THE GREENS - A Warning from History (Volume Two)
Back in the 1980s, when girls wore shoulder pads and no-one had heard of global warming, people used to think that environmentalism was driven by an innocent concern for nature (dolphins and what have you). But now it is abundantly clear that there is more to being ‘green’ than composting tea bags and red squirrels. All the whimsical stuff about flora and fauna is just the polish on the top. Pay a visit to a green ‘climate camp’ or anti-globalisation rally and you will see, as plain as day, that ‘green’ thinking is a political world-view. In a word, it is anti-capitalism. But it is not the kind of anti-capitalism the Marxists told us to prepare for. Among the face-painters and unicyclists huddled in the colourful ‘occupy’ tents in the City of London, there are no lantern-jawed industrial workers in boiler suits. There are no pearly kings and queens up from London’s East End. No. The effete tent-dwelling Shelly-readers are the self-righteous, work-shy sons and daughters of relatively well-to-do folk. They do not call for higher levels of production, but for lower levels of consumption. They themselves are not short of food or a place to sleep. They are not unable to feed their families. They are there, not to fight for the little fellow, but to express their loathing of the vulgarity and tackiness of mass production and the ‘consumer society’, and the tawdry, dull world of industry, money, trade, towns, bankers and popular culture. This is what we have called ‘Posh Anti-Capitalism’. (See http://www.martindurkin.com/blogs/secret-global-warming-posh-anti-capitalism).
Marxist sociologists used to assume that radical opposition to capitalism would come from below. They were constantly disappointed in the workers, of course, who seemed more interested in washing machines and cars and foreign holidays, than smashing the system. Instead we now have posh-anti-capitalism from above.
But the sight of privileged people attacking free markets should come as no surprise to us, for it is as old as capitalism itself. The upper classes, especially in Europe, have long despised and feared free market capitalism, not because it was impoverishing the workers (which it wasn’t), but rather because it was liberating and enriching them.
In fact, to fully understand green ‘posh anti-capitalism’ we must travel back in time and explore its origins. Here we go …
First, a lightning re-cap of Volume One. As we saw, the life of a pre-capitalist peasant (so idealised by the greens) was not a happy one. In the words of medieval historian J. L. Bolton, ‘Many peasants lived on the very edge of subsistence, burdened by increasingly heavy taxation and tied to the land by harsh manorial discipline which denied them personal freedom.’ Luckily, by the 14th Century, in England and other parts of Europe, the growth of trade and a money economy (which the greens view with dismay) was shaking lose the feudal bonds which for centuries had kept the oppressed masses in their place.
What happened next? In the great Peasants Revolt of 1381 the English serfs had demanded freedom – freedom to leave their lords’ land if they wished, freedom to sell their labour for money, freedom to rent or own their own land, freedom to sell the produce of such land, freedom to engage in economic activities other than farming, to move to a town, not to mention freedom to marry off their sons and daughters as they saw fit, etc. All the little freedoms we take for granted, they had to fight for. And though the Peasants Revolt was suppressed, the serfs in England gradually won their freedom.
This process was helped, strangely, by the horrendous plague known as the Black Death, which wiped out around a third of Europe’s population. The labour shortage that followed made it hard for lords to hang on to their serfs. The serfs simply ran away to work as free, paid labourers on the empty plots of land on the estates of other lords, and, in time, many enterprising runaway serfs were able to demand plots of land of their own, to rent or buy. The result, says Bolton, was ‘the collapse of manorial discipline.’ He says, ‘Villeins could no longer be compelled to perform services or even stay on the manor when other lords could offer either higher wages or more favourable tenancies. Gradually, the landlords contracted out of demesne [feudal] farming, opting for the administratively easier policy of leasing which saved them from the burden of hiring expensive labour to till their lands.’
Slowly the lords lost their grip both on the land and the peasant serfs who had worked it. As the historian J. D. Mackie says, ‘With regard to the meaning and the use of land new conceptions were arising. No longer was it regarded solely as the stable basis of an ordered society; it was becoming a commodity to be exchanged and used for gain like any other commodity.’
The former serfs were not content with mere subsistence - to grow only enough food to feed themselves and their family. They needed to make money to pay their rent and wanted to make money for themselves, by producing for the market (the expanding towns). For those peasants who managed to buy land, their farms were not so much a source of status, as it had been for the lords, but of profit. And so, from the ranks of the runaway serfs, a new class of successful commercial farmer emerged.
