The Economic Turn: Recasting Political Economy in Enlightenment Europe

The Economic Turn: Recasting Political Economy in Enlightenment Europe


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The mid-eighteenth century witnessed what might be dubbed an 'economic turn' that resolutely changed the trajectory of world history. From the birth of new agricultural practices and the foundation of private societies to the sustained and popular theorization of social and material phenomena, the period experienced an unprecedented interest in 'economic' concerns across a wide spectrum of human activities and social strata alike.

The discipline of economics itself emerged amidst this turn, and it is frequently traced back to the work of François Quesnay and his school of Physiocracy (literally the 'Rule of Nature'). The school or, as it was called at the time, sect of économistes spearheaded a theoretically sophisticated form of economic analysis that postulated the virtues of laissez-faire and the unique ability of agriculture to generate wealth. Though lionized by the subsequent historiography of economics, the theoretical postulates and policy consequences of Physiocracy were disastrous at the time, resulting in veritable subsistence trauma in France. This galvanized relentless and diverse critiques of the doctrine not only in France but also throughout the European world that have, hitherto, been largely neglected by scholars.

Though Physiocracy was an integral part of the economic turn, it was rapidly overcome both theoretically and practically, with durable and important consequences for the history of political economy. 'The Economic Turn' brings together some of the leading historians of that moment to fundamentally recast our understanding of the origins and diverse natures of political economy in the Enlightenment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088553
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/16/2019
Series: Anthem Other Canon Economics
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Steven L. Kaplan is the Goldwin Smith Professor of European History Emeritus at Cornell University, USA. His books include Bread, Politics and Political Economy (1976/2015), Farewell Revolution (1995), Le Pain maudit (2008) and Raisonner sur les blés (2017).

Sophus A. Reinert is the Marvin Bower Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, USA. His books include Translating Empire (2011) and The Academy of Fisticuffs (2018).

Read an Excerpt



Steven L. Kaplan and Sophus A. Reinert

In a short article on "Bled ou Blé" (grain) in the wide-ranging 1770– 1774 Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, Voltaire famously explained that

Around the year 1750, the nation, satiated with verses, tragedies, comedies, opera, novels, fantastical stories, even more fantastical moral reflections, and theological disputes about grace and convulsions, finally turned to reasoning about grain.

The citation is characteristically witty, but does it reveal something about the world of the Patriarch of Ferney, not just about the author? While he relished irony, indulged gladly in frivolity on occasion, and swore no oath of ethnographic accuracy, here he seems to be pointing to a multifaceted phenomenon that enjoyed real traction in French society, with analogies and extensions elsewhere. Grain must not only be understood as the massively present, palpable object that was a crucial everyday concern for the state and the vast majority of the population, but also as the privileged and powerful metaphor for the plethora of issues of policy and theory that increasingly came to be called political economy. In his essay, Voltaire hinted as well that what had once been a rather recondite matter now reached beyond the confines of the intellectual or specialist microcosms and mobilized the attention of a much more substantial audience, composed largely of elites of one sort or another, but quite diversely situated, including certain kinds of artisans and farmers along with seigneurs and affluent merchants (and their wives who could not distinguish between wheat and rye).

We believe that Voltaire was pointing to what we call the "economic turn," a prodigious set of changes that did not happen all at once: far from it. Rather than a sudden swerve, the economic turn was a gradual, cumulative process that touched much of Europe, with variable degrees of intensity and significant time lags from place to place, and burst forth in different domains of activity, sensibility and mindfulness at different moments. It involved primordially the economic sphere, as our locution suggests, but not just, for we construe the "economic" as simultaneously material and symbolic, as relating to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, but also to their organization and regulation, to the discourses that generate or are generated by these practices, and to the conflicts that are inseparable from them.

This is not the place to inventory the multiple forces that drive economic growth and mutation in the eighteenth century: technological innovation, agricultural development, population increase, industrialization, urbanization, expansion of credit facilities, improved transportation and communication, consumption, information management including advertising, overseas commerce and colonization, war, domestic institutional refoundation and shifting relations in the world-system all contributed to the economic turn. But so do changing ways of apprehending and understanding or interpreting the economy, of conceiving and correcting or revamping it. In our view, what used to be called "modes of production" do not have an ontological priority vis-à-vis modes of representation; ideas do not stand in heteronomous subjection to things; politics and culture are not relegated to the realm of a superstructure tasked to account or apologize for the singularly decisive actions of an infrastructure that monopolizes all the dynamism of which a society is capable. Economic practices and results stand in an always dialogic and sometimes dialectical tension with discourse. Ideas sometimes misrepresent or distort economic reality, deliberately or without intention, but the test of their interest rarely resides in the precision of the "translation" or narrative they provide. Moreover, many ideas seek to criticize and inflect that reality, while others attempt to explain and/ or justify it; they constitute a parallel, commensurate and complementary reality. Representations accompany yet often precede fundamental transformations in the ways an economy behaves. Our discussion of the economic turn here focuses on the former rather than the latter, which has been treated by many highly knowledgeable scholars: on the prise de conscience signified by Voltaire's "reasoning about grain," a new consciousness of the weight, if not the primacy, of the economic.

