Sunday, November 11, 2007

Did the Elizabethan Guilds Promote General Opulence?

In a Blog, ‘stealth badger’, I find a most literate account of the role of organised labour from the ‘Black death’ in Europe to the writer’s strike in Hollywood films and tv (here).

Its author (unnamed) does a fairly convincing job on the emergence of labour from within agriculture/shepherding (2nd and 3rd Smithian Ages of Man: Lectures On Jurisprudence and Wealth Of Nations). I would quibble with some of his historical constructs but the authors has identified the emergence of labour in guilds (or ‘corporations’ in Europe in the Middle Ages –itself an interesting aside).

The legal recognition of guilds and the entrenchment of their monopoly privileges under Elizabethan laws in the 1500s, was part of the glimmerings of a change from a totally farming, raw materials economy, in which over the next four centuries a declining number of people employed in farming could feed, albeit at per capita subsistence level the majority of the population, towards an increasing manufacturing, process of raw materials sector that lay the basis for industrialization in the 19th century.

In the mid-18th century, Adam Smith noted that the country was fed by less than half of the population, the other half was divided between those engaged in productive labour and those who lived in various degrees of prodigal idleness, the defence of the realm, and unproductive labour (retainers, servants, civil administration and justice, the institutions of religion, and so on).

The common labourers, on the land and in town manufactures, constituted the majority of the populations. Their living standards were subsistence only, with some layers earning slightly more, others totally destitute.

‘stealth badger’ traces the guilds as ‘natural’ in that they provided their members with ‘position and place’ in the emerging towns. Their legal statutes prescribed the number of apprentices (2) and they sought to maintain quality and orderly markets in their products.

Adam Smith was hostile to their anti-competitive behaviours, particular in their restrictive practices, their ‘trade secrets’, their internal discipline and the common front they exhibited in collusion with ‘brother guilds’, and their ‘conspiracies’ against the public consumer.

Guilds, like trade unions today, protect the interests of their members and, by extension their families. They are antagonistic to the interests of non-members and their families, and when push comes to shove they are antagonistic to other guilds or unions where they perceive their interests clash.

Smith’s answer to the problem of mass subsistence poverty for the majority of the nation’s employees and their families was not one of joining one-side of the other, labour or capital; it was to raise per capita incomes by raising the growth rate of the economy, without the inhibitory factors of monopoly, mercantile political economy, distortions brought about by colonial monopolies, and the waste of wars over the ‘jealousies of trade’ with actual and potential trading partners. He took an all-society perspective, not that of a social order or special interest group.

In his day there was no universal franchise – far from it and he, for instance, did not have a vote. The institutional structure was top down; the established churches of Scotland and England ruled harshly in doctrinal regimes reaching from the capitals to the smallest villages and down into each individual in each family.

In Scotland, the church was strictly orthodox in its interpretations of religious obligations and its extremer wings were tyrannical in their intolerance of dissent, doubt and disrespect for their invisible version of 'God'.

Under these social restrictions, Adam Smith’s critique – ‘a very violent attack’ on the commercial system of mercantile politics – necessarily made no allusions to any defects in the social order he might have held, and which occasionally he hints about, and his narrative stood off from fundamental changes that would challenged established authority, preferring to fire his polemical salvoes at the failings of existing policies when measured against his sole focus of commercial growth.

The role of the guilds in the evolution of commercial society, in contrast, focused, head down, on the narrow sectional interests of small groups of corporations of trade, such as shopkeepers, petty tradesmen, masters of workmen, who processed the necessities and conveniences of life for all, including the more numerous poorer families, and the ‘amusements of life’ for increasing numbers of richer families, growing in number as the domestic economic product grew faster than the ever growing population.

Adam Smith noticed that domestic economic product was growing and, significantly, an increasing section of the population was also experiencing increasing per capital incomes. He put this down to the expanding commercial economy (the fourth age of man) from the propensity to exchange and the division of labour, which was driven by expanding markets at home and abroad. These current observations, their evolution explained by recent history, encouraged Adam Smith to believe that his perspective of the changing world had substance.

Remnants of the old age, such as the guilds and the town corporations, did not fit into the revived commercial society upon which he expected so much; they were part of the problem of mercantile political economy as the main inhibitors of expanding markets, and thereby of the spread of opulence to all the orders that made up society.

For these reasons I part company with the analysis posted on ‘stealth badger’ of the positive contribution of the guilds, though I found its analysis most interesting and productive.


Blogger StealthBadger said...

Thank you for your kind review of that currently-rather-shaky draft chapter.

I suspect we are closer in view than not, since one of the things I didn't focus on (but plan to) is how the entrenched and institutionalized post-Black-Death guilds actually began to emulate the conduct of the economic heavyweights they were partially an unplanned response to.

I do acknowledge that there is some difference there beyond that point, and I respect and thank you for your kind treatment of it.

Until later!

2:56 pm  

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