May 23, 2009

Abraham Kuyper Neglected Titan


In these posts and particularly this one I have sought to show just how crucial Abraham Kuyper one time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party was to the development of Dutch Politics in the early 20th century. Among other things he founded it's first mass political party, pioneered popular politics founded the religious coalition that dominated Dutch politics for decades, split traditionalist Protestants, converted many of them to a more plural model of politics and massively weakened aristocrats within their ranks, introduced the modern Dutch school system and coalesced the entire system of "pillarisation” that dominated the Netherlands for many decades and still matters today. Indeed even the current Prime Minister of the Netherlands has talked about him very favourably as his political inspiration and stated he is a "Kuyperian heart and soul" - a rare feat for a political eighty years dead- I imagine for example Barack Obamaa and George Bush would be delilighted to get such an epitah from any head of government in a century.

It should be noted this only covers part of Kyper’s importance- he was hugely important outside domestic politics (to which he gave many other contributions I lack space to list- and many others I’m sure I’m ignorant of). For example in Foreign Policy he played a significant role strengthening the natural Dutch tendency to side with the Boers in the Boer War and lean (as a neutral) to Germany in World War 1. Theologically he was hugely important- his failed attempt to purge liberals who would not subscribe wholeheartedly to the Reformed confessions led him to lead a significant breakaway form the Dutch Reformed church and he latter organised a merger with latter sececessions to form the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands- a third force in the Dutch theological world. In a (very narrow and in the light of subsequent history slightly ironic) sense this may have been the first significant "fundamentalist" secession denomination. He led the first major secession break in protest at the modernism of the late 19th century on the grounds it was incompatible with the Reformed Faith and was supreme among clergymen in the creation of a new denomination formed of groups that papered over their huge differnces out of a common hostility to protestant liberalism

Kuyper was also a huge influence on Princeton Theological Seminary which ended up being crucial to the first significant American Fundamentalist (so defined) denomination the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. To this day he is a big influence on some of the more intellectual sections of American Evangelicalism including (but not confined to)the "religious right". At the same some of his views such as Presumptive regeneration and his rejection of a sharp notion of "infelicity" of scripture laid the foundations for some more liberal types of Christianity!

Nor did this exhaust Kuyper's titanic contributions. He was also one of the foremost writers of his age- even being on a committee concerning the Dutch language! He founded (as part of his religious work essentially ) the Free University of Amsterdam as an alternative to secularising universities - to this day it is one of the Netherlands a leading university. In its early days it was the subject of strong persecution and attempts to exclude it’s graduates from government jobs-but he grew so mighty that he was able to overturn and overule this.

So in politics, in theology in the Dutch language even in the history of academia he was a true Titan who played a transformative and giant activity In British terms he was like a combination of William Gladstone, Robert Cecil (3rd Marquis of Salisbury) Thomas Chalmers, John Stuart Mill, John Henry Newman, Ashley Cooper 7th Marquis of Shaftesbury, and Bishop John C Ryle all rolled into one!

And yet my suspicion is that even the extremely well educated average reader of this blog would never have heard of him- and as I said it's incredibly difficult to find good works in English on him or his activists. Why is this -and what does this illustrate about the nature of current Historiography?

I thick by far the most important reason is that he was after all Dutch. This is partly a strong (and in a sense) justified bias against small countries- though the Netherlands dwarfs Ireland Demographically. More problematically I think this is due to the linguistic barrier. Dutch is a language very few Dutch people know partly because of its small demographic base and partly due to the proflicany y of the Dutch in foreign languages in part due to the excellent education system Kuyper did so much to shape. . If Kyper had been Prime Minister of Canada- a less historically significant country at least in that era I suspect he'd been much better known to Anglo-Saxon historians.

But I don't think that bad reason is the only one. Partly this is due to neglect of or contempt of religion's importance for history in general -and particularly late 19th and 20th century politic. This is the dead hand of the "secularisation thesis"- that society naturally follows a development where organised religions and traditional orthodox ideas gradually dimities in their hold. Kuyper is an enormous embarrassment for such theories and so like many such is politely ignored.

One should add that the changes of the Netherlands over the last few decades in the direction of secularisation and sexual liberalism (both generally exaggerated by outsiders but still very real) add to amnesia about it's interesting past.

