Bourgeois Deeds: How Capitalism Made Modernity 1700-1848

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Draft of May 11, 2016

Bourgeois Deeds:

How Capitalism

Made Modernity 1700-1848

[The Bourgeois Era, Vol. 2]

Deirdre McCloskey

University of Illinois at Chicago

To the Readers of the Present Draft:
Notes in bold or in Lucinda Calligraphy typeface are reminders to myself of some---merely some---of the many things that need to be accomplished to make the draft into a proper book. I would very much appreciate any comments you may have.
Table of Contents
The Argument: How a Change in Talk Made the Modern World 3
Acknowledgements 12
Part 1: Material Explanations

of the World’s Enrichment

Do Not Work
Chapter 1: Modern Growth is a Factor of at Least Fifteen 14

Chapter 2: It Was not Thrift 22

Chapter 3: Nor Was It Original Accumulation, or the Protestant Ethic 30

Chapter 4: Foreign Trade Was Not It , Nor the Slave Trade, Nor Imperialism 39

Chapter 5: Strictly “Material” Causes are thus Rebutted 47

Chapter 6: Nor Was It Nationalism 55

Chapter 7: Nor Was It Institutions, as North and Braudel Claim 61
Part 2

The Shifting Rhetoric of the Aristocratic

and then Bourgeois English

Needs to Be Explained
Chapter 8: Bourgeois Precursors Were Ancient 73

Chapter 9: But the Early Bourgeoisies Were Precarious 83

Chapter 10: The Dutch Bourgeoisie Preached Virtue 99

Chapter 11: And the Dutch Bourgeoisie Was Virtuous 107

Chapter 12: Yet Old England Disdained the Market and the Bourgeoisie 118

Chapter 13: And So the Modern English Bourgeoisie Could Not “Rise” 126

Chapter 14: Demography, Contrary to Gregory Clark, Could Not Overcome Disdain 131

Chapter 15: But in the Late 17th Century the British Changed 143

Chapter 16: For Example, a Bourgeois England Loved Measurement 155

Chapter 17: The New Values Were Triumphant by 1848, or 1776, or Even as Early as 1710 163

Works cited 172

The Argument:

How a Change in Talk Made the Modern World

Once upon a time a change unique to Europe happened, especially after 1600 in the lands around the North Sea, and most especially in Holland and then in England and Scotland. The change was foreshadowed in northern Italy and in the Hansa towns, and was tried out a bit in 2nd century B.C.E. Carthage, and even in 18th century C.E. Osaka. But after Britain the change persisted. The change was the coming of a business-dominated civilization. 

A hard coming we had of it.  But the hardness was ideological and rhetorical, not material.  What made the modern world, as many economic historians are realizing, was not trade or empire or the exploitation of the periphery. These were exactly peripheral. Anyway imperialism was routine, in the Athenian Empire or the Abbasid Empire or the Moghul Empire, yet did not make a modern world.  Nor was the modern-making a class struggle. Again recent historians have come to see the class struggle as precisely not the history of all hitherto existing societies. Nor did a business-dominated civilization come from any of the splendid engines of conventional economics, limited in horsepower, such as the division of labor or increasing returns or the downward march of transaction costs or the Malthusian pressures on behavior.

What made the modern world was, proximally, innovation in machines and organizations, such as the spinning jenny and the insurance company, and innovation in politics and society, such as the American constitution and the British middle class.  But only proximally. Such innovations of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and its offshoots, I am claiming, arose ultimately from a change in what the blessed Adam Smith called "moral sentiment."  That is, they came out of a change, ultimately, in the rhetoric of the economy. The economic historian Joel Mokyr has called it the “industrial Enlightenment,” a third project of the French philosophes and the Scottish improvers.1 NNN [Enlightenment guy] speaks of the question “How can I be good?” yielding to the question, “How can I be happy?”2 The question changed from “Where am I in God’s hierarchy?” to “What advantageous agreement can I make?” The questions changed, and therefore so did beliefs and behaviors. To put it in a old-fashioned but still accurate vocabulary, Northwestern Europe, and Britain in particular, changed from a society of status to a society of contract. Honest invention and hopeful revolution came to be spoken of as honorable, as they had not ever been before, and the seven principal virtues of pagan and Christian Europe were recycled as bourgeois.  The wave of gadgets, material and political, in short, came out of a bourgeois ethical and rhetorical tsunami around 1700 in the North Sea.

