Economic Eras

Figure 1.--For many young people coming out of universities, this is the image they have of capitalism. It is the image that authors like Dickens and Marx have help build. But is it true? Serious students of history and economics need to ask some questions. How accurate is the depiction, after all it is not a photograph, and how prevalent such scenes were. How did conditions in cities compare with the situation in rural areas? How did conditions in Europe comapre with countries not yet touched by capitalism like India and China? Why do text books fail to mention that the capitalim so derided is not only the economic system that generated the wealth needed to improve social conditions, but also created a middle class that demanded govermental actions like free public schools, public health systems, and reforms restricting child labor. It is only the countries without capitalim where such issues were and even today are not being adressed. Unfortunately we do not know who the illutrator here was.

We note several major economic eras. They include hunter-gatheing, the agricultural/neolithic revolution, the medueval era, mercantilism, the industrial revolution, and perhaps the a new modern era. Civilization began with the agricultural/neolithic era, end the milenia-long hunter-gatherer era. As we approach the modern eras the duration of the era shink from millenia to centuries. Some observers believe that we are now entering a new economic era--the information age. One particularly notable aspects of these differents era is the duation. The length of each era has become progrssively shorter as we approach modern times. By far the longest lasting era was the hunter-gathering stage, ebcomopassing ghe great bulk of human history. The agricultural revolution was the next longest era covering the the great abncuient civilizations. Another aspect is that the eras have been primarily defined by production methods. Another important factor was transportation which appears slower to change than production methods. Only with the modern industrial era and capitalism have average individuals began to achieve comfortable lives. Strangely this does not seem to be regognized by many, including academic writers, who seem dubious about capitalism as an economic system. The various eras overlap because changed occurred at different times in various areas.

Hunting and Gathering

The basic economic system for most of human history was hunting and gathering. In early stages of economic development, this was not unlike other animals and other primates. Humans proved particularly adaptable and unlike most other animals and apes proved able to deal with any envirment they encountered. Humand by about 12,000 years ago (some disagreement exists over the Ameeicas) had reached every habitable regions of the globe, including very difficult regions such as deserts and the Arctic. Armed with an inventive mind and developing cultures, loosely organized small bands of hunter-gatherers sucessfully adapted to all the climate zones and environmental condutions which they encountered. Hunting and gathering involved the exploit of available resources. Humans over time developed increasingly sophisticated tools to utlize the available resources. Small, mobile human populations subsisted on whatever resources they encountered. They hunted the available game, fished, and gathered plant resources. They adapting their life style to the resources and environments they encountered. It is was not unusual for hunter gather bands, especially those in tropical areas, to identify and exploit several hundred plant species. In the Arctic the bands were more limited to a small number of animal or fish resources. Hunter gatherers commonly move seasonally to avoid over utilizing availablke resources and to take advantage of seasonally availble resources. Commonly hunting anf gathering is described as having relatively little impact on the environment. Some authors believe, however, have come to suspect that some hunter gsathers such as Native Americans in the Amazon and North America had a major impact on he environment

The Agricultural Revolution and the Anicent World (10,000 BC-5th century AD)

Historical assessment of the ancient world often neglect the economic basis of these societies. The agricultural revolution involved settling down and raising food crops rather than hunting and gathering food. And because the easiest place to farm with the most basic technology were river valleys, it is in these valleys that the first cvilizations appear. As technology improved, agriculture and spread beyond the river valleys and other ancient civilzations developed. Important topics here are agriculture, textiles, and slavery. The core of ancient economies was agriculture. With agriculture, a given area could sustain a much larger population than was possible for hunter gathering. We begin to see the rise of cities. And it is cities that technological changes develop. The rise of agriculture necesitated organized states to deal with problems like irrigation. And with agriculture and the appearance of cities, record keeping becomes necessaery leading to the development of written language. The great bulk of the population settled dowm but still lived in rural areas and made their living raising a small number of crops. Cerials were particularly inportant, mistly barley and wheat. The exception was China where rice was important. The production of textiles tended to be a much more important part of ancient economies than is the case today. The development of weaving technologies was an important step in the development of civilization. The fabeled Silk Road spanned both the ancient and Medieval era. Slavery is another important topic and was of great importance to many ancient economies. but this varied substantially among the different ancient civiizations.

