The Stakes of Regulation: Perspectives on 'Bread, Politics and Political Economy' Forty Years Later

The Stakes of Regulation: Perspectives on 'Bread, Politics and Political Economy' Forty Years Later

by Steven Lawrence Kaplan


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This work has a double agenda, firstly as a collection of essays dealing with the fraught question of regulation in its multiples guises: economic, social, political, cultural and psychological. At the same time it serves as a companion volume to the re-edition of Kaplan's landmark 'Bread, Politics and Political Economy during the Reign of Louis XV', which first appeared in 1976. The chapters that unfold reveal how Kaplan's thinking has evolved in reaction both to the changing intellectual, epistemological, historiographical and sociopolitical environment, and to some of the significant scholarship that has been accomplished during the past forty years. This study is conceived as a commentary on and a dialogue with 'Bread, Politics' and with researchers who have written in and around the concerns of that book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783084760
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 08/15/2015
Series: Anthem Other Canon Economics Series
Pages: 500
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.

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The Stakes of Regulation

Perspectives on Bread, Politics and Political Economy Forty Years Later

By Steven L. Kaplan

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2015 Steven L. Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-476-0



During the past forty years, very few studies have appeared dealing with the provisioning trade. This dearth of production is especially striking in the 1970s and '80s when social history still rode its quasi-hegemonic tide, barely challenged until the run-up to the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Long before the relatively recent globalizing turn, foreign trade, largely focused on colonial relations, commanded substantial interest. Commerce within France, dominated by cereals, in terms of magnitude and significance, elicited hardly any curiosity. It seems hard to impute this situation to the considerable older literature, scholarly and "antiquarian," denser in its concern for the regions than for the capital, which was very often badly dated. Nor did the great "urban" theses, under the aegis or influence of Ernest Labrousse of the Sorbonne, former secretary to Léon Blum, champion of an incipient quantitative socioeconomic approach, more or less in the spirit of the Annales, devote keen attention to the subsistence question. Labrousse himself seemed to have exhausted the arena of price studies; and the uncertainty regarding the discreet, herculean labors of Jean Meuvret, another pioneer in the socioeconomic realm, specialized in agricultural, especially grain-related issues — how much of what was bruited had he completed and when, if ever, would it come out? — doubtless had a dissuasive effect. My Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade During the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca, 1984), the first probing research into the elementary structures of the grain and flour trade in the greater Paris area, a socioeconomic and cultural study blending quantitative and qualitative analyses, did not spur any vocations, notwithstanding its efforts to recast notions of markets and of regulation. I was especially disappointed that no one explored further the milling trade/industry, still a largely virgin domain of inquiry, despite its crucial place in the French industrial and social economy, and despite the transformative impact of its technological innovation and business practices. Indeed, generally speaking, all remained quiet on the historiographical front of what was called the grain–flour–bread circuit: no wheels turning, stones grinding or dough fermenting.

As far as the market was concerned — as concept, ideology, institution, set of practices — we seemed to have reached the end of historiography, if not of history: no one problematized it; it was what it was supposed to be by those who fully elaborated its code and destiny during the nineteenth century. Nor did the question of regulation, so sensitive today in myriad theaters, call forth scrutiny, no more on the administrative or political plane than in a social or economic register. The highly promising recent renewal of "police" studies concentrated on matters other than provisioning issues.

Fortunately, a number of scholars eddied against this trend. I examine some of that work in this chapter (and other portions elsewhere in this book). I also consider some of the stimulating work in the social sciences that can help us understand markets, in particular a rejuvenated/reinvented economic sociology and a noncanonical analysis from economists, some of whom draw substantially on sociological and anthropological insights.

