Tuesday, September 19, 2017

John Saville - The Consolidation of the Capitalist State

There are any number of books by Marxists that look at the way that English capitalism developed out of the earlier, feudal society. Following Marx they show how the outcome of the English Civil War and Revolution gave those with capitalist interests the freedom to develop their wealth and their interests. This involved the systematic transformation of the economy in the interests of capital. Countless laws were passed to enshrine private property as above anything else. Land was enclosed, common rights destroyed, nature was turned into a commodity.

But for capitalism to fully succeed required, in the title of Saville's short book, the consolidation of the state in its interests. Some of how that took place fits in with the processes of primitive accumulation - the laws passed to support enclosure or criminialise poaching etc. Other processes described by Saville are much more explicit - the creation of a national police force for instance - that could act in the interest of private property.

The crucial period of this process, 1800-1850, is described in Saville's book. It coincides with wider changes that were further entrenching the interests of capital. Saville notes, for instance, that this half century saw the final eclipse of the rural economy, at least in terms of those working on the land. In 1801 the ratio of urban to agrarian population was 20:80; by 1850 it was 50:50 and had completely reversed to 80:20 by the end of the century.

This was the period when the new capitalist class conscioussly acted to further its interests. Those who "were using capital for ecnomic development" were moving towards the "centre of political power". All the changes; economic, legal and so on, were simply about making the system "efficient" for the bourgeoise. Saville gives a handful of examples, but fopcuses on the Anti-corn law movement as openly reflecting the interests of the middle classes;
The Corn Law of 1815 imposed directly in the itnerests of the landlord classes, led to the vigorous reactions of the 18440s,... but the formation of the Anti-Corn Law LEague in 1838... reflected the middle classes' growing confidence in their political and social positions in society. It gave a clear warning to agricultural interests that the blance of ecnomioc power was shfting steadily towards the commercial and industrial sectors.
All this was resisted: the scale of riot by the labouring  populations of the British Isles meant that some countries saw the British as "ungovernable". In an excellent discussion of Ireland, Saville notes just how much the subjugation of Ireland was part and parcel of the development of capital for the British bourgeoisie, and that required the constant "shuffling" of troops back and force to attempt to maintain order. The scale of Irish impoverishment in the interest of the colonial power is forgotten, points out Saville, but the British ruling class also learnt valuable lessons about the controlling of rebellious populations.

Key to the consolidation of the capitalist state was the year 1848. This was the point when the first great working class movement, Chartism, threatened the British states' control. Saville discusses the various ways the movement was repressed and the mistakes made by its leaders, and the way that 1848 saw a "historic fracture in working-class political consciousness". Following this, the mainstream movement fought for reforms, rather than the revolutionary reconstitution of society. Summed up, Saville, argues by the slogan "A Fair Day's Work for a Fair Day's Pay". This, says Saville, meant in part the belief that "fair dealing was available... in capitalist society". This was the crucial final piece in the capitalist state's jigsaw.
A turbulent and dissatisfied working people was not helpful [to the development of capitalism] and althugh their activities could be contained by oppressive laws and iproved policiing it was their polittical attitudes that had finally to be confronted and defeated. That was the meaning of 1848, and for the rich and powerful, and their middle-class allies, it was a famous victory.
At only 82 pages this is a short work, but Saville packs a lot in. It is one of the best Marxist writings I have read on the period and I recommend it to everyone trying to understand the origins of capitalism.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Making of the English Working Class
Thompson - Customs in Common
Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space

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