The merchant and the Middle Ages

Issue: 115

Chris Harman

Eric H Mielants, The Origins of Capitalism and theRise of the West” (Temple University Press, 2007), £30

Over the past 30 years two views have dominated debates on the rise of capitalism in Europe. “World systems theory”, associated with Immanuel Wallerstein, sees the crucial move to capitalism as originating in the colonisation of the Americas and, in particular, the flow of precious metals from Peru to Spain and from there, through various routes, to purchase merchandise in Asia. By contrast the view associated with Robert Brenner argues capitalism came about with the exploitation of free labour on the land in England after failure of either the lords or the peasants to achieve a decisive victory in the class struggles of the 14th century.

Mielants sets out to challenge both views. He says they both ignore the key role played by the development of merchant capital in medieval Europe—Wallerstein because he locates capitalism’s development as too late historically, Brenner because he ignores the merchants completely (or at least until the English Revolution of the 1640s).

Most of Mielants’ fire is directed against Brenner and those who accept his main arguments, such as Ellen Meiksins Wood. Their mistake, he claims, is not to see that the merchant capitalism of the Middle Ages was a form of capitalism and, as such, prepared the ground for other forms.

This book brings together a mass of material from a vast number of sources showing the impact merchants and money lenders had on the society around them—financing kings and emperors, dominating city states, stretching out to exploit the peasantry in the countryside around the cities. Mielants performs a useful service in showing that it is not possible, as Brenner and Wood do, to look at what happens in the countryside without seeing the interconnections with the towns. He also shows that the trading networks of the merchants were not just concerned with luxury goods, as is often argued, but also included staple products, especially those that could be carried by sea.

Merchant capital, he argues, as an economic factor alongside feudal production, began to exercise political influence, creating state forms that the made industrial and agrarian capitalist development possible in Europe.

The second part of the book tries to show why this did not happen elsewhere. His argument is that merchant capitalism did also develop China, the Indian subcontinent, the East Indies and Africa, but never achieved the political importance it had in Europe, and therefore could not lay the groundwork for further capitalist development. But on this his arguments are not convincing.

That merchant capitalism had an impact on the societies in which it developed should not be contentious, even it is often ignored by those belonging to the Brenner and Wood schools. Everywhere the merchants managed, to a greater or lesser degree, to find ways of gathering wealth in their hands on a basis different to those of the -pre‑capitalist landowners. They established towns (or built up influence within certain sections of towns still controlled by the old ruling classes) where relations of exploitation were different to those in the countryside and where new patterns of life developed. This was as true of northern China or the Maghreb as it was of Florence or Bruges.

Attempts to explain the emergence of productive capitalism which ignore the impact merchants could have—and the limits of that impact in many situations—end up with the tautological argument that productive capitalism (usually in its agrarian form) developed because it developed. Such attempts ignore something that Karl Marx pointed out—that the selling of products as commodities to outsiders by groups that produce under pre‑capitalist conditions acts like an acid eating into the relations between people in those groups. To get capitalist relations of exploitation a step must then be taken—moving from buying and selling material goods to buying and selling labour power—but it is not necessarily such an enormous step.

There is, however, a central weakness with Mielants’ argument. He does not explain how it was that merchants gained political influence in some places and not in others. His case essentially is that in most of Asia the state was too strong for the merchants to develop independent bases of power in towns; an argument which, although he denies it, is in itself little different from the old “Asiatic mode of production” or “Oriental despotism” argument. By contrast, he argues that in Africa the state was too weak to protect the merchants. It seems capitalism only developed in the end because of a version of the Goldilocks effect—the states were neither too strong nor too weak. It does not explain why capitalism was strong enough to influence and even revolutionise the old state in some places and not others.

The failure comes from ignoring the same thing that is ignored by the Brenner and Wood schools—the way the development of the forces of production impinges on people, encouraging new social relations that eventually clash with the -superstructures of ruling class power. Mielants criticises what he calls a “Marxist” and a “Neo-Marxist” approach, but never confronts the elements of the account to be found by Marx himself in The Communist Manifesto and the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy.

The merchants emerged as a class within pre‑capitalist agrarian societies. By buying in one place and selling in another they prospered in so far as they provided a service to the classes of those societies—including the agrarian ruling classes. It was this that allowed them to accumulate wealth, and so to control the internal life of towns, influence the preaching of churches, temples and mosques, and, if necessary, buy arms to assert their political autonomy. But insofar as they did not develop forces of production of their own (or ally with craftsmen or peasants who were doing so), they remained prisoners of the old society, never able to be more than relatively autonomous.

Mielants shows how they often did get control of productive processes. But the examples he gives are usually of when they took over from the agrarian rulers the -pre‑capitalist exploitation of the peasants. He writes of how the towns established “dominance” or “uneven exchange” over the neighbouring countryside. But establishing this relationship involves pre‑capitalist exploitation based on force, not capitalist relations based on exchange. And in so far as they were involved in -pre‑capitalist exploitation, the city merchants only turned themselves into one extra fragment of the pre‑capitalist landed class.

This is most graphic in the case of Italian city‑states such as Florence. Mielants repeatedly refers to them as cases where merchants began the development of capitalism. He forgets that what might have begun came to an abrupt stop in the early 16th century. Italy’s Renaissance cities did not develop smoothly to modern capitalism, but regressed into just another part of the country’s feudal patchwork, with Florence’s most important merchant family, the Medicis, merging into the old ruling class. The case was no different with many of the other European towns he refers to. The further advance to capitalism did not take place in pioneering late medieval cities like Bruges, Strasburg, Prague, Lisbon or Milan. To this extent, things were not that much different in Europe to Asia and Africa. To pose the issue in terms of “Europe” versus “Asia” and “Africa”, or, as the Brenner school does, in terms of England versus France, misses an essential point. There were places where the old order began to be challenged everywhere—and everywhere the old order could strike back.

It was only where production began to take new forms, as some people began to shape new social relations of exploitation around more advanced ways of producing, that the old society was truly undermined from within. Even then it required successful revolutionary struggle for the decisive breakthroughs to occur.

One of the things missing from Mielants’ account is any sense of the battles that were waged, and usually lost, before the superstructures of the old order finally fell to the advanced guard of the new. In his account of the Islamic cities there is little mention of the integration of local religious notables, with their role in interpreting civil law, into the merchant elite. Nor is there any recognition of the tensions in Sung China as economic advance produced challenges to the old elite and its conservative neo-Confucian ideology. He mentions the “pirate” merchants of south east China who resisted control from the Ming emperor in the 16th century, but does not see that their attitude had something in common with those who cut off the king of England’s head a century later.

Once you understand that the forces of production were developing in similar ways and creating groups with new ways of looking at the world right across Europe, Asia and Africa, the fact that the breakthrough to sustained capitalist development took place first in Holland and England does not seem any greater an issue than the fact that under the pounding of spring tides a sea wall crumbles at one point before another.

The very backwardness of north western Europe in the early medieval period meant there were weaker political superstructures than elsewhere and fewer obstacles to the new ways associated with new productive methods that spread right across Eurasia and northern Africa. A momentum developed causing parts of Europe to leapfrog over the world’s previously more economically advanced regions. Yet there were places elsewhere in the world which had to the potential to break through to capitalism, had Britain and Holland not forestalled—and then often conquered—them.

Mielants has pulled together a vast mass of material and challenges hypotheses that have been in danger of being repeated as unquestionable dogmas in some circles. But he ultimately fails to provide a coherent alternative view.