Ode to the State

Judith A. Miller's Mastering the Market: the State and the Grain Trade in Northern France, 1700–1860 (Cambridge, 1998) aspires, in the daunting wake of Charles Tilly, to construe the subsistence issue as the critical variable in the "reformulation of the French state" across 150 years. In other words, as she puts it somewhat quaintly, "What is striking about the period is less the disruptive effect of food shortages on the French state" — she has little to say on their impact on French society — "in the Old Regime, the Revolution, and after than the forces that restored order" (1–2). A sometimes rapturous ode to the state, the book is inscribed in a Whiggish trajectory, resolutely moving forward despite epiphenomenal setbacks, that ushers in an "increasingly skillful" management of public affairs. In the unfolding teleology that casts into relief the "growing competence and authority" of administrators, the welfare state is precociously at work already in the Old Regime where the "charge" of local officials is to "feed [the people]", a significant step beyond the benchmark agenda of the prince nourricier and his police des grains (5).

The representation of a state, more or less crippled, presumably by "wars, shortages and revolutions," mired in "confusion" yet moving inexorably toward "assurance" through "consolid[ation]" of its power, strikes me as a straw man (2, 6). The doloriste pole of this itinerary draws inspiration from and is reinforced by a sort of protracted apocalyptic dawn: "How was stability to be wrested from turmoil?" (25). But the default quality of the social ecology was not unremitting tumult or upheaval; public administration did not face a daily dose of "anarchy" (2). The construction of order was the unremitting challenge for the authorities, but they did not launch the process everyday from the brink of chaos. Everyday order was a consensual social objective, mobilizing as a rule both the attic garrets and the ground floor of the hôtel particulier. In dealing with disorder, Miller is tempted by what Tilly called the "hydraulic model," a mechanistic and reductionist etiology. Uncertainty was endemic and unsettling, shortages were frequent, yet riots were relatively uncommon. Consumers did not characteristically mutiny "at the slightest rumor of failure," though it would have been fruitful for Miller to explore the repertory, recruitment and objectives of the uprisings she encountered (1). Even the (physical) marketplace, figuring both the ravenous stomach and the throbbing heart of city, town or hamlet, was only exceptionally a place of the portentous "turbulence" to which Miller alludes (64). If chertés, of highly uneven acuity, struck often, and dearths more than occasionally, "famines" did not occur in France after 1709 (44, 195).

If the structuring tale of valiant state self-rehabilitation strikes me as wobbly, Miller's decision to extend her gaze through the mid-nineteenth century infuses her project with a salutary respiration, though her relegation of the Revolution to merely "one episode in the gradual evolution of the French state and economy" verges on caricature. She declares the persistently amorphous "market" to be "mastered" by the last third of the nineteenth century and the provisioning issue no longer a threat (296). In fact, the grain question does not recede into oblivion, although producers now become as central in state reckoning as consumers and surpluses often elicit as much fretfulness as penuries: a tepid physiocratic revenge? Tariff policies fail to bring stability, and the Popular Front instantiates an "organization" of the wheat (later the generic cereals) market that eclipses the most utopian (or dystopian) reveries of the Enlightenment. Before and after the Second World War, the management of the so-called "filière blé-farine-pain" is a paramount concern for the state, which establishes a specific, sprawling administration to deal with it until the European Union induces it to inflect its thinking and refit its bureaucracy with the advent of the first Common Agricultural Policy (1957–62).

In the twentieth century, bread resurfaces as a major actor and a critical sociopolitical problem, not only in wartime, fertile terrain for subsistence atavism, but also afterward, for example, in the decade after the Liberation when the state toiled energetically, often brutally, and not always responsibly and efficiently, to assure the nourishment of the population. In the midst of a protracted dearth that lasted till the mid-1950s — one reason to assess prudently the takeoff and the impact of the Trente Glorieuses — the bread question once again crystallized the debate between partisans of varying degrees of regulation, of interventionism and even of dirigisme (a structured sector, to be guided and buffered by lasting state action) and proponents of a neo-Turgotian-style laissez-faire (the sweeping liberation of the grain–flour–bread industry, allowed to work out its own destiny "commercially," that is, according to the unbridled play of supply and demand in a genuinely competitive arena).

