Monday, October 21, 2013

Our Man in Genoa

Like most American historians, I know little of the city of Genoa save that it was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and that it is located in northern Italy. However, some years ago a Marxist author piqued my interest in the early-modern Genoese by suggesting that one ought really to call the Spanish conquest of the New World an Italian mercantile-capitalist project.  A bit of research which I recently undertook to enliven a stale lecture on Columbus has persuaded me that there is a lot of truth to this rather sweeping statement. 

Genoa's days of military glory were behind it by the late 1400s, but its era of commercial expansion was still very much underway in Columbus's day. In the thirteenth century a series of armed conflicts with Venice had ended (1281) in Genoa's exclusion from the Adriatic, and in the city-states' tacit admission that their wars with one another had grown too expensive to prosecute. Thereafter, Venice used its intrinsic geographic advantage to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the maritime spice and cotton trade with Egypt and the Levant. (It helped that Venetian sailors had access to the compass, which allowed them to sail in the open sea during the overcast winter months, and thus to take advantage of favorable seasonal winds.) (Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World [1984], 33-34, 118-119; Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers [1985], 221-222.)

The displaced Genoese, however, merely took their capital and sailing expertise and transferred them to the western Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic Ocean.  Genoese ships had opened direct oceanic trade with Bruges in 1277, and around the same time Genoese merchants established trading colonies in Seville, which the Kingdom of Castille had recently conquered, and Aragon, whose king they helped conquer Sicily in 1282. These merchants intermarried with local traders and gentry and became part of the Spanish elite.  Seville became the base for Genoese voyages to the Canary Islands in the fourteenth century, while later Genoese mercantile colonies in Morocco and Lisbon dominated those regions' provisions trade in the fifteenth century. (Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain [1992], 143; Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism [1986], 71, 79-80; Braudel, op. cit., 110, 141-142, 164; John Kicza, "Patterns in Early Spanish Overseas Expansion," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 49 [1992]: 229-53, esp. 230, 237.)

Genoese merchants did not remain content to act as shipping agents and bankers. Their city, whose hinterland consisted of a few miles of coastal plain and a great many mountains, could not feed or clothe itself without trade, and Genoa's merchants therefore took direct control of vital resources whenever they could. Genoa financed Aragon's conquest of Sicily in exchange for many of the island's grain plantations and control of its silk exports. Genoese merchants also established sugar plantations in Sicily, bringing to the western Mediterranean the crop that would play such an important role in the history of the Atlantic World, and gradually expanded sugar cultivation into Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the Madeiras, and the Canaries. (These were generally small plantations, with only a few fields and slaves, but they provided the Genoese with technical experience they applied to the larger farms of the New World).  And in the sixteenth century, after a Genoese navigator opened the Atlantic to Spanish navigation, merchants from Columbus's home city sent agents to Hispaniola to market the island's gold exports, and Genoese artisans came from the Canaries to introduce sugar cultivation. Genoese bankers financed some of the entradas that extended Spanish rule to the mainland, including Cortes's conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519-21, and Genoese bankers in Seville provided the operating capital for the fleets that subsequently sailed between Mexico and Spain. Indeed, financing the Spanish Crown and marketing Spanish American bullion became Genoese merchants' principal pastime by the late sixteenth century, and remained so until the Spanish government's finances collapsed in 1627. (Braudel, 142, 157, 159-161, 163-168; Kicza, "Patterns," 231, 242; David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years [2011], 318-319.)

So was the conquest of the Americas merely part of the expansion of Genoese capital? The "merely" in that question gives away the answer. Christopher Columbus may have come from Genoa, but the Genoese did not finance his first voyage; that took a more adventurous investor, namely a national government. Moreover, Spain provided the personnel and arsenal for the conquest of the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru, and its conquistadors and administrators didn't regard themselves as the employees of bankers - they were fighting for Church, king, and country. What the Genoese did was provide the financial infrastructure for the empire that the Spanish built so quickly. Those of us amazed at the speed with which Spain conquered the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru need to consider not only the impact of disease and metal weapons on Native Americans, and not merely the expertise of Spanish sailors and navigators, but also the large amount of money and technical know-how that Genoa injected into the process. The bankers weren't necessarily calling the shots in Spanish America, but they were certainly an important motive force behind this burst of expansion that transformed Spain into a global empire in just three quarters of a century.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Niall Ferguson is still spinning the dross of his rage and vanity into a bigger pile of dross

Fans of Niall "Saucypants" Ferguson will take pleasure in learning that after a fairly quiet summer, the Sexiest Scotsman has come roaring back into public view with a scathing indictment of Paul Krugman, a three-part essay cheekily titled "Krugtron the Invincible" (the link will take you to Part Three).  In it, Our Man Niall reveals the prize-winning economist for the charlatan and character assassin he is.  Professor Ferguson so thoroughly undermines Krugman's credibility that the well-whipped cur has subsequently announced plans to resign his professorship, return his Nobel Prize, and take up a new career as a flagellant and leper.  And then we wake up.

