Other Englands
Utopia, Capital, and Empire in an Age of Transition
Sarah Hogan



Origin Stories

In 1609, Robert Gray, an Anglican preacher and a propagandist for the Virginia Company, writing from the comfort of his home in London, would recruit overseas adventurers by promising them “all happie and prosperous successe, which may either augment your glorie, or increase your wealth, or purchase your eternitie.”1 This was the same year the Sea Venture wrecked on the coast of Bermuda, while Jamestown’s settlers, faced with the prospect of starvation, were forced to resort to cannibalism. But like the children of Joseph, assured of a new homeland by Joshua, Gray’s readers were instructed to “flie out and looke abroad” for a kingdom providentially bestowed upon a great people, if only they were willing to cross seas, level mountains, and vanquish America’s “brutish savages.” His readers’ happiness had been discovered and rhetorically envisioned; now they would need only to realize it.2 Though recent ages in England had felt no urgent need for expansion, or so Gray asserts, “multitude,” or what we would now call overpopulation, occasions his biblically framed injunction to emigrate. Behind his vision of the New World as New Canaan is then a vision of an implied present gone wrong, or at the very least, a less than utopian England.

Indeed, Good Speed to Virginia, like so many sermons advocating for early seventeenth-century settlement, overoptimistically imagines the early English colony as a solution or “remedie” to England’s demographic and social crises, particularly unemployment and dispossession.3 Gray describes the English body politic’s illness and ailments as follows:

Our multitudes like too much bloud in the body, infect our countrey with plague and pouertie, our land hath brought foorth, but it hath not milke sufficient in the breast thereof to nourish all those children which it hath brought forth, it affordeth neither employment nor preferment for those that depend vpon it: And hereupon it is, that many seruiceable men giue themselues to lewd courses, as to robbing by the high way, theft, & cosoning, sharking vpon the land, piracie vpon the Sea, and so are cut off by shamefull and vntimely death: others liue prophanely, riotously, and idely, to the great dishonour of Almightie God, the detriment of the commonwealth.4

There are echoes of Thomas More’s near-sociological correlation of unemployment with crime here, yet in Gray’s tract, the country’s not-too-distant past—like Nova Britannia—might also be said to be an alterae terrae, or a more Golden Age, since this plagued nation once “yéelded vnto all that were in it a surplussage of all necessities” when the “Commons of our Country lay free and open for the poore Commons to inioy, . . . [and] there was roome enough in the land for euery man, so that no man néeded to encroch or inclose from another.”5 Contrasted with a contemporary England that has birthed more children than it can rear, an imaginary, romanticized, and irrevocably lost past offers a second fiction to counterbalance Virginia’s redemptive plantation. Gray gestures both backward to a feudal commons and outward to a land of limitless property (because not yet claimed) in order to envision a more peaceful, plentiful future commonwealth that will immortalize its settlers, purge England of its excesses and crimes, and all the while, “increase” the nation’s collective wealth.

I do not start with this tract because it offers a novel colonial or nationalist fiction, but because it might be said to exemplify the rhetorical rule. In the propaganda of early empire, idealized fictions of an English past and future belie an England made strange to itself—historically as well as geographically. Caught in the purgatorial limbo of its self-generated mythical histories and its fictions of millennial-colonial destiny, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England is represented in a state of transitional indeterminacy. Gray is not alone in this regard; as Andrew Escobedo—building on Walter Benjamin’s, Benedict Anderson’s, Michel Foucault’s, and Michel de Certeau’s theories of homogeneous time—has explained, “Renaissance writers often find the national present eerily empty, temporally isolated from both past and future,” and consequently, they evoke “the impression of historical difference,” “temporal provisionality,” and even “anachronism.”6 In other words, for many early modern subjects, just as for Hamlet, their moment seemed a “time out of joint.”7

This sense of self-alienation, this perception of difference, has several overdetermined causes that historians and cultural critics of the redubbed “early modern” era have long identified: demographic growth, yes, but also religious reformation, a royal consolidation of power, the epistemic shift occasioned by Atlantic exploration and discovery, and as Gray himself suggests, the economic transformations that marked the end of feudal Britain, like the enclosure of the commons. My concern in this study is mainly with the means by which England’s agrarian, mercantile, and imperial transformations created both crisis and hope, and crucially, an impression of systemic social difference that would generate a future-oriented historical consciousness articulated through fictions of state. This experience of the present as Other, as transitional and provisional because both territorially and historically estranged from an English past, I will suggest, prompted writers to compose totalizing, utopian fictions of difference and economic improvement, both ambivalent and earnest.

This is to say, the personal experience of social transformation—as loss or gain—need not only have triggered nostalgia; living memory often combined with a proleptic, worldly curiosity and, just as often, a violent will to make history anew. For every nostalgic writer like John Stow, who summoned “up the ghost of a past world to redress the unequal balance of the new,”8 there were also those who sought solutions in sites beyond London’s ruins, and others, still, who actively welcomed a changeable world, willfully leaving the known one behind. Colonial and/or utopian discourses like Gray’s sermon are a case in point: here, the New World is cast as a chance for both England and its subjects to begin again.

What this suggests is that for promoters of exploration and expansion, time had a spatial character, and thus, the representation of other worlds could be put to use in the ideological construction of the future or as a means for unmaking the present. In an effort to encourage mass migration and new social experiments abroad, the future was often projected beyond the shores of the British Isles. Utopian fictions, like the travel and colonial writing they discursively mimicked, begin with this spatio-temporal conceptualization, playfully posing the possibility of an England that is and is not yet, and while nowhere, it is simultaneously here and elsewhere. This book will argue, then, that the spatial irony of early English utopias formally and ideologically registers the transitional, indeterminate present of what would become a capitalist world economy. And moreover, that the novelty of early modern utopias—specifically, their tendency to privilege the systemic reform of institutions as the means for (re)forming both individuals and communities—must be understood as a representational engagement with historical change in the abstract as well as the felt, experiential sense.

Historicizing Utopia

In Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson defines utopia as a “representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and the systemic nature of the social totality.”9 Jameson’s definition aptly captures what distinguishes most early modern utopias from previous traditions of the ideal society—namely, the emphasis on social systems as opposed to either philosophical idealism or prelapsarian myths—while still leaving the term utopia open enough to account for multivalent, interchangeable meanings as either a literary genre, historical project, mode of thinking, social desire, or even an innate human propensity. As Ruth Levitas has charted, utopia in its diverse incarnations has historically constituted a discursive concept, a literary form, and a social function aimed toward transformation, to which we might add, a communal project actualized in the world.10 While some literary critics have taken a more hard-line approach to the project of defining utopia, arguing like J. C. Davis for structural understandings of utopia against the “imprecision” of other writers, the “conjunctural,”11 or historical, approach to defining utopia has won out in recent years. Following in the wake of Frank and Fritzie Manuel’s seminal Utopian Thought in the Western World, critics have tended toward historical analyses which recognize the “persistence of symbolic and residual utopian forms, as well as the . . . ‘hot’ motivation generated by immediate socioeconomic” and political factors.12 Because the historical context against which utopias take shape leaves such an indelible imprint on the utopia in question, usually as the social order being reproached (or, as Louis Marin and Jameson have argued, neutralized),13 historical analysis becomes an unavoidable concern. In other words, despite the lingering, popular misconception of utopia as an implausible, other-worldly discourse, it is in fact a most historical, this-worldly form.

