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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Nock: The Economics of Landowners and Mill-Owners

Via Sheldon Richman. A great quote from Nock's Our Enemy, the State:

The horrors of England's industrial life in the last century furnish a standing brief for addicts of positive intervention. Child-labour and woman-labour in the mills and mines; Coketown and Mr. Bounderby; starvation wages; killing hours; vile and hazardous conditions of labour; coffin ships officered by ruffians - all these are glibly charged off by reformers and publicists to a regime of rugged individualism, unrestrained competition, and laissez-faire. This is an absurdity on its face, for no such regime ever existed in England. They were due to the State's primary intervention whereby the population of England was expropriated from the land; due to the State's removal of the land from competition with industry for labour. Nor did the factory system and the "industrial revolution" have the least thing to do with creating those hordes of miserable beings. When the factory system came in, those hordes were already there, expropriated, and they went into the mills for whatever Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Plugson of Undershot would give them, because they had no choice but to beg, steal or starve. Their misery and degradation did not lie at the door of individualism; they lay nowhere but at the door of the State. Adam Smith's economics are not the economics of individualism; they are the economics of landowners and mill-owners. Our zealots of positive intervention would do well to read the history of the Enclosures Acts and the work of the Hammonds, and see what they can make of them.

So Nock would agree, as far as it goes, with the vulgar libertarian argument that workers chose the Dark Satanic Mills as the "best available alternative." As far as it goes, though, is only half the truth.


Blogger janus said...

And what would the other half of the truth be?

January 22, 2006 5:38 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

That the "landowners and mill-owners" act through the state to determine what the range of "available alternatives" is.

January 22, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Is Nock being unfair to Adam Smith? He didn't think much of Locke either.

January 23, 2006 3:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, it's more complicated still. Individual landowners and mill owners were themselves caught in the process, acting ethically according to their own lights as often as not - but of course, their ideas were themselves conditioned by their circumstances, and adapted to preserve individual self esteem.

Even at the aggregate level, landowners and mercantile interests were distinct and were often in conflict.

Not on this point, however; here, all this was in commercial interests and of no importance to landowners - so it didn't drive things, but the conflicts didn't halt them either. So the aggregates were able to act politically, getting enclosure acts etc.

In point of fact, just as the slave trade didn't start slave raiding but began to grow it, evictions and clearances were driven by the greater value of land to the landowners without its tenants.

No material benefit flowed to landowners from any particular boost to factories, nor did any particular gain go to mill owners from any one eviction. Rather, without places for evictees to go, the gains from (say) raising cattle or wool would have dropped and choked off the incentives for evictions.

Even so, some clearances did have factory destinations in mind; read Marx. But it wasn't material in general (or why would evictees have been able to emigrate?).

As it is written, "these things must come, but woe to him through whom they come". Personal and individual non-involvement doesn't mean no responsibility.

January 23, 2006 4:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


It probably is unfair to Adam Smith, but it was such a great quote I couldn't resist.


Weren't the great Whig landowners, in many cases, the source of capital for industrialization?

January 25, 2006 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, yes the Whig magnates often did supply industrial capital - but this doesn't affect the point because, unlike Russian serf owners, they couldn't direct their tenants into related factories. Furthermore, the biggest capitalists made their money in previous rounds of improvements (not all simply exploitation).

Consider the Duke of Omnium. His remote ancestor Lord Parvum probably drove tenants off his land to make sheepwalks under Henry VII, then with the money from selling wool to Flanders he got more land from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A great-nephew of Parvum fought on each side of the Civil War, so the estate was preserved.

Come the early 18th century, the Duke of Omnium had been created and the second Duke looked around for opportunities, mostly contracts to supply uniforms and food to the Army and Navy, all the while introducing turnips and manure to his estates. It was this Duke who invested in Birmingham shoddy manufacture.

But a poor cousin went to India, came back rich, and bought out all the poorer independent peasants and some long leases. The peasants from these he evicted to make way for his park and a model village, and a home farm; sheep and cattle were put on former commons, after he bought an Act of Parliament for the land's improvement.

As you can see, in no case does this typical scenario give a benefit to the industrialist, qua industrialist, from any particular eviction or enclosure.

It's just that they don't hurt, and the growth of an urban middle class keeps up the demand for cattle and wool. Without that feedback at a macro level, there would have been diminishing returns from evictions.

Tudor enclosures were driven by export demand, just like the Highland Clearances. But that didn't apply so much in 18th century England. There, the interplay needed an urban purchasing group. Still, that's macro - and no eviction was driven by demand for workers, but for redeploying land.

Have I just made it all murkier?

January 26, 2006 4:55 AM  

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