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La Force du commerce

The “force of commerce,” capitalism, and the common good in early American history

Simon Middleton


Cet article expose le débat concernant le rapport entre le commerce, le progrès, la création de richesse et le bonheur depuis les dix-septième et dix-huitième siècles jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Il avance l’argument suivant : dès l’origine, les analystes étaient divisés entre les optimistes qui louaient les potentialités lucratives et humanitaires du commerce et de la société civile, et des voix plus critiques qui décriaient l’intérêt personnel inhérent au commerce, intérêt justifiant divers processus antisociaux et déshumanisants, qu’il s’agisse de la parcellisation des terres communes, de la colonisation, ou encore de l’exploitation liée au travail pouvant aller jusqu’à l’asservissement et au commerce d’êtres humains. Dès avant les années 1840, ces positions opposées avaient provoqué un débat entre les chantres et les détracteurs du capitalisme concernant sa relation avec le bien commun. À en juger par les menaces contemporaines que font peser sur nos vies l’urgence climatique et la pandémie de Covid-19, ce débat reste essentiel. Le présent article expose brièvement l’historiographie récente concernant l’histoire du capitalisme en lien avec la Jeune Amérique, ainsi que la relation que cette historiographie entretient avec Marx et sa critique de l’économie politique classique ; il pose la question de savoir dans quelle mesure la critique marxiste représente un contrepoint efficace à l’éthique capitaliste et à ses effets sociaux. Il se termine par une réflexion sur des travaux critiques récents ayant Marx pour objet et affirme qu’une relecture renouvelée et revigorée de Smith et de Marx pourrait, à l’avenir, ouvrir des perspectives de recherche fructueuses.

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  • 1 I am revising the original talking-paper in lockdown in temporary accommodation with limited acc (...)
  • 2 As Temple’s contemporary Henry Sidney noted, the burgomaster Gillis Valckenier “walks about witho (...)

1This paper comes from a talk written for a January 2020 Paris meeting convened to consider what Sir William Temple, a seventeenth-century English diplomat, called the “force of commerce.”1 Temple was referring to the dynamics and effects of contemporary trade. The conference call for papers invited participants to think about the new forms of production, exchange, and the allocation of wealth, along with social and political processes that fostered these developments, as idiosyncratic and particularistic early modern communities merged to form a more interconnected, global capitalist system. The phrase “force of commerce” comes from Temple’s Observations upon the United Provinces (1673), describing his travels through the Low Countries and time as England’s ambassador to The Hague. Observations is a wide-ranging account of the “rise and progress” of the Dutch Republic and its government, religion, and the “Extent of Commerce and Number of Inhabitants.” The latter pairing, Temple noted, made the Dutch the “Envy of some, the Fear of others, and the Wonder of all their Neighbours.” To account for this success, Temple pointed to political, climatic, and emotional factors: the Dutch love of liberty, the “dullness of their air,” and the “coolness” of their “appetites and passions;” all of which combined to underpin the “general intention every man has upon his business.” Dutch commercial success generated “prodigious Growth in Riches, [and] Beauty” and a civic and commercial culture that prompted Temple and others to compare Amsterdam to Venice: two republican cities governed by patrician elites who were more concerned with commerce and urban management than with monarchical and aristocratic fortunes, as was the case elsewhere in early modern Europe (Temple, Works 1: 162, 163-85).2

  • 3 In this sense, see Henry St John Viscount Bolingbroke and, the “free and easy commerce of social (...)

2Temple’s Observations are just one example of how a variety of commentators – ranging from diplomats and merchants to natural scientists and government officials – grappled with the development of early modern economic thought – specifically, the state and non-state practices, discourses, interests, and assumptions that over time came to be regarded as a form of knowledge – and integrated it into longstanding theological, philosophical, and political debates. One important trajectory for this integration of novel economic thought was the ethical connection drawn between commerce and the public good. In earlier times these connections were bound up with notions of the commonweale; in Temple’s account they appear in his identification of commerce with the spread of “mutual trust among private men” and their “trust in government,” as well as in the rise of “great and populous towns and villages,” and the “prodigious improvement of almost every spot in the country” (Works 1: 165-6; Mark Knights et al). In the eighteenth-century, commerce continued to imply, as it does for us today, market activity for gain. But it was also associated with a particular form of sociability and productive exchange: a positive and mutually rewarding connection between the individuals who comprised civil society and whose combined efforts – as subjects, citizens, manufacturers, and traders – provided for their own advantage but also the common good or, as it was increasingly termed, public happiness.3

3In the following, we revisit the significance of these claims regarding the connection between commerce, improvement, wealth creation, and public happiness which, in our own time, have been reduced to a short-hand reference to something we call “the economy.” Seventeenth and eighteenth-century commentators could not employ such a glib and presumptive reference, given their need to explain and justify the benefits of the new commerce to critics and doubters. This is one reason for the optimistic quality of texts that celebrate the profitable and humanitarian possibilities for the connection between commerce and civil society. Of course, there was (and there remains) another side to these glittering Enlightenment pronouncements which critics emphasized when they decried commerce as “the mark of selfishness” whose “all-enslaving power” it set “upon a shining ore, and called it gold” (Shelley 61-62).Here, the concern was with the anti-social and often dehumanizing processes – of enclosure, colonization, and the binding, impoverishing, and enslaving of labor – that generated the value necessary to build, improve, and edify civil society. Within a few short decades these contrasting positions had generated a debate between advocates and critics of capitalism and its relationship to the public good. This debate is as relevant today as it was in the 1840s – perhaps more so, given the contemporary and existential threats of climate emergency and the global pandemic. In light of this, the paper briefly considers recent historiography concerning the history of capitalism and early America, and its relationship to Marx and his critique of Smith and classical political economy, and the extent to which it offers an effective challenge to capitalist ethics and their social effects. It finishes with a discussion of recent, critical work on Marx and proposes that renewing and reimagining our engagement with Smith and Marx might lead to new and productive research directions in the future.


