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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

Two Casts of Mind:The Lords and the Bourgeoisie

The cooperation between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie, which had started out so smoothly with the first European expansion, continued to improve with time. It was forged with acts, and without theories. And it existed, because each group was aware of its own possibilities and limitations with that kind of clarity that comes early in a process, when issues are still simple and have not been clouded yet by ideological arguments. In order to launch the European expansion, which we now view as the first step in the development of capitalism, each class sought the other as its necessary complement, regardless of what each one represented, in an effort to make common cause out of differing, even antithetical, points of view.

Of course each class—the old as well as the new—had its own, well-defined conception of life, although by that time the views of the bourgeoisie were not yet as well or as explicitly stated as those of the feudal lords. Their conceptions were, of course, fundamentally opposed. But this fact, as often happens with this kind of opposition, became evident only under very close scrutiny and only after the analysis had reached the ultimate grounding and final consequences of each view. In the meantime, sheer pragmatism made for a good deal of common ground, and one of the defining traits of this nascent feudal-bourgeois society—and of its feudal-bourgeois culture—was to shun, as far as possible, any close scrutiny of facts and thus to prevent any confrontation over questions of principle.

The class of the feudal lords had a transcendental view of life and believed in the supernatural grounding of the entire system of relations in the world. It had not always been that way, of course, but it came to be so during the interim between the crisis of the Carolingian empire and the eleventh century. By then, those who had the power had also the possession of the land. Though it was undoubtedly a means of production, land had a meaning that went well beyond its economic function in feudal society, for the view of the feudal lords was defined precisely by the conviction that wealth in land was something that came with power, something that only power could grant. First power, then wealth: such had been their experience, since their own possession of the land was ultimately based upon the right of conquest.

The middle class, in turn, came into being with a view of life that was strictly immanent, or if you wish, naturalistic and profane. Deeply agnostic, the middle class made no effort to articulate its thoughts, although the thinkers and artists who were its conscience did so from time to time. Its attitudes, however, betrayed its view, even when it tried to conceal, with wise hypocrisy, its ultimate goals. As a class, it had not been born out of a vast adventure of conquest and power—as had the class of the lords— but within the feudal system they had created; and it had arisen by taking advantage of a crack in the structure in order to find some escape from its total control. And although it could only create a secondary structure, still dependent on the feudal system, it showed great capacity to become independent. Its tool for emancipation was money, and the secondary structure it created was a monetary economy. And so it acquired wealth. But the distinctive feature of its view of the world was the belief in the central importance of wealth. The middle class saw power as something that came with wealth, although it never denied that power could be obtained by other means, as the feudal class had obviously demonstrated. First wealth, then power: such was the belief of the bourgeoisie, at least for its own members; and that belief was sustained by their experience in the new patrician societies.

As the feudal gentry and the bourgeoisie worked together during the first European expansion, it became apparent that their differing views could coexist without much clashing. The feudal lords defined the transcendental goals of the undertaking: first, the religious mission, and then the glory that warriors hungered for. After these, they would acknowledge a more tangible aim: power, to be acquired by forming new feudal estates, which was something they could no longer do in the heart of Europe. But when the feudal lords said “power,” they meant “power and wealth.” And with power and wealth in mind, they established fiefdoms, took possession of lands and endeavored to reap from them all the benefits a fife should yield. They were not alone in their venture. The middle classes went along with the lofty goals the lords had proclaimed as theirs and helped them achieve those goals. They knew, however, that when the lords said “power,” they meant “power and wealth.” And so they hastened to define their own role: they would support the creation of feudal estates; they would assent to whatever system lands the lords should choose to organize the occupied lands; they would take an active part in producing and amassing all the other kinds of wealth that were not, at least in principle, equal to power—movable goods, monetary economy; of this kind of wealth, they would yield to their allies only as much as it was necessary to make them feel they too had something to gain in the enterprise; but they would thoroughly exploit every single resource they had at their disposal, that is, every mechanism of the monetary economy, which at the time the bourgeoisie was assembling through the vast network of cities across the world.

This is how, in fact, capitalism was born: out of Europe’s first expansion and out of the first experiment in reconciling the aims and aptitudes of the feudal class and the bourgeoisie. With time, this initial scheme would become more subtle and complex, but its fundamental structure would remain unchanged. The scheme gained solid grounding with the retrenchment that took place during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the feudal-bourgeois societies grew stronger. By the time the second European expansion began in the fifteenth century—this time, across the oceans—, the very same scheme went back to functioning as it had four centuries earlier, ever more subtle, ever more complex, but essentially the same.