Historical Notes: Capitalism and the art of warfare

Click to follow
FROM A Renaissance landscape of the crucified God to the desolation of a solitary soldier impaled on the barbed wire of a First World War battlefield may seem a preposterous leap of the imagination. Yet there is a solid historical connect-ion: money and the art of statecraft.

From the earliest capitalist economic activity in the 13th- and 14th- century city-states of Florence, Venice and Genoa, to the present-day global economy, there are identifiable cycles of capital accumulation followed by periods of stagnation and rebirth.

These cycles are characterised by the hegemony of a particular state. Thus the earliest world economy was galvanised by the cluster of northern Italian metropoles. Subsequently, the hegemonic role in the world economy was taken up by the United Provinces of Holland, the United Kingdom and finally the United States of America.

While the principal motive force for these historical cycles may be attributed to the over-riding imperative of maximising financial profit, each hegemon has left its distinctive stamp: the northern Italian metropoles pioneered mechanisms of finance and inter-state diplomacy; the Dutch bequeathed the Westphalia System, the founding concept of nation states; the British expanded the system of free markets in line with territorial possession of empire; while under the Pax Americana of the 20th century was born the market-transcending system of global corporate capitalism.

In these cycles are two periods - the demise of hegemony under the Italian city-states in the 15th century and under Britain at the cusp of the 19th century - which are of strikingly similar circumstance but with strikingly different outcomes. In both cases, capital was threatened by stagnation, and as a result retreated to safer investment havens.

In the Mediterranean, idle finance sought shelter through patronage of the arts. Cultural products, in the form of architecture and paintings, were bought up by capital which could not find more profitable expression.

To be sure, there were less benign contemporaneous manifestations. The rival Italian city-states found profitable outlet in financing English and French combatants during their Hundred Years War (1337-1453). And it was frustrated Genoese financiers who propelled the Iberian explorers into conquest of new territories and trade routes to the West, thereby setting the stage for wholesale slaughter and slavery in the Americas.

Nonetheless, an abiding legacy of these birth pangs of the capitalist world economy was the cultural Renaissance in art, literature and philosophy - the central subject of which probably being the "God who was crucified so that mankind might live."

Four centuries later, however, and with the quantum jump of a second industrial revolution based on petroleum combustion engines, idle finance found expression in scientific militarism.

British capital, the hegemon of the day, was being choked by, on the one hand, huge profits flowing in from its free-trade empire, and, on the other, by an under- invested and glutted national economy. The safest outlet for British capital liquidity was in fuelling an unprecedented armaments industry.

Pretty soon the national economy was being marshalled by ineluctable capitalist logic in the art of warfare. It was only a matter of time before diplomatic infraction by a rival state would ignite the conflagration of the First World War.

Today there are again foreboding elements: economic stagnation, an insecure sense of the end of (American) empire and a proclivity for militaristic diplomacy. Perhaps this time we might learn from history to crucify the gods of money, power and statecraft rather than human beings.

`The Long Twentieth Century: money, power and the origins of our times', by Giovanni Arrighi, is published by Verso (pounds 15)