4The connections drawn between commerce, wealth creation, and public happiness were foundational to the eighteenth-century justification of the social acceptability of self-interested pursuits, which had been previously identified with unchristian and amoral greed frequently leading to political corruption, civil strife, and even tyranny (Pocock). Classic and recent scholarly studies trace a crucial transition, whereby self-interest was reconceived as not only a legitimate means to socially-beneficial ends, but also the most effective likely limit on rapacious behavior, given the advantages offered to all individuals with access to free trade, the division of labor, and specialization (Hirschman; Yamamoto). The freedom to pursue one’s interests was also a powerful element in arguments on behalf of individual liberty, the settling of civil and religious societies, and their positive effects. Thus in his Theopolis Americana (1709) Cotton Mather justified Boston’s participation in the West Indies slave trade as legitimate, if it enhanced its status as a godly city playing Bees (1714) scandalized readers by proposing that what were conventionally regarded as vices – pride its part in English Protestantism’s struggle against Catholicism; in London, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, luxury, avarice – could be the source of wealth and public benefits in a commercial society (Peterson 238-45; Wootton, chap. 3-7). In this way commerce and self-interested activities designated as “economic” were rationalized as providing a foundation for individual rights and liberty and the provision for the public good. Commercial and civil societies generated the time and value necessary to invest in liberal and humanitarian pursuits, providing for individual excellence in arts and letters, public education, and even the abolition of slavery. We find these associations between commerce and public happiness in essays by Daniel Defoe and David Hume through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1756) and The Wealth of Nations (1776) and the American Declaration of Independence concerning a subject’s inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

5Many historians have been understandably skeptical regarding these grandiose statements of Enlightenment economic ideals, asking the obvious question – whose happiness? The wealth “created” by this burgeoning commercial and civil society was extracted from the bodies of African and Native American enslaved people, bound servants, urban and rural laborers and domestic workers; all were regulated by eye-watering judicial and extra-judicial violence visited on those who stepped out of line. Even as genteel essayists waxed lyrically on the connections between trade, civility, and happiness, they participated in (often, literally, as investors) and justified the accumulation of profits at home and abroad, enclosing land, disciplining labor and domestic production, invading and enslaving African and Indigenous peoples. As global investment, commerce, and expropriation grew, more and more wealth became concentrated in certain geographies and demographics. The prevailing wisdom reconfigured earlier ethno-religious and birthright rationalizations for social distinctions and inequalities around new “scientific” racial and gendered distinctions and class differentiation between lower and middling sorts and the elite. Intellectual and political traditions, of republicanism and natural rights, generated a language of liberalism which stressed the legal equality of consenting subjects, adding a veneer of contractualism and agency to the exploitation of the many by the few; by the late eighteenth century, these same political languages – stressing equality, consent, and justice – provided for the rise of domestic and colonial opposition and the determination of many to resist subjection class and racial injustice sponsoring new forms of solidarity – such as consciousness of one’s class identity – and widespread struggles for self-determination. By the 1830s and 40s what Hume and Smith had known as commercial society was increasingly called capitalism; the word had been around since the seventeenth-century, but emerged in the mid nineteenth century as a term of art used to differentiate between earlier social and economic systems and contemporary mode of production and exchange (Kocka and Van der Linden 1-3). In the 1840s a young philosophy graduate and radical journalist, Karl Marx, was one of many who grappled with the emerging system’s increasingly socially-conflicted, anti-humanist, and self-destructive impulses – leading to characterizations very much at odds with the earlier imagined symbiosis between commerce, civility, and happiness.

  • 4 On the continuing commitment of mainstream economists to naturalist conceptions of the market, s (...)

6Thus began the debate over whether public interest can ever be effectively secured within capitalism. Advocates ranged from factory owners to classical political economists, utilitarian philosophers, and proponents of free markets and marginal utility theories that continue to inform mainstream economic thinking and government policy today (Schumpeter, part 3; Kauder). Then and now, these advocates invoked Smith and focused on the integrity and efficiency of the market which, they argued, rewarded industry and innovation and provided for the most effective and ethical production and distribution of value. There have always been some who argued for reforms – ranging from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century to the regulation of finance in our own time – as necessary to make good on the foundational promise of capitalism’s humanitarian idealism. But there was broad agreement concerning capitalism’s virtues, despite its tendency towards periodic boom and bust and unwanted social consequences, such as mass unemployment, poverty, and starvation: anomalies excused by apologists as unavoidable products of the business cycle or, especially after the mid twentieth century, the consequence of ill-advised government intervention in naturalistic market dynamics.4 From early on, however, radical critics have called out the supposed justice of capitalist markets as a sham: mythologies of contractual and legal equality masked inequalities in wealth and asymmetries in social power that made claims of “free and fair” bargains between capital and labor absurd. Critics seized upon analyses, by Marx and others, that far from necessary or natural, the cycle of booms and busts and accompanying social misery of unemployment and poverty reflected self-generated limitations: for example, the disorder of competitive production for profit, rather than rational production for needs; and the financial and natural world limits to the drive for endless growth and profitability, which required constant expansion and even the routine destruction of productive capacities -- in order to reset before once again launching in pursuit of value accumulated by the few from the many. Unsurprisingly, many concluded that capitalism would have to undergo some kind of far-reaching transformation before a more just and fully post-capitalist society could flourish (Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital; Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason).

