The spirit of a people, its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare, all this and more is written in its fiscal history, stripped of all phrases. He who knows how to listen to its message here discerns the thunder of world history.
The death of Otto von Habsburg, the man once slated to be Emperor of Austria-Hungary, reminds us just how recent the destruction of Europe’s old order really is. Up until World War I—some would say the end of World War II—Europe was still in thrall to its feudal past. (Otto was the eldest son of Charles I, who ascended to the Hapsburg throne at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Landed aristocracies possessed inordinate political and military power, furnishing what Joseph Schumpeter called the “steel frame” of bourgeois capitalism. Academics like me often wield the term “modernity” as if it describes a centuries-old formation, but the fact is: a great part of Europe only became modern—in the sense of being post-feudal—in recent memory. The best treatment of this theme remains Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime, recently reissued by Verso.