Feudal Origins of Capitalism

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Kevin Carson:

1. The end of the High Middle Ages

"Capitalism was not, by any means, a "free market" evolving naturally or peacefully from the civilization of the high Middle Ages. As Oppenheimer argued, capitalism as a system of class exploitation was a direct successor to feudalism, and still displays the birth scars of its origins in late feudalism.

Romantic medievalists like Chesterton and Belloc recounted a process in the high Middle Ages by which serfdom had gradually withered away, and the peasants had transformed themselves into de facto freeholders who paid a nominal quit-rent. The feudal class system was disintegrating and being replaced by a much more libertarian and less exploitative one. Immanuel Wallerstein argued that the likely outcome would have been "a system of relatively equal small-scale producers, further flattening out the aristocracies and decentralizing the political structures."

Although such medievalists no doubt idealized that world considerably, it was still far superior to the world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Kropotkin described, in terms evocative of William Morris, the rich life of the High Middle Ages, "with its virile affirmation of the individual, and which succeeded in creating a society through the free federation of men, of villages and of towns. "In those cities, sheltered by their conquered liberties, inspired by the spirit of free agreement and of free initiative, a whole new civilization grew up and flourished in a way unparalleled to this day."133 The free cities were virtually independent; although the crown "granted" them a charter in theory, in reality the charter was typically presented to the king and to the bishop of the surrounding diocese as a fait accompli, when "the inhabitants of a particular borough felt themselves to be sufficiently protected by their walls...."

The technical prerequisites of the industrial revolution had been anticipated by skilled craftsmen in the urban communes, scholars in the universities, and researchers in the monasteries; but the atmosphere of barbarism following the triumph of the centralized state set technical progress back by centuries. The nineteenth century was, in a sense, a technical and industrial "renaissance," built atop the achievements of the High Middle Ages after a prolonged hiatus; but because of the intervening centuries of warfare on society, industrial technology was introduced into a society based on brutal exploitation and privilege, instead of flowering in a society where it might have benefited all.

The Renaissance as it happened, G.K. Chesterton argued, was only an anemic ghost of what it might have been had it taken place under a democracy of guilds and peasant proprietors.

Had Wat Tyler and John Ball been successful, Chesterton speculated,

- our country would probably have had as happy a history as is possible to human nature. The Renascence, when it came, would have come as popular education and not the culture of a club of aesthetics. The New Learning might have been as democratic as the old learning in the old days of mediaeval Paris and Oxford. The exquisite artistry of Cellini might have been but the highest grade of the craft of a guild. The Shakespearean drama might have been acted by workmen on wooden stages set up in the street like Punch and Judy, the finer fulfillment of the miracle play as it was acted by a guild.136

The real advancement, the real humanism and progress of the High Middle Ages, has been neglected, and the barbarism and regression of the age of the absolute state disguised as a rebirth of civilization.

In short, history has been not only rewritten, but stood on its head by the victors.

- How many lies have been accumulated by Statist historians, in the pay of the State, in that period! Indeed have we not all learned at school for instance that the State had performed the great service of creating, out of the ruins of feudal society, national unions which had previously been made impossible by the rivalries between cities?.... And yet, now we learn that in spite of all the rivalries, medieval cities had already worked for four centuries toward building those unions, through federation, freely consented, and that they had succeeded.

By 1650 the earlier egalitarian trend Wallerstein remarked on had been reversed.

In the meantime, what he calls the "capitalist world-system" had been established in response to the crisis of feudalism and rising wages.

- The socio-economic crisis weakened the nobility such that the peasants steadily increased their share of the surplus from 1250 to 1450 or 1500.... It was the increase in the standard of living of the lower strata moving in the direction of relative equalization of incomes... that for the upper strata represented the real crisis.... There was no way out of it without drastic social change. This way... was the creation of a capitalist world-system, a new form of surplus appropriation. The replacement of the feudal mode by the capitalist mode was what constituted the seigniorial reaction; it was a great sociopolitical effort by the ruling strata to retain their collective privileges, even if they had to accept a fundamental reorganization of the economy.... There would be some families, it was clear, who would lose out by such a shift; but many would not. Additionally, and most importantly, the principle of stratification was not merely preserved; it was to be reinforced as well. Does not the discovery that the standard of living of the European lower strata went down from 1500 to at least 1800... demonstrate how successful was the strategy, if such it could be called, of economic transformation?

On this latter point, according to Maurice Dobb, the strategy was successful indeed. In the two centuries before the Tudor dynasty, wages had doubled in terms of wheat. After 1500, they fell more than enough to reverse that gain. Part of this fall in real wages was the result of the price revolution of the 1500s, which amounted to a program of forced investment: "To the extent that money-wages failed to rise as the commodity price-level rose, all employers and owners of capital were abnormally enriched at the expense of the standard of life of the labouring class.