The narratives of Renaissance utopias tend to work by way of socio-spatial juxtaposition, representing the ideal through a critical interrogation of the real. In the spatial play of two islands or two societies—sometimes explicitly or sometimes only implicitly evoking the real—the utopia gives fictive form to an authoring context which Christopher Kendrick has identified as an overdetermined economic modality.14 In the case of sixteenth-century England, this modality involves the coexistence of late feudal and early capitalist productive forces. In fact, a long line of critics, including Karl Kautsky, Louis Marin, Jameson, Richard Halpern, and Kendrick, have noted as much, situating utopias (and Thomas More’s founding work in particular) within moments of historical conjuncture, with special concern for locating the “origins” of the genre—or at least its rebirth—in the origins of capitalism.15 This contextualization requires no great stretch of the imagination when one recalls what is arguably the most straightforward passage in More’s playfully ambiguous Utopia: Raphael Hythlodaeus’s attack on the “dispeopling” enclosures of Henrician England.16

In Book One, Hythlodaeus tells the literary personas of More and his humanist companion from Antwerp, Peter Giles, about a past conversation he had with a lawyer at the house of Cardinal Morton. He offers his views on the reputed justice of the English penal system in this dialogue within a dialogue. For Hythlodaeus, the English execution of thieves is not only unjust, it is a facile remedy to the nation’s social ills.17 He instead suggests that rising rates of idleness, vagrancy, and crime in England are the result of peasant dispossession, not moral depravity. He cites the enclosure of arable land for pasture and the gentry’s greed as the real sources of England’s problems. In an ironic reversal that mocks the lawyer’s logic, he charges the sheep of England with an insatiable appetite that is ruining the livelihood of commoners and undermining the commonwealth’s stability:

Your sheep . . . that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour men themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses, and towns. For in whatever parts of the land sheep yield the finest and thus the most expensive wool, there the nobility and gentry, yes, and even some abbots though otherwise holy men, are not content with the old rents that the land yielded to their predecessors. Living in idleness and luxury without doing society any good no longer satisfies them; they have to do positive evil. For they leave no land free for the plough: they enclose every acre for pasture; they destroy houses and abolish towns, keeping only the churches—and those for sheep barns.18

There is a quick slippage here from England’s voracious sheep—who consume both the commonwealth and its populace—to a nobility that breeds overconsumption and acts according to an unnatural desire for ever-increasing profits. The carnivorous sheep of Book One stand in for enclosing—and metaphorically, cannibalistic—landlords and the idle rich of More’s England, who embody the moral corruption, religious error, and legal injustice of Tudor society. Hythlodaeus goes on to explain that as pales and hedges are thrown up by landlords, husbandmen are “thrust out on their own.”19 In what we would now identify as a systemic account of crime, More explains how necessity compels the dispossessed to wander, beg, or steal for their daily bread—regardless of the threat of capital punishment. Despite the humor and ambiguity that characterizes More’s humanist book, Hythlodaeus’s indictment seems to escape the ambiguous conceit of the work to present a moment of irrefutable critique.

In contrast, the Utopian island’s state of near full employment and communal property—as described in the second book of More’s Utopia (which was, famously, composed before the first)—quite explicitly outlines a society where theft is not only prevented, it is ostensibly not possible, given the absence of private property. In this way, More subtracts European practices from his imaginary island, and repurposes the masses of dispossessed English whom he discusses in Book One. As such, the fictional society of Utopia offers a vantage point from which to view the injustices of England itself, suggesting that to at least some extent, the utopian form emerges as a critical interrogation of what Marx would later call primitive accumulation—the historical theft of land that initiates the capitalist wage relation. Indeed, Marx himself would cite More’s satire on sheep in his chapter on “so-called primitive accumulation” in Capital.20

For Kendrick, whose work is strongly influenced by Marin’s Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, and by Jameson’s own extensions of Marin’s poststructuralist, psychoanalytical work, passages like the one above suggest that the liminal, quasi-feudal, and quasi-capitalist social relations of sixteenth-century England enable More to imagine “modes of production . . . in their interrelation.”21 Richard Halpern, too, in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, examines Utopia as an expression of capitalism’s preconditions, a context he describes throughout his book as a structural “decoding” and deterritorializing crisis of dispossession and “chronological dislocation,” which had not yet settled into a system of accumulation generated by the wage relation.22 In all of these accounts, More’s moment is one of conjuncture and overdetermination, in which a late feudal, relatively localized structure of production is increasingly defamiliarized and abstracted as the result of the rise of centralized monarchical rule, monetarization, commodity production, and the dispossession of petty producers.23 These readings of More’s book, then, highlight the spatial play of islands as a “neutralization” of sociohistorical contradictions—as opposed to an ideological resolution of them—that is, at least in part, a figuration and a reaction to an English transitional context that was both a moment of loss and “progress.”

To locate the origins of More’s Utopia in the context of capitalism’s original moments is by now a well-rehearsed argument, especially among Marxist literary scholars and theorists. However, while Marin, Jameson, Kendrick, and Halpern serve as important, ground-clearing precursors to this study, they have by no means exhausted this position in their sophisticated, theoretical insights into the mechanism of Utopia and its conditions of possibility. Other Englands will expand on this tradition in at least three specific ways: first, as a genuine genre study of early modern utopias that looks beyond More to consider a fuller range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century utopian responses to capitalism’s uneven development—including utopian works that represent more marginalized viewpoints on such changes; second, by looking beyond Marx and engaging throughout with competing histories of proto-capitalism offered (and disputed) by twentieth- and twenty-first-century British Marxist historians, world-systems theorists, and materialist feminists; and third, by thinking of the early modern utopian tradition and capitalism as always already implicated in an imperial imaginary that seeks outside solutions and spatial fixes to domestic crises. After all, the island and Atlantic imaginaries of most early modern utopian fiction suggests that even as early as 1516, domestic problems provoked oceanic explorations for solutions, as well as global alternatives and perspectives. In terms of methodology, then, this study will borrow from postcolonial, feminist, geocritical, and cultural materialist frameworks, in an effort to extend the Jamesonian utopia-in-transition thesis to a developing, dialogical tradition of utopian literature.

In many Marxist readings, More’s book is treated as both the exception and the rule, which may explain why it remains for a survey of the genre of early English utopias to test out the transition thesis; Utopia is at one and the same time both the most brilliant because ambiguous and original English utopia and the example that establishes a pattern to be adapted by nearly every other work in the tradition. While the novelty of More’s Utopia—a main point of consideration in the first chapter of this study—partially explains our tendency to privilege it in discussions of the discourse, genre-defining exercises and historical studies obviously require a comparative approach, both to reveal enduring trends and interrogate assumptions of uniformity. Consequently, I examine the idiosyncrasies in the form and content of each alternative social model, and approach utopia as a genre that is dialogically constructed in each intertextual iteration.24 Indeed, as capitalist practices of production, exchange, and expansion became more commonplace by the early seventeenth century, the concerns and forms of utopian literature also alter, often more explicitly aligning with an emerging ideology of improvement. Raymond Williams’s Keywords explains the sixteenth-century association of improvement with “profitable operations in connection with land,” but likewise notes that by the seventeenth century, the word was taking on a more general meaning of “making something better”25—a definition that tellingly suggests emergent capitalism’s own developing utopian rhetoric. In this comparison, the idealization and reorganization of labor and property will be shown to be a predominant, even primary feature of the early genre—not just of More’s Utopia—suggesting that historically pertinent problems like unemployment, dispossession, and the material and ideological crises of emergent capitalism drive the early modern utopian imagination. The very diverse perspectives and aesthetics of the utopian spatial narratives by Thomas More, Edmund Spenser, Isabella Whitney, Aemelia Lanyer, Francis Bacon, Gabriel Plattes, and John Milton that are examined in this study all reinvent systems of labor and property, while productive forces are shown to create possibilities for new collectivities—whether these solidarities are national, regional, class-based, occupational, gendered, or religious. Early English utopias, I will seek to demonstrate, were uniquely systemic narratives, reimagining the socioeconomic changes witnessed by their authors.

