So the bourgeoisie is always with us. Yet bourgeoisies have usually been precarious. Braudel again chronicled the reluctant triumph of a business civilization: “as the years passed, the demands and pressures of everyday life [in Europe in early modern times] became more urgent. . . . So with a bad grace, it allowed change to force the gates. And the experience was not peculiar to the West.” Even during the momentous turn 1300-1776 in Europe there were de-bourgeoisfications. The “knight-merchants” of venturing Portugal lost their influence at court, and did not create a bourgeois nation, though the nation was allied from 1386 on with what at length became an even more bourgeois England, arrayed against a fiercely aristocratic and increasingly anti-bourgeois Spain. The historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein noted that in Portugal in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries “there seemed to be advantage in the ‘discovery business’ for. . . the nobility, for the commercial bourgeoisie. . . [and] even for the semiproletariat.” 139 But except for obsessed figures like Prince Henry the Navigator himself, the heirs settled down to routine exploitation. 140
Venice came to be ruled by a quasi-aristocracy out of a total population of 100,000, the 500 men of the leading families who were permitted to have political careers, such as Shakespeare’s nobleman Bessanio (not that Shakespeare is a reliable source on Venetian politics, about which he knew nothing: his characters owe more to his views about bourgeois and aristocrat in London). The historian William McNeill observes that “by 1600, if not before, the [Venetian] republic came to be governed by a small clique of rentiers, who drew their income mainly from land, and to a lesser degree from office-holding itself. Active management of industry and commerce passed into the hands of domiciled foreigners [compare the metics of ancient Athens, or the Germans of Russia]. . . . The kind of commercial calculations that had governed Venetian state policy for centuries tended to lose persuasiveness. . . . The men who ruled Venice were no longer active in business, but devoted a large part of their official attention to regulating business behavior.” 141 The regulations killed innovation [check fact with Venetian historians] . It certainly happened in Florence in the sixteenth century, though the Florentines continue down to the present to be manufacturers with markets worldwide. It happened, too, in the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. In the Dutch Republic before 1795 a tiny oligarchy — some 2000 men, perhaps a smaller group in proportion to the whole even than the 1Â¼ percent of the Venetian adult men — ran the country. 142 Yet it left Amsterdam a leading center for finance well into the nineteenth century; and Holland is to this day a great bank and entrÃªpot. It is even claimed — though this time on no good evidence — that a loss of the bourgeois spirit of entrepreneurship happened in Britain itself (of all unlikely places) in the late nineteenth century (of all unlikely periods). 143
But that’s precisely what is strange about northwestern Europe. The decisive, irreversible turn to a bourgeois civilization, despite on-going signs down to the present of reluctance and bad grace, happen there and didn’t happen elsewhere. The making of the German Ocean into a bourgeois lake c. 1453-1700, to be followed in the eighteenth century by the making of the North Atlantic into a larger one, and in the nineteenth century the world’s seas into the largest one of all, constitutes only the most recent case of urban trade. But it was strangely decisive, even in places like Holland that slipped back into a proud oligarchy [check with Zanden and de Vries]. Aristocratic elites even in northwestern Europe held power into the twentieth century, and the haute bourgeoisie kept remaking themselves into gentry or, if especially lucky, aristocracy — Baron Rothschild, of all things (as an anti-Semitic aristocrat would have put it in 1885); or, still more unsettling, Sir James Paul McCartney (MBE 1965, KBE 1997), of all things (as an anti-democratic elitist would have put it in 1997). Yet a bourgeois, business-dominated civilization kept a-building. It was in some places not much retarded even by experiments in incentive-damaging socialism or by adventures in treasure-exhausting nationalism.
Why irreversible? It is not absolutely so, as the successful experiment in reversing it in the Soviet Union 1917-1991 shows. If the state is powerful and anti-bourgeois, as under Mao or Castro, it can kill the goose stone dead. The reversal need not even be tyrannical. Populist sentiment against the market or the corporations or careers in business, if skillfully aroused, can return us to the material and spiritual conditions of 1600 and $2 or $3 a day. Democracy, as much as it is to be encouraged, is not the same thing as dignity and liberty for the innovators who make us rich and free. But the history of northwestern Europe shows a mechanism of weak irreversibility, a free-market and bourgeois-dignity ratchet, that seems at length to have prevailed. Let us pray.