In an enlarged horizon, from Louis XIV through François Mitterrand (under whose presidency the state finally relinquished the fixation of the price of bread, a project promoted as eagerly by the socialist head of state as by his rightist prime minister, Jacques Chirac), it appears plain that it is rash to affirm, as Miller does, that by the nineteenth century (where consumers require on the average significantly more than the pound of bread she accords them) "bread, not grain, became the commodity of contention" (7). Bread does not grow under the paving stones of the cities, the physiocrats mercilessly taunted the "urbicoles"; yet urban consumers hardly needed this lesson, which explains why the CGT — the massive labor union close to the Communist Party — organized sentinels to prevent "removals of grain" (especially at night) on the Norman Seine in 1947, a year marked by myriad subsistence revolts/food riots — even as inhabitants of cities on or near the river did the same two hundred years earlier.

Taming an Elusive Market and an Absent Grain Trade

Mastering the Market is a study of markets that divulges stunningly little about them. Instead of problematizing the market as a concept and as an institution, this monograph takes its existence for granted as an ageless system of allocation that operates according to anachronistic neoclassical logic and language. Apparently, the "market forces" and "market mechanisms" — never spelled out — operate in the period Miller investigates more or less as they do today (25, 43, 52, 72, 76, 112, 143, 258, passim). She evokes the "workings of the market," but takes it to be a transparent template and process that requires no historical or theoretical scrutiny (243, 282). She casts her work as the story of the "taming" of the grain trade, but this commerce also escapes sustained, probing examination: we learn virtually nothing about its structure, its personnel and their recruitment, or its practices. It looms as a salient absent presence, branded with a timeless, static quality, despite the deep changes wrought by the commercialization and later the partial industrialization and incipient concentration of the puissance d'écrasement of the milling world, and the displacement of grain by flour as the central currency of exchange. Bakers (frequently seconded by factors or brokers who provided credit, stockage/conservation and other transactional facilities) played a critical role in this mutation, but their buying and bolting habits, their shifting relations with suppliers and their methods of fabrication linger in the shadows. "Merchant" is as fuzzy and generic a title/status in the provisioning sphere as fonctionnaire will become in the state bureaucracy. Vital institutions, such as the grain merchants' guild of Rouen — so contentious in eighteenth century debates, so crucial in administrative calculations — remain shrouded in mystery. J. Miller tells us that the shock of liberalization had no significant effect on the players in the grain trade, though we know that a throng of new faces entered their rank in the capital and several of its sprawling supply crowns (81).

Indeed, the profound rupture of liberalization set in motion in the 1760s, with violently disruptive consequences, reiterated in the 1770s with similar results, does not bulk large on Miller's radar. She refuses to acknowledge its radicality, either in political or social terms, or more narrowly as an administrative revolution: whereas the laws of 1763–64 in fact totally dismantled the regulatory/police apparatus and tied the hands of the local authorities of all categories, she strangely concedes the "lifting of a number of controls on the grain trade" (43, 194), and the "strip[ping]" of local officials "of a number of their tactics for countering shortages" (93). Physiocracy, which helped engender the only project of the Economic Enlightenment that became the unequivocal law of the land, registered by the parlements, and that subverted myriad moral, economic and political covenants and conventions, is treated as an abstraction (113), while Turgot, not a physiocrat, but no less intransigent on the total inviolability of the foundational natural rights of property and liberty in the grain trade (and beyond), is depicted as a relativist applying "stricter guidelines" in the governance of commerce in cereals, an aporia in both his thought and action (109). In Miller's calculus, at best, the liberalization movement and moments accelerate a process etched in the unfolding of history, coterminous with the advent of modernity.

