Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Imperialism, capitalist & feudal: the case of Philip II

A few months back, I was defending the Brenner thesis about the transition to capitalism in Europe. Louis Proyect took issue with my citation of Spain as a feudal, rather than capitalist power. Citing ferocious labour discipline that went with the form of hyper-exploitation deployed by the Spanish in the New World, various modes of manufacture in the colonies and Blaut's claims about the relationship between colonial exploitation and the development of capital, Louis defended the outlook of the dependency theorists. My response was that, even if they told in favour of his view, the episodes cited by Louis fell outside the period covered by my claim (actually, Wood's claim) - that is, some centuries after the transition began. Still, that wasn't particularly satisfactory, or not to me.

So, I thought a quick look at Philip II's imperialism and his relationship to the two areas that Brenner considers were capitalist by the late sixteenth century - England and the Dutch Provinces - was called for. (It's one of those posts with references and page numbers again.) It's safe to say that the Spanish Empire ran into serious problems under Philip II, and arguably entered its period of terminal decline shortly before his death. There's a theory offered to explain this, perhaps informed by contemporary political considerations, that Philip II's regime can be characterised - as Bush's is by some opponents - as a "theocon" regime, in which domestic and foreign policy decisions were subordinate to Philip's devout Catholicism. The Spanish Empire under Philip II is described by Geoffrey Parker as one driven by “messianic imperialism”, in which Philip identified his interests with those of God (as interpreted by religious potentates), in which one of his most “cherished dreams” was to Catholicise his dominions, and in which rational calculations of strategic advantage therefore broke upon “rocks of intransigence” supplied by religious conviction. (Parker, 1995; Parker, 1978: 96). Philip, who was made monarch of Portugal (and therefore of its colonies) bearing medallions reading 'Orbis Non Sufficit' (The World Is Not Enough) was therefore a hubristic and irrational ruler. I don't care much for that - while theological considerations possessed their own weight, they were usually subordinate to the concerns of politico-military rule and a distinctly feudal class structure, which is the root and cause of the decline. Of course religion was a powerful animating force, a form of material power embodied in both secular and religious institutions, and also a crucial mode of legitimacy for most European rulers. But while inspection doesn't really support the "theocon" thesis, it does show how the specifically feudal imperatives of growth by territorial expansion, rent, enslavement and taxation, (rather than improved productivity) intersected with religious power.

Dispersed territories, debt, and God
The state of affairs inherited by Philip II when he succeeded Charles V in 1556 was characterised by an expansive empire, which permitted strong export-led growth in the urban textile economy. (Harman, 1999) Spain’s patrimonial possessions in Europe had increased dramatically with the 1512 reorganisation of the Holy Roman Empire and Charles V’s conquests, so that the Habsburg sphere now included Milan, Franche-Comte and the Netherlands, though it was administratively divided and costly (Anderson, 1974: 67-70). From the New World came gold and silver which enriched the mercantile class, while expanding the state’s capacity for war-making. (Braudel, 1992) As the monarch of a Catholic state and son of a Holy Roman Emperor, with an impeccable succession claim and a Castilian background, he was also equipped with powerful modes of legitimacy. (Braudel, 1992: 335-336).

At the same time, he was to confront a number of problems, which included conflict with Pope Paul IV, revolts in the Netherlands, Turkish power, increasing military and economic competition from England and Holland, the challenge of the Reformation which had began to lay tentative roots among Spanish town dwellers, repeated succession crises, and disloyalty in his court. Charles V’s expansionist policies had been paid for with debts of 30 million ducats, a state of affairs that “mortgaged” Philip II’s tax income for the first five years of his rule (Machenrey, 1993: 73-74). And he would face repeated crises of the Treasury, partially as a consequence of his imperial policies, and partially as a result of the means of extraction.

Philip II and the Papacy
Philip had inherited the Peace of Augsburg (1555) signed by his father Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League of Protestant princes in the Holy Roman Empire, which enshrined the principle that state leaders should determine the religion of their subjects: cuius regio, eius religio. This formalised the non-separation of politics and religion. State leaders had religious autonomy, while their subjects did not. (Teschke, 2003: 240-241). Conflicts with states which imposed Protestantism could be unproblematically cast in religious terms, but it was not so simple if the enemy was as Catholic as the Pope. And relations with the papacy were immediately hostile. Pope Paul IV attempted throughout 1556 to launch a war with the Holy Roman Emperor, a Habsburg emperor. He resented Habsburg power on the continent, and wished to see them overstretch themselves in a new war that might lead to their overthrow in Italy. In this conflict he was willing to consider any form of alliance, including with the Turks, while Philip II eventually won in the brief conflict that ensued by occupying Rome and embracing an alliance with apostate England (Ibid). Later, in order to protect ward off French claims to a succession to the English monarchy, Philip would defend Queen Elizabeth from attempts by Rome to excommunicate her, despite the obvious Protestantism of her state (Kamen, 1983: 129-130). This did not portend indifference to the question of English Protestantism, for Philip would go on to oppose English interference in the French civil wars (Ibid), and the spread of Protestantism anywhere could be seen as a threat to the very basis of Habsburg rule. Yet, even after the papal bull of February 25th 1570, in which Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth, Philip II adhered to a friendly or neutral policy with England (Chudoba, 1952: 86). If Philip II was “a good son of the Church”, as G R Elton puts it (Elton, 1963: 269-270), he was at least capable of overriding such considerations given a threat to Spanish power. Further, Philip had hoped for a successful succession bid to the English throne, and he did not therefore seek enmity.