Returning to reality for a moment, we may note that Ferguson's new essay, which appeared in the Huffington Post, is a fairly typical display of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's favorite subject: his own vanity.  He expends much effort trying to prove that Krugman is consistently wrong about important subjects, like the imminent break-up of the Euro, and closes by labeling Krugtron a crude, anti-intellectual bully, unworthy of the important public position (columnist for the New York Times) he now holds.  We must not forget, Ferguson exclaims, "the importance of humility and civility in public as well as academic discourse."  As The Krugman has repeatedly flouted these standards, it is up to Professor Niall, the defender of decency in our public discourse, to call him out and cut him down.

The evidence that Professor F. piles up against Mssr. Krugman seems damning, but as I lack the expertise to judge which of the two men is correct, I leave it to members of Krugman's "claque" of "crass" and "crank"ish economist friends to refute Ferguson's allegations.  Dean Baker, for instance, notes that Ferguson's characterization of the 2007-08 crash as a "financial crisis" is incorrect; the banking industry did undergo a dramatic meltdown in the fall of 2008, but both the meltdown and the recession resulted from a burst housing bubble, which destroyed several trillion dollars' worth of household wealth.  This may seem a merely semantic point, but Ferguson's interpretation of the causes of the current recession underlies the policies, namely fiscal austerity and tight money, that he believes will cure it.  Joe Wiesenthal, an honorary KrugClaque member, observed last spring that Ferguson had been making consistently inaccurate economic predictions for years, all stemming from his distaste for Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus bill and the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy.  And Brad Delong reported earlier this month that Ferguson either made an appalling mistake or flat-out lied about interest payments on the national debt, which he claimed were 8% of GDP (they are 1.3%) and likely to rise to 40% over the next six decades (they will almost certainly do nothing of the kind).

If Ferguson was trying to benefit the public by offering a more accurate view of economic reality than Paul Krugman's, he didn't do a good job.  But I conclude that what drove Ferg to waste electrons on this screed was less an effusion of public spirit than A) a desire to prove he is actually better at economics than the Krugster, B) envy of Krugman's position at the Times, C) his own desire to preen, evidenced by Ferguson's repeated self-identification as a "historian" and his posturing as a martial hero in the "Scottish regimental" mode, and D) an inability to accept negative criticism from anyone, particularly if it comes from those Ferg considers beneath his dignity, whether they be unwashed economists from a vulgar school like Princeton or "mediocre" authors and book reviewers

This latter trait was conspicuously evident two years ago, when Ferg responded to an unfavorable review in the London Review of Books by insulting the reviewer, demanding an apology, and threatening a lawsuit when the reviewer offered a correction ("Ferguson is not a racist") but declined to grovel.  Ferg also displayed it in a non-apology he issued last spring, after he remarked in a public address that John Maynard Keynes's homosexuality made him a bad economist.  Ferguson began his May 7 "Open Letter to the Harvard Community" by admitting that his remarks were stupid.  He then walked back his contrition, asserting that he was right to draw attention to Keynes' sexuality because it was relevant to "historical understanding of the man," attacking his critics for their intellectual laziness and unwarranted hatefulness, and arguing that while he occasionally said "stupid things" so did "most professors and – let's face it…most students."  In closing, he demanded that the public forgive him.

There is something almost pitiful in a man so paranoid and self-aggrandizing that he cannot even make a proper apology, but must instead use the occasion of apologizing to assert that his sin was actually intellectual heroism, and to trash his enemies, real and imagined.  The more recent subjects of Niall's ire, namely Paul Krugman's "claque" of bloggers, have been happy to repay Ferguson in kind, with one predicting that "Ferguson will teach us the importance of humility…in the same manner that Lindsey Lohan can teach us the importance of sobriety."  One, however, intensified the pathos that clings to Professor Ferg by reminding readers that Our Man Niall was once a halfway-decent historian, whose innovative study of World War One, The Pity of War, sounds so appealing that I might just go read it myself.  Since then Ferguson has squandered his talents, such as they were, in the service of the plutocrats who pay his lavish speaking fees, whose interests Niall-o cheerfully defends and to whose prejudices he routinely caters.  The Sexiest Scotsman's solicitude for the ruling class has brought him wealth, fame, and prestige, but it hasn't brought him the level of respect he feels he deserves, and I think that really means it hasn't properly substituted for the self-respect Ferg forfeited when he sold out.   "The wealthiest person," a wise man once said, "is a pauper at times / Compared to the man / With a satisfied mind."


(My thanks to John Craig Hammond for his editorial assistance.  Any errors left herein remain the responsibility of the author.)