Society Before Capitalism: The Premodern World

Modernity (beginning at around 1500 A.D.) is the era we live in today, but the world wasn’t always like this. Here, we offer a description of the premodern world which will seem alien or mythical compared to the present.


For Catholics, integralism refers to the traditional teaching that the “temporal power” must be subordinate to the “spiritual power.” By analogy, this also describes the political philosophy of all other premodern societies. Sometimes, for example in Rome or Egypt, the role of the Emperor or Pharaoh was fused with the role of High Priest. Sometimes there was a priestly class, such as Celtic Druids or Hindu Brahmins. In smaller premodern states, spiritual leaders were often elected or appointed by the community, like the Iroquois Faithkeepers or the Dogon Hogon.

No matter where you look, religion was an essential part of human life. Kings of every era, whether in China, Ghana, or Peru, ruled by the mandate of heaven or in the name of the gods. Custom, tradition, and community were at the center of society. Modern secularism would be baffling.


Subsidiarity is the sacred principle that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus § 48)

Subsidiary was widespread in premodern society. Kings who crushed the communities beneath them were seen as illegitimate tyrants. Their power was limited by custom, moral law, and subsidiary institutions. Subsidiarity is likewise evident in the smaller states of premodern Africans or Native Americans. But even in the Mali or Inka Empires, we do not find a modern state. Family, village, and clan networks acted as intermediary institutions between the individual and the imperial power; local custom had the force of law.

The transformation to the State we know today would only be accomplished over centuries, fueled by a radical and destructive economics.

Distributive Economics

Capitalism did not exist before modernity. The most powerful force of distribution was not the invisible hand of the “free market”, but the very visible hand of the king (or the priest), whether the Sapa Inka (the supreme emperor in the Andes), the feudal lord, or the dougou-tigui (a “village-master” in the Mali Empire). The “market” in these days referred to a local community center; beyond this, much of the economy was determined by the planning and redistribution of various hierarchies (some royal, some classless).

Almost all advanced premodern societies did have a merchant class, but their influence was extremely limited by the power of integralist religion, subsidiary states, and a rich social life of customs and traditions which were hostile to the economics of exchange-value. Capital was kept subordinated.