Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A pilgrimage to the origin of global capitalism

Genoa is a maze of infrastructure, layer upon layer. Far under my feet rivers decked over since centuries are flowing, on top of them a road. My pedestrian path crossing them and the rail road is above me. In some places it is so steep that people park their cars on top of the neighbours' . Modern houses are erected on foundations that might be five centuries old. New and old mixes in an almost organic way.

And then we have the port, where old warehouses mix with modern yachts and cruise ships. And it is in the port it all started.

I have found the beautifully decorated Palazzo San Giorgio the goal for my 'pilgrimage' to Genoa to look for the origins of global capitalism. The Bank of Saint George (Banco di San Giorgio, officially Casa delle compere e dei banchi di San Giorgio) was founded in 1407, making it one of the oldest chartered banks in Europe, if not the world.

A number of prominent Genoese families were involved in the establishment and governance of the Bank, including the Houses of Grimaldi & Serra. Because the Republic's ruling oligarchs were normally prominent in Bank politics, it is often difficult to determine where the Bank's influence ended and the Republic's began.

At the end of the thirteenth and beginning of fourteenth century a trade network from China to England, From Scandinavia to Africa was established and had expanded substantially. In Europe, the main beneficiaries of this were the Italian city states, in particular Florence, Milan, Genoa and Venice, where Florence and Milan were engaged in manufacturing and trade towards the Northwest, Genoa was oriented to the silk trade, i.e. Central Asia and Venice in the spice trade, i.e. South Asia. The trade generated a lot of wealth; the value of the sea trade of Genoa was estimated to three times the revenue of the Kingdom of France. At some point in early 14th century the trade tapered off which triggered a period of fierce competition between those city-states. They were mercantile states where the traders and manufactures had a lot of influence, so competition was not only commercial but extended to a series of wars. The wars strengthened the merchants even more as the state had to borrow money from them to conduct the wars (which was non behalf of the merchants in the first place).

In Genoa it led to a private take-over of the cities finances via the Casa di San Giorgio while in Florence the most powerful family, de Medici, took over. Now the wars themselves become a commercial undertaking. “What capitalist groups could no longer invest profitably in trade, they now invested in the hostile takeover of the markets or the territories of competitors both as an end in itself and as a means to appropriate the assets and the future revenues of the state within which they operated” (Arrighi 2010). The Italian city states developed high finance, financing in particular war-making governments. It is there in Florence and later in Genoa that the toolbox of managing money and transactions develop; it is there cheques and bills of exchange are used, most transactions are made through bank transfer and the art of managing client accounts to make the capital work for you is taken to new heights. 

The Bank lent considerable sums of money to many rulers throughout Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gaining widespread influence. Charles V was heavily in debt to the Bank during much of his reign.Many of Genoa's overseas territories were governed either directly or indirectly by the Bank. In 1453 the Republic handed over governance of Corsica, Gazaria, and a number of other possessions to Bank officials. It was the Genovese who bankrolled much of the Spanish expansion and then later on where the ones to convert the Silver from America into gold coins to pay the armies.

In the seventeenth century the Bank became heavily involved in maritime trade, and for a time competed with the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company.

Giovanni Arrighi, in his masterpiece, The Long Twentieth Century, Money, Power and the Origins of our Times (a must-read!)sees Genoa as the first representative of global capitalism. The merging of military might of the state with commerce and finance was the foundation of the European aggression to the rest of the world, a world that was taken by surprise by these new guys on the block. When the British also included production of goods – and weapon – with the support of fossil fuel energy, in the capitalist undertaking, the conquest was a given.

It is this narrative, a narrative of aggression based on collusion between capitalists and the state – and not the narrative of the free private entrepreneurs that innovate and exchange good with happy citizens in a market place – which is the true story of the origin of capitalism.

And what happened to the Casa di San Giorio? When Napoleon invaded Italy, he suppressed independent banks, and this led to the Bank's closure in 1805.

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