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How the Dutch invented our world Liberal democracy and capitalism would have been impossible without the Dutch Republic

We are considerably richer than yow. Photo: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

We are considerably richer than yow. Photo: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images


July 14, 2020   7 mins

“Forward! Brave people! The goddess of liberty leads you on!” So declares Count Egmont, the protagonist in Goethe’s exquisite 1788 play, Egmont, a tragedy based on the Dutch revolt of the late 16th century. “And as the sea breaks through and destroys the barriers that would oppose its fury, so do ye overwhelm the bulwark of tyranny, and with your impetuous flood sweep it away from the land which it usurps.”

Egmont would become a martyr representing the aspirations of the Dutch people, persecuted and oppressed for their Protestantism by the corrupt and tyrannical Duke of Alba, an agent of Phillip II and his Catholic Spanish empire. This was the first great “bourgeois revolution”, a concept that will be familiar to those acquainted with the Marxist and socialist lexicon, denoting the events and processes that facilitated the development of modern bourgeois society on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. The classic example was the French Revolution of 1789, when monarchy and seigneurialism were overthrown, and the basis of the modern liberal-democratic capitalist nation established.

In recent years, however, bourgeois revolution has gone out of fashion and subjected to revisionist critique wishing to consign it to the dustbin of history. Part of what underlines this dismissiveness is a rather childish unwillingness to credit capitalism, and by extension, the bourgeoisie and liberalism, with any positive contribution to human development. The assumption is that because the bourgeoisie has been reactionary for so long, therefore it has never played a historically revolutionary role; because capitalism is now senile and decadent therefore it has never been historically progressive; because liberalism is now servile therefore it has never been emancipatory. None of which is true.

The Dutch Revolt that began in the late 16th century was the first such bourgeois revolution, but because it was the first, it is arguably the most ignored. Today its distance in time makes it seem remote, and it doesn’t bare a shadow over our current epoch in much the same way as the American and French revolutions do.

But for the figures of the Enlightenment and Romantic period the Dutch Revolt and its effects held huge resonance. Adam Smith saw the Dutch Republic as the prime exemplar of a commercial society, and in the Wealth of Nations, Smith lauded the commercial cosmopolitanism of the republic, and its emphasise on free trade as the basis of its immense wealth.

For the likes of Goethe it was the struggle for liberty that made the Dutch revolt a subject of fascination, and his play in turn inspired Beethoven to compose Egmont. Friedrich Schiller, in his history of the Dutch revolt, extolled the “spirit of independence” of the Dutch people in their liberation struggle against the Habsburg Empire.

Although he only referred to it briefly in scattered sentences across his works, Karl Marx also understood the significance of the Dutch revolt and the Dutch Republic as a key moment in the historic ascendancy of the bourgeoisie and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He called it the “victory of the sixteenth century over the fifteenth century”. This was also recognised by other Marxists, among them Antonio Gramsci, who pointed out that “in the Netherlands and only in the Netherlands was there an organic passage from the commune or city-state to a regime that was no longer feudal”.

But the dominant view among socialist and Marxist historians since the mid-20th century, particularly promulgated by Eric Hobsbawm et al, has been to portray the English upheavels of the Stuart era as the first bourgeois revolution, of which the Dutch revolt was at best an appetiser.

Europe in the 16th century was a continent of strife and turbulence, a civilisation in the zygotic stages of a great transformation. The Renaissance had reacquainted European culture with the patrimony of classical Greece and Rome that helped spur great advances in art, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy, while science and technology had recently made great leaps,  most notably with the printing press. The Reformation had transformed how many European Christians related to God, while the violent and remorseless but nonetheless historic “discovery” and opening up of the Americas established new trading links, new forms of commerce and the rudimentary beginnings of the global market.

The Low Countries — the modern-day Netherlands and Belgium — were rather unique in this continent. Here the economy was diversified, highly commericialised and urbanised, and cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam already hubs of commercial activity. But it also was under the control of Habsburg Spain, a feudal empire which heavily taxed the population, in particular urban merchant elites, to pay for the mercenary armies hired to fight their wars. Heavy taxation became a key burden retarding the development of further commercial expansion.