Central government policy elicits little more interest because the monarchy, too, unravels with its policies, in this teleological narrative."When the Crown faltered," the local and regional authorities "carried on" and saved the day, the decade and perhaps even the century, as a result of their astute management of human and material resources and their capacity for accommodation within continuity. Naturally, Miller credits them neither with the sabotage of royal (not physiocratic) policy nor with the undermining of royal authority, thus casting into relief both the limits of (corrosive yet coherent) liberalism and of (an insufficiently absolute) absolutism. Despite the sometimes abyssal gap between elite and workaday administrative culture, it is regrettable that Miller chose not to "read" the doctrine and the ideological implications of the increasingly muscular sphere of political economy, from Gournay/Quesnay through the stark revolutionary confrontation between liberal and moral-economic voices, from the ideologues to the sociologizing and modernizing coterie around Napoléon III. Such an exploration would have helped make sense of the trickle-down liberalism that percolates into the minds of local (and sometimes regional) administrators and magistrates, whose quintessentialpragmatism seems to be informed, in Miller's treatment, not only by the adaptive and flexible police heritage, but also by the ambient intellectual currents and policy debates.

In light of "the growing acceptance of market forces even before 1763," Miller blithely asserts, "the distinction between the physiocratic market and contemporary practices was not necessarily clear" (76). What is unclear is what she means by this putative consensus crystallized by "market forces." What is patently clear is that there was a prodigious chasm, fathomed by all the actors, between "contemporary practices" that tolerated provisionally variable degrees of liberty (of transgression of the law, until it changed dramatically in 1763) in periods free of subsistence stress and the infinitely more exigent and ominous physiocratic "market" that demanded a total freedom for the merchant (no registration or surveillance; freedom to buy and sell anywhere, at whatever price one wished, on sample or in the fields or barns, and to use agents and form associations to effect these transactions; authorization to hoard and keep secret stocks; sacralization of property in grain, upon which neither state nor society could exercise any legitimate claims; absolute immunity from any intrusion by authorities on any pretext in the disposition of their property by dealers and any other possessors of grain). The physiocratic project, parts of which the authorities allegedly appropriated, was not about the lubrication of exchange; it was about the annihilation of regulation and entitlement, about national renaissance through the rejuvenation of agriculture doped by a high-price policy, about the transformation of the commonly held ideas of market and of kingship itself. Flight from the physical market site in post-1763 France should not surprise Miller (nor did it stun most local officials, whom she characterized as already socialized into the "marketplace" practice of "free trade") (79, 81–82). This was the proper vocation (and the ironic emblem) of free trade, inherently immoderate.


Excerpted from The Stakes of Regulation by Steven L. Kaplan. Copyright © 2015 Steven L. Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. (Re-)Thinking Regulation: Police, Prices, Markets; 2. Agriculture and the French Economy of the Old Regime; 3. Collective Action and Its Actors: The Moral Economy and the Market, the People and the Elites, Disorder and Order; 4. The Parlements in the Age of Economic Enlightenment; 5. Kings and Ministers: Politics and Policies, Finance and Subsistence; 6. The New Historiography of Political Economy; 7. Famine, Dearth, and Food (In-)Security; Afterword; Index

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“‘The Stakes of Regulation’, with its often drôle, always limpid and sometimes mordantly polemical style, is a dazzling toolbox on the ways of doing history, an epistemological reflection on how to gain access to the past, and a fresh reading of some of the major issues of eighteenth-century history.” —Arnaud Orain, University of Paris 8

“A spectacular achievement. Steven Kaplan leverages forty years of historical scholarship to revitalize our understanding of the political economy of that most sacred of French foodstuffs: bread. ‘Stakes of Regulation’ brilliantly illuminates the tensions between liberty and equality that fractured eighteenth-century France. A must-read for anyone interested in the first modern debate on regulation.” —Michael Kwass, Johns Hopkins University

“This is a masterful critical reflection on the scholarship of the past four decades dealing with issues Kaplan raised in his classic ‘Bread, Politics and Political Economy’, which introduced us to what he felicitously calls the Economic Enlightenment. Mingling the social with the cultural and political, he shows brilliantly how the battle of liberalism emerged for the first time stridently in the France of Louis XV, and persists even today.” —Gilles Postel-Vinay, Paris School of Economics

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