May 12, 2003

Notes: The Character of the Absolutist State in Western Europe

Perhaps the most interesting argument about why the demographic crisis produced by the Black Death did not lead to the reemergence of serfdom in Western Europe (as lords discovered that, with population down by 1/3, they would rather be labor lords than landlords) is that made by Perry Anderson in his book Lineages of the Absolutist State. Anderson argues, first, that the particular role of Western European towns made a formal reimposition of servile bondage impossible: "...the aristocracy had to adjust to a second antagonist: the mercantile bourgeoisie... towns... the intercalation of this third presence... prevented the Western nobility from settling its accounts with the peasantry in Eastern [European] fashion, by smashing its resistance and fettering it to the manor. The medieval town... hierarchical dispersion of sovereignties... feudal mode of production... freed urban economies from direct domination by a rural ruling class.... [Urban] economic and social vitality acted as a constant, objective interference in the class struggle on the land, and blocked any regressive solution to it by the nobles." Feudal lords could agree among themselves and with the king to reimpose serfdom, but they lacked the power to do so if peasants could still (as they could in Western Europe) run to the towns for protection.

Anderson argues, second, that it did not really matter. The century or two after the Black Death saw the development of the Absolutist state in Western Europe, and while formally-free peasants could use their relative scarcity to reduce the rents they paid to landlords, they could do nothing to resist the taxes imposed by the new bureaucrats backed up by the musket-wielding infantry and dragoons of the Absolutist state. Over the generations, therefore, the aristocracy shifted their attention from trying to squeeze more out of the peasantry directly and personally to becoming functionaries or clients of the state which squeezed money out of the peasantry bureaucratically and impersonally through taxes. Thus nobles whose ancestors had been feudal knights became, instead, royal functionaries or courtiers, drawing handsome salaries from their jobs as Warden of the Cinque Ports or from their successful winning of royal favor. Under the Absolutist state, Anderson argues, Western European labor was still partly bound and unfree in Domar's sense--but they were not bound directly to a feudal lord. They were bound indirectly to the noble class, through the royal taxes--taille and gabelle, servicios, et cetera--levied by the king and then transferred to the nobility. The Absolutist monarchy was thus, in Anderson's view, feudalism recharged: "The final effect of this general redisposition of the social power of the nobility was the State machine and juridical order of Absolutism, whose coordination was to increase the efficacy of aristocratic rule in pinning down a non-servile peasantry into new forms of dependence and exploitation."

It's an interesting thesis--possibly true, or largely true, or true at some times and in some places. Relying on the king's fiscal agents backed up by the king's army to collect taxes to pay you does have advantages--after firearms and bureaucracy--over hunting down runaway serfs and dragging them back behind your horse.

Anderson's thesis does, I think, get less attention than it should these days. I think it gets less attention than it should because of two reasons. First, Anderson thinks that he is a Marxist writing about modes of production. He isn't. He is a Weberian writing about modes of herrschaft--domination. The fact that he isn't clear on who his own intellectual masters and predecessors are leads to a certain... conceptual confusion, as the book blossoms into thousands of examples discussed too briefly for any but a true expert in the literature to understand how they fit into the main point, or even what the main point is.

Second, Anderson writes as if he was channeling Leon Trotsky: "The centralized monarchies of France, England, and Spain represented a decisive rupture with the pyramidal, parcellized sovereignty of the medieval social formations, with their estates and their leige systems." "The intercalation of this third presence... prevented the Western nobility from settling its accounts with the peasantry in Eastern [European] fashion, by smashing its resistance and fettering it to the manor." Very heavy going, which is not helped by the trotting-out of Holy Writ from Saints Charlie and Fred to serve as proof texts at key moments. Perry knows a hell of a lot more than Charlie and Fred ever knew about early modern Europe. So in what sense are they valid authorities on anything?


