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Chapter 2 Modes of Production and Historical Development
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Anderson: The Absolutist State and the Feudal Mode of Production

Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974a) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974) by Perry Anderson are encyclopedic works, encompassing the slave mode of production of the Greeks and Romans, the emergence of feudalism, the crisis of the feudal mode of production from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, and the political and social consequences of the crisis for the different regions and kingdoms of Europe. What interests us here is the core of Anderson's broad synthesis—the internal dynamic of the feudal mode of production, the articulation of feudalism and capitalism, and the uneven and combined development of feudal Europe. Anderson adopts an extended rather than a restricted concept of feudalism. Whereas Bois and Kriedte focus on a more restricted view of the forces and relations of production, Anderson concentrates on the theoretically undeveloped political structures that assured the reproduction of the feudal forces and relations of production. In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism , Anderson adumbrates the key characteristics of the political instance within feudal societies: the "private sovereignty" of the lord of the manor, the progressive integration of political and economic relations as one moved down the feudal pyramids, and the multiple, divided, or "parcelized" sovereignties that proliferated as one moved away from the eminent domain of the prince. Parcelized sovereignties meant divided and overlapping systems of jurisdiction that were a source not only of potential peasant resistance and village independence but also of the relative autonomy of medieval towns. These sovereignties also implied relative weakness at the top of the feudal pyramids since feudal princes were obliged to live on their own feudal resources with little direct political control over the population as a whole.

Parcelized sovereignty is the key to what Anderson calls "the feudal dynamic." The dynamism of feudal social formations stemmed from the contradictory articulation of an overwhelmingly dominant natural economy (always including, however, a small commercialized sector controlled by nobles) with an urban economy dominated by patrician oligarchs, guilds, and monopolies (but also characterized by commodity production and monetary exchange). Further contradictions emerged from the existence of myriad systems of justice (royal, sei-


gneurial, religious) and property tenures (ranging from serfdom to free-holdings) within the feudal mode of production. Within these parcelized sovereignties the never-ending class struggle between lords and peasants was fought, shaped by differing historical conditions of existence, the uneven development of the state via intra-feudal rivalries (between lords, princes, towns, and the Church), and the varying regional levels of economic development (both with respect to the articulation of feudalism and capitalism specific to a particular place and time and the increasing integration of regional economies within feudal Europe as a whole). Anderson insists on the historical specificity of feudal social formations, the different paths to feudalism, and the variations of concrete feudal societies, and his analysis exemplifies the necessity and utility of distinct and discrete levels of historical analysis.

In Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism , Anderson emphasizes the significance of urban development for the differing outcomes of the fourteenth-century crisis of feudalism (overpopulation, famine, plague, seigneurial attempts to shift their economic losses onto the peasantry, peasant rebellions and resistance to these efforts, and finally the endemic warfare between noble factions, each attempting to recoup their fortunes by booty and ransom at the expense of the other). Baldly stated, Anderson argues that serfdom disappeared in Western Europe because urbanization, structurally sheltered by the parcelization of feudal sovereignty, proceeded to the point that it could decisively alter the outcome of the class struggle in the rural sector. The towns were not only the locations of the greatest agricultural commercialization and the place where lords were under the greatest pressure to realize their incomes in money form; they were also, Anderson points out, the places where a flight from serfdom was a permanent possibility for discontented peasants. In Western Europe, the seigneurial class was unable to maintain serfdom, although the nature of the transformation of the countryside varied with economic and political structures. In England and Castile, seigneurial political power permitted enclosures and wool production as an alternative to seigneurial levies; in France and southwestern Germany, where peasant organization and noble rivalries had most eroded seigneurial authority, lords resorted to outright sale of emancipation and the security of peasant tenures (subject to certain seigneurial prerogatives) was assured; in northern Italy, the supremacy of the communes eliminated serfdom two or three generations ahead of France or England, and the region developed the first large-scale forms of commercial farming as well as short-term leases and sharecropping.