Voicing a similar point of view, lawyer, journalist and iconoclast Simon Linguet, whose effrontery matched his perspicacity, was struck by the metamorphosis of the "philosophical insect" into the "economic insect." Certainly, it had been developing in larva for at least several decades. It affirmed its transformation in the 1750s and 1760s as the Enlightenment itself took on an increasingly economic cast in its appetite to encompass all the domains of human activity, with an emphasis on those that favored citizenship and the general utility. The Encyclopédie epitomized this project, predicated on an omnivorously curious and critical spirit. In scores of articles, it treated the economy as a subject of practical, universal and urgent preoccupation, for the individual and the collectivity. The economic impulse made the case more strongly than ever that ignorance could no longer be regarded as an insuperable barrier to progress and that the state, blamed by certain "economic" thinkers for impeding development by throttling individual freedom and analeptic competition, had, at least during the embryonic phase of economic regeneration, to clear the law codes of dead weights and obstructions, even as enterprising farmers had to clear the land of hedges and stumps before it could be reclaimed and rendered fertile. The ubiquitous example of the English, in commerce and in agriculture as well as in government, in the metropole as well as in the colonies, in war as well as in peace, stimulated inquiry into economics, where their virtuosity seemed to account for many of their accomplishments. Traumatized by the Seven Years' War, the French found their taste for "anglomania" increasingly rancid, but not their fancy for tracts on political economy and treatises on husbandry, planting and conservation that continued to cross the channel in all seasons.

Independently of anglomania, agromania flourished in France and many other countries. A profusion of manuals, often written in a didactic vernacular, targeting both farmers with capital and those with mere ingenuity and motivation, appeared in numerous languages, and "economic societies" were established throughout the European world, from the Americas to Russia, from Denmark-Norway to Sicily. The ministry in France encouraged the organization of permanent "agricultural societies" to experiment with and promote innovation and efficiency, and the holding of periodic "agricultural assemblies" and "fêtes" to broadcast meliorist principles and practices. A priest with a reputation for "profane" language shocked the Académie française by preaching a sermon on "holy agriculture." "So much has been written on this matter [grain and agriculture]," commented Voltaire, "that if a farmer [laboureur] planted as much weight in grain as we have of volumes on this product, he could aspire to the most ample harvest...." (the philosophe might have mentioned that actual farmers — fermiers and laboureurs — were among the scores of writers who contributed articles to the economic press). Playfully, but not wholly comically, he announced that he had become farmer, vintner and shepherd: "that is worth a hundred times more than being a man of letters in Paris." Of course, living in grand rusticity near the Swiss border, the Patriarch had perhaps forgotten that the shortest route to the countryside, then as now, often passed through Paris. He himself continued to participate in the economic work of academic life, participating, for example, in at least one of the periodic prize competitions organized by the Société d'Oeconomie et d'Agriculture à St.-Petersbourg.

The Journal économique, whose very title heralded the changing times, noted with satisfaction that "the genius of the nation seems turned almost entirely to the side of the economy." No longer a template dedicated to the management of domestic affairs, this economic perspective is henceforth decidedly public, social and political in its location, incidence and objectives. The economic turn revealed both micro and macro vocations: even as improvers ebulliently advocated "economic manuring" and a number of "economic breads," so officials of the Atlantic port of St.-Malo yearned for "a good economic government" at about the same moment that jurist, venal-office holder, writer and future militant physiocrat, Guillaume-François Le Trosne envisaged the birth of "economic science." The latter's "economist" companions talked of the advent of "economic philosophy" and "economic monarchy" at about the same time. Inventors sought more cachet for their creations by styling them as "economic." In the wake of "agricultural assemblies," there were calls for more generic "economic assemblies" in France. Cast as an audacious program for the concurrent commercialization and industrialization of a crucial sector of the French economy, "economic milling" had myriad social and political implications beyond its central mission of feeding significantly more people with the same quantity of wheat. Throughout Europe, from Spain to Scandinavia, one began — in lay as well as official circles — to employ frequently and systematially terms such as "economic affairs" and "economic descriptions," and to theorize the means of improving "economic government" and "the economy of states." Strikingly, these preoccupations were also reflected in an increasing number of university chairs devoted to "political economy" in Continental Europe, and earliest of all in the Germanies, Sweden and on the Italian peninsula.