Perry Anderson (1974), Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso: 86091710X).

p. 15: The long crisis of European economy and society during the 14th and 15th centuries marked the difficulties and limits of the feudal mode of production in the late medieval period. What was the final political outcome... the Absolutist State.... The centralized monarchies of France, England, and Spain represented a decisive rupture with the pyramidal, parcellized sovereignty of the medieval social formations, with their estates and their leige systems...

p. 17: ...the end of serfdom did not thereby mean the disappearance of feudal relations... so long as aristocratic agrarian property blocked a free market in land and factual mobility of manpower--in other words, as long as labor was not separated from the social conditions of its existence... rural relations of production remained feudal.... "The direct producer as before is still possessor of the land... inheritance... traditional right... excess corvee-labor... in the form of a surplus-product transformed into money..."

p. 18: ...the Absolutist State... was the new political carapace of a threatened nobility...

p. 20: The final effect of this general redisposition of the social power of the nobility was the State machine and juridical order of Absolutism, whose coordination was to increase the efficacy of aristocratic rule in pinning down a non-servile peasantry into new forms of dependence and exploitation.

pp. 20-21: ...the aristocracy had to adjust to a second antagonist: the mercantile bourgeoisie... towns... the intercalation of this third presence... prevented the Western nobility from settling its accounts with the peasantry in Eastern [European] fashion, by smashing its resistance and fettering it to the manor. The medieval town... hierarchical dispersion of sovereignties... feudal mode of production... freed urban economies from direct domination by a rural ruling class.... [Urban] economic and social vitality acted as a constant, objective interference in the class struggle on the land, and blocked any regressive solution to it by the nobles.

p. 22: Absolutist states... structure was fundamentally determined by the feudal regroupment against the peasantry, after the dissolution of serfdom... over-determined by the rise of an urban bourgeosie... "The political order remained feudal, while society became more and more bourgeois." The threat of peasant unrest... conjoined with the pressure of mercantile or manufacturing capital... in moulding the countours of aristocratic class power...

p. 25: Roman civil law... its conception of absolute and unconditional private property... Quiritary ownership...

p. 35: Virtually everywhere, the overwhelming weight of taxation--taille and gabelle in France, or servicios in Spain--fell on the poor. There was no conception of the juridical 'citizen' subject to fiscality by the very fact of belonging to the nation. The seigneurial class was in practice everywhere effectively exempt from direct taxation... new taxes... 'centalized feudal rent' as opposed to the seigneurial dues which formed a 'local feudal rent'.... The economic functions of Absolutism were not exhausted, however, by its tax and office system. Mercantilism...

p. 41: It was a state founded on the social supremacy of the aristocracy and confined by the imperatives of landed property. The nobility could deposit power with the monarchy, and permit the enrichment of the bourgeoisie: the masses were still at its mercy. No 'political' derogation of the noble class ever occurred in the Absolutist State...

p. 42: Army, bureaucracy, diplomacy, and dynasty remained a hardened feudal complex which governed the whole State machine and guided its destinies.

p. 48: In the course of this process [of the rise of Absolutism], the late feudal aristocracy was obliged to abandon old traditions and acquire many new skills. It had to shed military habits of private violence, social patterns of vassal loyalty, economic habits of hereditary insouciance, political rights of representative autonomy, and cultural attributes of unlettered ignorance. It has to learn the new avocations of a disciplined officer, a literate functionary, a polished courtier, and a more or less prudent estate-owner. The history of Western Absolutism is largely the story of the slow reconversion of the landed ruling class to the necessary form of its own political power, despite and against most of its previous experience and instincts...

Posted by DeLong at May 12, 2003 02:02 PM | TrackBack

Comments

So Anderson is saying that labor was in fact not free in the age of Absolutism? So why is it not in the economic interest of an employer to have his employees as slaves today? Eventually, after Absolutism ends, it seems to me that incentives of employers would dictate slavery/serfdom to continue. Why did it end eventually? I think the central question the Paul Krugman asked in his piece is why, absent a subsistence wage which makes slavery pointless, does slavery fail to exist in some civilizations during some eras in history? A possible era is Europe in the post-Black-Death era, maybe or maybe not. One of those eras is definitely right now in the United States. How do you answer this question?

