Then and Now

Apologies for the Dan Carlinesque posting schedule as of late, but I’ve been going through a lot of stuff this year which has affected my ability to write. I may or may not write about it; I haven’t decided yet.

My posts on the history of guilds was just supposed to be a brief overview of the work of Prateek Raj, and how it once again explains how the intersection of geography and technology shapes history. I kind of fell down a rabbit hole in researching that subject; but I did manage to stumble across a lot of interesting old books online. This was part of my ongoing fumbling attempts to write history from a perspective that is more than the “Great Man” theory, or just a sequence of unrelated events—“one damn thing after another.”

My larger point comes from reading a lot of the very early anthropological literature of the late nineteenth century. In particular I’m intrigued by the writings of Sir Henry Maine on the history of ancient laws and the development of ancient institutions, and of course Lewis Henry Morgan, the “father” of anthropology. The more I read from this time period (as well as from the 1970’s) the more I’m convinced that they had everything already pretty much already figured out, and a lot of modern scholarship is just restating or rediscovering what they already knew but has been forgotten or deliberately obscured in the interest of keeping people from questioning the status quo.

I think we Westerners tend to think of the ancient world as a bastion of free markets, unfettered individualism, and limited government. This historical amnesia is crucial to the libertarian argument. They tend to cast “free markets” as spontaneous and natural, while collectivist institutions such as armies and governments are Johnny-come-lately impositions on otherwise happy-go-lucky individuals freely transacting without the horrible burden of the state which does nothing but allow an unproductive bureaucratic elite to skim off wealth so that they can make capricious laws and sit round and do nothing all day. Anything else is derided as “statist.”

The reality, of course, is much different. “Individualism” is, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of human history, your identity derived from your group membership. It had to be this way: we are the social animals to the core. No man is an island, despite what Libertarians claim. The basic functional unit of society was some form of social group, and it was largely self-governing and self-regulating. All centralized governments did was basically facilitate interactions, provide a modicum of personal safety, and keep the peace between these various groups, whether they be households, extended families, clans, tribes, craft guilds, sodalities, confraternities, military regiments, crime syndicates, monastic brotherhoods, trading companies, secret societies, cliques, or whatever. From the introduction to Maine’s book Ancient Law by Professor J. H. Morgan (no relation to L.H. Morgan):

The political philosophers…had sought the origin of political society in a “state of nature”—humane, according to Locke and Rousseau, barbarous, according to Hobbes—in which men freely subscribed to an “original contract” whereby each submitted to the will of all. Maine deduced the basic social fabric of ancient societies from studying their legal codes. In addition, he gained first-hand knowledge of how family-based village communities work by serving as a jurist in India…

It was not difficult to show…that contract—i.e. the recognition of a mutual agreement as binding upon the parties who make it–is a conception which comes very late to the human mind…he shows that early society, so far as we have any recognisable legal traces of it, begins with the group, not with the individual. This group was, according to Maine’s theory, the Family—that is to say the Family as resting upon the patriarchal power of the father to whom all its members, wife, sons, daughters, and slaves, were absolutely subject…Moreover, all the members of the family, except its head, are in a condition best described as status: they have no power to acquire property, or to bequeath it, or to enter into contracts in relation to it…

The traces of this state of society are clearly visible in the pages of that classical textbook of Roman Law, the Institutes of Justinian, compiled in the sixth century A.D., though equally visible is the disintegration wrought in it by the reforming activity of the praetor’s edicts. That reformation followed the course of a gradual emancipation of the members of the family, except those under age, from the despotic authority of the father. This gradual substitution of the Individual for the Family was effected in a variety of ways, but in none more conspicuously than by the development of the idea of contract, i.e. of the capacity of the individual to enter into independent agreements with strangers to his family-group by which he was legally bound—an historical process which Maine sums up in his famous aphorism that the movement of progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.

In the chapter on Property Maine again shows that the theory of its origin in occupancy is too individualistic and that not separate ownership but joint ownership is the really archaic institution. The father was in some sense (we must avoid importing modern terms) the trustee of the joint property of the family. Here Maine makes an excursion into the fields of the Early Village Community, and has, too, to look elsewhere than to Rome, where the village community had already been transformed by coalescence into the city state. He therefore seeks his examples from India and points to the Indian village as an example of the expansion of the family into a larger group of co-proprietors, larger but still bearing traces of its origin to the patriarchal power. And, to quote his own words, “the most important passage in the history of Private Property is its gradual separation from the co-ownership of kinsmen.” Ownership is itself a late abstraction developed out of use. We may say with some certainty that family “ownership” preceded individual ownership, but in what sense there was communal ownership by a whole village it is not so easy to say.

