State of Mankind

A New Way Of Thinking

Commercial Capitalism

Commercial capitalism was what rose from the accumulation of wealth by the higher levels of society during medieval times.  It is an interesting study, as its beginnings were simply filling a need with virtually no control (we call this “automatic” control), following which it evoloved to municipal mercantilism where the economy was controlled or manipulated by the company, and state mercantilism where the economy was controlled by the chartered company which was essentially an entity of the state.  We’ll call this controlling of the economy “conscious” control.  Thus an automatically controlled economy is virtually unregulated and unplanned and is the natural result of individual people seeking opportunity, where a consciously controlled economy is one where an entity (such as a company or state) seeks profits by regulating and controlling economic activity.  All of this is interesting for historical note and possibly for political types to argue about economic merits, however, we will focus mainly on the product of commercial capitalism–the middle class.

The manorial economy was automatically controlled.  There was no state or company or power capable of consciously controlling anything.  The manor provided protection and agriculture was really the only vocation available to most people.  The two classes and the law were basically a set of traditions that people held.  However, this all began to change, as Quigley explains:

“In the course of the medieval period, chiefly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this simple two-class society was modified by the intrusion of a small, but distinctly different, new class between them.  Because this new class was between, we call it middle class, just as we call it “bourgeois” (after bourg meaning town) from the fact that it resided in towns, a new kind of social agregate.  The two older, established classes were almost completely rural and intimately associated with the land, economically, socially, and spiritually.  The permanence of the land and the intimate connection of the land with the most basic of human needs, especially food, amplified the emotional security associated with the older classes.

“The new middle class of bourgeoisie who grew up between the two older classes had none of these things.  They were commercial peoples concerned with exchange of goods, mostly luxury goods, in a society where all their prospective customers already had the basic necessities of life provided by their status.  The new middle class had no status in a society based on status; they had no security or permanence in a society that placed the highest value on these qualities.  They had no law (since medieval law was largely past customs, and their activities were not customary ones) in a society that highly valued law.  The flow of the necessities of life, notably food, to the new town dwellers was precarious, so that some of their earliest and most emphatic actions were taken to ensure the flow of such goods from the surrounding country to the town.  All the things the bourgeois did were new things; all were precarious, and insecure; and their whole lives were lived without the status, permanence, and security the society of the day most highly valued.  The risks (and rewards) of commercial enterprise….were extreme.  A single venture could ruin a merchant or make him rich.  This insecurity was increased by the fact that the prevalent religion of the day disapproved of what he was doing, seeking profits or taking interest, and could see no way of providing religious services to town dwellers because of the intimate association of the ecclesiastical system with the existing arrangement of rural landholding.

“For these and other reasons psychic insecurity became the keynote of the new middle-class outlook.  It still is.  The only remedy for this insecurity of the middle class seemed to it to be the accumulation of more possessions that could be a demonstration to the world of the individual’s importance and power.  In this way, for the middle class, the general goal of medieval man to seek future salvation in the hereafter was secularized to an effort to seek future security in this world by acquisition of wealth and its accompanying power and social prestige….

“In that society prudence, discretion, conformity, moderation (except in acquisition), decorum, frugality, became the marks of a sound man….

“As the middle classes and their commercialization of all human relationships spread through Western society in the centuries from the twelfth to the twentieth, they largely modified and, to some extent reversed the values of Western society earlier.  In some cases, the old values, such as future preference or self-discipline, remained, but were redirected.  Future preference ceased to be transcendental in its aim, and became secularized.  Self-discipline ceased to seek spirituality by restraining sensuality, and instead sought material acquisition.  In general, the new middle-class outlook had a considerable religious basis, but it was the religion of the medieval heresies and of puritanism rather than the religion of Roman Christianity.

“This complex outlook that we call middle class or bourgeois is, of course, the chief basis of our world today.  Western society is the richest and most powerful society that has ever existed largely because it has been impelled forward along these lines, beyond the rational degree necessary to satisfy human needs, by the irrational drive for achievement in terms of material ambitions.  To be sure, Western society always had other kinds of people, and the majority of the people in Western society probably had other outlooks and values, but it was the middle-class urgency that pushed modern developments in the direction they took.  There were always in our society dreamers and truth-seekers and tinkerers.  They, as poets, scientists, and engineers, thought up innovations which the middle classes adoped and exploited if they seemed likely to be profit-producing.  Middle class self-discipline and future preference provided the savings and investment without which any innovation–no matter how appealing in theory–would be set aside and neglected.  But the innovations that could attract middle-class approval (and exploitation) were the ones that made our world today so different from the world of our grandparents and ancestors.”  (Pages1,234-1,237)

This is quickly getting long, so a summary and a few points, and questions are in order.  To sum up, the middle class, which we seem to really want and believe to be threatened in our society, was created by opportunity with no laws or regulations.  It seems to never take long, after a system is developed which is profitable for shrewd people to come and take control, in this case, in the form of companies or states.  Among the many forces which perpetuated the middle class, one of the most important was future preference.  Quigley dwells on this quite a bit, though I have only quoted a small sample.  This idea of saving today to be able to accomplish tomorrow, which Quigley astutely associated with religious future preference (follow the commandments today to achieve an eternal family or return to god in the next life), is endangered today, and I think is one of the most important idealogical battles we face.  Our entire culture has shifted to buy now on credit and enjoy the moment of sin, and push the consequences to tomorrow.  This is in our economy, media, entertainment, etc. to an alarming degree.

Now for some questions.  Is the “middle class” society or outlook good or bad?  Perhaps I should ask, what good can we take from it, and what do we need to leave behind?  I have summed up some of the psychological bases from Quigley, but let’s just look at our middle class society today and ask ourselves what we learn about it by applying gospel principles.  We can’t deny that much of the technology that has come from this society has been good and has allowed the earth to support billions of God’s children.  At the same time, have there been seriously negative spiritual consequences?  How has growing up in Western middle class culture affected our own outlook, so as to be blinded somewhat to what the Lord tries to teach?  There may not be exact right or wrong answers to these questions for everyone, but I think there is much to be learned from discussion and greater understanding of this subject.

« Previous post

Leave a Reply