That’s the argument.

To say it in a little more detail:

In Dante’s time a market was viewed as an occasion for sin. Holiness in 1300 was earned by prayers and charitable works, not by buying low and selling high. The blessed were “poor of the faith,” as the heretical Albigensians in southern France put it, that is, rich people like St. Francis of Assisi who chose poverty.3 And still in Shakespeare's time a claim of "virtue" for working in a market was spoken of as flatly ridiculous. Quote: look in my S. book for –B notations. Secular gentlemen earned virtue by nobility, not by bargaining. The very name of “gentleman” in 1600 meant someone who attended the Cadiz Raid or attended Hampden Court, engaging in nothing so demeaning as actual work.

But from 1300 to 1600 in northern Italy and the Low Countries and the Hansa towns, and then more broadly down to 1776 and still more broadly to 1848, something changed in the talk of Europe. In England the change in the rhetoric of the economy happened during a concentrated and startling period 1600 to 1776, or even more concentrated and more startling 1689-1720. The change? Capitalism and bourgeois work came to be spoken of as virtuous. In some ways, though not all, capitalism and bourgeois work became virtuous in fact.

By the very end, by 1848, notoriously, in Holland and England and America and other offshoots and imitators of the northwestern Europeans a businessperson was routinely said to be good, and good for us. Capitalism, from its precursors in the northern Italian city states around 1300 to the first modern bourgeois society on a large scale in Holland around 1600 to a pro-bourgeois ethical and political rhetoric around 1776 to a world-making rhetoric around 1848, grew for the first time in history at the level of big states and empires to be acceptable. The rhetoric of a business-dominated civilization, which came before the material changes resulting from it, was historically unique. It was a change in ethics, that is, a change in earnest talk about how to be good.

It had not happened before because the aristocratic or Christian or Confucian elites had contempt for business, and had always taxed it or regulated it, keeping it within proper bounds. And indeed small societies dominated by business would set bounds on themselves, by arranging for local monopoly. Deventer, a Hansa town in the Netherlands in 1500, was strictly bounded by protection for existing trades. You could not innovate in producing books without permission of the guild of publishers there. But a society as large as Britain in the 18th century could develop enough material and intellectual interests in free trade to unbind Prometheus.4 The balance of interests created is not merely a modern liberal theory. Interests grew up that had a stake in free markets. If capitalism was allowed to dominate, it succeeded in enriching enough people to create vested interests for continuing. The interests of traditional aristocrats, peasants, clergy, and local monopolies were offset, sufficiently.

It was a close call, because ideas matter, too, and are not merely a superstructure determined by a material base. Adam Smith’s ideas, for example, mattered. Without him the ideology of capitalism would have developed in different ways. He himself wrote eloquently in 1776 against the notion that only material interests figure, and slowly his eloquence came to matter. "To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear,” he wrote, “a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers."5 A government influenced by shopkeepers was the Deventer case, and repeatedly since then the shopkeepers and corporations have attempted to re-impose mercantilism, protecting American sugar growers (and thus killing innovation in the use of sugar for auto fuel) or extending the copyright on Mickey Mouse (and thus killing innovation in the use of images).

But the greater danger in modern times has been the re-imposition of aristocratic or Christian notions of the proper place of business, the one in nationalist schemes to subsidize military power and traditional aristocrats in the name of King and Country, the other in socialist schemes to protect members of the Party and favored trade unions in the name of the wretched of the earth. It was again a close call. The European Civil War 1914-1989 showed how freedoms of all kinds could break under the noble theories of nationalists or socialists or national socialists. Ideas mattered, as one can see by noting the importance in the history, sometimes, of individual actors and their ideas. No Lenin, with his pen, no 1917. No Hitler, with his voice, no 1933.

