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A symbiotic relationship? State power and early modern capitalism

Samstag, 11. Juni
13:45 bis 15:15 Uhr
Raum 3032

This panel will investigate the complex relationship between state power and capitalism in early modern times. The historiographical starting point will be Fernand Braudel’s renowned thesis that early modern capitalism functioned differently from the rest of the economy: it was characterized by highly speculative, complex, opaque, and generally monopolistic operations, as opposed to the broad market economy where regular, transparent, truly competitive transactions dominated. Braudel’s thesis was much discussed in the early 1980s, but has received less attention ever since. Yet, it offers an important key to consider the issue of power within the framework of economic and business history. Indeed, whether through wealth, special financial techniques, or privileged connections, the groups of high-flying actors involved in capitalistic operations had often the means to free themselves from the supervision of governments, or on the contrary, they could use them to their advantage, as a lever enabling exceptional profits, thus generating a feedback loop. Expanding on this idea, Braudel writes that ‘capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state’ , and he argues that, in early modern times, this powerful fusion between capitalism and political power only took place in Europe.

The Spanish crown and its Genoese bankers in the 16th century, or the chartered joint-stock corporations (such as the Dutch or the English East India Company) in the 17th and 18th centuries, are notable illustration of symbiotic – albeit sometimes conflictual – connections between state power and capitalistic entrepreneurs. On the other hand, there are many examples showing that powerful merchants (for instance Parisian wholesalers managing to corner the local grain, meat, butter, or iron markets) could, not only avoid state regulation, but also profit greatly from it.

How did the interconnections between state power and capitalistic entrepreneurs work in practice? Were there specific circumstances (such as wars, technical innovations, etc.) fostering them? Are there examples of such symbiotic relationships elsewhere than in Europe? And finally, are there examples of early modern capitalistic developments that did not involve any significant connection with political power?

The panel’s objective is to investigate some of these questions and, in the process, to reexamine Braudel’s thesis in the light of new findings and new historical approaches.




Tagungsorganisation: Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Historische Institute der Universität Lausanne | Kontakt