While the mechanism of utopia is crucial to this inquiry (in terms of elucidating the cultural work utopia performs by asserting the possibility of difference), a materialist approach to the tradition seems to require more attention to the imaginary societies as they are schematized and charted in each text. The blueprint utopia, however, has been a favorite whipping boy in the twentieth-century turn against utopia—in anarchic and liberal critiques as much as in the anti-communist, Cold War variety. Russell Jacoby makes precisely this point in his study of Hannah Arendt’s, Karl Popper’s, and Isaiah Berlin’s writings on democracy, where the model orders of early utopias are often equated with a will to domination; utopianism here becoming virtually synonymous with national socialism or Marxist totalitarianism.26 In twenty-first-century recuperations of utopia, such as Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future and Jacoby’s two books on the topic, The End of Utopia27 and Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, this equation between utopianism and authoritarianism is identified as a major obstacle to radical social movements and Leftist thought. Thus, Jameson and Jacoby rally the Left back to utopian thought by way of a strategic redefinition. Utopia is instead resuscitated by what Jameson—in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre—dialectically calls an “anti-anti-utopianism,”28 and what Jacoby refers to as “iconoclastic utopianism,”29 a mode of utopian thinking or an impulse he traces to Frankfurt School intellectuals like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and (perhaps more convincingly) Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse. In Jacoby’s account, in particular, the reputation of utopia has been sullied by the “blueprint utopian tradition,” a static, self-limiting style of utopianism that strives for social engineering. Writing on the failures of this tradition, Jacoby states:

[B]lueprints not only appear repressive, they also rapidly become dated. Even with the best of wills, they rapidly tether the future to the past. In outfitting utopia, they order from the catalog of their day. With their schedules and seating arrangements, their utopias stand condemned not by their capaciousness, but by their narrowness, not by their extravagance but their poverty. History soon eclipses them.30

Jameson, as a literary critic, does not share in Jacoby’s wholesale dismissal of the blueprint form—after all, Archaeologies of the Future concerns the history of utopian science fiction—but his concern is precisely with the way in which all utopian thought is eclipsed by history and tethered to the present. In this failure to imagine a wholly Other future, or in our poverty of imagination, Jameson finds a utopian impulse nonetheless. By calling attention to the limits on the thinkable or the representable, he argues that utopia “can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment.”31

No contemporary thinker has done more for Utopian Studies than Fredric Jameson, but I will suggest here that the diminishment of blueprint utopias seems to risk erasing the imaginative power of literary utopias—especially early examples from the genre—and to overlook the remarkably sociological and systemic perspective of utopian fictions, peculiar especially to those authored in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To ignore the specificity of utopian plans is to overlook was what so novel about the early modern tradition: the idea that life is profoundly shaped by institutional formations and that scholars, poets, and dramatists might themselves reimagine centers of power, community formations, or geopolitical identity. I would add that descriptive utopian fictions, however dated or impoverished they may now appear, from our vantage point of hindsight, often uncannily schemed worlds that were to come—an assertion that the following readings of Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (chapter 2), Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland (chapter 3), and Gabriel Plattes’s Macaria (chapter 5) hope to bear out. As such, these works, along with more truly radical blueprints like Gerrard Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom, seem to possess a practical, historical function that hints not just at the limits of the possible or the epistemological but at a future in the making.

But just as importantly, I will also explore how early English fictions of alterity demonstrate a range of subjective and class responses to the lived experience of emergent capitalism, from ambivalent or staunch critiques to anxious anticipations of a more extensive, complete expansion of capitalist policies like enclosure, colonial dispossession, free trade, the division of labor, and the gendering of labor and property. This is an insight that Marxist critics of utopia have tended to repress, preferring instead to cast utopia as an inherently anticapitalist form, spirit, or praxis.32 In viewing utopia as the antithesis of ideology (as Karl Mannheim does) or as the communal, compensatory mechanism that pairs with ideology in all cultural works (as Bloch and Jameson have argued), utopia is often conflated with a longing for communism.33 But as Marina Leslie points out, one of the defining characteristics of utopian literature is the tendency for each subsequent work within the genre to fashion itself as “an explicit or implicit rejection of the model offered by every other utopia,” meaning that utopias give expression to diverse and competing dreams for a better world.34 Indeed, a close look at the early tradition of utopian writing also stands as a reminder that capitalism has historically required its own utopias, if for nothing else than the winning of subjects’ consent to its cause.35 Especially in a moment of capitalism’s genesis, an “improving,” mercantile or imperial vision of another Britain possesses a kind of anticipatory power that puts literary innovation at the service of an emergent social order. This is not to claim, as was once the fashion, that Renaissance utopias possess a prophetic power, but instead to argue that culture possesses a social function that intervenes in historical praxis just as much as it represents it. One need only consider Vasco de Quiroga’s settlement in New Spain, or Oliver Cromwell’s campaign against the Irish, or the founding of the Royal Society to recognize that writers like More, Spenser, and Bacon exerted their own kind of influence. This study, then, will focus predominantly on the early history of capitalist utopias, and in some chapters, examine utopian fictions as a literary counterpart to early political economy and colonial propaganda.

Raymond Williams’s cultural materialist scheme is therefore an important source for this study of early English utopias. While Williams defends the importance of epochal analysis, he also insists that cultural critics must recognize not only “‘stages’ and ‘variations’ but the internal dynamic relations of any actual process.”36 In discussing the role of culture within social formations, Williams argues that “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.”37 In other words, culture is composed not only of dominant ideologies but also of oppositional or alternative experiences, meanings, desires, and beliefs. In Williams’s account, counter-hegemonic possibilities include the residual ways of living and thinking held over from past societies, as well as “emergent” forms or values. Williams’s concept of structures of feeling is therefore particularly useful for the study of utopia, especially when one considers Bloch’s theory of utopia as a form of “anticipatory consciousness.”38 Like Bloch, Williams complicates old notions of ideology, which even in twentieth-century redeployments too readily collapse culture, politics, and belief into a reflective expression of class position. Williams, however, recognizes modes of production as historical formations in process, and just as crucially, he identifies culture as a site of social struggle in which existing contradictions can be contested or torn asunder just as easily as resolved. While works of art are “explicit and finished forms,” Williams explains that “art itself is never in the past tense” because it belongs to a historically specific moment that is only ever experienced in process.39 Thus, he cautions that the literary critic should be careful not to assume the primacy of art either as an ideological, fixed form or as a purely subjective or idiosyncratic aesthetic. He argues instead that art, language, and literature are “inalienable elements of a social material process,” and that they are active agents in constituting practical consciousness. The plurality of structures is significant, for as Williams defines them, structures of feeling concern “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable (including historically variable), over a range from formal assent to private dissent.”40 In this sense, cultural works can possess an anticipatory impulse; they need not belong to an already established, solidified social formation with its congealed ideologies, but can function as a kind of “pre-emergence,” as meanings that press the limits of consciousness and semantic possibility.41 According to Williams, it is in moments of dynamic historical transformation that structures of feeling proliferate, and culture becomes a site for working through these upheavals.

Utopia, as a genre of and about social transformation, then, seems to be a privileged site for exploring the way in which early modern subjects represented and responded to the social, religious, ethical, and geopolitical changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We might even say that early modern utopias, as fictional blueprints, expressions of longing, spatial fantasies, or social criticisms, are structures of feeling par excellence. Though utopias often appear as static, fixed forms, they may be better understood as origin stories; utopias project new worlds, and each of these worlds registers its own historical situation as one of novelty, conjuncture, rupture, estrangement, contradiction, struggle, and renewal. Consequently, an inquiry into the economic transformations and instabilities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries can help us explain the defining characteristics of the then young literary-fictional genre now half a millennium old. In what follows here, and in the ensuing chapters, I will orchestrate a dialogue between theoretical, hermeneutic traditions of Marxist literary criticism and their empiricist, historicist siblings, thus bringing the transition debate to bear on the utopia-in-transition thesis, so as to expand the scope of both the contextualization and character of the emergent literary form.

