The Road from Serfdom…to Corporatism

An overview of the state of the world around 1400.

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When you change your perspective on past events by changing the sources of information, the facts of your narrative change as well. We have some decent tools to guide our exploration of the past, so let’s start digging.

Further Readings/References:

The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606

Charters to Columbus and Walter Raleigh

The Dutch Path from Explorers to Monopolists

Rediker & Linebaugh. Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press. 2000.

Anthony Comegna:So far, we’ve established several working principles to guide our exploration of the past. Individual actions are motivated by perceived self-interest. When we shift our historical perspectives from one actor to another, we change the facts of the past as well. Both Marxism and classical liberalism are concerned with the social exercise of individual power and the resultant class [00:00:30] conflicts. Only individuals act, and our understanding of social units should build from individuals. Finally, conspiracies between individuals are fundamental to social experience. We have some decent tools in our grasp by now, so let’s start digging. This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of I’m Anthony Comegna.

[00:01:00] We’ll begin our pursuit of liberty and power with an overview of the state of the world around 1400. The year makes for a good benchmark standing, as it does, firmly within the late medieval period, but beckoning so obviously to the transformational century or two just ahead. In North and South America, trading networks linked peoples across the continents into a fantastically diverse, agriculturally [00:01:30] productive, culturally vibrant landscape. In 1492, the population within current US borders was roughly four to 12 million, and on both continents 40 to 120 million, which was about equal with Europe.

Plenty have wondered then, why did not the Indians put up a better fight or why did we not see Incan armadas bombarding the Spanish coast, unleashing wave after wave of galloping American knights? [00:02:00] Well, for one thing, they had nothing to gallop with. As biologist Jared Diamond famously argued, the Native Americans’ geographic isolation from the rest of the world prevented the diffusion of animal and plant species, as well as technology. Geography also prevented the American population from building immunity to a wide variety of diseases that Westerners carried with them across the ocean.

We’re often pushed to essentialize Native Americans as a single [00:02:30] cultural blob of new age metaphysical beliefs and religious practices, or as the unfortunate casualties of unstoppable modernization, but natives were in fact fantastically diverse in culture, political organization, philosophical and religious beliefs, and the practices of daily life. Native Americans did not live in some idealized harmony with nature —  this is a modern conception, imposed upon the past for our own [00:03:00] self-serving purposes in the present — nor did the natural world or the natural laws of technological progress ever condemned natives to extinction. That tragedy was, once again, a fact of history and human action, not nature and random circumstance. As we will see, however, indigenous societies continued to offer powerful sociocultural and political alternatives to the European empires.

In [00:03:30] Africa too many tens of millions clustered densely together in complex civilizations. These societies maintained vigorous links with one another, North to South across the Sahara Desert, and East to West by river and coastal trade. African kingdoms and empires were some of the most powerful, wealthy and highly educated in world history. Africans enjoyed relative isolation from the rest of Afro-Eurasia and enough contact to bring the benefits of cultural and biological diffusion. Great and [00:04:00] powerful empires set astride complex kin-based networks of village chieftains, only loosely connected through language and culture. Much like feudal Europe and Native America, Africa was an endlessly complicated patchwork of linguist, political and cultural groups often exercising interlocking and overlapping authority.

In Asia, the world’s largest populations crowded into the largest and most complicated cities. Ruling elites enjoyed [00:04:30] the planet’s richest trade routes, and luxuriated in a host of expensive and exotic goods. Before Western Europe shot so far ahead in economic productivity, East Asian total wealth towered above most other sectors of the human population. Even after the Mongol conquests and the black death, China’s Ming dynasty was strong enough to fund several exploratory and trading expeditions reaching all the way to coastal East Africa. Fearing the rise of a new [00:05:00] merchant capitalist class with power independent of the crown and preoccupied with military problems in Inter-Asia, the Yongle Emperor ceased the Zheng He voyages to maintain a continental focus. While China remained an expansionist imperial power of its own, perfectly capable of repelling European aggression for several centuries yet, the emperors never seriously reconsidered transoceanic state craft again.

In Europe, the late feudal [00:05:30] population was relatively small, having been devastated by the plague. They were relatively poor and relatively uneducated. Compared to their contemporaries in the Ottoman and Ming empires, which were probably the two strongest states of the period, 15th century Europeans lived rather sheltered in small lives. To most of the population, Europe was really nothing other than the same village they had always known and perhaps never left. The wealthy and urban populations [00:06:00] may have had a greater sense of the wider worlds. Hundreds of cities and statelets connected together through trade and during the high medieval period, wealth became heavily concentrated in a new mercantile class, but then the black death so depressed the supply of labor that wage rates spiked and aristocrats faced generational debt.