The great feudal depression of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries


was not a homogeneous phenomenon; it had different effects in different areas. However, Anderson posits a basic general division between the crisis in Western Europe, brought on by the classic mechanisms of expansion beyond the structural limits of the feudal mode of production, and the crisis in Eastern Europe, where the feudal system was nowhere near the boundaries of possible expansion. The crisis in Eastern Europe developed after and as a result of its Western counterpart. It initially involved agrarian depression: the collapse of grain prices in the West dried up the emerging grain trade between East and West, and the demographic migration that had stimulated Eastern European development during the preceding century came to an abrupt halt. The delayed onslaught of plague added to the agrarian and demographic crises. Face with a shortage of peasants and economic losses, the lords of Eastern Europe responded, predictably, by imposing new social controls and greater levies on the peasants (which were, predictably, resisted by the peasants in a series of massive rebellions) and by engaging in civil wars.

The crucial difference between the manorial reactions in Eastern and Western Europe, according to Anderson, is the fact that there were fewer and weaker urban centers east of the Elbe. This fundamental weakness of the towns allowed the seigneurial class to succeed in their manorial reaction and slowly subjugate the towns, destroy peasant rights, and systematically reduce tenants to serfs. The historic defeat of the towns, Anderson concludes, cleared the way for the imposition of serfdom in Eastern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, precisely the reverse of the situation in Western Europe. The degradation of the peasantry, whose village organization was relatively weaker and who the lacked the urban escape valve of Western peasants, paralleled the spread of export agriculture directed toward Western markets in Eastern Europe. Eastern lords had the advantage of vast land reserves coupled with a lack of opportunities in less labor-intensive forms of agriculture such as wool production. Cereal production on large manorial estates was the obvious economic course of action, but this course restricted not only the development of greater agricultural productivity but also the growth and autonomy of towns as well. In Eastern Europe, the dissolution of serfdom had to await the employment of new, more intensive methods of cultivation by the aristocratic estates in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—methods that required more and more efficient labor than the feudal mode of production could supply and therefore made agrarian "revolution from


above" a practicable strategy, first in Prussia, then in the Austrian Empire, and finally in Russia.

In Lineages of the Absolutist State , Anderson turns to the political consequences of these economic transformations, the absolutist state, which he defines as a feudal state. Although in Western Europe absolutist states mediated between the interests of the seigneurial and the entrepreneurial classes, it would be a mistake, according to Anderson, to designate them as bourgeois states. They represented, first and foremost, "a redeployed and recharged" apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position—despite and against the gains they had won by the widespread commutation of dues. In short, Anderson concludes, the absolutist state was "never an arbiter between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, still less an instrument of the nascent bourgeoisie against the aristocracy: it was the new political carapace of a threatened nobility" (P. Anderson 1974, 18). The absolutist state was simply the political reorganization of feudal domination and exploitation determined by the crisis of seigneurial revenues and the spread of commodity production and exchange. To be sure, Anderson admits, the shaking down of feudal pyramids into national monarchies was a violent process that left residues of resentment between magnates and monarchs. The development of the absolutist state paralleled and accelerated the dissolution of seigneurial authority by concentrating previously parcelized sovereignties at the top, Weber's famous monopolization of the means of violence, but conversely, the absolutist state invested noble status and landed property with new guarantees. As sovereignty became more "public," property became more "private," but aristocracies remained the dominant and privileged class. The absolutist state not only guaranteed their continued predominance in the countryside (by guaranteeing their titles to the land and their remaining seigneurial rights and prerogatives) but also created new sources of aristocratic income through military and administrative service to the crown. These incomes, of course, were ultimately derived from taxing the non-noble classes, and therefore constituted a centralized alternative to the localized, seigneurial levy that it supplemented and ultimately replaced.

If the structure of absolutist states was fundamentally determined by developments within the feudal mode of production—namely, the dissolution of serfdom and the political reorganization of aristocratic power—it was "secondarily overdetermined by the rise of an urban bourgeoisie which after a series of technical and commercial advances


was now developing into pre-industrial manufactures on a considerable scale" (P. Anderson 1974, 23). The unequal power and rank of the landed aristocracies and the urban bourgeoisie shaped the spread of Roman law in Renaissance Europe. Roman law, with its emphasis on sovereignty from above and absolute and unconditional private property from below, was encouraged by absolutist states and by the urban bourgeoisie at the expense of parcelized sovereignty and conditional property characteristic of classic feudalism. Absolutist states were promoters of law, but they were feudal war machines as well, reflecting the fact that in the feudal mode of production war was a rational and rapid way for the ruling class to acquire territory and thereby expand its surplus extraction. Absolutist states were thus characterized by contradictory elements of modernity and archaism, formal rationality coupled with a warrior ethos, which stemmed from the particular conditions of the feudal-capitalist articulation.