Maine was on surer ground when, as in his studies of Irish and Hindu law, he confined himself to the more immediate circle of the family group. In his Early Institutions he subjects the Brehon Laws of early Ireland to a suggestive examination as presenting an example of Celtic law largely unaffected by Roman influences. He there shows, as he has shown in Ancient Law, that in early times the only social brotherhood recognised was that of kinship, and that almost every form of social organisation, tribe, guild, and religious fraternity, was conceived of under a similitude of it. Feudalism converted the village community, based on a real or assumed consanguinity of its members, into the fief in which the relations of tenant and lord were those of contract, while those of the unfree tenant rested on status.

Ancient Law, by Sir Henry James Sumner Maine (Project Gutenberg Ebook)

American lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan had a much more immediate method—he was inducted into the Hawk Clan of the Seneca tribe, a member of what we call the Iroquois Confederation (i.e. the Haudenosaunee) for his help with issues related to land ownership.

It became obvious to Morgan that that primordial basic unit of the Iroquois—indeed, of all human societies—was the clan, which consisted of descent from an apical ancestor, whether real or imagined. Each clan was made up of various households, had its own totems and ceremonies, elected it own leaders, owned their lands in common, redistributed goods among themselves, and made collective decisions at tribal councils—what has been called “campfire democracy“.

Clans were organized an intermediate grouping called a phratry, and phratries were organized into tribes. Exchanges and redistribution were not carried out between individuals via contractual arrangements, but within and between tribes, clans and households, often surrounded by ceremonial requirements (e.g. bridewealth). Sometimes there were even distinct spheres of exchange. Everyone had their place within the extended family, with the eldest males taking the most important managerial positions–i.e. patriarchy. A number of tribes could combine into larger groups, which he called confederations. In a confederation, cooperation was based on relative equality between the various units, without one dominating the others.

While the authorities of patriarchs over the household (Patria potestas) was more-or-less absolute (in theory more than actual practice), there was no way to extend that control over the broader society. Instead, forms of democratic governance prevailed. While top-down, command-and-control arrangements (concentrated power) were necessary for a variety of social goals (notably defense), most tribal societies were very hesitant to establish any form of institutionalized power. And so they resisted it as much as possible. Often leadership roles were temporary, and based on common agreement. Tribal leadership was not hereditary and leaders were merely “first among equals” (primus inter pares).

Morgan found that the nuclear family living off by themselves in their own separate household as in Western Europe wasn’t the norm either; in fact it was highly exceptional. In addition, whom one considered to be their mother and father, and whom one considered to be their brother or sister or cousin or aunt or uncle varied considerably across cultures, even within Native American cultures. Some cultures also added distinctions based on relative age. For simplicity, Morgan identified a few typical arrangements (although not an exhaustive list) based on the ethnographic writings he had access to:

  • Hawaiian Kinship
  • Eskimo Kinship
  • Sudanese Kinship
  • Iroquois Kinship
  • Crow Kinship
  • Omaha Kinship

These arrangements established the ground rules for social interactions and interpersonal obligations, including—crucially—whom one could and could not marry. And indeed, anthropologists found that every culture had some sort of marriage ties, although the tightness and “sacredness” of that bond varied quite considerably, as did expectations concerning sexual fidelity. The conjugal, monogamous family was hardly universal or “natural.” What was universal, however, was the notion of affinal kinship—social relationships based around marriage, pair bonding and child-rearing (what we call “in-laws” in English—-a telling phrase). Each household (oikos) might be thought of as a sort of mini-corporation with joint ownership and unlimited life; with the eldest male functioning as CEO and his wife as COO. Each member of the family, whether by birth or adoption is “vested” in proportion to their age and gender, and their distance from the common ancestor. Professor A. Moret writes:

Contrary to what might have been expected…[t]he village community or, in a still less artificial manner, spatial proximity does not in fact seem to be a primary mode of grouping among men. That is intelligible when we recall that agricultural and sedentary civilizations are not the first that are known, and so it is quite natural that before their appearance the relation organization that it was subsequently to become…before geography, religion was called upon to decide the manner in which men should be grouped. The original constitutional right is mystic in nature.

