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Stark’s argument fails on logical and stylistic grounds because its method of argumentation is thoroughly propagandistic. I’ll never forget something I learned from Doug Jones about the difference between persuasion and propaganda. All art (and he helped me understand that academic research is no different) is trying to tell a story in such a way as to win over its audience to a particular thesis. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the persuasion will fail if it tries to resort to propaganda. What’s the difference? In true persuasion, the story alternates between thesis and antithesis, presenting the author’s viewpoint and the alternatives, leaving you with the conclusion that the author’s viewpoint is basically true, although there is much to be said for the other side as well. In propaganda, the story advances one viewpoint only, the entire time, without any serious attention given to alternatives. This is certainly the way that Stark proceeds, which is particularly egregious given that it is not as if he were writing in a scholarly void. Rather, his narrative directly contrasts with Max Weber’s highly influential thesis about the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism. So you might expect that, Weber’s viewpoint being so influential, Stark would expend considerable effort in addressing and refuting it. Not so. Instead, he merely mentions it from time to time to pour scorn upon it, claiming to treat it as scarcely worthy of refutation. Given that giants in the field, like R.H. Tawney, have felt otherwise, this is hardly a credible or scholarly tack to take. Of course, this is not to say that Weber’s thesis does not have a number of problems and does not need a number of modifications (nearly all agree that it does), but that it still holds enough sway that it needs to be dealt with and not dismissed.

Unfortunately, this problem does not appear only vis-a-vis Weber, but all throughout, such as in his dismissal of positive assessments of the medieval guilds (“Fortunately, reality has set in and fantasies about guilds as engines of social justice have mostly run their course”) and of liberation theology (“By now, Liberation Theology is widely recognized as a naive clerical fantasy, although many academics refuse to concede the point”). This kind of drive-by-shooting-style criticism is unhelpful, uncharitable, and unscholarly--if you think some widely-held position is wrong, then show me why, don’t just mouth off.

Indeed, throughout the book, the evidential basis for the most significant parts of Stark’s argument was often extremely thin. This was disguised, of course, under a mountain of statistics and facts, which hid the paucity of definitions and logical connections. The method is a common one in more popular-level works masquerading as scholarship: the author trundles out mountains of evidence in defense of individual building blocks in his argument, in order to impress the reader with his erudition, all the while failing to provide much defense for the logical connections between these building blocks. The resulting structure has the illusion of solidity, but will collapse under any pressure of argument. My general impression in reading the book was long stretches of head nodding--“Yes, yes, I believe you there, but I could’ve gotten that from any number of sources; indeed, I already have”--punctuated my moments of frustrated bafflement at crucial junctures--“Wait, hang on a minute! Where’d you get that from? Could you defend this proposition a bit?”

Part of the problem here, of course, is one of definition, particularly concerning the term “capitalism.” Stark acknowledges that the definition of this term is very difficult and controversial, but then, without interacting with any of the standard definitions and debates, he just whips out his own definition, and then proceeds as if this definition were established and uncontroversial. The rest of his argument is based on this assumed definition, and unfortunately, can only succeed insofar as this definition is meaningful and helpful. I’m reminded of the standard illustration in philosophy about “grue” objects. If I were to assert “All grater is grue,” in which “grater” referred to all objects that were either grass or water, and “grue” referred to colors that were either green or blue, then my statement would be largely true, but the explanatory value of any statements built off of this “fact” would be very limited, since the concepts “grater” and “grue” were entirely of my own making, and of little interest to anyone else. I think that something similar may well be happening in this book. If Stark’s definition of capitalism encompasses fundamentally different phenomena (medieval commerce and modern industrial capitalism) under the same heading (“capitalism”) and then says “See, capitalism was around in the Middle Ages” then all he is doing is begging the question--capitalism was around in the Middle Ages because he has defined medieval commerce as capitalism.