Another is increasingly specialisation in the type of history people do. Kyper's contributions cross an incredible number of fields including electoral politics, political ideology, theological history, diplomatic history and educational. To sum up his contributions would require incredible breadth in terms of our modern historical discipline - a Gibbon is rare indeed among modern historians.

Still in however small a way I hope I have shown the enormous importance and achievements of this now obscure figure. Like or loathes his achievements he did “great things” in the true sense of the term.

May 22, 2009

Pilarisation and Power


So how did this system of "pillars" or Spheres" Kuyper helped build work?

The fundamental factor to realise is that this is not just about something that affects the political-it's about something that affects every course of life. Kryper's and his associates theory of Sphere sovereignty both reflected and shaped this. ON the one hand it was (at least in one sense) just a good description of Dutch life- secularism (increasingly the secular labour based sub culture), Catholicism and Reformed traditionalism (itself like secularism increasingly divided) decisively shaped peoples entire way of life in every detail from leisure time to sexual views to attitudes to foreign peoples-there was in Holland no general "sphere" of values -though no doubt Kryper wished there was . The tendency of western nations in general to adopt such tendencies in the early 20th century is often underrated-it is often used to understand the politics of Germany for example though it's often disputed how the divisions should be seen Protestant, Catholic, Social Democratic or National, catholic and Social Democratic for example. It strikes me such an informal pillarisation can actually work quite well to understand lands Like the UK, the United States or Spain it is not really used for as well.

AT the same the power of Sphere Sovereignty and it's increasing domination as an ideology in the early 20th Century Netherlands was to make this even more a reality than it was when Kryper began his carer-and make the Netherlands the paradigm of such. For one thing government funding was divided between intuitions both formally and informally. This was not just true of education but was true for example of administrative jobs and government appointments. So pervasive was this system of deals that in the late twentieth century it was even true of many major Dutch corporations-who for example often deliberately split senior positions between Catholics and Protestants.

What affected the ability? One was the cohesiveness of the different pillars-that is however strong a system of pillarisation was as it obviously varied from pillar to pillar-how much people really identified with a pillar rather than broader society, how much the party could rely on its support base come hell or high water. of the different pillars Catholics, Protestants, socialist and liberal I would say that the Catholics probably had the strongest pillar in this regard- the amazing strength of all catholic institutions in the Netherlands into the 1960's is amazing to behold. Conversely the liberals were almost certainly the weakest. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this was they lacked former intuitions outside the party-they tended to be close for example to the main business confederation but there was no formal ties the way there was between the ARP and major protestant papers. The result was the liberals having been the dominant tendency into the early 20th century withered away over the 20th century. It was only when Pillarisation really took knocks in the 1960's that they made a revival. Nor is this just psychological information of interest only to political anoraks. The values of the liberal party were in constant decline for the decades after the turn of the century. For the first few decades secularism was gradually marginalised in Dutch public life- so much so the labour party and even more avidly the liberals themselves formally disowned it. Particularly by the mid 20th century free capitalism was also on the back foot in Holland- as the welfare state and to some degree others form of government intervention grew sharply. It's not a coincidence that the collapse of pillarisation saw the reversal of such trends.

Another important factor was the attitudes of the different blocks to each other. NO matter how strong a block was given all were far off a majority the attitudes of other pillars was crucial to public policy. So the Catholic party was one of the two largest parties consistently from the first world war to the 1960'#s and in government consistently-but was unable to liberalise processions through the countryside in the face of the united opposition of the protestant" majority. This was why Kryper and even after his death his Anti-Revolutionary Party were so crucial-and so powerful at driving the agenda in the early 20th century. This dominance was not just over the blocks but also over the Christian Historicists, the more establishment, aristocratic, and theocratic alternative from within his own block.

Essentially every other block preferred the ARP to the alternatives. The Seacoasts preferred them to the alien and papal linked Catholics and to the hopelessly bourgeois Liberals (and initially the more aristocratic Christian Historicists). The Catholics preferred them to the hostility of the secular parties and the more theocratic Christian historians. The liberals preferred them to the "superstitious" "backward" and "alien" Catholics and to the terrifying Socialists (at least once the Socialists were a powerful enough force). The Christen historicist’s unsurprinsgly preferred their fellow conservative Protestants to the rest of the political spectrum. At the same time Catholic and Secularists alike preferred tee more Pluralistic ARP to the notion of a party that wished to restore their status to the traditional marginal one- one tolerant for the early modern era it should be noted but not tolerant ) . Thus the ARP was the fulcrum party. Even post war this endured to some degree and gave the ARP an influence out of proportion to their number. In the interwar period they essentially set the governing agenda of the Netherlands. The importance of these factors is well illustrated by Vilno in this typically excellent post.

