James Parisot’s How America Became Capitalist uncovers the contested and contradictory history of capitalist development in the United States, finds Dominic Alexander

James Parisot, How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Pluto Press 2019), ix, 258pp.

Capitalism is very often presented as the natural system to grow out of basic human impulses and behaviour. This began with classical economic theory in the eighteenth century, and has become the common sense of modern times. In this view, that America became the preeminent capitalist nation of the world was nothing less than inevitable, once the inherited shackles on individual freedom had been thrown off during the American Revolution of 1775-1783. James Parisot’s How America Became Capitalist is a convincing riposte to such thinking, showing, as it does, how capitalism had to be constructed out of elements of settler society that were not by themselves automatically or even primarily tending in such a direction.

Right from the start of European settlement in the sixteenth century, the societies that would become the United States of America developed within the context of an international Atlantic system. Capitalism was at least the emergent, if not already dominant, set of social relations, driving the trade in commodities, to which slavery soon became central. The early colonies did not in any simple way transplant the social relations of their European origins, but demonstrated a complex mix of different elements, varying from colony to colony. Thus, Parisot defines his project as sketching how ‘a society with capitalism became a capitalist society’ (p.2, author’s emphasis).

In the early colonies, there were some attempts to establish aristocratic landowner power, such as with the Patroones, which amounted for Parisot to ‘manorial fiefdoms’, in the Dutch ‘New Netherlands’ that would later become New York state (p.61). It would, however, be a stretch to see such institutions as constituting any kind of challenge or obstacle to the development of capitalism. Indeed, Parisot argues that forms of property which favoured landowners in this way really constituted a ‘kind of capitalist institution that utilized tenants rather than wage workers given the paucity of labour available at the time.’ This is particularly so, given that landowners in New York were ‘fully market orientated with no open field or commons traditions standing in the way’ (p.63; Parisot is quoting here from David Hamilton Grace).

From empire to imperialism

A crucial thread that knits the whole analysis together is the role of imperialism, defined in a particular way, in the self-understanding as well as the actual practice of the settler societies. Parisot grounds this in the early language of colonialists who saw ‘empire’ as a positive virtue, and something that they were building on the continent; it was seen as ‘a space of freedom and independence from the tyranny of Britain’s cage’ (p.7). The ideological content of this understanding of ‘empire’ could perhaps have been explored a little further; part of the meaning appears to involve a sense of uncompromised sovereignty, which would connect it to earlier medieval notions of empire. It certainly enabled the settlers to dispossess, expel and murder the indigenous peoples of America with few qualms.

In any case, this attitude to empire lies in contrast to the disavowal of the idea in American culture by the end of the nineteenth century. This is an ironic shift, since by that time the United States was certainly an imperialist power in Marxist terms, but could no longer afford to see itself as such. The story closes in the decades after the Civil War, when an industrial capitalism of great cartels and trusts, and a pervasively commercialised economy, had now spread throughout the country.

Even though early settler society was not fully capitalist, there was a clear expansionistic drive early on, and a racist notion that the land was empty and unproductive, due to the indigenous people’s ‘failure’ to develop it. Parisot draws lines of continuity between these early attitudes and the militarist power of the 1890s, increasingly active in subjugating other peoples beyond the continental United States, such as Hawaii, (p.196) among other places such as the Philippines, for example.

On the one hand, Parisot agrees that imperialism in the capitalist era arises from ‘the interactions between banks and financial firms, industrial companies, states and so on’, but he argues that ‘empire’ was also built through the construction of hierarchies of gender and race. Here he goes back to W. E. B. DuBois’ analysis of ‘the ways in which racialized capitalist states and their capitalist firms battled … to create profits through the exploitation of racialized labour forces on a world scale’ (p.15). Indeed, he quotes DuBois to excellent effect in arguing that slavery was an integral part of the creation of capitalism:

‘Black labour became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose in both Europe and America’ (p.112).

Important strands of the argument return throughout the book to the issues of how gendered divisions of labour were created, as well as the central issue of slavery and racial oppression, in the formation of a mature capitalist society.

The patriarchal household

These points are well taken in general terms, but they also relate to Parisot’s characterisation of what he calls the ‘patriarchal household mode of social reproduction’ (p.17). This aspect of social organisation is presented as separate from the growth of capitalism as such, and sometimes even driven to resisting the pressures of capitalism on its integrity. Nevertheless, the patriarchal household shared in the racialised and gendered imperatives of the latter, to the point of making a crucial contribution to those aspects of the resultant capitalist ‘Empire’ of the United States.

