What makes the 21st century city the harbinger of a postcapitalist world is that for the first time in modern history the network can transcend the market.
Imagine yourself in Amsterdam exactly 400 years ago. What word would you use to describe the extraordinary economic and social system around you?
There are a stock exchange, a currency market and a central bank. The most important social institution is something called a ‘company’—not just any old company but the VOC (the Dutch East Indian Company), the most powerful in the world.
There are other clues. The trade fleet of the United Provinces is bigger than all the trade fleets of Europe combined. Amsterdam is the ‘bookshop of the world’. And this is a republic.
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So what, using the language available to you as a citizen of the Dutch Republic, do you call this kind of society?
Today it’s obvious. This is the first flourishing of mercantile capitalism. And the transition had been under way for at least 100 years. While London possessed some of the working parts of the new system, only Amsterdam had all of them.
The English ambassador, Sir William Temple, summed up the puzzlement of the rest of the world:
They have no native commodities towards the building or rigging of the smallest vessel … for havens they have not any good upon their whole coast … nor has Holland grown rich by any native commodities, but by force of industry; by improvement and manufacture of all foreign growths; by being the general magazine of Europe, and furnishing all parts with whatever the market wants or invites …
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