Primitive Accumulation and the Transition Debate

The new world, which is painfully rising in so many English villages, is a tiny mirror of the new world which, on a mightier stage, is ushering modern history in amid storms and convulsions.

R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, 408.

A debate among economic—and mainly Marxist—historians over the conditions and defining characteristics of capitalism’s earliest moments has long concerned the question of whether or not capitalism began in the English countryside or on a “mightier stage.” The transition debate, as it is often called, can be traced back to Adam Smith’s and Karl Marx’s competing understandings of what they, respectively, called “prior accumulation” and “primitive accumulation.” In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had proposed that capitalism’s beginnings lay in a stockpile of wealth accumulated through individual acts of thrift, frugality, and ultimately, self-interest. In Smith’s optimistic and rather hypothetical account,42 accumulated wealth would generate trade and a specialization of the labor force that, in turn, would fuel capitalist economic development. Marx, however, interrogates Smith’s account, in the postscript to volume one of Capital, by historicizing “so-called primitive accumulation,” or the extra-economic form of accumulation that precedes capitalist accumulation proper. For our present purposes, Marx’s definition of the preconditions for capitalist development can be generally summarized as the transformation of communal property into private property, and un-free, usually serf labor into wage labor. What this entailed (and in some instances, continues to entail) is the expropriation of the masses from their means of production, and thus, their conversion into a class of wage laborers, dispossessed of land and no longer direct producers of their own subsistence. Principal instances of this in early modern England, according to Marx, included the enclosure movement and the dissolution of the monasteries, but also colonial projects, which served as “the basis of the capitalist mode of production” in his discussion.43 In the colonies, according to Marx, an entire surplus population was also created, forcibly removed from the soil and their own labor power, then resting in the hands of a small body of capitalists backed by a mother country.44 Importantly, in Marx’s account, force—not frugality—plays a pivotal role in the transformation of land into property and of peasants and natives into tenants, wage laborers, and in the case of the colonies, slaves. The difference between Marx’s and Smith’s theories of capitalism’s origins, then, has as much to do with geographical scope and empirical method as with their overall competing assessments of capitalist economic development.45

The debate about capitalism’s origins then found new form in the mid-twentieth century; this time among Marxists themselves. In 1950, the American economist and co-founder of the Monthly Review Paul Sweezy published a critique in the journal Science and Society of Maurice Dobb’s then recent book Studies in the Development of Capitalism. Dobb’s book offered a neoclassical, Marxist account of the transition in England, proposing that capitalism’s beginnings required the internal collapse of feudalism itself. In a dialectical argument, Dobb saw contradictions within the existing mode of production—in other words, class struggle—as the engine of historical change. What he was essentially critiquing was the commonplace assumption that capitalism was a product of increasing trade and urbanism—a theory that later voices in the transition debate would refer to as the commercialization model.46 For Dobb, the widening of the market was not a “sufficient condition” for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism;47 instead, he sought an explanation in “internal relationships” which stemmed from the “inefficiency of Feudalism as a system of production” for increasing ruling class revenue without exhausting or “squeezing” the labor force.48

Sweezy’s contention was that to understand proto-capitalism one needed a wider lens whose scope looked beyond Europe to also consider the influence of foreign trade, especially in the Mediterranean but also in the New World and Asia. In essence, what Sweezy proposed was that there was never such a thing as a nationally circumscribed capitalism. For Sweezy, long-distance trade was “a creative force, bringing into existence a system of production for exchange alongside the old feudal system of production for use.”49 This initial exchange kindled a series of articles, subsequently collected in The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (1978), in which Sweezy and Dobb, among others, articulated competing accounts that concerned much more than capitalism’s point of origin; despite the empirical emphasis of both writers, what was always at stake in the Sweezy-Dobb exchange was the ability to predict capitalism’s future demise, or in other words, the transition out of capitalism. Over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Sweezy and Dobb’s debate has gradually drawn in many Marxist economists and historians, including (but not limited to) Rodney Hilton, Perry Anderson, Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, André Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Silvia Federici, and Jim Blaut. The crux of the debate continues to be the question of capitalism’s prime mover or historical lever.50 Brenner and Wood, for instance, follow Dobb in viewing the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a matter of internal or immanent development, with its beginnings in agrarian England, whereas dependency and world-systems theorists Frank and Wallerstein have explored the transition as a condition of global productive forces and the transfer of wealth from the south to the north.

More than half a century after Sweezy and Dobb’s exchange, the global origins explanation remains a controversial position, owing mainly to the intervention of Brenner in the late 1970s. When Brenner published “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe” in Past and Present in 1976 and, fast on its heels a year later, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” in the New Left Review, the popularity of Third World theory was on the rise.51 The Vietnam War had recently ended and theorists like Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong attracted radical thought to the study of social development, to some extent displacing Eurocentric views of social causation and historical progress.52 Frank, for instance, challenged the tendency of development theory to portray modernization as a process of capitalist incorporation. He did so by examining underdevelopment, predominantly in Latin America, as the legacy of conquest and the result of the “structural inequality and temporal unevenness of capital accumulation.”53 Frank and Wallerstein challenged dualist conceptions of the developed and undeveloped world, arguing that the discoveries of 1492 had played a crucial role in beginning a process, however uneven, of world integration under an increasingly totalizing system of production and exchange. In their accounts, capitalism is recognized as possessing geographic centers of concentration and transfers of surplus, along with unequal productive relations that aim toward profit maximization. Here, capitalism depends on a global commercial network, where, in Frank’s scheme, the “satellite’s” internal economy serves the “metropolis,” or in Wallerstein’s terminology, the “periphery’s” surplus supports the “core.”54 Brenner, however, was to challenge, and quite provocatively so, these macroscopic studies of commercial circulation and imperialism as the mainsprings of capitalist social relations.

Advancing a neo-Dobbian position, Brenner located a crucial confusion in the commercial models of transition. He argued that even though the work of Sweezy, Frank, and Wallerstein reversed Smith’s positive appraisal of trade by highlighting how “growth” also depended structurally on backward economic change in the colonies, these theorists nevertheless retained an emphasis on trade as the defining characteristic of a capitalist economy. Brenner took issue with this characterization, claiming that it emphasized “productive forces” (or the means of capital accumulation) over “social relations of production,” which Marx, in his later writings, such as the Grundrisse, prioritized as the fundamental characteristic of capitalism.55 The primary category here is class; capitalism’s fundamental character is its organization of class power that, Brenner explains, entails both a relation to property and a relationship of surplus-extraction.56 As he quite rightly points out in his studies, accumulation does not inevitably produce capital, for trade, slavery, and plunder long predated the changes of early modernity, and thus, it cannot serve as an adequate definition of a capitalist economy.57 Brenner’s claim, then, is that if we understand capitalism as a set of social relations, its origins must be located in a historically specific region where labor first became a commodity. For him, this recognition gives further support to Dobb’s claim that capitalism was the consequence of agrarian dispossession in early modern Western Europe, and particularly England, beginning in the late fifteenth century. Following the lead of Marx in Capital, it is the three-tiered English landlord, tenant farmer, and free wage laborer class organization that he sees as the earliest instantiation of capitalist social relations, whereby the middle class of yeomanry, in particular, is positioned as a driving force of capitalist innovation.58 In Brenner’s account of primitive accumulation, therefore, his concern is mainly with the centuries-long disintegration of feudalism, a process that resulted from internal contradictions, class struggle, and the extra-economic force inherent to a coercive organization of labor.

