Gian Piero de Bellis

Polyarchy : a Manifesto

(2000)

 


 

Part I

Past/Past


2.  Historical premises

3.  The state

4.  Mercantilism

5.  The decline of mercantilism

6.  Physiocracy

7.  Freedom

8.  Industry

9.  Capitalism (origins and development)

10. Capitalism (climate and attitudes)

11. Anarchism and socialism

12. The apogee of capitalism and anarchism/socialism

13. The state in the background

14. The state fights back

15. Nationalism

16. Bureaucratism

17. Monopolism

 


 

 2.  Historical premises  (^)

The social history of humankind is, in large part, a tale of power and of the conflicts it generates, in various spheres of life, between parasitic and productive groups.
Power can be seen as the imposition of restrictions by one person or group on the freedom of thought, speech and action of others.

From around A.D. 1000, the development of commerce and the urban revival with its burgeoning centres, led to the breakdown of the closed system of the feudal economy.
The new power of the towns and of their guilds overcame local boundaries and opened up new space in which both rural labourers and servants enjoyed greater freedom.

The city became the magnet and the harbour of a new group of people, involved in various arts and crafts, producing for and trading with near and distant markets. If the term "bourgeoisie" has any historical meaning it is precisely with reference to the large and small circles of artisans and merchants who lived and prospered in the many burgs of Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries.

These 'bourgeois' were the ones who not only developed production and commerce on a large scale, free of feudal shackles, but who promoted new values of thrift and trust and devised new accounting tools (double-entry books), ways of payment (bills of exchange), forms of gathering and investing savings ('commenda' or partnership) that gave further impulse to production and commerce.

By the end of the 14th century, these dynamic individuals and groups had become not only rich and powerful but also jealous of their position of wealth and power. The guilds, or town corporations, then started introducing restrictive rules against the countryside (rural population) and other towns (foreigners).

The rules were aimed at safeguarding the monopoly of the town guilds in producing and trading within a specific area.
To achieve this aim, the town guilds, once proud of their independence, were even ready to accept royal charters that granted them privileges : a clear case of bartering freedom for security.

It took several centuries for that bartering to bear its inevitable poisonous fruit. As communal liberties were gradually crushed, a powerful force was gaining control: the state.

 

 3.  The state  (^)

Contrary to what people are eager to believe, the state (and above all the nation state) has not always existed.

First of all, societies (organised groups of human beings) existed long before the state and without the state.

Secondly, in the course of history, not the nation state but other entities, large (the Macedonian empire, the Roman empire, the Catholic church and the Holy Roman empire) or small (the Greek city, the Mediaeval fiefdom, the Renaissance commune), have been the main form of political organization.

The affirmation of the state as a central power (16th century) derives from two historically concomitant weaknesses :

universalism : universalistic powers such as the papacy or the empire were culturally and politically weak;

particularism : local powers (such as towns and town guilds) were becoming more and more reactionary and giving up their rights to a more powerful body in return for the protection of their monopolies (production, trade).

The new elements introduced by the state with respect to the feudal/communal period are:

-  the monopolization of power over a larger territory
-  the centralization of decision-making and law-making processes which resulted in suppression of local mores and rules.

From the 16th century the power of the state kept growing and a theoretical framework was elaborated as to how it should behave in the running of its political and economic affairs.
This theoretical framework is known as mercantilism.

 

 4.  Mercantilism  (^)

Mercantilism was the economic ideology of the nation states in their infancy.

It was characterized by :

- interventionism. The state promoted or favoured the development of highly regulated monopolies and oligopolies. In general, production and trade (especially foreign), were under the control of the state;
- fiscalism. Monopolies were easier to control for taxation. Even the attribution of monopolistic privileges (e.g. to guilds and merchants) had the principal aim of enhancing the fiscal benefit to the state;
- suprematism. Production and commerce were meant to increase the amount of precious metals (gold, silver) held by the state as this was tantamount to an increase in its power and wealth internally and with respect to rival states.

From the 16th to the middle of the 18th century, mercantilism was the dominant ideology and praxis of the ruling power. It was feudalism on a larger scale, with the same pyramidal structure but with two main differences. First, the town and its guilds had replaced the feudal master in dominating the countryside. Secondly, at the top, regulating and controlling (or trying to control) everyone and everything there was a central power : the state.

