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Michael Barratt Brown
Away With All the Great Arches: Anderson’s History of British Capitalism
The golden age of British History is now over, according to David Cannadine, not only as a nation but also as a subject of study—‘an account of the British past which reconciled repeated revolutions with a belief in ordered progress and which thus appeared to be simultaneously unique yet exemplary.’  The concern with change and progress is now out of fashion. Continuity is the last word. The elaboration of ‘great arches’  by the sociologists has replaced the economic historians’ search for discontinuities and their concern to explain them. If the interest in change exaggerated the discontinuities, the drawback of all great arches is that from such a great height only giants and mass movements are visible. They give us a wonderful panorama of the terrain, but fail to reveal what is happening in the groups down below and how they are regrouping within the great masses. Picking out the giants tells us little of the smaller men and women. Perry Anderson has always tended to take a synoptic view of great amplitude but little detail. In a series of articles twenty years ago—which Edward Thompson dubbed the ‘Peculiarities of the English’ —he and Tom Nairn had sought to establish that there was never a proper ruling industrial bourgeoisie in Britain.  The manufacturers and mill-owners remained subordinate economically, politically and culturally to the aristocratic rulers of an earlier agrarian society. And this was the source of the malady of British capitalism today and equally of the failure of the British working class to challenge its masters for real power. What Anderson is now proposing is an even more radical argument—that there was no real hegemonic industrial bourgeoisie in Britain, for the very good reason that there was no real industrial revolution in Britain and British capitalism was rooted in commercial and not industrial capital accumulation. 
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