7Late in 2019, when thinking about this article, it felt like a propitious time for early modern historians to think again about debates we have become used to associating with Marx and Smith, and the connections between commerce, capitalism, and the common good. In 2007-8 the catastrophic collapse of years of credit-fueled state and consumer spending, which had obscured long-term decline in productivity and wages, renewed interest in the history of capitalism. Since then, the international economy has increasingly taken on characteristics of early modern seventeenth and eighteenth-century norms and practices: a supranational, quasi-imperial order characterized by mercantilist protectionism and trade wars, for example between the USA and China; the precarious rather than proletarian character of the “gig economy” labor force, ranging from university teachers to taxi drivers; a rentier approach to capital accumulation, with ruling elites sweating public service assets – education, healthcare, utilities – rather than investing in innovation and manufacturing; the proliferation of new forms of money – a cashless and bitcoin – and the machinations of the bust-and-then-bailed-out financial system, which most laypeople regard with the same kind of head-scratching bemusement as our eighteenth-century subjects greeted the speculation that led to the South Sea Bubble collapse (Varoufakis; Hoppit).

  • 5 On early modern origins of the Anthropocene, see Mentz.

8As I wrote the first draft of this paper, the news was filled with protests condemning political inaction in the face of the climate crisis derived from the Anthropocene: the geological period in which human activity has dominated the environment and climate, dating back to the early seventeenth century.5 If current European and North American political and economic discourse is any indication, we can expect little support from ruling elites in recalibrating the relationship between commerce and public happiness. Calls for state-led responses to the climate crisis are portrayed as, at best, uneconomical and, at worst, the demands of scaremongers and “snowflakes.”Predominant neoliberal doctrines advocate state action, often violent, to establish and refine global market relations, but thereafter warn against any restrictions (such wealth as taxes) on the free movement of capital; “trickle down” economics predicts baleful consequences for even minor, redistributive social welfare spending that might dissuade billionaire investors, who prefer to sweat public assets, invest in emerging markets, or park their wealth offshore. Even social democratic and so-called, left-of-center political parties are relentless in their attacks on their progressive wings, such is the common sense commitment to neoclassical market ideologies that continue to draw historical credibility from the writings of Smith and early political economists, despite decades of scholarship questioning the clarity and solidity of these connections.

9As I began to revise my remarks early in 2020, the political and economic ideological shibboleths which were declared utterly non-negotiable as recently as the UK general election of December 2019 were being swept aside by a global pandemic, the like of which the world has not witnessed since the 1919-20 Spanish Flu infected an estimated one-third of the global population and killed as many as 50 million. For obvious reasons, mainstream politicians and commentators are keen to portray the pandemic as a natural disaster for which no one could have prepared. They are endeavoring to obscure their initially weak and in some cases incompetent response, and readying their publics to accept infection estimates of 20-60% of the population and mortality rates of roughly one half to one per cent of a global population of 7.8 billion, or 40-80 million. For a figure that large, one has to go back to the Black Death, which claimed an estimated 75-200 million lives (in a much smaller global population) in the fourteenth century; an event and century, according to some, that initiated the social and economic processes that, in time, birthed our contemporary commercial and capitalist societies.

  • 6 Estimates on short-run impact of Covid19 and likely long-term future “scarring” of economy, see (...)

10Others argue that there can be little doubt that the pandemic reflects the inexorable expansion of human activity – ranging timber and fossil fuel extraction to industrial farming and food inequalities which generated wildlife markets such as the one in Wuhan – which have brought pathogens long resident in the wild into human contacts joined by global travel networks. As underfunded healthcare systems struggle to respond, and profiteering pharmaceutical companies switch from pain remedies and cosmetic treatments to pathogen research, even the short and mid-term effects seem dimly understood but potentially gargantuan: as of the end of May, 2.7 billion people out of a global workforce of 3.3 billion were in some kind of lock-down and facing employment and income uncertainties; some estimate a reduction of 6.7% in global working hours in the second quarter of 2020 – at first sight an innocuous figure which equates to 195 million full time jobs. Job losses and income cuts will likely send an additional 548 million people into poverty and raise the numbers of individuals surviving on less than US$ 5.50 per day to over half the world’s population. Global political elites talk of a “bounce back” and “V-shaped recovery,” hoping – increasingly desperately – for a swift return to pre-pandemic condition; others recognize the size of the challenge ahead and call for fundamental and far reaching change, a “new normal.” In what follows, I briefly review some debates concerning the history of capitalism and the connection between early modern commerce, and think about alternatives in light of recent commentaries on the work and legacies of Marx and Smith.6


  • 7 Oft cited critical studies which prompted controversy include Johnson, River of Dark Dreams; Bec (...)
  • 8 For Marxist binary, see Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil”. For recent reconsideration, Harvey (...)
  • 9 A quote, offered “half-jokingly” (Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” 44 (...)

11Given the much publicized success of the “new history of capitalism” (NHC) one could be forgiven for thinking that we are already in the midst of a new golden age of Marxian studies.7 However, the relationship of these works to previous Marxist historiography is limited by a determination to look beyond what some term the “fundamentals of Marxism,” in particular the conception of slavery as in but not of a capitalist economy.8 This problematic binary derives, the NHC argues, from Marx’s categorization of slave and waged workers as distinctive forms of pre-capitalist and capitalist labor. This distinction logically leads to different class relations and social and political orders, the first rooted in violence and physical domination, the second in free and “voluntary” exchange labor for wages. Countering this separation, the NHC focuses on antebellum American and the integrated character of enslaved and capitalist economies: the widely shared attitudes towards innovation, management, and profit maximization which demonstrated vital connections between New York financiers and New England merchants and land speculators and enslaved people forced to work on plantations from Virginia though the Deep South (Rockman, “Slavery and Capitalism”; Williams). This challenge to Marxist fundamentals extends to the NHC eschewing a “fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” instead letting its precise meaning “float as a placeholder while they look for ground-level evidence of a system in operation.” Thus, even as the NHC champions Eric Williams’s classic and avowedly-Marxist 1944 study of connections between capitalism and slavery as a key historiographical forerunner, they characterize their own approach as not so much Marxist as “Marxish.9

  • 10 Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The Idea of America,” New York Times Magazine, 14 August 2019 https://www.nyt (...)
  • 11 This account of history of capitalism is reviewed in Aston & Philpin, as well as in Wood.

