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Week of April 26, 2020
The Privileges of Peasantry
The socialist fascination with feudal society as a milder antecedent to capitalism predates the modern movement, but a clear expression of utopian atavism can be found in the opening chapter of the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.
Marxists certainly deplored the limitations and brutal coercive structures of medieval hierarchies, but they recognized that the entire system provided a ready, theologically-bound mechanism for uniting the material and spiritual worlds. Eric Hobsbawm, as will be noted below, cites residual peasant attachment to lord and fief as a primary reason for the initial failure of labor movements to attain popular support outside of an inchoate urban poor. The enclosure of communal land under liberal supervision “shattered the social structure which he had always inhabited,” and “nothing was more natural than that [the peasant] should resist in the name of the age-old customary ideal of a stable and just society”—namely, massing behind “priest and legitimate king.” Notice first the redoubled appeal to a natural order more fundamental than the merely material relations between servant and master. Serfdom and lordship, since the Politics of Aristotle an essential component of human interaction, must have provided comfortable typological roles; combined with religious indoctrination, and the simple farmhand must have been content, if exploited, in his master’s field. Only the disruption of that system from above by a landlord class increasingly (and exogenously) attuned to principles of profitability and productivity compelled peasants to breach the sacred, ancient bond. Whether gulled into or genuinely fond of his tie to the land, he was ultimately forced from it by the shocking, alienating transition to capitalism.
The goal of such an account is to establish primarily material and economic relations as a late-developing historical force, accompanying (if not deliberately sown by) the emerging bourgeois during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Medieval societies, like hunter-gatherer bands, valued institutions of reciprocity and ritual, operating on a higher and more satisfying level of spiritual development that capitalism crudely ignored (and which socialism would magically revitalize). Yet this evolutionary perspective is remarkably static. Feudalism waxed and waned; Marc Bloch spoke of a “second feudal age” arriving at the end of the tenth century, implying that the system had collapsed at least once since the sack of Rome. Indeed, the period saw a distinct and transformational “feudal mutation” as the Carolingian Empire—in 840 sovereign over France, Italy, and greater Germany—disintegrated under the pressures of succession conflict. With it fell a slew of elaborate social relations deemed characteristic of the medieval period (a distinct hierarchy of kings, dukes, and counts), giving way to a so-called “castellan revolution” by which fortress technology allowed the lesser nobility increased autonomy relative to previous superiors. Ensconced in a proliferation of motte-and-bailey keeps, lords were unassailable by all but large, expensive besieging parties—a resource increasingly unavailable as the Frankish kings declined. Power devolved upon ludicrously small localities, and old titles overlapped or lost relevance. Yet by 1300, kings were rising again; the economic demands of castle ownership and military maintenance ruined the little castellans, selecting for estate size and fiscal rights.
Stasis was equally uncommon for the so-called peasantry. The “feudal mutation” lowered the status of the free peasantry, as no central authority existed to discipline aristocrats in managing their holdings. “Homogenization of status” and coerced labor, presumably universal parts of peasant agriculture, evolved during this period, along with the material obligations involved in subjugation. Political power, technology, and demography (population was rising steadily, reducing wages and bargaining power) drove the revolution. Spirituality did not. Priests of the time warned that the lords had become too powerful, complaining that once-sacred ecclesiastical property was now subject to pillage. Indeed, priests and peasantry combined during the French “Peace of God”—a millenarian movement aimed at limiting now-ubiquitous internecine conflict—to protect themselves against lordly depredations.
In describing the climactic wave of Peace activity that marked the millennium of Christ's Passion in 1033, Glaber [a contemporary chronicler] told of the jubilant throngs who gathered on these occasions and, believing that they were joining in a covenant with God, raised the palms of their hands skyward and shouted "Peace! Peace! Peace!" This startling picture has led historians to call the Peace of God "the first mass religious movement of the Middle Ages." (Head and Landes 2018, 18).
Peasants, in short, were no mere passive participants in an immutable traditional order. They were status-conscious and, more importantly, able to alter that status through deliberate action. Often, that alteration meant abandoning feudal society altogether. After the Black Death, surviving English peasants cheerfully exploited their increased value by leaving the once-crowded estates, demanding higher wages to stop them from seeking new employment with other landlords or in the towns. These raises were granted, along with unprecedented smallholder autonomy. Outmigration was common throughout the medieval period, as higher urban wages attracted ambitious peasants—indeed, to such an extent that rural arrivals alone drove population growth in many high-mortality towns. The effect was amplified during the Commercial Revolution; as Robert Allen has tirelessly argued, mercantile activity in the capital (which persistently supported real incomes) drove urbanization to a pace unprecedented in the agrarian world. Peasants were not dragged into the new industrial cities as much as they willingly came, as they always had, in search of opportunities. Whether those opportunities were sufficiently remunerative is another question entirely. As agriculture’s share of the English population fell from 75 to 35 percent, it seems that few among the rural classes—besides the gentry and the poets—felt particularly sorry to be trading the field for the factory. Where the coercive forces might be found to march them there, in any case, remains mysterious in most histories of the period.
For a comfortable, endogenously unassailable compact, the feudalism appears to have engendered surprisingly one-sided support. Where the peasants could flee, evolve, or transform, they usually did—and rarely looked back with much fondness on the joys of bondage.