In 1720 the wool, silk, and linen manufacturers constituted an interest against the importing of Indian cotton goods. Yet the importing and then (to the horror of the interests) the European manufacturing of cotton evaded the fierce prohibitions of law, and eventually created an interest in cotton manufacturing that could itself demand its own laws. We call it “`vested,” but the term is not quite right, since a vested interest is absolute and guaranteed in law, such as a vested inheritance to a property. The word “vested” comes from the metaphor of putting on the clothes of, say, a priest. It is permanent and unconditional. Even the English manufacturers of wool, though holding on for a long time to the exclusive right to make winding sheets for clothing the dead (to speak of literal vesting), could not prevent on other counts the putting off of their vestments and their profits. Innovation overwhelmed the existing profits pro tempore, as the lawyers might say, creating new ones, strong in their own defense. In 1774 the former barber Richard Arkwright, anxious to protect the profits from his introduction of a machine for making strong cotton yarn, bribed and persuaded his way to getting Parliament to repeal the former prohibition of all-cotton cloth, and a year later got it to remove the import tariff on raw cotton. Europe nourished, so to speak, a party of innovation.
Why northwestern Europe? It is not racial or eugenic, a hardy tradition of scientific racism after 1870 to the contrary, revived nowadays by economists and evolutionary psychologists exhibiting a dismaying ignorance of the history of eugenic politics. 144 Nor is it the traditions of the Germanic tribes in the Black Forest, as the Romantic Europeans have been claiming for two centuries. 145 That much is obvious, if the obviousness were not already plain from the recent explosive economic successes of those highly non-European and non-Germanic places India and China, and before them of Korea and Japan, and in centuries past the economic successes of overseas versions of all kinds of ethnic groups, from Parsees in England to Jews in North Africa. Yet it is still an open question, a mystery, why China, for example, did not originate modern economic growth (which I claim is one of the chief outcomes of a bourgeois civilization). It had enormous cities and millions of merchants and security of property and a gigantic free trade area when bourgeois northern Europeans were still hiding out in clusters of a very few thousand behind their tiny city walls, with barriers to trade laid on in all directions. Chinese junks gigantically larger than anything the Europeans could build until iron hulls in the nineteenth century were making trips to the east coast of Africa before the Portuguese managed by a much shorter route to get there in their own pathetic caravels. Yet, as the Chinese did not, the Portuguese persisted, at least for a long while, naming for example the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal for the Christmas time of 1497 on which they first got there, and inspiring other Europeans to a scramble for empire and trade. “We must sail,” sang Luis CamÃµes, the Portuguese Virgil, in 1572. Gnaeus Pompey’s declaration that Navigare necessse est; vivere non est necesse (Sailing is necessary; living is not) was adopted all over Europe, in Bremen and Rotterdam for example. And so they did, sail. And the Chinese didn’t, or else North and South America would now be speaking a version of Cantonese.
Perhaps the problem was precisely China’s unity, as against the mad scramble of Europe at the time, Genoa against Venice, Portugal against Spain, England against Holland. For example, China was rhetorically unified, the way any large, one-boss organization tends to be, such as a modern university. A “memorandum culture,” such as Confucian China (or the modern university) has no space for rational discussion, because the monarch does not have to pay attention. 146 Look at your local dean or provost, immune to reason in an institution devoted to reason. “Rational discussion is likely to flourish most,” Barrington Moore has noted, “where it is least needed: where political [and religious] passions are minimal” (which would not describe the modern university). 147
The historical sociologist Jack Goldstone has noted that:
China and India had great concentrations of capital in the hands of merchants; both had substantial accomplishments in science and technology; both had extensive markets. eighteenth century China and Japan had agricultural productivity and standards of living equal or greater than that of contemporary European nations. . . . Government regulation and interference in the economy was modest in Asia, for the simple reason that most economic activity took place in free markets run by merchants and local communities, and was beyond the reach of the limited government bureaucracies of advanced organic societies to regulate in detail. Cultural conservatism did keep economic activities in these societies on familiar paths, but those paths allowed of considerable incremental innovation and long-term economic growth. 148
As a factor in China’s failure to converge on the Western standard in the nineteenth century the historian Kenneth Pomerantz explicitly rejects the low status in Confucian theory of merchants. But wait. Until China began seriously to honor and protect entrepreneurs — namely, under the neo-pseudo-Communists of the 1980s — China’s growth was modest indeed.
