The Genesis of Capitalism

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mojo.rhythm
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Aug 23 2011 07:27
The Genesis of Capitalism

Hi everybody,

I'm after a book by a radical historian about the transition from capitalism to Feudalism.

Recommendations?

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Aug 23 2011 08:36

You probably mean the transition from feudalism to capitalism smile.

There was a lively debate around this issue in radical/Marxist historian circles (known as the "Brenner debate") in the 1970s. A good introduction to the various viewpoints is, in my opinion, Rodney Hilton's The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (1976). I bought a cheap second-hand copy when visiting London, you should be able to find one on AbeBooks and the like (or in a library).

Another book I would definitely recommend is Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origin of Capitalism (1999). If I remember correctly, it challenges the traditional (in political economy as well as in some Marxist histories) view that capitalism developed as a result of the "commercialization" of feudal society (i.e. gradual growth of commerce, expansion of markets etc.). Instead it emphasizes the "contingent" nature of the emergence of industrial capital in England, stressing the role of the state, violence and accidental factors.

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Aug 23 2011 08:47

BTW, if you want to explore the Brenner debate, the first link on google gives a good overview:

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2010/01/brenner-debate-revisited.html

LBird
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Aug 23 2011 09:59
mojo.rhythm wrote:
I'm after a book by a radical historian about the transition from capitalism to Feudalism.

Or vice versa, as jura has helpfully pointed out!

As a thought-provoking alternative to the strand of thought that capitalism originated from feudalism relatively recently (13th - 16th century), I would read the first chapter or so (I think) on the origins of Venice in the 5th century, in:

"The Foundations of Capitalism"

Oliver C. Cox

New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

It's a very stimulating view, and I'm always meaning to follow up the debate, from the 70s onwards, about Cox's ideas, but other things always seem to take priority.

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Aug 23 2011 10:45

A minor clarification: the full title of EM Wood's book I recommend is The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. Published in 2002, it's an expanded version of the 1999 text. I haven't read the original version. You can get the bigger thing on library.nu.

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Joseph Kay
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Aug 23 2011 11:12

I second Ellen Meiskins-Wood. It's quite short but persuasive and succinct. There's also an edited volume of the Brenner Debate, including the original paper, numerous responses to it, and a response by Brenner to his critics. Basically the argument is that capitalism was first a rural phenomenon with the development of pockets of agrarian capitalism in the specific conditions of parts of England, which then provided the capital for subsequent urban and industrial capitalism.

If you're interested in the international dimensions of this, and how the transition from feudalism to capitalism transformed state-formation and relations between states, The Myth of 1648 by Benno Teschke is dense but decent (builds on Brenner to dispute the orthodoxy that the peace of Westphalia marked the birth of modern sovereign state system), and The Empire of Civil Society by Justin Rosenberg is also a good read. A contrary view (seeing capitalism more as an urban, commercial manufacturing/financial phenomenon) would be Giovanni Arrighi's Long Twentieth Century. It's also pretty dense, but it's been quite influential and I haven't quite decided where I stand on it yet.

LBird
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Aug 23 2011 11:30
Joseph Kay wrote:
Basically the argument is that capitalism was first a rural phenomenon with the development of pockets of agrarian capitalism in the specific conditions of parts of England, which then provided the capital for subsequent urban and industrial capitalism.

mojo, to mirror Joseph's statement, it could be said that, in contrast for Cox,

"Basically the argument is that capitalism was first a city phenomenon with the development of a pocket of urban capitalism in the specific conditions of parts of the collapsing Roman Empire in Northern Italy, which then provided the political model for subsequent urban and finance capitalism."

Have fun!

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Joseph Kay
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Aug 23 2011 12:00

Just to add, on the international side of things, the transition to capitalism didn't follow the same pattern everywhere. Whereas in England i tend to take the Brenner/Meiskins-Wood argument that class struggle in the countryside created agrarian capitalism, France didn't take this path, but under pressure from a capitalist England underwent a violent revolution with the bourgeoisie seeking to displace the aristocracy by force. Whereas in what became Germany, the state played a central role in a 'revolution from above' reconciling the old landed interests and new capitalist ones. And that's just in Europe.

