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Archive for January 2nd, 2010

Daniel Little has a thought-provoking post on the so-called Brenner debate, in which the causes for the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe are disputed. The basic lines of argument are as follows:

  • population growth => economic activity => sustained economic growth (Postan)
  • weak peasant farmers, strong capitalist farmers => enclosure and farming innovations => rapid agricultural growth (Brenner)
  • enhanced protections of property rights => incentive for profitable activity => sustained economic growth (North)

However, Little argues that this schematic presents a false choice. He then abstracts a larger point:

In short, one important consequence of the Brenner debate was the renewed focus it placed on the question of social causation.  Brenner and the other participants expended a great deal of effort in developing theories of the causal mechanisms that led to economic change in this period.  And in hindsight, it appears that a lot of the energy in the debates stemmed from the false presupposition that it should be possible to identify a single master factor that explained these large changes in economic development.  But this no longer seems supportable.  Rather, historians are now much more willing to recognize the plurality of causes at work and the geographical differentiation that is inherent in almost every large historical process.

I’m only barely familiar with the terms of this debate, but Little seems to be arguing that overdetermination is a plausible approach to social causation, in itself a Marxian idea.

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