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Capitalism with a human face - the Venetian model (J-C Barreau)


Strong personality with a busy life, readily iconoclastic or even provocative, Jean-Claude Barreau regularly becomes a historian, as when with Guillaume Bigot he recounts "the whole history of the world", or more recently goes back to "the roots of France". Committed, he does not hesitate to mix history and contemporary political references. Capitalism with a human face (the Venetian model) is entirely in this spirit, criticizing by its opposite example - Venice - the current ultraliberal drift carried by globalization.

Venice, a model to be rehabilitated

Faithful to himself, Jean-Claude Barreau begins his work with a protest: contrary to what Max Weber asserted, it was not from Protestantism that capitalism was born, but from Italian Catholic cities, in particular Venice. in medieval times. According to him, it is therefore time to rehabilitate the idea of ​​a "humanist" capitalism, far from the Anglo-Saxon model, at the same time as destroying the image of a decadent Venice like that of the Death in Venice de Visconti, or that of a museum just floating today. For Jean-Claude Barreau, the Republic of Venice can therefore be considered as a model, both of government and of economics.

"The Serene Dominant"

The author begins by summarizing the long history of Venice, whose commercial power from 1100 to 1600 he compares to that of nineteenth-century Britain. It stresses its original foundation and the strengths that explain its power over such a long period, a power that is expressed far beyond the Adriatic, including on dry land. Explanations of his nickname of “Serene Dominant”.

A political, social and economic model

Jean-Claude Barreau returns in the following chapters more directly to the thesis of his book: Venice would have been an example of “capitalism with a human face”. And first of all a "good government" which, according to the author, and despite its oligarchic character, can still be a model today. Jean-Claude Barreau thus describes the qualities and strengths of La Sérénissime: he made it an "ecological city" before the hour, integrated into its unique environment; then, he praises the quality of its leaders, "magistrates, never tyrants"; second, he praises the relationship of the Venetian nobility to money, much healthier than that of today's financiers; finally, it is the economic model that he welcomes, not hesitating to qualify it as "Keynesian". The pioneer character of Venice is also noticeable, according to him, both in the legal system - egalitarian - and in the respect for individual freedoms. The patriotic feeling and the "sense of the state", dear to the author, seem just as much to have been Venetian characteristics, too misguided today ...

The reasons for the fall

How then to explain the fall of a system that seemed so "perfect"? Jean-Claude Barreau explains it first by the choice of "absolute neutrality" (1717), which causes Venice to lose its international place, far from its role in Lepanto for example (1571). The author does not hesitate to make the comparison with the EU, precisely too neutral for his taste.

The decadence is then explained by "the sclerosis of the ruling class", a lack of renewal of the oligarchy, which is closing in on itself.

Finally, Jean-Claude Barreau's last explanation of this decline: a change in the relationship to money. Getting rich becomes an end, just like today's financial capitalism. Venice has therefore declined for reasons that can be found today with the financial (but also political and moral) crisis affecting the whole world. This is obviously the heart of Jean-Claude Barreau's thesis.

A history book ?

As often with Jean-Claude Barreau, the question arises: are we dealing with the work of a historian? The debate would be endless, and Jean-Claude Barreau himself rejects the methods of academic history. He therefore does not hesitate to make comparisons between eras, parallels between the causes of the fall of Venice and what is happening now with the global crisis. His work is thus regularly punctuated with attacks against our politicians, traders or tax exiles (until Johnny Hallyday!). This can certainly be shocking, there are many anachronisms, but is his approach really “historical”? We can also criticize an undoubtedly idealized vision of Venice, too monolithic; indeed, has this "model" been so immutable, homogeneous and "perfect" for more than seven centuries? And above all, obviously, can it be applied today to end the political, economic, social and moral crisis in our societies?

Capitalism with a human face (the Venetian model) is therefore more of a political essay than a classic historical work. A way for the author to sharply criticize our generalized decline, due in large part to globalization. This does not preclude some very interesting parts about the birth of Venice or how it worked. And the style of Jean-Claude Barreau is still as incisive and pleasant to read. His book is more in line with the one on Islam (Islam in general and the modern world in particular, Le Pré-aux-Clercs, 1991), even on Israel, minus the autobiographical character (Everything you always wanted to know about Israel without ever daring to ask, Toucan, 2010), than his more strictly “historian” books such as The whole history of the world (Fayard, 2007).

- Jean-Claude Barreau, Capitalism with a human face (the Venetian model), Fayard, 2011, 188 p.


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