Sussex PM Group Meeting – Javier Moreno on ‘The Catalan Transition to Capitalism’, Wed 25 Nov, 3-5pm, Fulton 212

Sussex PM Group Meeting – Javier Moreno on ‘The Catalan Transition to Capitalism’, Wed 25 Nov, 2015, 3-5pm, Fulton 212.


Abstract of the paper Javi presented for discussion:


In response to commercialisation narratives of the origins of Catalan industrialisation, Brenner made a number of passing observations buried into the footnotes of Agrarian Class Structure. Here he traced the source of Catalonia’s capitalist divergence in its pattern of agrarian development: ‘the only real alternative to the “classical English” landlord-large tenant-wage labour’ triad. His argument was that Catalonia, like England, had witnessed an ‘equally capitalist system based on large-scale owner-cultivators also generally using wage labour’. Brenner located the source of this in the outcome of the century-long Remença War, a peasant revolt that concluded with the Sentence of Guadalupe (1485), which effectively abolished serfdom and replaced it with freehold leases. For Brenner, the resulting structure of social-property relations ‘institutionalised the peasants’ class power’ and resulted in centuries of sustained agrarian growth that allowed Catalonia to become one of the few European regions to resist the crisis of the 1600s. The source of this agricultural breakthrough was to be found, allegedly, in a common institution that Catalonia and England shared, the engrossed capitalist farm: large estates held by free capitalist tenants and laboured by a proletarian workforce.  It is surprising that Political Marxist scholars have not picked up more on this question, especially given the debate ignited by his claims on the capitalist parity between English and Dutch agriculture.

However Brenner’s claims met a conclusive rebuttal in Jaume Torras’ short article Class Struggle in Catalonia. Torras raised two powerful empirical counterarguments: 1) Catalonia’s agricultural breakthrough occurred much later than Brenner assumed, as it took at least until the late 17th century for food crises and price fluctuations to stabilise, and 2) Catalonia’s agricultural breakthrough was not based on large farms but on small properties; in the 1600s large farms began to break up into increasingly fragmented leases via a process called eixamenament (‘hiving-off’). Like this, the ‘Brenner Debate’ ended in Spain even before it began. This ties in with a criticism that other historians later raised against Brenner: unlike what his transition model deduces, pre-capitalist agricultures were capable of considerable growth and change, something he rules out from the start. Moreover, Brenner’s sole focus on agriculture as the origin of transitionary processes infuses historical analysis with an in-built stageism that mystifies the complexity of the diffusion of capitalist practices. 
It is time to revisit the Catalan case in light of the theoretical work of the Sussex PM group. Ahead of a very dense presentation, my argument can be summarised as follows: like Brenner’s original thesis, my paper will reject all narratives that ascribe raw structural forces a determinant role in the historical emergence of the capital-relation. Instead, it will be argued that the point of rupture must be traced to an evolutionary process of struggle over the control of the production process. However, unlike Brenner, it will be argued that this was not achieved through the expansion of a commercial agriculture, regardless of the explosive levels of growth it enabled; Catalonia would break through the transition and come out as an industrial capitalist economy while sitting on an entirely pre-capitalist hinterland. The capital-relation would be in incubated in the countryside, only not in agriculture, but in the extended rural manufacturing networks that employed the labour of a semi-dispossessed peasantry. Here, following a protracted process of legally-mediated class struggle, guilds would be effectively dissolved and weaver subordinated. The pressures unleashed by this process would tear apart the large-scale cotton industry of Barcelona, eventually refounding it along capitalist lines and laying the basis for the only example of early industrialisation in the entire Mediterranean Basin.