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The Political Economy of Commodity Production: A view from the Río de la Plata

By Guest Contributor Mattia Steardo

By Mattia Steardo

The JHI blog recently hosted a thought-provoking piece, which highlighted that imperial thinking during the nineteenth century was intrinsically contradictory since politicians and intellectuals could selectively support or critique different imperial ventures simultaneously. The piece demonstrated this by analysing the pro-British assertions of Simon Bolivar, the famous Liberator from South America.

In this piece, I will address the paradoxical nature of nineteenth century imperial thought, by analysing the case of reformist debates in the Río de la Plata in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  By employing conceptual categories used by historical actors involved in these debates, I will stress upon the constitutive interrelation between the political and economic nature of empires. If we treat commercial and economic thinking as an appendix of the political category of empire, we lose the deep interdependence woven by these two social realms. Instead, in this article I broaden the concept of empire, as a category which sustained a particular political economy based on the extension of the commodity form.

The intellectual context of these debates is that of the Enlightenment and the “economic turn”. The eighteenth-century surge of economics was once interpreted simply as a byproduct of new political ideas but is now considered to be a central concern of contemporary intellectuals. Gaetano Filangieri, a Neapolitan economist and political thinker, for example, wrote La scienza della legislazione (The Science of Legislation)in 1780, welcoming this new era, in which wealth, and the ways to increase it, were to be the main goal of legislation, “[…] since industry, commerce and arts […] have now become the firmest supports of the prosperity of peoples, […] since the trading and agricultural nations have raised a throne over the warlike nations, […] since, finally, riches no longer corrupt the people, as they are no longer the fruit of conquest, but the reward of hard work and a life fully occupied”. Rulers gained their legitimacy from the level of material happiness their subjects enjoyed. Therefore, it was considered important to foster the expansion of agriculture and industry through the right legislation. These were activities through which individual labor was transformed into commodities, to be exchanged on the market (domestic as well as external).

In the Iberian context, reformism took the form of new ideas which sought to reshape the economic and commercial integration between different kingdoms, and realign the economic interests that formed the Spanish “stakeholder empire”. Although such concerns date back to the mid-eighteenth century, the need to reform became paramount in the second half of the century, booming in its last decades and deadly shaking the imperial balance that was sustaining the monarchy. An exemplary work is José del Campillo y Cossío’s Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América (New system of economic governance for the Americas), a reform plan written for the king in 1743, and finally published in Madrid in 1789. Campillo y Cossío proposed an economic plan to “to make Americans happy [i. e. wealthy] with the usefulness and great advantages of the Spaniards”. Some reforms he proposed were already being carried out by “our Enlightened King”, but the editor hoped that the government would “continue to enact the others, as the study of Political Economy continues to enlighten the nation about its true interests”. While this work had inspired some of the politico-economic innovations under the Bourbon monarchs, the editor wished for new reforms to follow.

Campillo y Cossío looked at other European empires (France and England mainly) to sketch a plan based on the economic development of America that would guarantee a consumer market for Spanish manufactures. American improvement would thus result from the distribution of land in private property (especially to the Indian population), the commercialization of agriculture to foster domestic markets, and the diffusion of useful knowledge. Commerce would stimulate the improvement of agriculture and industry on both shores of the Atlantic, as “commerce is what sustains the political body, just as blood circulation sustains the natural one”. America should turn into a consumer market and a provider of raw material for Spain, but industrial development was not entirely discouraged. Every overseas region was expected to either produce those commodities––a demand that could not be met solely by Spanish industry––or foster the convenient manufacturing in accordance with the local availability of convenient natural products.

These ideas were generated within the broader discursive milieu of economic thought in the late eighteenth century and resonated in the context of Río de la Plata. Indeed, the economic development of Buenos Aires was one of the notable successes of the Bourbon reforms in the Americas, as the city turned from a frontier port inhabited by merchants, pirates and smugglers to a silver-based commercial hub. Since political legitimacy in the region passed through economic development, imperial discussions took the form of different reformist plans aimed at fostering commodity production and/or trade, especially targeted at silver or agricultural commodities. This, in turn, entailed the formation of new models of knowledge production, which provided the stage for intellectual debate, and new discursive formations.