The first grouping which we meet in the lower societies, the clan, is in fact a grouping, the function of which is at once — without there being any priority to seek — political and domestic, but the nature of which is mystical. Its cohesion arises from the fact that its members regard themselves as bearers of one common totem and consequently one common name, made of one common mystic substance — that of their totem. All share therein and none monopolizes it, all are sprung from one common source, to which later mythology will give individual appearances, imagining that in a fabulous past the totem has been revealed to an illustrious ancestor of the clan who became, for that reason, the eponymous ancestor.

In his memoir on the prohibition of incest, Durkheim defines the clan thus: 1 “A group of individuals who regard themselves as mutually related but who recognize this kinship exclusively by the very peculiar mark that they are all bearers of one common totem. The totem itself is a being, animate or inanimate, most commonly an animal or a plant, from which the group is held to be descended and which serves at once as emblem and collective name. If the totem be a wolf, all the members of the clan believe that they have a wolf for ancestor and consequently they have something of the wolf within them. That is why they apply to themselves this denomination: they are Wolves.”

From Tribe To Empire by A. Moret (

When L.H. Morgan’s work dropped in Europe, it became clear to scholars that isolated individuals forming an explicit social contract was not the true origin of governments, and that the primordial arrangement of human societies before centralized governments or the nation-state was based around kinship systems and collective ownership of land and property. Furthermore, such systems were often federal and democratic. In fact, some vestiges of this way of life persisted even in Europe. Most notable were the Swiss cantons, and the region of Dithmarschen in modern-day Germany (see: Frisian Freedom). In Switzerland’s case, the high mountains had isolated them and preserved their way of life from the prevailing feudal system; with Dithmarschen it was the bogs, swamps and marshlands which had protected them. Ireland, too, had preserved something of its ancient clan system into relatively modern times (as evidenced by Irish and Scottish surnames). But the most relevant examples were to be found in Eastern Europe:

The Zádruga of southern Slavonia offers the best still existing illustration of such a family communism. It comprises several generations of the father’s descendants, together with their wives, all living together on the same farm, tilling their fields in common, living and clothing themselves from the same stock, and possessing collectively the surplus of their earnings. The community is managed by the master of the house (domácin), who acts as its representative, may sell inferior objects, has charge of the treasury and is responsible for it as well as for a proper business administration. He is chosen by vote and is not necessarily the oldest man. The women and their work are directed by the mistress of the house (domácica), who is generally the wife of the domácin. She also has an important, and often final, voice in choosing a husband for the girls. But the highest authority is vested in the family council, the assembly of all grown companions, male and female. The domácin is responsible to this council. It takes all important resolutions, sits in judgment on the members of the household, decides the question of important purchases and sales, especially of land, etc.

Likewise among Germans, the economic unit according to Heussler (Institutions of German law) is not originally the single family, but the “collective household,” comprising several generations or single families and, besides, often enough unfree individuals. The Roman family is also traced to this type…Similar communities are furthermore said to have existed among the Celts of Ireland. In France they were preserved up to the time of the Revolution in Nivernais under the name of “parçonneries,” and in the Franche Comté they are not quite extinct yet. In the region of Louhans (Saône et Loire) we find large farmhouses with a high central hall for common use reaching up to the roof and surrounded by sleeping rooms accessible by the help of stairs with six to eight steps. Several generations of the same family live together in such a house…In India, the household community with collective agriculture is already mentioned by Nearchus at the time of Alexander the Great, and it exists to this day in the same region, in the Punjab and the whole Northwest of the country…In Algeria it is still found among the Kabyles. Even in America it is said to have existed. It is supposed to be identical with the “Calpullis” described by Zurita in ancient Mexico. In Peru… at the time of the conquest a sort of a constitution in marks, with a periodical allotment of arable soil, and consequently individual tillage, was in existence…[note: he is referring to an ayllu – ch]

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (Project Gutenberg)

Europeans began to analyze these distant cultures for clues as to how pagan tribal Europe was organized before the imposition of the Roman State. Based on the study of ancient laws, scholars realized that early Classical civilization must have also originally functioned along similar tribal principles as the Iroquois, most notably N. Fustel de Coulanges, whose book The Ancient City caused a rethinking of the basic social structures of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. In Greece, these descent groups were called genē (γένη), and in Rome, gens (the Sanskrit Gana and the English kin are cognates).