Posted by: Bobby on May 12, 2003 06:08 PM

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Anderson's argument is more subtle. It's that those nobles who would otherwise have been busy reintroducing serfdom after the Black Death--going out and catching runaway peasants and dragging them back--found that this was (i) very hard, because the peasants would run away to towns where they could hide and where there was no other lord to ask, "Which peasants are newly arrived from elsewhere?", and (ii) less profitable (after the invention of bureaucracy and firearms that allow the king to collect taxes) than working for the king. The question of why the kings thought they had to divert so much of the taxes they collected to pay nobles is a deep and hard one, but it is in fact the case that that's what western European absolute monarchs did...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 12, 2003 06:21 PM

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Sorry about that Brad. I'm watching "The Craft" on Superstation, so Anderson had half my attention.

Posted by: Bobby on May 12, 2003 06:24 PM

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But I think the rest of my post besides my cockamamie interpretation of the Anderson still stands: Why, although wages are way more than subsistence, doesn't slavery exist today in the U.S. and Europe, Japan, etc.?

Posted by: Bobby on May 12, 2003 06:28 PM

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Although the Anderson book is indeed interesting, the literature on absolutism has evolved substantially since then. Brad, I also have to disagree with this rather naive view of the French bureaucracy (if it can even be called that) during the 17th and 18th centuries. To wit, you speak of taxes "levied by the king and then transferred to the nobility". The reality is that the nobles themselves collected much of the taxes, and passed precious few dollars on to Paris. And the revenues from the sale of offices by the crown constituted the early-modern equivalent of credit card debt, these layers of offices enriching local nobles, and immiserating the peasantry. If you are interested in a more clear-eyed view of the rather circumscribed powers of the French intendancy, check out William Beik.

Posted by: db on May 12, 2003 06:41 PM

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>>And the revenues from the sale of offices by the crown constituted the early-modern equivalent of credit card debt, these layers of offices enriching local nobles, and immiserating the peasantry. <<

Exactly.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on May 12, 2003 07:00 PM

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Here again military forms (material means of destruction)look pretty decisive.

There is reason to believe that Genghis Khan's empire was the most rationalized, chain of command absolute system before European Absolutism. (The Chinese Empire, for example was tremendously inefficient, riddled with graft, torn by factions, and subverted by regional authorities).

Posted by: zizka on May 12, 2003 09:47 PM

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In Britain at least, salaries were a comparatively insignificant part of the value of holding offices. Office holders worked their perquisites directly or indirectly, e.g. judges getting fees or lawyers applying leverage to get value elsewhere in their dealings.

And the merit of all this to the central authority was that it created a class with an interest in propping up the system. The apparent corruption and inefficiency of the 18th century was actually buying something.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on May 12, 2003 10:23 PM

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Perhaps the interesting question is why is everyone suddenly interested in the 'Black Death' again. It couldn't be to look at a factor shares type argument in the context of another demographic shock, now would it? My feeling is that this is a non-runner given the fact that things have globalised just a little since then - although you could make a model showing potential job-loss out of the developed economies as relative factor shares change (allowing, of course, for human capital accretion).

More interesting might be to look at the combined impact of WWI and closing the taps to US immigration in 1922 on economic activity in the 20's.

Why isn't serfdom reintroduced today? Try reading Norbert Elias instead of Anderson, or try thinking about selling Microsoft products to serfs, or why China is having to react to SARS with political changes. On the other hand you could make an argument that something similar may come in the form of new indenture contracts for the over 65's (or over 75's, or whatever). Especially if they get round to sending them (or us) to work in 'holiday camps'. Mind the fiscal gap.

Posted by: Edward Hugh on May 12, 2003 10:51 PM

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I'd like to hear more about why Ghenghis Khan's empire was the most "rationalized, centralized" empire of the period. After all, the very factors that allowed its rapid expansion and gave it relatively low costs of control (significant operational autonomy among members of the ruling clan, tribute-taking from local elites) also made it quite ripe for fragmentation and patrimonialism. It was, as a unified empire, about as short-lived as any one I know about. What was it? about a 100 or 150 years from Ghengis' consolidation of the "Mongol" tribes until Mongkė's death? I wish my books weren't all in boxes.