Moreover, the domination of the Catholic Church had become oppressive to the northern provinces, where Protestantism had become dominant. The spread of Calvinism among the merchant class was particularly significant, with its emphasis on self-government, self-reliance, thrift, discipline and work as noble in and of itself. While the Catholic Church forbid anyone to rebel against their ruler, Calvinist doctrine, at least in theory, supported the right to resistance, which would serve as an ideological justification for the Dutch revolt.

The revolt was about religion but it was also about money, and the right of the bourgeois to make it. As Pepijn Brandon has argued, the revolt unconsciously, yet effectively, facilitated capitalist development, with Church lands confiscated and turned into large-scale commercial exploitation, and the political influence of the nobility and Catholic clergyman diminished. On top of this, the merchant class had way more control over state power where commercial interests usurped dynastic warfare.

Ultimately, the Dutch revolt emancipated one of Europe’s most rapidly developing regions from an empire that fettered trade and industry according to the interests of the Spanish crown, the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, allowing it to become the first in which pre-industrial commercial capitalism developed on a vast, country-wide scale and a highly urbanised commercial power in its own right.

The birth of the Dutch Republic, emancipated from the Habsburg yoke, would lead to the “Dutch Golden Age” of the 17th century when Holland, an increasingly wealthy and relatively open and tolerant society with an increasingly educated and literate population, produced great flourishings in art, science, banking, optics, engineering, philosophy and culture.

It was unquestionably the most advanced society in Europe, economically and politically making it “the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbours” as, the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, William Temple, once put it.

This economic growth, trade and innovation helped foster one of the greatest eras in the history of art, the age of Rembrandt, Vermeer and De Hooch. Art was mass produced with portraits, landscapes and still-lifes sold on the market to as mass audiences. The nouveau riche merchant class (with their increasingly large homes with many walls that needed decorating), shopkeepers, even the odd peasant were avid consumers of this art. In 2004’s Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, Christopher Lloyd estimates that between 1580 and 1800, approximately 5,000 Dutch artists produced between nine and ten million paintings, of which less than 1% have survived.

Some of the art very much reflected the experiences and aspirations of middle-class urban elites and the new cornucopia of wealth and luxury that had become available. Once prohibitively-expensive goods from all over the world poured into Dutch ports: fruits from across the Mediterranean; tobacco from the New World; spices and precious gems from India; and silk and porcelain from China. Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda, both Haarlem-based painters, introduced banquet pieces into their still life inventory portraying lavish arrangements of food and drink.

Abraham van Beyeren in the 1650s produced a still-life showing a sumptuous table full of lobsters and bowls of exotic fruits, again a glimpse of the potential plenitude and gastronomic pleasure produced by the commercial society; this ironically contrasted with the dominant Calvinism and as it was feared that the Dutch people would be corrupted by their “embarrassment of riches”, so the art often came with proverbs warning against the dangers of excess.

Arguably, the greatest product of the Dutch Golden Age was Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher whose ideas were key to the development of liberalism. The son of Jewish merchants expelled from Portugal because of the Inquisition, he found refuge in the relatively tolerant and free Netherlands, a land where ideas could be debated and exchanged more freely than anywhere else.

Because of this he was a firm defender of confessional toleration, the idea that state had no business concerning itself with the private beliefs of citizens no matter how heretical, unorthodox, crazy or immoral they seemed. Unlike his English contemporary John Locke (they were born just three months apart), Spinoza made no “special exceptions” for who did not deserve tolerance: Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists were all to be tolerated alike.

Spinoza’s stance on freedom of religion was intimately linked with his broader views on freedom of thought and speech. In 1670 he wrote that “in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks”. Even now, this is a remarkably radical statement, but in his own time it was positively dangerous, of the kind that would make Jewish community leaders excommunicate him for “heresy”. Spinoza’s philosophy was that of the free individual who is “guided by reason” as opposed to the “slave” who is “guided by emotion and belief”.

