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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The strengths of capitalism

Dunwich was a Charter Town. That is, it was an island of middle class self-government in a sea of feudal tyranny; whilst outside the walls the social structure in the eleventh and twelfth centuries demanded labour or tithes of goods to one's superiors - villeins tilling the lord's fields, the lord owing knight-duty to the earl from whom he held the manor, the earl owing the duty to his superior to raise a company of knights and so on. Inside the walls the citizens only had to keep up their annual payments direct to the king to be free of all this. It was the origin of the Britain we have today.

But how did the citizens of Dunwich make their livings? Well, it started as a system that worked completely within the feudal system. Craft workers made things and fishermen caught herring and goods and fish were sold at markets or shipped to other Charter Towns on the near coast and sold there, and enough profit was made to levy a local tax to gather enough to pay the king. The population expanded quickly, helped by a provision in the Charter that allowed any serf who had stayed unclaimed in the town for a year and a day to be immune from being seized and reclaimed by his feudal master outside the town.

As time went on, some craftsmen accumulated a surplus of coin that enabled them to buy land and build speculative dwellings for rent within the town, and service industries such as transport grew, for there was more profit in a craftsman staying put and producing goods and employing a carter to carry them than in spending a third of his time carting them himself. But none of this was yet real capitalism.

The real rewards came from high risk foreign trade. A wealthy man could spend his fortune building a cog, crewing it and sending it to Gascony, or Flanders, or the Baltic, to bring back tuns of wine, Swedish steel, furs and skins, silk and spices and double his wealth on a single successful voyage. But the risks were high; goods and ships were seized by other Charter Towns or foreign ports or pirates or destroyed by the sea or wreck, or ship and cargo both stolen and sold by the crew. Too often a man was ruined overnight, reduced to penury, having lost his all in a single throw.

It didn't take them long to learn to spread the risk. If each voyage was financed by a consortium the risk would be spread and losses borne. By the thirteenth century surviving manifests show a thriving fleet of cogs operating from Dunwich, a large base of merchant capitalists and a separate group of ship owners and operators. And as the wealthy merchants were also naturally the aldermen and burgesses of the town council, the way the town was regulated favoured the capitalists and in turn they enriched the town.

OK, this all seems like nursery school stuff to us, but back then it was cutting edge social progress. Feudalism couldn't compete. The Black Death was the watershed - after it grew early modern England, based on a free middle class and capitalism, and Feudalism all but died.

So what's the point of this post? Well, there is a certain silly gloating in the press, and commentators who should know better labelling this crisis as the end of capitalism. The Guardian seems particularly smug. But don't take predictions of 'a new world system' to replace capitalism too seriously. If the entire world financial system crashed tomorrow, wiping out every bank and making currencies worthless, by the end of the week someone would be striking silver coins in a local mint as a means of exchange; by next month some individuals would have acquired a surplus of coins and by next year capitalists would be back, evaluating risk and investing in merchant ventures.

Don't worry, be happy, as the lyrics say.


Blue Eyes said...

Dunwich fell into the sea.

Anonymous said...

It's the double standards that bother me. Of all the loony socialist interventions in the market that caused this problem (Fannie, Freddie, Fed rate at 1%, anti-red lining legislation etc) the Grauniad trots just figure "corporate greed" is the problem and socialism the solution.

I'll bet they aren't giving back the SUVs and five-bed homes that capitalism provided them with. Wait, given their economic illiteracy they probably are - to the bailiffs.


Raedwald said...

BE - yes, but it wasn't the failure of Capitalism that caused it - just East Coast Drift and some big storms.

Bill Quango MP said...

Polly would love feudalism to come back. Just a few literates telling the rest when to work and to pray..

William Gruff said...

Steer clear of analogies that involve 'feudalism'. When I was involved in the arguments, no credible (as in credible rather than politically acceptable) historian would have accepted the assertion that post conquest England was in any way feudal, nor even proto-feudal.

Raedwald said...

I wouldn't disagree; post conquest England was a very complex mixed structure, and regional differences were almost as pronounced as differences between the English shires and German marches. But with broad brush strokes for a blog post, I'll go with the generalisation.