The Medieval Era (5th century-15th centuries)

Feudalism was the principal economic system of Medieval Europe. It was an era lastingh about a millenium. Fedudalism was more than just an ecomonic system, but a social and political system as well. The great bulk of the opopultion were peasants living on the estates of feudal lords. Within Feudalism the enslaved peasantry gradually evolved from slavery to serfdom. The difference was at first limited, but there were important legal differences. Other ecnomic topics considered here are the Silk Road, Crusades, plague, and the Medieval wool trade, Change was sklow during the medieval era, but it did occur. There were substabntial differences between rthe early- and late-medievaln era. Throughout much of the period, Europe was an economic backwater. Technological advances were in large nmeasure imported from the Est through Muslim lands. Only in the klate-medieval era do we begin to ee the oavce of trade and technilogical innovation quicken.

Mercantile Era (15th-18th centuries)

Mercantilism was the governing economic policy pursued by European countries during the 15th-18th cenuries. This included the Renaissabnce, Reformation, and Enligtenment. It was an era of government (meaning royal) control of foreign trade. This led to frequent if limited wars. It was during the mercabtilist era that the economies of the East and West began to tie together. Through most of thecera the West had trouble finding trade goods the Indians and Chinese wanted in exchange for the silk, porcelin, and spices that the West coveted. Gold and silver from the Americas helped finance the trade. Perhaos this was one of the reasons that the evolving trade was western merchants coming to the East and not the revrse. There was no great spokesman for mercantilism like Adam Smith for capitalism (The Wealth of Nations) and Karl Marx for Communism (Das Kapital). Mercantilism was esentially the attempt of pre-industrial European leaders to gain control over the increasingly complex ecomomies that emerged from the late-Medieval era. The primary goal of the European rulers was to acquire as much bullion (gold abd silver) as possible. This affected the policies pursued. Important topics include the voyages of discovery, American gold and slver, guilds, royal monompolies, the highland clearances, the potato, and slavery.

The Industrial Era (18th-20th centuries)

No development in modern history has affected individuals more than the Industrial Revolution. The manufacture of textiles played a key role in inititing the industrial revolution, but that was only the beginning. The effiencies of mechanization and industrial production left many craft and piece workers unemployed, but it created many new, btter paying jobs and generated enormous wealth so that for the first time the average worker could have a decent life. Iy also set in motion the ability of sciociety to end abuses like child labor and to create public schools that enabled every child to develop his inate gifts and abilities. Industry and technology created the acoutements of modern life which provide luxuries never even avalable to the rich in a previous era. Traditiojnal libeals promoting economic freedom sought to create the greatest economic opportunity possible to give every individuals the ability to persue his personal interests and in doing so the society as a whole bebefitted. Despite the efficencies of industrial capitalism and the wealth created, the disparities created by providing opportunities for success in failure led to philosphical theories like socialism which led to political restrictions on seconomic development that reduced disparities, but at the same time limited the ability of industry and private enterprise to generate wealth. Socialist are not satisfied or even interested in equality of opporttunity, but rather equality of outcome. The result has been to reduce societal disparities, but also the economic well being of society as a whole. By reducing wealth generation, not only do average people suffer, but the tax revenue needed to address basic societal problems is reduced. The range of topics are covered here, including the industrial revolution, European imperialism, the Opium War, the Irish Potato Famine, market capitalism, child labor, Communism, the Depression, the Soviet Economy, Globelization, free markets.

The Information Age (21st century)

Some authors have suggested that with the advent of the computer that a new economic age has begun--the Information Age.


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Created: 12:32 AM 12/15/2013
Last updated: 12:33 AM 12/15/2013