The Spinning Jenny

The Spinning Jenny

A comparison with the history of England shows why, in the end, the Dutch Republic could not hold on to its head start on the road to the modern form of capitalism. Just as on the Continent, in England the disintegration of feudalism took place after the plague. But although the English serfs had been freed, their hold on the land was not as firm as that of their counterparts on the Continent. The monarch got his money from the towns and therefore it was less in his interest to protect the peasants. Large landowners – not only the aristocracy – could gradually enlarge their estates by provoking the peasants into leaving their land. In England, the alliance was between the large landowners and the king, the biggest landowner, against the peasants. The difference with Prussia, where a comparable alliance existed, is that the peasants were not bound to the land. Unlike the Junkers, who definitely felt a certain responsibility towards the serfs, a lord in England was not bothered by legal or moral objections to taking away the livelihood of his peasants.

The large landowners in Britain did not lease their land to a dozen or so peasants, but to one big tenant farmer who had to hand over a part of his profits to the landowner. Therefore, it was to the benefit of the tenant farmer to maximize his profit margins and so he tried to have the work done by as few day laborers as possible.

Consequently, the British Isles gave birth to numerous labor-saving and production-enhancing innovations. Even before 1740, British grain could easily compete with grain from the Baltic. The most important innovation was the discovery that the tubers of the potatl-plant which had been imported from Mexico were edible, and since then the potato has become the main staple food of the working classes in Europe. A second consequence of the British system was that, generally speaking, the owner was never present on his estates. He kept control of everything from a distance without taking part in the labor process himself.

The now redundant English peasants did exactly what their counterparts in Holland had done in the fourteenth century: they left for the towns and looked for work in trade and industry. Fortune smiled on the English unemployed just as cynically as it had on the Hollanders. The period between 1630 and 1740 in Europe was marked by stagnation in population growth, and in this case it had not been caused by an epidemic, but by war. There was plenty of work in industry and food was cheap – it did not even need to be imported. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, the British economy drew level with that of Holland.

In the eighteenth century, Holland was rapidly overtaken by England, where an agrarian type of capitalism had evolved. The English lords had developed a commercial mindset, their tenant-farmers had implemented one innovation after another and the nobility was prepared to invest in new inventions. And these came in quick succession. In 1767, the spinning jenny was invented and two years later, James Watt improved the steam engine, a machine that, even more than the windmill, used a source of energy not dependent on human or animal effort. The mechanical loom, the steam ship and the train followed. But, most important of all was the invention of artificial fertilizer. This increased the yield from the land to such a level that more and more people could be employed outside agriculture.

It was no accident that the Industrial Revolution started in England, as the large landowners had a much more businesslike mentality than elsewhere. Furthermore, it was important that the King of England, William III, had no objections to sharing power with a Parliament in which the towns and the aristocracy were represented. While William’s archenemy Louis XIV stifled the emergence of craft and industry in the French towns by basing his absolute rule on the peasant classes, England’s Dutch king gave every encouragement to emerging innovative forces.

The nineteenth-century English liberals called William’s seizure of power ‘the Glorious Revolution’. Of course that is a lovely euphemism for what was actually the subjugation of a country. But with William’s takeover, monarchical absolutism was blocked, and conditions for revolutionary industrial growth were created. In this sense Britain’s defeat was indeed ‘glorious’.

>> to the next section >>