Intellectual history

In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte about Human Rights and Neoliberalism

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Whales, about her new book, Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso: 2019).

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast · Human Rights and Neoliberalism: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte

Think Piece

Plotino Rhodakanaty and the Mexican Dimension of Fourierism

By Graeme Pente

The ideas of the French visionary socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) reached Mexico before 1861. As a “utopian” socialist, Fourier advocated for cross-class cooperation and capitalists’ voluntary surrender of their wealth and power. His disciples later elevated his ideas for making labor both attractive and dignified. Their newspaper Démocratie Pacifique (1843-1851) circulated “from Mexico to Buenos Aires,” making Fourier “the most well-known socialist in Latin America” (Pierre-Luc Abramson, Las utopías sociales en América Latina en el siglo XIX, 186). Yet the main vector by which Fourier’s thought reached Mexico was a Greco-Austrian socialist named Plotino Constantino Rhodakanaty (1828-?). Although scholars have addressed Rhodakanaty as an early Mexican Mormon (Jason H. Dormady and Jared M. Tamez, eds., Just South of Zion: The Mormons in Mexico and Its Borderlands, 59-72) and as a forerunner of Mexican anarchism, historians of Fourierism have entirely neglected him. Studies of Fourierism tend to focus on France, the doctrine’s place of origin; the United States, where reformers attempted several practical trials in the 1840s; or Great Britain, which enjoyed a small but active movement. Bringing Mexico into the study of early socialism expands the story of Fourierism beyond the North Atlantic. Indeed, a focus on Rhodakanaty’s thought and his blending of early socialism and anarchism provides new evidence of the lasting influence and adaptability of Fourierism in the Americas.

Plotino Rhodakanaty was born in Athens in 1828 (18-23 and 128-129). After his father died in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), Rhodakanaty’s mother took her infant son to live with her family in Vienna. He pursued medical training until, at the age of 19, he joined the revolutions sweeping Europe in 1848. Afterward, he found the early anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) whom he sought in Paris in 1850. It may have been at this time that Rhodakanaty discovered Fourier, or perhaps it was after he returned to the French capital in late 1857 to continue his studies. In any case, steeped as he was in the swirling ideologies of socialism and anarchism in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, Rhodakanaty eventually developed a blend of communitarianism and democracy in which Fourier’s influence rose to the top. While in Paris in the late 1850s, he learned of Mexican President Ignacio Comonfort’s land reform program, which offered large tracts to foreigners willing to settle. Rhodakanaty envisioned the potential for an agrarian colony along Fourierist lines and set out for Mexico.

When Rhodakanaty arrived in Veracruz in late February 1861, his plans for Mexico changed. Benito Juarez had succeeded Comonfort to the presidency, and the latter’s land grants remained in question amidst the chaos of the War of the Reform (1857-1861) and the French Intervention (1861-1867). Rhodakanaty opted to stay in Mexico supporting himself as a medical doctor and teacher in the capital. He remained a figure in radical politics in Mexico City and the surrounding countryside, involving himself in the struggles of both urban and rural workers, until the 1880s. In that decade, Rhodakanaty may have fallen afoul of the new Porfirio Díaz regime, as he departed Mexico in 1886 and disappeared from the historical record.

Rhodakanaty started spreading Fourier’s ideas as soon as he arrived in Mexico. In 1861, he published a primer on socialism entitled Cartilla socialista, o sea el catecismo elemental de la escuela de Carlos Fourier: el falansterio. Rhodakanaty followed the French and American Fourierists in emphasizing the principle of association as the key to overcoming social ills. Socialization could combat competition and lead to harmony. He hoped that “some day, the Mexican people [will] emancipate themselves from the terrible yoke of plutocracy by means of association” (Plotino C. Rhodakanaty, Escritos, 11) In place of a world divided by various interests—industrial, class, political, national—association offered a “reign of wealth, truth, justice, peace, [and] work” (ibid., 17). This last ideal was a notably Fourierist one, as American followers of Fourier centered the notion of “attractive labor” in their propaganda and their French counterparts emphasized “the right to work.”