I agree with Edward Hugh about Elias versus Perry Anderson. Another interesting book on the divergent paths to look at is Tom Ertman's Birth of the Leviathan.

Posted by: dan on May 12, 2003 11:25 PM

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When you say that the Mongol Empire was fragmented, you are comparing it to nothing real. China achieved its greatest geographical scope before or since under the Mongols. Central Asia and the Russia of the Golden Horde each were more unified under the Mongols than ever before. The IlKhan empire in the Middle East was as extensive an scope as almost any middle eastern empire. The fact that the four units did not remain united does not mean that the empire "fragmented". It meant that the Mongols, almost achieved something entirely unprecedented in history. Their empire frgmented into enormously large pieces, unlike Alexander's or Charlemagne's.

Each part of the empire lasted for at least a century. This is between transient and permanent, but again, much more successful than Napoleon or Hitler and more successful than Lenin/ Stalin.

This is irrelevant to the rationalization question, though. What I meant was that during Genghis's lifetime every member of his horde was under his direct or indirect command in a clear chain of command; there were no semi-autonomous feudal units. (During his lifetime Genghis could order the execution of anyone in his realm, and did execute an uncle, and a half brother, and threatened to execute another brother and two of his sons). His son Jochi, who died before Genghis did, looked very likely to establish himself as autonomous, and may have been pooiisoned for that reason. Jochi's son Batu was the one who did destroy the unity of the empire.

The word horde is derived from a Mongol word "ordos" (= political unit)but has been assimilated to the Germanic word "hoard" (= a heap).

For me rationality means instrumental rationality, and is not a buzzword. DeLong talked about this usage recently.

Posted by: zizka on May 13, 2003 09:12 AM

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Actually, the rationality of the Mongol Empire was most evident in its military organization during Genghis's lifetime; civil administration could be less so. During his lifetime the two were hardly separable.

I believe that most of the empire suffered from the kind of absolutist centralization (rational for extracting tax) instituted by the Mongols. China under the Sung or T'ang were both more open than under the Ming or Ch'ing. I think that the Mongols were a real precursor of European absolutism, via their influence on the Ming and Ch'ing whose influence by example on absolutism is well known.

Posted by: zizka on May 13, 2003 09:19 AM

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Points well taken. I think it is still pretty clear that the system Ghengis Khan established was structured to fragment after his death, as it did. Moreover, I'm not sure how to talk about "the Mongol Empire" once we're discussing political communities upon which Mongol rulers superordinated (rather than ones they agglomerated into a politically distinctive imperial structure, such as the cities of the Rus'). The other point is that in those areas where the Empire was predominately tribute-taking in nature, it relied heavily upon indirect modes of rule and subalterns (think of Armenia).


I was with you when you discussed the Empire as being instrumentally rational from the perspective of tribute taking; once you moved to the rational organization of the military structure I lost you, largely because of your contrast with Feudalism. Here I think you're using a different test of rationality. Feudal structures could be quite "rational" from the instrumental perspective of their participants. The fact is that the Oceanic [?] Khan's reorganization of the military was both substantively rational and instrumentally rational by most evaluative critera.

Posted by: Dan on May 13, 2003 01:10 PM

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The rationality I meant is simply the rationality of chain of command organization. When he formed his ulus in 1206 after having taken leadership of most of the Mongols, Chinggis Qan despeersed all the clans or tribes of whose loyalty he was not entirely sure. His troops were recruited and commanded as individuals rather than as tribal members. Genghis Qan by and large did not favor his own relatives or clansmen -- an understatement, since he killed about half of his known male patrolineal relatives. His uncle, brothers and sons were susceptable to the same disciplinary measures as anyone else.

These were innovations of Chinggis Qan's. A coalition/ confederation was more normal on the steppe. His first big adversary, the Khwarizm Shah, was easily defeated because he could not count on the loyalty of a single element of his empire -- not even his mother.

So the (military) rationality I was speaking of was really ca. 1210 as the conquests were just beginning, and continued during the lifetime of Chinggis Qan. I really shouldn't have said "Mongol Empire", probably.