There are several levels of distinction, then, between the position of Brenner and the historical narratives of Sweezy, Frank, and Wallerstein. In Brenner’s account, capitalism is fundamentally an internal consequence of feudalism rather than an external pressure that disrupts it. Dobb’s and Brenner’s views also represent capitalism as a social structure particular to England, and agrarian in its first form rather than of an immediately transnational or urban character.59 As many have noted, Marx himself was not very clear on this matter. For example, in chapter 26 of Capital, Marx states that “the starting-point of the development that gave rise both to the wage-labourer and to the capitalist was the enslavement of the worker. The advance made consisted in a change in the form of this servitude, in the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation.”60 This casts primitive accumulation as a process of proletarianization in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but chapter 31 provides another account, and one of Marx’s most forceful:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.61

Here Marx suggests that capitalism chiefly depends on the commercial and imperial outcomes of the Age of Discovery, not singularly in the emergence of accumulation by expropriation in England.

This study does not propose to solve these debates or to locate a precise, singular origin of capitalism, if such a thing is even possible. Yet it will suggest that to explore primitive accumulation as an internal process is to tell only half of the story. Simply put, there is something wanting in Dobb’s and Brenner’s accounts of capitalism’s origin: that something likely emerging from a deductive reasoning that privileges Marx’s theoretical definition of capitalism above a messy history of uneven and gradual economic struggle. England was comparatively late to engage in colonial ventures, and thus, the social relations of capitalism were likely first experienced there as internal acts of dispossession, such as the privatization of the commons and the enclosure of copyhold land, but the accelerated development of these property changes indisputably required external zones of expropriation and the exploitation of non-English populations in order to become a mode of production. Stuart Hall has also challenged exclusively European accounts of what he describes as “organic transformation,” given that in many places the “profound integument of capitalist society, economy, and culture had been imposed by conquest and colonization.”62 And as Crystal Bartolovich explains, if “the ‘England first’ position continues to have considerable purchase in debates about the emergence of capitalism, problems remain when we attempt to determine an absolute distinction (much less priority) of ‘domestic’ over what we might call the ‘oceanic’—or global—aspects of this process.”63 There is also an incompleteness in the focus on the agrarian origin of early capitalism that has as much to do with our contemporary vantage point—that of a capitalism more globalized than ever and highly dependent on state force for its expansion by expropriation—as it does with Brenner’s tendency to find the prime mover at the expense of other economic changes that were (as even Brenner acknowledges) preconditions, attendants, and drivers of capitalist accumulation proper. Although Brenner’s account of emergent capitalism posits the dispossession of the English peasantry as capitalism’s fundamental starting point, we are still plagued with a nagging question that Brenner must partially skirt in order to preserve the “Marxism” of his position: what causes gave rise to this transformation in class relations? In fact, to answer this question, he finds himself endorsing the demographic model he initially claims to critique, while inevitably, he must acknowledge that the Continental demand for wool encouraged English landlords to lease, enclose, and improve land.64

Moreover, the internal hypothesis might be said to fetishize a Western narrative of progressive development that assumes English capitalism possessed a singular character and that it began in a singular way. This is a problem of narrative that, in fact, almost all Marxists face in the telling of a history determined by past and present events. When one reads Brenner (and to be fair, any other voice in the transition debate, Marx included), origins and ruptures inevitably seem tied to something prior. Every time a historical cause is revealed, new questions and a new search for origins follow in tandem. The fantasy of a pure origin or a simple rupture has a real attraction for certain participants in the debate (as it does for utopians), as if by locating the precise place and time of capitalism’s conception, one could simply reverse its expansion or never repeat the same process. This is certainly not to trivialize such a search for capitalism’s beginnings, but when Ellen Meiksins Wood insists on the singular “origin of capitalism” in her book with this title,65 one is left wondering: can capitalism be denaturalized only by pointing to its historically specific scene of birth? For this reason, I am also compelled by Giovanni Arrighi’s heterodox history of capitalism’s “systemic cycles of accumulation” and its pluralist forms—such as state monopoly capitalism and cosmopolitan finance capitalism—which in his account has many birthplaces (fifteenth-century Venice and Genoa, especially) and which reoccurs and constantly adapts on the world-historical scene.66

The value of the transition debate, I will suggest in this study, lies precisely in its form as a debate. As with most bodies of scholarship, the sum is larger than its parts. For anyone interested in the study of early modern culture, this debate covers a context of widespread economic changes—agrarian, mercantile, and imperial—while explaining and describing the socially transformative processes that defined the material conditions of cultural production. Taken together, the contributions to the transition debate reveal that late feudal and capitalist histories of development require many narratives and multiple perspectives of narration. Because utopias, too, often adopt the form of fictional debate, and themselves imagine alternative systems of labor and property that emphasize historical and geographical difference, the utopian genre, too, offers special insight into capitalism’s contested, uneven, and displaced origins.

I offer this initial brief sketch of this debate (with the promise to elaborate in the coming chapters) because the transition debate has had a relatively minor impact on the discipline of literary studies. This is especially true in the field of early modern cultural criticism, even though it was during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the transition from feudalism to capitalism so crucially played out in England.67 There are a few notable exceptions to this rule,68 but despite the historical turn of cultural criticism in the last three decades and all the intellectual hype surrounding interdisciplinarity, economic history of the Marxist variety still tends to be cast as the Other of a self-reflexive, synchronically minded literary historiography. To some extent, this is the legacy of New Historicism, which, for all its attention to the “historicity of texts and the textuality of history,”69 has often dismissed Marxist history as a grand narrative, preferring Jean-François Lyotard’s petits recits over the macro-minded, economic studies of Marxist scholarship.70

For instance, although Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods considers the impact of what she calls “bravura consumerism” and commercial expansion on the cultural achievements of the European Renaissance, Jardine makes no mention of any Marxist historian writing about this moment, though Fernand Braudel and the Annales school are warmly received.71 Even more pointedly, Halpern’s The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, one of the most important studies to situate early modern English culture within the prehistory of capitalism, still manages practically to ignore the transition debate. Halpern’s study sensibly argues for the “complementarity of Marxist and non-Marxist approaches,”72 but voices within the debate are noticeably absent from his account, as is a discussion of primitive accumulation beyond the shores of England. Halpern references Dobb’s founding study in just one sentence, only to dismiss it as “reductivist historicism” and an “ill-advised attempt” to apply Marx’s theoretical model of primitive accumulation to a historical “stage.”73 Differentiating his own understanding of primitive accumulation from “stagist” models, Halpern explains that

the really decisive transformation—that is, the institution of capitalist productive relations—occurs only in nascent and non-dominant forms. What does characterize this period is the development of various preconditions for capitalist production—the spread of markets, the development of merchant’s capital, the creation of a dispossessed class—within a complex conjuncture that combines both the late mutation and the partial dissolution of the feudal economy.74

As this passage suggests, Halpern prefers Louis Althusser’s concept of overdetermination to explain this moment of nascent capitalism. But one of the intentions of this study is to demonstrate that most historians participating in the transition debate have themselves consistently troubled a neat, supersessionary narrative of historical development, understanding the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as precisely a period of struggle over different modes of production and alternative social possibilities.75 Dobb himself stressed this very point:

In our preoccupation with the definition of an economic system, we must not let it be implied that the frontiers between systems are to be drawn across a page of history as a sharp dividing line. As those who distrust all such talk of epochs have correctly insisted, systems are never in reality to be found in their pure form, and in any period of history elements and characteristics both of preceding and of succeeding periods are to be found, sometimes mingled in extraordinary complexity. Important elements of each new society, although not necessarily the complete embryo of it, are contained within the womb of the old; and relics of an old society survive for long into the new.76

Even for this defendant of the internal hypothesis, “one would be right in talking, not of a single history of Capitalism, and of the general shape which this has, but of a collection of histories of Capitalism.”77 Yet a genuine recognition of capitalism’s overdetermined origins must recognize capitalist social relations as also involving not only many histories of capitalism within England or Europe but also an attendant global division of labor—an argument Halpern’s seminal study does little to address.