The economic turn is manifest from the vantage point of book history. French publications on economic subjects, for example, exploded around 1750; not only did new works in the genre outpace even the publication of new novels by the 1760s, but in the 10 years following mid century, more works appeared dealing with political economy, sensu lato, than in the previous half century. The economic periodical press emerged and thrived in this same era: the Journal économique (1751– 72); the Nouvelliste économique et littéraire (1754– 71); the Journal du commerce (1759– 62); the different versions of the Journal de l'agriculture, du commerce et des finances (1763– 83); and the successive incarnations of the Ephémérides du citoyen (1765 — 72), later the Nouvelles Ephémérides économiques (1774– 76, 1787– 88). Nor was this striking new coloration of publishing merely a French phenomenon. Internationally, too, the publication and translation of political economy came to occupy a markedly larger share of the European book trade in the same period, from Italy in the South to Sweden in the North. In Germany, Cameralist publications such as the Oeconomische Nachrichten, or Economic News, highlighted the need to "understand the economy [die Oeconomie]," while in Spain, journals like Discursos mercuriales, memorias sobre la agricultura, marina, comercio, y artes liberales y mecanicas (1752– 1756) sought to emulate foreign advances regarding "economic" matters. And in Italy, such journals were numerous across the various publishing centers of the peninsula, from Naples through Florence to Milan and Venice. Grand tourists, too, increasingly came to travel in order to familiarize themselves with foreign theories and practices, further contributing to a continent-wide process of cumulative economic emulation. In short, rulers and subjects in a growing number of European countries became convinced that governance, in its most ambitious as well as its most quotidian senses, had to be "economic," and not just in the narrow sense of doing proper accounting.

To be sure, this "economic turn" was not without precedent or precursor, and many of its basic premises had been expressed for centuries. Indeed, economic concerns have been far more dominant, for far longer, than much recent historiography would suggest. Already the Florentine theorist and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli, supposedly an outlier by contemporary Renaissance standards for his conservative insistence on the importance of virtuous citizen militias rather than money and standing armies for winning wars, became adamant both in ambassadorial dispatches and private correspondence late in life that wealth not merely contributed to, but was necessary for, defensive and offensive warfare. And Archduke Cosimo I de' Medici followed suit, theorizing that "without money" one could neither "augment nor maintain" a state, his policies giving explicit inspiration to the gradual transformation of "reason of state" at the hands of writers such as Giovanni Botero and Antonio Serra into something recognizable as political economy. Yet even if economic concerns became prominent earlier than is often acknowledged, and a tendency to emulate certain prior theories and policies was manifest towards the 1750s, the sheer scale of the quantitative break in the number of economics books published and occurrences of variations of the word "economy" that could be observed at that time, along with fresh ways of thinking about the issues, and an unwonted vigor of expression, suggest a qualitative difference. We call this moment the "economic turn" [Figures 1.1– 1.3].

There were many reasons why this "economic turn" took place, ranging from the intensification of international rivalries leading up to the Seven Years' War and the evident economic factors behind Britain's rise to power to more introspective and philosophical preoccupations with human nature and worldly melioration. Generally, though, the upsurge of interest in economic matters in the 1750s spoke to a growing sense that the cardinal issues of the time — from food-supply regulation to increasing conspicuous consumption, taxation, colonialism, international competition, forms of government, the practice of social relations in a polity and even the moral construction of a community — were fundamentally economic in nature. It was in this context that the category of "political economy" emerged as the pre eminent epistemological lever with which to theorize, discuss, implement and resist change for an increasingly wide spectrum of society. Economic rhetoric — metaphors and myriad formulations — penetrated into elite language and occasionally percolated down to local officials, guildsmen and others situated in the so-called sanior pars of the non-elite universe. Indeed, one can speak of a certain economic idiom that acquires growing purchase in the course of the century. It was in this spirit that the polymathic Bishop Erik Pontoppidan of Bergen, in faraway Norway, could observe in 1757 that he lived in a "seemingly economic century." In short, the very core of "Enlightenment" debates across Europe came to revolve around this multifaceted discipline of political economy.

