Social Origins of Democracy: Rise of commerce creates urban power centers

The growth of commerce stimulated the liberation of cities from feudal control. The cities were more democratic than the countryside. Though they began as humble enclaves in a feudal world, the towns began to assume the proportions of a challenger and a competitor, helping to sustain governments and competing in their interests with the feudal lords. They changed the basis of the whole medieval society from agrarian to urban, from one dominated by a military aristocracy to one dominated by an aristocracy of wealth.

The main factor in the growth of towns was the merchant. Through the organization of guilds merchants fought for the rights of the city and their leadership was rarely challenged. The towns acquired new forms of government in the shape of a mayor and council or some similar instruments of action. Many merchants demanded communal freedom of the towns from the feudal lords. The English monarchs granted the communes charters of limited self-government in return for their support against the nobility.

Alongside the increase in the power of towns, commerce gained momentum. The increase in the volume of trade, local and foreign, gave the merchants a prominent position. The revival of commerce rejuvenated the guilds. The guilds were formed to protect the mercantile community from feudal barons and kings. The Lord Mayor of London was chosen by the city guilds and not by the king or priest. The revival of guilds and commerce gave rise to institutions for commercial credit and banking. The merchants who played the role of creditors to the monarchs utilized money as an instrument to gain more privileges from the State. This continued until the whole power of finance fell into the hands of the English parliament. In the words of Will Durant, “For the first time in a thousand years, the possession of money became again a greater power than the possession of land.” The rising merchant class became stronger, more self-assertive and dissatisfied with arbitrary rule of the monarch. The idea of economic liberalism was projected by this group as a challenge to political absolutism.

Economic growth of England in the 16th and 17th Centuries and the resultant distribution of wealth further spurred the rise of economic liberalism. Economic development helped dissolve the old bonds of service and obligations and created new relationships based on the operations of the market. The entrepreneurial activities of the newly rich exerted tremendous influence on the society. There was a massive shift of wealth away from the church and the Crown, away from both the very rich and the very poor and towards the upper middle and middle class. It is this section of society that brought into being forces of change and fought against the conservative hierarchical order of society. They clamored for more rights – rights to trade freely and for freedom of expression. “For the first time in history men were demanding something more from the State than merely law and order and security against foreign enemies “, says Will Durant.
Source: MSS Research