When 1789 thousands of poor and angry Parisians stormed abhorrent prison of Bastille, symbol of totalitarian regime of King Louis XVI, they were not only demanding liberty, fraternity or death but also slew of reforms which would bring up-to-date archaic legal system into contemporary political and economic reality. One of those demands was to abolish trade, legal, medical and artisan guilds. But why French revolutionaries, would have supported such a move. Surprisingly, their argumentation and motivation seems to bear eerie similarity to today’s harsh critics of guilds and their role in modern society. So let’s examine what guilds are guilty of?
The trade and artisan guilds were ancient associations of people, providing goods and/or services, aimed towards safeguarding their own narrow interests vis-à-vis interest of the state. The guilds were not actually counter party to the state, but there were merely extension of the state, which trade represented 99% of all monetized market for goods and services in medieval times. The guilds influence, mostly bore out of cronyism, intermarriage with courtiers of the sovereign or financial arrangements, almost always resulted in acquiring numerous privileges such as tax exemption, toll/fee collection privilege, monopoly positions of trade and/or services within given jurisdiction of the state or province. Effectively guilds were institutions of monopoly and anti-competitiveness, limiting access to education, innovation and markets, which became serious impediment to development new technologies and were slowing down necessary political, legal, economic and social changes in the age of discovery and globalization from XVII century on.
No wonder why during French revolution guilds were stalwartly attacked. They were just tentacles of reviled “Ancien Regime” of kings, nobles and clergy. Instead newly emerged industrialists, business class of commoners who supported open markets for trade, for artisan work as well for any labor, goods and services, proposed taking over education of citizen from hands of church and guilds to the state. All the licenses, certifications, permits for commercial activities previously delegated to guilds, were to be issued by the department of education of the state after completion of state designated educational programs open to everyone demonstrating skills, talents or traits of character making them suitable for given profession, regardless social class or family connections. The French guilds clearly opposed modern capitalism and had to be pushed away in order to allow progress.
The absolutely opposite attitude to American guilds by new American regime after 1789, which claimed progress, freedom, innovation and unimpeded economic development as its policies, at first look seems puzzling. Close examination however, reveals that in contrast to French revolution which established third (after king and nobles), dominant state of new capitalistic society, American revolution left intact king-less, feudal, land ownership based political system with little or no free modern capitalism allowed. The guilds were mostly left intact due to the fact that nothing had really changed as far as fundamental characteristics of society were concerned.
The guilds simple rebuilt their ancient exclusive relations with the new republic, and continued to obstruct historical process of technological improvements, competitiveness and free market capitalism from its position of protectionism, cronyism and monopoly. This status of privilege of guilds as extension of the power of the state was further embedded into state laws over following centuries, causing devastating damage to the technological and social progress in America. The level of American universities in early nineteen century was appalling. They served solely English-American aristocratic elites transplanted to US via marriage or business relations, as schools of sophistry and meaningless debates, in preparation to their students pre-set political, or management careers. Meanwhile, European universities thrived by opening to wide variety of young minds, with bright perspective to enter any professional field they desired.
The USA quickly became technologically backward. Appalling lack of technological prowess, lack of uniform standards, low quality of work, lack of discipline or any established rules, procedures, safety measures, and impeded growth within many professions could be attributed to destructive influences of monopolistic guilds. The situation became so bad that US government had to exclude itself from unreasonable rules of state guilds and provided its own, much more open and up-to-date, standards for engineering professionals as was taught at West Point Academy of USCE.
Almost entire great American technological leap forward into modern infrastructure, financed by moguls of private industry in XIX century America, was done by foreign professionals, including artisans and engineers, often hired over restrictions imposed by state guilds since there was almost nothing of modern technical expertise these guilds could offer. A few American engineers that attain enough expertise to be put in charge of large projects were all educated in Europe simply due to lack of quality engineering programs in the US. In early nineteen-century private engineering educational system, including Ivy-League universities in the US, has been utter failure in comparison to mostly state-run educational system in continental Europe. And strong grip of guilds limiting professional opportunities of young people, had a lot to do with it.
Trying to remedy the situation, American universities went on shopping spree for scientists and engineers to level up gaping hole in the academic educational levels in comparison to Europe. But to no avail as far as opening up opportunities for all students in all technological fields is concerned. This was because not a university degree but years of terminating with guild member through personal relationship of exploitation and submission to the mentor was path demanded from young engineer in order to acquire legal right to perform duty as professional in the US, regardless of his/her level of qualifications.
Unfortunately, as a result of such European mind vacuuming operation, technological level of American engineers did not rise. Instead, America funded itself system of finest research universities in the world staffed with foreign researchers and foreign students as their assistants while Americans were pushed away. During wars and short post war periods there was relative growth of engineering profession and significant improvement of quality of professional services but only because engineering guilds’ privileges were limited or temporary suspended. Large federal infrastructure projects, outside state jurisdiction, had also positive impact.
During last decades, American know-how deteriorated to knowing how to buy expertise from abroad, and then under “supervision” of technically illiterate guild member to perform advanced work under glory of American ingenuity. This façade of propaganda about greatness of American engineering, itself is deteriorating, when American engineers seemingly are unable to construct and build bridge replacements for Bay area and authorities resort to buying whole bridge in China instead, circumventing the engineering guilds in testing and design process as well as state law that requires guild engineer involvement in all stages. These are assertions of big government and corporate bosses who gave up on America and American engineers.
It seems to me that American engineering community as well as engineering guilds are in state of decay more advanced that derelict American infrastructure. Facing massive outsourcing of engineering services and associated massive loss of jobs, thanks to huge global, stateless corporations, with enormous leverage over federal and state governments, guilds are left helpless with their toothless, outdated laws on books, officially preventing anyone from legally performing professional services in geology, geophysics, land surveying, structural engineering, civil engineering etc., that means nothing in political reality of globalization.
A few modest voices within guild membership try to raise these issues and are looking for way out somehow out of this torpor. However, almost all those attempts end up in failure, since unfortunately technologically illiterate membership, were and still are, unable to grasp enormity of the change. Having mostly high school education and consequently unable to perceive devastating consequences of insane processes of “creative destruction”, directly affecting their practice as well as seriously threatening their livelihood, they react with denial and disbelieve. Sadly, most of guild members choose to elect scapegoats for their misery instead of self-reflection. Immigration, dishonesty or unethical practices among unlicensed engineers, vendetta of politicians, rules and regulations, corporate policies etc. are always good candidates to blame for the their dire straits. Often, in act of desperation or corporate subversion, guild members attack their own for speaking out the truth and demanding change in wider political realm.
It is distressing that guilds taking for granted their privileged position for centuries, position of monopoly, position obstruction to innovations, position of rejecting free market of ideas, competitiveness and suppressing development of engineering fields in the USA, are still unable to grasp that they were only extension of the state power, nothing more, serving interest of the state and ruling elites alone. They cannot believe that state is now rescinding its privileges and letting membership loose, with almost nothing instead, sacrificing guilds’ privileges on altar of global corporate profits.