Indeed, the early nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of the first periodicals in Buenos Aires, facilitating the formation of public opinions on questions of political economy. The goal of the Semanario de industria, agricultura y comercio (Industry, agriculture and trade weekly), for example, was to assist the government in educating the workers, through the diffusion of useful knowledge. Education would stimulate the desire of improving individual economic condition, thereby fostering overall commercialization and economic growth. In this way, “our commerce will be provided with a portion of exportable items to increase the mass of its circulation and its turnover, to which the prosperity of these Provinces [of the Río de la Plata] must necessarily follow” (Semanario, Prospecto). This was to be achieved in an imperial framework, as America “is bound to the duty of contributing with its produce to the growth and the glory of its Metropole and of itself” (Semanario, 17th Nov. 1802). The production of meat, wool, hides, and cereals, as well as cod and whale fishing had to be increased for that. Moreover, agriculture, industry, and trade were seen as three interrelated sources for economic prosperity, based on individual labor. On reading the pages dedicated to the education of popular classes, it becomes apparent that  Spanish American reformers were wishing and promoting what Jan de Vries has called an “industrious revolution”, a productive increase within the household based on the development of commodity production.

National historiographies have interpreted these South American economic reformisms as part of the ideas that were preparing the ground for political independence, failing to cast it within the Spanish Enlightenment tradition and anachronistically assuming the existence of American national identities. While it is undeniable that some prominent individuals denounced Spanish despotism (for instance Francisco de Miranda, and Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzmán), historians nowadays agree on the conjunctural character of independence, brought about by the Napoleonic wars, and the following constitutional crisis. The Cortes of Cadiz and Ferdinando VII, both had little consideration for America’s demands during the restoration of Spanish power in the peninsula. Economic reformism was one of the ways in which patriots could articulate their attacks on imperial despotism, as an open political discussion was not allowed. This economic reformist vocabulary became the mechanism subjects employed not just to critique but also propose political reform to the ruler. The language of reformism intertwined questions of economy with the political  government of the Monarchy, through the typically Spanish tradition of “bargaining absolutism”.

Nonetheless, the independence process determined a deep conceptual change in the Americas, especially after the door was closed on all possibilities for rapprochement with Spain. The Spanish past began to be considered the source of every contemporary problem in the newly independent American territories. Some deemed imperial despotism responsible for the post-independence economic disarray. Spain had hindered local development for centuries and had appropriated their natural resources. The impossibility of an economic independent government had rendered the American population idle and indolent. A new work ethic was needed, one that would “decolonize” preexistent economic customs. Indeed, the call for decolonization from Spain and its cultural tradition in the southern part of the continent first appeared in Chile in the late 1810s. These calls were intimately related to local economic practices and profoundly linked to the discussion on the appropriate form of government the new republics should adopt.

The age of Spanish Enlightened reformism (and its economic successes) was purportedly forgotten by political and economic interests who sought to form an American economic government independent from Spain. However, the developmental framework based on the interconnection between the improvement of agriculture, trade, and manufacture, and the expansion of commercialization and commodity production remained. The province of Buenos Aires experienced a new enthusiasm for commodity frontiers expansion through the appropriation of indigenous land. The commercial elites considered it to be necessary for development, following the reduction in the availability of Potosí silver and agricultural commodities produced in the provinces of the interior. Eventually Buenos Aires had to increase commodity production to sustain the Atlantic overseas trade. In a frontier settlement plan from 1816, Pedro Andres Garcia noted that “industry, commerce and the arts […] have become today the strongest pillars of state prosperity” while the government should promote frontier settlement because people assembled in towns and cities acquire industrious customs. As he explained: “to form towns, and to encourage agriculture and industry, is to form a homeland for men who have none”.

If the Spanish empire could no longer be the principal commercial partner of the Río de la Plata, the political economy of commodity production for export required new partners. In this context, the British merchants were the most dexterous in exploiting these new commercial opportunities. Yet they could not monopolize the market since French, Spanish and U.S. merchants were present in Buenos Aires since the late 1810s. The Napoleonic wars sanctioned British global naval hegemony, a military preeminence that was actively exploited by merchants. The incipient Industrial Revolution expanded British import markets for raw materials and supplied the export markets with manufactures. The availability of capital and financial expertise provided commercial ventures with instruments for effective trade. Buenos Aires had found the perfect commercial partners to fuel its political economy of commodity frontier expansion, a relationship strengthened by the commercial treaty of 1824 that guaranteed the international recognition of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, and conceded commercial privileges to British merchants, albeit in respect to their European and competitors from the United States of America.

