reliance on theoretical constructs.

The first point constitutes a gap that I find common to theorizations about capitalism generally. Wood references militarism as connected to economic expansion. However, to my disappointment, she characterizes this as an “‘extra-economic’ logic of a war economy, the logic of coercive appropriation and pillage” and goes no further.[9] She does not, for example, treat soldiering as a variation of paid work in a feudal—or any other—economic system (Noam Chomsky in contrast has spent considerable energy delineating the ways in which ‘war economy’ can be seen as the defining feature of the U.S. system of empire and capitalist “expansionary logic”).[10] Wood does not supply the means to extrapolate on the idea that the state has protected coercive ways of expanding capital accumulation (by commissioning buccaneers for example), to enlarge discussion of extra-legal economic activity and so to include the clandestine, illegal side of capitalist economy (gun-running or covert arms dealing for example). To be fair, I am not aware of any historian who has supplied a systematic treatment of this issue. Scholars in other disciplines have done so in ways that suggest the idea of intentional and unintentional outcomes might be extended to include historical analysis of the relation of the state to economic illegality.[11] There have been historical studies of relevant concepts (and philosophical treatises devoted to tying them to political economics) but, if Wood can be taken as indicative, direct connections have yet to be made within historical materialism.[12] As far as I know, although ‘official corruption’ is treated as a fixture in capitalist systems, most often, ‘crime’ and ‘organized crime’ are regarded as indicative of an ‘informal’ and/or parallel economic system (or, there is the post-modernist tendency to focus on how crime is a construction—without supplying an explanation as to why activities taking place in the region of capitalism’s under-interrogated underside and targeted as ‘criminal’ exist in the first place).[13] Such treatment does not unambiguously acknowledge the ‘legitimate’ status of the capitalist actors (often situated at the highest levels of the formal system), the (known) illegality either of the transactions, or of the commodities involved. It seems to me that the capitalist impetus as an outcome of participatory behavior cannot be understood without ‘illegal’ aspects of economic activity being taken into account.

The point that Wood makes that strikes me as overly constraining is about class. She agrees with Thompson that “class struggle precedes class” in that “class formations presuppose an experience of conflict and struggle arising out of production relations” [italics in source]; that “Class … is a phenomenon which is visible only in process”; and that “there are conflicts and struggles structured in ‘class ways’.”[14] Class is therefore not just a “category of stratification,” it is a relation in which there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ in contest, experiencing an “antagonism of interests.”[15] But, I do not find compelling her subsequent argument that inequalities levied on the basis of ‘race’ and gender (and I would include age, religion, intelligence, and physical capacity), are qualitatively unlike ‘class.’[16] I do not believe she has adequately demonstrated these inequalities do not represent variations of class conflict because I do not think she has described the nature capitalism’s complex of internal dependencies in its entirety.[17]

If, for the sake of argument, a capitalist system is imagined as a hierarchical, pyramidal arrangement that cannot function without a proportionately large number of people occupying non-wage positions (such as children, the elderly, infirm, slaves, homemakers, and those without formal education), or marginal-wage positions (among whom transients, migrants, and geographically removed ‘others’ might also figure) at its base, then, just because ‘race’ appears dispensable at one point in time it does not necessarily follow that some other socially constructed category is not invented or expanded to maintain ‘balance’—to ensure the proportion of people relegated to the lowest level in the of socio-political-economic structure remains constant.[18] If “the very base of the economy’ is regarded as “in the organization of labour itself” only insofar as that organization includes—along with “producers” and “means of production”—the “underclass” as the necessary aspect, then the “market’s ultimate discipline” would be to create the underclass.[19]

Although Wood regards class as a relation not a thing, her failure to extend that consideration to other categories is restrictive. It risks disallowing the acceptance of a much wider range of people as “active historical beings, who are ‘subject’ and ‘object’ at once.”[20] It risks denying social being shaped by experience giving rise to social consciousness in a wider range of groups simply because they have avowed, or been ascribed, an identity in a fashion that may well obscure an underlying contest with a material basis—a contest that relegates one group to a subordinate position by purposely denying its members equal opportunity to access the means of production. It also ignores the possibility that a ‘fear factor’—fear of falling, or remaining trapped, in the lowest echelon of society—renders “the drive for capitalist accumulation” entirely rational (meaning reasoned).[21] If historical inquiry is to be open-ended (as Thompson maintains it must be), I find it unfortunate that—as discussed in my third point below—Wood’s argument does not allow concerns such as mine to be entertained, because, resting on a hypothesis, they necessarily introduce working assumptions.