In Russia, capitalism was in its infancy, existing in small pockets, until the revolution of 1917 created a state machine which relentlessly sought to 'modernise' the economy (i.e. develop a capitalism based on the state). While in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt had its own industrial revolution under Muhammed Ali in the second half of the 19th century, but this was contained and destroyed by an unlikely alliance of imperialisms (British, French, Ottoman, Russian). Meanwhile, Japan industrialised in the space of just 30 years after the 1868 Meiji Restoration and by 1905 even defeated an established imperial power in war (Russia, part triggering the 1905 revolution).

I actually find Trotsky's concept of uneven and combined development useful for theorising this (as opposed to the more orthodox, unilinear development of the Communist Manifesto):

Trotsky wrote:
Unevenness, the most general law of the historical process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development - by which we mean a drawing together of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country
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Aug 23 2011 12:15

I second Arrighi's Long Twentieth Century.

Also how about Perry Andersons Lineages of the Absolutist State and Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Capital (saying that, I am not so sure either of these pinpoint a singular genesis as such).

Just as a personal side. I didn't know uneven and combined development was a Trotsky theory? I had only come across it in Neil Smith and David Harvey. Learn something new everyday!

LBird
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Aug 23 2011 12:20
Joseph Kay wrote:
Meanwhile, Japan industrialised in the space of just 30 years after the 1868 Meiji Restoration and by 1905 even defeated an established imperial power in war (Russia, part triggering the 1905 revolution).

It could be argued that the reason for Japan's apparently unique supercharged industrial development was that all the basics for a capitalist economy were already in place before the appearance of the Western powers in the 1850s.

That is, that Japan was already on its way to developing a form of capitalism outside of the usually cited geographic, economic, political and philosophical roots of European Feudalism, and perhaps would have produced capitalism anyway without Western influence.

I'm not sure about this, and I'm doing some work on this dating back to the Muromachi period from the 1330s, but it makes for very interesting historical and theoretical work.

And on Trotsky's U & CD, regarding Japan in the Meiji period, I agree entirely with JK.

LBird
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Aug 23 2011 12:32
Arbeiten wrote:
Just as a personal side. I didn't know uneven and combined development was a Trotsky theory?

It's basically outlined in Trotsky's 'The History of the Russian Revolution', in the first chapter entitled 'Peculiarities of Russia's Development'.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch01.htm

eg.

Trotsky wrote:
Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past.
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Aug 23 2011 13:18
Joseph Kay wrote:
Just to add, on the international side of things, the transition to capitalism didn't follow the same pattern everywhere. Whereas in England i tend to take the Brenner/Meiskins-Wood argument that class struggle in the countryside created agrarian capitalism, France didn't take this path, but under pressure from a capitalist England underwent a violent revolution with the bourgeoisie seeking to displace the aristocracy by force.

Think this needs clarifying a bit as to what Wood's argument actually is - as what you write above could be taken for saying that Wood is wrong in relation to the transition to capitalism with regard to other countries other than England

Her main focus in the book referred to is on the origin of capitalism itself - not the particular origins of capitalism in particular countries - so it's not as if she's putting forward a generic argument/framework as to how countries transititioned from one mode of organisation to another, rather she's looking at how capitalism first came into being itself, which happened to be in the english countryside. She is very clear in her work that the transition in other countries were different to this and a large element of that transition was a reaction to what was happening in England and as a result took very different forms & impetuses

So what you say above in relation to both England and elsewhere is pretty much the Wood argument - it's not a case of saying we can take Wood's argument in relation to some countries but not in relation to others - as he argument isn't a generic one across different countries

She did an excellent book called The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: An Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States which goes into this kind of thing in a lot more detail as she touched on in the origins of capitalism

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Aug 23 2011 13:33

I wasn't saying Wood was wrong (capitalism did historically emerge in the English countryside), just warning against the kind of crude stagism that sees development as a unilinear path repeating itself in different places (which is still pretty dominant in mainstream development, and not uncommon for Marxists/anarchists overly influenced by the vivid rhetoric of the communist manifesto). You're right that Wood doesn't set out to describe the development of capitalism into a global system, but only to identify it's origins.

piter
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Aug 23 2011 14:24

combined and uneven developement is associated with Trotsky for the reason mentionned above, but anyway it's just dialectics...Trotsky just coined the expression and illustrated it with the russian history...

