thoughtpurge re: 'The Origin of Capitalism' by Ellen Meiksins Wood


it was agrarian farmers in late medieval england!! a somewhat hands-off state plus the invention of a concept of 'land improvement' (and the constant valuation of land and setting of rents based on that valuation). the author really frames it as the whole codependent system of: land owner who sets rents based on surveyed economic 'value' (potential profitability), land renting farmer who needs to meet that surveyed value, and landless farmers who work for the renter in exchange for wages. but it seems that the valuation of land, causing the necessity to 'improve' the land, is the heart of it (to me at least).


i learned from this book that the word 'improve' has its roots in this specific era, and actually etymologically means very specifically 'to make more profitable' in a financial sense. made me think about the grading scale i was evaluated on as a kid, where the less than satisfactory score was 'Needs Improvement', haha. i think the generalized mandate to constantly Improve is a pretty broad and pernicious ethos today.

it made me think also about strategy games, especially grand strategy games, where i think probably the single most significant throughline, even going through the most 'wholesome' seeming variations of the genre, is the satisfaction of finding waste land, enclosing it, and improving it. i think critics of the genre focus a lot more on the bodily violence in these games, and of course on the colonialism and the constant expansion of national borders. but i actually think this ethos of improvement is deeper rooted in the genre and, possibly, moving past this ethos or breaking it somehow is a more relevant project: people pretty much agree in the 21st century that colonialism and direct physical violence are bad. however we're in this death spiral regardless, driven now mostly by a self-reproducing economic order which arose originally from the concept of land value and improvement.

(this is really an aside, but another deeply rooted genre tendency i think is Bad in an important way, and which also does not get talked about much, is the way these games frame nations as having a coherent mapping to an individual player's will, the way they encourage players to identify themselves with some kind of rational administrator, especially one who makes the best choices available and arrives at industrial capitalist empire regardless)


something this book did for me, someone who until reading it was more or less convinced that 'imperialism', 'capitalism', 'colonialism', 'globalism', even 'racism', 'patriarchy' etc are words describing different aspects of a single inextricable form, is to break down what capitalism is, very specifically, and hold it up in observation/comparison against noncapitalist empires. honestly writing this is a little embarrassing, because obviously empires have existed before capitalism did, but.. i just didnt think about it!! sorry haha.

reading the book made me much more open to critical readings of 'empire', to take just one of these aspects, which dont mention or rely on capitalism as its generator. it also made me think more broadly about noncapitalist futures or pasts as still very much susceptible to oppression, domination, hierarchy. this change in perspective has i think been really good for making me see and think about things in a more clearheaded and honest way.

i especially appreciated the discussion of the dutch republic's economy: one which relied on profit-taking in the form of markups on goods bought cheap in one more or less isolated marketplace and then shipped and resold at a profit in another market somewhere else. sounds capitalist!! but it doesnt rely on the development of productive forces or the improvement of profit-margins on the extraction of surplus value from waged labor, and so did not generate the industrial growth representative of later capitalism. money, markets, trade, profit-seeking, oppressors in fancy cities and oppressed working on their behalf in terrible conditions, but still not capitalism, whaddya know. just something to think about!!


the author is very pessimistic about the possibility of escaping the profit motive and the constant need for 'improvement' - and ive also been running up against this lately. even if it were just me working on a project, my rents are being set by the profitability of the labor of my neighbors, many of whom are tech workers, and so theyre way out of proportion for me, as someone actively doing something less profitable than i could be. the same is basically true for any 'off-team'/'external' work we might benefit from (localization, porting, pr, etc) - rates are set by big, highly profitable, deep pocketed financiers of games. we cant (wont) get the same returns, which the costs rise up to meet, so we would actually lose money by hiring them.

but is it so inescapable? i work on a team with others who see the project as a more pure art project, who meet their rent with other work. and realistically this is what i do too, just more sporadically with contracts. so in some sense i havent escaped it at all - i just dont think of that profitable (contract) work as my main thing im doing with my life. but in another sense on our teams we have escaped it: we're making work that does not bend to market forces, so long as we don't bend it.

i feel the compulsion towards profit when i evaluate our earnings on our games, and when i think about marketing or planning timelines for future projects. it's important on some level to evaluate our audience and the feasibility of our timeline, and it's easy for that evaluation to slide into 'it needs to be profitable' since in some ways those things are closely related (and since ive learned about audience evaluation and timeline 'budgeting' from people who really do need it to be profitable) (and since obv it would be nice if it was profitable). but i think in some part that's actually a 'me problem'. since the rest of my team is not thinking of this work as profit-driven, in some ways it really isnt profit-driven until i let that compulsion drive me. so i think maybe im just not going to. im going to try to ignore the fact that this doesnt really 'add up' or 'make sense' as a 'career' and instead focus on the work i want to make, and when my money does run out, well, ill just find work somewhere! thats fine.

im sure this just sounds like 'hobbyist' to some people but i think that giving your work this room in your life (without treating it like it's secondary to whatever means of subsistence might be backing it, which i think the word 'hobbyist' does) means your work can exist in interpersonal modes that escape the brutality of the economic order. i think that's essential to finding whatever seed can survive or subsume the current order - it wont be found within these hyper-resilient self reproducing patterns, it'll be found on the margins or in the in-between spaces we hold open for it.

February 28, 2021