We now come to another discovery of Morgan that is at least as important as the reconstruction of the primeval form of the family from the systems of kinship. It is the proof that the sex organizations within the tribe of North American Indians, designated by animal names, are essentially identical with the genea of the Greeks and the gentes of the Romans; that the American form is the original from which the Greek and Roman forms were later derived; that the whole organization of Greek and Roman society during primeval times in gens, phratry and tribe finds its faithful parallel in that of the American Indians; that the gens is an institution common to all barbarians up to the time of civilization—at least so far as our present sources of information reach. This demonstration has cleared at a single stroke the most difficult passages of remotest ancient Greek and Roman history. At the same time it has given us unexpected information concerning the fundamental outlines of the constitution of society in primeval times—before the introduction of the state. Simple as the matter is after we have once found it out, still it was only lately discovered by Morgan…

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State

Each Roman gens was bequeathed its own tillage land and ancestral burial grounds, and, according to Coulanges, was united by the worship of its own ancestral deities and the “sacred fire” of its domestic hearth. Each had its own proprietary rituals and feast days. The glue that held the gens—and the whole society—together, was that of religion, specifically ancestor worship:

Every family had its tomb, where its dead went to repose, one after another, always together. This tomb was generally near the house, not far from the door “in order,” says one of the ancients, ” that the sons, in entering and leaving their dwelling, might always meet their fathers, and might always address them an invocation.” Thus the ancestor remained in the midst of his relatives; invisible, but always present, he continues to make a part of the family, and to be its father. Immortal, happy, divine, he was still interested in all of his whom he had left upon the earth. He knew their needs, and sustained their feebleness; and he who still lived, who labored, who, according to the ancient expression, had not yet discharged the debt of existence, he had near him his guides and his supports — his forefathers. In the midst of difficulties, he invoked their ancient wisdom; in grief, he asked consolation of them; in danger, he asked their support, and after a fault, their pardon.

Certainly we cannot easily comprehend how a man could adore his father or his ancestor. To make of man a god appears to us the reverse of religion. It is almost as difficult for us to comprehend the ancient creeds of these men as it would have been for them to understand ours. But, if we reflect that the ancients had no idea of creation, we shall see that the mystery of generation was for them what the mystery of creation is for us. The generator appeared to them to be a divine being; and they adored their ancestor. This sentiment must have been very natural and very strong, for it appears as a principle of religion in the origin of almost all human societies. We find it among the Chinese as well as among the ancient Getæ and Scythians, among the tribes of Africa as well as among those of the new world.

The sacred fire, which was so intimately associated with the worship of the dead, belonged, in its essential character, properly to each family. It represented the ancestors; it was the providence of a family, and had nothing in common with the fire of a neighboring family, which was another providence. Every fire protected its own and repulsed the stranger. The whole of this religion was enclosed within the walls of each house. The worship was not public. All the ceremonies, on the contrary, were kept strictly secret. Performed in the midst of the family alone, they were concealed from every stranger…

The Ancient City, pp. 44-45 (

Thus, Marx could tell from the developing field of anthropology that neither “private property” nor “free markets” were natural or the primordial forms of human social organization. These were later developments, private property especially. Rather then separate individuals or families making a conscious decision to unite their property, collective ownership, whether by families, houses, clans or tribes, was the initial form of ownership over land and property—the “means of production.” This bolstered his historical narrative of “primitive communism” being steadily eroded via a process of “accumulation by dispossession” om the part of elites down through the ages.

