(Initially Published Nov 4th, 2017)
Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading The Enemies of Commerce, a work of impressive depth and rigor, in which its author Antonio Escohotado goes back to remote history to trace and expose the origins of what would become the animosity against capitalism that unites national-socialists, communists, and so many other branches of utopian socialism.
If you are fortunate enough to understand Spanish (unfortunately, no English translation available yet) I strongly recommend that you buy the book because this exploration is full of lessons that can not be missed. However, make sure reserve a quiet time because the text is more addictive than a bag of chips and the language of Antonio, whom I admire as a philosopher, is as rich in expression as precise in the nuance, something really worth of praise in our current times.
I am sure it will be hard to take your eyes off the page until you have finished all three volumes with their corresponding notes on the margin. Meanwhile, here are some lines about what I consider its most fascinating and surprising angles.
The Empire of Slaves
Slavery is not something granted by ancient civilizations, and it should be enough to mention Cyrus the Great to prove that even great empires could dispense with and even ban it. However, the eventual success of the Roman legions seemed to confirm that the sages of Egypt, Greece, Persia and Israel were wrong, and that a slave society was as desirable as it was sustainable.
But the separation between effort and reward makes the slave the least stimulated worker, and staying in an extra-monetary sphere prevents that the mass of producers could spend money and operate as a multiplier of income, also adding additional pressure on those who must earn a living professionally. It is an almost mathematical equation: the higher the proportion of work the servant is charged with, the lesser the quantity and quality of paid employment.
A measure of the absence of social mobility is that the 16 most influential lineages in 367 BC retained their influence until the end of the Republic, in 31 BC. This stability coincides with a system of monopolies as placid as inflexible, articulated on a club of suppliers for the basic needs — military supplies, public works — whose adherence to ritual shows in this sphere making it refractory to innovation. Commercial rivalry seems an affront as worthy of punishment as military insubordination. Seeing political economy without reduction to some model of domestic economy is a privilege of a few old statesmen.
Under these conditions, the amazing thing is that the Empire survives for so long with such gap between a political colossus and a productive pygmy. But in a more implacable and slow way, the slave society disintegrates progressively.
The Orphic-Pythagorean mysticism that leads to Plato coincides as well with the Israelite prophetic current: “the body is a prison for the soul”. The pauperist vision of the world understands that affluence stains, indigence purifies, and that decontaminating the world begins by cleaning it of merchants, the quintessence of the sinner.
The ebionite cult goes a step further by affirming that it is not only possible to plant and collect at the same time, but also dispenses with the general foresight attitude. Whoever worries about future needs, blasphemes consciously or unconsciously against divine providence. To what extent they go hand in hand free abundance and faith is shown by the multiplication of bread and fish or wine at the wedding at Cana.
Faced with this, the religion of the Gospel frees all men from legality, and Jesus is therefore an incomparable revolutionary, whose audacity would be infinite if he did not add to it a reliance on a cosmic cataclysm as miraculous as it is near. It will be delicate for his successors to see how the world endures without cataclysm while they grow in influence, because it forces reconciliation of the pauperist charisma with being the only sustained focus of opulence for more than a millennium.
The Peace of God
The crisis of the Roman slave society generalized the pauperism as consolation and remedy for its stagnation. The lack of liquidity imposes on the economic marasmus of the high Middle Ages a transition from the maintained slave to the self-sustaining serf.
In essence, the Peace of God entrusts the common interest of conquerors and conquered to two benevolent authorities by definition, those who “pray for all” (clerics) and those who “fight for all” (gentlemen), establishing that the rest will return their services through contributions in kind The impersonal mechanism of supply and demand has become the exclusively personal link of vassalage, because “the sale impairs by force one of the contracting parties”. As the goods constitute a fixed quantity, the expenses of some do not multiply the income of others, and the richer the poorer there will be: doing business always means cheating.
Nobody attributes the low performance of the servant to the absence of other incentives than panic or starvation. But when routes maintained by the passage of captives adapt to the wheel, trafficking with slaves begins to be less profitable than moving other goods. As the roads are cleared or inaugurated, banditry slows down and the sense of isolation loses its status. Missing fairs reopen or extend their duration, allowing urban nuclei abandoned or reduced to villages to be repopulated, and the city emerges as an entity progressively independent of the feud.
When we compare the Roman Empire with the Byzantine, the Arabic and the Chinese everything seems different, except the fundamental fact that the middle class never goes beyond a small minority, a mobile and equidistant layer between the prince and the beggar. Precisely that will stop happening in Europe, whose destiny includes creating the largest and most stable middle class of all time. The serfs themselves will end up demolishing the autarchic principle from the end of the X century, and that right of property, in principle useless, then begins to change everything, to the point of ending up making possible a society without superiors and inferiors by birth.
But it is a largely anonymous and unconscious task, which is being carried out over many centuries by blows of chance and necessity, where Western civilization only overtakes others by reacting differently to their peculiar adversities.
The end of the Middle Ages in Europe leads to a revision of the pauperist principle, which transfers the charisma of indigence to relief in the Reformed as well as in the Catholic sides (to the moral question “is it permissible to buy cheap in a country to sell expensive in another?” the whole School of Salamanca answers affirmatively in 1556) with “an extraordinary intensification of the duty to work as an idea, whose impulse is an increased production “.
Of course these changes come gradually to different parts of the continent, and while in the Netherlands “the merchandise has started to travel alone”, and there is respect for the commercial activity in general, the German farmer is subject to the same rules that will continue enacted in Catalonia until Ferdinand the Catholic: the best ox and the best horse, the best suit and the best implement are inherited by the master when each servant dies. These contrast between pauperist heritage and commercial progress is a perfect breeding ground for expropriation theologians such as Zevliski, Leiden, and Müntzer, much admired by Marx, to lead revolts that culminate in huge massacres.
The Sun Sets in the Empire
First of all and leaving national nostalgia aside, watching Velázquez’s sublime painting “The Surrender of Breda”, also known as “The Picture of the Spears”, should induce the following question. How could the Dutch resist not only the Count-Duke of Olivares and the Spanish Empire but also the France of Louis XIV, until they became arbiters of Europe from the end of the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth century?
Well, simply because they are the best merchants in the world, extremely advanced for their time and age. For what was a small and miserable as a country in raw materials, accepting itself as a commercial society has endowed them with resources resources to overcome — literally — the greed and pillage of all others together.
It may come as a surprise that prosperity is not something prefigured by raw materials and geographical position. However Singapore, a tiny territory, especially unhealthy and completely deprived of raw materials, is a reference of success worldwide, while Burma, perhaps the richest place in the world for natural resources, now competes with Haiti and Sierra Leone in extreme misery. We cannot attribute it to the lack of railroads, roads or ports, but to the fact that nine tenths of the infrastructure left by the English settlers, including the gift of a planetary language, were spoiled through pathetic plans of national exaltation.
Interesting, isn’t it? Now proceed to Part 2 in which we delve into the figure of the entrepreneur, that great absent in the thinking of the founding fathers, from both the left and right wings of the debate.