The image above is that of the symbol of the Netherlands-the royal crest. In the early 20th century the continuing dominance of a monarchist, conservative Protestant house as the supreme symbol of the nation well illustrated the continued dominance of the Protestant side of the Netherlands through their well built ideological hegemony.

May 19, 2009

Abraham Kupyer and the transformation of Dutch Politics



As this previous post has shown Dutch Politics in the 1870's was loosely divided between the "throne and altar" classic 19th century conservatives (though given they Calvinists it might be better called throne and pulpit) based on traditional protestant elites and the dominant secularizing and reforming liberals based on secularizing and Catholic elites. This changed out of all recognition in the late 19th and early 20th century-and the path that as followed was very sharply different from the extremely similar society of Germany. I submit that Abraham Kuyper played a key and unequalled role in shaping this transformation.

Firstly he created a modern mass party. The Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) founded by him in 1879 became essentially the first proper mass party in Holland. Candidates were mostly decided centrally it had a mass membership and organized support on a mass scale with a centrally decided programme and ideology. The infrastructure and approach was increasingly populist- rather than based on the support and local networks of traditionalist aristocrats and clergyman (in sharp contrast to the Conservatives) to us this sounds obvious but in the Dutch Politics of the era it was a revolution. There is a decent case the first non Catholic non Social Democratic party in Germany (ie the first to appeal to a near majority of the pop ululation) to do this was the Nazis. To the party that would pioneer this approach enormous electoral strength was on offer to take another example arguably the early success of the US democrats owed something to such innovation. At the same time the increasing centralization and populism of -the ARP were behind in part nearly all the numerous breakaways form the ARP in its early period. Many leading ARP's rejected the notion of a central party -a clash that looms large in the politics of many states in the period. Thus paradoxically Creeper’s ARP served both to mobilize and unite traditionalist Protestants-and to split them

Secondly he reshaped the religious cleavages of Dutch Politics an effort over decades before even the formation of the ARP. While previous conservative politicians had sought to appeal to relatively sympathetic Protestant liberals he sought to realign the whole political spectrum by forming an alliance with Catholics who also opposed late 19th century secularization particularly but by no means exclusively in the schools. This meant a willingness to reverse a previous insistence on education in the state church and to at least downplay the previous hostility to legalization of Catholic bishoprics. The rewards were immense a new Catholic party could be formed which rapidly became one of the largest part. In the era before World War 1 (when Holland had a First Past the Post election system) this also meant in the religiously mixed cities catholic votes could be available to the ARP. A silent religious minority in cities. This alliance has to represent one of the most extraordinarily successful in western history. Marginalized at first by the early 20th century this alliance was alternating in power with the liberals. In the interwar period it had a permant parliamentary majority and was the governing force-only divisions within it temporarily cracked it and the oppostion only mattere for policy insofar as they could exploit . They had some sucess with anti-Catholicism in the 1920's and deficit spending and a reflationary currency in the late 1930's ( in the latter case it was of course onl the Social Democrats-by that point by far the largest of the secular parties.But It was not till post war that the coalition ceased and not till the 1960's that the votes for religious parties fell below half the vote (withal consequent)

Thirdly and in part in order to justify this new alliance Kuyper helped develop a new ideology of "spheres" in place of the old idea of a Confessional State in every walk of life it was now to be accepted that every religious and philosophical tradition had a right to organize itself-including in accessing the state such as educational funds. To this day this guarantee remains in the Dutch Constriction and means the supposedly arch secular Netherlands has the largest percentage of Children at religious schools in Protestant Europe. The sphere concept perhaps even more than his party innovations coalesced a group of more conservative dissenters who ultimately united in the Christian Historical party.

Fourthly partly motivated by a belief in the Piety of the electorate and partly by principle (ideally Kuyper believed in householder franch8ise) Kuyper pushed for extensions of the franchise culminating in the extension to universal adult suffrage immediately after World War 1. Indeed a party broke away from the ARP in protest at the extension to women-this party still opposes female suffrage and exists in the Dutch parliament to this day.