Couple that with the Ottoman consolidation of the near East into a single massive tariff wall and wealthy Europeans needed a way out of declining incomes. [00:06:30] In their search for a way out of stagnant feudalism, wealthy individuals channeled their investment into overseas trade and settlement. The landed gentry enclosed private and common fields alike over the centuries, and peasants now deprived of the ability to produce their own subsistence steadily learned to sell their labor for wages or clustered hopelessly in urban slums. The transition from feudalism to what we may call capitalism was a mucky, [00:07:00] murky, often nasty process, the benefits of which were very unevenly distributed, or too far in the future to be appreciated by actors at the time.

Feudalism is a society in which peasants cultivate lands for a lord or noble, providing production in exchange for food stores during famine, for example, and protection. Labor was a social obligation owed from one class to the other by virtue [00:07:30] of natural order. Capitalism, by contrast, is marked by the treatment of labor as a commodity and the dissolution of the old social bonds. Rather than the feudal model in which social bonds connect peasant and lord into a web of reciprocal obligations, the capitalist model is based on the productive capacity of each participant and a free and open market for that labor. No longer bound by the social obligations of the manor, laborers [00:08:00] in a capitalist society are free to seek those occupations which offer the highest returns for their labor inputs, and employers are free to hire and fire at will for whatever wage the market will bear. In the long run, the pay off and wealth produced is astounding.

In the short run, however, wage laborers were now entirely at the whims of the vast and swirling impersonal marketplace dominated by a class of industrial and imperial titans. Feudalism granted [00:08:30] to noblemen an almost endless list of rights and privileges, all of which had some theoretical relationship to his position as steward over the social hierarchy. To raise some quick funds, monarchs often offloaded these rights and privileges to others. Besides, being king or queen, like being president, is really, really hard. Everyone has so many expectations, all of which are impossible for a single will to satisfy. To avoid rebellion, revolution, tyrannicide, [00:09:00] court intrigue and any number of other potential pitfalls, monarchs granted away the burdens of rule to private enterprisers. For example, though he possessed sole mining rights, a king might grant certain wealthy and skilled subjects the authority to own and operate a mining corporation. The new institutions would be given a legal life bestowed with certain chunks of the monarch’s own body of special powers.

Ultimately, our modern concept and institution of the [00:09:30] corporation dates back to this very sort of privilege granting, and this fact is both tremendously important and overlooked in contemporary libertarian thinking. The corporate charter was supposed to be a clear delineation of the rights and privileges of specific individuals, especially empowered and privileged by the monarch to do business X, Y or Z, but in the context of new world discovery and settlement, corporations went well beyond the domestic tasks of mining, building [00:10:00] bridges, banking and the like. Companies of adventurers, investors, merchant explorers and settlers soon proliferated around the globe, each armed with a litany of legal powers once reserved to the monarch, now lovely distributed to his pets.

Corporations were, in effect, extensions of the royal body, and so free market capitalism, so called, has never really existed. What we call capitalism and portray with a [00:10:30] romantic, loving glow, was in fact brutish corporatism, a steadily intensifying merger of the state in private or local life. Overtime, the new class of corporate capitalists and the empires of which they were parts forcibly absorbed the process of economic and social production and reproduction, controlling the means by which people and societies could support themselves, grow and expand.

Take for example [00:11:00] Ferdinand and Isabella’s original charter to Columbus. The explorer Conquistador and his sailors would provide the skilled labor in exchange for the monarch’s backing. The rulers welcomed Columbus into their own social class, granting he and his descendants near absolute authority and ownership over vast portions of the New World. Don Columbus took to his new position well, immediately enslaving indigenous Tainos and acting as a vicious dictator over his new [00:11:30] lands. Or there’s the charter Elizabeth I granted to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584. Raleigh and his conspirators are not merely granted the right to explore, settle, conquer, subdue and rule in the Queen’s name, she actually commissions them as pirates against her own enemies. Business and statecraft blended together into a single institutional framework.

Or there was the extremely broad birth given to the proprietors of Virginia [00:12:00] in the colony’s first charter. King James grants the proprietors an absolutely mammoth portion of land considering the standard European plots at the time. Along with the land, they’re granted absolute rights over virtually everything there. In exchange for granting this small portion of his personal domain, James’ government will get a cut of the revenue and retain the absolute allegiance of all subjects in Virginia.

Speaker 2:The First [00:12:30] Charter of Virginia, April 10, 1606. “James, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and whereas our loving and well-disposed subjects, Sir Thorn as Gales, and Sir George Somers, Knights, Richard Hackluit, Clerk, Prebendary of Westminster, and Edward-Maria Wingfield, Thomas Hanharm and Ralegh Gilbert, Esquires William Parker, and George [00:13:00] Popham, Gentlemen, and divers others of our loving subjects, have been humble suitors unto us, that we would vouchsafe unto them our license to make habitation, plantation, and to deduce a colony of sundry of our people into that part of America commonly called Virginia, and other parts of territories in America, either appertaining unto us or which are not now actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.

