The Roots of Corporatism in Europe

Wednesday, Dec 29, 2010

The modern era of state and class relations in Europe had its origins in the first few centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire between 337 and 476 A.D. The institution of private property developed in the context of a system of numerous small, weak states that struggled along in the territory previously dominated by the militarized Roman state. This economic development was made possible by the "normative pacification" provided by the Catholic Church, which increased greatly in its power, and by the predominance of military techniques that rendered armored knights on horseback ascendant over serfs and peasants (Mann, 1986, pp. 376-378, 390-391).

In this context, it is important to note, feudal lords did not need "states" to protect their private property and increase the exploitation of producing classes. They dominated the peasantry through their own military capabilities in a context where religion played a role in sustaining and justifying hierarchy. Moreover, the weakness of the many small states was one factor that allowed the system of private property to take deeper root without the danger of state appropriation, and for an independent merchant class to develop. The result was a growing independence for the economic network in general: "By the time trade was really buoyant (1150 to 1250 A.D.)," claims Mann (1986, p. 397), "it was accompanied by merchant and artisan institutions with an autonomy unparalleled in other civilizations."...

During Europe's Middle Ages, to repeat, the state had very few functions. It consisted primarily of the king and his retainers, and the bulk of its revenues came from the king's own lands and judicial fees. It tried to guard its borders and control armies in its territory, and it had a role in settling some types of disputes within its confines, but it was not a major player. Strikingly, any increases in its budget were directly tied to warfare and war debts. That continued to be the case even after the state began to gain some importance as a regulator of economic activity within its boundaries (Mann, 1986, pp. 486, 511) and to supplant the Church as the primary means of normative pacification. As late as 1505, the powers of the state were minimal... almost certainly involved less than one percent of national wealth and were marginal to the lives of most of the state's subjects. (Mann, 1986, p. 452.)

Although private property and the first stages of capitalism developed without strong states, the situation began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries for a number of reasons. As markets grew within state boundaries, there was more and more need for state regulation. As merchants increased the scope of their trade into larger and larger territories, they needed more protection against bandits and the petty rulers of small territories (Mann, 1986, pp. 423-424, 431-32). Merchants also developed an interest in aggressive wars that would widen the territory in which they could operate: "From now on commercial motivations, the conquest of markets as well as land, were to play a part in wars" (Mann, 1986, p. 432). Merchants thus quietly encouraged the growth of the state, lending it the money necessary to raise a larger army.

Moreover, dramatic -- and, of course, unanticipated -- developments in the military network also triggered changes in the relationship between private property and the state. The sudden emergence of the disciplined military phalanx, that is, spear-armed infantry in close formation, quickly led to the defeat of nobles on horseback in a series of dramatic battles between 1302 and 1315 (Mann, 1986, pp. 18-19, 428). In this new context, the nobility had to turn increasingly to the state to raise a standing army of full-time foot soldiers to protect its lands. Now it started to be the case that the state was an "instrument of domination" in the service of the economic elites in general.

There soon followed a series of technological innovations that added up to a "military revolution" (Mann, 1986, pp. 453-454). In particular, large artillery guns made it possible to destroy castles. The arms race among states was on. It didn't begin after World War II ended in 1945. To the contrary, there have been few peaceful interludes between 1300 and the present. Only states with large armies could survive, and only states that could gain the loyalty of lords and merchants could afford large armies.

So, from that point forward capitalism and the nation-state gradually grew powerful together because they needed and aided each other. As the alliance between these two power networks solidified, they subordinated the previously independent ideological and military networks. States now began to fit the usual sociological definition: the organization that controls the military and police within a given geographical area. And when a state extended its regulatory powers over a new territory, so too did capitalism diffuse more fully into that territory. Contrary to the oft-expressed view that classes and states are antagonistic, they became closely intertwined in Western history.

Much of Western history from this time forward is about the deadly bickering between economic and political elites, with an occasional time-out to deal with peasants or artisans who tried to take advantage of the divisions in elite circles.

The Four Networks Theory of Power: A Theoretical Home for Power Structure Research, G. William Domhoff, April 2005,