This aspect of regulating and controlling (interventionism) appears in the many and minute ordinances concerning apprenticeship, labourers, manufacture, trade.

Interventionism had a short term aim of collecting revenues (fiscalism) for the running of the state machinery and a long term aim of buttressing the power and predominance (suprematism) of the state interests, internally and externally.

 

 5.  The decline of Mercantilism  (^)

The implementation of the mercantilist ideology was very rigid in France, more relaxed in the Low Countries and England.

This relaxation of state control allowed these two regions to embark on a process of development that would bring them to a position of increasing prominence.

In contrast, France, where the practice of mercantilism was more stringent, would lose her dominant role and be left behind for centuries to come.

In fact, mercantilism could be portrayed as a revised and updated version of feudalism, based on the alliance between monopolistic local guilds and a centralistic state.

All the state intervention in the economy through financial investments and the granting of monopolistic privileges, had the effect of hampering instead of strengthening industry and commerce.

Certainly it was not by chance that ideas urging a new approach to political economy first appeared in France, where state regulations were more oppressive.

The new school of thought was called physiocracy.

 

 6.  Physiocracy  (^)

Physiocracy (18th century) was a reaction against the importance attributed by the state to manufacturing and export trade in contrast to agriculture. It was, at the same time, a belief in natural economic laws as opposed to state regulations.

This belief was synthesized in the advice "laissez faire, laissez passer", a cry against state interference in activities that would flourish if only left alone.

The role of the physiocrats was to produce theoretical ammunition supporting the view that economic progress could only be achieved through the curtailment of the role of the state.
But they did not really succeed in France, their home country.

In fact, the ancien régime, the French revolution and the Napoleonic empire, laying aside rhetorical declarations about people's freedom and emancipation, were all, increasingly, expressions of an omnipotent state, eager to control and monopolize for its own aggrandizement, even at the cost of impeding social and economic development.

France, which was already lagging behind due to mercantilistic practices, was to play, from that moment on, a clearly subordinate role with respect to freer and more dynamic countries.
Amongst the most liberal and dynamic was England.

 

 7.  Freedom  (^)

Throughout its history, and up to 16th century, England was a backward country (economically and technologically), compared to most of Europe.

It had neither the riches of Spain (gold and silver from South America), nor the magnificence and refinement of France. It was sparsely populated in addition to low productivity.  Notwithstanding this, it started developing something that would matter much more in the long run : tolerance and freedom.

Tolerance made it possible, for instance, to accommodate people who had been persecuted in and expelled from other countries (e.g. Huguenots). These new human resources contributed to the setting up of new branches of industry.
Freedom allowed a greater fermenting and experimenting of ideas which resulted in the invention, adoption and diffusion of mechanical devices. The unbound Prometheus gave rise to a new world of industry based on machines.

From the middle of the 18th century and especially from 1780, England enjoyed steady growth in manufacturing, mechanical inventions and power.

It is not the accumulation of gold and silver that represents the basis of economic growth as a very crude analysis would have us believe, but the attitude and practice of tolerance and freedom.

It was in such a social climate and from the happy marriage of liberalism and individualism that came revolutions in agriculture and in manufacturing, which led to a tremendous increase in the production of the means of sustenance and started a general improvement in the living conditions.

 

 8.  Industry  (^)

The recipe for the industrial revolution had one main ingredient: freedom.  In the 18th century England was one of the freest places on earth. That is the main reason why the industrial revolution took place there.
The industrial revolution was the product of freedom and resulted in a further development of freedom: freedom to produce, to trade, to invent.

It is not the division of labour (as in the famous example of the pins factory) that constituted the basis of the industrial revolution.  An increase in productivity was not enough to spark and sustain such a radical transformation. The freedom to improve productivity, to apply ingenuity to production and commerce without the invention being barred or the inventor harassed or even hanged, this is what counted and made all the difference.

The bourgeoisie as a class was not the engine of the industrial revolution.
If, for bourgeois, we refer to the master of a guild, with his monopolistic practices, he certainly acted, for a very long period, as a powerful brake to any economic and technological progress. By then, the time of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class had already long passed; only the name, bourgeoisie, would be kept and used, for ideological reasons, as a title of honour or contempt.