The historian J. B. Black tells us, ‘A new race of landlords, more enterprising than their predecessors, were finding it more and more profitable to break up fresh ground for tillage, and farming for gain was supplanting the old subsistence farming of the Middle Ages.’ These people, he says, ‘having acquired knowledge, technical skill, business technique, and ‘drive’, turn landholding into a profitable investment.’
Revenues from profitable farming turned these farmers into consumers (at first for basic stuff like candles, knives and boots, later for fancy clothes and carpets and a thousand other desirable things) and the towns, which expanded to meet their needs, also provided a growing market for their produce (not just food but hides, wool, etc).
The growing towns (which had long been little pockets of freedom from feudal restriction) also acted as a bolt-hole for runaway serfs. The Marxist historian Paul Sweezy, who describes the ‘barbaric horrors of slavery and serfdom’, correctly points out, ‘There is no doubt that the rapidly developing towns –offering as they did, liberty, employment, and improved social status - acted as a powerful magnet to the oppressed rural population.’
Many towns, which had started as local fairs, grew, over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries in England, into impressive trading centres - not just centres of exchange between town and country, but between towns, between regions and between countries. As trade expanded, it no longer made sense for craftsmen themselves (blacksmiths, weavers, tanners, chandlers and the rest) to down tools and stop production in order to head off and sell their wares. So a new specialism arose from their ranks – the tradesman evolved from the medieval ‘journeyman’. He acted as ‘middleman’, the vital link between supply and demand, not just at a local or regional level but internationally. And as the medieval historians Edward Miller and John Hatcher put it, ‘The international trader broke through the [feudal] barrier because he had desirable commodities for sale; and townsmen themselves reached out beyond their own ‘natural’ hinterland in a search for supplies and markets.’ So by the 15th Century the merchant, as distinct from the manufacturer, had emerged. This was the ‘pure merchant’, ‘adventuring across the seas,’ the ‘Merchant Adventurer’, who reinvested the money he made in order to make more. He speculated, buying in bulk, cheaply in one place, in the hope of finding a lucrative market in another.
Thanks to money-exchange and free markets (so despised by the posh-anti-capitalists), the commoners had not only won their freedom, they were doing well for themselves, and as they did, the world about them changed. By the Elizabethan age, as Professor Black says, ‘great strides were being made by the application of capital to economic undertakings of all kinds on a scale unprecedented in history. Manufacturers and merchants rivalled graziers in their prosperity.’
London, England’s trading capital, expanded impressively. In the fields around the city, garden suburbs sprang up (now parts of central London), like Hoxton, Islington, Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, and Whitechapel. This was an extraordinarily exciting place and time to be alive. As Professor Black says, ‘of all the sights of the time none could compare with the city of London. The hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants who thronged its congested and plague-infested streets were an epitome of the energy, enterprise, and indomitable spirit of a great people – a people, says Stubbs, ‘audacious, bold, puissant, and heroical … in all humanity inferior to none under the sun’. The Thames, which formed the principal highway between east and west, was the centre of the Londoner’s world, and a source of endless surprise to strangers. Its crowded wharves, ‘shaded with masts and sails’, gave it the appearance, remarks Camden, of a ‘wooded grove’. ’
It is no accident that the new freedom enjoyed by the people coincided with an explosion of artistic creativity. The philosopher and literary critic George Lukács observed correctly that great tragedians (Euripides, Shakespeare and the rest) were the products of those periods in history when one social system was being overturned by another, more advanced and liberated. It happened when Archaic Greece became Classical Democratic Greece, and it happened when oppressive feudal England became liberated capitalistic England. As Professor Black says, ‘Some connexion doubtless exists between the two aspects of the period, between the heroic deeds of the seamen and soldiers and the wonderful sunburst of poetry, drama and speculative thought with which the names of Spencer, of Marlow, of Shakespeare, and of Bacon are associated; for an age rich in exploit is seldom without its poets and dreamers … the countless adventures on land and sea that made England respected and feared, and opened up the world to English enterprise, produced an exaltation of the soul which the poet and the philosopher by the alchemy of their genius transmuted into the unforgettable beauties and enduring strength of a great literature. Like Drake and Cavendish, Shakespeare and Bacon circumnavigated the earth and grew rich on its spoils.’
