Class struggles, climate change, and the origins of modern agriculture

Plantation slavery
Plantation slavery

Class conflicts and colonial expansion in the context of the Little Ice Age lead to the emergence of capitalist agriculture and the transformation of social relations on a world scale.

Submitted by Out of the Woods on August 18, 2014

The last half-millennium of the Earth's natural history has been a time of dramatic and accelerating change. One has to look to the beginning of the Holocene, with the climatic amelioration after the last ice age and the Neolithic agricultural revolution, to find a period which produced changes of comparable significance for human-environmental relations.1

A diverse range of agricultural practices and social relations proliferated between the Neolithic origins of farming and the early modern period which began some 500 years ago. But in order to explore the future of food production under climate change, it is this transition to modern agriculture which is of most interest. This question is intimately bound up with the origins of capitalism. Here, climate change and class relations combined, and through a series of food crises led to the transformation of world agriculture through enclosures and colonialism.

The Little Ice Age and global agrarian crises

The Little Ice Age of 1550-1850, while not a true ice age, was a period of global climatic cooling which was most pronounced in the northern hemisphere. Cold summers and freezing winters caused crop failures, chronic food crises, and famines across the world. In the Ottoman empire (centred in modern-day Turkey), this exacerbated conflicts over land, peasant rights, and agrarian taxation, and provoked flight to the towns and food riots.

In the Mughal empire (a Persian empire extending into most of modern-day India), the Little Ice Age saw a series of famines and food crises, the worst of which occurred in 1630-1632. The Shah (in)famously began building the Taj Mahal in 1631 to commemorate his dead wife, diverting huge resources which could have been used for famine relief. Mounting rebellions and rural conflicts weakened the Mughal hold on India, and contributed to the relative ease with which the British took control of the region from the mid 18th century.

Famines and peasant rebellions also wracked China during the late Ming dynasty: 1630, a famine in the central province of Shaanxi led peasants to support the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng. During the 14 years of Li Zhicheng's rebellion, his forces equalised land between rich and poor in the provinces they controlled, killed many rich landlords, and plundered and destroyed many estates. His rebellion overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644, but then lost power to the Manchu invasion a few years later.2

In the Americas, both the Aztec and Inca empires had developed sustainable agricultural systems, but imperial expansion overstretched their food production capacities. This provoked agrarian rebellions and internal political conflicts. When the Spanish arrived from the early 16th century, they encountered empires in crisis, wracked by civil wars. This greatly aided the conquistadors, who were able to ally with rebel factions before taking control.

In Europe, reactions to the Little Ice Age were polarised on an east-west axis. In the east, the balance of class forces favoured the landed aristocracy, who were able to reimpose a 'second serfdom' on the peasantry. Servile practices were reimposed, and "Russian nobles sold serfs just as American planters sold slaves."3 But in the west, the balance of class forces was more favourable to the peasantry, who won emancipation in numerous kingdoms and republics. While Spain was busy constructing the largest slave-based agricultural system in history in its American colonies, its domestic peasantry and Moorish slaves won emancipation.

The Atlantic, American, and Pacific plantation complexes

The Western European maritime powers, principally the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, followed by the British, French, and others, were busy constructing colonial empires across the globe from the late 15th/early 16th century. This involved the construction of plantation complexes oriented to cash crops for export. The interest-bearing and merchant's capital which funded these conquests belonged to what Marx called "the antediluvian forms of capital, which long precede the capitalist mode of production."4 That is to say that in themselves, the circuits of colonial capital served to reproduce the feudal social relations of their home countries. The emergence of a distinctly capitalist mode of production would coalesce only later.

The Dutch were most active in colonising the Western Pacific. Where the colonialists encountered hierarchical social systems, they were often able to co-opt local elites and thus formally incorporate local labour into their trading empires. However, when they encountered more egalitarian societies, this option was not available. One such society was the Banda Islands in modern day Indonesia. Here, village life was governed via assemblies, which limited the power of would-be elites, the orang kaya ('moneymen'). When the orang kaya made contracts with the Dutch, the village assemblies promptly ignored them. The civilised Dutch set out to teach these savages a lesson in the rule of law, and proceeded to slaughter them.

Through military action, the VOC [Dutch East India Company] killed most of the population in 1621. Of the population of approximately 15,000, only several hundred survived.5

This was a pattern often repeated, prompting Karl Marx to note that:

...wherever they set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce!6

Genocide, through a combination of disease and intentional slaughter, was a recurring feature of European colonialism. The massive depopulation lead to the importation of slaves to work the land. In Portuguese Brazil:

Smallpox killed so many natives that by the 1580s the planters shifted to African slaves. By 1620 the plantations relied almost exclusively on the labour of Africans or their American descendants.7

The net effect of the plantation complexes in the Atlantic, Americas, and Western Pacific, was dramatic depopulation and the replacement of subsistence modes of agriculture with cash crop production for the world market.

Capitalist agriculture

Meanwhile in Western Europe, class conflicts in the countryside were driving agrarian change. In England, the balance of class forces favoured the landed classes. Freed from their obligations to the peasantry, they evicted them from the land. Peasant emancipation here meant being 'freed' from the land through clearances and enclosures. Richer peasants became tenant farmers, and hired landless peasants as wage labourers to work the land. The landed nobility were transformed into capitalist landlords.8

Thus accumulated capital met landless workers, kick-starting a cycle or rural accumulation and dispossession which would provide both the labour force and some of the capital which fuelled the industrial revolution a century or so later. In effect, this transformation meant a shift from politically appropriated surpluses in kind or in taxes and tithes which sustained the feudal ruling class, to economically appropriated surpluses accruing to the owners of agricultural capital as surplus value - a shift synonymous with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.