Furthermore, he reasoned that the original “gentile constitution” (arrangements based on consanguinity and affinity) was gradually overthrown—replaced by a class structure based on occupation, wealth, land ownership, formal office, or place of residence. Thus, Marx and Engels reasoned, pairing (nuclear) families, social classes, money and private property all came into being at approximately the same time, each strengthening and reinforcing the other, culminating in Market capitalism and the class struggle of their own time. Collective inheritance was supplanted by individual agnatic inheritance (overthrowing earlier matrilineal forms of decent). Centralized governments were established a way of replacing organic solidarity with a means of enforcing contractual agreements that inevitably favored a rich landowning class over everyone else, and institutional position reinforced that hierarchy. Thus, Marx reasoned, the arbitrary divide between “government” and “the wealthy” was a fiction—they are actually two sides to the same coin. As Marx put it, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

If one looks closely at history and anthropology, one cannot help but conclude that people like Maine, Morgan, and Lavaleye were basically correct. Marx himself took extensive notes on L.H. Morgan’s work, which were later published by Engels as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Many of its assertions have been confirmed by subsequent scholarship, although it suffers from Morgan’s unfortunate characterizations of society as an inevitable progression through definite and predicable stages from Savagery to Barbarism to Civilization (something modern anthropology soundly rejects).

{as an aside, this is why some right-leaning academics like Jordan Peterson are so openly hostile to entire disciplines like anthropology or sociology that they claim are run by “Marxists” or “Neo-Marxists.” They don’t like their conclusions.}

In order for a modern economy based solely on “free and open” markets to work, the traditional forms of human social bonds and organic solidarity had to be broken up. Furthermore, for markets to organize all production and distribution, things like land and labor had to be turned into saleable commodities exchangeable via centralized currencies, the quantity of which would be managed by the state. Doing this was a top-down political project from the get-go, and it required powerful centralized states, the kinds of which developed in Western Europe. This is why capitalism originated in where it did. In Western Europe, commerce was widespread and decentralized, but government institutions could penetrate deeper into the underlying societies than they could in other parts of the world, thanks to the breakup of the clan system. The Catholic Church, too, played a crucial role in breaking up kinship structures, as had the high mortality rates of the Black Death and the existence of communes (free cities outside of the feudal system). By contrast, in the villages and towns that Maine, Morgan, Lavaleye, and others studied at all over the world—the Americas, India, Eastern Europe, China, Java, Africa, Micronesia and the like—the “traditional” forms of social life prevailed, like the buried skeletons of human ancestors, or flies in amber, frozen in time. Even Ireland provided examples: “It cannot be doubted…that the primitive notion of kinship, as the cement binding communities together, survived longer among the Celts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands than in any Western society, and that it is stamped on the Brehon law even more clearly than it is upon the actual land-law of India.” wrote Maine in Lectures on the Early History of Institutions.

Furthermore, not only were ancient economies not a golden age of “limited government,” they were much more restrictive than today! The moral economy regulated the distribution of essential goods for the peasantry, while it was chiefly the distribution of high-end luxury goods for wealthy burghers and aristocrats that was set by impersonal forces of supply and demand, carried out by international wholesalers. Anything else would have led to social chaos, and ancient leaders knew it.

It is, however, utterly erroneous to regard all these provisions, which constitute some of the chief points of the craft organization solely as the independent work of the guilds themselves “which stood like loving mothers providing and assisting at the side of their sons in every circumstance of life.” This view could only have arisen through a total neglect to observe the general economy of mediaeval society, and through a failure to see that the guilds were no purely private and independent unions, but mere stones in the structure of industrial life, apart from which they cannot be comprehended.

The middle ages were a period of customary, not of competitive prices, and the idea of permitting agreements to be decided by the individual preferences of vendor or purchaser was absolutely foreign to the jurisprudence of the times. The higgling of the “market” was an impossibility simply because the laws of the market were not left to the free arbitrament of the contracting parties. Under the supposition that the interests of the whole community would be best subserved by avoiding the dangers of an unrestricted competition, the government interfered to ordain periodical enactments of customary or reasonable prices — reasonable, that is to say, for both producer and consumer.

Tabulated tariffs and official regulations of all things, from beer to labor, filled the statute books, and it would have seemed preposterous for the producer to ask as much as he could get, or on the contrary to demand less than his neighbor and thus undersell him. The three great offences of mediaeval trade were regrating, forestalling and engrossing—buying in order to sell at enhanced prices, intercepting goods and provisions on the way to market to procure them more cheaply, and keeping back wares purchased at wholesale in order to strike a more favorable bargain subsequently. But above all great solicitude was shown for the interest of consumers and every precaution was observed to preclude the possibility of deceiving purchasers. It was deemed of paramount importance to watch over every stage of the production, and the government, far from being antagonistic to the formation of the crafts, usually compelled the workmen to frame ordinances in keeping with this economic policy. The authorities went even further, and in those cases where no anterior organization had existed or where the guild administration was imperfect, imposed general regulations on the artisans which they were compelled to follow in their guilds.

