Periods, events

Economic history

Clean this up

In order to achieve the kind of dramatic change that the market
economy required, it was necessary to fundamentally alter some of
the most basic aspects of human life and social organization. For
instance, it was necessary to transform the relationship of humans to
the very land they lived on. Land had to become a marketable
commodity, able to bebought, sold, subdivided, parcelled together or
treated in whatever other way was necessary to make it desirable to
purchasers. But while the creation of a real estate market seems
pretty straightforward and understandable to us, it involved nothing
less than a revolutionary change in people's attitudes in the Middle
Ages. Land, and the lakes and forests on it, had been an integral part
of their lives, providing sustenance for their needs and a place for
their lives to unfold—a place thatwas asfamiliar to themastheir own
hands and feet, a place that had been there for their parents and
grandparents and as far back as anyone could remember. Suddenly, it
was to be something that could be freely traded, like a sack of pota
toes or a bag of hair ribbons. "What we call land is an element of
nature inextricably interwoven with man's institutions," notes
Polanyi. "To isolate it and form amarket for it was perhaps theweird
est of all undertakings of our ancestors."
Only slightly less weird was the creation of a labour market—that
is, a pool ofworkers who could be induced to enter into contractual
arrangements to provide their labour in exchange for a payment or
wage determined by market forces. While the concept of a labour
market also seems logical to us today, let's not forget that no such
concept had previously existed. In pre-market times, the common
people had ofcourse always worked, and worked hard. But as Polanyi
notes, their labour had been only part ofwhat defined them. Just as
important were ties ofkinship, clan, neighbourhood, craft and creed.
Their labour was just one of theways they participated in the life of
the community.
All this had to change. Afunctioning labour market required the
adoption of a whole new approach to people. It required their redefi
nition as beings whose purpose was really nothing more than to
provide labour. All that was needed from them was their ability to
work, to enter into contracts to provide their labour. The efficient
operation of the market therefore required that they be dealt with
purely on this level, without reference to their other human charac
Thus the market demanded some extraordinary changes, since, as
Polanyi notes, "labour" isjustanother word for people, and"land" just
another word for nature or the environment. What was being
demandedwas the fundamental transformation of people and nature
into commodities that could be adapted to the needs of the market.
Themost basic elements of human life and society were to be subor
dinated to anideological concept, ameretheory ofhowthings should
be organized. The central reality of this new system, then, was that
humans and nature would be forced to adapt to the needs of the
economy, rather than the other way around. This was—and is—a
truly bizarre concept, however you lookat it.
The transformation required was not only bizarre, but also enor
mous.What was involved was a radical overhaul of some of the most
basic institutions and traditions in society. As we saw in the previous
chapter, a labour market was established bycreating a pool ofdesper
ate peasants—stripped of their traditional common rights and facing
persecution by the state for their resulting poverty—who were now
"willing" to work for wages. Similarly, a real estate market was
created byremoving the litany of traditional legal claims on pieces of
land—common-land rights, entails, endowments, rights of redemp
tion and tithes. But thefree market wouldn't justspring into being as
soon as the old set of rules and restrictions were removed.What was
needed was an entirely new setof rules and restrictions enabling the
creation of amarketsystem.
- McQuaig, All You Can Eat

Misc, to do

What is arguably most interesting about the Luddites, however,
is not widely known. And that is the ferocity of the reaction against
them on the part of those tryingto put the new economy in place.
While destroying machinery was obviously a crime against prop
erty, the BritishParliamentwanted to send a clearmessage that this
sort of interference in the new economy would be treated more
harshly than any normal sort of property damage. Thus it passed a
billmaking such attacks on machinery punishable by death, thereby
creating a new legalconcept—an eyefor an eye, a tooth for a tooth
and a life for a sewing machine. Despite an impassioned plea
against it by Lord Byron, the bill was passed into lawby the House
of Lords with only three dissenters.
- McQuaig, All You Can Eat



These look promising

  • Thomson: Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns
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