The ‘patriarchal household’ certainly was central to almost all early settler societies despite their variety, and a case can certainly be made that many of these resisted capitalist imperatives to some degree: ‘Social regulation and the maintenance of a Puritan hierarchy took precedence over the law of value in regulating land control’ (p.33). In New York, wages for artisans were routinely set and re-adjusted, factories needed official approval, while the notion of ‘a just and fair profit’ was not a capitalist one, but rather born of a wish to manage community relations harmoniously (pp.34-5). Yet, it should be said, forms of social regulation are not incompatible with fundamentally capitalist relations. 

Even so, some groups of settlers, like the Mennonites, did reject private property in land, preferring to emphasise the importance of communal regulation, and some of the descendants of such groups still survive today. However, as shown in Parisot’s account of the Moravians, among whom, unusually, women could take leadership position, these kinds of communities were always effectively under siege by the dominant forces of private-property relations (pp.71-2).

In Pennsylvania, such egalitarian religious communities were widespread. Yet even here, the founder, William Penn himself, with the personal intention as a Quaker to found a godly society, nevertheless set up a system of landholding that ‘was quickly subdivided into commodified shapes that could be sold for a profit’ (p.69). The city of Philadelphia, as a major centre for Atlantic trade, was a central factor in subsuming settler society under the dominance of the capitalist market. Indeed, it is clear that international capitalist relations were crucial in the formation of the early colonies, as in Virginia where the goal from the start was to ‘produce basic commodities such as oil, wine, and sugar, moving England away from dependence upon foreign sources’ (p.24).

Nonetheless, the avoidance of, if not actual resistance to, capitalist relations, was a widespread and recurring phenomenon across the history of frontier society. As settlers moved westwards, many, if not most, were driven by a search for ‘freedom’, conceived as an escape from dependence upon commodity producing for the market, or, worse, wage working. Settlers made recurring attempts to build local, non-commodified subsistence economies, based on kin groups and barter, rather than being enmeshed in the capitalist market.

Slavery and capitalism

It is true, even so, that these settlers could very often be at the forefront of the genocidal violence with which Europeans expelled the First Nations from their lands. Equally, the ‘patriarchal household’ made use of slaves quite extensively, if mostly as domestic labour. Here we see the early colonial notion of ‘empire’ in action. In the northern states, however, slavery did not develop into an economy of commodity-producing plantations, as it did in the south, where large landowners were more dominant.

In this analysis, slavery is clearly and convincingly located within the wider capitalist system; capitalism is not defined in a positivistic fashion as based necessarily upon free wage labour, but is shown to be able to make use of a range of different labour forms. Indeed, in the context of the colonial world, it was essential to overcome the shortage of labour by employing various coercive strategies, including the use of indentured servants from Britain, who themselves were sometimes referred to as slaves (p.29). In Virginia:

‘Just as the Company shipped and sold women to male settlers, so they additionally sent over children. For example, in January 1619 it is recorded, “the Citie of London have by Act of their Common Counsell, appointed one Hundred Children out of their superfluous multitude to be transported to Virginia; there to be bound apprentices for certaine years.” During this time they also carried over servants to be exchanged with settlers in return for their passage … For the next few decades, indentured servants, more than slaves, would provide the main source of labour for the colony’ (p.28).

Slavery was then a strategy which grew out of a context where there was a shortage of labour. The capitalist content of the institution was its commodification of labour to the point where the very person of the worker had become a commodity. As the slave system matured, while industrial production grew, slaves could be, and frequently were, contracted out as wage workers in factories. In the early history of New York, there was a system of ‘half-freedom’, where after a time of service, an individual could be freed, but would still owe a yearly rent to the West India Company:

‘This status of half freedom demonstrates the continuum of free-unfree labour forms in the colony … slaves, half freed, and white and black labor were interchangeable from colonial capital’s perspective’ (p.61).

Forms of capital domination

The ‘patriarchal household’ of the settlers was always, and from the beginning, subject to pressures to adopt a market orientation in the production of commodities. The large generations of children were frequently and continuously driven to wage work to sustain themselves, as land in older colonies became scarcer (p.55). The result was a constant pressure on the western frontier for those who were seeking economic independence in subsistence production. Thus, the dynamic of rapid frontier colonisation was set. 

The ‘patriarchal household mode of social reproduction’ is clearly a carefully formulated concept, but there remains some ambiguity in how this structure of social organisation is understood to relate to capitalism. Clearly, early settlers on the east coast brought with them notions of community solidarity, even while their society was also hierarchical, patriarchal, and open to the exploitation of unfree labour. While it was associated with practices that restricted or restrained profit-making impulses, this should not be understood as meaning that the patriarchal household structure represented in any way an alternative to capitalism, or constituted the remains of an earlier ‘system’ as such.