Three Phases of Cooperation in the West, pp. 454-456 (

In the world they lived in, this arrangement made perfect sense. Letting impersonal forces of supply and demand dictate the distribution of essential goods and services would have been a recipe for disaster. Not only that, but the idea that various parts of society should be—indeed must be—in constant unremitting competition with one another, would have also stuck them as absurd. They knew it would undermine the organic solidarity that any culture depended on in order to be viable. One could argue that the unleashing of these destructive social forces did, in fact, contribute to the downfall of various societies over time, such as ancient Rome and many others. I would even argue that our current Western society—which appears to be in a near-constant state of anomie and social breakdown—is a consequence of the ignoring these principles. Instead of a moral economy, we get only the anarchy of the market—a “warre of all against all,” where any hindrances to the  Market and profits for the elites—including familial relationships and custodianship of place, must be done away with in the name of productivism. In fact, to say someone behaves “economically” is to say that one is free to behave without morals in the pursuit of self-interest alone.

For example, land—the ultimate source of wealth and primitive survival before the rise of the industrialism—was governed by a complex series of mutual social arrangements, not just pure supply and demand or fee simple contracts. This has been testified to by all the ancient sources. As stated earlier, it was customarily owned by extended families and passed down to descendants. And even families held it only by usufruct—by law, tribal lands “belonged” to the entire tribe. Tribal lands were periodically repartitioned, but arable land was not something that was bought or sold except under exceptional circumstances. The only things owned outright by individuals were various chattels. Emile de Laveleye summarizes the gradual transformation in land and property ownership in his book Primitive Property:

So long as primitive man lived by the chase, by fishing or gathering wild fruits, he never thought of appropriating the soil; and considered nothing as his own but what he had taken or contrived with his own hands. Under the pastoral system, the notion of property in the soil begins to spring up. It is however always limited to the portion of land, which the herds of each tribe are accustomed to graze on, and frequent quarrels break out with regard to the limits of these pastures. The idea that a single individual could claim a part of the soil as exclusively his own never yet occurs to any one; the conditions of the pastoral life are in direct opposition to it.

Gradually, a portion of the soil was put temporarily under cultivation, and the agricultural system was established; but the territory, which the clan or tribe occupies, remains its undivided property. The arable, the pasturage and the forest are farmed in common.

Subsequently, the cultivated land is divided into parcels which are distributed by lot among the several families, a mere temporary right of occupation being thus allowed to the individual. The soil still remains the collective property of the clan, to whom it returns from time to time, that a new partition may be effected. This is the system still in force in the Russian commune; and was, in the time of Tacitus, that of the German tribe.

By a new step of individualization, the parcels remain in the hands of groups of patriarchal families dwelling in the same house and working together for the benefit of the association, as in Italy or France in the middle ages, and in [Serbia] at the present time.

Finally individual hereditary property appears. It is, however, still tied down by the thousand fetters of seignorial rights, fideicommissa, retraits-lignagers, hereditary leases, Flurziuang or compulsory system of rotation, etc. It is not till after a last evolution, sometimes very long in taking effect, that it is definitely constituted and becomes the absolute, sovereign, personal right, which is defined by the Civil Code, and which alone is familiar to us in the present day.

In fact, ancient societies took explicit steps to restrict unrestrained competition as well as the unpredictable price swings of anarchic markets. This made perfect sense in the world that they lived in—one of localized markets with limited resources and natural constraints. To not do so would be to threaten social stability. Only with the later abundance created by the channeling extra-continental resources of Africa, Asia, and the New World on a very large scale did the ideas of “Classical Liberalism” make any sense at all. Europe needed “ghost acreage for Liberalism to be viable. We tend to forget this in hindsight. For example, in my research on guilds I found this exchange on NPR’s Planet Money with medieval historian Philip Daileader (I’ve cleaned up the transcript a bit):

ADAM DAVIDSON: So thinking about this economically, what I’m finding confusing is that there is so much money left on the table. I mean, we now know – with the benefit of hindsight – that if the shoemakers or the coffin makers or whoever else got together and said, hey, guys, forget this controlling our production. Let’s make as much as we possibly can. Let’s flood the market. We’ll make a lot less on each one, but we’ll sell a lot more units. People will not buy one pair of shoes every 10 years. They’ll buy one pair of shoes every season. Or every few months. Eventually, we can start selling it to those neighboring towns and even to other countries. And we’ll all be much richer. And according to, you know, a basic principle of modern economics, is if there’s a situation where everybody could be made much richer, someone will think of it, and someone will take advantage of it.