The commercialisation of England, which the greens abhor, had liberated the peasants from their docile servitude, and infused them with vigour, enterprise, and ambition. Wherever in England there was most trade and exchange, there we find the greatest prosperity among ordinary people, the greatest social mobility and the greatest flowering of the human spirit.
Let us take just one simple example … clothes. In the Middle Ages proper, in those days of feudal torpor so beloved by the greens, the great mass of ordinary folk were nightmarishly close to the ‘basic rhythms of life’, to borrow Al Gore’s offensive phrase. There was barely any division of labour, production methods were crude, transport near impossible. As a result, goods were basic and enormously expensive. The historians of the medieval economy Miller and Hatcher calculate that in 1300 a simple smock cost the equivalent of four months wages for a labourer. But by the fledgling capitalistic age of Queen Elizabeth what do we find? Let us quote from a contemporary verse,
‘I am an Englishman, and naked I stand here,
Musing in my mind what raiment I shall wear;
For now I will wear this and now I will wear that;
And now I will wear I cannot tell what.’
The great historian of Elizabethan England, J. B. Black, writes, ‘It was not only the rich who flaunted their ‘silks, velvets, and chains of gold’; all who could come by the necessary means - farmers, peasants, artisans - followed in the train of fashion. Many were the gibes levelled by writers of the period at the vanity and presumption of the lower classes.’
‘The ploughman’ said the Elizabethan writer Thomas Lodge, ‘must nowadays have his doublet of the fashion with wide cuts, his garters of fine silk of Granada, to meet his Sis on Sundays.’ J.D. Mackie quotes from State papers of the time, ‘What common folk in all this world may compare with the comyns of Ingland, in ryches, in freedom, liberty, welfare and all prosperytie?’
For the first time in history, we see what might be described as ‘fashion’. Clothes no longer cost the earth, there is plenty of demand and plenty of supply – which means there is competition among tailors and dressmakers. So we see all sorts of fancy and daring innovations – beautiful embroidery and ruffs for collars, women (wearing face paint and dying their hair) wearing fulsome dresses that barely contain their breasts. Stubbs complains, ‘A ship is sooner rigged than a gentlewoman is made ready.’ ‘Nothing is so constant’, jokes the Elizabethan chronicler William Harrison, ‘as inconstancy in attire.’
Professor Black describes ‘the widespread craving for luxury in every shape and form,’ and this from lowly commoners who had been, a few generations before, muddy serfs. He says, ‘a ‘babylonian confusion’ of classes ensued, and the social world turned itself topsy-turvy. The ‘mingle-mangle’ of dress made it impossible to say who was ‘noble, worshipful, gentle, or even a yeoman’.’
The Elizabethan house too reflected the growing prosperity of commoners. Instead of the old timber, clay and wattles, we find stone, lath and plaster, we find carpets instead of rushes, we find stoves and chimneys to contain the choking smoke, glass letting in light and keeping out draughts. There are pewter goblets and metal spoons, there are decorated chairs and tables.
So much for the upwardly-mobile commoners. How about the downwardly-mobile nobles? All historians of this period (including the green ones) agree that the growth of commercial exchange, a free market in land and the spread of trade, acted like weeds in the cracks of feudal society.
The imperious habits of nobility did not suit the needs of commerce. The power and prestige of a lord was measured in the size of his household and his retinue, the size or number of the castles he kept and the scale of his patronage. He was expected to hunt and attend court. He was not expected to know how to run a commercial farm, or manufacture things, or trade. Such things were far, far beneath his dignity. The nobles expected deference. They did not serve customers or submit to the rigours and demands of the market. It would be like the Queen doing the dishes.
But the lifestyle of a lord was expensive. The languid aristocrats liked to have money, but in the new market economy their antiquated martial skills and courtly manners were of little use when it came to acquiring it. They discovered, to their dismay that having a title was no longer a guarantee of riches. Having a warrior ancestor no longer counted. Unable efficiently to exploit their lands, repulsed and confused by commerce, the nobles saw their incomes gradually decline. A vain refusal to cut their cloth accordingly pushed them increasingly into debt … debt which could only be repaid by selling more and more land to enterprising capitalist farmers. As J. D. Mackie says, ‘Estates were less remunerative than they had been, and the nobles as a class did not take to merchandise.’ The aristocracy, says Professor Black, handicapped by ‘inherited incompetence’, obsolete methods on their lands and diminishing incomes, found themselves facing ‘impending bankruptcy and economic ruin.’ They were, he writes, ‘too much bound by tradition, too immersed in amusements, too impoverished and easy going; and as debts piled up and as sales of estates multiplied they found themselves little better than clients of the nouveaux riches of the cities, who indulge in money-lending.’