Was this relationship one of informal imperialism, from the perspective of the elites of Buenos Aires during the early nineteenth century? Spanish political economists welcomed the inclusion of foreign merchants and workers within the empire since the mid-eighteenth century. This idea persisted in Buenos Aires until the 1820s, as local governments tried to implement plans for European migration. Merchants were part of the industrious people that would contribute to the enrichment of the country, and they were welcomed if they respected local laws. Foreigners had similar ideas about their involvement in American societies. In 1847, the pages of Buenos Aires’s British Packet hosted a long piece that opposed the ongoing British military intervention in the region, sketching instead the mutual benefits of the commercial relations between Buenos Aires and England. At that time, the governor Juan Manuel de Rosas had a strict control on newspapers, and the article probably reflected his ideas on the matter. The author admitted that “there are few countries, where amper [sic] scope is granted for foreign industry and enterprise”, and its vast and fertile land coupled with the productive capacities of British industries resulted in “the sure bond of mutual advantage, without any danger of competing interests”. Indeed, “the Argentines with unexhausted, unexplored, unimagined territorial resources can have no more inducement to become manufacturers than the Merchant Princes of Manchester to withdraw their capital from a remunerating [sic] manufacture, to cultivate the mountain of Scotland or the bogs of Ireland” (The British Packet, 3rd Jul. 1847).

In the nineteenth century, Atlantic elites agreed that the common good of societies passed through the improvement of the economic sector, while the deeper economic interdependence of far-flung localities were instrumental in providing necessary stimulus to local agricultural and industrial commodity production. The rhetorical use of the old tropes of doux commerce was contrasted by imperial wars, and the new round of colonization that was about to shake Africa. However, this rhetoric has been instrumental in advancing a universalist model of political economy based on commodity production and exchange. The mutual interest of both British and Buenos Aires elites undermines the idea of a British informal empire in South America, notwithstanding the uneven political power relation between their polities, at least in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It can thus be argued that the Atlantic political economy based on the commodity form was intrinsically imperial in nature, as well as constitutive of the imperial political entities and ideologies. The expansion of the commodity production frontiers facilitated the violent assimilation and destruction of indigenous societies and their different forms of economic lives, alongside the ruthless exploitation of the working classes. In Argentina, for instance, the destruction of Indian groups was indeed accomplished by 1884. Here is where the imperial character of modern political culture probably lies, an aspect that can be appreciated better if economy and politics are treated as an interwoven whole. Calls for a more inclusive and fair political system in which power is not in the hands of a tiny minority must be accompanied with a radical reconsideration of the conceptual premises of the economic system. The commodity form has now subsumed basically every human society, but the clash of imperialisms has not vanished, as the current conflicts in the world remind us day to day. The joint consideration of the economic and political imperialist traits of our societies would help us highlight the urgency to find viable alternatives out of an imperialist politics. A politics that should be structured around new meanings for the basic economic categories that sustain the social interdependence of modern societies, such as labor, productivity, value, or economic growth.


Mattia Steardo is a PhD candidate in Global History of Empires at the University of Turin (Italy). He studies the history of political economy in the Ibero-American world, with a focus on how the economic concept of property was first used as a rhetorical means to sustain the Bourbon reforms, and then for the establishment of independent institutions in the Province of Buenos Aires. When he is not reading old documents in dusty archives, he enjoys the sun while riding his loyal race bike.

Edited by Matias Xerxes Gonzalez Field

Featured Image: Covens & Mortier, Tabula Geographica Peruae, Braziliae & Amazonum Regionis, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One reply on “The Political Economy of Commodity Production: A view from the Río de la Plata”

Well. Imperialism was a way of progress for countries able to actively participate. Wealthier nations were able to float naval contingencies, larger and more useful than those of less affluent governments. The form and appearance of the imperialism was less important than outcomes it facilitated. Imperialists ( or, if one prefers, colonialists) were pragmatists, interested in the biggest bang for their bucks. You always have to follow the money.

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