Corporatism, Liberalism, Slavery, and the ‘New Economic History’

In 2008, neo-liberalism struck a major obstacle large enough to shake the global economy and catch the attention of mainstream media.  Explosion of the 2008 housing bubble even forced proponents of liberalism, such as Allan Greenspan, to cast doubt on the “laws of the market.”  Many scholars had known for a long time that the laws of the market were short-hand for naturalizing capitalism.  Doubts about neo-liberalism were alive and well within academia, regardless, the 2008 stock market debacle influenced historians to reimagine the history of capitalism—a project long overdue.  Historians of the ‘new history of capitalism’ reimagine economic history by focusing on the influence of human agency on markets instead of the influence of market agency on human relations and institutions.  Although the ‘new history of capitalism’ primarily focuses on the development of American (U.S.) capitalism, similar approaches to economic history can be found in other fields of history—such as history of the eighteenth century British political economy.

British imperial historians are re-interpreting the political economic history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Like the historians mentioned above, imperial historians are approaching the economy through a socio-political perspectives rather than a narrow economic point of view.  These writings emerge from revisions in the history of the English/ British state more so than from the 2008 stock market debacle.[1]  Although, the 2008 incident does play a factor, as can be evidenced by historian Michael Braddick’s comments on the back cover of Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind’s Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (2013).

According to Max Weber, “the state is a centralized, differentiated set of institutions enjoying a monopoly of the means of legitimate violence over a territorially demarcated area.”[2]  This was the traditional concept of the state, but sociologists and historians began revising the history of the state in the 1980s.  Braddick, in “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” argued that state formation was “the product of a negotiation between various interests.”[3]  This differs from the traditional fiscal-military view of the state, which argues that the state emerged as a cohesive force and subsumed the outer provinces.  The Stuart monarchy did not have the power or resources to annex the provinces, nor did they want too.  English provinces were very proud of their semi-sovereignty and self-governance.  Problems regarding poor-law unions in the late seventeenth century can attest to provinces’ reluctance to give up power.

The same concept of negotiated state building can be applied to the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire.  The Stuart’s outsourced Empire to joint-stock companies by granting companies monopolies on specific areas of trade.  Companies such as the East India Company and the Royal African Company received monopoly charters and in return they provided the Crown with finances and oversaw national interests overseas.

Outsourcing Empire occurred during the era of mercantilism.  However, one of the tenants of mercantilism argues that the state oversaw and regulated trade, but with the new perspective of the English/ British state, this is no longer a tenable.  This conundrum lead to Steve Pincus’s symposium in the William and Mary Quarterly,” Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” and Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind’s Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (2013), featuring a collection of essays by well-noted historians on the political economy.

Pincus argued that historians conceived of mercantilism as having a hegemony over pre-Smithian economic theory, thereby leading historians to consider early modern economics as apolitical.  For instance, if early modern statesmen agreed on one trade policy, they would not engage in political arguments about economic policies, because there would be no other policies.  Pincus claims that contemporaries might argue over degrees of mercantilism, but differences between contemporary positions would be a matter of degree not kind.  Pincus encourages scholars to revisit the era of ‘mercantilism’ and consider the different commercial policies.  This would amount to conjoining political history with economic history, thus regarding social and political aspects of the economy before Smith.  Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind make a similar argument in Mercantilism Reimagined (2013), though they did not go so far as arguing that historians perceived pre-Smithian economic issues as apolitical.

Traditionally, the next stage in the history of economic development is free trade liberalism—often associated with writers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith.  Free trade liberalism was not so much about merchants challenging the authority of the state as it was about merchants challenging corporatism.  In the late seventeenth century for instance, private merchants successfully prevented the Royal African Company from renewing its monopoly charter on the African trade.  As William Pettigrew, has written in Freedom’s Debt, free trade and English liberty was set against the backdrop of the antithesis of freedom—chattel slavery.

This bring us back to the history of liberalism and capitalism.  Many of the scholars writing the new history of capitalism are focusing on America—especially in the nineteenth century, but if we expand our view just a little further, we might find that the history of liberalism and capitalism in the long duree, might help us rethink our faith in markets and the rhetoric of the alleged ‘free world,’ whose history is steeped in corporatism, slavery and violence.

–Todd Burst

[1] I use English to refer to present day England before the union of Scotland and England in 1707

[2] “State and Society” Max Weber 166.

[3] Michael Braddick, “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” Social History 16, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 6.  Braddick wrote about the seventeenth century English state.  For further information on the history of the English/ British state please see:  Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783. Routledge, 2002.



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