Now obviously just about all these developments had roots in what had already happened - the coalition of secularists and Catholics was an inherently unstable one for example and the franchise was being extended across Europe in this period particularly in the wake of World War 1. But I submit Kuyper was crucial in shaping the result. Christian parties pioneered populist policies. The result was that by the interwar period the drift to secularization had ended and the Netherlands was a fairly stable though deeply divided liberal democracy. It had universal suffrage and a government whose governing ideology put huge limits on the role of the state in the economy and Society. The example of Germany shows that this was not some inevitable result of history but owed a lot to human agency. And the most important agent here was Kuyper. His example also is a warning about certian assumptons historians of the last 200 years are vulnerable to. In particular the notion of increasing secularisation, or the more generally telogical that trends will continue. In the Netherlands by contrast so powerfull was the religous revivial that in the post war era both the Social Democrats (by no coincidance now reborn as Labour instead despite being the result of a merger wtih two very small parties) and even more the libeals did their best to distance themsleves from their secular roots-reluctantly coming to terms with Kryper and the ARP's enormous legacy.


The picture above shows the ARP (n a poster of 1946) as it saw itself fighting the principles of the French Revolution (whether in liberal or Socialist guise) on behalf of Protestantism and Christianity.

Holland and Germany the mystery of separate paths


Before writing this article I want to emphasize I am very far from an expert in the politics of this period (in large part due to the lack of good English language material) and would love to hear from anyone who knows more in the comments adding and / or correcting!

These cleavages in turn led to the development of mighty parties in fact of the five powerful parties in The Netherlands by the 1930's each so the Social Democratic party was both secular, anti-theocratic and based on the working class the Christian Historical Party religious, theocratic and with a mixed class identify but generally very hostile to anything that invoked socialism. But perhaps the most obvious question is why did The Netherlands Develop the way it did? In many ways for example The Netherlands was very like German. Germany had its own version of pilarization, a division between a Marxist and labor based party and those parties which were anything but, vicious anti socialist and strongly secular liberals, a powerful Catholic minority and a dominant Protestant culture itself divided by class and attitude secularization.

And yet by the 1930’s the politics could scarcely have been more different save in both social democracy was opposed by a majority. An anti socialist and anti-secularist right wing coalition accepting liberal democracy committed to the gold standard to a degree that would have made Gladstone or McKinley proud dominated interwar The Netherlands. Germany on the other hand over this period was rapidly taken over d by a secularist, extremely anti social democratic, anti-Catholic , anti-democratic rabidly nationalist party which pursed unorthodox economic policies and crushed liberal Democracy altogether. This was despite the fact a Christian Democratic party (uniting religious traditionalists both Catholic and Protestant) did very well in post war Germany.
Now the explanation is obviously complex. Size obviously made European wide domination realistic for Germany in a way it was not -and it's obviously rather hard to have an ideology of Dutch Anschluss or European domination. Certain Contingent events also matter a great deal- the appeal of the Nazis is just not understandable without world I.

However I would like to submit at least a great deal of the story should be traced to one amazing man Abraham Crupper-and his few close allies and influences. Kuyper essentially created modern Dutch Politics-and not just because he did as much as anyone to create universal suffrage. I hope to illustrate some of this way latter and the significance in comparing Germany and the Netherlands.

In the 1870's Kipper as prominent conservative minister of first the established church then haw own denomination ) burst upon the Dutch political scheme it was as the leader of the opposition to secularizing the school system in The Netherlands. The Netherlands had a political status quo that had more or less endured the previous decades- a dominant and loosely organized liberals were opposed by a marginalized conservative party. The former were for a relatively extended franchise, for growing secularism and reducing the power of the aristocracy and the monarchy. The latter were against these changes-and indeed wished to reverse much or all of what had been done. The demographics of even the partial electorate. An increasingly secularized middle class naturally supported the liberals (maybe more than the Dutch would in general). Moreover the Catholics who overwhelmingly dominated the South by default strongly supported the liberals. The Netherlands had had a rather tolerant confessional state post reformation as these states go-but even so Catholics preferred to support a secularizing party than return to the status of being outside the political community altogether.

It's worth noting that this represented one difference from what was already occurring in Germany by this point. In Germany the Kulturmfampf launched by Bismarck in the early 1870's had polarized the system against Catholics-not conservative Protestants. In this alliance moreover the liberals had been integrated-indeed were central to it with somewhat more reluctant support from conservative protestants. Thus for all the similarities between Germany and The Netherlands in Sectarian politics- the initial alliances were fatefully different.