The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789 - 1848, by Eric J. Hobsbawm (1962)
My bias with an author is to start near the beginning of his oeuvre, treating the whole as a progression toward an eventual climax offering intangible benefits to the reader patient enough to work through in order. This should be avoided, or left to the biographers. Early works inevitably disappoint. The Age of Revolution was Hobsbawm’s first attempt at the sort of sweeping synthetic history for which he became the foremost historian (certainly on the left) in a celebrity-strewn British profession, a fact made immediately apparent by the overwrought, inconsistent prose and the sheer insubstantiality of the analytical technique. Enamored with the grasping hyperbole of the Communist Manifesto and the historical structure of class warfare, the book is repetitive, dogmatic, and—where not Continentally opaque—childishly simplistic. Hobsbawm’s world has good guys and bad guys, a rising urban proletariat making heroic class war against evil monarchs leading regressive aristocracies, a nightmare post-Smithian bourgeois, and a horde of peasants frustratingly short of “political maturity.” The protection of haute vulgarization invoked at the start does not hold for long under any circumstances, and the author destroys his own license within a chapter. Ian Kershaw, Richard Evans, and Hobsbawm himself (I hear) have shown that popular history can be done rigorously. Even the narrative is weak; traded out halfway through for a grandiose attempt at capturing the intellectual zeitgeist (an attempt as “cloudy” as he finds Hegel—and many others), it disappears into a tangled thicket of pseudo-Marxist tropes and exaggeration until revived by the surprisingly lucid postscript. The swiftest chapters to read are the dilettantish lists the names of great artists and inventors. Culture!
Hobsbawm’s thesis is creditable enough to deserve mention, however. The period between the fall of the Bastille and the rise of Napoleon III, he claims, was dominated by the “dual revolution” of French politics and British industry. These simultaneous transformations, the most dramatic in history, tore apart the intellectual and social fabric of feudalism and made inevitable the triumph of a discrete middle class, steeped in the values of individualism and brutal competition. This victory was incomplete, however, as the revolutions simultaneously drafted an oppressed urban proletariat into the service of modern industry by ripping part of the peasantry from the comforts of medieval pageantry and hierarchy. The result, entering the post-Napoleonic Restoration period, was a polyfocal class conflict that nearly burst into continental flame in 1830 and eventually combusted in 1848—pitting the last vestiges of the inadequate absolutist monarchies against an unstoppable bourgeois, a crumbling gentry, and the rising poor, whose abilities to combine and mobilize popular support defined success and failure in the array of individual national sagas. All events are overshadowed, at least implicitly, by the coming of Marx and a united European socialist movement, which every minor agitation for nationalism, labor, or even reaction seems to prefigure. All political events, social movements, and intellectual dispositions were in some way responses to the striking novelty of the new class configuration. Political economy was galvanized, chemistry revitalized, and romanticism horrified by the twinned emergence of bourgeois ambition and proletarian agitation. Modern society erupted from the Industrial and French Revolutions, and the subsequent period was defined by the volcanic tumult of its cooling. In sum, Hobsbawm says what historiography had come to agree upon by 1900.
There is much to critique, but little can be said against the emphasis on social conflict that a Marxist historian would accept. That the purported coherence of laboring self-consciousness was a sideshow in the grander scheme of European politics and economic change is of no moment to the man who sees in it the germ of all subsequent history. Hobsbawm understates the positive force of the Industrial Revolution, not only for producing in aggregate but also per capita—not to mention the intangible benefits of new technologies. On the other hand, he repeatedly overstates the degree to which his period actually changed most of Europe, frequently imputing the radical alteration of Britain to the rest of the Continent. To the extent that his “dual revolution” thesis is instructive, Hobsbawm has merely stated the obvious—the two did transform economic behavior and overall ideology as no distinct “events” had ever done before. As for the more radical implications of the period, however, his gaze is distorted by the imagined hellscapes of Manchester and the Marxian-theoretical pressure to impose rigid class categories on a society in flux. He relies too heavily upon tired socialist cliche; that “the introduction of liberalism into the land” left naught but “a solitude called freedom” is hardly a pretty phrasing, let alone incontrovertible fact. Nor did amorphous “middle-class liberalism” alone produce “an increasingly bleak and inhuman society,” as he so often and baldly insists—on the basis of Poor Laws and Reform Bills, and few documentary sources. Of his rather selective statistical use in support of the deterioration of lower-class life one had best say little. His strongest efforts concern the evolution of the various revolutionary movements from the common ancestor of Jacobinism, as well as his characterization of the various factional relationships prevailing after 1815—the shifting allegiances of church and state, peasant and king, merchant and artisan.
Nonetheless, I will be reading the next volume (The Age of Capital) in the next week or so, which indicates that the work was more effective than I supposed.
An excellent chronological summary of the response by global monetary authorities to the imminent recession and probably-averted financial crisis. Tooze is a superb, lucid writer, and he lays out policy prescriptions and historical parallels with ease. He’s probably one of the world’s finest at explaining the mechanisms of modern finance.
Reasons for Liking Tolkien, by Jenny Turner
Turner demands, at extreme length, that we take Tolkien for what he is—a self-justifying manufacturer of brilliant escapism—rather than strive to convert him into a traditional modernist luminary. Her explication of the great man’s philosophy of “sub-creation” is particularly powerful.
Philip Roth’s Terrible Gift of Intimacy, by Benjamin Taylor
A loving, humane obituary for one of America’s greatest modern writers, perfectly mixing sentimentality with sharp character analysis to produce a warm and compelling portrait. Roth, in Taylor’s account, approaches age with the same apprehension as his lowlier peers, but triumphs magnificently.
Credit and Trading Behavior: New Evidence from the South Sea Bubble, by Fabio Braggion, Rik Frehen, and Emiel Jerphanion
The authors offer an amusing analysis of the effects of easy credit access on investor performance during the South Sea Bubble (refer to Charles MacKay for further details), concluding that margin load holders realized 14 to 23 percent lower returns than the average speculator.