[00:13:30] To that end, and for the more speedy accomplishment of their said intended plantation and habitation there, are desirous to defend themselves into two several colonies and companies; the one consisting of certain knights, gentlemen, merchants, and other adventurers, of our City of London and elsewhere, which are and from time to time shall be, joined unto them, which do desire to begin their plantation and habitation. And the other consisting of sundry [00:14:00] knights, gentlemen, merchants, and other adventurers, of our Cities of Bristol and Exeter, and of our Town of Plymouth, and of other places, which do join themselves unto that colony.

We, greatly commending, graciously accepting of, their Desires for the furtherance of so noble a work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the glory of his divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian religion [00:14:30] to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the infidels and savages, living in those parts, to human civility, and to a settled and quiet Government: do, by these our Letters Patents, graciously accept of, and agree to, their humble and well-intended Desires; and do therefore, for us, our heirs, and successors, [00:15:00] grant and agree, that the said Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, Richard Hackluit, and Edward-Maria Wingfield, adventurers of and for our City of London, and all such others, as are or shall be joined unto them of that Colony, shall be called the first Colony.

They shall and may begin their said first plantation and habitation at any place upon the said Coast of Virginia or America where they shall [00:15:30] think fit and convenient. That they shall have all the lands, woods, soil, grounds, havens, ports, rivers, mines, minerals, marshes, waters, fishings, commodities, and hereditaments, whatsoever, from the said first seat of their plantation and habitation by the space of fifty miles. We do likewise for the other second Colony, and that none of our subjects shall be permitted [00:16:00] or suffered to plant or inhabit behind, or on the back of them towards the main Land, without the express license or consent of the council of that colony, in writing thereunto first had and obtained.

We do also ordain, establish, and agree, for us, our heirs and successors, that each of the said Colonies shall have a Council of 13 members, which shall govern and order all matters and causes, and that also there shall be a council established here in England, [00:16:30] which shall in like manner consist of 13 persons, to be for that purpose appointed by us, our heirs and successors, which shall be called our Council of Virginia; and shall, from time to time, have the superior managing and direction, only of and for all Matters that shall or may concern the Government, as well of the said several Colonies, as of and for any other part or place within the aforesaid precincts.

Moreover, [00:17:00] we do grant and agree for us, our heirs and successors  that that the said several Councils of and for the said several Colonies shall and lawfully may, by virtue hereof, from time to time, without any interruption of us, our heirs or successors, give and take order, to dig, mine, and search for all manner of mines of gold, silver, and copper, as well within any part of their said [00:17:30] several Colonies, as of the said main Lands on the backside of the same Colonies; and to have and enjoy the gold, silver, and copper, to be gotten thereof, to the use and behoof of the same Colonies, and the plantations thereof. Yielding therefore to us, our heirs and successors, the fifth part only of all the same gold and silver, and the fifteenth part of all the same copper.

Every of them shall [00:18:00] and may have, take, and lead such and so many of our subjects as shall willingly accompany them or any of them in the said voyages and plantations. Also we do, for us, our heirs, and successors, declare by these presents, that all and every the persons being our subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and plantations, and every of their children, which shall [00:18:30] happen to be born within any of the limits and precincts of the said several colonies and plantations, shall have and enjoy all liberties, franchises, and immunities, within any of our other dominions, to all intents and purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our realm of England, or any other of our said dominions.

Anthony Comegna: Finally, the Dutch example is [00:19:00] illustrative and suggestive. During the same decades as England’s West Country men were establishing corporate capitalist, imperialist hells on earth, the Habsburg family territories in Northern Europe rebelled against their Spanish overlords. The Dutch tended to view Spain’s most Catholic King, Philip II, as a cruel outsider and an interloper in their comparatively liberal Protestant and modernizing society. Decades of rebellion produced [00:19:30] the new United Provinces of the Netherlands led by a merchant capitalist state’s general and powerful aristocrats.

The Dutch were relatively late to the empire game, but they took to it very well. Within just a few decades, the first Dutch chartered corporations went from relatively simple trading concerns, incentivized to explore and annex territory, to fully monopolized and militarized arms of statecraft. Within three generation of its existence, [00:20:00] the United Provinces was a global empire. There they were then, on the road from serfdom straight to corporatism, the bonds between lord and serf dissolved, replaced by the dubious exchange of temporary pay for temporary work; the unbreakable, unshakeable authority of the king doled out to moneyed interests and portioned between corporate creatures.

[00:20:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit