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Response to Review of Taming Capitalism Before its Triumph: Public Service, Distrust, & ‘Projecting’ in Early Modern England

I am grateful to Ms Corlett for an overwhelmingly positive review. Her perceptive comments clarify how my work complements Mark Knights’ ongoing work on corruption, and also early modern social history interested in popular agency. I am also pleased to learn that she has found the ‘taming of capitalism’ to be a useful framework for understanding developments well beyond the South Sea Bubble of 1720, a specific end point of my study. Her discussion suggests the rich potential of pushing the story into the second half of the 18th century and beyond, and of doing fuller justice than I did to Smith and other political economists and promoters in the age of Enlightenment. I eagerly await further critical engagements of this kind while devoting myself to other subjects: with Peter Lake and other colleagues, I am currently finishing an edited volume on stereotypes; a book project on the Bubble and its repercussions is also in progress.

In what follows, I limit myself to one of Corlett’s specific judgements: ‘For all the book’s insistence that change was contingent and disorderly, the “taming of incipient capitalism” implies a one-off event – or at least a unidirectional process – leading up to something stable and recognisably modern’. I find this to be a suggestive reading, one that touches on some of the key aspects of my book.

I hope the reviewer and other readers would agree with me that the taming of capitalism is conceived of in the book as an inherently incomplete, possibly even never-ending, project. This is why I chose to end the book in the way I did, connecting the early modern past and the present (pp. 272, 278–9).

What about the early modern period then? The reviewer wonders whether the public distrust ‘forced projectors to distance themselves from state authority’ so much so that it ‘rule[d] out the emergence of a new form of parasitical projecting’ thriving on corruptions. I should say this was not the case. For example, in the age of the financial revolution and beyond, financial experiments including the South Sea scheme continued to rely on governmental approval (pp. 38, 219–20). So we can fully expect new, even surprising, forms of controversial projects and perversions later on. There were then, as now, many evolving frontiers of capitalism which called for taming.

Finally, and most crucially, if the book’s main chapters still seem like a unidirectional narrative with observable elements of change during the 17th century, then it is because of its main task – to document what Jan de Vries has called ‘structure-modifying acts’, actors’ practices giving rise to ‘fateful events’ over time.(1a) I have condensed my argument in one phrase: numerous visible hands taming incipient capitalism (p. 272). While capturing the book’s main chronology, the phrase also encapsulates its methodological ambition: to reconstruct negotiations over distrust at the micro level in order to throw fresh light on the long-term evolution of England’s culture of improvement away from the draconian practices characteristic of the early Stuart period. By telling this story, as the reviewer suggests, I wanted to offer an alternative to whiggish, celebratory accounts of England’s culture of growth and improvement. But I have chosen to document the evolution as I did also because I wanted to challenge the commonly-held assumption that thick description and cultural history are ill-equipped to develop larger narratives of change (pp. 24–5, 269–71). I am therefore delighted to learn that the reviewer finds the book to be ‘strongest in describing these changes, persuasively moving between closely analysed case studies and a broader picture’.

Notes

  1. Jan de Vries’s Max Weber Lecture that I cited in the book has now been published as an article. See Jan de Vries, ‘Changing the narrative: the new history that was and is to come’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 48 (2018), 313–34. I thank Professor De Vries for drawing my attention to this.Back to (1a)