12The NHC has provoked contention and been especially influential in recent journalistic commentaries on the significance of race in American history. However, the response from scholarly peers has been mixed.10 Without rehashing the sometimes vehement methodological and personality clashes, a brief review of this critical reception is suggestive concerning how Marx and the Marxist tradition is positioned in early American historiography. Thus several scholars complained that the NHC too easily glossed, and often ignored, the findings of earlier studies published as part of a sprawling but influential history of capitalism developed in the 1940s-1970s: an account of a medieval through early modern transition to capitalism which began with a feudal crisis and the commercialization of English agriculture, continued with the rise of state-sponsored merchant capitalism and the exploitation of enslaved people and New World empires, and culminated with radical revolutions and class formation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.11 Scott Nelson was “dismayed” by the NHC’s “caricatures” of this earlier account, and not least the work of Eric Williams, and of their “repeating [of] conceptual, theoretical, or factual errors that historians have long ago identified.” Robin Blackburn, no mean authority on New World slavery, wrote similarly of the NHC’s “cavalier” and “puzzling” approach to earlier work on its core concept, capitalism; Peer Vries worried that too many of the NHC’s claims – regarding war capitalism and the conjunction rather than distinction between slave and free labor – are warmed over arguments originally presented by scholars such as Fernand Braudel, Charles Tilly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Seymour Drescher.

13A second critical response, from the perspective of traditional economic history challenges the NHC’s chronological focus and its implied under estimation of earlier conjunctions of slavery and capitalism, understood within a liberal narrative of commercialization (Burnard chap. 9). Long before the production of cotton in the Antebellum South, enslaved people cultivated sugar and other New World commodities that generated vast revenues providing European states with comparative advantages. The trade in New World commodities stimulated the rise of mercantilism and early political economists’ attempts to grapple with the dynamics of wealth creation beyond accumulating bullion. This understanding, coupled with perennial European geopolitical rivalry, drove forward the formation of unified and more bureaucratic European states and their increasingly ambitious imperial projects. These ambitions depended on increasing militarism and violence, as stressed by the NHC and others, but they also inspired and relied upon a plethora of organizational and technological innovations – in banking, accounting, fiscal and monetary policy based on secure and certain sovereign credit, and the fostering of pro-manufacturing and free trade ideologies. They also depended on the rise of consumption and growing middling class whom, some have argued, elected to work harder in order to take advantage of greater variety of goods and services available, in the process engaging in self-fashioning that anticipated the expression of personal agency and choice inherent in the development of liberal politics (De Vries, The Industrious Revolution).

  • 12 See Sklansky. On the under emphasis of informal labor, see Komlosy.
  • 13 Thus E.P. Thompson’s famous preface to his Making of the English Working Class in which he issue (...)
  • 14 See Simon Middleton and James E. Shaw’s introduction to their Market Ethics and Practices; see a (...)

14Contributors to the NHC acknowledge their debts to earlier historians and vacillate, somewhat, on the extent to which they are developing these earlier accounts or tackling old questions in new ways. Their approach remains clearly within the tradition of historical materialism, but breaks with older emphases on the rise of waged labor and class identities, focusing instead on slavery and informal and domestic labor.12 This shift from class towards an emphasis on race and gender was understandable given the biases and silences in earlier literature, and it continues to inform ongoing interest in the study of subjects once considered marginal to the processes of historical change: an historiographical engagement first championed by British Marxists in historical and also literary studies, and validated thereafter by the rise of microhistory.13 More recently, it has informed histories of slavery, race, and indigenous peoples associated with the Caribbean, Atlantic, and latterly “vast early America.” This “bottom up” approach to ever broadening geographies draws upon the rise of cultural history and return of narrative approaches, a combination which has proved enduring, although judged by some as methodologically conservative in the way in which it prioritizes description and the study of agency over structural analysis and accounts of material conditions and aggregate trends.14 More recently, the turn to “vast early America” also likely reflects the intensification of American racial and gendered politics following the backlash to the Obama presidency and continuing cultural trauma of the Trump administration, most notably in the surge of protests in the wake of recent, racist killings of African-Americans. Given recent events, “vast early America’s” insistence on a civic-minded commitment to increasing the study of diverse people (women, African Americans, Native Americans, the enslaved) and places (California, the Caribbean, West Africa) are arguably even more necessary. Its focus on diversity and inclusion in histories of early modern states and empires as dynamic, multilingual, globally connected, and often violent societies ever more apposite; empires that are constituted and driven less by dynastic and national concerns, and more by entangled relationships derived from the circulation of goods, money, and people through systems of exchange which simultaneously brought profits, bondage, disease, pests, and war.

  • 15 Joshua Piker, review of Pekka Hamalainen, The Commanche Empire, William and Mary Quarterly 67.2 (...)

15Insofar as these studies are concerned with colonization as a process of dispossession, exploitation and enslavement one can make connections to earlier histories of capitalism and empire as a product of European ruling class ambitions and world systems of expropriation (Wallerstein; Tutino). However, many have been more concerned with challenging older geographic perspectives on North America history – with looking east rather than west – and with the affinities between cultural diversity and intergroup agency in related early modern global contexts. The inhabitants of “vast early America” share experiences of early modern empires where power and social relations were “negotiated (not dictatorial), composite (not homogenous),” and events and change were “driven by innovations and events at the periphery (not the metropole).”15 In these reconsidered imperial settings, native, colonized, and even enslaved peoples secured a measure of political and economic agency based on opportunities owing to contingencies of borderland contexts with porous boundaries and distant sovereign authorities required to rely on negotiated local arrangements which preceded the establishment of democratic nation-states. In this vein, North American studies have challenged the traditional and polity-based narrative of colonial (usually meaning British) America as the development of the thirteen eastern seaboard colonies up through the Revolution and early republic (Neem). The American Revolution provides an illiberal conclusion to a long phase of an earlier encounter between Europeans and Native peoples imposing modern democratic nation-states that insist upon unitary control and cultural uniformity.

