Hobsbawm's Theory on the General Crisis of the 17th Century

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Hobsbawm's Theory on the General Crisis of the 17th century

It is generally accepted by historians that there was a ‘crisis' that blanketed all of Europe during the 17th century. A myriad of revolts, uprisings and economic contractions occurred almost simultaneously and had a profound impact on the socio-economics of the entire continent. The topic for discussion in this paper is the effects that this ‘crisis' had on Europe and its developments. In particular, the focus will be on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and his theory that the 17th century crisis was the catalyst for the transition from feudal society to capitalism in England and ultimately the genesis of the industrial revolution. Hobsbawm argues that it was the crisis of the 17th century, particularly the Puritan Revolution, which enabled capitalism to escape the confines of feudalism and flourish as the dominant ‘ism' in England. While it is true that the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism did occur soon after the 17th century, it is not as clear as to what role the crisis of the 17th century had in their developments. Hobsbawm offers the 17th century crisis as the watershed responsible for the transformation, however, the evidence or lack thereof that he presents makes his hypothesis inconclusive if not unbelievable.

Capitalism during the 17th century is generally described as a parasite operating under the constraints of a feudal apparatus . Hobsbawm held that if "capitalism is to rise, feudal or agrarian society must be revolutionized" (pg14). In his paper The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, he outlined the criteria necessary for capitalism to become dominate. First, there must be enough accumulated capital to fund capitalistic expansion. Second there must be increase in the division of labor so production can increase to capitalistic levels . A large quantity of wage earners who exchange their monies for goods and service at market is also required. And lastly the current colonial system must be revolutionized as well.

The obstacles to the fulfillment of these criteria are as follows. Peasants and much of the general population rarely used money except when dealing with the state . Under the self sustaining localized agrarian economies of feudalism, there are an insufficient number of buyers of mass produced goods. This makes mass production uneconomical and thus capitalistic profits impossible. Under feudalism and the absence of a mass market, sellers would opt to make the most profit possible per sale by limiting production and focusing on luxury goods (ie silk and pepper) instead of more ‘revolutionary' commodities (ie sugar and cotton) which should be mass produced and sold at lower prices to generate maximum aggregate profits. With the lure of these revolutionary capitalistic profits absent, so is the fundamental motivation for establishment of capitalism .

In Alexandra Lublinskaya's book, French Absolutism: The Crucial Phase, Lublinskaya challenges many of the premises of Hobsbawms argument. Hobsbawn claims that in the 17th century, wealth became more concentrated than in previous times. In fact he uses this argument as a distinguishing factor between the 17th century and the crisis of the 14th century which had many similarities but did not lead to a capitalist society and an industrial revolution. He goes on to make the claim that the level of accumulated wealth prior to the 17th century is insufficient to jump start capitalism. He argues that while there may have been enough concentrated wealth to fund the building of factories and machines, it was still insufficient for the development of other instrumentals of industry primarily that of infrastructure. Lublinskaya argues that while levels of accumulated capital were probably less than optimal, there were avenues one could pursue to overcome this barrier. There were a large number of commercial and industrial companies to finance and invest in businesses requiring...
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