It is important to emphasize that political economy was not just about promoting growth, increasing and managing wealth and enhancing power. Nor was it geared exclusively to statecraft and entrepreneurship. Synecdoche for the economic as we construe it, political economy touched virtually every aspect of life, public and private, to the extent that this frontier was readily identifiable. As political economy revealed its irredentist vocation, as much concerned with the moral as the material, the social and cultural as the political, the Economic Enlightenment supplemented and in some ways stood as a proxy for the Enlightenment tout court. The economic turn deeply reinforced the emergent anthropology and psychology of man, no longer burdened by the overwhelming onus of original sin. The working man did not toil primarily to expiate his sinfulness and enhance his chances of attaining salvation, but to contribute to the production of wealth. The dawning entrepreneurial man was no longer relentlessly suspect for pursuing mightily his self- interest and seeking to resist restraint — "restricteurs," as Mirabeau called them were less and less passively brooked — and to maximize his autonomy along with his profit. The economic turn supposed a certain optimism premised on the conquest of and access to new knowledge, grounded in science.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments; Notes on Contributors;

Chapter One The Economic Turn in Enlightenment Europe, Steven L. Kaplan and Sophus A. Reinert;

Chapter TwoThe Physiocratic Movement: A Revision, Loïc Charles and Christine Théré;

Chapter Three The Political Economy of Colonization: From Composite Monarchy to Nation, Paul Cheney;

Chapter Four Against the Chinese Model: The Debate on Cultural Facts and Physiocratic Epistemology, Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen;

Chapter Five “Le superfl u, chose très nécessaire”: Physiocracy and Its Discontents in the Eighteenth- Century Luxury Debate, Michael Kwass;

Chapter Six François Véron de Forbonnais and the Invention of Antiphysiocracy, Loïc Charles and Arnaud Orain;

Chapter Seven Between Mercantilism and Physiocracy: Forbonnais’s ‘Est modus in Rebus’ Vision, Antonella Alimento;

Chapter Eight Physiocrat Arithmetic versus Ratios : The Analytical Economics of Jean- Joseph- Louis Graslin, Arnaud Orain;

Chapter Nine Galiani: Grain and Governance, Steven L. Kaplan;

Chapter Ten “Live and Die Proprietors and Free”: Morellet Dismantles the Dialogues and Defends the Radical Liberal Break, Steven L. Kaplan;

Chapter Eleven “Is the Feeling of Humanity not More Sacred than The Right of Property?”: Diderot’s Antiphysiocracy in His Apology of Abbé Galiani, Steven L. Kaplan;

Chapter Twelve De facto Policies and Intellectual Agendas of an Eighteenth- Century Milanese Agricultural Academy: Physiocratic Resonances in the Società patriotica, Lavinia Maddaluno;

Chapter Thirteen Sensationism, Modern Natural Law and the “Science of Commerce” at the Heart of the Controversy between Mably and the Physiocrats, Julie Ferrand and Arnaud Orain;

Chapter Fourteen ‘One Must Make War on the Lunatics’: The Physiocrats’ Attacks on Linguet, the Iconoclast (1767– 1775), Arnaud Orain;

Chapter Fifteen The Grain Question as the Social Question: Necker’s Antiphysiocracy, Steven L. Kaplan;

Chapter Sixteen Physiocracy in Sweden: A Note on the Problem of Inventing Tradition, Lars Magnusson;

Chapter Seventeen Spain and the Economic Work of Jacques Accarias de Serionne, Jesús Astigarraga;

Chapter Eighteen Captured by the Commercial Paradigm: Physiocracy Going Dutch, Ida Nijenhuis;

Chapter Nineteen Cameralism, Physiocracy and Antiphysiocracy in the Germanies, Andre Wakefield;

Chapter Twenty No Way Back to Quesnay: Say’s Opposition to Physiocracy, Philippe Steiner;

Chapter Twenty-One “A Sublimely Stupid Idea”: Physiocracy in Italy from the Enlightenment to Fascism, Sophus A. Reinert;

Chapter Twenty-Two Epilogue: Political Economy and the Social, Steven L. Kaplan and Sophus A. Reinert; Index.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A significant and wide-ranging collection.”

—Michael Sonenscher, Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge, UK

“The Economic Turn is a major addition to the history of political economy in eighteenth century Europe, which draws on the research of many of its finest scholars. Tracing criticism of Physiocracy across several decades and many nations, it offers an original and provocative way to reimagine the whole landscape of European economic reflection.”

—John Shovlin, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, History Department, New York University, USA

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