On the one hand, the development of a state bureaucracy and centralized taxation system facilitated rationalized administration, in contrast to the jumble of conflicting jurisdictions characteristic of parcelized sovereignty; on the other hand, it created "a monetarized caricature of a fief" by means of venality, the sale of offices that conferred privileged status on bourgeois buyers. This system, of course, created some tensions between old and new aristocrats, but it also had the effect of integrating the bourgeoisie into the state apparatus and ensuring their "subordinate assimilation" into a feudal polity wherein the nobility constituted the summit of the social hierarchy. Finally, mercantilism, the dominant economic philosophy of absolutism, reflected a contradictory adaptation of a feudal ruling class to an integrated market within the context of predatory power. According to Anderson, mercantilism not only represented a modern notion of state interest in productivity and intervention in the economy toward this end but also emphasized the feudal idea of economic expansion by conquest and military appropriation of rival economies. The interlocking ideas of wealth and war developed from the feudal mentality of extensive growth in the context of a zero-sum model of world trade. However, this feudal policy was felicitous for the commercial and manufacturing bourgeoisie as well. The bourgeoisie provided the ships, the implements of war, and a considerable portion of the finances for predatory absolutism, and in return absolutism granted considerable upward mobility to the bourgeoisie and, perhaps more important, considerable autonomy for capitalist forces and relations of production.


The emergence of centralized feudalism played an important but contradictory role in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Mirroring the complexities of the articulation of feudal and capitalist relations of production that it attempted to reproduce, the absolutist state was increasingly caught between two antagonistic tasks: on the one hand, providing for the economic well-being and ideological hegemony of the aristocracy; on the other hand, increasing the economic power and productivity of the kingdom as a whole. Its growing relative autonomy increased the discrepancy between its own fiscal-administrative functions and its attempts to reproduce feudal relations of production and aristocratic hegemony. As we have seen, royal taxation constituted a superior method of extorting the agrarian surplus, but the result was not only a further weakening of the seigneurial levy in the face of royal competition but also a lowering of the ceiling of subsistence for the peasant community as a whole. The monopoly of violence exercised by the state not only eroded the military power of the aristocracy but also constituted the means by which new economic rules and market unification were created, developments without which the expansion of capitalism would have been considerably slower. The insatiable demands of the absolutist state for loans, mercantilism and trading monopolies, powerful administrative positions, and the lucrative business of tax farming—all these factors facilitated the spectacular rise of bourgeois commercial-financial empires, while the increasing development of commercialization and capitalist manufacturing created social structures that became increasingly difficult to integrate into a feudal system. The contradiction between ascriptive and earned status, so long papered over by means of the royal bureaucracy, became increasingly intolerable. Parcelized sovereignty, embodied in the private sovereignties of manorial lords and urban patriciates, acted as a brake to the centralizing power of the absolutist state, but also transmuted itself into new demands for "liberty" and "freedom" from all feudal privileges and prerogatives.

Anderson's concept of the absolutist state, presented schematically here, is by no means insensitive to the historical specificity of each particular example. He emphasizes, in particular, the later, more reactive, and more militaristic and authoritarian character of absolutism east of the Elbe, a function of military pressure from the West but also a result of the relative underdevelopment of Eastern Europe, which was characterized by a more powerful and feudal aristocracy and a smaller and weaker urban bourgeoisie than was the case in Western Europe. Unfor-


tunately, we cannot follow Anderson's specific analyses of the differences between and within Western and Eastern European absolutisms but must rest content with noting that these differences reflected the uneven and combined development of Europe. They were thus variations, not repudiations, of the general conceptual framework elaborated here.

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