Along with trying to correct this tendency, my own study, which is decidedly cultural in orientation, will, then, also consider how early modern subjects represented and reimagined the experience of social transformation, and how the literature of Renaissance England can contribute to our historical understanding of a long history of expropriation, privatization, colonization, and the struggles that resisted these activities. This is to say that culture can also inflect, or speak back to, macro-histories of economic transition in interesting ways, presenting a more immediate account of the subjective experience of historical change. Indeed, early modern utopian fictions of social difference suggest that early modern subjects were intensely concerned with both the forces and limits of social determinism, or in other words, with the capacity for subjects to reshape the world that shaped them. To examine the ways literature participated in the history of capital and empire, is also, inevitably, to locate another origin for these transformations in the realm of culture.78

Imperialism and the Encounter

My hope is that in studying the utopian genre as an expression of sociohistorical transformation, I will also draw more attention to the imperialist origins of both utopian literature and capitalism, thereby considering what a study of fiction has to say to the transition debate. Much of the most innovative work on the genre in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries concerns its formal and epistemic resonances with travel writing from the age of navigation and early colonial Britain, given the spatial displacement of early modern utopias to island territories or colonial sites.79 In conjunction with the revival and translation of such ancient works as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Lucian’s A True Story, and Cicero’s De Officiis, and with the paradisiacal, millenarian worldviews of Christianity, the texts of New World or Near East explorers generated fantastical imaginings of both new lands and different ways of being in the world. Among others, medieval travel narratives by Marco Polo and the perhaps fictional John Mandeville, and early modern accounts by Amerigo Vespucci, Richard Eden, and Richard Haklyut, offered tales of cross-cultural encounters and Edenic lands located across the sea that would trigger a fascination not just with the ideal or heavenly societies of classical and Christian discourses but also with the plausibility of other real worlds, or as Bishop Joseph Hall’s traveler, Beroaldus, declares, the idea “that there still remains some land left that is insufficiently concealed by the waves.”80 Early modern utopias, as Chloë Houston argues, frequently use “the concept of the journey as a metaphor for the process by which the ideal society can be reached, or for what it may mean to achieve the ideal society.”81

In fact, a remarkable number of Renaissance utopias evoke Columbus’s “discovery” as a satirical, literary conceit to playfully grant authority to their own imaginary voyages, including the utopian works of More, Hall, Bacon, Francis Godwin, and Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. For instance, Spenser’s proem to Book Two of The Faerie Queene presents a defense of faery land’s “veritable” allegory by questioning, “Who euer heard of th’Indian Peru? / Or who in venturous vessell measured / The Amazons huge riuer now found trew? / Or fruitfullest Virginia who did euer vew?”82 These fabulous discoveries lead the poet to ponder truths stranger than fiction, while wondering how his readers now receive stories of the unknown and the imagined: “What if within the Moones fayre shining spheare, / What if in euery other starre vnseene / Of other worldes he happily should heare?”83 Three decades later, Francis Godwin forges another analogy between “empirical” travel writing and fictions of other worlds in the Moon. In the prefatory matter to his lunar utopia, The Man in the Moone, Godwin’s prefatory author, E. M., asks the reader not to dismiss the traveler’s tale as mere “fancy,” since it is an “Invention . . . shewed with Judgement.”84 Extrapolating on this claim, E. M. continues:

thou hast here a new discovery of a new world, which perchance may finde little better entertainment in thy opinion, than that of Columbus at first, in the esteeme of all men. Yet his than but poore espiall of America, betray’d unto knowledge soe much as hath since encreast into a vaste plantation. And the then unknowne, to be now of as large extent as all other the knowne world.85

This is a remarkable testament to the license Columbus’s “discovery” granted to the early modern imagination, and to the profound shift it created in the West’s epistemological conception of the world and its sciences, but it is by no means an uncommon example. In John Wilkins’s A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet, an earnest tract encouraging England to colonize the Moon (published five months before Godwin’s own lunar voyage was released posthumously), we find a similar statement. Wilkins plies those skeptical readers of his fabulous proposal by exhorting, “How did the incredulous World gaze at Columbus, when hee promised to discover another part of the earth?”86 In Spenser’s, Godwin’s, and Wilkins’s texts, Columbus’s discovery not only lends credibility to the fantastic, it indicates how profoundly unsettling and exciting knowledge of the Americas continued to be more than a hundred years after his return.

Indeed, his discovery produces a destabilized worldview that opens up a space for new, and now plausible imaginings about the unknown. William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, perhaps gives clearest expression to this license, praising his wife’s literary creation as surpassing Columbus’s claim to fame in the following prefatory poem to the duchess’s Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World:

Columbus then for Navigation fam’d,
Found a new World, America ’tis named:
Now this new World was found, it was not made,
Onely discovered, lying in Times shade.
Then what are You, having no Chaos found
To make a World, or any such least ground?87

As these examples suggest, the authors of literary utopias often contextualized their own fictions in a historical moment of geographical exploration and transcultural contact, while situating their works within a body of more ostensibly empirical travel writing.

Yet the influence also moves the other way: colonial narratives, such as Robert Gray’s sermon, just as frequently invoke idealistic, utopian tropes to describe lands for conquest. Michael Drayton’s ode “To the Virginian Company” (1606) describes Virginia as “Earth’s only paradise” and as being in a state of “the golden age” which “Still nature’s laws doth give.”88 John Winthrop, in his famous “A Modell of Christian Charity” sermon, represents his soon-to-be plantation in Massachusetts Bay as an earthly realization of a heavenly “good land” that he and his community of the elect “passe over this vast Sea to possesse.”89 Like travel narratives or colonial works of this kind, utopias often possess a distinct will to domination, as the Manuels, Davis, Holstun, Houston, Jeffrey Knapp, Amy Boesky, and Denise Albanese have already explored.90 If we understand early modern utopias as operating within this discursive and political register, we should also consider how the imperial or global framing of utopian literature intersects with the domestic agendas of these same works. In fact, one of the main assertions of this study will be that as early as the beginnings of the sixteenth century, British writers were unable to imagine an ideal society and a national economy that was insular and self-sustaining.

This study, then, is an attempt to reframe the transition debate within the voices of early modern writers, and simultaneously to suggest that at least one of the literary genres—perhaps the most systemically and socially minded literary genre of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England—represented the uneven transition from feudalism to capitalism, often rather consciously, as both an internal and external process of transformation and integration. In addition to fostering more conversation between cultural critics and economic historians, Other Englands will also seek to explore how other interpretive methodologies, such as postcolonial studies, feminist literary criticism, and geocriticism, can contribute to our understanding of both early modern utopias and the historical development (and underdevelopment) of capitalism.

Specifically, chapter 1, “Thomas More’s ‘Peninsula Made an Island,’” is an inquiry into the problems of conceptualizing historical transition and periodizing cultural innovation, explored through an analysis of More’s genre-pioneering book. I am especially concerned to show how Utopia adapts late feudal estates satire by combining it with more worldly discourses—both classical and Atlantic—in a way that reconceptualizes the social in broadening geopolitical frameworks. Examining the class-coded character construction in Book One of Utopia and the textual sources for More’s story of the Utopian trench, this chapter maintains that Utopia figures systemic transformation as both immanent and international. On the first score, we see Utopia advancing a nationalist imaginary in which enclosure and dispossession are both satirized and idealized. But, while the book denounces the violence and dispossession of the English commoner, it ultimately presents a conflicted criticism of primitive accumulation that imagines external sites and systems of exploitation, prefiguring an imperialist will to “vent” England’s poor and unemployed abroad. This case is also supported through a genealogical exploration of Utopia’s origin story, a fiction that reworks previous narratives about England’s own prehistorical condition as a “peninsula made an island,” a topos that reflects the socio-spatial changes of the early sixteenth century. Utopia’s nationally circumscribed radicalism, I’ll argue, gives testimony to proto-capitalism’s imperial underpinnings, and reminds critics that the origins of both capitalism and the literary utopia demand immanent and global understandings.

