Economic Life in the British Past and How its History Can Help Us Rethink Modern British History

Speakers: Desmond Fitz-Gibbon, Penelope Ismay, Maura O’Connor, Nick Valvo

Chair: James Vernon

At the turn of the 19th c., Britons worried about how to balance the freedom of the individual with the collective needs of society.  For many economic thinkers at different times from the late 18th to the late 19th c, the idea that economic individualism, or self-interested individuals pursuing their own economic best interests, could solve this social problem inadvertently was a powerful one.  But while the idea that economic individual, freed from all social constraints, could produce a new kind of social solidarity has a history, it never dominated the actual practices of economic life in this period.  Wages were still paid in kind, through credit or entitlements; insurance premiums were determined as much by assessing character as by calculating numbers; the start up capital of the great industrialists came as much from family and friends as from banks and lawyers; property contracts were adjudicated by the character of the litigants as much as the letter of the law; and, the credit that made the circulation of goods and species possible was a mix of the economic and social assessment of risk.  In other words, economic life was always embedded in social and cultural relationships that Britons continually and very self-consciously created and reinforced.  There was nothing inadvertent about it.

While historians and literary critics have been revising our understanding of the history of economic life in Britain for a few decades now, we have yet to take a step back and ask what do these new stories tell us about the narrative of British modernity more broadly?  This panel proposes to do just that.  We are three historians and one literary critic who study different aspects of economic life in the long 19th c.  Speaking from our work on property markets, parish credit networks, cultures of risk, and mutual aid economies, we propose to engage the question: how should the social and cultural histories of economic life in this period change the story of modern British history?

Paper 1 Abstract: Penelope Ismay, Boston College

“Savings Banks and the Myth of Market Society”

Even after the onslaught of revisionist histories demonstrating that the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century economy in Britain was primarily a credit economy and not a moneyed economy, historians continue to insist on an inverse relationship between the rise of a market economy and the decline of community.[1]  Unlike moneyed economies where anonymous economic exchanges are possible, a credit economy like Britain’s in these centuries was based on hundreds of thousands of personal relationships held together by networks or communities of trust.[2]  And yet, the market driven shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft remains the shorthand for describing the origin of modern society—the effect of which is to give the idea of what Karl Polanyi called a ‘market society’ a life in social reality that it never had.

In this paper I will show that in the period most commonly cited as the origin of ‘market society,’ moral reformers, social thinkers, and legislators did indeed toy with the idea of using the cash-nexus to stand in for relations between man and man in the form of savings banks.  But within two years of theorizing and experimenting with this model, these same reformers firmly rejected it.  They rejected it because a laborer’s individual savings were no match for the caprice of the life-cycle and the ruthlessness of the trade-cycles.  They also rejected it because instead of promoting trust between the classes, it bred distrust.  In our proposed panel discussion, I will talk about how this episode and the problem of social trust more broadly can help us rethink the narrative of modern British history.

[1] Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).

[2] Craig Muldrew, “Interpreting the Market: The Ethics of Credit and Community Relations in Early Modern England,” Social History 18, no. 2 (May 1, 1993): 163–83.

Paper 2 Abstract: Desmond Fitzgibbon, Mount Holyoke College

“Back to the Land: Land Politics and the Creation of the Property Market in Nineteenth-Century Britain”

Though historians have not always sufficiently acknowledged it, the ‘land question’ was a persistent theme animating a broad range of political and social movements from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth.  The politics of land would seem to fit very well within a narrative of modern British history that includes the development of commercial and industrial capitalism, the growth of cities and the further commoditization of land associated with urbanization, and the diffusion of property ownership towards what early-twentieth century politicians would term a ‘property-owning democracy.’  And yet, until quite recently, historians have viewed land politics as an anachronism, a residual and irrational hope for a long-forgotten and sentimentally-tinged arcadia or pastoral village community, a reflexive response to deeper currents of socio-economic change for which calls to nationalize land or dole out three acres and a cow seem quaint at best.  In other words, the political culture of land sat in relation to the market culture of property as a songbird would trying to drown out the chorus of a congested highway.

