One of the mainstay whipping boys of Marxist explanations of history is the bourgeoisie: a class of persons invoked both to serve as foil to the proletariat and to establish a target against which to struggle. While there are some benefits to this approach–it is simple, it carries the weight of tradition, it has a certain theoretical elegance–it does not properly convey the forces at play in the historical development of capitalism. And so, it is not much use in thinking through possible avenues beyond capitalism. Obviously, this is unacceptable. A correct understanding of history, one that drives a wedge between capitalist and bourgeois is necessary. But for that you must get a glimpse of the broader situation of pre-capitalist Europe and how it is portrayed in both mainstream and radical accounts. I hope, through this series of posts, to offer just that.

Europe before the rise of capitalism–or, more precisely, before capitalism’s 17th century genesis in and subsequent export from England–is widely described as feudal. This blanket term covers over the vastly divergent societies then existing, from rapidly a France rapidly developing into absolutism to the Dutch and Italian mercantilist regimes and all in between, with a rough veil of generalization. Despite the fact that several distinct internal logics directed how European societies developed socially, culturally, and economically, the standard view is that their differences are irrelevant. The totality of European societies developed, or stagnated, according to the limits of feudalism as such, and each is evaluated according to how it failed (or did not) to achieve capitalism.

The limits of feudalism, in this view, are those of an agricultural economy where peasants, or serfs, are directly exploited by nobles who possess both political and military power. Generally this power is said to be ‘naturalized’, with its source located in either right of birth or divine will, or both. Wherever its justification is situated in a society’s ideology, there is no disputing the locus of power in feudalism: the will of the nobles is carried out, and propagated by, force of arms. Feudalism is said to be more or less rigid, and slow to change. Against the feudal arrangement the logic of the market, the city, and the bourgeoisie are portrayed. Where feudal lords got their wealth by collecting traditional rents that were slow to change, the bourgeoisie, burgesses, and burghers living in market towns were ever conniving and crafty entrepreneurs bent on out competing their rivals. Where lords depended on military force, city-dwellers looked to get ahead via their ingenuity.

This is the story undergirding most accounts of the “Industrial Revolution,” and several of the more technologically determinist forms of Marxism, which stands at the cusp of capitalism spread throughout the world. Capitalism, in this view, is always there waiting to be ‘activated’, ‘unfettered’, or ‘unleashed’; all that is preventing it from doing so is a lack of principal to get the cycle of investment and profit started, or the nobles’ backward looking customs. Once either a group of people–the bourgeoisie–had accumulated enough wealth to get capitalism in motion or the feudal fetters were cast off, the transition to capitalism was assured.

The are two immediate problems with this story. First, it proceeds from the assumption that capital is eternal: if not for the fetters put in place by a feudal society, it argues, capital would just come to be. This is clearly not the case: capitalism requires a very specific set of conditions in order to work, and when they are not in place it is not only impossible but unthinkable–it wouldn’t even make sense. Capitalism is not something that that exists in the first place and then is hindered by social norms; it is something that is created in the movement of history. Assuming that it capitalism is ‘fettered’ by feudalism confuses how societies change through time and confounds putatively innate acquisitiveness with the specific political, legal, and economic parameters that enable capital as such to work. Second, it seems to argue that city dwellers, the bourgeoisie, burgesses, and burghers themselves, somehow lived in a way that was inherently capitalist. This really could not be tenably held, as there have been vast urban civilizations that did not transition to capitalism, like Imperial China, the Aztecs, Imperial Rome, the medieval Italian trading republics, and the Netherlands–to name a few. Many of these possessed considerable wealth, more than enough, it would seem, to pay down the first installment on the great capitalist engine. And many of them possessed quite complex urban cultures, with highly developed market relations. Yet capitalism did not spring from them. There is something amiss with our story of capital’s genesis, it seems.