From Noble to Savage (Part II: Capitalism)

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For nearly 400 years the Renaissance and its progeny dominated Western thought. The movement had influenced nearly all of society by the time the rumblings of its own demise were first felt. The downfall for the culture came from the most unlikely of sources: the Scottish highland. These Scots, with their minds bent on getting back at the Britain who had stolen away their means of living, would ultimately subvert and change the entirety of Western culture.

Charles IIn the 50 years before 1688, unrest had taken hold of Britain. In 1641 the king, Charles I, was engaged in civil war against those who had sided with what he deemed an unfit parliament. To help pay for his war, Charles began to tax the country heavily. Scotland would end up taking the brunt of this taxation but for the most part it remained England’s ally. This was–at least, until Charles decided to unify all the churches throughout the kingdom. In doing so he alienated his chief tax source and forced them into the hands of the parliament sympathizers. Now Scotland too was thrust into its own set of civil wars between royalists and parliamentists. The wars dragged on until Charles’ execution in 1649, which placated both sides of the fight.

After Charles I’s death (and Oliver Cromwell’s pseudo-kingship), Charles I’s son, James II, took the throne in 1660. His reign would further lead the country into turmoil. James was a Catholic, and being part of the Roman faith in England at the time could spell disaster for a political career. Because of this, rumors abounded throughout his reign that he would turn the country back into a Catholic state. Rebellions broke out Beginning in 1685 that would bring about his quick spiral out of power. He decided that to combat the rising tensions and rumors, the best thing to do would be to raise a standing army. He did this, but he also gave the higher positions in the army to Catholics. The same happened within the governmental offices: they were filled mostly with Catholics. Parliament, taking the lessons learned from James’ father to heart, quickly conspired to hand over the country to a distant heir to the throne, William of Orange. In 1688 William arrived in London, and James fled fearing his own execution at the hands of Parliamentists. In the transition, though, no one was killed, earning it the title of the Bloodless Revolution.

John LockeMeanwhile, Scotland was still in chaos. What had once been a land rich with traditions and kinship ties was quickly turning into a den of money lenders. The old scotland was fast disappearing in the years after the Scottish Civil Wars. Family bonds and blood were no longer sufficient for the young men who wanted what they saw in the lands south of their border. The money in London would easily get them out of the family stone hut and into the swank city life. They began to take to heart the writings of John Locke, the father of capitalism. He proclaimed the ideas of private property, free trade, and common law (even to an extent that mortal law should supersede God). Even though Magna Carta had guaranteed the last in theory, Locke helped put it into practice. To this end many of the Scots began profiteering off of the English during the years leading up to 1688, and then off of other countries soon thereafter. No matter what they tried, however, they could not escape the enormous debt that Scotland had accumulated by not paying their taxes to England during the same period.

In the late 1690s, Scotland went from debt to dying. For several summers the sun refused to come out and the rain almost never stopped. In what became known only as the “ill years,” soil turned into an untenable slurry, crops failed, livestock got foot-rot, and the country was plunged into a famine. Over 5% of Scotland’s population died during this time. Its debt rising and its population falling, the Scots fell hook, line and sinker into becoming the catalyst for Locke’s vision of the power of money.

The Bay of DariénConfronted with the dwindling state of the economy, the Bank of Scotland was formed in 1695 to try and stabilize the fragile state of affairs. Soon thereafter the Company of Scotland was established to search for ways of rebuilding the capital the Scots had lost over the previous century. The solution that was devised in the end was to establish a colony in the New World in the name of the Scottish people. A hasty plan was put forth to send an expedition to the Isthmus of Panama in order to seed a new colony in the Bay of Darien. The idea was simple: A colony on the isthmus would be able to ferry goods overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific–a seventeenth century version of an overland Panama Canal. Within a few weeks of the plan’s development the Company of Scotland had over £400,000 of Scottish liquid capital at their disposal. And so, in July 1698, the first expedition set out to build for Scotland the financial strength it so desperately needed.

At first the expedition seemed to be going swimmingly. The five ships and their cargo of 1,200 settlers, along with crates full of combs, mirrors, and other trinkets to trade with the natives, made it to their destination within only five months. They landed at the preselected spot and christened it “New Caledonia.” However, it became evident before they ever set foot on land that their new home was not the golden paradise that had been promised in the sales pitch. Instead, they found themselves in a mosquito-infested swamp with infertile soil and apathetic natives. A fort went up nevertheless, but within months the death rate was reaching catastrophic levels. Ten people per day were dying by the time the settlement was officially abandoned in July of 1699 and left to be overrun by the jungle once more. Of the original 1,200 settlers only 300 remained alive.