Wood reiterates several times that historians too often make the mistake of “assuming the existence of the very thing whose emergence needs to be explained.”[22] Although this axiom is introduced in order to test other theoretical positions, it is not consistently applied to her own work. In the course of interrogating “how to encompass historical specificity, as well as human agency, while recognizing … the logic of modes of production,” she notes that each mode of production has its own specificity and sets up socialism as the logical antithesis of capitalism.[23] A problem arises when she then moves on to discuss the transitions to and from capitalism. She does not clearly acknowledge that there is not unanimous agreement on the nature of these transitions— they are theorized, not known processes.[24] She does not clearly state whether or not Marx actually ‘proved’ (meaning clearly delineated and supported with compelling evidence) the specificity of capitalism as directly determining its “distinctive laws of motion.”[25] In fact, in noting that “Marx himself never produced a systematic account of the process of transition” her answer appears to be that he did not ‘prove’ transition— what he did do was make the occurrence of a transition ‘possible.’[26] However, having made that observation, Wood proceeds to describe the transition as though it had indeed happened in accord with a Marxist formulation of ‘motion.’[27] The assumed occurrence of transition is then used to confirm the “possibility” of a subsequent transition to socialism.[28] In this instance, then, Wood introduces assumptions that presuppose “the very thing whose emergence needs to be explained” without acknowledging that that she has done so.

None of my reservations detract from Wood’s organization of the defense of her argument that western European expansionist societies (whether all constituents wittingly understood the consequences or not), adopted and adapted ancient socio-political-economic models—particularly Athenian and Roman—because “Capitalism … made it possible to conceive of ‘formal democracy’, a form of civic equality which could coexist with social inequality and leave economic relations between the ‘elite’ and ‘labouring multitude’ in place.”[29] Wood’s formulation would be stronger, in my view, if she presented the determining motivation as a collective (though unequally realizable) desire for individual and social stability, borne of a fear of instability, and based on experience.[30]


*Written c. 2005 in preparation for PH.D. comp. exam; see “bibliography 2: knowing Social History; Field: Comparative Social History: select themes in consciousness and identity” this site.

[1] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 14.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,  21, 23.

[5] The book appears to be the middle section of a trilogy rounded out by: Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: a Longer View (New York: Verso, 2002), and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (New York: Verso, 2003). Richard Biernacki, review of The Origin of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, Contemporary Sociology 29, no. 4 (Jul., 2000): 638-639, points out that Wood’s agrarian thesis is derived from Robert Brenner’s “celebrated model.” The model was outlined in three essays: “Agrarian class structure and economic development in pre-industrial Europe,” Past and Present 70 (1976); “The origins of capitalist development: A critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review 104 (1977); and “The agrarian roots of European capitalism,” Past and Present 97 (1982). Wood, in expanding Brenner’s thesis to include extra-European instances, ventures towards answering Brenner’s critics, such as J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), who “in fun” once labeled Brenner a “Neo-Weberian Euro-Marxist.”

[6] E.P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory or An Orrery of Errors (1978),” The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 9: Thompson, in allowing that consciousness may take a form as “unselfconscious culture, or as myth, or as science, or law, or articulated ideology” points directly to a link with communication as Innis articulated it. Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and John Bellamy Foster, eds., Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Information Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), indicates that Meiksins and others—including, Heather Menzies, Noam Chomsky, Michael Dawson, Jill Hills, Edward Herman and Andy Pollack—appreciate the potential for expanding the range of theoretical connections to be made.

[7] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 49, 52, 60, refers to agency briefly: without stating her own position on the issue, she notes that in “Marxist debate” Thompson figures as “a humanist for whom economic laws give way to an arbitrary human will and agency.” The term does not appear in the index.