Industrialisation would tend to degrade and undermine the integrity of the patriarchal household, but this is part of the inner dynamic of capitalism which creates its own gravediggers; a working class subsumed under capital in the real, as opposed to the formal sense. This is to say, in the real subsumption to capital, labour has been separated from the means of production, and reduced to the level of wage workers. This is opposed, for example to artisan production, which could nonetheless be formally subsumed under merchant capital, effectively producing surplus value for the merchant. Wage workers, whose household and domestic life is therefore separated from surplus-creating production, have a potentially more egalitarian household structure (although this could be true also of some artisans in earlier phases of industrialisation, most famously the hand-loom weavers).

However we interpret these problems, conflict between social reproduction and the drive for profit is a recurrent issue at the heart of capitalist economic relations. In the absence of older community regulation, eventually the state would have to step in with social reforms, such as the nineteenth-century factory laws, to regulate society so as to prevent the degradation of the labour force. The patriarchal household therefore was an integral part of the contradictory social structure of early capitalism.

Subsistence and market economies

Similarly, the impulse of settlers, across the centuries, to flee oppressive conditions in Europe, in the search of ‘freedom’ of some kind, and to drive westwards, was surely once again the product of the contradictions of capitalism. Parisot interestingly describes those settlers who resisted the pressures of commodification brought by speculators, as being involved in ‘class struggle’ (p.86). That is to say, the farmers on the frontier were resisting the market pressures which would bring their formal subsumption to capital, one step away from becoming reduced to wage-workers, as Parisot describes at several points in the narrative.

The sense in which America afforded space to attempt to escape from both capitalism and the patriarchal household is revealed at certain points. The frontier life that Parisot describes clearly often saw the breakdown of the patriarchal model, when people were isolated enough from more developed areas to live almost wholly subsistence based lives. In these circumstances, gendered norms and the standard division of labour could become blurred or disappear (p.91). This was sometimes to the dismay of travellers from the east, one of whom was shocked to discover that women on the frontier, ‘could only talk of bears, hunting, and the like. The rude pursuits, and the coarse enjoyment of the hunter state, were all they knew.’ The lack of normal femininity meant that another commentator found such women to be ‘by no means calculated to inspire admiration, but on the contrary disgust’ (p.134).

Early on, Parisot notes that he ‘follows Jairus Banaji’s call for historical materialism to stay continually open to the complexities of history’ (p.12), without defining more closely how far he follows the latter’s approach to modes of production and the position of different types of exploited labour within those. Nonetheless, his arguments on the use of a variety of exploitative forms within American capitalist relations, all of which fell under the dominant logic of capitalist social relations, suggests a definite adherence to such an analysis. If so, then the ‘patriarchal household mode of social reproduction’ should not be understood as a form of organisation distinct from capitalism as a totality, even if was not wholly part of the sphere of the circulation of capital in itself.

Indeed, by Parisot’s account this household form seemed rarely to be capable of resisting the spread of commodification and the market. It functioned more often as a means of breaking down the barriers to capitalism in non-colonised territories. Certainly, by the nineteenth century, the ability of subsistence orientated settlement to resist the domination of markets was increasingly limited. The story of the settlement, and commodification, of the west, was one of acceleration. Particularly as railroads began to be constructed, the supremacy of capital was ever more swiftly complete. It became increasingly hard for those on the frontier to remain isolated from wider economic forces. Possible differences of theoretical nuance aside, this aspect of the argument, where Parisot moves from the earliest colonies, to the later ones, ever westwards, is particularly convincing. He shows the increasing domination of profit-seeking and market-led social relations, and so reveals the driving logic of capital in the creation of the modern United States.

The Civil War and industrial acceleration

The Civil War appears as the final, and decisive turning point, where the capitalist market goes from being simply the dominant social relation to breaking through all remaining limitations and fetters. An accelerating burst of industrialisation took hold in the US after this point, and was clearly related to the defeat of the Southern plantation slave system. This was not, however, the vanquishing of a non-capitalist social system, but a conflict between two regimes of capital accumulation with distinct strategies. Parisot emphasises how the plantation economy showed all the rapacious dynamism of its northern counterpart:

‘Capital continually moved from region to region, and from crop to crop, in order to generate surplus value … as much as 30 percent of the south’s economic growth from 1840 to 1860 was due to the movement of population from the old south to the new’ (p.123).

Overall, this book presents a robust picture of how capitalism in the United States of America was constructed. Parisot shows that there was nothing inevitable or natural about the development of capitalism in the US. The forces promoting capital accumulation had to create favourable conditions against a range of obstacles, even though the international economic context ultimately gave capital the advantage.

The story also contains certain political lessons. The ambition of many settlers to escape oppressive and exploitative social conditions, through a flight into individual or even group autonomy from the system, appears to have been almost entirely futile. These colonisers of the frontier at best only paved the way for capitalism to overwhelm them sooner or later. Resistance to the system, and hope for a different kind of society, was only going to come from those under the ‘real subsumption of capital’, with the capacity to organise collectively; this was, then and now, the working class.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).