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Aug 23 2011 19:24
piter wrote:
combined and uneven developement is associated with Trotsky for the reason mentionned above, but anyway it's just dialectics

i disagree that it's just dialectics, although that's by no means widely accepted.

i think Marxism generally lacks a theory of 'the international', i.e. causations arising from the system-level. instead, Marxist theories of international relations tend to be 'inside out', the characteristics of capitalist states determining their external behaviour (see Bukharin, Lenin etc). as a consequence, Marxist understandings of international relations tend to piggy-back on bourgeois theories, principally realism. for example iirc Alex Callinicos goes with a dialectic of 'two logics' (capital accumulation - Marxism, geopolitical competition - realism). by contrast, UCD offers a materialist, historical understanding of capitalism as an international system.

that much is basically academic (i've essentially just described the rationale of the UCD working group at Sussex Uni). but i think there's probably political implications too (i haven't fully worked through these because i've no interest in creating a niche for anarchist IR, academic anarchism is mostly a joke). basically, the mainstream Marxist programme of capturing state power looks completely untenable from an international perspective; the structure of the state system renders it absurd. even if you accept Lenin's account, no state can whither away when it has others on its borders.

Marxists would try to get round this by calling for international revolutions; but insofar as these are conceived as a series of captures of state power, this is also rendered absurd by UCD (the alternative would be something like an expanding imperial superstate that allegedly withers a way once it encompasses the whole world, lol). the very nature of an uneven and combined world system means even in the context of a systemic crisis some places are more ripe for revolution than others, as states jostle to export their problems, push financial crises to the periphery etc. Thus you're going to get islands of 'socialism in one country' that will have to behave much like any other state - fight wars, discipline the working class etc - if they survive at all. so i think UCD potentially calls into question the whole Marxist conception of social revolution - namely the capture of power within the state system rather than attempts to destroy it.

instead it forces a rethinking of revolution as not a seizure of power in a bounded territory, but an expanding zone of anti-state workers power, whether that's whole liberated zones where the state is effectively abolished (as in parts of Aragon 1936, Ukraine 1917 etc), pockets of occupied workplaces in open defiance of the state (a la Zanon), mutinees of troops against intervening in such places, sympathetic strike waves etc. These would be opening up and being repressed unevenly, and would need to achieve a sort of 'escape velocity', spreading and linking up faster than the states and capital could contain and/or repress them. Marxism sees these things as weakening the state as a prelude for a seizure of power in a bounded territory, but i think UCD potentially allows for an immanent critique of the classical marxist programme. turning Trotsky against Trotskyism so to speak. but this is a bit speculative and off topic tbh (one of my medium term projects is to re-read the German Ideology through UCD and see what happens... i really like the materialist conception of history, but have problems with both the stagism and the statism contained in it. UCD might be one way into a critical libertarian reading.)

[/tangent]

Android
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Aug 23 2011 21:56

Not sure if this is a derail, since it isn't directly related to the OP - so admins, feel free to do what you want with my post

JK wrote:
one of my medium term projects is to re-read the German Ideology through UCD and see what happens... i really like the materialist conception of history, but have problems with both the stagism and the statism contained in it. UCD might be one way into a critical libertarian reading

I'd recommend checking out Kevin Anderon's Marx at the Margins: on Ethnicity, Nationalism and Non-Western Societies which the user Zanthorus alerted me to a while back. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing there is a text here by Anderon that lays out his basic argument.

BTW I think you're comments above on Marx are really harsh. While obviously you can point to passages to confirm the charge of 'stageism', 'unilinearity' etc I am not convinced by such charges when his overall theoretical output in this regard is assessed. For me anyway, this tendency to excessive generalise etc by the neo ultra-left milieu is annoying.

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Joseph Kay
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Aug 23 2011 22:17

Cheers for the reference, i'll look it up. I'm not trying to be harsh on Marx. He never wrote much about states or international relations, certainly not in as systematic way as Capital etc. So what is there got ossified via Engels, Kautsky etc into some pretty shit Marxism. Various people have gone back to things like the Grundrisse and the concept of commodity fetishism to argue Marx did have a conception of what we now call international relations, only one which was underdeveloped and largely absent from Marxism. In terms of the German Ideology, I do still think the 'dialectical' account of developing the state to a higher level before it ceases to have a purpose doesn't stand up well at all, and owes more to intellectual parsimony than any understanding of the state and state system. But that's not a fully worked out critique or anything, just a gut reaction.

