The characteristic mode of existence of developed capitalism is large-scale industry with its mass production.footnote Yet capitalist relations of production do not just arise from thin air. They derive historically from the formation of the wage-earning class by the gradual dissolution or destruction of previous modes of production. This movement, moreover, can never be the exclusive product of an economic logic. It requires political relations adequate to the domination of the industrial bourgeoisie, and decisively involves the role of the State. The conditions under which State power is exercised may be more or less favourable to the implantation of capitalist relations of production on the terrain of the commodity economy. The rhythm and forms of penetration of these capitalist relations of production form the specific infrastructure of a particular social formation. It is this social infrastructure that enables us to grasp the differences in the development of the productive forces between different social formations. And from this point of view, the United States displays major originality.

All forms of precapitalist production have agriculture as their productive base. The fundamental economic condition for industrial capitalism to develop is the formation of a growing agricultural surplus product and its realization in the commodity form. In the United States this condition was enormously favoured by the existence of an immense reserve of unappropriated agricultural land. Yet it was made a reality above all by the political origins of the American nation, which united petty producers with the commercial and financial bourgeoisie in a common struggle against English colonial rule. This struggle, with freedom of enterprise as its aim, left a permanent mark on the ideological representations of American social relations, and created political institutions governed by those general principles that are the legal formalization of commodity exchange relations.

The legal subjectivity that reflects the general reification of commodity-producing societies was all the more decisively imposed in as much as there was no organic tie to precapitalist forms of production. It expresses the formal liberty and equality of individuals as economic subjects endowed with initiative, political subjects electing their representatives, and cultural subjects giving and receiving opinions. The totality is one of exchange relationships that are formed and unformed by the will of the contracting parties. This conception of social relations involves an irreparable rift between theory and practice. At one pole we have a positivism bearing within it economic utilitarianism and pragmatism, at the other pole an idealism which in the United States has taken essentially a religious form. But what is fundamental for an understanding of how this representation of society was able to impose itself so uniformly is to bear in mind that it was not merely static, but was tied up with the expansion of the frontier. The energy that individuals expended in their economic competition did not merely reproduce a stable social order, it actually created new social relations.

The frontier principle was more than is implied simply by its initial content, in other words the mere domestication of a geographical space. It was rather an ideological principle expressing the ability of the American nation to polarize individual activity in a direction of progress. This is why the industrial bourgeoisie was later able to get the whole of the nation to swallow the technological transformations induced by relative surplus-value by presenting these as the building of a ‘new frontier’. The development of capitalism and the construction of the nation were thus identified into one process in the popular consciousness. The ideological institutions of capitalism absorbed intellectuals originating from all social strata; bourgeois representations of the world were constructed without resistance; the juridical principles of the state took on a sacred and eternal character. Any questioning of free enterprise was perceived as a threat to the integrity of the nation.

The liberation from colonialism thus removed the political brakes from both geographical and economic expansion. Expansion is the dominant phenomenon of American life; it could almost be identified with the country’s history. This expansion was the conscious work of broad masses of the population over successive generations. The community of petty producers who built up the frontier economy were never caught up in an agricultural economy geared to mere subsistence. To the extent that the frontier expanded, with the communications network becoming denser and structuring geographical space, the relative economic conditions of the different regions underwent a change. The mobility and mutual competition of the producers was sharpened by the permanent influx of new arrivals. This competition for the private appropriation of the best placed and most productive land gave a crucial role to speculation in landed property. This activity was fuelled by anything that changed economic conditions, in particular irrigation projects and the construction of railways from the 1840s onwards.

The period 1846–8 saw the end of the Mexican-American war, which handed California to the Yankees, as well as the gold discoveries there. These two simultaneous events unleashed an extraordinary wave of speculation, plunder and monopolization of land by all possible means of violence. After 1848, moreover, the world capitalist economy embarked on a long phase of expansion which stimulated American agricultural production. The space of commodity circulation expanded, and agricultural prices rose. A massive wave of immigration and migration to the West in search of profitable opportunity gave the frontier a jolt. Land prices rose rapidly, and with them the sums paid in settlement of inheritances. The more land prices rose, the more monetary resources were needed by new would-be producers or old producers seeking to extend their holding or move into regions where expansion was more favourable. The upshot was that the agricultural surplus product had more and more to take the commodity form and circulate in a wider space, thus stimulating the extension of means of transport, in order to bring its owner the monetary yield he needed.

These were the ideal economic conditions for capitalism to take hold in the new economic spaces in course of formation. Commercial and finance capital was already well established in the Eastern states, where it flourished on the basis of international trade. From the 1850s onwards, the development of means of transport led to the formation of new urban centres West of the Appalachians: centres which became new sites of commerce and foci for the formation of new capital, as illustrated by the multiplication of banks. In California, mining operations and the expropriation of Mexican latifundists gave rise to an explosive centralization of capital. But the essential part of this economic expansion, depending as it did right from the start on the centralization of financial resources for the extension of railways, was directed by the financial powers of the East. The spearhead of capitalist encroachment on landed property was the establishment of railway and mining companies, these being above all else capitalist associations for engrossing the land. These companies obtained land concessions for the construction of the transcontinental railways, and the Federal government made them a gift of immense swathes of expropriated land on either side of the lines. The railway companies were financed by vast share issues and State loans. The same company that owned the railway also came to own all natural resources on the land granted it. These lands, which had been obtained for free and were now monopolized, were turned to profit by the railway line, whose construction cost the company’s initial promoters nothing. They were subsequently sold off in small plots at very high prices, or alternatively leased.