Category Archives: History of Economics

Constructing Economic Science

On the cover of my new book Vladimir Tatlin and his colleagues are building a model of his Monument to the Third International for the third anniversary, in November 1920, of the Bolshevik Revolution. As conceived by Tatlin, the tower was to be 400 metres tall: taller than the Empire State Building (381 metres, 1931) and dwarfing the Eiffel Tower (300 metres, 1889). Construction was never started because of the enormous amount of steel required; whether it could then even have been built is an open question. It remained a utopian project. As a finished object it was only ever a model, or a drawing:

Pamyatnik III internatsionala. Proyekt khud. E. Tatlina [Памятник III интернационала. Проект худ. Е. Татлина]. Department of Visual Arts of Narkompros, St. Petersburg, 1920

That Tatlin and his colleagues are so absorbed in their work of modelling the future alludes to the theme of the book, tracing the formation and early development of the vision of economics as a modern science, validated by this status. But this visual connection to the theme of the book also has a direct link with the title. For Tatlin was the leading representative of “Constructivism”, a Russian art movement that was the subject of an important exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery from February to April 1971. And more generically of course, social constructionism has been the core of many of the intellectual trends and fashions from the later 1960s to the present. But while the book owes a great deal to Tatlin and his comrades, it owes little to the various post-modernist trends that have come and gone since the 1970s.

In April 1971 I visited the Hayward Gallery exhibition, having a particular interest in early Soviet film-making. The exhibition catalogue (Art in Revolution. Soviet Art and Design since 1917, Arts Council, London n. d.) was introduced by Camilla Gray-Prokofieva, whose 1962 study of modernist Russian art had just been republished as The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922. Enthused by Gray’s revelation of the way that early Soviet art simply continued a movement that had already gone through a series of “paradigmatic changes”, I wrote a term paper using her book and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to explore the issues of continuity and change in “revolutionary episodes”.

This founded my interest in Russian literature and art; and writing this now, some fifty years later, I realise my original interest has not waned in the least. By contrast, my interest in Kuhn did not last the year out. During the summer of 1971 I read more widely in the history and philosophy of science, especially the papers of Paul Feyerabend, the writings of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, and Foucault’s Order of Things. During the early winter of 1971, working in West Berlin, I used this reading to draft a long critique of Kuhn’s ideas about intellectual continuity, the nature of novelty and the forces of innovation. I began postgraduate studies in Cambridge in 1972, and discussed my essay on Kuhn with Paul Hirst; he helped me condense it into an article that was then published in Economy and Society later in 1973.

Tatlin’s Tower is a reminder to me that this concern with the relationship between new and old ideas, and the complexities of change and innovation, came before I had developed a specific interest in the history of politics and economics. Around the same time, taking a course on the History of Sociology in my final year at Essex, I had written an essay on Malthus, stumbling across his Principles of Political Economy (1820) in the university library and thinking that here, in political economy, lay the real sources of the social sciences. My doctoral dissertation on the history of early English political economy did not however take shape until later, written up during 1974-75.

And so, looking back, it now becomes clearer that this concern with the complexities of intellectual change preceded its convergence with, condensation into, a lifelong interest in the circumstances shaping the discipline of economics. As I explain in Constructing Economic Science, the book originated in the later 1980s as a development of ideas shaped by an international project charting the institutionalisation of political economy. But the concern with questions of novelty and innovation – how what might now seem new is merely repetition, that what was once, and still is, new gets forgotten – goes right back to my reading of Camilla Gray in 1971. In her early 20s she had been instrumental in recovering the work of artists, designers, and writers who were persona non grata to the Soviet authorities, and virtually unknown everywhere else. We mostly owe to her our present understanding of the sheer inventiveness of Russian artists, designers, architects, film-makers, engineers and writers during the early decades of the twentieth century. She was only 26 when her seminal study on Russian art was published. By the end of 1971 she was dead, aged 35.

Her book is however still in print. In it she contrasts Tatlin’s beliefs to those of Malevich and Kandinsky, who considered art to be an essential spiritual activity, ordering “man’s vision of the world”.