Posted by: zizka on May 13, 2003 04:16 PM

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Well, you're right to the extent that CQ's empire did not fall prey to the normal pattern of fragmentation associated with steppe-nomadic empire building -- precisely because he eliminated the normal homology between clan/tribe networks and military units, and, secondarily, because he kept his forces in nearly constant warfare.

Posted by: Dan on May 13, 2003 04:51 PM

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I must admit I'm fascinated (and summer is just starting): could anyone point me to a good basic history of the mongol empire?

Posted by: jimbo on May 13, 2003 06:48 PM

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Basically CQ gained dominance in 1206, completely controlled the steppe by 1210 or so, and mainained a centralized command until his death in 1227. The population of the steppe was only a few million (4? 6?) but the military mobilization was 20-30% of the entire population, and as he conquered sedentary areas there was a snowball effect as he impressed the locals.

The Khwarizm Shah's army (central Asia and Eastern Iran)was mostly steppe in origin, often tribal mercenaries of dubious loyalty. The locals were disarmed, except that the walled cities could defend themselves (which meant that their loyalty to the Shah was uncertain too).

The Khwarizm Shah had just expanded his empire to its largest scope when CQ appeared, but his empire fell apart immediately.

Posted by: zizka on May 14, 2003 09:31 AM

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Some history questions for Zizka ---

I'd be interested where one found evidence of Jochi's willingness to break from his father, outside of some isolated sulking and some dereliction of duty in the campaign against the Bulgars, which resulted in a whispering campaign against him by the pro-Tolui faction at court. When he was required to appear before the Khan, he did so and submitted before all the assembled commanders of the army in the traditional fashion of son to father.

With regards to China, I don't think China under the Yuan was larger than China under the Qing. Also, when you say that the "Chinese Empire" was "was tremendously inefficient, riddled with graft, torn by factions, and subverted by regional authorities" --- which Empire are you talking about? The formation state of Qin? Han? T'ang? Ming? Qing? The difference in the makeup of the nobility versus the bureaucracy are radically different depending on what time period you're speaking of.

Posted by: Henry Shieh on May 14, 2003 12:19 PM

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Some history questions for Zizka ---

I'd be interested where one found evidence of Jochi's willingness to break from his father, outside of some isolated sulking and some dereliction of duty in the campaign against the Bulgars, which resulted in a whispering campaign against him by the pro-Tolui faction at court. When he was required to appear before the Khan, he did so and submitted before all the assembled commanders of the army in the traditional fashion of son to father.

With regards to China, I don't think China under the Yuan was larger than China under the Qing. Also, when you say that the "Chinese Empire" was "was tremendously inefficient, riddled with graft, torn by factions, and subverted by regional authorities" --- which Empire are you talking about? The formation state of Qin? Han? T'ang? Ming? Qing? The difference in the makeup of the nobility versus the bureaucracy are radically different depending on what time period you're speaking of.

Posted by: Henry Shieh on May 14, 2003 12:21 PM

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As far as Jochi goes -- there's something in Juzjani's Persian account saying that Jochi believed that his father was too ruthless. That's the only evidence I can remember, but I have seen the suggestion made that Jochi was ready to break. This is something I should be able to look into, but not now. (During Chinggis' time the bar for "rebellion" was set very low. However, the evidence I'm thinking of was not the problems during Subete'ei's Western campaign).

So the answer is, I can't really answer.

Yuan China, as I understand, included Korea and quite a bit of Siberia, plus everyplace claimed by the Ch'ing.

What I said about Chinese society was meant to refer to earlier Empires rather than the Ming or Ch'ing; my theory is that the subsequent dynasties had learned a lot from the Mongols. (But one of my points is also that centralization and top-down command of the despotic type are not a good thing; rationality for me is not a buzzword. To me Sung and T'ang China seem to have been much opener than Ming or Ch'ing China, though I'm far from expert).

In short, I am using blog standards of evidence and argument here, not scholarly standards.

Posted by: zizka on May 14, 2003 04:26 PM

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