Dutch politics were to be transformed almost out of recognition over the next few decades -and in ways that were very different from Germany's. The picture above shows Kuyper the man who more than anyone did this transformation.

The Netherlands divided


The Netherlands is not usually considered as having an exciting politics. Nor is it regarded as a stronghold of religious conservatism at least in recent centuries. But the Netherlands in the early 20th century was all these things and more it was divided by deep political cleavages- cleavages as deep and vicious as the cleavages that divided Conservative and Labour in the 1980's. Indeed I would argue they were fundamentally greater. For they were not simply differences in polic and voting (though they were that) but differences in people's entire mode of existence.

The First of these cleavages was class –like just about every European country. By World War 1 there was a vigorous Labour party in Holland. it mobilized workers and others ( some of the earliest gains were among poor fishermen in the North of Holland) behind such issues as an expanded welfare , legal rights and protections for trade union . AT the same time the power of working class was not confined to the Labour party- the religious parties had many working class voters and many voters’ sympathetic to at least some of labor’s leftwing economic agenda (this was particularly true of Catholics). Vicious strike battles were routine in early 20th century Holland and the entire country was divided on the basis of Class. Examples of the policy issues fought on class lines and identify were the laws affecting unions.


The second was arguably more important and was that between the secular (including many praticising liberal Christians) and the pious) and the pious. IN many ways modern Dutch politics was born in the late 19th century in the fight over the attempts to secularize the schools .This caused an alliance of disparate Christian religious and political traditions to oppose-this a fight they essentially won by the early 20th century but the battle over the degree of secularism in the public sphere and the degree of latitude and influence for orthodox/ "conservative" religous very much remained. An example of issues were such issues were important were divorce and schooling. The secularism and even atheist Marxism of the early Dutch Labour Party (very unlike the British of the era) was enormously alienating to the Catholic Church .. As late as the 1950's the Catholic Church excommunicated people for subscribing to the Dutch labour party's newspaper!

The third was the Catholic Protestant division in many ways the most profound of all and certainly the oldest. Importantly was in nearly all cases a very clear division while class divisions and secularism were more matters of degree and thus the separation of matters of life like church attendance or marriage practices was sharper for sectarian divides than the other. Two other aspects of the Catholic Protestant division were very important. Firstly the two groups were very geographically divided the south (whcih had been under ardently Catholic Hapsburg rule longer) was overwhelmingly catholic the north and center of the state Protestant. Secondly the default mode of Dutch politics and society was Protestant (though often not the majority of churchgoers) , the majority of the public identified as such, the monarchy was Protestant and so forth. This meant the huge number of secularist politicians (even atheist) were effectively Protestant secularists. An example of issues where Catholic Protestant divides were important was the right of Catholic religious processions to March in public and the recognition of the Vatican (a massive issue in 1920's Dutch politics)

The Fourth was between the Protestant state Church and the breakaway Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. The division was ultimately about whether a denomination could include “heretical” protestant Christians for example those who denied biblical miracles. The latter left the former over this issues. It should be noted the state church included many who were strongly conservative in personal faith and even many who wished to exclude liberals-but did not wish to leave their denomination over the issues preferring to work from within. In a sense this social cleavage was between separatist and anti-separatist christians. No single political issue necessarily correlated with these divisions but one important one was to be the theology and politics of "sphere Sovereignty" which sought a third way between governments imposed secularism and government imposed theocracy supported by many establishment Christians.

All these cleavages helped shape the "pillars" of Dutch society. All were linked to sharp political divisions but it is important to realize that they went well beyond that- even people not at all interested in politics were intimately affected by them. They affected how they worshipped, which schools they went to , which newspapers they reads who they married in short nearly all aspects of everyday life. This led to parties much more deeply rooted and distinct than in just about any Anglo-Saxon Democracy.

May 18, 2009

The Loneliness of the long distance Penguin: or Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World


Penguins go from their colonies to the sea and back again- there are a small minority however that get disorientated (or in Werner Herzog's words- deranged) and head into the distant land of Antarctica- lost on their way to certain death. These Kinski-Penguins are symbolic in a sense of Herzog's entire documentary about Antarctica- Encounters at the end of the World- they symbolise a disdain for the collective and a desire to acheive something that may not be rational but is motivated by the essense of the individualistic penguin. This documentary is about individuals whether human or bird and their quixotic and important journeys to the edges of reality: what Herzog suggests is that in these journeys into the centre of the icy continent we can find truths that may not yield themselves to us who live on the outside. He finds a generation there of misfits and never fitted in at alls- explorers who feel that their lives are ones of perpetual movement- scientists devoted in monkish splendour to the cathedral of nature and the scholastic fervour of observation.