The contrast of northwestern Europe with Japan presents an even deeper mystery. In the eighteenth century Japan looked similar to England in literacy, city life, bourgeois intellectual traditions, lively internal trade. Donald Keene notes that from the hand of Saikaku ( 1642-93) came “A Treasury of Japan, a collection of stories on the theme of how to make (or lose) a fortune. The heroes of these stories are men who permit themselves no extravagance, realizing that the way to wealth lies in meticulous care of the smallest details.” 149 Saikaku’s heroes are all merchants, every one. Daniel Defoe a little later couldn’t have done better. As I have argued elsewhere, the Japanese were starting to make the adjustment even to a pro-bourgeois social theory, at any rate in merchant circles, as early as the late seventeenth century. 150
True, Tokugawa Japan had isolated itself from foreigners, and was hostile to innovation — in guns, for example, which were successfully controlled by the Tokugawa, who had come to power through their skillful use. The retreat from the gun kept sword-fighting display going strong into the nineteenth century, providing later opportunities for samurai movies and militaristic propaganda. More startlingly, the Tokugawa outlawed wheels except for the few carriages of nobles, and rigorously enforced the law. You will see no carts even in the 1850s in Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” 151
At length under the Meiji restoration the Japanese, a hundred years before the Chinese finally did, began to honor and protect entrepreneurs, albeit with a heavy hand of government. Japanese growth in the late nineteenth century exploded. A theory of convergence needs to explain why the coal-poor and colony-poor Japanese — at any rate coal- and colony-poor until they commenced conquering places like Manchuria on the grounds of just such a resources-theory of international relations as historians such as Pomerantz use — converged smartly in the late nineteenth century. Coal-poor Holland and Italy did then, too. When after World War II the Japanese were compelled to abandon their militaristic and resource-based dreams of glory, they attained in short order European standards of living.
So elsewhere, mysteries. Early Islam was by no means hostile to innovation or trade, and was certainly a site for great cities. Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba were all green-field creations. It is routine to note that Western Christian culture c. 1000 CE — as against the then still formidable rump of the Eastern Greeks around Constantinople — looked comically primitive by the standard of the Abbasid Caliphate. Muslims innovated in all fields of the intellect and the economy, such as horticulture. 152 The Mediterranean was dominated by Islamic fleets. Yet as the leading student of the matter, Timur Kuran, remarks, “that this economic dominance withered away forms a major puzzle in economic history.” 153 As Jared Rubin put it, “arguments appealing to ‘the conservative nature’ of Islam often overlook (or ignore). . . [that] from the seventh to the tenth centuries Islamic contract law, finance, and provision of public goods . . . were consistently modified in reaction of the exigencies of the day.” 154 For example, “early Islamic hiyal were closer to open lending at interest than any type of transaction allowed by the [Western] Church until the fifteenth century.”
Kuran argues that Islam chose early a mixed religious-commercial law which made the taking of interest costly (a cost shared of course with Europe, and evaded in identical ways), and especially which made the corporation inconceivable. 155 The notion of a partnership or corporation as a legal person was part of the Roman law inherited by Europe. In Europe an incorporated town or guild or charitable foundation could sue and be sued, but not in Islam. Even great cities in Islam did not have the legal standing routine in Europe by the twelfth century. And for some reason still to be discovered, Kuran observes, in the Middle East “the local merchant community did not see any reason to pressure local courts to create fundamentally new laws.” 156 On the other hand, although the partnership form was more flexible in Christendom than in Islam, in Western capitalism the literally modern corporation for business was a late flowers, not really used for much of anything important to the economy until the very late nineteenth century — except a few exotic trading companies, and then, more importantly, railways. 157
Jared Rubin argues rather that “the differential persistence of economically inhibitive laws is a consequence of the greater degree to which Islamic political authorities are dependent on conforming to the dictates of religious authorities for legitimacy.” 158 Similarly, Cosgel et al. argue. .. That is, the secular makers of laws of commerce could not risk offending the religious authorities. Christianity arose in the shell of the Roman Empire, which itself certainly had no need of priestly approval. By contrast, writes Rubin, “Islam was formed at a time of weak centralized power and tribal feuding in the Middle East,” and therefore the secular depended on the sacred to survive. 159 Emperor Henry IV was forced in 1077 to walk in a hairshirt through the snow of Canossa to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII. But in 1527, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden in 1527, Henry VIII of England in 1534, and Elector Johann Friedrich I of Saxony in 1541 felt no such dependence on the sacred power: they pillaged the Pope’s monasteries with abandon.
One would like to know about South Asian cities. Again, like China, they were large and busy when Europe was somnolent, though under the Mughals the biggest cities were remarkably transient, and dependent on the Mughal court. Perhaps caste mattered. In South Asia it usually does. In the ancient Mediterranean, I have noted, the economic rhetoric was notably hostile to commerce even though the place was soaked in it. And the ancient Near East around 1500 BCE, with ample commercial records, would be a place to start testing whether bourgeois values such as we now understand them had precedents four millennia ago. But precedents that die out in ascensions of the bourgeoisie to the aristocracy or that are killed by kingly extractions do not a successful bourgeois world make.
A study of world bourgeoisies would be a good idea, to understand why the ultimately successful one has a conventional genealogy something like this: