Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Announcements of Capitalism and Their Reception in Eighteenth-Century Europe: The Dispute between Diderot and Morellet in 1770-71

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Announcements of Capitalism and Their Reception in Eighteenth-Century Europe: The Dispute between Diderot and Morellet in 1770-71

Article excerpt

Our essay deals not with capitalism itself, with its long and complex history reaching back in Europe to the fifteenth or even to the twelfth century,(1) but with a conception of it formulated in the eighteenth century, according to which the crucial action in material life was the deployment of capital in productive enterprises. This idea could hardly have arisen earlier because capitalism had long "occupied a narrow platform" in the economy, mostly keeping to the confines of international trade and high finance, and thus, in Fernand Braudel's words, living "as if in a bell-jar, cut off from the rest."(2) Since it moved only gradually and belatedly into the densely populated worlds of agriculture and manufacturing, experience of capitalism was equally slow to spread and to provide its initiates, onlookers, and celebrants with adequate materials for exposition and with the likelihood of finding an ample and eager audience. In any event, after 1750 various acute Europeans began to write about the investment of capital in broad and dramatic terms, identifying it as a transforming force capable of making previously unimagined headway against poverty and scarcity. Yet readers were more often than not inattentive and uncomprehending, the surprising outcome which is exemplified in our dispute between Andre Morellet and Denis Diderot in the years 1770-71. While the former with cogency and flourish insisted upon the bringing of capital and entrepreneurs to French agriculture, the latter, rather than rejecting the plea, simply ignored and circumvented it in favour of other issues which alone struck him as being immediate and paramount.

Morellet's "announcement of capitalism," as we choose to call it, was no isolated event, in that statements of the kind were common enough in the period, constituting an impressive body of opinion on the whole readily available to anyone willing to take an interest. Thus in 1769, in his marvellously succinct Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth, A.R.J. Turgot explained that "every type of labor, in agriculture, in industry or in commerce, requires advances," and that, consequently, "capitals are the indispensable foundation of all lucrative enterprises."(3) With equal brevity, Francois Quesnay, in his General Maxims, in print perhaps as early as 1758 and thereafter published in numerous, somewhat varied editions, asserted that "it is not so much men as wealth which must be attracted to the countryside."

   The more wealth is employed in cultivation, the less men are required and
   the more agriculture prospers and yields revenue. This is demonstrated in
   the case of grain, for example, by comparing large-scale cultivation
   carried on by rich farmers with the small-scale cultivation of poor
   sharecroppers who plough with the aid of oxen or cows.(4)

Echoing Quesnay was Georg Ludwig Schmid, a Swiss admirer whose two-volume work of 1776, Principes de la legislation universelle, was widely read, especially in Italy:

   Agriculture, following the other arts, making use of new inventions and
   powers, is becoming a complicated activity, a veritable manufactory. What a
   difference there is between the understanding and methods of a poor worker,
   who with his bodily strength or at most with the aid of some stunted beast
   turns over a few clods of soil, and the know-how and practices of the rich
   farmer ... who with well-maintained animals, all the necessary implements,
   a small number of carefully directed workers, and with every sort of
   investment puts into motion the levers of natural fecundity!(5)

It was also of course in 1776 that Adam Smith offered his own elaborate rendering:

   The number of [any nation's] productive labourers, it is evident, can never
   be much increased, but in consequence of an increase of capital ... The
   productive powers of the same number of labourers cannot be increased, but
   in consequence either of some addition and improvement to those machines
   and instruments which facilitate and abridge labour; or of a more proper
   division and distribution of employment. … 
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