  • 16 Important to note, of course, the periodic rediscoveries of class and recent studies of its sign (...)
  • 17 Marx and environmentalism, see Foster & Burkett; Saito; Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital Vo (...)

16This all too brief review, by necessity, condenses complex arguments. I have aimed at summarizing some recent historiographical commentaries, rather than comprehensively survey the field, in order to highlight the relevance/irrelevance of Marx and Marxist approaches in recent studies of early modern political economy and capitalism. In the first case, the NHC has drawn fire from some for failing to engage sufficiently with a venerable Marxist tradition, and from others for underestimating the significance of earlier connections between slavery, commodity production, and the history of capitalism because it remains transfixed by these same, older Marxist verities. This latter view emphasizes other, modernizing influences – ranging from the increasing reliability of sovereign credit and central banking to innovations in accounting and increasing consumption – which provided as much for the development of commercial society and then capitalism as the enslaved workers in the Antebellum South.16 In this, more positive, view economic activity is associated with the freedom and ambition to pursue individual interests, as it was by optimistic eighteenth-century political economists, and a measure of agency. A similar association is evident in studies of subaltern subjects’ market participation in fluid and negotiated early modern empires as providing for a degree of agency or, even, resistance. For at least one critic, this association approaches the self-justification of contemporary neoliberal globalization and celebration of markets and employment of rural poor in the global south (Neem). In various ways, then, there has been a diminishing engagement with Marx and the Marxist framing in the last decade or so, in contrast to the surge in interest in journalism and books produced for a popular readership post-2007-8 financial collapse and the era of austerity and topics ranging from Artificial Intelligence and the “workless society” to the case for a universal income and responses to climate change.17 Given the epistemic crisis raised by Covid19, we can expect much more in this vein. But what, if anything, can historians learn from this developing literature? Will they revisit Marx and Smith and the foundational debates concerning connections between commerce and the common good?


  • 18 How many read this work in the wider historiographical context of the transition to capitalism i (...)
  • 19 The first is from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and the second, The (...)

17One of the problems with getting to grips with Marx and Marxism is where to start with such a vast and imposing literature. In university classes and discussions in recent years in the UK and USA one encounters students who want to know more, but their interest soon wanes when confronted with Marx’s huge and confusing oeuvre, not to mention the voluminous and multidisciplinary interpretations and commentaries. Trying to come up with an answer to student inquiries begs the question: what do we mean, when we refer to Marx and Marxism? The answer is likely to be different, depending on where and when one grew up. For early American historians of my generation, the British Marxist historians and “new social history,” particularly Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, likely loom large.18 Generations of Anglo-American undergraduate students have encountered Marx in introductory historiography and sociology classes, often in soundbites taken from key texts: thus, it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” or “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please... but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”19 These quotes come from texts written and published in specific contexts and with particular aims in mind. However, in the food processor of university seminar discussions, they become blended as “Marxism”: a set of doctrines to be either admired or rejected, depending on one’s preferences (and/or the preferences of whoever is teaching the class).

18What is needed is a useable point of entry into Marx and the Marxist tradition, such as that provided by Gareth Stedman Jones’s biography which provides a masterful contextualization of Marx and his writings. This approach encourages us to grapple with the canonical texts as products of particular places and times, rather than one, massive and indigestible Marxist mash-up. As his title indicates, Stedman Jones is skeptical about Marx’s intellectual project and published legacy, regarding him as a mostly unoriginal thinker who combined two strands of eighteenth-century political and economic thought: the positive assessment of commercial society’s beneficent effects, which we glossed above; and an anti-commercial tradition, ranging from conservatives anxious about the corrupting effects of new, speculative wealth to radical critics of the antisocial effects of unbridled commerce from Rousseau to the Jacobins. According to Stedman Jones, Marx’s great insight, arrived at by the time of the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), was that although labor creates the world and its wealth, it is doomed never to enjoy a plentiful future under capitalism, because of the way in which “free” and voluntary exchange concentrates surplus in the hands of a few. For the next twenty years Marx tried and failed to establish a “pathway to communism,” in large part because he was unable to conceive of a future without some form of the market, which even his stadial conception of historical change confirmed had been present in all preceding eras. Thus the first volume of Capital (1867) became a vast introduction to a larger but abandoned work. Marx owes his longevity, as has long been acknowledged, to Friedrich Engels’ decision to edit and publish his extant writings following Marx’s death in 1883. Engels established the Marxist tradition, within which generations of readers, theorists, and revolutionaries have endeavored to master the master’s unfinished but, disciples believe, comprehensive and devastating critique of capitalism.

19Stedman Jones’s skepticism would seem to make him a poor starting point for an historiographical pivot towards Marx.20 However, his contextualization is suggestive because of the perspective it provides on Marx’s inspirations and limitations. Moreover, there is no shortage of critics ready to make the case for Marx and push back against what they characterize as Stedman Jones’s attempt to bury his work and legacy. As David Harvey argues in the introduction to his Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, regardless of how well Marx was able to predict the future, his primary concern with the character and dynamics of capital are, if anything, more relevant today than they were in the mid nineteenth century – given the global spread of capitalism and the manifest and continuing challenges of relying on market economies for the distribution of resources and wealth. In addition, across the intervening 150 years, Marxist theorists and commentators have consistently provided the most powerful critiques of classical and neo-classical economists’ attempts to naturalize or otherwise put beyond question the predominance of market dynamics and their debilitating social effects. Rather than writing off previous theorists and commentators, because they failed to come up with a comprehensive and final answer, we can read these debates as derivatives of a foundational, albeit unfinished, analysis. In this way all previous iterations – those that are long forgotten and those which are valorized as orthodoxies – are best treated as resources showing how previous generations have adapted critiques to their own particular contexts and questions.21

  • 22 For post-revolutionary cultural reaction see Wahrman.