But this development was not simply an English peculiarity, or rather, this peculiarity was not a wholly English development. That is to say, the balance of class forces that favoured the emergence of free wage labour in England had an irreducibly geopolitical dimension. European geopolitics in the early modern period were significantly structured around the power of the Ottoman Empire. Europe's military powers were thus oriented to the east, with little heed paid to the English backwater.

It was "the upsurge in Euro-Ottoman trade [that] contributed to the preconditions of rural revolt and the primitive accumulation of capital in Northwest Europe."9 Furthermore, it was the Ottoman control of trade routes to the east which drove the Atlantic powers to the sea in search of alternative routes. The rise of European banking and merchant capital was a side-effect of feudal war-making, but it was one which fuelled colonial expansion, which in time would feed back into capitalist development.10

As other European powers emulated the English example, capital flows from the colonial plantation complexes found productive investment opportunities, given the newly emerging European proletariat. Cleared from the land, Europe's proletarians had little choice but to accept whatever wages they could find, on farms or in the fledgling manufactures. Even then, they resisted. Vagabonds were criminalised and soldiers deployed to clear the land and put down rural revolts.

Through this process, global circuits of capital emerged. Agricultural commodities such as sugar from the American plantations and tea and opium from Asia began to flow into Europe, while slave-picked cotton would fuel Lancashire's rise to workshop of the world. Hence Marx writes that "the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world."11 This connection between plantation slavery and the reproduction of free labour power is elaborated further by Silvia Federici:

The plantation system was crucial for capitalist development not only because of the immense amount of surplus labour that was accumulated from it, but because it set a model of labour management, export-oriented production, economic integration, and international division of labour that have since become paradigmatic for capitalist class relations. (...) On one side, a global assembly line was created that cut the cost of the commodities necessary to produce labour-power in Europe (...) On the other side, the metropolitan wage became the vehicle by which the goods produced by enslaved workers went to the market, and the value of the products of enslaved-labour was realized.12

While political economists made arguments for the superior economics of free wage labour - after all, a capitalist is no longer responsible for the reproduction of his 'hands'13 - it was revolt which proved a major driving force in the transition to free labour outside Europe. Slave revolts put abolition and emancipation on the agenda, most notably the Haitian revolution of 1791. Here, insurgent slaves scandalously took the universalist proclamations of the liberty emanating from the French Revolution two years prior to apply to all, including themselves.

The growth in support for abolitionism among sections of the ruling class is best understood as a response to such bloody insurrections, which lead to growing acceptance of the arguments of political economists. As such, the emancipation from slave to wage labour should only be considered tendential, with counter-tendencies always throwing up forms of unfree labour across the capitalist world, such as debt-bondage or prison labour. Indeed, following the American civil war of 1861-65: "the former slaves ended up working on the old plantations as sharecroppers, in reality debt peons, forced to work at extremely low wages to retain their plots."14


From the point of view of agricultural transformation, the European enclosures and the plantation complexes in the Atlantic, Americas, and Western Pacific formed two sides of the same historical process. This was a widespread shift from subsistence to commodity production, entailing the bloody separation of the rural population from the soil. Climate change, in the form of the Little Ice Age, had caused crop failures, chronic food crises, and famines around the world. The societal responses to these crises were mediated by the extant social relations, institutions, and the balance of class forces. As the circuits of European merchant and banking capital sought new profits in the colonies, enclosures and clearances created a landless proletariat in Europe.

As the European empires expanded, they encountered empires facing crises of their own. This facilitated the conquests, which were invariably followed by massive depopulation through disease and intentional mass slaughter. Colonial genocide provided returns on capital which flowed back to Europe, finding profitable investment in the employment of the new proletariat. Thus the colonialism of the late feudal period and the transformations of early modern agriculture formed a feedback loop which gave rise to a new capitalist mode of production.

Henceforth agricultural production became increasingly commodity production, as subsistence producers were expropriated, exterminated, or pushed to the margins. While the story of capitalist agriculture certainly does not end here, the basic contours of the contemporary world agricultural system were all in place by the end of the Little Ice Age.

  • 1Neil Roberts (1997), The Holocene: an environmental history, Blackwell, p.155.
  • 2Mark Tauger (2011), Agriculture in world history, Routledge, p.60.
  • 3Tauger, op cit, p.68.
  • 4Karl Marx, Capital volume 3.
  • 5J L van Zanden (1993), The rise and decline of Holland's economy, University of Manchester Press, pp.76-77.
  • 6Karl Marx, Capital volume 1.
  • 7Tauger, op cit, p.76.
  • 8For the classic account, see: Robert Brenner. Marx recounts this process here.
  • 9Kerem Nisancioglu (2012), Before the deluge, the Ottoman origins of capitalism.
  • 10Nisancioglu, op cit.
  • 11Karl Marx, Capital volume 1.
  • 12Silvia Federici, Caliban and the witch, p.104.
  • 13For example see Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: "From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work he does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own."
  • 14Tauger, op cit, p.89.



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Submitted by factvalue on August 27, 2014

Interesting piece.

The growth in support for abolitionism among sections of the ruling class is best understood as a response to such bloody insurrections, which lead to growing acceptance of the arguments of political economists

- not forgetting Perelman's detailed examination the real intentions and goals of the classical political economists in obscuring the state's coercive role in primitive accumulation, available here and of course James' fantastic account of the 'Haitian' (San Domingan) revolution in the library.