The protagonists of industry and mechanization were those who, in this climate of freedom, applied curiosity and ingenuity to production. Inventors and entrepreneurs came from many walks of life and from many trades; not only the landed aristocracy (the gentry) who adopted improved agricultural methods but also Arkwright the barber with the utilization of the water-frame in the cotton industry and Watt the watchmaker with the invention of the steam-engine.

This historical period was characterized by the dominant role played by stock capital (machinery) and that is why it is referred to as Capitalism.

 

 9.  Capitalism (origins and development)  (^)

Capitalism emerged in England, Scotland and the Low Countries towards the middle of 18th century.

If we (wrongly, as pointed out by Adam Smith) attribute to capital the meaning of money then capitalism existed before the industrial revolution and its origins can be dated alongside the introduction of money.

But 'capital' (with reference to the Industrial Revolution) means mainly machinery employed for the production of goods. With this qualification, capitalism is the economic system of production based on the extensive and increasing use of machinery (simple or complex tools).

Capitalism is, then, characterized by the predominance of capital (mechanical machinery) and its central role with respect to other factors of production (land, labour).

It is a fact that many mechanical devices were invented in other countries (e.g. China) prior to their development in England, but the lack of freedom, due to the despotic control of the state, had prevented their utilisation, let alone their diffusion.

For this reason, machinery, while important  and central to the existence and working of capitalism, plays its productive role only in the presence of specific prerequisites.

These prerequisites of capitalism refer to the social climate and psychological attitudes favoured and developed by groups and individuals.

 

 10.  Capitalism (climate and attitudes)  (^)

The main characteristics of capitalism and of the social climate and psychological attitudes surrounding it were :

- liberalism (political, economic, cultural);
- individualism (natural rights, entrepreneurship);
- economism (industriousness, frugality, economic calculation).

Capitalism was a highly dynamic period of production, a vivid epoch in economic and social history when individuals kept revolutionizing the means and modes of production.

The advocates of capitalism favoured the development of a simple ideology: each individual by looking after his/her own interests would help further the achievement of the interests of his fellow human beings and of the community as a whole. For this reason, the freer each individual was to pursue his/her interests, the better the interests of everybody would be safeguarded and enhanced.

It was the total reversal of the Hobbesian "homo homini lupus" which justified the existence of an absolute power. It was such a progressive and optimistic ideology that it provided fertile soil for the birth and dissemination of all sorts of utopian and messianic visions of social regeneration in which the human being (not the 'enlightened' autocrat) took centre stage.

Amongst those visions, the two most relevant were anarchism and socialism.

 

 11.  Anarchism and socialism  (^)

Anarchism and socialism were conceptual systems of social organization resulting from an analysis of capitalism and going beyond it. In other words, the aim of anarchism and socialism was to take over capitalism, leading to a full development of individuals and society.

After the dark ages (feudalism)  and the light of dawn (capitalism) would come the full splendour of a sunny day (anarchism and socialism).

The basic principles of anarchism and socialism were in many respects similar. They referred to the overcoming of three main conflicts:

-  the division between different nations through the promotion of pacifism and internationalism;
-  the division between manual and intellectual labour through the full development of all productive forces, foremost among them, the human being;
-  the division between town and country through a balanced distribution of population and the provision of housing, green spaces and facilities for all.

Where they diverged was on :

-  the different stress on the role of the individual (anarchism) as opposed to the role of society (socialism);
-  the function or the lack of function assigned to the state in the transition towards the new organization of individuals in society.

Throughout the 19th century, the dynamic antagonism and conflictual partnership between capitalism and its potential superseders (anarchism and socialism), resulted in a continuous improvement in the general conditions of life to such a point that it created the illusion of never ending material and moral progress.

 

 12.  The apogee of capitalism and anarchism/socialism  (^)

Capitalism and anarchism/socialism shared some common principles that can be summed up as :

- scientism (reliance on science and technology);
- universalism (internationalism and world trade);
- pacifism (anti-militarism).

In actual fact, scientism, universalism and pacifism saw their heyday during the flourishing of capitalism (the first half of the 19th century), when England, the cradle of capitalism, was mainly busy toiling and trading  on a world scale, and was not waging wars that would have caused disruption to production and commerce.

The dynamic intercourse/struggle between capitalism and its counterparts anarchism/socialism, allowed for :

-  the destruction of feudal remnants and mercantilistic particularisms and the propagation of new general norms of economic behaviour;
-  the production of an increasing amount of goods, on such a scale that, for the first time in history, some people began to nurture the dream of a world free of poverty, with prosperity for all.