The book claims that the rhetorical and ethical change caused modern economic growth, which at length freed us from ageless poverty. Modern economic growth did not, contrary to the anti-bourgeois rhetoric of the clerisy since 1848, and contrary to a longer line of aristocratic and religious criticism of business-dominated civilization, corrupt our souls. People came to accept the creative destruction of old ways of doing things, and the economy paid the people back with interest. People came to think of themselves as endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, and the rhetoric paid them back with freed slaves and freed women. People came to expect to have a say in their governments as in their markets, and the polity, too, paid them back with democratic liberalism, a free press, the Iowa caucuses, and all our joy.

The industrial revolution and the modern world, I am claiming, arose from a change in the way people talked about business—not from an original accumulation of capital or from an exploitation of the periphery or from imperialistic exploitation or from a rise in the savings rate or from improvement of property rights or from the birth-rate of the capitalistically gifted or from a manufacturing capitalism taking over from commercial capitalism or from any other of the materialist machinery beloved of economists and calculators left and right. The machines don’t work. Rhetoric does.

And neither did the modern world arise from the sort of psycho-social changes that Max Weber posited in 1905. It was not a Protestant ethic or a change in acquisitive desires or a rise of national feeling or a “industrious revolution” or any other change in people’s behavior as individuals that initiated the new life of capitalism. These were not trivial, and were surely the flourishing branches of a business-dominated civilization. But they were branches, not the root. People have always been hard working and acquisitive and proud, when circumstances warranted it. Thrift had to begin with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From the beginning, greed was a sin and prudent self-interest a virtue. There’s nothing Early Modern about them. And as for nationalism, Italian cities in the 13th century, or for that matter Italian parishes anywhere, evinced a nationalism—the Italians still call the local version campanilismo, from campanile, the church bell tower from which the neighborhood took its time—that would do the average Frenchman of 1914 proud.

After all, many of the differences in cultural behavior to which we attribute so much can disappear in a generation or two. The grandchildren of Hmong immigrants to the United States differ in many of their values only a little from the grandchildren of British immigrants. If you’re not persuaded, add a “great” to “grandchildren,” or another “great.” What persists and develops and influences, by repetition at a mother’s knee or through stories told in literature high and low, or the rumors of the newspapers and the chatter on the web, are ethical valuations, that is to say, how we value others and ourselves and the transcendent. Consider the high valuation of prudence and hope and courage in American civilization, and a persistent faith in an identity of unrootedness, what the Dutch economist Arjo Klamer has called the American “caravan” society as against the “citadel” society of Europe, the American frontier myth or the Hollywood road movie, the American folk religion that “you can be anything you want to be.” It wipes out in a couple of generations a Northern European ethic of temperance and justice or an East Asian ethic of prudence and love.6

Many people, for example, said in the 1950s and 1960s that India would never develop economically, that Hindu culture was hopelessly otherworldly and would always be hostile to capitalism. For thirty years after Independence such a rhetoric of a Gandhi-cum-London-School-of-Economics socialism held the “Hindu rate of growth” to 3.2 percent per year, implying a sad 1 percent a year per capita as the population grew. But at last the anti-market rhetoric from the European 1930s faded. A capitalist rhetoric took root in India, partially upending the “License Raj.” And so the place commenced, after Ravi Gandhi (no relation) in 1980 and especially after Manmohan Singh in 1991, to increase the production of goods and services at rates shockingly higher than in the days of five-year plans and corrupt regulation, now at fully 9 percent a year. Birth rates are falling, as they do when people get better off. At 9 percent the worst of Indian poverty will disappear in a generation or two, because income per head will have increased then by a factor of as much as 8. Eight. Even at the more moderate rates of 7.3 percent per year assumed in 2007 by Oxford Economics it will have tripled.7 Tripled. The culture didn’t change 1980-2009, and probably won’t change by 2034. People still give offerings to Lakshmi and the son of Gauri as they did in 1947 and 1991. They still play cricket. In the year 2034, one supposes, the Indians will persist in these bizarre cultural practices. Yet they will have entered the modern world, and the modern word, of a business-dominated civilization. And they will be the better for it.