Dutch Revolt
The earliest foreign policy experiences of Philip II were focused on the Mediterranean, where he sought to consolidate his Italian territories and ward off Turkish influence. Subsequently, his attention was drawn to the ferment in the Netherlands, where nobles demanded a relaxation of the Inquisition established at the request of Charles V. Given the risks of rebellion, Philip would, in 1566, grant concessions: this with the blessing of theologians, who argued that to spare the Church the potential evil of insurrection was no disservice to God. Given the indeterminacy of religious texts, practically any gesture of realpolitik could potentially be made acceptable to God, and indeed theological dissension was typically ignored (for example, see Kamen, 1998: 371-374). Only when open insurrection broke out did Spain take action to extirpate the heresy by occupying the Netherlands with 10,000 troops under the duke of Alba, and only with that occupation did serious tension with England begin (Kamen, 1983: 131-132).

Having occupied the Netherlands, Alba was charged with imposing new bishoprics and building up a clerical hierarchy. Geoffrey Parker (1978) explains this in terms of Philip’s “cherished dreams” of Catholicising his dominions, in which the Netherlands formed “one part of a consistent policy”. However, secular benefits also accrued: in imposing this defeat on the Netherlands, Alba was able to drastically increase the rate at which the wealthy provinces were exploited. As Parker points out, the taxes paid by the Netherlands increased from 750,000 ducats in the year of the conquest, 1566-67, to 4.4 million in 1570-71, while the flow of funds from the Castilian treasury to the Netherlands fell from 2 million to 550,000 in the same period (Parker, 1978: 96-97). If this partially and temporarily defunded the process of independent capital accumulation in the Netherlands, it also recouped some of the losses of a 5.5 million ducat annual bill resulting from the occupation of the provinces in preceding years (Machenrey, 1993).

Domestic Affairs: the Inquisition

The categories of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ in a transnational dynastic states system are potentially anachronistic, for all domains controlled by the Habsburg dynasty were ‘domestic’, while substantial territories within Spain itself could be considered ‘foreign’ at different times, notably Granada until 1492. Even the Inquisition, which Perry Anderson describes as the only unitary ‘Spanish’ institution in this period, extended to the Netherlands, Sardinia, Sicily, Milan, Naples and the colonies. The Spanish Inquisition has the aura of an autocratic war for religious purity that is not justified by the evidence. Yet its promulgation, firstly by Ferdinand and Isabella, was dramatic reversal from past cohabitation. Kamen argues that the notion of a religious-style ‘Crusade’ had been absent from the reconquest of Spain by Christian forces which saw continued coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Christians. When the Inquisition emerged, therefore, it was “a wholly alien institution transplanted onto Castilian soil”. (Kamen, 1985: 1-5).

One aim of the Inquisition was to terminate the multi-religious legacy of Moorish rule and thereby ‘domesticate’ the territories under Spanish governance (Anderson, 1974: 67). It is not unreasonably argued that its role was to effect social control and curtail dissent, “such as he saw spreading over the rest of the world” (Hume, 1934: 78). In what sense, precisely? The ideology involved in the Inquisition was not merely religious, but also racial and class-based. The Inquisition sought to “recruit from the highest circles and the purest blood”. (Kamen, 1985: 145). Purity of blood as a lineal claim was one that the aristocracy could much more easily make than anyone else, since they maintained records of family history. On the other hand, dissent and provocation was equated with impurity, heresy with descent from Jews by Philip II. In this purview, class power, racial domination and religious piety overlapped. (Elliott, 1963: 212-6). Kamen argues that the roots of the Inquisition are in the double danger of economic competition from conversos, and underground heresy. (Kamen, 1998; Kamen, 1985: 18-43). In the face of religious militancy across Europe, often in the form of peasant insurgencies, and the fear of “Protestant cells” at home, the temptation to use the Inquisition to consolidate the regime must have been considerable. (Elliott, 1963: 204, 217-218).

