Emergence and Ideology

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The conception of the individual offered by pre-capitalist society has little in common with contemporary notions. Whilst we live in a world in which we are urged to make the most of ourselves, in which we can – in theory at least – become whatever we want to become, the frontiers of the world for the pre-capitalist individual were largely governed by birth. Mental and geographical borders were pre-ordained, the lottery of heritage determining his role within society and his place within the world. His life, in large part, was already mapped out for him.

In contrast with modern man, the individual within pre-capitalist society appears to be characterised by a lack of personal freedom; a comparison that presents us with a picture of a limited life. Yet this absence of liberty was not without its benefits. Pre-capitalist society offered a stratified structure, in which the individual had an unchangeable and unquestionable role to play, imbuing life with “meaning which left no place, and no need, for doubt.”11 Having a definitive role within a structured system gave man a feeling of security and belonging.

Within such a strictly compartmentalized system, the image of the individual was indiscernible from that of the whole, and whilst we may interpret this as a lack of freedom, psychologist Erich Fromm suggests otherwise; “Medieval society did not deprive the individual of his freedom, because the “individual” did not yet exist; man was still related to the world by primary ties.”12 He had yet to emerge as distinct from the society that surrounded him, and was, in this sense, still the child, safe in the family-bubble: lacking the broad range of movements afforded to the mature individual, yet nevertheless able to defer personal responsibility and enjoy the security of a cosseted existence.

By the late Middle Ages the importance of capital had grown in along with increasing trade opportunities, weakening the unity and centralization of medieval society13. This change was particularly noticeable in Italy thanks to the commercial advantages offered by its geographical location14, and, as we touched upon earlier, it was here that the individual first began to emerge from his primary ties.

The structures and systems of pre-capitalist society had grown around the everyday activities and aims of a life that had its roots in religious ideology. Economic activities were no more than a means to an end, the economic system a structural necessity that was shadowed by more pious concerns15. Capitalism was to turn this state-of-affairs on its head, placing the onus on the accumulation of capital and turning economic activity into an end in itself - an idea that, as Fromm points out, would have struck the pre-capitalist individual as decidedly irrational.16


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> Affects on the individual

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