12 August, 2022

What, exactly, is "proto-capitalism?"

Have you ever heard of the term, "proto-capitalism?" I have heard it from two groups. The first group are those Catholics who wholeheartedly accept capitalism. For this group, the proto-capitalism period is evidence that the capitalism under which we live today has its origins in Catholic teaching. The second group are other capitalists who say that the proto-capitalism period was a period of transition from economics being considered a sub-category of ethics, where it was subject to religion and philosophy, to its own separate field of study. There is one thing that is generally acknowledged by both of these groups, however. Whatever proto-capitalism was, it was not capitalism. It is the name given by these groups to a particular time that, according to them, was a transition in European economics to capitalism. This leaves some important questions. What was the preceding economic system? What changes separate proto-capitalism from the period that preceded it? What changes separate proto-capitalism from actual capitalism? Finally, is there possibly another name we in the current age can apply to what these groups call proto-capitalism? 

According to these groups, proto-capitalism seems to have started around the 11th Century. Capitalism is generally regarded to have started in the late 18th Century. This is a very significant period of time for both political and economic life in Europe. Instead of being viewed as just one period, it is better considered as three distinct periods. The time from the 11th Century to the middle of the 15th Century is known as the High Middle Ages. This was followed by the periods called the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The reason each of these periods need to be distinguished is that the political and economic changes that occurred in these different eras were significantly different.  

The general political and economic environment of Europe in the early Middle Ages, prior to the 11th Century, is generally known as the feudal period. Feudalism itself was a period of tumultuous transition in Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In order to understand this, we must first take a look at how Rome seems to have managed its colonies in Europe. After conquering an area, Rome left a garrison under the command of a governor whose title was rex. The purpose of this was to ensure that there would not be an uprising against Rome and that the taxes would be collected and sent back to Rome. This is where we get the expression that “all roads lead to Rome.” After an area was conquered, roads were built to make sure the taxes and tributes could be transported back to Rome. What is very interesting about what Rome did, however, is that the local people were able to maintain a form of their own government. They could have their own king who was subordinate to Caesar and the local governor. They could keep their own laws and customs. They could continue to worship their own gods as long as they paid the required tribute to the gods of Rome. They could even have their own army which basically acted as law enforcement. The Roman soldiers “kept the peace,” but didn’t interfere in purely local matters. Another important point is how the Roman garrisons interacted with the local communities. A lot of the Roman soldiers were not actually Roman. Many Romans would only marry other Romans, but many of the other soldiers ended up marrying with the local community. The garrison would go to local merchants to maintain their equipment and purchase things. They became very integrated with the local economic life. 

When Rome collapsed, these colonies were left without the central government that had coordinated their protection by exerting its authority. These colonies essentially became independent with the local governor (“rex”) becoming the local king. The leaders of the garrison under his command became local lords with the responsibility to defend the community against other communities who might try to attack. Since they no longer had support from Rome, the king and his garrison became more dependent on the local community, while that community remained dependent on them for its protection. The fact that soldiers had married into the community strengthened that mutual bond. This was the rise of the Feudal Era. 

The early Feudal Era was essentially Roman in its mindset. The kingdom cities became divided between the lords and the people, who were serfs. Serfs were essentially slaves. Their lords could tell them where to live and what they had to provide as their taxes. They could be hanged if they tried to leave the lord’s land. About the only advantages they had was that the lord was obligated to provide them with a place to live and they could also keep any excess of what they produced for themselves. This latter fact helped to set up the transition from the Feudal era of the early Middle Ages to the High Middle Ages. Another important factor in this transition was the growing influence of the Church. 

Before discussing the High Middle Ages, we must face certain facts. While it was a period of tremendous advancement for the time, it was certainly not without its problems. Corrupt and bad people have existed in all times, and you will be able to find examples of them in any period of any society. While these need to be acknowledged, we will focus on the general changes that occurred that made the High Middle Ages a very different period from the feudalism of the early Middle Ages. 

In my opinion, one of the biggest changes in terms of both economic and political life was the transition of the people from being serfs to being peasants. Many people today have a very negative understanding of what a peasant was. In reality, a peasant was a free person. Serfs were told where to live and what they had to produce. Peasants were free to move and could try different professions. The university system was established and was open to both men and women. This period also saw the emergence of what would eventually become known as a “middle” class which could actually send at least some of their children to university. It was also a period where it was accepted that women would engage in at least some professions. Not only were women doctors, because it was generally not acceptable that a woman would be examined and treated by a male doctor, but there are also records of women being members of various guilds and even becoming masters of their crafts. Now, these were certainly a minority of cases, but they were there. 

The kings of this era were not absolute monarchs. During the Feudal Era, different kings would make alliances where one was acknowledged as the leader of the others and they would mutually protect each other. However, these alliances were pretty loose. The local lord, who remained essentially king in his own area, maintained his own troops who were loyal to him, similar to the local garrison and governor under Roman rule. Because of this, a local lord could break his alliance and join with a different king. These relationships had become much more stable by the High Middle Ages, but the basic structure had remained the same. The king has his own army of soldiers directly loyal to him, but so did each local lord. Kings coordinated the defense of the realm and settled disputes between lords, but the lords generally governed their own lands. The craftsmen and tradesmen of the local communities established their own governing bodies in the form of the guilds. The guilds of this era were responsible for many of the things that city, county, and state governments have assumed in the modern age. Membership in a guild was essentially your business license. The guilds established standards of quality and employment. They provided care for their members and supported their local communities. Another important feature of this time was the area known as the “commons.” Under feudalism, the lord was considered the titled holder of all the land. During the High Middle Ages, craftsmen and merchants eventually were able to buy land from the lord, but there was also an area of land that was generally available for common use among the people. This was a long established custom that actually had the force of law and the rights of the people to the commons was upheld in courts. 