This wasn’t just happening in England. Throughout much of Europe, where trade and freedom were establishing themselves, there was greater social mobility and greater affluence among commoners, at the expense of the old feudal ruling class. As Voltaire said, commerce had sweetened and elevated the rude peasant, and had lowered the spirit of the proud noble.
In 1494, in his Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brandt the German satirist observed, ‘A burgher’s wife now often wears, Clothes better than a countess bears.’ And on social mobility he complained:
‘All lands into disgrace have got
And none’s contended with his lot,
And none remembers now his sires,
The world is full of fool’s desire.’
With indignant rage, many ‘sires’ – nobles - found themselves struggling to keep up with the most successful commoners. ‘Extravagance in dress has impoverished the German nobility,’ a German writer observed in the late 15th Century. ‘They desire to make the same show as rich city merchants. Heretofore they were leaders in fashion, and now they are unwilling that the wives and daughters of the merchants should excel theirs in costliness of apparel. But they cannot afford this. For they do not derive from their estates the twentieth part of what the merchants can earn by their business and usury.’
Such an enormous social change was bound to meet with a reaction. The new freedom was inevitably opposed by those who were losing out – materially, socially and before too long politically. It is profoundly important to note that this opposition to capitalism and all its works (towns, money, trade, etc), did not come from below (why should it?!). It came from above.
More than anything it was the social mobility which came with free markets which most upset the old ruling class. The historian of late medieval Europe, Professor J. R. Hale describes the various examples of ‘Sumptuary legislation, through which all governments expressed the conviction that men and women should not dress or entertain above their station’. He points out that ‘the chief aim was to preserve the layering of society.’ In Bavaria, for example, an ordinance forbad, ‘the common peasant to wear cloth costing more than half a florin of the yard, silk, velvet, pearls, gold, or slashed garment.’
But the reaction extended far beyond dress. Hale tells us that in Europe noble resentment of trade, traders and trading centres (which were so annoyingly prosperous and provided refuge to runaway peasants), ‘led to a successful pressure on governments to reduce the independence and commercial activities of the towns.’
This anti-capitalist feudal reaction was strongest and most successful in Eastern Europe. As Professor Hale points out, ‘Westward, the tendency was to reduce, commute or abolish labour obligations [serfdom], to rely on goodwill and voluntary contract rather than force. Eastwards, landlords intensified their demands for labour and their efforts to tie that labour to the land.’ So, for example, ‘In 1497 the Bohemian diet affirmed the servitude of peasants. By a series of laws passed from 1496 to 1511 neither a peasant nor his sons could leave the land without his master’s consent, and during the same period the right of appeal from seigneurial justice was removed from all but church and crown lands. In 1514 all Hungarian peasants outside the royal free boroughs were condemned to ‘real and perpetual servitude’ to their masters. The same debasement in status and freedom of action proceeded in Lithuania and Russia.’
In Eastern Europe, the successful re-imposition of serfdom (what historians call the ‘second serfdom’) and the suppression of commercial exchange set back development for centuries, as towns shrank and trade reduced to a trickle. In fact they still haven’t quite recovered. In Western Europe, England in particular, freedom (capitalism, free markets, trade, urbanisation, however we wish to describe it) slowly established itself, as a result of many hard-fought battles and despite many reversals.
But it was in Germany in particular, caught between the reactionary feudal East and the progressive capitalist-leaning West that the conflict between the old and the new became most intense. It is in Germany that we see the emergence of right-wing anti-capitalism in its most articulate, distilled and barbaric form. It is in Germany that we find the true (terrifying) origins of modern environmentalist thinking. And it’s to Germany we’re headed next.
Matt Ridley’s the rational optimist
Adam Smith Institute
Ludwig Von Mises Institute
Cato @ Liberty
Congressman Ron Paul
The Heartland Institute
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Climate Audit by Steve McIntyre