Transition: The Formation of the Capitalist World-Ecology through the Age of Manufacture (1450-1750)

Cagri Idiman


In this paper, I aim to develop a world-ecological perspective on the question of transition to capitalism. During the High Middle Ages (950-1450), two feudal world-economies occupied Northern and Southern Europe simultaneously. Although merchant’s and usurer’s capitals existed within these socio-ecological formations, industrial capital had not taken over production. Production was, instead, characterized by either serfdom or guilds, which conditioned definite socio-ecological patterns of expansion and contraction. During the expansionary phase, population rose, arable land expanded vis-à-vis forests, and land productivity decreased due to the fragmentation of means of production. Feudal relations and forces of production thus ultimately checked expansion and initiated contraction. Deforestation and soil exhaustion led to malnutrition, famine and epidemics. The feudal motion biseculaire resulted in a total socio-ecological collapse in the 14th century. In response to this collapse, the capitalist world-economy blew into existence through the Age of Manufacture (1450-1750). The prime-mover of capitalist development was the concentration of means of production as ‘industrial capital’ and the reorganization of the mode of appropriation of nature on the basis of multiple forms of surplus-value-producing labor: ship-building and shipping in Italy, Iberia and the Netherlands; mining in German-Hungarian lands, New Spain, Potosi and Sweden; forestry in Dalmatia, Madeira and Norway; tenant-farming in Northern France, Netherlands and England; and sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Caribbean islands and the American littoral. This set in motion distinct socio-ecological development patterns. To guarantee expanded reproduction and increase labor productivity, capitalists concentrated means of production and laborers through ‘spatio-temporal fixes.’ Expanded reproduction, however, led to local resource depletion, soil exhaustion, deforestation, and consequently, falling labor productivity and profit rates i.e. over-accumulation. Through states and financial institutions, over-accumulated capital was displaced temporarily through long-term infrastructural investment and spatially through state- and war-making activities, which increased labor productivity and profit rates by providing access to cheaper raw materials and labor-power. Hence, novel spatio-temporal fixes were created on an ever-greater scale in order to overcome the problem of over-accumulation. In summary, I argue that the origin of the crisis of feudalism and transition to capitalism is to be found in the sphere of production.

transition - world-ecology - hegemony - historical and geographical materialism - spatio-temporal fixes