The 1706 Act of UnionThe Darien disaster was more than just a bad business move, it devastated the Scottish economy beyond repair. A huge section of their capital was now gone, and their country was starving to death. It was, on the other hand, a great opportunity for England. After William’s death in 1702, his successor, Queen Anne, was losing control over the country. Rebel factions were beginning to make noise again. Her hold on the throne was dubious from the start, but without her ability to produce any heir (5 infant deaths, 13 miscarriages, and her only son dead at the age of 11), her grip was fast failing her. Faced with the total undoing of 1688, Anne decided to do the impossible: unify the kingdoms of England and Scotland. Seeing the disastrous effects of the Darien venture for the Scottish economy, Anne approached the Scottish aristocracy in private and asked them to consider consolidating their power with England. Not only would the Scots profit from the wonderful English economy, but additionally, England would reconcile Scotland’s debt of £400,000. In exchange, Scotland would need only to dissolve its parliament and swear loyalty to the throne. The Scots accepted the proposal. In 1706 the Act of Union solidified the Scottish and English countries into a single entity. The power of money had saved both countries.

The ideological impact of Lockean success in economic matters was enormous. The power of money and back-room deals was not lost on the philosophers at the time. Whereas before there was a royal will and a common will (or God’s will and man’s will), there now seemed to be something else that could undermine both. The will of man during the Renaissance was centered more upon the betterment of the state of a man’s mind or soul through self-works. While the methods often differed, be it math or art or something entirely different, the aim was the same: a noble pursuit of divinity without the direct intervention of the divine. However, now there was an extra variable added to the mix: capital. With money, or any other selfish influence, it was possible to undermine the will even of the royalty. A commoner with enough money or influence could sway the will of the king. This was a substantial break with the old view.

While the idea was not new (royalty often were paid off during the Renaissance), the concept had not yet seen a public use so blatant as the one used by Queen Anne. She had bought off a whole country. Its royalty, its banks, and its parliament had all bent under the weight of capital. While similar things had happened for centuries amongst monarchs, never had a private-sector company and a royal throne bent the whole political fabric so drastically. Now everyone was an equal in the eyes of the philosophers. All one had to have to be successful was money or something else of value to hold sway over the masses. After 1706 banks rose to great power, and trading companies sprang up all over Europe with the aim of making their investors very rich and very powerful. This idea was not limited to money. Ideas were capital in their own right. The great scientists of the time were idolized for their ground-breaking ideas and were given the same attention and respect normally reserved only for royalty. Philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume also had great capital in their vast experiences which led them to be revered even more than royalty (or the church for that matter) by the public.

Jean-Jacque RousseauIt was because of the the great triumph of capital over principle that brought about the Age of Enlightenment: The rejection of authority for authority’s sake and the replacement of authority with credentials. The philosopher Rousseau (often credited as being the father of the movement) would be heavily influenced by the new world of capitalism and greed and declare that man should now become a noble savage. He relegated man to being driven by his baser instincts and no longer bound by a fear of authority because he now had the means to defy it and return to a primitive innocence. He ascribed this drive of wanting to return to the true state of man, one of unfettered devotion to nature’s roots, to wanting to desiring perfection as natural, since nature seemed to want to move also in that direction. (Flowers, for example, were perfect and not corrupted by selfish desire). Thus he declared that man was only going through a stage of corruption to return to nature wherein he would be directed by his inner goodness that had been imparted to him by nature.

Another philosopher, David Hume, took this concept of rejection of authority a step further. Since he postulated that authority was now credential-based, the question arose as to what gives those with authority their credentials? To Hume, the answer was simple: experience. No longer would truth be vested in individuals because of any common belief system or decree, but instead truth only would originate from the experience of the authority figure. This meant that everything had to be questioned for its validity, beginning with asking why man exists to why God exists. Simple cause and effect were no longer sufficient for truth to be established. And thus by their way of thinking, everyone with enough reason and intelligence could become an authority on anything. With the Age of Enlightenment whole countries shifted focus. The American colonies, for example, no longer decided that the Crown was the authority on legal matters for their affairs. They had more respect for the authority of figures like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and even the League of the Iroquois (the kind of noble savages Rousseau wrote of) than they did for the throne of England, and the result tore the colonies away from their homeland.

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