Rhodakanaty’s Fourierism was clear throughout the Cartilla. He structured his primer on socialism as a series of short “lessons,” in which he provided answers to a list of questions. In the second lesson, he offered a philosophical outlook on the factors shaping human behavior. Rhodakanaty mused on how the conduct of man was determined by “being surrounded by circumstances favorable to the harmonious movement of our native faculties, which would prompt him to seek the satisfaction of his passions in the way of the good… [these] prove the extent to which social organization exerts itself over him, and his moral and material action” (ibid., 19). Rhodakanaty here invoked Fourier’s faith that unleashing human passions would redound to the common good. The key was to adjust social circumstances to the natural passions, not to try to suppress them. Rhodakanaty similarly noted in Lesson Six that civil, moral, and political laws were created to establish and maintain order in a dysfunctional social system (ibid., 41-42). Thus, the perfection of the social system would make such laws irrelevant. The abolition of such laws represented steps away from the coercion already existing in society. The proposed dismantling of the legal apparatus attests to Fourierism’s anti-authoritarian character and its compatibility with anarchism.

Rhodakanaty engaged with Fourierism most thoroughly in the Cartilla, but he remained heavily influenced by Fourier throughout the 25 years of his activism in Mexico. Rhodakanaty often wrote in the language of Christian socialism and cast nineteenth-century socialists as the proper inheritors of Christ. Yet he also connected Jesus with the French Revolution’s triad of liberty, equality, and fraternity. He set this triad in an intellectual genealogy of thinkers advocating social perfectibility that stretched back to Plato and culminated with Fourier himself. For Rhodakanaty, these conceivers of diverse utopias kept the dream of social perfection alive through millennia: from Plato’s Republic through Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) to Etienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1841) and “the immortal and famous” Charles Fourier (ibid., 84).

As much as Rhodakanaty remained influenced by Fourier, however, he also blended Fourierism with other socialist and anarchist influences during his decades in Mexico. He admitted no adherence to orthodoxy, himself, noting that his school was “forming, in short, a syncretic compilation of the brilliant theories of the wisest socialists, ancient as well as modern” (ibid., 68-69). One major difference between Rhodakanaty’s Fourierism and that of his French and American comrades was his opposition to the rights of private property. Rhodakanaty envisioned abolishing private property to return man to “his primitive origin in his simple state of nature when scattered throughout the forests and jungles he wandered the entire face of the earth, whose possession was in common” (ibid., 60). With the end of private property, there would no longer be a need for the army either (José C. Valadés, El socialismo libertario mexicano (siglo XIX), 38). Rhodakanaty’s opposition to private property and the army reflected the historical role of each in the oppression of the Mexican people: the power of the hacendados (large landowners) and the reign of the military. Rhodakanaty’s hostility to property clearly bore the mark of the early anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s thinking. Proudhon was most famous for answering the question “what is property?” with the exclamation “Theft!” But Proudhon was also known for his intense hostility to the State, which had often set him at odds with his socialist colleagues during the French Second Republic (1848-1851).

In Mexico, Rhodakanaty married the schools of Proudhon and Fourier. For instance, he opened his Fourierist tract Garantismo Humanitario (1876-1877) with the call, “People: no more governments! Abolish tyrannies! Pass to social Guaranteeism!” (Plotino C. Rhodakanaty, Obras, 103). Rhodakanaty elsewhere suggested that the transition to socialism would see the formation of a system of territorial banks (Rhodakanaty, Escritos, 65). These banks had something in common with Proudhon’s conception of a People’s Bank, which would offer artisan cooperatives easy access to credit. Rhodakanaty seemed to adapt the idea to the Mexican context, where concerns with land and farming prevailed and the hacendados’ domination of landownership loomed large. Ultimately, Rhodakanaty set the systems of Proudhon and Fourier at the service of each other. He dismissed all government as “disorder,” and asked what purpose government would serve once the people were organized into phalansteries. The people “would form three, five, ten, twenty, one hundred, or one thousand phalansteries or communities and then they would unite freely, for solidarity, in a great federation, for the exchange of production and consumption” (quoted in Valadés, El socialism libertario, 38). The federal vision belonged to both Fourier and Proudhon, while autonomous communities of exchange belonged more to the anarchist. Yet the organizing unit was the phalanx, and the predominant idiom remained Fourierist.