What Herzog has here is cinematic gold. There are some amazing shots from underneath the ice- looking at the animals that dwell deep in the recesses of the earth- scarcely less beautiful are shots that go into the ice, into caverns in the mountains of antarctica where stalagtites and stalagmites hang down perfectly moulded by aeons of melting. The human interviews are as impressive- a woman who travelled through South America in a sewage pipe, a man who fled the iron curtain to come to Antarctica and travels with a canoe in his rucksack- the tale of such encounters is long and important. What Herzog can find here is incidents which are amusing and interesting- when you hear a physicist discuss neutrinos or a biologist hypothesize about the reasons that human beings left the oceans and took foot upon the land, developed from the single cell to the complex large organisms that we are or when you see the ice break down and slowly move north, bringing with it inexorable disaster to mankind, you cannot but be fascinated- and anyone who isn't is dumb to the world and insensible to its wonders.

Of course to make a film which includes such wonders is inevitable if you go to antarctica- it is whether you can weave those wonders into a whole which demonstrate your skill as a director. It is the weaving of your story that demonstrates your skill with a thread. Ultimately Herzog succeeds in this- less because his film has an obvious beggining or end (these are encounters literally and metaphorically with antarctica) than because his film has an argument. His ordering of the material does not tell a story but it tells a syntactical statement- it says something. Herzog is famous of course for believing that the universe is an orderless chaos: he regrets the passing of the blank spaces on maps- marked by here be dragons- and the ceasing of romance- he laments the passing of languages for example. But he is atuned to the fascination of science and the fascination of discovery- the scientists in this film come across as quirky but ultimately amazing people- modern saints who sacrafice their own lives possibly in the quest for truth. Herzog conveys a reality that he perceives- the reality is both depressing and ultimately as optimistic as it gets: the struggle may be pointless and end in futility (the film is filled with a sense of the mortality of the human race) but at some other level it makes sense.

Think of the penguin- our little friend marching into the vastness of antarctica, certain of death. At one level that penguin is a metaphor for us all: we are marching into oblivion. And yet on the other hand it does not matter- for the penguin has decided that oblivion shall not confine it- it shall make its own decisions no matter whether others try to redirect it. It has a radical freedom. Furthermore its struggle means something as it means something to it- why Herzog asks- why we all ask of our own lives- but they mean something, our struggles towards abstract principles mean something because the universe only means something so far as we make it mean something. That is what one of Herzog's interviewees says- he tells us that the universe only dreams through our dreams and that is as accurate as it gets. Living in a world of futility, we create meaning. Herzog himself- the good soldier of cinema- creates a meaning for his own life. Placing a sturgeon under the south pole means nothing objectively and is totally pointless, but from our subjective point of view it means something vital: as the view from nowhere is impossible and leads to a perception of absolute futility, then the view from somewhere is important. The grace of Herzog's vision is that he is able to see both the futility and the majesty- both the nowhere and the somewhere. Herzog thinks the penguin is absurd and deranged- but respects its derangement.

Deranged or not, this is a master class of cinema. Herzog is an acquired taste and his documentary is a very individualistic and philosophical piece of work, but if you can understand his ever present irony and appreciate his humour, then this is a film you must see. I have not captured the half of it- there is so much more- indeed so much so that I'm just going to go to Amazon and buy this film so that I get the first copy when it comes out as a DVD.

May 17, 2009

Economics and Politics

One of the constants of Roman politics according to Livy was the conflict between the Plebeian and Patrician groupings. These groups must have varied across time in their composition- but internal dissention was definitely an element of Roman politics that persisted until the end of the Republic. The fundamental causes of that dissention remained various- they ranged from the possession of various offices to the conduct of military campaigns. Livy's account of the dissention of the 350s allows us to see a history of dispute over debt- and reading into it an interesting expedient which demonstrates how far the patricians at this period controlled the state and used it for their own ends. It is worth reading through Livy's account here and not just reading what he says- the historian supplies us with a broken and sporadic account of matters which when brought together have a different appearance.