Domestic Affairs: Financial Problems
Philip II’s court declared bankruptcy three times during his rule. In the first instance, in 1557, he disburdened himself of a 7 million ducat debt built up during his father’s wars. In the second instance, 1575, he was once again at war with the Netherlands, and had to default on 15 million ducats. Spain had tried to solve its problems by issuing juros, in which one could purchase a share of national debt, guaranteed by treasure from the New World. But by the 1570s, the costs of war accounted for 75% of that revenue. Further, the flood of Spanish silver through the European continent caused enormous inflation, especially in Spain itself. (Kamen, 1971: 77-78, 107; Machenrey, 1993: 73-4). The aristocracy was particularly vulnerable to inflation as a consequence of its property being in entail. Most forms of income suffered, but particularly seigneurial rents. So that, although the aristocracy would benefit from the wealth of Spanish silver through juros (debt guaranteed by the income from the colonies), it would lose out in other forms of income, thus inhibiting the purchase of further juros to fund more conquest. This would be further eroded when the royal treasury would renege on its debts or make discounts in annuities. (Kamen, 1980: 230-2). I would argue that the difficulty is in the mode of production that inhered in Spain: while in the Netherlands and England, early modern agrarian capitalists were investing in productive improvements, the Spanish aristocracy’s chief form of enterprise was state-led plunder. (Ibid; Teschke, 2003). Indeed, as Kamen (1980) points out, domestic revenues tended to fluctuate with the agricultural cycle rather than increase with improved surplus through intense husbandry.

Spain & the Slave Trade
Slavery is by no means antithetical to capitalism, so very far from it. As Eric Williams argues, the slave trade provided the crucial revenue to fund Britain's later economic growth. However, the empire system set up by the conquistadors under especially Charles V, and perfected by Philip II was a tributary one, based initially on the production of both gold and silver, then increasingly on silver through the second half of the sixteenth century. It was essentially a barbaric form of rent extraction. (Kamen, 1980; Blackburn, 1997:130). Spain became the largest slave power and the most important European colonial power by virtue of Philip's succession in Portugal (backed up by vast armadas and Spain's armies). Portugal's ruling class accepted Philip because he was a powerful conservative monarch who would defend their feudal privileges overseas and at home. Those who colonial traders were in cordial business relations with the Dutch and English feared a powerful Catholic monarch - but Philip II was not, as we have seen, doctrinaire when it came to his loot. The Spanish reassured that segment of the Portugese elite by drastically increasing the trade in African slaves (Blackburn, 1997: 122). Pedro Gomes Reinal, a Portugese merchant, was granted a monopoly over the Spanish trade in 1595 on the basis of providing Spain with an annuity in slaves, at a time when the Castilian treasury was once again entering crisis on account of its perpetual wars of expansion. Philip II's solutions to all of these crises had to be expansion and slavery because the aristocracy could not generate sufficient revenue to fund him.

'Ineptitude', or Capitalist Competition?
To say that Spanish policy in the age of Philip II was designed to support class rule domestically and internationally, to claim that it was severally determined by various structural constraints and discursive regimens, is not to say that the state was well managed. On two particular episodes, there are claims that Philip II was inept at handling his affairs and laid the groundwork for Spanish decline in the seventeenth century. Parker avers that with respect to Philip II in the Netherlands, the policy of “implacable use of military force” had to be abandoned at great cost to the Spanish, allowing the Netherlands to gain trade with Spanish America – in his account “everyone” realised that this had come about due to “Spanish ineptitude”. (Parker, 2001: 94-95). Tenace, meanwhile, claims that the Spanish failure to support the Irish rebellion in 1596 and 1597 prevented a decisive loss for the English, which could well have been their Netherlands. (Tenace, 2003). In the former case, it is by no means clear that another strategy would have pacified the Netherlands, and it is at least arguable that abandoning the war there would have brought the war closer to home. On the other hand, Dutch success at least partially owes itself to a superior system of production. In the latter, Tenace's case is persuasive, yet it raises the question of what success for Philip II in roping England and Ireland into his orbit would have meant. The enormous costs would probably have been paid for by a stupendous levy on the English, defunding capital accumulation and retarding the one independent capitalist power in Europe as it was embarking on maritime growth. Without a capitalist class to speak of in Spain,

The root causes, or such as I have been able to discover, of Philip II’s woes are to be located in the political economy of feudalism, not in excessive attention to religious questions or poor state guidance. The beginning of the end for the Spanish was precisely the essential feudal drive of territorial expansion and conquest, embodied in the barbaric creed, 'Orbis Non Sufficit'.

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