Capitalism as an economic system was born in Europe at the dawn of the modern era. It has been consecrated as the most influential, and arguably the most efficient, economic system devised by humanity ever since. There have been various explanations about the origins of capitalism and why individual enterprise and economic freedom have become central values in modern Europe in particular and nowhere else. Weber famously saw capitalism as a byproduct of Lutheran work ethics. Some others have traced the origins and justifications of capitalism a little earlier, in the Tuscanian communes of the 13th century and in the thought of Saint Bernardino of Siena. However, the school of thought represented by the contemporary analyst Jean Baechler put forth a more radical, geopolitical explanation for the origins of capitalism. And I think this is worth exploring, as these results are still very important to understand the nature of the European political culture and tradition, providing insights on how successful European institutions should be designed in the face of it.
Baechler’s argument is that Europe’s fortune was due to a shared history of unity in its fragmentation. European politics has been characterised for centuries by countless reigns, states, free cities, principalities, monastic states, commercial alliances, and all sorts of political experiments living in free interaction with each other. During the Middle Ages in particular, feudalism further disintegrated political institutions by inserting a dynamic and fluid systems of layers of powers and positions between the peasant and the emperor, on the two sides of the spectrum. A myriad of political institutions, often of the size of modern-day Liechtenstein or San Marino, created a rich political environment in which every citizen was exposed to a myriad of experimentations of communal life. Soon, merchants and lords began to roam the continent, attracted by the economic incentives or the freer modes of life of some European institutions as opposed to others. This political fragmentation ultimately put pressure on each political entity to do their best to attract the most productive and prestigious citizens – as we see, for instance, in the Mediaeval courts in France and central Italy that raced to attract the best artists of their times for themselves.
Political fragmentation meant political decentralisation, and the drive for political entities to be the fairest and richest of their neighbours. At the same time, though, Europe has already experienced some sense of identity and unity encompassing political and cultural diversity. In the Middle Ages, European identity revolved around two polar opposites: the empires that tried to resurrect the long lost glory of the Roman Empire, and the Catholic Church. Often in close collaboration, the imperial realm and the clerical realm served as the cultural catalyst for all Europeans to see themselves, over and above their diversity, as heirs of a great European legacy. And it was not by chance that most, if not every, political entity in Europe had to work hard to receive recognition not only from their citizens, but also from the Church and the emperor.
The fusion between political decentralisation and a sense of European international identity prepared the soil for a pre-modern form of globalisation. Merchants, lords, companies, and anyone else who could afford it felt welcome to cross the borders of their homeland in search for better fortunes, certain to come to lands where their deep European and Christian or post-Roman roots could be recognised and appreciated. This laid down the basis for international collaboration and interaction between economic actors beyond the control of governments. In this framework, the economic freedom and initiative of individuals began to be seen as prior and more fundamental than their citizenship under the siege of any particular sovereign country.
This peculiar combination of unity and fragmentation is to be seen nearly nowhere else in the world. In the Arab world, ancient China, Russia, or in the pre-Columbian American empires, any form of decentralisation and political fragmentation was lacking and was brutally repressed. On the other hand, in the Arctic, in pre-Columbian North America, or in Central Africa political fragmentation was predominantly achieved through tribal warfare, yet any form of international cultural identity was out of reach.
Arguably, only one other area of the world reported the same situation as seen in Europe: Japan, especially in the Tokugawa era, where political fragmentations under myriad shogunates was reinterpreted under the Buddhist-Shintoist unity and in a common alliance against the threat of Chinese invasions. And hence there should be no wonder that Japan has been so exceptionally receptive to Western capitalism after WWII, at levels unprecedented in the rest of Asia and for a country that never encountered a great deal of European colonisation.
In the age where the European Union is doing so much work in consolidating an international sense of European cultural identity, history demands that the second pillar of Europe’s success is not forgotten: political decentralisation and bottom-up governance, as opposed to central planning from superstate political institutions.
L’articolo è stato pubblicato originariamente su Young Voices Europe