What I am going to do is to provide you now with a list of events as Livy lays them out and then discuss them later. In 358BC the people's tribune Gaius Poetelius put a law against bribery to the people which was approved 'as authorised by the Senate'. (VII 15) In 357 and 'less welcome to the senate' the people's tribunes passed a proposal that limited the rate of interest to 1/12 (Livy does not mention a period in which interest might accrue) and the 'people voted for this with even greater enthusiasm than for the other proposal' (VII 16). In the same year one of the consuls, Gaius Marcius, got a law passed by holding an assembly in his camp, a precedent which 'disturbed' the tribunes for they worried about what soldiers might agree to when constrained by a military oath (VII 16). The next few years see arguments about whether a plebeian should be allowed to be consul (VII 17). Livy though also mentions that 'at home the Roman plebs was less fortunate than in war. Although usury had been reduced by the fixing of the rate of interest at one twelfth, the indigent still found the capital sum borrowed a crushing burden which led to their enslavement for debt.' (VII 19) The next year, dissension in Rome including 'public brawls' led to a 'general inclination for peace' which produced a plebeian and patrician consul who found a temporary solution to the crisis of debt. They proposed that 'where accounts were long standing and obstructed more by debtors' inertia than by their lack of means, either they were repaid from the Treasury from banking tables with ready cash set up in the Forum, after first safe guarding the interests of the people, or they were settled by a valuation at fair prices of the debtor's property. The crushing burden of debt was swept away not only without injustice but also without complaint from either party'. (VII 22)

I have constructed this narrative out of Livy: he does not place these entries together but intersperces them with an account of Rome's military campaigns. What we have here though are two concurrently running political crises which I think are worth analysing- both bear testament to the rising costs of living within Rome and to a state imposed solution which we will turn to in the next paragraph. On the one hand we have the measure about bribery. Before this point for ten years the consuls had been patrician- I would suggest, though Livy gives me no warrent to do so, that one of the consequences of the banning of bribery was that the patricians steadily lost control over the popular assembly. Hence expedients like passing laws in the camp were tried. It is perhaps worth asking why the senate therefore was so keen on banning bribery- oncemore we might make a conjecture that the cost of the bribes was exceeding the wealth of the senate. Let us pass to the other story here which is about debt- the loss of bribes may have hurt the plebs, so consequently in 357 they get a diminished rate of interest. However even that will not suffice to help them because it is not merely the interest payments but the quantity of the debt as a capital sum that weighs them down (and hence inevitably large interest payments). So we have on their side an insolvency problem- that leads to rioting but also to a worry that the patricians will not recover their debt.

Livy allows us to think that the settlement was a settlement which all would agree to- but my reading of what he tells us was settled is different. Essentially what Livy tells us was the settlement safeguarded the interests of the debt collector but not of the debtor. There are two measures he mentions contained within his settlement: the first is that the state undertakes to bear the risk of bad debts, the second is that the debtor's property is securely valued (possibly for confiscation!) and redeemable against the debt. The first measure guarentees the debt collector his funds- at the expense of the general public. The second measure guarentees the debt collector his funds so long as the indebted person has assets against which those funds can be redeemed. What Livy is telling us about is therefore a solution which would solve a crisis for the capital rich yet not for those who are borrowing the capital- this solves the crisis that the bribery measure was designed to solve- a crisis of wealth in the senate not in the plebeian population.

One should think of Roman politics at this point as a struggle to find a shifting point of stability in a conflict between classes or orders within the regime. What I would suggest is a slightly different interpretation to a naive reading of Livy: one has to remember that there were rich plebeians as well as poor plebeians. What the dispositions of the reforms which contented everyone (according to Livy) did were to open offices to the rich plebeians and to guarentee the senate's debts from the poorest plebeians- in a sense we should read this as a compromise not between the senate and the people but between the rich that were senators and the rich that were not. In reality the story that Livy tells is a conflict between two groups- one of which could always play the card of plebeian solidarity and rouse the passions of those outside politics, the other used briberty to get its way- at this point in Rome's history, debt, bribery and the issue of the plebeian consuls came together. The new point of stability was where bribery was banned, debt guarenteed by the state and the plebeian consulate resumed: of course with a changing economic situation, the kaleidescope might be shaken again and we should remember when thinking about Rome and Livy's history of it that the stability was always a fragile one.