Fourierism took on new dimensions with its importation to Mexico. In this new context, Rhodakanaty effected a reconciliation between the schools of Fourier and Proudhon that their leaders in France were unwilling to countenance. He recognized that the two doctrines complemented each other in their mutual emphasis on non-domination and small producers’ cooperatives. Against the centralization of Mexican state-building, Rhodakanaty offered a vision of the harmonious future inspired by and steeped in the language of Fourier. In turn, the Fourierist vision of small, autonomous communes tapped into local ideas of the traditional political independence of the Mexican village. The agrarian socialist vision that Rhodakanaty helped to formalize and spread among Mexican radicals endured the modernizing project of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship to reemerge a generation later during the Mexican Revolution in the popular movements behind Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

Graeme Pente recently completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of Colorado Boulder. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and serves as a contributing editor at Erstwhile: A History Blog.

Featured Image: Street scene in Mexico City, c.1880. Attributed to William Henry Jackson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Think Piece

Acqua Panna: When History Makes Bottled Waters

By Luna Sarti

In their Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (MIT Press, 2015), Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race investigate “how and why branded bottles of water have insinuated themselves into daily life and the implications of this for safe urban water supplies” (xxii). In asking what is at work in the decision to move from drinking from the tap to drinking from the bottle, they advocate for an understanding of market arrangements in relation to consumers who recognize the distinct qualifications surrounding the product while incorporating the product into their world (xxxiii).

Plastic Water (book cover)

Although a diversity of elements and devices have been identified in the making of water into a “fast-moving consumer good” (FMCG), there is some agreement between scholars in identifying narratives of nature, purity, and human health as the key elements in the processes whereby bottled water has been transformed into a FMCG in the last few decades. However, there seems to be an emerging trend in the bottled water business to feature history as a crucial element in  branding their products. Such a shift toward historicity should not be underestimated. Hawkins, Potter, and Race suggest, in fact, that the bottle of water should be approached “as an unfinished or entangled object” whose nature demands careful elaboration (xvi). Using Evian as a case study for bottled spring waters, they discuss how waters become singularized and distinguished by analyzing dynamics captured by processes of rebranding and “the ways in which they generate multidimensional relations that feed back into market processes and shape them in predictable and unpredictable ways” (34). If for a long time it was important to detach the imaginary of bottled waters from human activity and position them on the side of nature by stressing ideal characteristics such as spring waters untouched quality and their  uncontaminated features, one should start wondering why historical dates are increasingly appearing on spring water brands such as Poland Spring, Acqua Panna, and San Pellegrino (all managed by Nestlé Waters).

Since the key issue with water is that it can be turned into a market object in many different ways, it is crucial to pay close attention to the specific historical processes whereby it is “rendered economic” in the sense described by Fabian Muniesa, Yuval Millo and Michel Callon  in their introduction to Market Devices (3). Such a shift towards a historical aura for bottled waters could have interesting implications, particularly for social and historical analyses.

Picture of Acqua Panna’s new 1 L plastic bottle. © 2015 Nestlé

This question first came to my mind when noticing that following the cross-platform campaign that Nestlé Waters North America launched last May, Acqua Panna’s bottle label emphasizes the year 1564, the Italian word for Tuscany (“Toscana”) as well as a stylized fleur de lis, the emblematic symbol of Florence, and – only on the glass bottle- an explicit reference to the Medici family. The year represents such an important detail that it is also impressed in the plastic bottle, whereas the glass bottle has the brand name “San Pellegrino” impressed which replaced “natural spring water” that characterized the old bottle. While for decades water companies tried to construct an imaginary that severed their water products from human interaction, Nestlé Waters seems to be now trying to establish a sense of historicity for Acqua Panna by connecting today’s bottled waters to Florence and the time of the Medici. 

That history represents an important aspect of Acqua Panna’s identity, particularly since its acquisition by Nestlé Waters in the late 1990s, is confirmed when looking at its official website. While traditional informative sections of bottled waters focus on themes such as water quality, mineral content, PH levels, and the water shelf-life, Acqua Panna has included since the early 2000s a section on its history, which is now addressed as the fourth question in their FAQ section for the US website.

