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New Left Review I/93, September-October 1975

John Merrington

Town and Country in the Transition to Capitalism

The centrality of the town-country relation in the transition to capitalism in the West and more basically the equation of urbanism with capitalism and progress were already explicitly formulated in the earliest theories of the origins of capitalism—those of 18th-century political economy. For the proponents of the new and revolutionary ‘conjectural’ history of civil society—Smith, Steuart, Ferguson, Millar—the origins of division of labour and the market in the ‘commercial stage’ of civilization were to be sought in the separation of town and country. (The highland-lowland division in Scotland provided first-hand evidence.) The separation of production and consumption brought about by rural-urban exchange was the cause of that ‘revolution’ whereby the self-sufficiency of the rural economy is undermined by urban consumption patterns, destroying the static order of patriarchal authority based on landownership in which ‘consumption is not a reward but a price of subordination’. [1] Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book III, ch. 3-4; Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, 1754, vol. I, ch. 20. This revolution was brought about entirely without foresight or intention, merely by the interaction of self-interests—gratification of ‘childish vanity’ on the part of the rural nobility, pursuit of gain by urban merchants—in other words by the free action of the exchange principle (man’s ‘natural propensity to barter and exchange’), realizing a higher unity out of the clash of separate interests in the market place. The progressive role of the market is thus realized: it destroys coercive bonds in the country, creates independence for rural commodity producers and establishes ‘regular government’ in place of internecine territorial feuds. The same principle of division of labour between specialized producers for the market simultaneously increases productivity in its application to manufacture. Moreover, in contrast to the physiocrats in France, for whom rent was the sole form of surplus value, the progress of agricultural productivity is a victory for urban capital over rural backwardness: ‘Cities, instead of being the effect, have been the cause and occasion of the improvement and cultivation of the country.’ [2] Smith, I, p. 392.

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John Merrington, ‘Town and Country in the Transition to Capitalism’, NLR I/93: £3

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