20Considering Stedman Jones’s biography within the context of his other work, he is critical of not just Marx and his acolytes but, more broadly, the antonymic character of the debate between classical liberals and Marxists as conducted since the mid nineteenth century. Both sides of this Victorian dispute projected arguments concerning the opportunities and dangers of market economies back on to Adam Smith and earlier eighteenth-century political economists. In the view of Stedman Jones and others, this obscured an earlier and more nuanced Anglo-French republican political debate featuring, inter alia, proposals to end poverty (Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty). These republican arguments – inspired by the possibilities of commercial society and recognition that poverty might no longer be seen as either divinely ordained or an unalterable aspect of the human condition – featured in the idealism and projection of the possibility of human perfectibility evident in the revolutions in the Americas, France, and elsewhere (Polasky). The possibilities of this revolutionary idealism were foreclosed by multiple factors, ranging from the anxieties of conservative property holders and enslavers, especially following the success of the Haitian Revolution, to Malthus’s pseudo-scientific pronouncements regarding the slothful rather than industrious tendencies of the laboring classes and consequent, negative social outcomes. These and other influences prompted a conservative reaction and entrenchment of emphasis on the essentialized social, racial, and gendered categories, preparing the ground for the mid-century impasse between the utilitarianism of liberal individualists versus the socialist humanism of trades unions and communists: the first advocating for capitalism, mitigated by humanitarian and regulatory reform; the second arguing for its overthrow and, in some cases, leading to a range of revolutionary and authoritarian twentieth-century alternative states.22

21In a related study, The Moral Economists, Tim Rogan examines twentieth-century historiographical critiques of capitalism that responded to this Victorian conceptualization which produced a global economic collapse and two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century and which is arguably with us still. These “moral economists” looked beyond the manifest inequalities in wealth and critiqued utilitarian capitalist ethics, while steering clear of socialist alternatives which, some believed, led to illiberal authoritarianism. Their histories presented earlier histories of everyday life and ethics which came into acute tension with novel commercial imperatives leading to a transition to capitalism. Thus R.H.Tawney celebrated early modern community and guild solidarity, local customs, the deference to elders, and a collective religious faith that sustained the “supreme value of every human personality” (Rogan, 44-50). This ethical framework was sundered when the Reformation transformed religion into a private matter, allowing believers to imagine salvation in isolation, thereby legitimizing the individualism and self-centeredness that led to insatiable commercial greed, miserable working conditions, and economic boom and bust of the early twentieth-century. Karl Polanyi broadened the base of Tawney’s critique, supplanting Christian social ethics with humanist sociology of young Marx (whose influential early writings were first published in German in 1932) and describing the advent of market financial relationships based on a, mostly nineteenth-century, Great Transformation; Polanyi also partly inspired E.P. Thompson’s influential work on custom and the moral economy of the English crowd which inspired the new social history in the 1960s-70s (Tawney; Polanyi; Thompson Customs in Common). The emphasis shifted from study to study, but what was common to all was their effort to recover an earlier, shared human personality that was more layered and nuanced than allowed for in the utilitarian account of the progress of an ahistorical homo economicus in the seemingly ineluctable rise of capitalism and modern market exchange relationships.

  • 23 For return of Victorian economic theory, see Robert. Focus on inequality and debt in Piketty, Ca (...)

22In the late twentieth century, the intellectual climate became deeply skeptical of claims concerning essential and shared human personality traits, which many argued obscured or silenced the particular histories and struggles of racial and gendered subjects and identities. At the same time, there was a revival of Victorian economic theory in the form of neoliberal advocacy of free markets and reduced state intervention and social welfare, in favor of the interests of mobile, global capital. Mainstream historiographical critiques of capitalist ethics featured less, outside of the continuing Marxist tradition, and the focus shifted to the ever increasing inequalities in wealth, which fewer and fewer believed could ever be addressed – even in the unlikely event that all subjects enjoyed equal access to the opportunities supposedly available in global markets.23

  • 24 The recent interest in Polanyi is noteworthy, given the popularity of Tawney and Thompson and more (...)
  • 25 This is the view explored in greater detail in studies: see, for example, Winch; Rothschild.
  • 26 Examples of the biographical approach, Hutchison’s Before Adam Smith, Murphy’s Richard Cantillon (...)

23In closing, what does this commentary on recent early American history and the stalling of critiques of capitalist ethics suggest as possible directions for current and future work for those interested in the history of political economy and the common good? One trajectory leads back to classical political economy, Adam Smith, and to the ambiguities regarding early economic thinking and the beginnings of market economies. As Rogan observes, of the three moral economists he studied, only Polanyi is still read today as a contributor to current debates.24 Rogan attributes this revival of interest to Polanyi’s change of heart – towards the end of the Great Transformation – regarding Marx, whom he came to consider (much as does Stedman Jones) as trapped in the logic of the utilitarian thinking he set out to contest. Instead, Polanyi is now read as one of the earliest and more nuanced readers of Adam Smith as a humanist and idealist, rather than as forerunner of Ricardian classical political economy identified by mid-century utilitarians and Marx.25 Related to this, others have stressed the ambiguous beginnings and meaning of the notion of the economy. Thus historians trace a shift from the classical sense of oikonomia, or household management, to a “perception” of a distinct “mechanical, model-forming, and generalized economic sphere” evident in various contexts, from fourteenth-century Florence to sixteenth-century England. This lengthy and incremental shift – elaborations on the earlier ethical worlds recovered by Tawney and Thompson – gathered pace in the eighteenth century and the articulation of key concepts such as ceteris paribus (or the idea of “all other things being equal”), circulation (applied to discussions of blood and money) and Newtonian notion of self-correcting system which together provided for the kind of abstract theorizing within which it became possible to describe phenomena as “economic” (Maifreda; Tribe; Wootton). This is a development still only dimly understood, beyond the findings of excellent studies of leading economic thinkers, from Petty and Hume to Law, Cantillon, Stueart, Smith.26

  • 27 See Robinson’s Black Marxism and Robin Kelley’s obituary on Robinson’s significance, at http://b (...)