Spinoza wasn’t an atheist but a pantheist, holding that the divinity was “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator”. But as Jonathan Israel has shown in his voluminous yet magisterial tour de force on the Enlightenment, Spinoza’s rationalist materialism was a key intellectual influence on the radical Enlightenment that unemphatically emphasised religious scepticism, individual freedom, anti-authoritarianism and republicanism against the moderate Enlightenment that took a more conciliatory attitude towards authority and the old institutions.

Because of the innovations in shipbuilding and navigation, the Dutch Republic was also able to develop into a formidable maritime empire, expanding into the West and East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), first via eponymous companies like the Dutch West India Company then later on directly by the Dutch state itself.

Moreover, as Pepijn Brandon has recently argued, 17th century Holland was a key player in the Atlantic slave trade that was vital to the breakthrough of European capitalism in the 18th century. Suriname, for instance, was founded in 1667 as a plantation colony dependent on African slaves for the purpose of producing sugar and other “exotic” goods that would be sold on the global market and exported back to Europe. Slavery and colonial plunder wasn’t the sole means of amassing wealth by the Dutch republic, but it was certainly a contributing factor that shouldn’t be omitted.

All of these trends made Holland the wealthiest and freest country in Europe at the time, a haven for political refugees like Spinoza and Locke, at the cutting edge of the latest developments in art, science and philosophy, the first consumer society gobbling up luxury goods from around the world. Bourgeois society found its first unencumbered infant expression in 17th century Holland.

Although it would eventually be supplanted by other European powers, mainly Britain, the Dutch Republic that emerged out of the revolt against the Habsburg Empire was nonetheless a key constitutive moment of our modern world. It was an exemplar in a popular revolt for liberty against a tyrannical empire; it progressed the development of liberalism and the idea of a society based on toleration and free and open intellectual exchange.

Furthermore, a new dynamic social form, what we now call capitalism, was consummated in the small country by the North Sea, breaking out of the fetters of feudalism. This system,  for all its well known iniquities and pathologies, would contain within it the basis for a global civilisation based on freedom and the rights of the individual, and producing material abundance that the Europeans of the Reformation era could only dream of.


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago

“capitalism is now senile and decadent “

Capitalism is a system of free, voluntary interaction. It is only as good and effective as its practitioners. It is people who have become more decadent and their governments who have perverted capitalism.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

An enjoyable read. and I comment as one who lived in Amsterdam for some years and who still visits regularly for work and various other reasons. Funnily enough I read a book about William the Silent and the revolt against the Spanish just last year, a book that i started to read, appropriately enough, at the train station in Orange in southern France.

Personally I think the Netherlands continues to be the most civilised country in Europe, all things considered. The left made a pretty good attempt to destroy it all in the 1970s, but the country came to its senses and it’s been onwards and upwards ever since. Friends tell me that all the bars and restaurants are open (and full), everyone is playing sports again, and nobody is wearing a face mask, except on public transport.

slorter
slorter
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The left made a pretty good attempt to destroy it all in the 1970s

Is that similar to what neoliberalism has done globally for 4+ decades. Unchecked corporate power, the emergence of a brutal modern-day capitalism an exploitative regime of oppression in which not only are the social contract, civil liberties and the commons under siege, but also the very notion of the political, if not the planet itself.

It has made a virtue out of self-interest and the pursuit of material wealth and in doing so has created a culture of shattered dreams and a landscape filled with “Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured.

Dennis Moser
Dennis Moser
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Not wearing a mask is not a sign of virtue when there are, as of this writing, nearly 3/4 of million dead globally of a virus that can be destroyed by the simple hygiene of washing with hot water and soap and whose spread has consistently been shown to be stopped by wearing said masks.

Marian Evans
Marian Evans
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Moser

What has your remark to do with this article? You just want a platform for your biased view, don’t you.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes but aren’t the Dutch quite far behind the UK, the US on Covid vaccination?