[8] Ibid., 39-40, 45.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] See ibid., 162, 145.

[11] See for example Daniel Kauffman, “Corruption; The Facts,” Foreign Policy 107 (summer, 1997): 114-131; Bryan W. Husted, “Wealth, Culture and Corruption,” Journal of International Business Studies 30, no. 2 (2d qrt., 1999): 339-359; Shang-Jin Wei, “Local Corruption and Global Capital Flows,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2000, no. 2 (2000): 303-354.

[12] See for example Richard K. Matthews, ed., Virtue, Corruption, and Self-Interest: Political Values in the Eighteenth-Century (Bethlehem PA.: Lehigh University Press, 1994).

[13] See Stuart Henry, “The Political Economy of Informal Economies,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 493, The Informal Economy (Sep., 1987): 137-153. See also Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (summer, 1991): 773-797.

[14] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 80, 83, 81, 2.

[15] Ibid., 94, 95.

[16] See ibid., 259, 266.

[17] Alex Dupuy, review of Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing historical materialism, by Contemporary Sociology 25, no. 4 (Jul., 1996): 567-569, voices a similar objection but argues it differently—and well.

[18] See James W. Wessman, “The Demographic Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico: Some Aspects of Agrarian Capitalism in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Latin American Studies 12, no. 2. (Nov., 1980): 271-289, for the plausibility of assuming a pyramidal demographic distribution of persons in capitalist societies. My conjecture also assumes a reciprocal dependency of the under classes as consumers and debtors as discussed in Harry T. Oshima, “Consumer Asset Formation and the Future of Capitalism,” The Economic Journal 71, no. 281 (Mar., 1961): 20-35; and Wendy Weiss, “Debt and Devaluation: The Burden on Ecuador’s Popular Class,” Latin American Perspectives 24, no. 4, Ecuador, Part 2: Women and Popular Classes in Struggle (Jul., 1997): 9-33. See also Sheldon Danziger, comment on “The Age of Extremes: Concentrated Affluence and Poverty in the Twenty-First Century,” by Douglas S. Massey, Demography 33, no. 4 (Nov., 1996): 413-416, who notes that in instances where race stereotyping has become less a factor in perpetuating inequality among high school graduates, inequalities in skill acquisition rates between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students may have increased. He clearly implicates state policy as a factor in maintaining inequality over time; and Douglas S. Massey, “Response to Danziger, Farley, and Hout et al,” Demography 33, no. 4 (Nov., 1996): 427-428, who notes that Michael Hout et al maintain that “inequality is part of the design of society … that design is political, subject to [state] controls.” Massey disagrees with the observation only in that he believes the transnational character of capitalism takes causality beyond political decisions made at the national level.

[19] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism., 283, 290, 291.

[20] Ibid., 92.

[21] Ibid., 265.

[22] Ibid., 115, marks the third time the statement is made.

[23] Ibid., 59, 133, 145.

[24] J.M. Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time,” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 26, no. 4 (1994): 351-376, cached at <;, notes that, arguments of other theorists aside (which he details), though Marxists may agree that class struggle produced an “insurmountable crisis” that saw feudalism give way to a “new and higher mode of production,” they “are by no means agreed as to when that crisis occurred and how and why transformation took place.”

[25] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 138, 139, 148.

[26] David McNally, review of The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, by Ellen Meiksins Wood, The American Political Science Review 87, no. 3 (Sep., 1993): 779-780, indicates my objection is one that has been leveled against Wood in other work. McNally accuses her of too ready reliance on a “sort of gradualist” Marxist position, effectively ‘begging the question’ of transition to capitalism. Further, he notes that her ambiguity with respect to transition has resulted in two of her students “adopting sharply different positions on the question.” The one—George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the revisionist challenge  (New York: Verso, 1987)—denying that political revolution during periods when the transition to capitalism is reputed to have been taking place is necessarily related to economic change; the other—Colin Peter Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe: absolutism, revolution, and the rise of capitalism in England, France and Germany  (New York: Verso, 1991)—arguing that the political is a direct response to the economic.

[27] Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 140.

[28] Ibid., 144.

[29] Ibid., 213.

[30] See ibid., 135, and the discussion of “viability limits.”


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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