24Finally, and lest our devotion to the recovery of the ambiguities of early economic thought encourages us to lose sight of the awful and brutal power of early capitalism, a second trajectory leads back to Marx; albeit reconsidered in light of emphasis on the limitations of his mid nineteenth-century perspective on the industrialization of European nation states, and the historical particularities of the experience of subaltern subjects. As Michael Perelman has argued, these same classical political economists we consider as commentators on developing market trends were, in fact, instrumental in advocating the state and other interventions that generated those trends – such as the dispossession of rural communities that forced people into wage labor and other dependencies that would have otherwise been avoided. Marx considered this a period of “primitive accumulation” and a precursor to capitalism. However, subsequent history and studies of contemporary contexts suggest that for many the uncertainties and deprivations suffered in so-called informal labor markets are a permanent and necessary condition for capitalist accumulation (Federici; and more recently: Komlosy; Perelman). Moreover, the severity of these conditions and particularities of the struggles faced vary greatly, depending on subjects’ context and social power. Taking the intersection of race and class as one example, and as Cedric Robinson long ago observed, Marxism is a Western construction. Its conceptualization of the historical development of capitalism and human affairs conceived of racism as “a convention for ordering the relations of European to non-European peoples” – thereby allowing for a narrative of the European bourgeois revolution against feudalism which only later became racialized in order to justify slavery and dispossession and frustrate working class organization. In fact, as Robinson went on, racist thinking was deeply imbricated in European feudal relations and evident in prejudicial attitudes towards Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, and Slavs who were subjected to dispossession (enclosure) and the harsh labor regimes. These prejudices and regimes were later adapted as anti-black racism and mobilized in the enslavement of Africans, who came from distinctive historical backgrounds and were thereafter engaged in Black Struggle that was distinct from the challenges facing white European workers in ways in which historians have yet to fully appreciate or explore.27

25A return to engagement with Marx might also prompt a shift in focus away from the recent enthusiasm for narrative histories of particular subjects or groups and their agency and towards the structures which informed and mediated their conditions and experiences. Two potentially areas here are histories of money and of notions of value. Marx is usually read as more or less accepting the classical political economy idea of money as a special commodity that serves primarily as a medium of exchange: in this conception money facilitates without otherwise conditioning the character of trade. Recent studies have challenged this classical/Marxist view of money, offering a social history of money, its changing forms, and historical influence. Thus in 1500 Europe’s monetary landscape looked pretty much as it had for the preceding three centuries, and the revival of money exchanges after a long period of limited market activity following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Within the next two hundred years, however, the form and management of money was transformed – not least by the invention of paper currencies and the establishment of central banks and military-fiscal states – in the service of waging war and defending overseas interests, not least the slave trade. This introduced a new kind of unchecked finance capitalism which prioritized greed and violence over compassion noted by Tawney long ago and in one variant or another with us still (Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century; Baucom; Desan; McNally).

  • 28 See Elson, Value. The Representation of Labour in Capitalism; David Harvey, “Marx’s Refusal of t (...)

26Marx’s acceptance of Adam Smith’s mimimalist conception of money as a mere medium of exchange was one of the occasions when he took on classical economic premises in order to bolster his claim to have refuted the logic of their arguments in their own terms. In this case, his chief concern was to show that the money form was crucial because it expressed the value of a commodity that was realized at the moment of exchange in the market. This represented the realization of value that had been created by socially-necessary labor time deployed in the process of production. The subsequent circulation and exchange of commodities added nothing, other than to identify more precisely the difference between the value given to the worker and realized by the capitalist as surplus and profit.28 This is what Marx identified as the process of expropriation which is obscured by the “free and voluntary” exchange of labor for wages in the market. It is also the bare bones of the labor theory of value (a phrase Marx, famously, never used) which had underpinned economic reckoning from the early seventeenth through mid-nineteenth centuries. In clash with early socialists economists rejected labor in favor of marginal demand theories of value, derived in part from the utilitarian view that “the sole evidence that it is possible to produce anything that is desirable is that people actually do desire it” (Mill chap. 4). With this dictum as their guide, the embryonic “science” of economics developed its mathematical and modelling approach that gave rise to the modern discipline and its privileged position as advisor and diviner to elites and governments in pursuit of endless economic growth. My point is not to urge that we rehash the interminable debates regarding the labor theory of value versus marginalism, but to emphasize the historicity of these value debates and the artificiality of models which are so often presented as beyond question and our only choice, even at moments of global uncertainty and threatened collapse.

27When Temple observed the effects of what he called the “force of commerce” in the seventeenth-century Low Countries, he joined a debate concerned with balancing what all could see were the possibilities of new and innovative approaches to wealth creation with associated anxieties and fears regarding the uncertainties and potential for tyranny and disorder. In time these debates were taken up by Smith and then Marx and vast supporting cast of commentators on various contexts. As our early modern subjects struggled with these new and difficult topics, they had to face down powerful and self-obsessed monarchical and mercantilist ancien regimes and their apologists and enforcers, whom appear in the historical record as reactionary, hidebound, sometimes corrupt and often obstructive to the development of future possibilities and the promotion of public happiness. Given recent events and the ongoing challenge, reactionary, hidebound, and sometimes corrupt and often obstructive sounds like a reasonable description of what we face in the early 21st century; in this spirit it may be that reconsidering the economic and ethical debates might give us ideas and a clearer sense of how to proceed in our own portentous times.

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1 I am revising the original talking-paper in lockdown in temporary accommodation with limited access to sources, other than those in existing notes and online; I am especially grateful for the digital collections at the Swem Library, College of William and Mary. I am grateful to Simon Newman and Abdel Razzaq Takriti for the comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

2 As Temple’s contemporary Henry Sidney noted, the burgomaster Gillis Valckenier “walks about without a footman” and is on the “streets just like an ordinary shopkeeper,” quoted in Burke, 137; see also Haitsma Mulier.