To organize life practically as an artist-engineer, they claimed, was to descend to the level of a craftsman, and a primitive one at that. … In becoming useful, art ceases to exist. …On the other side, Tatlin and the ardently Communist Rodchenko insisted that the artist must become a technician; that he must learn to use the tools and materials of modern production in order to offer his energies directly for the benefit of the Proletariat. The artist-engineer must build harmony in life itself, transforming work into art, and art into work. ‘Art into life!’ was his slogan, and that of all the future Constructivists – not to be interpreted in the naive and sentimental way in which the ‘Wanderers’ and the Abramtsevo colony had taken ‘art to the people’, by idealizing the peasant and his crafts as the source of life, but by utilizing and welcoming the machine. The machine as the source of power in the modern world would release man from labour, transforming it into art. … The engineer must develop his feeling for materials – through the method of ‘Material culture’ – and the artist must learn to use the tools of mechanical production.

Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, Thames and Hudson, London 1971 pp. 246-48.

Seppel and Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice (2017)

Marten Seppel and I have recently published an edited volume Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe (Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017) and this is the text of a discussion we recently had about it.

Marten Seppel: It seems that the idea of putting together a volume on the practical side of cameralism has come at just the right time. There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years. A number of substantial studies exploring the essence, impact and spread of cameralist teaching in early modern Europe have appeared. In addition there are some ongoing projects and developing networks related to cameralism. In 1987 Jürgen Backhaus wrote that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.1 I believe there has been some progress over the last thirty years. Do you think that cameralism has been attracting growing interest in the anglophone literature, and how do you explain this?

Keith Tribe: Small’s book remains very readable, although it is true that it fell into obscurity. And the reasons for that are significant. Firstly, because of a continuing lack of development in serious historical understanding of the social sciences – Small founded the Department of Sociology at Chicago which he then headed for years, and he also was a founder of the American Journal of Sociology. And he wrote a book on Adam Smith too. So out of all that one might ask how these things that might seem unrelated to us today were not then unrelated. And secondly, because the implication of the first point is that we should always keep in view historiography: how these things fitted together for Small, but why cameralism, and Small himself, fell into obscurity. That has a great deal to do with the way that the history of economic thought developed as a sub-discipline in the latter part of the twentieth century as primarily an anglophone history – it became primarily a story written by anglophone economists about other anglophone economists, and so if it meant anything at all “cameralism” meant “German mercantilism”.

Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. It is from this last area in particular that I have drawn for my own work, and where I also find the readiest reception.

Marten Seppel: When it comes to the essence of cameralism, you have stressed that cameralism was first of all a language and an academic discipline. It is clear that cameralism was a pedagogy, a discourse(s), a genre of literature and a way of thinking. However, our collection still does not offer any more concrete definition of cameralism. Do you think that cameralism is at all definable? We still somehow recognize the specific logic of cameralism. Or is it easier to say what cameralism was not (e.g. compared to mercantilism, though I know that you have tried to avoid the concept of mercantilism at all in this context).

Keith Tribe: When I studied the literature of the Cameral- und Staatswissenschaften in the 1980s I was reading works that defined themselves as part of this genre, generated by the practical demands of university teaching. In some cases, as with the German reception of Physiocracy, you could also see that this body of writing was more or less entirely peripheral, and so that distance itself became something that one could explore and think about. I do not think it very helpful to allow subsequent classifications to dictate how one approaches and filters past writing – this is the most general criticism one can make of the idea that there ever was such a thing as “mercantilism”. Of course, in the English language we use the label “cameralism” in part because of the idiosyncratic way that “science” has become defined, so it is an “ism”, not a “science”. As a shorthand way of designating material for study “cameralism” is fine, but it is not something that can bear a lot of analytical weight.

If there is a “logic” to “cameralism”, however, then it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French – Italian is different, but here again, the older conventional anglophone bias of HET meant that some French material would be included, but hardly anyone outside Italy read Italian in the later twentieth century, and the Italians themselves have only relatively recently shown an interest in making Italian economic material accessible to non-Italians.

Marten Seppel: Cameralism has been given various chronologies. A very broad approach starts looking for a cameralist tradition already in the 16th century (e.g. Albion Small, Magdalena Humpert, more recently Jürgen Bachhaus and Richard Wagner). More popular is the view that cameralism was only an eighteenth-century discipline. Or does the truth lay somewhere between these two extremes? How do you see the genealogy of cameralism, and the time frame of this tradition?