There was, as Wallerstein wrote, "a reasonably high level of continuity between the families that had been high strata" in 1450 and 1650. Capitalism, far from being "the overthrow of a backward aristocracy by a progressive bourgeoisie," "was brought into existence by a landed aristocracy which transformed itself into a bourgeoisie because the old system was disintegrating."140 In The Modern World-System, he described the process as one of "embourgeoisment" of the nobility141--especially in England, where "the aristocracy to survive had to learn the ways of and partially fuse with the bourgeoisie."

As Wallerstein suggested above, some families in the old landed aristocracy lost out; those adaptable elements who survived absorbed large elements of the bourgeoisie into their ranks. The new agricultural class arose in the fifteenth century as a result of the fact that the landed aristocracy had failed to become a caste, and the gentry had failed to become a lesser nobility. In this new class, the old distinction between aristocracy between aristocracy and gentry was losing its significance. Wallerstein cited Perez Zagorin on the tendency for men "in a position to deploy capital in agriculture, trade, and industry" to acquire "the command of social life." This combined class, which also included the old merchant oligarchs who were canny enough to invest in modern methods of production, enriched itself at the expense of the increasingly proletarianized peasantry." (http://www.mutualist.org/id65.html)

2. The fusion of feudal aristocracy and capital owners

Christopher Hill's analysis of the transformation of the landed class parallels that of Wallerstein to a large degree. The great landowners who thrived in the new economy were those who adapted to "the new society in which money was king." The took less interest in court affairs, ostentatious expenditure, and hospitality, and instead turned their attention toward estate management, rack-renting, the leasing of mining rights, etc. By the seventeenth century, the elements of the old landed aristocracy who had been unable to make this transition had largely disappeared. The surviving aristocracy consisted almost entirely of those "capable of taking advantage of the intellectual and technical revolution in estate management."

The Civil War, as Wallerstein understood it, was between the old and the new landed class. The former, the decadent rentier class that infested the royal court, was defeated; the latter went on, as the Whig oligarchy, to achieve political supremacy in 1689.144 Although the Civil War was followed by a resurgence of the landed interest, this interest consisted of the new capitalist agricultural class: those elements of the old landed aristocracy who had adopted capitalist methods of agricultural production and learned to thrive in a capitalist economy, along with merchant-capitalists, yeomen, and gentry who had had sufficient capital to invest in the capitalist revolution. Wallerstein contrasted this to France, in which the old court aristocracy had retained its supremacy.145 These points are echoed in part by Arno Mayer,146 who argued for continuity between the landed aristocracy and the capitalist ruling class.

Some apologists for capitalism try to minimize the continuity between the landed and industrial ruling classes, and stress the plebian origins of industrial capitalists in the nineteenth century.

For example:

- The early industrialists were for the most part men who had their origin in the same social strata from which their workers came. They lived very modestly, spent only a fraction of their earnings for their households and put the rest back into the business. But as the entrepreneurs grew richer, the sons of successful businessmen began to intrude into the circles of the ruling class.

As Maurice Dobb pointed out, however, although much of the entrepreneurship of the industrial revolution was indeed carried out by "new men..., devoid of privilege or social standing," they were nevertheless heavily reliant on old money for their investment capital. Although the new industries were, to an extent, built by men from the humble ranks of master craftsmen and yeomen farmers with small savings, the great bulk of capital by which industry was financed came from "merchant houses and from mercantile centres like Liverpool." These humble upstarts were able to make money off their own small savings only through the favor and patronage of the old ruling class. "[A]ntagonism between the older capitalist strata and the nouveaux riches of the new industry never went very deep."

The investment capital available for the industrial revolution was the accumulated loot from centuries of previous robbery by the ruling class. It was accumulated by the merchant capitalist oligarchies of the late Middle Ages, that took over the democratic guilds and robbed both urban craftsmen and rural peasants through unequal trade. It was accumulated by the mercantilists who carried out a similar policy of unequal exchange on a global scale. It was accumulated by a landed ruling class of capitalist farmers who expropriated the peasantry and became the Whig oligarchy. It was into this old money elite that the new money men of the nineteenth century were co-opted.

But whatever their class origins, the industrial capitalists of the nineteenth century benefited massively from the previous coercion of the landed and mercantilist oligarchies. The prejudicial terms on which the British laboring classes sold their labor were set by the expropriation of their land, and by authoritarian social controls like the Laws of Settlement and the Combination Law. And the favorable terms on which the British textile industry sold its output were set by the role of British armed force in creating the "world market," and suppressing foreign competition.

One might argue that the industrial capitalists were passive beneficiaries of such policies, and played no role in their formation: for example Mises, who portrayed them as offering "salvation" to those reduced to misery by the enclosure movement, a legacy in which they were innocent of any complicity.149 One might argue that the industrial capitalists would have preferred to operate in an environment where laborers had independent access to the means of production and subsistence, could take work or leave it, and could therefore afford to drive harder bargains in the wage market. One might argue that they would have preferred selling their wares in the face of vigorous competition from Indian and Egyptian textile industry. One might make such arguments, no doubt, and find plenty gullible enough to believe them.