Here is his definition: “Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated or actual returns.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, two problems, as far as I can see. First, in many ways, it seems to be too broad. Terms like “relatively well organized,” “stable” “complex,” “relatively free,” “long-term,” etc. are terribly vague. By this definition, capitalism is as old as civilization, and occurs whenever commerce is given time and space to flourish. Stark reserves a lot of criticism for the Roman Empire, arguing that such “capitalism” never really existed in Rome. But what about Athens, Carthage, or Tyre, the great trading and mercantile centers of the ancient Mediterranean before Rome? Certainly the Biblical description of Tyre sounds a lot like a “capitalist” economy. The particular ideology and set of practices and values underlying modern capitalism (the last 200 or 250 years) would seem to me to be much more specific than this general rosy sketch of free commerce. (The main distinctive, without going into it at length, is the isolation of economic rationality and economic practices as functioning according to their own rules and morality, independent of the rest of the social matrix--see The Great Transformation by Polanyi.)

The second problem is the anachronisms in this definition. First, what does Stark mean by “privately owned”? As opposed to “publicly held,” as in, held by the state? Given that “the state” itself is in many ways a modern invention, and that certainly the bifurcation of society into only two realms--“public” (state) and “private” (everything else)--is a modern invention, it seems ambiguous to discuss medieval economic enterprises under this rubric. This is particularly clear when Stark treats monastic communities as if they were modern private firms. Clearly, they were not; they occupied a position in the social sphere somewhere between our modern purely private institution, and our modern public governmental institution. I’m also suspicious of “hired workforce” after reading Hannah Arendt, who asserted that no such thing as “the working class” existed before the 18th century. Most labor functioned through an association of free or apprenticed artisans. I’m suspicious of Stark’s implicit portrait of a bunch of little medieval factories, consisting of the capital-owning manufacturers and their contracted laborers. Third, when he speaks of an “unregulated” market, he seems to envision the modern dispute over state-regulated or self-regulated markets. Of course there are other kinds of regulation that were pervasive in the Middle Ages, such as by “private” social institutions, like guilds, or by religious rules (like the Church’s rules for just price and against usury). Indeed, Stark seems aware of the potential rejoinder at this point, as he devotes a couple of pages at various points toward criticizing the former as a stubborn elitist holdout against capitalism, and toward minimizing the latter two as non-factors. The problem was, of course, that these couple pages were much too hasty to convincingly dispose of the obvious objections.

Of course, on each of these three possible anachronisms, I am open to being persuaded that I am wrong and Stark is right--these were truly “private firms” in basically our modern sense, there really was a “labor force” in basically our modern sense, and there really was non-regulation in basically our modern sense. But though I am open to being persuaded, I wasn’t, because Stark made almost no effort to persuade on these points--he simply asserted his definition, and then assumed it as accurate, relevant, and useful.

The other problem with Stark’s view of capitalism is his almost religious devotion to it. No doubt Christianity did contribute to the rise of capitalism, but Christianity also teaches the parable of the wheat and the tares--that as good grows and flourishes, evil grows up alongside it. And most sensible historians realize this too--any good historical movement is likely to generate many bad side effects. Stark, however, seems immune to this kind of common sense, speaking of capitalism in the same way that six-year-olds speak of cotton candy. Capitalism is always treated in the narrative as an unmitigated good, and everything that might hinder it is a villain in this story. Related to this is a fervent mammonolatry--Stark seems to think that as long as he shows an increase in material affluence (no matter what coincident increases their may be in vice or social disorder), he has depicted a rise from darkness into light.

His allegiance to capitalism is so absolute that he consistently holds up as models the “capitalist” Italian city-states, even when they were governed by deeply corrupt and brutal governments. As long as these governments helped encourage the free flow of wealth, he doesn’t seem to care too much about their other faults. For example, “Milan [was] vulnerable to autocrats able to impose civil order--especially members of the Sforza family, who rose to fame as mercenary soldiers (sforza is Italian for “force”). Fortunately for Milans economic affairs, the Sforzas were realists who understood finance, and during their rule they encouraged investments in manufacturing capacity and were friendly to commercial interests.”

This kind of bias is just bad history.


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