Chapter 2, “Uneven Development in Bacon’s New Atlantis,” returns to early modern literature’s fascination with fantastical feats of territorial engineering, developed by considering the companionate topos of the man-made land bridge, articulated as a dream for continent-spanning oversight in Doctor Faustus. It considers how these spatial figures—of the island and the isthmus—together negotiate a desire for nationalist sway over an increasingly global marketplace, while also exploring the built-in limitations of empire itself, or its inability to resolve its own contradictory desires for contact and containment. Ultimately, the chapter aims to explore the recurring symbolic representation of islands and bridges in the utopian social imagination of the period as a figuration for global capital. At the center of the chapter, then, is a study of Bacon’s New Atlantis, the story of an imaginary, insulated island, Bensalem, that simultaneously occupies a privileged position of oversight in the world. I examine the way in which Bacon’s text negotiates anxieties about a burgeoning world system by allowing Bensalem to benefit from global relations without actually participating in them. In its contradictory fantasy of total isolation and global all-knowing, Bensalem is read as a figure that embodies the symbolic logic of both the bridge and the island, and thus stands in for a capitalist system that relies both on nation-based exploitation and global uneven development.

The subsequent chapters predominantly examine more marginal, less canonically recognized early modern English utopias. Chapter 3, “Utopia, Ireland, and the Tudor Shock Doctrine,” considers two colonial tracts on late sixteenth-century Ireland, Sir Thomas Smith’s much-neglected A Letter Sent by I.B. and Edmund Spenser’s infamous A View of the Present State of Ireland. The intention here is to initiate a discussion about the role of Ireland in both the early English utopian imaginary and in the development of capitalism. Focusing in particular on Spenser’s tract, the chapter demonstrates that he advances a highly specific kind of colonial project, imagined in terms of moral virtue, but driven by novel kinds of economic motive. Unveiling a plan for a more completely subjugated, economically efficient Ireland, I argue, Spenser’s colonial utopia is brought into being through a horrifyingly violent project of reterritorialization. In essence, the chapter considers Spenser’s Irish utopia as a vision of intensified, accelerated primitive accumulation that positions the colony as a site of social experimentation meant to challenge policy at home. The chapter concludes with a sustained interpretation of Spenser’s dismissal of greed and theft in The Faerie Queene. Throughout his epic, Spenser juxtaposes allegorical depictions of Spanish cruelty and Irish theft with the “rightful” spoils his enterprising knights gain. I examine this as an attempt to morally differentiate English methods of land expropriation from other imperial practices and customary economic relations.

Chapter 4, “Dispossession and Women’s Poetry of Place,” grants mourning, loss, and women writers a place in the utopian tradition. In particular, the chapter considers how discourses of death and dispossession in women’s topographical verse gesture toward utopia in its absence. Although Isabella Whitney’s mock “Wyll and Testament,” and Aemelia Lanyer’s country-house poem turned elegy, “A Description of Cooke-ham,” have only very recently been interpreted, separately, as utopian poems, a comparison of these two poems, considered in the context of Silvia Fedrici’s Marxist-feminist intervention into the transition debate, suggests a female counter-tradition of utopian writing that adopts dispossession as a theme and imagines utopia from an explicitly socio-spatial vantage point of marginalization. In essence, the chapter makes a case for a more inclusive canon of utopian literature, one that is more open to early women writers, and one that is more attentive to the utopian dimension of poetic discourses.

The fifth and final chapter of this study, “Reforming Utopia in Macaria and Areopagitica,” considers Gabriel Plattes’s and John Milton’s utopian visions and attacks on monopoly in a moment of revolutionary crisis. I explore how Plattes’s utopia of cultivation anticipates classical political economy’s defense of free trade and its discourse of “improvement,” while outlining the economic agenda of the parliamentarian Samuel Hartlib, with whose circle Plattes was associated, and Milton more loosely affiliated. At the same time, this chapter concerns the ways in which the early geographical utopian form was coming under criticism in this revolutionary moment. Milton’s pamphlet is shown to interrogate the utopian form for its otherworldliness, yet also adapt it to endorse a bourgeois call for innovation, dynamism, and labor. Milton’s critical utopianism is thus explored as a compelling attack on the static and homogeneous nature of earlier utopias, but his ambivalence about utopianism is also read as an endorsement of a commercial society—a case made clearer when one examines a tradition of twentieth-century liberal, free-market thinkers citing Areopagitica’s more anti-utopian passages.

Together, these chapters constitute a Marxist and transatlantic study of utopian literature and a cultural study of economic transition. In the early utopia, Other Englands finds new perspective on the transformative geographies and social formations of early global capital.


1. Robert Gray, A Good Speed to Virginia (London: 1609), B1.

2. James Holstun often refers to this spirit as one of “DIY millennialism.” See Holstun, A Rational Millennium: Puritan Utopias of Seventeenth-Century England and America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

3. For example, see William Symonds’s Virginia. A Sermon Preached at White-Chapel (Southwark: 1609); and John Donne’s “To the Honorable Company of the Virginian Plantation,” in Three Sermons upon Speciall Occasions (London: 1623). Peter Mancall also surveys this rhetorical tendency in Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of North America, 1580–1640 (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995), 12–14; as does Timothy Sweet in “Economy, Ecology, and Utopia in Early Colonial Promotional Literature,” American Literature 71 (1999): 403.

4. Gray, Good Speed to Virginia, B4.

5. Ibid., B2.

6. Andrew Escobedo, Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe, Dee, Spenser, Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 5–7.

7. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), 1.5.189.

8. Patrick Collinson, “John Stow and Nostalgic Antiquarianism,” in Imagining Early Modern London: Perceptions and Portrayals of the City from Stow to Strype, 1598–1720, ed. J. F. Merritt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 37.

9. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), xii.

10. Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (New York: Philip Allan, 1990).

11. Holstun, A Rational Millennium, 12. For J. C. Davis’s strict genre taxonomy, see his Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

12. Frank Manuel and Fritzie Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1979), 13.

13. Louis Marin, Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, trans. Robert Vollrath (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1984). See also Fredric Jameson, “Of Islands and Trenches: Neutralization and the Production of Utopian Discourse,” in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986, vol. 2, The Syntax of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 75–101.

14. Christopher Kendrick, “More’s Utopia and Uneven Development,” boundary 2 13.2 (1985): 233–266.

15. Chapter 1 offers further discussion of these readings and the notion of utopian origins more broadly. Like capitalism’s overdetermined and uneven origins, Utopia, too, can be traced to other textual forms, epistemologies, and practices, despite More’s reinvention of the form at a very specific historical conjuncture.

16. Throughout this study, I will use the names of the two main speakers as they are given in More’s original Latin text, given their important, ambiguous wordplay.

17. Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George Logan and Robert Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 22.

18. Ibid., 18–19.

19. Ibid., 22.

20. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Classics, 1976), 879–880, 898.

21. Christopher Kendrick, “Tendencies of Utopia: Reflections on Recent Work in Modern Utopian Fiction,” Cultural Logic: An Electronic Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice (2006): 15.

22. For some of Halpern’s excellent discussion on chronological dislocation, decoding, and deterritorialization in the early sixteenth century, see Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 67–69 and 73–74, along with the chapter on More, “Rational Kernel, Mystical Shell,” 136–175.

23. See also Christopher Kendrick, “More’s Utopia and Uneven Development,” which offers a particularly clear, concise, and early explanation of this historical scene.

24. See Marina Leslie’s Renaissance Utopias and The Problem of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) on the trouble with genre and the uncommon ambiguity of More’s book.

25. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 161.

26. Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

27. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

28. Jameson, Archaeologies, xvi. The phrase also references the final chapter title in Robert Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 129.