What changed in Europe, and then the world, I am claiming, was the rhetoric of capitalism, that is, the way influential people such as Daniel Defoe and Voltaire and Adam Smith and Tom Paine and William Pitt and then most everyone talked about earning a living. The talk mattered because it affected how people valued economic activity and how governments behaved towards it. Max Weber in fact had such a change in mind. His instinct to take religious doctrine seriously in accounting for the change deserves respect, though not exactly the theory of Protestantism he posited. Little but rubble remains of his original notion that Calvinists were especially enterprising. Jacques Delacroix summarizes a few of the more striking counterexamples in 1995 that “Amsterdam’s wealth was centered on Catholic families; the economically advanced German Rhineland is more Catholic and Protestant; all-Catholic Belgium was the second country to industrialize.”8 One could mention, too, the earlier evidence of capitalist vigor in Catholic Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Lisbon---unless one were pre-committed to the erroneous premise that no “capitalism” could possibly exist before 1600.

But the change in talk about economic life—which happened at the theoretical level, by the way, in Catholic Spain before it happened in Protestant England, and in Italy before Spain—provided warrants for certain changes in behavior. The talk was essential. The trade to the East and the New World was not essential, though it got the most press. It was small relative to trade among the Europeans themselves. The character of the European bourgeoisie did not change. Nationalism did change—though there is a lively literature nowadays that dates English nationalism from centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and even Irish nationalism in reaction to English. But in their economic effects these were fix side shows. What did change in northwestern Europe was the attitude towards the bourgeois life and the capitalist economy, by the bourgeoisie themselves and by their traditional enemies—who revived after the Reformation in the Spanish and French lands to crush enterprise. The talk was no side show, the main event, and it did change in the 17th and 18th centuries, a lot, and in England triumphed.

Without a new acceptance of markets and businesspeople and the bourgeoisie the society of northwestern Europe would have continued to bump along in a zero-sum mode, as had every society with fleeting exceptions since the cavemen. No one would have thought to turn a profit by inventing a seed drill for the field or an atmospheric engine for the mine. Why bother, if the Sultan would throw you off a cliff for your trouble, or if the Emperor’s noblemen would swoop down to seize your profits, or if every scribbler and courtier and cleric held the floor in Urbino or Madrid by sneering at your very existence? Castiglione’s influential The Book of the Courtier, was written in 1508-1516 about the court of Dukes Guidobaldo and Francesco Maria, the cream of Renaissance princes. An edition of 1031 copies was published first in Italian in 1528 at Venice, and in subsequent decades it was translated into every European language, becoming one of the most popular books of the age. It praises ladies and gentlemen, among whom it does not count the bourgeoisie. Ladies who use too many cosmetics are “like wily merchants who display their cloths in a dark place.” A true gentleman is motivated by glory to hazardous deeds of war, “and whoso is moved by gain or other motives. . . deserves not to be called a gentleman, but a most base merchant” (vilissimo mercante). A gentleman deflecting a complement compares praising himself with the manner “some merchants . . . who put a false coin among many good ones.”9 But in truth the bourgeoisie figures little in the book, although the splendor of the Italian Renaissance rested on its activity. Without a business-dominated civilization the profit from invention would have continued even in Italy to be seen as ignoble. Buying low and selling high would have been continued to be seen as unethical. Institutionalized theft would have continued to be seen as aristocratic. Alms and tithes would have continued to be seen as holy.