Keith Tribe: This follows on from the previous point: that we should begin with the way in which writing defines itself, and not seek to create a special category of “cameralism” that we then use to sieve through economic literature. Etymologically “Cameralwissenschaft” is a discourse founded upon the emergent tasks of later seventeenth century domain administration that developed into a discourse about state administration in general. Although a Wissenschaft is not exclusively a body of learning linked to a university, that was what Cameralwissenschaft meant by the early eighteenth century, when the first proposals for systematic training in domain administration were made. That the practice of state administration deviated to a greater or lesser degree from arguments about the rational organisation of state administration should not blind us to the importance of studying arguments that sought to systematise economic activity.

Marten Seppel: The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics).2 However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical. What is your impression of this issue, and do you think that our collection has contributed to this debate – whether cameralist teaching was merely theoretical, and detached from cameralist practice.

Keith Tribe: I think the idea that theory and practice are distinct and contrasted is unhelpful; but I also dislike the invocation of “practice” that one encounters today, as if by talking of everything as a “practice” we can avoid the hard work of describing exactly what people do, why they do it, how they understand what they do and why they do it, how they came to be able to do what they do, and hence also the institutional frameworks that make all of this possible as a social activity. Cameralism is an interesting way into all these things because it is a discourse about administration, about organising activity, which both in its exposition and execution is exposed to greater or lesser slippage. In our book we have contributions that look at forestry, mining, manufacture, insurance, labour organisation and iron-making – areas of practical activity that are themselves the object of arguments over state management. When Gerloff talks of a Lehre he is referring to “a systematic collection of ideas and principles” that is first of all interrogated in terms of quite how systematic it is. What we have done in collecting together these essays on various practical fields of activity is to shift the attention from the examination of this “system” to its relationship with those areas of activity to which it is addressed. But those “real people” conducting this activity are themselves part of this “system” insofar as they are not blank pages, nor automatons simply following orders.

Here again, we could say that the value of studying cameralist literature is to open up these issues – about how “an economy” “actually works”.

Marten Seppel: It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal. At the same time, you have written that “cameralistic writers were largely indifferent to contemporary developments in French, English, and Italian economic literature -a lack of interest that was entirely reciprocated”. This quote can easily cause misunderstandings. What did you mean by this conclusion in the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (ed. by Alan Charles Kors)?

Keith Tribe: I would stand by what I wrote in the mid 1990s about France and Britain, but I then knew less about Italian literature than I do now. All the same, the first part of the statement is true enough – my study of the German language literature had demonstrated to me the general lack of engagement with non-German language literature, and my study of translations into and out of the German language reinforced this. Subsequently I was criticised for this, although as I pointed out in my Cambridge History of Eighteenth Century Political Thought entry, the geographical space within which cameralism was “confined” was extremely large, including the Baltic, Eastern Europe and Russia. This is very much reflected in the work of our contributors.

Furthermore, already in my Governing Economy (1988) I cautioned about using library catalogues as a prime source of evidence about translations and diffusion. Certainly German libraries did not systematically acquire translations into the language; while the existence of a translation is only preliminary evidence of diffusion. Fania Oz-Salzberger’s book on Adam Ferguson and the German Enlightenment, Translating the Enlightenment (1995), remains the classic study here. Then as now, books were more often cited than read, and to track down the pathways through which ideas and arguments diffuse you need to be able to demonstrate more than that a book was published in one place, or can be found in a library somewhere else. Alexandre Mendes-Cunha and Roger Bartlett do an excellent job in the book of showing exactly how “ideas travel” – whether to Brazil or to Russia.

Marten Seppel: One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century.So a short and concrete question to you – did cameralism change the world? Or could we pose such a question at all? In fact, at the beginning of the editing of this collection I was willing to talk about a “cameralist turn” or even a “cameralist revolution”, but you persuaded me to abandon these kind of titles as being little more than empty phrases and entirely unhelpful.

Keith Tribe: I think that we need to be cautious about hanging our ideas on a slick phrase or image to which a historical narrative must then be bent. There are many “revolutions” that, at best, end up where they started out – look at the “French Revolution”, it only took the French just over eleven years from executing a king to acquiring a new Emperor! And if that was not bad enough, it all happened again from 1848 to 1851! More seriously, as with my comments about needing to be aware of the historiography, it is too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.

Another important point to which Paul Warde drew our attention was the way that in one way or another most reforms fail. To measure cameralism by “success” or “failure” implies a sense of progress that Herbert Butterfield characterised as “Whig history”, and while the details of his argument are now mostly forgotten, it is generally accepted that this kind of retrospective history is solipsistic. The idea that cameralism promoted practical or innovative measures should be separated from any sense of “progress”, and our evaluation of cameralist ideas and principles should not be dominated by any question of their degree of “success”.

