It’s easy to forget that guilds once ruled the world. By the time Rembrandt painted his masterpiece “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” in 1662, the concept, and inherent intrinsic value of guilds, was already a 400 year-old idea. If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval. Rembrandt’s drapers, you see, were appointed by the Mayor of Amsterdam to oversee the quality of cloth sold in the city. It was a golden era for guilds.
A couple of hundred years later, by the 1800s, human nature, such as political opportunism and rent seeking, ultimately took its toll on guilds. The rise of free market capitalism broke apart former fiefdoms, and rightly so, for guilds had come to hamper innovation and competition.
As the Internet dis-intermediates virtually every industry value chain, the return of the guild is near.