The High Middle Ages was also the period where society was divided in the three or four different “estates” that generally designated their function. An important thing to note about these estates is they each provided things to society that were needed by the others. This created a type of mutual dependence. It was a short-sighted monarch who would become a tyrant because he would find himself without basic needs. The initial three estates were the lords, the peasants, and the Church. Later in this period a merchant class of traders emerged. 

The lords were those who fought. Kings in those days didn’t just send out their armies, they were in the field fighting with the rest of the army. Image if, today, those who declared wars also had to fight them. The peasants were the main producers of just about everything. They grew the food, made the clothes, made equipment and weapons, and built the buildings. The Church provided both spiritual and material support for the society as a whole. She was the primary educator outside of the family and eventually established the university system. The Church was also involved in most technological development of the time. She participated in the development of farming methods, smithing technology, architectural development, and medical research. Monks in one area would also meet with monks from other areas where they would discuss and share what had been developed, so advancements were shared between different kingdoms. The tithes the Church collected provided food and housing for the poor, and the lords often supported these charitable works. The merchants were the traders, who handled imports and exports from other regions. The political and economic environment of this era was very similar to what distributists promote today, but implemented in a way appropriate to that time. 

As European society transitioned to the Renaissance era in the middle of the 15th Century, the authority of kings became more absolute and they started sending others to war while they stayed at home. The political turmoil that came with the Protestant revolt from the Catholic Church resulted in the confiscating of Church properties and brought an end to the support systems the Church ran for the benefit of the poor. In some cases, the confiscated land was given by a king to those who supported him, creating a wealthy landed class. Another thing that happened was that the long upheld right of the people to the commons was revoked. This took away an important economic resource from the people, who became more destitute as a result. This era also saw the beginning of the breakup of the guild system. The guild system didn’t collapse on its own, it was crushed through acts of law made to benefit the new wealthy class who supported the growing power of kings. This was a clear break from the economic and political environment of the High Middle Ages, and it resulted in a much more powerful central government authority with a supportive wealthy, landed class on one side, and a growing class of economically disadvantaged people on the other who were losing the means of their livelihood. 

As society transitioned from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment eras, toward the end of the 18th Century, it also saw the transition to capitalism. This involved the gradual, general revolt against all forms of monarchy and the establishment of federal republics throughout most of Europe. It is true that England maintained its monarchy, but the power of parliament had grown to the point where the monarch eventually became more of a figure head, while the power of parliament was similar to the republics that were being established. The wealthy land holders started to develop factories and other large production systems which they expected to be manned by the poorer classes whose economic situations had degraded during the Renaissance. They openly wrote with disdain about this class, calling them indolent and lazy, and saying they wasted valuable time with leisure that could be used to produce more. These first capitalists used their economic influence to get laws changed to hinder any remaining home industries, so the workers they wanted would basically have no choice but to work in the factories. 

So, looking at these different phases of political and economic history, what period can rightly be called “proto-capitalism?” The main distinguishing feature between capitalism and other economic systems is the existence of two economic classes, one that owns productive capital and employs the other to do the actual work of production for a wage. Which period was a definite move toward this while not yet being true capitalism? For me, the typical commentator who points to the High Middle Ages is wrong. The transition that occurred during that time was more people independently owning the productive capital they used to provide for their own needs. Because many were able to transition to paying their taxes in coin instead of specific products, the lords no longer directed their production. While there were certainly some who could be considered employees during that era, most businesses of that era were owned by the people who did the productive work. 

I would say that the late Renaissance Era is more appropriately considered the time of proto-capitalism. This era kicked the workers out of the productive capital known as the commons, and left them in a situation where they would have to work for a wage in order to support themselves. This era established stronger central governments who could make wide sweeping changes in laws at the behest of the wealthy land owners to limit the independent economic efforts of the common people so they too would become dependent on working for a wage to make a living. This era was also the beginning of the religious revolt throughout much of European society that would eventually justify ignoring the classical view that economics was a sub-category of ethics, instead viewing it as an independent field of study.  

The High Middle Ages, on the other hand, never separated economics from ethics. Ethics were integral to all aspects of economic life. The Scholastic Catholic philosophers of the time were very thorough in their examination of economic life. They included theories of monetary value and the injustice of inflation and deflation, theories of just price that included the cost to bring products to market, the subjective value of the product to the community or individual, and ethical principles of Christian morals, the idea that there is inherent dignity and value in labor and living by the fruits of your own labor, the rejection of slave labor, the idea that individuals can improve their state in life by making modest profits and frugal living. This included being private business owners operating in a free economy where business were self-regulated within their guilds. It was a time with banking and systems of profitable credit and investment for complex commercial activities. However, the profit could not be made by usury, but by other compensations in exchange for the loan or investment. 

In conclusion, my view is that the Renaissance era is the earliest period that can rightfully be called proto-capitalism. The High Middle Ages was a transition from the feudalism of the early Middle Ages, but not in the direction of capitalism. What was established in the High Middle Ages was much closer to what distributists propose than capitalists. It was the Renaissance Era that made the changes necessary for the implementation of capitalism, a system essentially defined by two economic classes, one that owns the productive capital needed for production and the other employed by those owners to do productive work for a wage. 

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