So on the one hand, I can see why each guild member doesn’t want any other guild member to do that. But why didn’t anybody think of this, when a few hundred years later, everybody’s thinking about this?

DAILEADER: Right. Well, two factors – one, cultural and the other, technological.

The cultural one is that the Christian milieu of the time regards moneymaking as a sordid activity. The usurers, those who lend money at interest, are considered among the worst sinners out there. And Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, says there’s something sordid about selling and buying goods; that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. So you have these strong cultural constraints working against trying to amass as much wealth as possible.

The technological problem is transportation costs. The idea of mass-producing goods and then flooding markets with them and trying to maximize profits by having razor-thin profit margins but large number of sales, it’s not possible when overland transportation is as expensive as it was in the 12th and 13th centuries. You couldn’t move green profitably over land probably more than 40 or 50 miles. At that point, it was just too expensive.

Many times, there were famines in the twelfth and thirteenth century where there was plenty of food 50 miles away, but it cost too much to load up carts and move it over land. The only economical way to move goods was by water during the Middle Ages. And until those transportation problems were overcome, it really I think was not possible to conceive of a world where instead of trying to make a few sales and make as much profit on those few sales and abandon that for a world where you’re just going to make a large number of sales and a small amount of profit on each one.

DAVIDSON: I see, because Adam Smith wrote about how there will be specialization to the extent of the size of the market.


DAVIDSON: And the market was effectively 50 miles or even less.

DAILEADER: Yes–it was intensely local.

DAVIDSON: And when you do see goods being shipped long distances, it’s things that have huge value for the weight – spices and…

DAILEADER: Precisely, that’s right. Even cloth – which was Europe’s main export to the rest of the world in 12th and 13th century – even cloth is starting to – you’ve reached the limit of what it’s economically profitable to ship, considering the value versus the weight. And certainly, medieval merchants – they wanted to deal in items, such as pepper and spices, that weighed very little and that were quite valuable.

Medieval Economics (Planet Money)

Which is the major reason why proto-capitalism developed first in the cloth industry as we saw last time. It developed last in the market for essential commodities like foodstuffs. Britain’s Corn Laws are an example of the debate of letting food prices be set by supply and demand. But, of course, it was only when transportation was good and cheap enough and surpluses were high enough that this could even be considered.

So, put simply, the ancient guild’s desire to limit competition and regulate prices—so pilloried and ridiculed by modern economic thought—made perfect sense in the world they lived in where raw material supplies and land acreage were inherently limited. They knew that unlimited competition would inevitably lead to a fall in the quality of durable goods and a “race to the bottom” in wages and living standards. They knew that it would tear apart the social fabric. They knew that scarce resources had to be conserved, otherwise it would lead to disaster. They knew that letting supply and demand just take its course and “letting the chips fall where they may,” would result in the “demolition of society” as Karl Polanyi trenchantly put it. That’s why they made their durable goods to last—one high-quality pair of boots made by a cobbler’s guild to last ten to twenty years, rather than a shoddy new pair made by sweated foreign labor to be thrown out every year.

In fact, the whole concept of “fashion” started a way to get people to buy more than they otherwise would have! And it’s no coincidence it started with clothes for the noblemen and burghers. First it was sort of “conspicuous consumption” by the upper classes—showing you could afford the latest fabrics, so that you were rich enough throw away or simply not wear what you were wearing last year. Being imitative, status-conscious creatures, soon it was a way to differentiate oneself as part of the prosperous urban upper class. Sumptuary laws were even put in place in many countries to try and regulate this behavior. Eventually the desire for the latest fashions spread throughout the whole society when mass consumption came into being thanks to mechanization, along with planned obsolescence and advertising to shape consumer behavior. The TV played as big a role in establishing mass consumption as did the assembly line. But none of this would have made any sense in the ancient world, which is why capitalism was simply not viable. When “market society” was imposed by British imperial overlords over the traditional village societies of Ireland and India, millions died—something the “Classical Liberals” would just like us to forget (while waving the bloody shirt against Communism at every opportunity).