Marten Seppel: So what is the future of cameralism studies? How might this work develop in an interesting way? Do you believe that cameralism will become as familiar in textbooks as mercantilism? Has the concept of cameralism established itself as a central historical concept in Central European history and beyond? For example, in 1958 Hans Rosenberg wrote his well-known monograph on the development of bureaucracy in the long Prussian eighteenth century without ever mentioning once the word ‘cameralism’, or authors like Justi. Do you think this remains a valid approach to the period? Though one must admit that the twin-brother of cameralism, the police sciences, are already accepted in historical writing.

Keith Tribe: What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.


1Juergen Backhaus, Richard E. Wagner, “The Cameralists: A Public Choice Perspective”, Public Choice 53 (1987), p. 3 (3-20).

2August Wolfgang Gerloff, Staatstheorie und Staatspraxis des kameralistischen Verwaltungsstaates (Breslau, 1937), p. 35.

Teaching the History of Economics

Yesterday Roger Backhouse and I sent off to the publisher the files of the book we have been working on since last autumn, The History of Economics. A Course for Students and Teachers.  As with the book that I edited with Pat Hudson and published last year, The Contradictions of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Agenda will quickly turn these files into a well-produced book and publish it in October this year.  Conceived around this time last year, the book itself was written alongside our teaching the HET course to third-year economics undergraduates at the University of Birmingham, a course of twenty two-hour lectures covering a period from the later seventeenth century to the present day.  Our plan was to convert our lecture presentations into a written form as a template for the teaching of the history of economics.  This seemed quite a manageable task alongside all our other work, but it turned out to be more demanding than we had anticipated.  Nonetheless, this was itself instructive.

The History of Economic Thought mostly disappeared from its former home, the undergraduate economics degree, by the later 1970s.  Since that time no-one could hold out much hope of being hired in an economics department in Britain or the USA on the strength of expertise in the history of economics.  Terence Hutchison had become Mitsui Professor in Birmingham in 1956 mainly on the strength of work in the history and methodology of economics.  At the time, the Department of Economics was, with Nottingham, one of the strongholds of mathematical economics in Britain; even then, the idea that a Professor might be appointed on the strength of historical expertise met with resistance.

Criticism of the limitations of economics teaching in universities predated the Financial Crisis, its insistence on the esoteric at the expense of the blindingly obvious reflecting the institutional dynamics of career structures and research funding that have, if anything, since become more acute.  But in the wake of the Crisis it became more common in the media to advocate the reintroduction of economic history and the history of economic thought, if only to provide students with some wider perspective than the imperatives of the immediate present.  Besides the predictable resistance of the established profession, two problems stood in the way of this project: who would teach it? What would they teach?

Since hardly anyone has been able to make a living teaching the history of economic thought over the last forty years, the present stock of specialists is sharply divided between the remnants of an older generation (like Roger and myself) and a younger generation typically in their 20s or early 30s.  This is not so obvious in Britain, but very obvious in France, Italy, Australia and the USA.  it would be the younger generation who could teach courses, but since many had not themselves ever been taught such a course they lacked an accessible point from which to begin.

Which brings us to the purpose of our book: to provide a practical template for such teaching.  it is not a textbook, in the sense of providing a comprehensive overview of a field.  I think of it as a “coursebook”, a guide to structure and materials in approaching the history of economic thought of the kind that lectures seek to convey.  In presentation it mimics the lecture format: it is a sequence of twenty-four lectures, each of which begins with aims, a chronology, an annotated bibliographic guide, before presenting an outline of the material and concluding with questions for discussion.  It is assertive: it seeks above all to present a defensible account, but does not become entangled in defending the way in which this account is put together.  The purpose of lectures is to provide a point of entry to a subject, not deal exhaustively with it; our book has the same aim.  At the same time, it has a larger purpose: to provide a framework around which novice lecturers might construct new courses.

Until I began teaching on the Birmingham course in 2005 I had never had the opportunity to teach the subject, although this had long been my main interest.  Putting together my first lectures on Smith to Keynes I was pleasantly surprised to find that, over the previous thirty years, I had covered enough of the material to be able to make a course work.  During the past few years, where I have been responsible for teaching the period up to 1900, what was originally a series of topics has become developed into a story about the European dimension of the history of political economy.  What originally appeared to be predominantly a British story has now been rewritten in a European framework that, in the course of the nineteenth century, extends to the USA.  And so what began as a course of lectures in a British university has been revised and corrected into a story about political economy as a broadly European discourse, since the later seventeenth century at the latest.