Not that the actual aristocrats, or for that matter the actual priests, hesitated to engage in trade when opportunities appeared for profit in a market, or when there appeared more violent opportunities for gain. The Cistercian monks were for centuries the cleverest merchant farmers in Europe. The most insistent complaint against what Rodney Stark calls the Church of Power was its single-minded pursuit of wealthy display, “to be well dressed and well shod, in order to ride of horseback and to drink and eat well,” as in the early 13th century one of the “perfects” of the heretical Albigensians put it.10 The Medici were dukes of Florence from 1532, but were of course descended from late medieval wool manufacturers and bankers. It was not desire for gain that changed. The Middle Ages are not to be viewed as a contentedly poor Merrie Englande starring Errol Flynn. This much we know from a century of revision of the Romantic theory of medieval virtue. Capitalism is not about the rise of greed. What did change were the articulated ideas about the economy, ideas about the sources of wealth, ideas about a positive sum as against a zero-sum economy, ideas about progress and invention, above all ideas about what sort of calling is admirable. And so a new world was born.

A wise economist once said that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. . . . I am sure the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”11 So here.

* * * *

The book is the second of five planned, three written, one already published, of a full-scale defense of capitalism, aimed at people like you who think it needs one. The project of The Bourgeois Era, in other words, is an “apology” in the Greek sense of a defense at a trial, and in the theological sense, too, of an open-handed preachment to you-all, the beloved infidels or the misled orthodox. My beloved infidel friends on the left and my also-beloved but also-misled ultra-orthodox friends on the right have long joined in believing that capitalism is as Marx put it in 1867, “solely the restless stirring for gain. This absolute desire for enrichment, this passionate hunt for value.”12 Many on the left have been appalled with the material results many on the right have been pleased. Both have been dismayed by the vulgarity attendant on modernity.

But you-all, I am saying, are mistaken. On the one side we should stop at once excusing Enron thieves, and stop accepting their self-interested argument that unjust prudence, organized by Enron thieves, you see, is all the ethics a businessperson requires. But on the other side we should also stop at once encouraging Sierra-Club radicals, and stop accepting their self-interested argument that imprudent justice, organized by Sierra-Club radicals, you see, is all the ethics a society requires. Capitalism has an ethic beyond Greed is Good. It has to have such an ethic to work. And its working makes people ethically and culturally better, not just better off.

We are in the Bourgeois Era, we are of it. We should understand and celebrate it, instead of lamenting endlessly that we are not still in a sweet hierarchical era that never was, nor yet in a sweet utopian era that will never be. The sweetness, and the sweet talk, is now. The criticism by the clerisy since 1848, mainly a re-inscription of aristocratic and Christian criticisms since 400 B.C.E., has been bad tempered and ill informed. Time to move on.

The first volume, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), asked whether a bourgeois life can be ethical. A third volume, soon to appear, Bourgeois Rhetorics: An Economy of Words, will asked how bourgeois life was, and is, theorized as speech acts. A fourth volume, Bourgeois Enemies: The Treason of the Clerisy, co-authored with my talented brother John McCloskey, will ask how after 1848 we European artists and intellectuals came to be so very scornful of the bourgeoisie, and how the gradual encroachment of such ideas led to the disasters of the 20th century. And the last, still highly preliminary in outline, Bourgeois Times: Defending the Defensible, will look into the economic arguments against capitalism, such as its alleged dependence on a reserve army of unemployed and its alleged despoilment of the environment.

The books lean against each other. If your worries about the ethical foundations of capitalism are not sufficiently met here, they perhaps are more fully met in The Bourgeois Virtues. If you feel that not enough attention is paid here to imperialism or global warming, more will be paid in Bourgeois Times. If you wonder how I can claim in the present book that words matter so much, do put in your early order for Bourgeois Rhetorics. If you feel that the story here doesn’t explain why such a successful bourgeois life is now despised in deeply progressive and deeply conservative circles, do wait with thrilled anticipation for Bourgeois Enemies.