FAQS section – 4. What is the history behind Acqua Panna?

“Acqua Panna takes its name from the Villa Panna Estate in Tuscany, a summer estate that was owned by the noble Medici family of Florence. The Medici family were of the most renowned art patrons in history. Their court included some of the most celebrated artists & visionaries including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Botticelli. The iconic fleur-des-lis symbol was their crest. The Medici family acquired over 3,000 acres of land in Scarperia, Tuscany in order to turn it into an untouched hunting reserve. They officially limited its borders with an act, dating back to 1564.  That decree still exists and guards the land where Acqua Panna flows.” From The US website of Acqua Panna.  © 2015 Nestlé

Certainly, in 1564 the bandita (featured in the gallery below) of Scarperia , which included the villa of Panna and local springs, was transformed into the Duke’s game reserve, thus effectively preventing the local community from accessing the spring water within its borders. However, the Bando focuses on establishing the borders of the reserve, and the Medici never bottled their water nor commercialized it. It was the Marquise Luigi of Torrigiani who acquired the reserve in the 19th century and started bottling and selling Acqua Panna (as Acqua sorgiva di Panna) in Florence.

Using WebArchive it is possible to look at the way in which the historical discourse was reshaped over time. A snapshot of the website taken between August 8, 2013, and July 14, 2014 (featured in the gallery below), shows how Acqua Panna originally featured a proper story line on their website, spanning from Roman times to the year 2006. The story line pinpoints several events for each century. For the 16th century we find the aforementioned establishment of the reserve in 1564 and the construction by the Grand Duke Francesco I of the oratory at Villa Panna in 1572. Moving forward, the timeline includes the image of an extant cabreo documenting the estate in 1792, along with the location of the villa of Panna, and then shifts to the year 1860 when the Marquise of Torrigiani for the first time sold the waters from the estate in Florence in 54-liter demijohns. For the 20th century, there are references to the year 1910, which is highlighted as the year when the Marquise Luigi Torrigiani started to use liter bottles for Acqua Panna, the year 1938, when the Count Contini Bonaccossi who bought the estate from the Torrigiani family founded the “Società Panna”, and then the acquisition of the company by the San Pellegrino Group in 1956, which was later bought by Nestle in 1997. All of these references to events that somehow signal a shift in the commercialization of this water have disappeared in the 2019 rebranding.

As I continue to investigate the complex processes that make the international assemblage that is today Acqua Panna, I ask myself why history is becoming more important to constitute contemporary bottled waters and why a particular history has been selected in the process to singularize Acqua Panna from other waters. Inspired by Plastic Water to rethink packaging as “something that helps bring new realities and practices into being that have socially binding effects” (6), I wonder if this historicization of the label and of bottled waters might be an attempt to play against the growing awareness of what plastic waters mean for our material world. Perhaps, as public discourse around the impact of plastics in marine ecosystems grows and campaigns against bottled waters intensify, it becomes difficult to sustain the association between nature and bottled waters that for so long played a role in the marketing of plastic water. It would make sense then to reshape the narrative around Acqua Panna and place it at the center of the Medici myth. Away from nature, via history, this bottle shapes a time-honored lifestyle.

Luna is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.” 

Featured Image: Acqua Panna website on August 8, 2013. Retrieved via Web Archive on August 12, 2019.  Copyright – 2011 Sanpellegrino S.p.A. © 2015 Nestlé


JHIBlog Podcast: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Eli Cook

pricing of progressOur editor Disha Karnad Jani interviews Prof. Eli Cook, winner of the Journal of the History of Ideas‘s Morris D. Forkosch Prize for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017).

Intellectual history

2017 Morris D. Forkosch Prize: Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress

Eli Cook, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. The winner of the 2017 Forkosch Prize has been is Eli Cook, for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The judging committee writes:

The 2017 Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history goes to Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life. As beautifully written as it is thought-provoking, this study illuminates the emergence of the idea that society is something to be invested in, to be capitalized, something, therefore, whose health can be evaluated statistically whether through measures of the cost of alcoholism or of worker productivity. Displaying impressive historical breadth, Cook moves from William Petty’s formative essay “Verbum sapienti and the Value of People” of 1665 to the adoption of the GDP as the standard measure of national health during the Great Depression, bringing to bear a vast range of thinkers—church ministers, business people, economists, politicians, bureaucrats, and social reformers—along the way. Meticulously and innovatively merging the history of economics and economic thought with intellectual and cultural history, The Pricing of Progress is essential reading for anyone interested in the ubiquity of the notions of capitalization and monetization in contemporary American society and politics.

