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This volume offers a snapshot of the resurgent historiography of political economy in the wake of the ongoing global financial crisis, and suggests fruitful new agendas for research on the political-economic nexus as it has developed in the Western world since the end of the Middle Ages. New Perspectives on the History of Political Economy brings together a select group of young and established scholars from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds—history, economics, law, and political science—in an effort to begin a re-conceptualization of the origins and history of political economy through a variety of still largely distinct but complementary historical approaches—legal and intellectual, literary and philosophical, political and economic—and from a variety of related perspectives: debt and state finance, tariffs and tax policy, the encouragement and discouragement of trade, merchant communities and companies, smuggling and illicit trades, mercantile and colonial systems, economic cultures, and the history of economic doctrines more narrowly construed.

The first decade of the twenty-first century, bookended by 9/11 and a global financial crisis, witnessed the clamorous and urgent return of both 'the political' and 'the economic' to historiographical debates. It is becoming more important than ever to rethink the historical role of politics (and, indeed, of government) in business, economic production, distribution, and exchange. The artefacts of pre-modern and modern political economy, from the fourteenth through the twentieth centuries, remain monuments of perennial importance for understanding how human beings grappled with and overcame material hardship, organized their political and economic communities, won great wealth and lost it, conquered and were conquered.

The present volume, assembling some of the brightest lights in the field, eloquently testifies to the rich and powerful lessons to be had from such a historical understanding of political economy and of power in an economic age.



Genoa, Liguria, and the Regional Development of Medieval Public Debt

Genoa has long been noted as one of the earliest cities to develop a consolidated public debt. Genoa’s compere, or public debt, have often been deployed in long-term narratives of change to political economy and cited by social scientists. However, they are best understood as the product of regional political and economic dynamics specific to the late middle ages rather than abstract relationships between sovereign and creditor or warfare and state borrowing.
Jeffrey Miner

Angelo degli Ubaldi and the Gulf of the Venetians: Custom, Commerce, and the Control of the Sea Before Grotius

A dismissive critique of the medieval Italian jurist Angelo degli Ubaldi and his argument for Venice’s control of the Adriatic is central to Chap. 7 of Hugo Grotius’s famous 1609 Mare liberum. Yet Grotius had not likely read Angelo’s opinion, relying instead on a summary of it he had found in Giovanni Francesco Balbo’s treatise De praescriptionibus. This essay explores Angelo’s argument, its sources, the milieu in which it was written, and its reception before Grotius. And it argues that medieval and Renaissance Italian jurisprudence is an essential and woefully understudied source for the early history of international law and political economy.
Robert Fredona

Capitalism and the Special Economic Zone, 1590–2014

This paper compares the network of free ports that developed in Italy between 1650 and 1750 with the modern special economic zone, which is such a central aspect of contemporary capitalism. It argues that despite substantial differences in commercial function, both types of zones raise comparable problems of the politics of privilege: they both entrench capitalist elites that the state has difficulty controlling.
Corey Tazzara

Theatrum Œconomicum: Anders Berch and the Dramatization of the Swedish Improvement Discourse

As Sweden emerged from the 30 Years’ War, it was clear to the nation’s elites that Sweden had to generate substantially more material wealth to take advantage of its newfound geopolitical power. Knowledge about how to best transform nature took center stage. While improvers, such as Christopher Polhem, Carl Linnaeus, and Anders Berch, valued new discoveries, they were equally concerned with the thorough dissemination of useful natural knowledge. Sweden’s first professor of Political Economy, Berch, developed a new pedagogical approach to teach the practice of improvement. Convinced that useful natural knowledge could not be taught by words alone, or even by illustrations, Berch assembled a large collection of materials, commodities, and mechanical devices in his Theatrum Ekonomicum, to be used in his teaching. By seeing the transformation of nature performed in front of their eyes, students came to understand the principles and properties of nature and realized both the potential and the limitations of existing knowledge to facilitate the improvement of the nation.
Carl Wennerlind

Gulliver’s Travels, Party Politics, and Empire

Why did Jonathan Swift condemn “modern” colonies in Gulliver’s Travels? Answering this question requires placing Swift’s bestseller in the context of the post-1714 imperial crisis and of British imperial partisan politics. Understood in this light, Swift condemned both the Walpoleian Whig endorsement of hierarchical empire and their Patriot opponents’ embrace of a more inclusive commercialist imperial vision. Swift condemned the latter for its rejection of agrarian political economy in favor of commercial rapaciousness and the former for failing to recognize Ireland’s proper place in the Empire. Ireland, in Swift’s view, was properly a free kingdom and not a colony.
Steve Pincus

Commerce, not Conquest: Political Economic Thought in the French Indies Company, 1719–1769