Android
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Aug 23 2011 22:38

Yeah, fair enough. Certainly there is not a systematic account of historical development (i.e. IR in academic terms). But I was mainly reacting against the charges of stageism, unilinearity etc and what seemed to be the deployment of an all-inclusive notion of 'orthodox-Marxism' which is meaningless in that it has no specific application other then to dismiss the whole 2nd Intern'l, but that raises a whole new discussion and set of related issues so I will stop now.

BTW keep posting your uni essays up!

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Joseph Kay
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Aug 23 2011 22:48

Ok, I see what you mean. But the thing is, people like Kevin Anderson have to go back to Marx's unpublished notebooks, journalistic pieces etc to piece together a 'different Marx', which kinda proves what i'm getting at. I'm all for doing that, I think the state-oriented political programme and the materialist conception of history are separable, but then any reading that does that isn't what's existed in most of Marxism. Obviously there's a range of heterodox currents etc.

P.S. Only one more uni essay to go, and it's very academic. Not something I'd write if i wasn't getting graded for it!

Matt_efc
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Aug 24 2011 01:06
Joseph Kay wrote:
piter wrote:
combined and uneven developement is associated with Trotsky for the reason mentionned above, but anyway it's just dialectics

i disagree that it's just dialectics, although that's by no means widely accepted.

i think Marxism generally lacks a theory of 'the international', i.e. causations arising from the system-level. instead, Marxist theories of international relations tend to be 'inside out', the characteristics of capitalist states determining their external behaviour (see Bukharin, Lenin etc). as a consequence, Marxist understandings of international relations tend to piggy-back on bourgeois theories, principally realism. for example iirc Alex Callinicos goes with a dialectic of 'two logics' (capital accumulation - Marxism, geopolitical competition - realism). by contrast, UCD offers a materialist, historical understanding of capitalism as an international system.

that much is basically academic (i've essentially just described the rationale of the UCD working group at Sussex Uni). but i think there's probably political implications too (i haven't fully worked through these because i've no interest in creating a niche for anarchist IR, academic anarchism is mostly a joke). basically, the mainstream Marxist programme of capturing state power looks completely untenable from an international perspective; the structure of the state system renders it absurd. even if you accept Lenin's account, no state can whither away when it has others on its borders.

Marxists would try to get round this by calling for international revolutions; but insofar as these are conceived as a series of captures of state power, this is also rendered absurd by UCD (the alternative would be something like an expanding imperial superstate that allegedly withers a way once it encompasses the whole world, lol). the very nature of an uneven and combined world system means even in the context of a systemic crisis some places are more ripe for revolution than others, as states jostle to export their problems, push financial crises to the periphery etc. Thus you're going to get islands of 'socialism in one country' that will have to behave much like any other state - fight wars, discipline the working class etc - if they survive at all. so i think UCD potentially calls into question the whole Marxist conception of social revolution - namely the capture of power within the state system rather than attempts to destroy it.

instead it forces a rethinking of revolution as not a seizure of power in a bounded territory, but an expanding zone of anti-state workers power, whether that's whole liberated zones where the state is effectively abolished (as in parts of Aragon 1936, Ukraine 1917 etc), pockets of occupied workplaces in open defiance of the state (a la Zanon), mutinees of troops against intervening in such places, sympathetic strike waves etc. These would be opening up and being repressed unevenly, and would need to achieve a sort of 'escape velocity', spreading and linking up faster than the states and capital could contain and/or repress them. Marxism sees these things as weakening the state as a prelude for a seizure of power in a bounded territory, but i think UCD potentially allows for an immanent critique of the classical marxist programme. turning Trotsky against Trotskyism so to speak. but this is a bit speculative and off topic tbh (one of my medium term projects is to re-read the German Ideology through UCD and see what happens... i really like the materialist conception of history, but have problems with both the stagism and the statism contained in it. UCD might be one way into a critical libertarian reading.)

[/tangent]

[carrys on tangent]
This is one of my favourite posts I've read on libcom and its nice to know that other anarchists/ libertarian communists within academia are reaching similar conclusions. Nice to know you're not a lone mentalist. I think the Marxism/ Anarchism debate is finally entering a maturity less interested in what they say about themselves, but more how they interact with reality as a process.

I'd be really interested to hear some more about the stuff from Sussex, coming from a background of Anthropology and Goldsmiths Cultural Studies I find I can get entrenched into certain academic ghettos.