Prof. Eli Cook (University of Haifa)

Eli Cook is assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa in Israel. The Pricing of Progress, lauded by reviewers as “groundbreaking” and “boldly original and compelling,” also received the 2018 S-USIH Book Award from the Society for US Intellectual History.


The entire JHIBlog team extends its heartiest congratulations to Prof. Cook and looks forward to learning more about his research.

Think Piece

The Emotional Life of Laissez-Faire: Emulation in Eighteenth-Century Economic Thought

By guest contributor Blake Smith

Capitalism is often understood by both critics and defenders as an economic system that gives self-interested individuals free reign to acquire, consume, and compete. There are debates about the extent to which self-interest can be ‘enlightened’ and socially beneficial, yet there seems to be a widespread consensus that under capitalism, the individual, egoist self is the basic unit of economic action. For many intellectuals from the right and the left capitalism seems, by letting such economic agents pursue their private interests, to erode traditional social structures and collective identities, in a process that is either a bracing, liberating movement towards freedom or an alienating, disorienting dissolution in which, as Marx famously phrased it, “all that is solid melts into air.”

Economic activity unfettered by government regulation was not always so obviously linked to the self-interest of atomized individuals. In fact, as historians inspired by the work of István Hont show, the first wave of laissez-faire political economists, who transformed eighteenth-century Europe and laid the foundation for modern capitalism, claimed that they were creating the conditions for a new era of mutual admiration and affective connections among economic agents. For these thinkers, members of the ‘Gournay Circle’, emotions, rather than mere self-interest, were the motor of economic activity. They specifically identified the kind of activity they wanted to promote with the feeling of ’emulation’, and touted the abolition of traditional protections on workers and consumers as a means of stoking this noble passion.

Emulation has only been recently been given center stage in the history of economic thought, thanks to scholars like John Shovlin, Carol Harrison and Sophus Reinert, but it has a long history. From Greco-Roman antiquity down through the Renaissance, it was understood as a force of benign mutual rivalry among people working in the same field. Emulation was said to set in motion a virtuous circle in which competitors, bound by mutual admiration and affection, pushed each other to ever-higher levels of achievement. When a sculptor, for example, sees a magnificent statue made by one of his fellow artists, he should experience an uplifting feeling of emulation that will inspire him to learn from his rival in order to make a still more magnificent statue of his own. Emulation thus leads to higher standards of production, generating a net gain for society as a whole; it also, critically, unites potential rivals in a bond of shared esteem rooted in a common identity. This form of friendly competition sustains communities.

Emulation was not for everyone, however. It was understood only to exist in the world of male elites, and only in non-economic domains where they could pursue glory without the taint of financial interest: the arts, politics, and war. The circle of young male artists in the orbit of the great painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as Thomas Crowe notes, could present their (not always harmonious) competition for attention, resources, and patronage in terms of emulation. In the homosocial space of the studio, anything so petty as jealous or avarice was abolished, and such artists as Antoine-Jean Gros, Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Germain Drouais could appear, at least in public, as a set of friends who admired and encouraged each other. Women, meanwhile, were largely excluded from the art world’s apprenticeships, studios, and galleries, on the grounds that their delicate psyches were not suited to the powerful emotions that drove emulation.

Vincent de Gournay

The discourse of emulation shaped access to the arts, but, in a stroke of public relations genius, the members of the Gournay Circle realized that it could also reshape France’s mercantilist economy. Beginning in the 1750s, this group of would-be reformers coalesced around the commercial official and political economist Vincent de Gournay (1712-59). Largely forgotten today (but now increasingly visible thanks to scholars such as Felicia Gottmann), Gournay and his associates inspired the liberal political economists of the next generation, from Physiocrats in France to Adam Smith in Scotland. The Gournay Circle and those who moved in its wake called for the abolition of restrictions on foreign imports, price controls on grain, state monopolies, guilds—the institutions and practices around which economic life in Europe had been organized for centuries.

