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Agrarian Capitalism and the World Market: Buenos Aires in the Pastoral Age, 1840-1890.

Agrarian Capitalism and the World Market: Buenos Aires in the Pastoral Age, 1840-1890. By Hilda Sabato (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. xiv plus 316 pp.).

Certain myths persist in Latin America; one of these is that the expansion of the great estates in the pampas of Argentina and the subsequent unequal distribution of land relied on extra economic measures, thus hindering the country's economic progress before the period of massive immigration in the late nineteenth century. Hilda Sabato successfully challenges this myth on a number of levels by examining the land tenure and labor systems in northern Buenos Aires province between 1840 and 1890, when sheep products became Argentina's most important exports.

One of Sabato's most important contributions is to show that all the changes in the countryside, ranging from land tenure, labor systems, investment in infrastructure, finance, and the wool trade, can be explained by resorting exclusively to economic analysis. In the author's view, large landlords, small sheep farmers, and even laborers behaved as rational economic actors. Stereotypes, such as the estancia owner who wasted his patrimony through conspicuous consumption, have no place in Sabato's book. Indeed, Sabato shows that there was an active land market, contradicting earlier studies that asserted that a small elite was able to keep the land to itself. Immigrants, such as the Irish, were able to purchase tracts and create small sheep farms. According to the author, land consolidation occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was related to increasing land prices, when profit margins shrank as landowners had to sink more money simply into purchasing the land. In this context, the large landed units, the estancias, with better sheep stock, greater economies of scale, and easier access to capital attained advantages that made them more likely to survive than smaller sheep farms.

Likewise, Sabato stands some of the received wisdom on Argentine labor systems on its head. She asserts that the labor codes that tried to cut down on what the authorities called vagrancy were not necessarily productive soon after the beginning of the sheep boom in the 1840s. Tying laborers down in a pastoral economy that relied on large numbers of seasonal and casual workers proved not very efficient. Coercive practices largely fell by the wayside during the sheep boom; during most of the period wage labor predominated for native and the increasingly numerous immigrant workers. The author describes the various forms of labor, from permanent peons to sharecroppers who provided labor power in turn for part of the proceeds of the sheep under his care. After the 1860s, the sharecropper had to contribute part of the flock as well when high land prices and an ample supply of rural labor gave the advantage to the landowner.

The other great contribution of Sabato's book is the detailed analysis of the wool trade and the interlocking commercial and financial networks. The author provides the reader with some surprising information. It has been long asserted that Great Britain was Argentina's most important trading partner during the nineteenth century; the trade ties between the two countries were so close that Argentina was known as Britain's "Sixth Dominion." Sabato shows that Argentine wool hardly went to Great Britain; during the period under study, Belgium, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany absorbed virtually all of the country's wool exports.

The latter chapters of the book demonstrate how interconnected rural Buenos Aires was to the European textile mills. The sensitivity to the larger economic context makes this regional study innovative and especially useful. The author shows that Argentine wool prices in Buenos Aires were very closely linked to prices in Antwerp and Le Havre, producing periodic crises in the pampas when prices dropped. The study takes into account competition from Australia and South Africa and looks at the preferences of European wool buyers. Argentine wool was usually dirtier and fetched lower prices than wool from other parts of the world. Sabato also examines the credit structure of the pastoral sector, showing the development of a complex banking system closely interconnected with the European merchants who increasingly purchased their wool directly from producers in Buenos Aires province.

Sabato's book is well organized, but somewhat dry reading. The author refuses to get far from her empirical data; she would have done well to draw out a bit more the potentially far-ranging conclusions of her research. Indeed, the important chapter on labor completely lacks a conclusion. This makes it somewhat difficult at times for the reader to appreciate the full implications of her book.

Despite these minor shortfalls, Hilda Sabato's book represents a major contribution to the field. It is to be hoped that other scholars will conduct similar studies for other regions in Argentina (and elsewhere in Latin America) outside of the abundantly researched province of Buenos Aires. In the meantime, the book provides a salutary corrective to some persistent myths of Argentine history and sets a new standard for regional studies of Latin American export economies.

Erick D. Langer Carnegie Mellon University
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Author:Langer, Erick D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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