Shovlin explores the intellectual history of the eighteenth-century French Compagnie des Indes, which was a site of innovative political economic thinking beginning with its founder, John Law, who outlined a strategy for peaceful French aggrandizement through the adoption of modernized techniques of public credit. This line of thinking was later developed by Jean-François Melon and Isaac Panchaud, both closely associated with the company. Other company officials emphasized that international stability and avoidance of territorial expansion in India best served the corporation’s interests. These perspectives reflect a deep ambivalence about empire, and were rooted in a broader discourse emphasizing that an age of commerce was displacing an age of conquest and territoriality.
John Shovlin

The Economics of the Antipodes: French Naval Exploration, Trade, and Empire in the Eighteenth Century

This chapter explores two competing colonial models of the French economic Enlightenment, that of the Gournay circle, through De Brosses’s Histoire des navigations aux terres australes (1756), and that of the physiocrats, through the ideas of François Quesnay and Pierre Poivre. Then, the author studies the performativity of these discourses and models on the narratives of naval explorers and colonial administrators during the 1760–1790 decades. The case studies show that if these explorers and administrators profess free trade in their printed works, they speak the language of prohibitions, conquest and exclusive companies in their manuscripts and secret memoirs. Colonial models tend to replace reality in the eyes of some exalted explorers, but the latter also have to face with competing passions and interests.
Arnaud Orain

A “Surreptitious Introduction”: Opium Smuggling and Colonial State Formation in Late Nineteenth-Century Bengal and Burma

This chapter examines an 1870 dispute about opium smuggling that unfolded in the British Indian colony of Burma. It traces how a small intra-bureaucratic disagreement escalated into a large and enduring controversy over how to observe an invisible activity, the political economic and moral significance of that activity in a non-European setting, as well as a colonial state’s proper regulatory role.
Diana Kim

A Place in the Sun: Rethinking the Political Economy of German Overseas Expansion and Navalism Before the Great War

Recent reassessments of British economic history and Mercantilism invite reconsidering narratives of German imperialism of the late nineteenth century in which Germany is usually presented an aggressive Neomercantilist power that ultimately shattered the Pax Britannica. Instead, it is possible to see that period and its tensions as the outcome of a “Whig” developmental strategy first pursued by Britain and then successfully emulated by the USA and Germany. The close intellectual kinship between American and German strands of economic thinking can be traced back to such seventeenth-century English “Whig imperialist” thinkers as John Cary and to the activist commercial, colonial, and naval policy pursued by England after 1688. This newer perspective invites rethinking prevailing assumptions about globalization and international order in the twenty-first century.
Erik Grimmer-Solem

Wesley Mitchell’s Business Cycles After 100 Years

This paper revisits economist Wesley Mitchell’s classic text, Business Cycles (1913), and assess its impact on economic and political thought in the years prior to the Keynesian Revolution. It describes the key contributions of the book and outlines Mitchell’s career and progression as an economist. It emphasizes the book’s influence on three groups—empirical economists, economic forecasters, and policy makers. For all three, in different ways, Mitchell’s Business Cycles seemed to offer new and exciting possibilities for measuring, predicting, and even controlling economic fluctuations.
Walter A. Friedman

On a Certain Blindness in Economic Theory: Keynes’s Giraffes and the Ordinary Textuality of Economic Ideas

In the 1926 essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire,” J.M Keynes used the giraffe as a metaphor of both welfare and herd dynamics, in order to argue for the importance of wise government intercession into markets. This article conducts a close textual analysis of that essay, demonstrating how Keynes’ own choice of metaphor reveals the economist’s deeper seated, even latent imperial preferences and pre-commitments. In the end, it argues, Keynes’ idea of national welfare depended on a world where Britain maintained a vast multinational empire.
C. N. Biltoft

Between Economic Planning and Market Competition: Institutional Law and Economics in the US

The impact of institutional economists in shaping American regulatory tradition has largely been overlooked or dismissed as an incoherent attack on the neoclassical economic paradigm. This essay briefly reconstructs the interwar institutionalist movement, exploring the continuities among heterodox thinkers and the implications for public and private institution-building. It seeks to reorient the history of U.S. political economy towards a deeper understanding of the public-private regulatory tradition that developed in the 1920s through the influence of the institutionalists and other progressive liberals. It emphasizes institutionalists acting within both public administrative agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, as well as private research organizations that partnered with business groups and regulatory bodies.
Laura Phillips Sawyer

Punishment, Political Economy, and the Genealogy of Morals

In this essay, I explore the place of a genealogy of morals within the context of a history of political economy. More specifically, I investigate the types of moralization—of criminals and delinquents, of the disorderly, but also of political economic systems, of workers and managers, of rules and rule-breaking—that are necessary and integral to making a population accept new styles of political and economic governance, especially the punitive institutions that accompany modern political economies in the contemporary period. The marriage of political economy and a genealogy of morals: This essay explores how the moralization of certain groups of people has been necessary to render tolerable the great American paradox of laissez-faire and mass incarceration. How, in effect, practices of moralization are necessary to make tolerable the intolerable.
Bernard E. Harcourt


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