The Gournay Circle spoke to a France fearful of falling behind Great Britain, its rival for colonial and commercial power. Gournay and his associates argued that France was not making the most of its merchants, entrepreneurs and manufacturers, whose energies were hemmed in by antiquated regulations. To those worried that unleashing economic energies might heighten social tensions, making France weaker and more divided instead of stronger, the Gournay Circle gave reassurance. There was no conflict between fostering social harmony and deregulating the economy, because economic activity was not motivated by self-interested desires for personal gain. Rather, buying and selling, production and distribution were inspired by emulation, the same laudable hunger for the esteem of one’s peers that motivated painters, orators and warriors.

Just as a sculptor admires and strives to outdo the work of his colleagues, laissez-faire advocates argued, a merchant or manufacturer regards those in his own line of work with a spirit of high-minded, warm-hearted camaraderie. Potential competitors identify with each other, forging an emotional bond based on their shared effort to excel. Thus, for example, demolishing traditional guild controls on the number of individuals who could enter into a given field of trade would not only encourage competition, raise the quality of goods and reduce prices—most importantly, it would draw a greater number of people into emulation with each other. Social classes, too, would be drawn to emulate each other, and rather than stoking economic conflict among competing interests, deregulation would encourage economic actors to earn the admiration of their fellows. National wealth and national unity would both be promoted, joined by a common logic of affect.

Under the banner of emulation, reformers challenged the guilds and associations that had long offered some limited protections to workers. Since the Middle Ages, guilds throughout Europe had set standards of production, provided training for artisans, and offered forms of unemployment insurance. Critics observed that they also kept up wages by limiting the number of workers who could enter into specific trades, and further accused guilds of thwarting the introduction of new technologies. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), a political economist linked to the Gournay Circle, believed that the best way to “incite emulation” among workers was “by the suppression of all the guilds.”

For a brief moment, Turgot (still hailed as a hero in libertarian circles) was able to put his pro-emulation agenda into action. Appointed Comptroller-General of Finances (the equivalent to a modern Minister of Finance) in 1774, Turgot launched a laissez-faire campaign that included the abolition of guilds and the suspension of state controls on the price and circulation of grain. The royal decree announcing his most infamous batch of policies, the Six Edits, declared: “we wish thus to nullify these arbitrary institutions… which cast away emulation.” Turgot’s policies provoked outrage across French society, from peasants who feared bread prices would spiral out of control, to guild members who faced the competition of unregulated production. He was forced to resign in 1776; his most hated policies were reversed. But the damage had been done. The guild system, permanently enfeebled, straggled on for another generation. Peasants and workers, to whom the fragility of the institutions that protected their access to food and labor had been made brutally obvious, remembered the lesson. Their outrage in the mid-1770s was a rehearsal for 1789.

“Carte d’Entrée” for the first annual meeting of the Société d’Emulation

Emulation gradually faded away as a justification for liberal economic policies, although throughout much of the nineteenth century ’emulation clubs’ (sociétés d’émulation) remained a fixture of French municipal life, promoting business ventures while excluding groups whose capacity for emulation was considered questionable: women, Jews, and Protestants. As a key, albeit forgotten, concept in the development of modern economic thought, emulation reveals the extent to which the notion of the self-interested individual as the essential subject of economic activity is not in fact essential to capitalist ideology. In eighteenth-century France, laissez-faire policies aimed at increasing economic growth were justified in terms of their contribution to social harmony and emotional fulfillment. In the rhetoric that promoted these policies, the imagined economic subject was not an isolated, calculating egoist but a passionate striver who wanted, more than mere utility, welfare or profit, the admiration of other members of his community (that this community should exclude certain groups of people went without saying). Such arguments may well have been deployed by cynical activists agitating on behalf of powerful financial interests, yet they nevertheless speak to an affective dimension of economic life that is too often occluded. In its short-lived role as an economic concept, emulation showed that the history of capitalism is necessarily entangled with the history of emotions.

Blake Smith holds a PhD from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is currently a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute, where he is preparing a study of the eighteenth-century French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.