3 In this sense, see Henry St John Viscount Bolingbroke and, the “free and easy commerce of social life” in his Letters on the Spirit of Patriotism (243). See also Caroline Winterer’s American Enlightenments.

4 On the continuing commitment of mainstream economists to naturalist conceptions of the market, see Michael Roberts report on the 2020 Annual Conference of America Economics Associations in San Diego, attended by 13,000 economists from all over the world.

5 On early modern origins of the Anthropocene, see Mentz.

6 Estimates on short-run impact of Covid19 and likely long-term future “scarring” of economy, see Michael Roberts at

7 Oft cited critical studies which prompted controversy include Johnson, River of Dark Dreams; Beckert; Baptist. Background to the NHC may be found in Sven Beckert et al., “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 503-36. For what one suspects was an inadvertently comic assessment of the impact of the NHC, see Patrick Fridenson’s discussion of debate between business historians about possible name change for their professional association to the Society for the History of Capitalism, which was opposed by the majority because it “still smacked of Marxism” (Kocka and van der Linden, chap. 5).

8 For Marxist binary, see Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil”. For recent reconsideration, Harvey, Mark.

9 A quote, offered “half-jokingly” (Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” 442).

10 Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The Idea of America,” New York Times Magazine, 14 August 2019 For up-to-date summary of controversy, see “From the Editor’s Desk: 1619 and All That,” The American Historical Review 125.1 (February 2020): xv–xxi, and the response in “Communications,”The American Historical Review125.2 (April 2020): 768-74. For critical reception of NHC, see Oakes; Coclanis; Hilt.

11 This account of history of capitalism is reviewed in Aston & Philpin, as well as in Wood.

12 See Sklansky. On the under emphasis of informal labor, see Komlosy.

13 Thus E.P. Thompson’s famous preface to his Making of the English Working Class in which he issues a clarion call to rescue such subjects from the “enormous condescension of posterity,” which concern reflected the wider concerns of others with vernacular and working class culture and agency, most notably amongst literary critics, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams; see also Brewer.

14 See Simon Middleton and James E. Shaw’s introduction to their Market Ethics and Practices; see also Stone; for methodological conservatism, see De Vries (“Changing the Narrative”).

15 Joshua Piker, review of Pekka Hamalainen, The Commanche Empire, William and Mary Quarterly 67.2 (2010): 379-82, at 382, cited in Johann N. Neem (13).

16 Important to note, of course, the periodic rediscoveries of class and recent studies of its significance: see the “Symposium on Class in the Early Republic,” in Journal of the Early Republic 25.4 (Winter 2005), passim, and Middleton & Smith. Recent studies include Cutterham’s Gentlemen Revolutionaries, and Peter Linebaugh & David Lloyd’s Red Round Globe Hot Burning.

17 Marx and environmentalism, see Foster & Burkett; Saito; Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital Vol 1, and Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism; Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, and How Will Capitalism End? : Essays on a Failing System. Also see David Graeber, “Against Economics,” review of Robert Skidelsky, Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics, in New York Review of Books, 5 December 2019.

18 How many read this work in the wider historiographical context of the transition to capitalism in early modern England and Europe, or the debates concerning the early humanist and later scientific character of Marx’s work is less clear. For the longer chronology of the transition to capitalism debate in English and European history, see Aston & Philpin; DuPlessis. For debates within English Marxism and relationship to Louis Althusser, see Gareth Stedman Jones’s essay in Lüdtke.

19 The first is from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and the second, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). Other key texts, often referenced, include the collection of writings presented as The German Ideology (1846), The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital, vol I (1867).

20 For fuller discussions of Stedman Jones, Karl Marx,, and

21 In this spirit, Gabriel Winant notes of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams that he builds from the critique of Marx’s categorical distinction between slavery and free labor by reworking David Harvey’s arguments concerning “spatial fix”: Harvey traces his own conception to Marx’s Grunderisse, as read by Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (1913), concerning the growth of finance capital and its connection to imperialism.

22 For post-revolutionary cultural reaction see Wahrman.

23 For return of Victorian economic theory, see Robert. Focus on inequality and debt in Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Capital and Ideology; Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, introduction. Also see his Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

24 The recent interest in Polanyi is noteworthy, given the popularity of Tawney and Thompson and more negative reception of Polanyi when each published their major work. See Block & Somers; Streeck How Will Capitalism End; Arrighi Adam Smith in Beijing.

25 This is the view explored in greater detail in studies: see, for example, Winch; Rothschild.

26 Examples of the biographical approach, Hutchison’s Before Adam Smith, Murphy’s Richard Cantillon and his John Law. Also, more recent moves beyond the biographical approach, Deringer’s Calculated Values. Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age.

27 See Robinson’s Black Marxism and Robin Kelley’s obituary on Robinson’s significance, at; also see Newman’s A New World of Labor.

28 See Elson, Value. The Representation of Labour in Capitalism; David Harvey, “Marx’s Refusal of the Labour Theory of Value,” 14 March, 2018,; Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory.

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Simon Middleton

Simon Middleton is an Associate Professor in History at the College of William & Mary. His recent and forthcoming publications, include Market Ethics and Practices, 1300-1850 (Routledge, 2018), co-edited with James Shaw, and the co-authored A Concise History of America (Routledge, 2020), and “William Fishbourn’s ‘Misfortune’: Public Accounting and Paper Money in Early Pennsylvania,” Early American Studies (Winter, 2021), and “A Vertiginous Experience: Historical Ethics and Practice in the Age of Trump,” in a forum on Christopher Tomlins, In the Matter of Nat Turner. A Speculative History (Princeton, 2020) in Law and Social Inquiry, 2021. He is currently completing a study of the introduction of paper money to the eighteenth-century middle colonies, New York and Pennsylvania. His specialization is early American social history and political economy.

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