The Economy of the Word

EW jacket“There is an algebra of language far more wonderful than the algebra of mathematics” (Max Müller, “No Language without Reason – No Reason without Language”, Nature Vol. 36 No. 924 14 July 1887 p. 251)

In my new book I argue that the proper object of the “history of economic thought” is the analysis of economic language; and that, therefore, this should be conceived primarily as a philological practice.  While the “economy of the word” can be read as an enterprise addressed to verbal rather than mathematical representations of economic argument, it is also another way of describing the object of philological studies: the organisation and arrangement of language.  Placed together, these two ideas shape the book: that “economy” has a range of historical and contemporary meanings, and that exploration of these meanings requires that we pay attention to the organisation of language, and the production of meaning through such organisation.

This orientation to economics and to language is sketched out in the first and last chapters.  The remainder of the book seeks to demonstrate the results gained by adopting such a stance: examining the shifts in meaning of “economy” over two and a half millennia; the work involved in transforming the concept of “national dividend” into a number now known as GDP; Adam Smith’s treatment of international trade in his Wealth of Nations; the transformation of Smith’s writings into the object of modern scholarship via the “Adam Smith Problem”; the manner in which Karl Marx first encountered political economy and how this encounter shaped Capital Vol. I; and exactly where “Walrasian Economics” comes from.  Throughout, there is is an interest in the way in which texts are constructed – physically, as books; conceptually, as arguments placed in relation to prior sources, seeking the manner in which these sources are preserved, displaced, transformed, rearranged, possibly merely repeated.  By treating this as a complex process of linguistic recovery and repetition it is possible to show quite how we might read texts “in context”, hence the emphasis upon philological scholarship.

Philology went out of fashion in the early twentieth century, and became treated as a superseded antiquarianism.  James Turner’s argument that philological studies actually transmuted into the modern humanities (Philology, Princeton UP 2014) does have elements both of overreach and occlusion; but this has, predictably, been met with the kind of condescension that academics reserve for antiquarians and amateurs (Colin Burrow reviewing Turner in London Review of Books 6 November 2014).  It would be more fitting to recognise that much of the past fifty years of “criticism” (from Foucault, through Derrida and Baudrillard, to Moretti) has done rather less than is generally supposed to advance our understanding beyond positions already established more that one hundred years ago:

Philology seeks to ascertain the fundamental forms and most general expressions of thought which recur in the grammars of all languages, and investigates the laws of the development of language as illustrated by literatures, and thus on its objective side becomes a means of throwing light on historical science. (J. Scot Henderson, reviewing Conrad Hermann, Die Sprachwissenschaft nach ihrem Zusammenhange mit Logik, menschlicher Geistesbildung und Philosophie (1875) in Mind Vol. 1 No. 2 (1876) p. 261)

This captures the basis of philological work, language as text, displaced in the early twentieth century by a new linguistics that re-directed attention to the structure of contemporary speech rather than the historical sources of contemporary language use; a modern linguistics whose elementary building blocks were commandeered by cultural critics who then used them to read the world as “text”.  It is time to go back to the historical sources of language.

As I outline in my concluding chapter, “knowledge”, both formal and informal, has since the 1970s been reconceived as “social practice”: however, the “linguistic turn” never did pay much attention to language as such, treating it primarily as a reflection of social practice.  I argue that, in the domain of the histories of the sciences, of formalised, organised knowledge, the emphasis on mode of organisation has come to obscure what it was that was organised.  I note that between the “why” and the “what” of language, the latter lost out to the former.  But, it turns out, Hermann got here first:

Besides tracing the way in which language has come to be what it is now, as a historical or natural product, it is necessary to inquire into the actual contents or the what of Language, so far as it is the revelation or outward expression of the inner principles of the human intelligence.  It has been one of the most misleading errors of modern times to deal with thought and language as if they were mutually independent of and altogether distinct and separate from each other. (J. Scot Henderson, idem.)

Mind was the first academic journal to begin regular publication in Britain.  Philosophy is today a very restricted version of what that journal then represented.  The title would translate into German as Geist.  And in its early volumes we encounter psychology, the study of language, moral philosophy, education and epistemology all on an equal footing.  In turn these formed part of the moral sciences; and, as such, part of the history of economics.