Turning points in the evolution of the liberal state

There has been long-term evolution of the forms of the state in the West, which can illustrate the importance of considering historical variation.

Long-distance trade in the Mediterranean

Prior to the participation of European city-states, there existed long-distance trade in the Mediterranean (Abu-Lughod 1989;Bisaha 2004;Bavel 2016).

Peasant mode of production

Prior to the rise of the market, the peasant model with family ownership of small plots and production for use was predominant throughout the world (Maier 2012). There is some debate about the timing of the rise of individual private property in England, whether in the thirteenth or the seventeenth century, and the rise of the “individual” as sole owner, with no obligation to heirs (Macfarlane 1978). The timing of the transition matters with respect to classic explanations of the rise of the market, as to whether individualism is the cause or the result, as argued by Marx, Weber, and Polanyi, among others.

The emergence of factor markets, first in land and the development of capitalist agriculture, were important turning points in the rise of individualism and the transition to capitalism (Brenner 2003; Allen 2009;Bavel 2016).

The notion of English exceptionalism has been attributed to its unique form of feudalism (Macfarlane 2002), its early unification, its position as an island separated from the continent, as well as Anglo-Saxon love of liberty (Rosenblatt 2018,253-259).


The first organized communities in the West after the fall of Rome had the form of the corporation, a collective with sworn allegiance by its members for mutual protection. The corporate form itself was an important means of organization in the medieval period (Black 1984; Ogilvie 2019).


The city-states had republican forms with collective decision-making, to which some attribute the rise of public debt (Stasavage 2003).

Competing forms in Europe

In the early modern period, there were several competing models of state, including city leagues like the Hanseatic League and small principalities in the Holy Roman Empire (Spruyt 1994;Poggi 1978).

The first “modern” economy was the Dutch Republic, the wealth of which was notable to visitors. It was an extension of the urbanization and commercial development which originated in Northern Italy from the fifteenth century and into the Low Countries and England. Among their notable innovations was long-term public debt available in secondary markets from the seventeenth century (Davids and Lucassen 1995, 1—25). The existence of markets for both commodities and factors of production, high agricultural productivity, an effective state protecting property rights, freedom of movement and contract, and attaining a high level of technology were considered other factors relevant to its “modernization.”The Dutch Republic was also highly urbanized, relatively tolerant of religious diversity, with a modern fiscal system and a comprehensive program of poor relief, all before the Industrial Revolution in England (de Vries and van derWoude 1997, 693, 711-718).

Pincus describes the Glorious Revolution 1688 in England as the first “modern" revolution, as a contest of competing visions of political economy, one based on finite land (Tory) and the other based on infinite productivity of labor in manufacturing (Whig), which he characterizes as a “bourgeois revolution” (Pincus 2009,483-486).The adoption of the Dutch model with the invasion of William of Orange enabled the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694 and the financial resilience for England’s ultimate victory in war with France. The competing visions of political economy facilitated the emergence of a modern bureaucratic state, rather than a traditional patrimonial one, and the ascendance of mercantile values.

There were frequent wars contesting the succession of the hereditary monarchies, according to maintaining the balance of power within Europe. After discoveries of the New World, there were also wars of colonial expansion and intense competition for trade (Cheney 2010). These continual and increasing costs may have increased pressure for revenue and for more efficient fiscal systems. These pressures led to the centrality of public finance, with tax collection bureaucracies and approval of public expenditures by representative bodies (Davis 2015, 128-129).

Pressures of trade, colonisation and mar

The importance of government bond holders in the mid-eighteenth century was important enough to merit the term “capitalist” (Sonenscher 2007, 2,74). Writing in 1752, Hume anticipated the problem of public debt used to finance war, and the risk to the population for taxes to support foreign ventures. The worry was that the requirement to secure public credit may reduce the capacity to address the “social question” of inequality. Such problems would face both republican and monarchical governments, and French theorists like Montesquieu and Abbe Sieyes sought to formulate a representative government to offset this risk (Sonenscher 2007, 4—5, 11, 41—67). Montesquieus recommendations included elected government, constitutional decision-making, and separation of powers, along with a tax system, public expenditures, and public debt. Whether these provisions would be sufficient without a strong moral foundation in the populace remained an important question (Sonenscher 2007, 56-57).

Eighteenth-century liberal revolutions

American Founders were familiar with liberal theorists like Locke and the “rights of free-born Englishmen,” as well as the structure of the British “constitution.”

According to Blaufarb (2016), the French Revolution of 1789 remade the system of property, what he called “the Great Demarcation .’’Theorists of the French Revolution drew upon the legacy of republican thought beginning in fifteenth-century Florence, and the property theorists of seventeenth-century England (Sonenscher 2007, 33-41, 2008; Pocock 1975; Soil 2014). The sansculottes, important supporters of the Revolution, believed in the dignity of labor, in contrast with privileged elites who did not work with their hands. They inspired concepts of complete unity of the nation, “one and indivisible,” based on equality. Rather than use Lockean rhetoric to represent property owners in government, the sans-culottes wished to represent labor directly rather than indirectly (Sewell 1980,109-113, 120-133).

Once the corporate bodies were declared illegal on August 4,1789, including guilds as well as nobility and the clergy, workers became individuals, bargaining directly with employers. Faced with the lack of support of the collective work forms of the ancien regime, workers became more conscious of their common experience as a class and began to develop new forms of worker organization (Sewell 1980,133—142,194—218).These new worker corporations, often using the same rhetoric and organizational practices as the guilds, were an important source of the Revolutions of 1848, which began in France and Italy (Sperber 2005). The worker organizations were like mini-republics, which saw themselves as the foundation of the nation, with labor as a universal principle (Sewell 1980, 277-284).The Revolutions in France of 1830 and 1848 were repressed with force and replaced with an emperor and a subsequent number of republics.

After the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the liberals sought to find a middle ground between the revolutionaries and the conservatives. Their support for property rights and limited suffrage was intended to enfranchise a propertied middle class to provide ballast among these conflicting pressures (Rosenblatt 2018,89-95,132-138).

Pressures of the labor movement

The 1848 revolutions occurred throughout Europe, and liberal ideas of individual and property rights challenged monarchies at the same time as warfare continued among these same states.

In Marx’s own writings, he mentions the variations of class during the midnineteenth century period, including factory workers, artisans, peasants, nobles, and the bourgeoisie. In the wave of unrest across continental Europe in this period, there were outbreaks including some or all of these constituencies. The period of the 1840s was characterized by increasing unrest due to poor harvests and inefficient economic infrastructure, as well as the mechanization of textile mills. In Silesia, the region of textile production, unrest, and poverty, Wilhelm Wolff produced a critical analysis that Marx himself admired (Clark 2006,450—458) (the person to whom Volume I of Capital was dedicated). The peasants were still the most numerous in this period (Sperber 2005, 5—20), but they did not yet form a class in terms of unity and self-consciousness, in Marx’s view (Tucker 1978,608).

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