Capitalism has never been established by means of the free market. It has always been established by a revolution from above, imposed by a ruling class with its origins in the Old Regime--or as Christopher Hill or Immanuel Wallerstein might put it, by a pre-capitalist ruling class that had been transformed in a capitalist manner. In England, it was the landed aristocracy; in France, Napoleon III's bureaucracy; in Germany, the Junkers; in Japan, the Meiji. In America, the closest approach to a "natural" bourgeois evolution, industrialization was carried out by a mercantilist aristocracy of Federalist shipping magnates and landlords." (http://www.mutualist.org/id65.html)

3. The destruction of free cities and peasant proprietors

The process by which the high medieval civilization of peasant proprietors, craft guilds and free cities was overthrown, was vividly described by Kropotkin. Before the invention of gunpowder, the free cities repelled royal armies more often than not, and won their independence from feudal dues. And these cities often made common cause with peasants in their struggles to control the land. The absolutist state and the capitalist revolution it imposed became possible only when artillery could reduce fortified cities with a high degree of efficiency, and the king could make war on his own people. And in the aftermath of this conquest, the Europe of William Morris was left devastated, depopulated, and miserable.

In the course of the sixteenth century, the modern barbarians were to destroy all that civilization of the cities of the Middle Ages. These barbarians did not succeed in annihilating it, but in halting its progress at least two or three centuries. They launched it in a different direction, in which humanity is struggling at this moment without knowing how to escape.

They subjected the individual. They deprived him of all his liberties, they expected him to forget all his unions based on free agreement and free initiative. Their aim was to level the whole of society to a common submission to the master. They destroyed all ties between men, declaring that the State and the Church alone, must henceforth create union between their subjects; tht the Church and the State alone have the task of watching over the industrial, commercial, judicial, artistic, emotional interests, for which men of the twelfth century were accustomed to unite directly.

The role of the nascent State in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in relation to the urban centers was to destroy the independence of the cities; to pillage the rich guilds of merchants and artisans; to concentrate in its hands the external commerce of the cities and ruin it; to lay hands on the internal administration of the guilds and subject internal commerce as well as all manufactures, in every detail to the control of a host of officials--and in this way to kill industry and the arts; by taking over the local militias and the whole municipal administration, crushing the weak in the interest of the strong by taxation, and ruining the countries by wars.

Obviously, the same tactic was applied to the villages and the peasants. Once the State felt strong enough it eagerly set about destroying the village commune, ruining the peasants in its clutches and plundering the common lands.

Of course, the urban communes were also subverted from within. With the help of the rising absolute monarchs, the guilds and towns were gradually taken over by oligarchies of merchant capitalists and wholesalers, and transformed from democratic associations of master craftsmen, into "close corporations of the richer merchants, which sought to monopolize wholesale trade" between town craftsmen and peasants. These merchant capitalists came to control the town governments as well as the guilds. The democratic governance of the town communes was replaced by oligarchy, in which the franchise was increasingly restricted and public offices formally barred to all but wealthy burghers. These oligarchs grew rich on unequal exchange, profiting at the expense both of town laborers and the peasants who bought their goods; craftsmen were prohibited by law from directly marketing their goods outside the city walls.

The outcome of the process, both internal subversion and external assault, was that Europe was spoiled as a conquered territory, and the people living in it were treated as an occupied enemy. The contrast between the Europe before and after this spoilation could not have been greater:

- In the sixteenth century Europe was covered with rich cities, whose artisans, masons, weavers and engravers produced marvelous works of art; their universities established the foundations of modern empirical science, their caravans covered the continents, their vessels ploughed the seas and rivers. What remained two centuries later? Towns with anything from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants and which (as was the case of Florence) had a greater proportion of schools and, in the communal hospitals, beds, in relation to the population than is the case with the most favored towns today, became rotten boroughs. Their populations were decimated or deported, the State and Church took over their wealth. Industry was dying out under the rigorous control of the State's employees; commerce dead. Even the roads which had hitherto linked these cities became impassable in the seventeenth century.

Peter Tosh had a song called "Four Hundred Years." Although the white working class suffered nothing like the brutality of black slavery, there has nevertheless been a "four hundred years" of oppression for all of us under the system of state capitalism established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ever since the birth of the first states six thousand years ago, political coercion has allowed one ruling class or another to live off other people's labor. But since the early modern period the system of power has become increasingly conscious, unified, and global in scale. The current system of transnational state capitalism, without rival since the collapse of the soviet bureaucratic class system, is a direct outgrowth of that seizure of power, that revolution from above, "four hundred years" ago. Orwell had it backwards. The past is a "boot stamping on a human face." Whether the future is more of the same depends on what we do now." (http://www.mutualist.org/id65.html)


See: http://www.mutualist.org/id109.html


The text above is the Conclusion of Chapter 4 of: Studies in Mutualist Political Economy