During the 19th century, hope in the unending progress of political democracy and social development was widespread, reaching its climax with the revolutions of 1848 and with the Universal Exhibition of 1851.
Capitalism and its counterparts, socialism/anarchism, were at their apogee.

In the meantime the state, especially in England which was the most advanced country, remained mainly in the background.

 

 13.  The state in the background  (^)

For the greater part of the 19th century, the state kept aloof, at least as far as economic life was concerned.
Even a state-dominated country such as France, witnessing the exceptional economic development of neighbouring regions (e.g. England, Low Countries) had to restrict its hold on individuals.

The state had to retreat.

Railways, electrification, production, commerce, were developed and run by individuals and companies.
The actions of a weak state, weak with respect to other strong forces, had a progressive influence because aimed at limiting the dominance of those other forces.

We have, for instance in England, state inspectors reporting on working conditions, intervening on health and hygiene, advocating the reduction of  working hours and the setting up of educational establishments.

Apart from the state, there were also sectors of society and individual entrepreneurs who intervened to speak and act against many of the more brutal aspects of capitalism, especially the dominance of the machine over the worker, treated in some cases as an appendage to it.

Some of those negative aspects were remnants of previous periods like enforced labour, in some industries, for children as young as five, a practice imposed by the mercantilist state in France and England by means of fines on uncompliant parents.

Social imbalances, terrible cases of exploitation and harsh living conditions notwithstanding, people were full of hope as improvement was continuous in terms of sanitation, education, housing and food, leading to longer life spans.

In addition to this, more and more people were playing an increasingly active social role, which was supposed to grow through the extension of political suffrage. Alas, this resulted in a situation in which new patrons and advocates came forward to represent the masses.

At that point, the free play/struggle of interests that had produced a real dynamic of personal and social improvements, gradually shifted towards the political stage where it found a plethora of new actors ready to play different 'public' (i.e. state cast) roles such as politician, bureaucrat, judge, army officer, policeman.

The state was fighting back.

 

 14.  The state fights back  (^)

This massive work of destruction of the past and construction for the present and the future could have led to never ending progress if only the degenerated aspects (i.e. chauvinism, protectionism) existing in any reality (capitalism and socialism included) could have been kept under control. This was not the case.

So, after the short interlude when the state, keeping or being kept in the background, had to share power with other emerging forces (capitalism, socialism), it began to reassert its former supremacy.

At first, it took action against forces which were in decline, like the Catholic Church, or weak, like the anarchist movement.
The Catholic Church, already thoroughly battered by expropriations and restrictions all over Europe and especially in France, received another blow when the Ferry decrees (1880) imposed registration on all religious orders, that is the requirement to apply to the state for a permit to exist, and saw the expulsion of the Jesuits who refused to comply with it. This sanctioned the total reversal of centuries of church dominance in favour of state dominance.

The anarchist movement, the freest but also the most naive movement for a new society, was rapidly discredited and destroyed through infiltration and manipulation. The state propaganda succeeded, with uninformed and simple-minded people, in equating anarchy with chaos and disorder, as if anarchists were against organization and regulation 'tout court' and not just against state imposed control and regimentation.

After that, it was time to deal with capitalism and socialism.
The chosen tactic was to dominate capitalism and to dilute socialism, employing both the carrot and the stick, pitching one camp against the other until disgruntled and worried new capitalist entrepreneurs would agree with new ambitious power-seeking socialists leaders, under the patronage of the state.

It was a fine work of co-optation, corruption and coercion.
It was to last decades and it received a boost from a new phenomenon that would rally the masses and infect both capitalism and socialism: nationalism.

 

 15.  Nationalism  (^)

During the 19th century, while capitalism was dominant on the world stage and socialism was battling with it to grant workers a bigger/better share of the growing pie of production, a new phenomenon appeared on the political scene : the struggle for national states (e.g. Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland).

This fight for nationhood was not, at first, devoid of progressive aspects such as a rebellion against oppressive external powers and a cry for self-determination.  It could have kept on being progressive if the new political entities had embraced decentralized federalism and cultural variety (as the Swiss had done) and expelled any trace of chauvinism and suprematism.

On the contrary, instead of federalism, it was centralism  that took hold and with it an attitude of mono-cultural national hegemony that looked with repugnance or contempt at diversities of idioms and mores.

