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In capitalist societies, the market is not an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is an imperative. Its logic structures and impels society, and its fundamental tenets, though conventional, come to appear as expressions of natural laws. But capitalism itself is relatively novel: its genesis is most often traced to 17th century England, from where it has spread, over the past four centuries, to encompass the entire globe. Against the view that capitalism’s spread was inevitable, or even that it is latent in medieval commercial or traditional urban cultures, it can be argued that capitalist development amounts to a historical accident, an unintended consequence of pre-capitalist England’s internal arrangement. The argument that capitalism should not be conflated with commerce or even bourgeois benefits immensely from the juxtaposition of the case of England and the case of France. The nascent capitalist dynamics of English society reveal themselves to be quite different from those of absolutist France, and the archetypal “Bourgeois Revolution,” the French, shows itself to not be operating according to capitalist logic as those of its own absolutist way of doing things.

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The conflation of capitalism with urban markets, trade, and commerce, and capitalists with burghers, we saw, springs from an assumption that capitalist social relations are somehow natural — they are outside of history, not contingent, and, unless there are sufficient restraints, would be the default manner of organizing any society any where. This assumption, besides being an irrational, faith-inflected posit of a natural law that is nowhere and everywhere at once, is glaringly contradicted by the historical record. Our Burghers of Calais were not proto-capitalists; they were were something else entirely. Their particular circumstance and¬†the way they oriented themselves to the world, their fellows, and their profession did not differ from capitalism only in scale, but in quality.

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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.

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