29. Jacoby, Picture Imperfect, 85.

30. Ibid., 32.

31. Jameson, Archaeologies, xiii.

32. Jameson, for instance, equates utopianism with a communal impulse throughout his oeuvre.

33. See Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985); Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, vol. 1–3 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986); and Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).

34. Marina Leslie, Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History, 3.

35. And this remains the case. See, for example, Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk’s anthology, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York: New Press, 2007), which features a series of essays on the utopian schemes of contemporary capitalists.

36. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 121.

37. Ibid., 125.

38. Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 1:177.

39. Williams, Marxism and Literature, 129.

40. Ibid., 132.

41. Ibid., 126, 134.

42. Maurice Dobb would amusingly refute Smith’s “prior accumulation” by claiming, “There is no historical evidence of capitalists having hoarded spinning machines or looms or lathes or stocks of raw material in gigantic warehouses over a period of decades until in the fullness of time these warehouses would be full enough for factory industry to be started.” See Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 177.

43. Marx, Capital, 934.

44. Ibid., 931.

45. The next chapter, on More’s Utopia, deals with Smith’s account and Marx’s critique at greater length.

46. A chapter-length overview of this early theory can be found in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2001), 11–33.

47. Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, 38.

48. Ibid., 42–43.

49. Paul Sweezy et al., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London: Verso, 1978), 42.

50. Many of these voices, and others, have been collected in The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism and in T. H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, eds., The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

51. Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. T. H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 10–63; and “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review 1.104 (1977): 25–92.

52. Jim Blaut surveys this context in “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time,” Antipode 26.4 (1994): 351–376.

53. André Gunder Frank, World Accumulation, 1492–1789 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 239. In his seminal 1966 chapter “The Development of Underdevelopment,” Frank explained: “This hypothesis seems to be amply confirmed by the former super-satellite development and present ultra-underdevelopment of the once sugar-exporting West Indies, Northeastern Brazil, the ex-mining districts of Minas Gerais in Brazil, highland Peru, and Bolivia, and the central Mexican states of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and others whose names were made world famous centuries ago by their silver. There surely are no major regions in Latin America which are today more cursed by underdevelopment and poverty; yet all of these regions, like Bengal in India, once provided the life blood of mercantile and industrial capitalist development—in the metropolis. These regions’ participation in the development of the world capitalist system gave them, already in their golden age, the typical structure of underdevelopment of a capitalist export economy. When the market for their sugar or the wealth of their mines disappeared and the metropolis abandoned them to their own devices, the already existing economic, political, and social structure of these regions prohibited autonomous generation of economic development and left them no alternative but to turn in upon themselves and to degenerate into the ultra-underdevelopment we find there today.” See Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment,” in Paradigms in Economic Development. ed. Rajani Kanth (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1994), 157.

54. See Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization (New York: Verso, 1995); and also his World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

55. Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development,” 26.

56. Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development,” 11.

57. “It is only with the emergence of free wage labour, labour power as a commodity,” Brenner writes, “that there is a separation of the producers from the means of subsistence and production; that production must be marketed to make possible reproduction; that there is, in a true sense, production for exchange.” See Brenner, “Origins of Capitalist Development,” 50.

58. Ibid, 76.

59. These differences also lead to another: in Brenner’s work, primitive accumulation is consistently represented as a founding, past stage of capitalism (where the coercive pressure of “absolute” surplus-value marks the end of feudalism and initiates a more compulsory system of “relative” surplus-value), whereas dependency and world-systems theorists consider primitive accumulation an ongoing practice, not a stage in the history of capitalism’s development. Frank advances this interpretation, calling for a distinction between precapitalist primitive accumulation and “primary accumulation,” a name for capitalist accumulation that relies on noncapitalist relations of production that are a constant companion to the wage labor dynamic; see Frank, World Accumulation, 1492–1789 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 241. Primitive accumulation is also adapted by Robin Blackburn, who advances the concept of “extended primitive accumulation” to discuss the role of colonial slave plantations in the history of British industrialization. See Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (New York: Verso, 1997), 515. David Harvey’s The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) also rejuvenates the concept of ongoing primitive accumulation to explain the process of what he calls “accumulation by dispossession,” or the neoliberal drive to privatize public assets.

60. Marx, Capital, 875.

61. Ibid., 915.

62. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 279–280.

63. Crystal Bartolovich, “‘Travailing’ Theory: Global Flows of Labor and the Enclosure of the Subject,” in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. Jyotsna G. Singh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 50.

64. See Brenner’s “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development,” 22–23; and “The Origins of Capitalist Development,” 76.

65. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2001).

66. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of our Times (New York: Verso, 1994).

67. Scholars of medieval culture seem more inclined toward the British Marxist tradition. The emphasis of Rodney Hilton, for instance, is felt throughout the discipline.

68. One such exception is the anthology edited by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994). David Hawkes, also, opens his Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1580–1680 (New York: Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, 2001) with a lengthy overview of Dobb’s, Sweezy’s, and Tawney’s work on the rise of capitalism. James Holstun’s Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution (New York: Verso, 2000) and Crystal Bartolovich’s “Travailing Theory” also pursues lines of connection between early modern culture and Marxist histories of the transition.

69. Louis Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), 15–36.

70. John Brannigan, however, has also persuasively argued that for all of New Historicism’s rejection of epochal analysis, it “replaces one grand narrative of historical progress with another grand narrative of power.” See his New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (New York: Palgrave, 1998), 217.

71. Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 1996), 33–34.

72. Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, 2.

73. Ibid., 69.

74. Ibid.

75. The early modern period is at the center of the transition debate because the pivotal development of an English proletarianized workforce occurred during this time. Yet it should be noted that most economists and historians necessarily adopt a wider lens to consider the historical development of capitalist relations in England, first considering fourteenth-century demographic, agricultural, and social changes, and then continuing to chart the rise of industrial capitalism through the eighteenth century.

76. Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, 11.

77. Ibid., 21.

78. This follows Edward Said’s assertion that “the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire,” and therefore, “the processes of imperialism occurred beyond the level of economic laws and political dimensions,” that is, at the “significant level . . . of national culture.” See Said’s Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), 11, 12.

79. There are also, of course, domestically rooted utopias. Gerrard Winstanley’s Digger society during the Civil War years constitutes a seventeenth-century example (noted for its anti-imperial framing), but the sixteenth century also offers up an example in Isabella Whitney’s “Wyll and Testament,” as Crystal Bartolovich has persuasively proposed. See her “‘Optimism of the Will’: Isabella Whitney and Utopia,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39.2 (2009): 407–432. Still, in general, early modern utopias predate the nineteenth-century shift when, as Northrop Frye writes, “the utopia . . . tend[s] increasingly to be a journey in time rather than space, a vision of the future and not of a society located in some isolated spot on the globe.” See Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank Manuel (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1965), 28.

80. Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same: Bishop Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem, ed. and trans. John Millar Wands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 14.

81. Chloë Houston, “Traveling Nowhere: Global Utopias in the Early Modern Period,” in A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, ed. Jyotsna G. Singh (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 95.

82. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Pearson Education, 2001), Proem to Book 2 (lines 15–18).

83. Ibid., (lines 24–26).

84. Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone, or, a Discourse of a Voyage Thither (London: 1638), 2.

85. Ibid.

86. John Wilkins, A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet (London: 1638), 7.

87. Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, in Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader, ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson (Guelph: Broadview Press, 2000), 151.

88. Michael Drayton, “To the Virginian Company,” The Works of Michael Drayton, ed. J. William Hebel, vol. 2 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1961), 363–364.

89. John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630), Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Hanover Historical Texts Collection, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html.

90. In addition to the works by these authors cited above, see Jeffrey Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Amy Boesky, Founding Fictions: Utopias in Early Modern England (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996); Denise Albanese, New Science, New World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Chloë Houston, New Worlds Reflected: Travel and Utopia in the Early Modern Period (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010).