Ross Towes
Ross Towes
4 years ago

Thank you for this piece, enjoyably written and with some interesting points. I’m not sure the title does it any favours, though; to make the case that the Dutch Revolt alone made the modern world, you would have to address where the ideas behind the Dutch Republic sprang from. It was not the first minor state to exist on the margins of major continental powers and yet achieve great power status through commerce, sea-power and inclusive politics. Venice was the inspiration – possibly even Carthage and Athens before that. Also, noting why the Dutch Republic faded away could be salutary. The project – freedom funded by finance and commerce protected by a massively expensive navy – was controversial, only truly embraced by the coastal provinces with the major ports, merchants and financiers. The more numerous landward provinces, with their landholders and Orangist politics, thought of land, fortresses and armies. The Republic was never culturally and politically united.

mark4asp
mark4asp
4 years ago
Reply to  Ross Towes

As we’re talking about the ideas the Dutch Republic was founded on we should probably name check the Old Swiss Confederacy too; which achieved de facto independence from the Hapsburg Empire before the Reformation. We’re name-checking philosophers so, let’s not forget Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), exiled from Holland after 1621, and Descartes (1596-1650); who lived there from 1629-1649. Grotius was a a Protestant with Catholic friends and his ideas on religious toleration are central to the foundation of international law and saw practical fruition in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 which ended the 30 years war.

Ross Towes
Ross Towes
4 years ago
Reply to  mark4asp

Mark – certainly Grotius was important in this. His ‘free seas’ doctrine was essential to maritime commerce and of course the Dutch went to war with England over that principle. His work was strongly embraced by the three coastal provinces, but didn’t interest the other four, concerned as they were with land invasions, fortresses and armies. But I agree, Grotius provided the intellectual basis for the True Freedom vision of the Republic, and triumphed for a while.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Ross Towes

A good point, what was the source of such inspiration?

I would have thought Portugal was perhaps the greatest inspiration to the nascent Dutch Republic.

On the periphery of Europe, it also established an astonishing maritime Empire in the early to mid 16th century. An Empire the Dutch would subsequently plunder on a grand scale in the 17th.

Additionally a brief mention of savagery involved in the brutal murders of the de Witt brothers in 1672, (beautifully painted by Jan de Baen) would also have made this a more balanced essay, rather than the eulogy it is.

Ross Towes
Ross Towes
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I’m not so sure, Mark. Portugal was profoundly different to the Dutch Republic. The only similarity, I think, was the possession of short-lived global maritime empire; but whilst for a brief period the Republic was dominated by a cultural identity based on that and which sustained it, Portugal never was. It was never anything but a continental power with a profoundly continental outlook and a church-and-monarchy controlled command economy. It lost its eastern empire to the VoC, a joint stock company backed by the Amsterdam financial markets, too inflexible and culturally indifferent to defend it. No one but the monarchy really had an interest in it. The virtues of the Dutch Republic extolled in this piece will not be found there! The Venetian Republic is by far the clearest predecessor, I think.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Ross Towes

I stand corrected. ‘Dazzled’ by the maritime aspect, I completely overlooked your vital point “inclusive politics “.

Portugal, as you rightly say, was just another top-down monarchial church ridden, ‘command and control’ economy.
No wonder they threw it all away with Sebastian’s lunatic crusade in 1578. Thus encouraging the VoC to ‘hoover up’ most of their Far Eastern Empire.

I supposed along with Venice, you could include Genoa, tiny little Pisa and Amalfi, and going back to the beginning, Tyre and Sidon, as possible sources of inspiration. Although Dutch art seems to celebrate their somewhat violent ancestors, the at Batavians.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

It is called a Thalassocracy – a sea power, Athens being a good example. C NorthCote Parkinson , The Naval Historian states seapowers promote leaders based upon competence. Captains of ships cause them to sink. The sea is the greatest force man has to manage and therefore a captain of a ship, especailly a sailing one, is the greatest test of ledership.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Rome (land power) vs. Carthage (sea power)?
Who was more competent?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

The Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Friesans had a concept of electing kings and them consulting the tribe to achieve consent going back to at least 500 AD. There is no concept of Divine Right of Kings which was adopted by the Franks and supported by the RC after the fall of Rome. There is meant to be a code of laws from Frisia dating from 500 AD, something to do with Freya. When Christianity was adopted tribal custom was mixed with ideas from The Bible to create codes of Law.