{as a side note, the ‘right to repair’ has become something of a movement, and wearing second-hand clothing has now become a status symbol as we have become steadily poorer.}

So it is clear that it is modern Libertarianism (along with “Classical Liberalism”) which is ahistorical, unprecedented, novel, an aberration, and totally at odds with natural human instincts of social cooperation and communal solidarity. This point is well made in this interview with Dr. Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Failed:

PATRICK DENEEN: “In an older society–think of an aristocratic society–Who you are, your identity, and what you will be, is defined by who you’re born to.

The way I usually illustrate this to students is, think of the classic WASP kind of names like ‘Smith’ or ‘Weaver’ or ‘Tailor’ or ‘Cooper.’ All of those things were once professions. They weren’t just random last names. It meant that’s what you’re going to be doing when you grew up. That was the profession that you inherited. It wasn’t just a name, it was who you were going to be. Or more easily identified at places where I teach [such as] the University of Notre Dame, if your name is O’Shaugnessy or O’Leary or McWilliams–those names indicated *who* you were from. So that you were the child of Leary, or the son of John–Johnson or something like that.”

“And you could say Liberalism, in addition to being a political program, was the effort to liberate people from any kind of defined, inherited form of identity. We live in a world today in which we assume–in fact it’s kind of the ground condition of what we think of as our liberty–that we assume that we define who we are and that we define what we will do, where we will live, who we will be with.

But the nub of the issue is that in order to create the conditions that liberate us from not only, we could say, oppressive political structures, but even what come to be seen as unchosen forms of ascribed identity like one’s profession, one’s familial ties that can define one and so forth, that there’s a kind of need to remake society so that we become ever more and more individuated, more and more freed from those defining bonds. To the point that now we are the most disconnected and atomized people ever to exist since those things have been measured in extraordinary forms of declines of rates of marriage, reproduction, fertility, and so forth, and as well as forms of associational life–joining voluntary associations, political parties, churches. Even patriotism is kind of in decline as you move from older generation to younger generation.”

“So the ground condition of our liberty makes it more and more difficult for us to see that we have anything in common; that there is any such thing as a common good other than the securing of our individual self-making selves. But there’s a question of whether you can base a society on that aim or ambition.”

[…] “I revisit some older arguments in the book that talk all about the creation of a market society. I think we do have this–I would regard this as a kind of mythos–that’s propounded by the libertarians that suggests our kind of natural condition is to exist in a kind of perfect free-market environment, and it’s only with the creation of the state that this perfect, what’s called sometimes ‘spontaneous order,’ a spontaneous market system would just pop up if there were no government, if people could just run their own affairs.

But in fact if you look back at economic history, what you see is actually a pretty extensive investment by the state in the creation of the modern market system, and in some cases violent efforts by the state to reorder society so that you would begin to legitimize the idea that all property was essentially private, or any property that was considered to be not owned by the government was private property. Whereas in medieval England there were lots of spaces that were just considered common spaces.”

“So there’s a transformation precisely as you described that creates a market system. So this is correct, there’s a deep linkage ultimately between the modern state and the modern market. And what we tend to debate about is, how extensive should the market be relative to the state and how extensive should the state be relative to the market. But in fact both tend to grow in conjunction with the rise, and indeed the realization of this ‘individual’—this creature that’s supposed to exist by nature, but in fact only exists by artifice, only exists by extensive creation both of the state and the Market.”

1811 – Why Liberalism Failed w/ Patrick J Deneen (YouTube)

Finally (tangentially), I had never mentioned this publicly, but one of my “secret” desires was to get one of my posts listed on my favorite blog—Naked Capitalism. And in the middle of August, I saw this:I don’t know how or why this happened, but I’m very grateful to the folks over at NC for posting it, and to whomever brought it to their attention. It was the only birthday present I received this year. I only wish it had come when I was a bit more productive, LOL. They’re having a fundraiser over there right now, so contribute if you can.

And finally, GO BREWERS, GO!!!

2 thoughts on “Then and Now

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.