One thing that interests me in this whole debate (and it might be another thread, although I worry about the level of maturity) is the idea of insurrectionism within this view. I think I've read people on libcom saying every anarcho-communist is an issurectionalistist by nature, and I'm not talking about the subculture, but more the realisation that whatever "revolution" may occur, it will more likley look like a series of breakdowns of order, rather than a singular unitary imposition of a new order (certainly interesting in recent events be they Mexico, Paris, Athens, London or wherever). I always feel I have to check myself for esotericness, but then I feel its linked into the question I asked in the Theory forum in the maths thread, the idea of chaos and order being a unitary, rather than a dichotomy. While I share your worry of "anarchist academics" equally I think that there can ber a huge contribution to anarchism through "mathamatics" (however its articulated).

Coming from a fairly orthadox marxist family I can often see the inherrent contradiction between the "withering away" and creation of the global state. It seems to me that this idea of the 2 things being one and the same is dictatorial by definition because it requires the subjegation of any opposing state, rather than the destruction of the relationship that allows the state to occur.

[/end tanget again]

bastarx
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Aug 24 2011 01:06
Matt_efc wrote:
but more the realisation that whatever "revolution" may occur, it will more likley look like a series of breakdowns of order, rather than a singular unitary imposition of a new order.

Have you heard of John Robb? He's a pretty sharp albeit very egotistical bourgeois thinker who reckons the breakdown of order is already happening. He has a blog at: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/

His book is worth reading too.

Matt_efc
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Aug 24 2011 01:09

Never heard of him, but I'll have a proper read tomorrow. I always think its useful to pay attention to these types of bourgeois types, because often they are fully aware of the implication of what they suggest and advocate, and while thier analysis might make conspiracies out of what we would consider anatagonisms of capitalism, often they have as much if not more insight into the basic workings of capitalism than a lot of the left.

Matt_efc
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Aug 24 2011 01:13

Just read his Wiki entry. His latest work is a "book on Resilient Communities."

piter
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Aug 24 2011 06:20
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i disagree that it's just dialectics

maybe it's not exact to say that it's only dialectics. what I pointed to is that if you want to have a dialectical understanding of historical development (as Trotsky did) you have good chances to get to something similar to processus that are uneven and combined in some ways.

for exempel when Lenin (before Trotsky wrote about UCD) was advocating the idea of the realisation of the "tasks" of the bourgeois democratic revolution under a proletarian leadership, it implied the idea of the possibilty of uneven and combined developement (and he criticised the mensheviks rejecting it for having a too simplistic and non dialectical conception of historic developement).
and it was the same when it evolved towards the perspective of proletarian dictatorship in Russia (also realising the "tasks" of the bourgeois revolution, but only on economic grounds and on its state capitalist "stage", without the democratic bourgeois side).

of course where he was wrong was that such dialectics of UCD don't change the way capital is reproducing and enforcing its power, and state capitalism can't lead towards proletarian emancipation...

I think Lenin had an understanding of dialectics that included a kind of UCD (especially after his study of Hegel in 1914-1915) but you have to combine UCD with an "anti-fetishistic" understanding of capital and state (and that was Lenin's problem, and not only Lenin's for it can also be said of the whole 2nd and 3rd international marxism...). and that is the main point...

piter
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Aug 24 2011 06:42
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i really like the materialist conception of history, but have problems with both the stagism and the statism contained in it

you mean the classical materialist conception of history, the one of the 2nd and 3rd international marxism I guess...

because a materialist conception includes at least a kind of dialectics that reject crude stagism, and also materialist conception of the state which implies that the state is understood as a social relation that goes with capitalist and class relations...

so a proper materialist conception don't contain but reject stagism and statism...
but I guess you are ok with that?

but I think having such a materialist conception implies having a kind of dialectics (not just UCD) and an "anti-fetishistic" grasp of the nature of capital, and state, commodity, etc.., "anti-fetishistic" meaning that it is understood as social relations. and in a way proper (materialist) dialectics is "anti-fetishistic" for dialectics is grasping all the concrete relations.

I would say that a "libertarian" use of materialist conception would be seeing "behind" capital (and state, class, etc...) the whole relations taking place between individuals (not really "behind" of course, I mean seeing the true nature of capital, state, commodity, classes, as social relations).

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Aug 27 2011 17:49

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Transformation_%28book%29

Gendo
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Sep 2 2011 00:04
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You probably mean the transition from feudalism to capitalism .

Actually capitalism will always devolve back into feudalism with a revolving door aristocracy made up of the bourgeoisie. In fact we're almost there.