This book is about a development of empire, from the inside outwards. It is, however, admittedly problematic to study literature’s relationship to emergent financial capitalism without also examining the global forces at play in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially with regard to Europe’s gradual process of accruing colonial territories, its trading in human slaves, and its many experiments with banking and other financial schemes that served both domestic and international trade. This book focuses on England despite the need to acknowledge that doing so means that this study will have to leave out an account of greater Europe as well as the developing world of global trade. There are two reasons for such a focus. The first is historical: What took place in the last decades of the seventeenth century was somewhat of an anomaly, when England’s “economy diverged from the European pattern,” in part owing to the new way the State began to use finance and to develop financial engineering in order to handle its revenues.1 The second reason is discursive: Because of the way public credit was structured, there is a strong tie to particularly English problems and discussions. The world of fiction that I will be examining in the chapters to follow engages with these particular issues and their social implications. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, contemporaries often found themselves at a loss to describe or define public credit, let alone to defend it. Jonathan Swift refers to it in The Examiner as “such a Complication of Knavery and Couzenage, such a Mystery of Iniquity, and such an unintelligible Jargon of Terms . . . as were never known in any other Age or Country of the World.”2 Swift’s insistence that public credit is unintelligible, coupled with strong political disapproval, has to do with a notion that “the Wealth of the Nation, that used to be reckoned by the Value of Land, is now computed by the Rise and Fall of Stocks.”3 In the same year, Daniel Defoe writes in a pro-government pamphlet titled An Essay upon Publick Credit that public credit is “what all People are busie about, but not one in Forty understands: Every Man has a Concern in it, few know what it is, nor is it easy to define or describe it.”4 From both of these perspectives, which differ very much in their political orientations but which are both by authors who would also go on to write fiction, public credit seems abstruse and unintelligible. It is discussed as a set of practices that potentially
operate too much like stock-jobbing,5 which was a pejorative term used to describe those who play the markets, seen by most Georgians as a form of immoral gambling and not enough like a permanent solution to a nation’s financial problems.6 In this sense, commitment was very much a problem in the early eighteenth century. By the middle to late eighteenth century, a more systematic approach to the management of national wealth was taken up by writers we now call political economists, in works such as Sir James Steuart’s An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767) and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). In these, public credit is one component of political economy, subject to description and analysis like other natural mechanisms studied by the emergent social and natural sciences, a mode of thinking that would also be made more prevalent by the physiocrats in France. These works treat the State’s management of its wealth like the household, the oikos from which the term ‘economics’ derives, supposing that private credit and public credit work much in the same way.7 This comes, in part, from a seventeenth-century patriarchalist tradition in which the family was seen as analogous to the State.8 Clearly, something happened between the beginning of the century when Defoe and Swift were writing and the second half of the century when Steuart and Smith were writing. In the early eighteenth century, there was no consensus that public credit was an intrinsic part of the State’s functioning, one that could or should implicate all individuals. Indeed, as one notes through Swift’s statement, it was seen as quite onerous to those with inherited property in land. By the end of the century, each individual would come to be seen as a representative of public credit with an investment in the State.9 The State is no longer conceptualized as that which belongs to the Crown but rather as an aggregate of individuals, an abstraction that nonetheless functions. What this book explores is a transition whereby people stopped thinking in terms of tangible interpersonal trust and started to think in terms of abstractions – imagining such entities as the nation, the State, the public, the Bank of England, and so on. Through discussions and debates in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, one observes that a society in which people see themselves participating in an economy of mutual benefit was not yet in place as a shared fiction. Taylor’s “economic model,” articulated in Modern Social Imaginaries (2003) and A Secular Age (2007), reflects a period when economics and politics are seen as separate from one another.10 For Taylor, the economy – an objectified reality usually summarized by Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” – is one of the forms of social self-understanding crucial to modernity.11 Twentieth-and twenty-first-century commentators, speaking from the perspective of the present in which the concept of economics is no longer something to be questioned, tend to emphasize eighteenth-century thought that describes people as mutually benefiting each other by acting out of their interests, summarized most famously in Bernard de Mandeville’s “private vices, public benefits” in The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices Publick Benefits
(1705/14). In his preface, Mandeville promises to “shew that those very Vices of every Particular Person by skilful Management were made subservient to the Grandeur and worldly Happiness of the whole.” While it certainly resonates with modern readers insofar as ‘human nature’ defined in these terms is seen as a key basis for modern society, such a description that imagines selfinterest as good for the whole of society was both new and controversial in the early eighteenth century.12 Examining early eighteenth-century texts prompts one to consider what parts of the homo economicus are natural. In this regard, modern commentators often inquire about the conditions under which a human can be seen as “rational individual, who, led by narrowly egotistical motives, sets out to maximize his benefit.”13 Seeing the world in this way was important for credible commitment ‘from below,’ and it is also pertinent to contemporary discussions surrounding a key public creditor, the Bank of England. I am, therefore, using the “economic model” in order to convey what was different in the past for the purpose of showing how radical public credit actually was in its time but also how it developed out of particular English historical contexts. In this chapter, I will be painting with broad strokes for the reason that a fairly wide variety of developments in the seventeenth century find their way into the discourses of the following century. In what follows, I identify five distinct but overlapping historical contexts for the development of an economy of mutual benefit:
1 the emergence of economically constructed property in relation to new theories of the State;
2 the ascendancy of individual interest as a new organizing principle; 3 the development of credit money as a contract between the individual and
the State; 4 questions of credible commitment with regard to the Bank of England; and 5 the functions of public opinion and disinterestedness in garnering support
for public credit.