They are one big argument. The argument is: Markets are not inconsistent with an ethical life, and indeed an ethical change in favor of markets characterizes Europe after 1300 in isolated parts of the European south (Venice, Florence, Barcelona) and after 1400 in the Hansa towns of the north, and after 1600 in larger chunks of the north (Holland, England, Scotland), and after 1750 America, Belgium, France, and then the world. But the artists and the intellectuals—the clerisy—turned against liberal capitalism after 1789 and especially after 1848. Their treason led in the 20th-century to the catastrophes of socialism and nationalism and national socialism, exacerbated by a proud clerisy retailing theories about history and race. Ideas matter.

The clerisy’s ideas about capitalism in the century and a half since 1848, voluble though they have been, have been largely mistaken. They constitute a return to pre-capitalist and hierarchical ethics, with a nasty overlay of “scientific” justifications, as in scientific racism and scientific materialism. Bourgeois practice, by contrast, has been on the whole a material and a spiritual success, an idealism of ordinary life. If capitalism continues to be scorned as it has been by many of our opinion makers since the late 19th century we can repeat if we wish the nationalist and socialist horrors of the mid 20th century. We can even add for good measure an anti-bourgeois religiosity, as new as 9/11 and as old as the Sermon on the Mount.

The apology seems to take five volumes. Who knows: by the end it may take more. Each book is readable, I hope, on its own, but they do lean against each other. A philosopher wrote recently, to explain why he felt he had to cram his opus on "warranted Christian belief" into three stout volumes rather than allowing himself four, that "a trilogy is perhaps unduly self-indulgent, but a tetralogy is unforgivable."13 Here you have in prospect, God help you, a pentalogy. Yet bourgeois life and capitalism since 1848 have had a bad press, worse even than warranted Christian belief. The prosecution has written out the indictment of a business-dominated civilization in many thousands of volumes, from the hands of Rousseau, Dickens, Baudelaire, Marx, Lenin, Nietzsche, Shaw, Veblen, Sinclair Lewis, Kojève, Heidegger, Sartre, Marcuse, Galbraith, Allan Bloom, Stuart Hall, Ehrenreich. Few attempts have been made to defend a life in commerce, except on the economist’s prudence-only grounds that after all a great deal of money is made here. After such prolixity in the indictment of capitalism my merely five volumes of defense—themselves mere adumbrations of the many arguments that could be made in the case—seem restrained.

Maybe it's time to begin a full scale defense that goes beyond economic balance sheets. Maybe it’s time to offer the outlines of an ethical rhetoric for our globalized souls, an idealism I say of ordinary life, recouping the virtues for the lives that most of us in fact live. If you are on the left, and believe that capitalism and the bourgeois life were born in sin, and that they continue to impoverish and to corrupt the world, I hope to plant at least some seeds of doubt. But likewise I hope to plant some seeds of doubt if you are on the right, and believe that (admittedly) capitalism is “solely the restless stirring for gain, this absolute desire for enrichment,” but efficacious desire for enrichment, though (alas) the economists and calculators have corrupted our holiness and demeaned our nobility, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.

I want to persuade both of you that your beliefs that capitalism is especially greedy, and the bourgeoisie sadly ignoble and unspiritual, might—just might—be mistaken. And I want to persuade you both that to go on bad-mouthing a virtuous life of commerce is bad for our souls, as it has so often since 1848 been fatal to our politics.

Still to be drafted. the April 31st, 2004 meetings of the Illinois/Indiana Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America, 24th annual gala at the Drake Hotel
New Zealand conference 1996

ANU conference 1996

I must thank especially the participants in a little conference about this volume and the next (Bourgeois Rhetorics) in January 2008 at the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University, namely, Paul Dragos Aligica, Gregory Clark, Henry Clark, Jan de Vries, Pamela Edwards, Jack Goldstone, Thomas Haskell, Leonard Liggio, Allan Megill, John Nye, Alan Ryan, Virgil Storr, Scott Taylor, and Werner Troesken, with the organizers Claire Morgan and Rob Herritt. It was inspiriting to have so many fine scholars, a number of them dear friends, encouraging me and restraining me and instructing me.

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