My paper re-examines the relationship between the cultural politics of land and the cultural economy of property marketization, arguing that various land movements did not simply respond belatedly to the increasing commoditization of land (be it in the form of bankrupt country estates or speculative suburban expansion).  Rather, in trying to frame the limits of alienable private property, they helped construct the cultural understandings of what commoditized property would and would not look like in modern Britain.   Viewing nineteenth-century land politics in this way, as co-constitutive of the property market, opens up new perspectives on the cultural history of economic life in modern Britain and on the approaches that historians in the 21st century should take to interpret this history.

Paper 3 Abstract: Nick Valvo, Bates College

“Status to Contract Revisited: Sir Henry Maine and Literary History”

Much of nineteenth-century social thought places, at the base of modernization theory, a transition in the structures that coordinate the relationship between individual affect and social forms of life. Most strikingly recognizable in Ferdinand Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, this tendency is also discernible in the work of Maine, Hegel, Simmel, and even the Young Marx.

My contribution to the panel will seek to theorize the relationship between such accounts of late-eighteenth-century transitions and the literary resources on which they rely. Chief among these is sentimentalism, a set of formal techniques and thematic concerns that conspire to enforce an incompatibility between individual self-interest on the one hand and humane feeling or moral action on the other. Sentimentalism is thus a theory of disinterest, preoccupied with the emotional heroism of isolated individuals, whose idiosyncrasy and alienation heighten the tension with what is thus visible as a fallen social world. These theoretical appropriations of literary modes come with a degree of distortion and refiguration, but the signature of the sentimental remains legible. Sometimes the putative incompatibility between the humane and the self-interested is used rhetorically, as the horns of a paradox (as in Adam Smith) which nonetheless governs the operation of his text; sometimes these synchronic accounts of social action are mapped instead diachronically, as a theory of social development (as in Hegel, Tönnies, or the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts).

I argue that these theorists are thus participants in the historical development they seek to describe. The analytical opposition between the eighteenth-century ancien regime and nineteenth-century liberal modernity depends on historically-specific modes of observation of affect and social relations that are themselves part of the phenomenon under discussion.

Paper 4 Abstract: Maura O’Connor, University of Cincinnati

“Risk and the ‘Stock-jobbing Globe”

The extraordinary physical and psychological transformation of the British landscape made possible by the repeal of the corn laws and the passage of limited liability laws to the laying of railway and telegraph lines serviced and facilitated an unprecedented growth of finance capitalism. With the altering of space and time, new attitudes and ideas arose with regard to risk and chance in general as recent scholarship has shown.[1]  The speed at which money could be made and lost with finance capital accelerated in contrast to industry, for example, which witnessed a more gradual accumulation of wealth and presupposed, for so many, hard work and diligence.

Not only was there a re-imagining of space and the geography of the city, the creation of the first modern financial center with the City of London, but a re-imagining of the geography of making money and of risk itself. Moreover, risk became increasingly diversified in the second half of the century and spread around the globe. But what did this look like to nineteenth century investors and shareholders? How did something so seemingly abstract become concrete and practical; something that defied boundaries, become bound? In other words, how did the Stock Market work? How was the invisibility of buying and selling stock made visible?

While this paper (and the larger study from which it comes) is concerned with geographies of risk as well as the ‘cosmopolitanism of capital’[2] and with what I have come to call the emotional economies of investment and speculation, it is most concerned with domesticating this cultural history of risk, speculation, and investment, so that we better understand what made finance capitalism legitimate; how it affected everyday life where profits and losses around the ‘stock-jobbing globe’ began and ended with individual men and women buying and selling shares through their brokers. To that end, it aims to explore the human relationships that were enacted upon in stock transactions, a demystifying of the arcane language and circumstances that surrounded political economy’s vocabulary, theories, and practices.

[1] See Garrett Ziegler, “The City of London, Real and Unreal,” Victorian Studies Spring 2007, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 431-455.

[2] See J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: 1902).





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