Persistence of the Old Regime

The Last EmperorThe 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.


  1. Robert Perkinson July 5, 2011 at 8:47 am | #

    Cute pic, Corey.

  2. mikhail July 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm | #

    Wouldn’t you say, just going by what Barrington Moore or Polyani wrote, that the feudal arrangement of Europe ended just before Belle Epoque, that with the concentration of labor politics and new machinery in the urban areas of Europe (West and Central, really) brought an end to the feudal layout? The landed elites despised industrial machinery and its attendant new class of managers as much as the church and extreme right-wing nationalist groups. Going down the list of authoritarian and totalitarian regime supporters, the super landed elite were their big funders. The exception to that would be Italy and Germany, since those were actually popular movements. And their support was the result of decades of being pushed out of the arena of influence beginning with the 1840s and the large mixed banking systems in Belgium and Germany.

    That’s a question. I swear.

    • Corey Robin July 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm | #

      Mikhail, you should check out Mayer’s book, particularly chapters 1-3. He’s got unbelievable data (and analysis) demonstrating the hegemony, political and economic, of the nobility, throughout all of Europe. Don’t have it at hand, but from what I remember: agriculture, dominated by the landed aristocracy, was the largest sector of every European economy save Britain. Real estate remained a source of major wealth. Ancient nobilities dominated the politics of all European political systems, including Britain’s (remember the House of Lords are still playing a very important role up until the First World War). Also, as Mayer shows (and Schumpeter also demonstrates this throughout his work), the nobility was actually extraordinarily adaptive to capitalism, managing to incorporate all sorts of bourgeois practices in its various enterprises. Once you read Mayer you begin to see that the image of the Belle Epoque, to the extent that it’s even true (and Mayer shows that much of what you thought about France and Britain is not necessarily the norm), is really an outlier. Of course Mayer’s thesis (like Schumpeter’s) has been subject to all sorts of challenges and not being a historian, I’m not in a position to adjudicate that. But at a minimum he offers a fair amount of information and analysis to make one think twice about one’s inherited assumptions regarding the 19th century triumph of the bourgeoisie. At least he did me.

  3. mikhail July 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm | #

    Great! Thanks for responding. I’ll give it a read and see if it plugs holes in literature I had to read towards an Msc in London. I was always skeptical of how convenient the belle epoque narrative was, especially so given its chief scribes were culture writers who are more interested in zeitgeist than wealth accumulation.

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