| […] In the previous chapter, we considered the nature of pre-capitalist trade and the development of great commercial powers that ﬂourished by availing themselves of market, opportunities without being systematically subjected to market imperatives. Within the pre-capitalist European economy, there was one major exception to the general rule. England, by the sixteenth century, was developing in wholly new directions.
We can begin to see the differences by starting with the nature of the English state and what that reveals about the relation between political and economic power. Although there were other relatively strong monarchical states in Europe, more or less uniﬁed under monarchy, such as Spain and France, none was as effectively uniﬁed as England (and the emphasis here is on England, not other parts of the British Isles). In the eleventh century (if not before), when the Norman ruling class established itself on the island as a fairly cohesive military and political entity, England already became more uniﬁed than most countries. In the sixteenth century. England went a long way toward eliminating the fragmentation of the state, the ‘parcellized sovereignty’, inherited from feudalism. The autonomous powers held by lords, municipal bodies, and other corporate entities in other European states were, in England, increasingly concentrated in the central state. This was in contrast to other European states, where powerful monarchies continued for a long time to live uneasily alongside other post-feudal military powers, fragmented legal systems, and corporate privileges whose possessors insisted on their autonomy against the centralizing power of the state — and which continued to serve not only ‘extra-economic’ purposes but also as primary means of extracting surpluses from direct producers.
The distinctive political centralization of the English state had material foundations and corollaries. Already in the sixteenth century, England had an impressive network of roads and water transport that uniﬁed the nation to a degree unusual for the period. London, becoming disproportionately large in relation to other English towns and to the total population of England (and eventually the largest city in Europe), was also becoming the hub of a developing national market.
The material foundation on which this emerging national economy rested was English agriculture, which was unique in several ways. First, the English ruling class was distinctive in two related respects. On the one hand, demilitarized before any other aristocracy in Europe, it was part of the increasingly centralized state, in alliance with a centralizing monarchy, without the parcellization of sovereignty characteristic of feudalism and its successor states. While the state served the ruling class as an instrument of order and protector of property, the aristocracy did not possess autonomous ‘extra-economic’ powers or ‘politically constituted property’ to the same degree as their continental counterparts.
On the other hand, there was what might be called a trade-off between the centralization of state power and the aristocracy’s control of land. Land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion, in conditions that enabled them to use their property in new ways. What they lacked in ‘extra-economic’ powers of surplus extraction they more than made up for with increasing ‘economic’ powers.
This distinctive combination had signiﬁcant consequences. On the one hand, the concentration of English landholding meant that an unusually large proportion of land was worked not by peasant-proprietors but by tenants (the word ‘farmer’, incidentally, literally means ‘tenant’ — a usage suggested by phrases familiar today, such as ‘farming out’). This was true even before the waves of dispossession, especially in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, conventionally associated with ‘enclosure’, and was in contrast, for example, to France, where a larger proportion of land remained, and would long continue to remain, in the hands of peasants.
On the other hand, the relatively weak extra-economic powers of landlords meant that they depended less on their ability to squeeze more rents out of their tenants by direct, coercive means than on their tenants’ success in competitive production. Agrarian landlords in this arrangement had a strong incentive to encourage — and, wherever possible, to compel — their tenants to ﬁnd ways of reducing costs by increasing labour-productivity.
In this respect, they were fundamentally different from rentier aristocrats, who throughout history have depended for their wealth on squeezing surpluses out of peasants by means of simple coercion, enhancing their powers of surplus extraction not by increasing the productivity of the direct producers but rather by improving their own coercive powers — military, judicial, and