Digging the wrong way

Issue: 107

Helen Salmon

A review of John Landers, The Field and the Forge (Oxford University Press, 2005), £22.50

This book is an account of the transition from what John Landers calls the ‘organic economy’, that is an economy based on agrarian production with little mechanisation fuelled almost entirely by animal and human muscle power, to a ‘mineral economy’ of towns and industry. Landers argues that political centralisation and war were the primary motors of the transition from an organic economy to a mineral economy and that the military revolution, rather than the rise of capitalism—was therefore the stimulus to the creation of the modern state.

Readers of this journal will be more familiar with this process being called the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Marxists see the economic transition as being the motor of change, leading to the rise of a capitalist class that came to politically challenge the feudal order in the English and French revolutions. Landers sees the forming of the modern state as being state-led, under the impetus of the age of mass war that came with the use of gunpowder.

In the organic economy the vast majority of the population had to be food producers. Populations were very thinly spread across land masses. There was little incentive to create a usable transport infrastructure because the small development of markets meant there was never a high volume of traffic on one particular route. All transport was driven by animals’ muscles, which limited what could be transported. Food commodities were bulky, so they were only carried short distances. Therefore each area had to produce all its own food, which impeded the regional specialisation that could have led to a more developed economy.

Landers argues that this organic economy limited the consolidation of political power. He defines political power as the extent to which a ruler can exercise coercion beyond the geographical seat of power. Power was therefore limited by the scattered nature of population settlement. The scarcity of resources endemic to organic economies limited the effectiveness of armed forces. Rulers’ lack of finance meant responsibility for land seized in wars was often devolved to local warlords. Similarly, the raising and payment of armies was often contracted out to local chieftains. This meant that even where states grew through conquest the power of the central government was weakened and threatened by civil war.

For Landers, the gunpowder revolution of the 17th century was a pivotal point in the development of warfare and therefore of economic and political change. The use of gunpowder massively enlarged the scale of warfare. Wars lasted longer, killed many more people and cost enormously more, but the potential returns on military expenditure for rulers were now multiplied out of all proportion to the costs of war. Consequently the use of public finances for war grew hugely.

Landers argues that the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France represented a battle between two economies. France, operating with a wholly modern form of raising an army—ideological zeal and compulsion—expected each war to pay for the next one. Britain’s ability to revolutionise production in the 18th century allowed a new, modern system of public credit and taxation to be established that enabled it to stave off the fiscal collapse that had felled other European states and win the war with France.

The massive growth of London was key to this breakthrough to a mineral economy (or industrial revolution, as the process is more widely known). London required fuel, which was transported by sea from the Newcastle coalfields. The need to make the coalfields more efficient led to the use of steam pumps, and the need to transport coal to the docks led to the first railroads. The needs of war forced this breakthrough, creating the apparatus of a modern state.

This view of the transition from the agrarian to the industrial economy states that the revolution in military technology was the prime factor in creating the modern state, rather than the rise of the capitalist class. Landers does not talk about which class controlled the new economy, or the systems of public credit, as important factors. The change in the nature of economic power enriched a new class that pushed against the political barriers of feudalism.

As Landers says, it was in Britain that the industrial revolution was born. However, far from it being the state that drove this process, of all the European powers, Britain had the weakest level of state control over the economy. The industrial revolution was driven by private capital, not the state. It was the mismatch between the growing economic power of this rising capitalist class and the lack of political power afforded to it that led to the political revolutions against feudalism and the growth of the modern state.