Consequently, England, The Netherlands and Denmark developed different legal and kingship traditions from the Franks and Holy Roman Empire. This is the fault line which still exists.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Sweden? Norway? Iceland? Switzerland?
“electing” kings – as you say – was also widespread among the rest of the German tribes. The Frankish culture was the marriage of Germanic tribal culture with institutional culture and sophistication of Rome.
Other Germanic people (Swiss) didn’t bother with kings at all.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
4 years ago

There is one aspect of Dutchness that is not covered by this very good article. That of the effect on the psychology of a people when they live in an artificial environment. An environment where the sea can overwhelm the sea defences and drown everryone. You have one choice. Build the dykes properly or die. By way of example sea level at Schippol Airport is half way up the tail fin of a 747.

The one characteristic of the Dutch is they don’t muck about with half measures. (One needs only look at our governments response to C19 for a comparison). They do everything properly so it works and keeps them safe.

Their do it right approach to life Seems to pervade every aspect of their lives. Building a political and economic system based on models that are shown to work is probably one of their greatest achievements.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Yes nature shapes people.
Look at design (fashion in general), weather/light and Italy+France.

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago

When Cromwell invited Jews to return to England (they had been expelled in1290), it was so the Dutch Jewish bankers could provide cheap credit for English commerce. So you could say that the Netherlands helped to seed their rivals.

It is also notable that political refugees (such as Locke) often chose to flee to the low countries.

baarsbj
baarsbj
3 years ago

As I understand it, the legal basis of investor-share corporation first appeared in the Netherlands, perhaps at the same time in Antwerp, and was then adopted by Britain in the Glorious Revolution of 1699, which established the rights of British citizens (male and all that, but generallly heads of families); and it was those rights that the US founders fought for when they still considered themselves colonial citizens of the Crown. The founders also read Blackstone on the Common Law, the legal source that Lincoln found (accidentally) as a young man in Springfield, IL, and which he read and understood as he entered politics. Today the word “capitalism” also means the expansion of money as a symbolic system based on a fairly good bet of being exchangeable for some concrete good or service. This all created powerful leverage, and made it possible to send ships on dangerous voyages on the bet that it would likely survive and return with more stuff. It should be said that the term “capitalism” is now used as a kind of term of abuse, even though the Soviet Union used banking, and Putin’s Russia is a “crony capitalist” regime, though much better than the USSR. At this moment “capitalism” is mostly misused, and the key is to ask the user for a definition. No definition, no conversation.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
3 years ago

Don’t forget the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Dutch invaded Britain and started the British Empire with the help of a National Debt created using the Dutch invention of central banking. The Second Hundred Years War ended in 1815 with the reduction of France and a UK National Debt of 250 percent of GDP.

Alexander Hamilton was the guy that brought Dutch finance to the US, with a refinancing of Revolutionary War debt, and the creditworthiness to do the Louisiana Purchase.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

The Dutch were asked in. Mary was James 2 daughter. The defeat of the Armada and English financing of the Dutch helped them survive.Many Protestants fought for them from mid 1550s.

English rights go back to Aethelbert of Kent in about 650 AD. The Bill of Rights codifies practices to prevent their loss. The Stuarts had introduced The Divine Right of Kings which went against English and Welsh traditions. William was somewhat irked by the Bill of Rights and Parliament as it limited his powers.

The Dutch system worked well until Napoleon and then Hitler came along.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

The Dutch system worked well until Napoleon and then Hitler came along.

Between Napoleon (1815) and WW2 (1940) how bad did Holland do?
How badly has Holland done since 1945?

hcfaber
hcfaber
3 years ago

Good article! Read it with great interest. Wrote some time ago this post about (partly) the origin of the free trade and capitalism of the Dutch Republic: https://www.frisiacoasttrai

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
3 years ago

Retracted

Jim le Messurier
Jim le Messurier
3 years ago

Brilliant and fascinating article.

Lex Pagani
Lex Pagani
3 years ago

Very interesting, thanks for the history lesson.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
4 years ago

Yes, but hardly a thing to congratulate, …the comprehensive reification & commodification of presencing in a marketplace cosmos. Neither, its metaphysician.
All which is resolving into its logical eschaton, ecocide.