Nationalism was in the saddle.

With the assertion of nationalism in Europe, capitalism and socialism became more and more particularistic (i.e. nation-based) in their outlooks and dealings.
The original spirit of creativity, competition for progress and striving for improvement on a world scale, was waning.

In its place, under the banner of the nation state, two phenomena rapidly consolidated:

- bureaucratism
- monopolism.

 

 16.  Bureaucratism  (^)

The state, coming back to preeminence, needed an army of servants to perform the many new functions it started attributing to itself in addition to the traditional ones that it enlarged and deepened : revenue collection, army, police, prisons, school, justice, sanitation, transport, postal services, control of every branch of industry and commerce, and so on.

The material support for this large army of state servants was made possible by the collateral existence of entrepreneurs and workers operating an expanding productive machine. Only the activity of productive groups, in facts, allows the formation and consolidation of parasitic strata.
In this case the area of parasitism could be exceedingly broad because the forces of production were incomparably large.

A further novelty, compared to the ancien régime just before the French revolution, was that now (almost) everyone could become a servant of the state, irrespective of prerogatives of birth. Finally, by the vast and continuous expansion of the state bureaucracy, a parasitic existence was becoming a possibility for many people, not just the élites.

Moreover, the spreading of bureaucracy was not confined to the state, but affected capitalist and socialist organizations as well. Here too it was possible for smart ambitious workers to climb the social ladder and become controllers and mediators of the masses.

The bureaucratisation of society introduced a degenerated dynamic between capitalism and socialism. If the original dynamic had been left to work undisturbed, as in the past, it would have most likely led to an increase in the purchasing power of the workers and an improvement in their working conditions. Moreover, a gradual and substantial reduction in their working day would have probably followed in time, as had happened previously.

But nothing of the sort took place. Instead, the consumption of the state servants and other parasitic strata grew at the expense of the forces of production.

Bureaucratism was also the result of another growing cancer: monopolism.

 

 17.  Monopolism  (^)

The natural inclination of the state is to monopolise power, at least within a specific, usually large, territory; to share power is intrinsically antithetical and alien to its very nature.

At the same time, the national state is fertile soil for the growth of monopolies in the economy. By reason of external power and internal control, the nation state has favoured the formation and consolidation of monopolies and oligopolies through:

- patronage : giving exclusive rights of production and distribution to national companies either directly owned or controlled by the state or subservient to it;
- protectionism : cushioning or insulating national companies against competition from outside the state borders. Through protectionism, the state has become the father and the import tariff the mother of monopolies.

Through patronage and protectionism the state not only created and reinforced monopolies but, cunningly, provided for itself justifications for expansion. In fact, advocating, for political reasons, anti-monopolistic laws and state ownership of key resources, the state, the actual monopoly maker, achieved the brilliant result of being seen as the protector of the little man against big business while surreptitiously becoming, at the same time, the only real monopolist.

In any case, whether state owned or state regulated, the state favours organizations that model themselves on itself and is keener to deal with a few big companies, easier to identify and control, than with the dynamic reality of many small ones. This is historically true not just in the sphere of economic matters but especially in that of political and cultural realities.

In fact, where the state strove most aggressively and abominably to exercise monopolistic control and to bring about homogenisation, was in its dealing with minority groups, large and small. Here the criminal fury of the central state amounted to genocide, as in the case of the Armenians (1.5 million exterminated by the Turkish state) and Jews (6 million, at the hands of the German state).

Monopolism demanded bureaucratism and this, in turn, reinforced monopolism.
Monopolism is synonymous with centralisation and homogenization. In order to achieve these aims, the state resorted not only to repression but mainly to indoctrination and manipulation.

Starting with Prussia (1794), education began to be centrally administered and supervised by the state.
As ever, progressive or semi-progressive justifications, in line with the spirit of the time, supported the new measures. In the specific case of schooling, the advocates of state intervention would have had a point if it had been limited to material support to education without meddling with the content of it. But, a state schooling system meant, from the start, enforced homogenization of individuals through centralized control and moulding of minds.

Later on this would be supplemented by the monopolistic control of means of communication (e.g. radio) for spreading propaganda, sifting information and silencing opposition.
All this would prove very useful in preparing docile cannon fodder for the coming state promoted acts of carnage.