In this incredibly erudite work, Steven L. Kaplan revisits and re-examines a topic that has come to define his scholarly career: the status of bread as a ‘force-monde’ and ‘fait social total’ whose meaning must be unpacked, if we, as historians, hope to understand eighteenth-century France. For bread was of paramount importance to everyone, from the humble peasant, who consumed between 4 and 5 livres per day, to the mighty royal minister, tasked with preserving peace by preventing prices from rising too high. The principal difficulty, for the latter, was determining which policies were best suited to said task, drawing on the economic thought of intellectuals past and present, foreign and domestic. It is this predominately Parisian world of hommes politiques and philosophes that most concerns Kaplan in Raisonner sur les blés, a title taken from Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. With remarkable skill, he sketches out the cleavages that divided thinkers and policymakers who participated in what he refers to as the ‘Economic Enlightenment’, a cultural watershed rooted in the 1750s, but reaching maturity with the laws passed by Louis XV in May 1763 and July 1764, which were meant to reform (read deregulate) the grain trade along physiocratic lines. These laws, and the subsistence crises they helped provoke, generated fierce debates that pitted the prophets of liberty, disciples of Vincent de Gournay and François Quesnay, who had infiltrated institutions of royal governance, against a group of ‘alter-économistes’, who remained loyal to an old regime regulatory system that aimed at keeping prices low and supplies of bread abundant in the name of E. P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’. These debates may seem, at first glance, like a narrow, if incredibly important, topic for historical study, but Kaplan shows that they dealt with much more than whether or not the exportation of flour should be permitted in times of need—that they witnessed the confrontation of competing epistemologies and methodologies, conceptions of the state and its status vis-à-vis civil society, not to mention understandings of human nature, which went to the very heart of eighteenth-century French culture. Apart from an introduction and conclusion that serve to contextualize and summarize Kaplan’s arguments, this book comprises a series of self-contained essays dedicated to specific participants in the ‘Economic Enlightenment’, starting with the Neapolitan diplomat Ferdinando Galiani, whose Dialogues sur le commerce des bleds (1770) would become a point of reference, for better or worse, in subsequent debates, ending with Jacques Necker, Contrôleur général des finances under Louis XVI, and including such luminaries as the abbé Morellet, Diderot, the abbé Roubaud, Lemercier de La Rivière and Turgot. This approach was adopted for several reasons, the first stemming from the author’s methodological preference for historicized close reading, which acknowledges that his protagonists ‘live in a world structured by discourse’, but that they must also confront a ‘social reality…preceding their discourses’. The second reason has to do with convenience, allowing readers to pick up wherever they deem fit, making an otherwise long book more palatable to students and scholars alike. This organizational choice does come with some serious drawbacks, though, mostly in the form of a repetitiveness that contributes to lengthening the book and testing the perseverance of its readers. Except for such relatively superficial problems, Raisonner sur les blés does an admirable job with its subject matter, suffering only (and rather paradoxically) from Kaplan’s acquaintance with the material and his reliance on his own past works, resulting in some assumptions going unexplained and some avenues of inquiry going unpursued. Especially regrettable is the lack of engagement with a host of historical and theoretical works that examine how ‘traditional’ (i.e. pre-capitalist) societies are altered by the introduction of laisser-faire economics and impersonal market forces associated with capitalism of the consumerist or productivist variety. The concept of a ‘contrat social des subsistances’, rooted in a reciprocity between the prince/père, who is supposed to provide for the needy, and the peuple/enfant, who owe him loyalty and submission, and whose annulment under the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI went some way towards delegitimizing the monarchy, is absolutely crucial, not least for those historians hoping to show that the French Revolution did indeed have economic, along with cultural and political, origins. So how much stronger it would be if brought into dialogue with the works of Émile Durkheim, Eric Hobsbawm and Henri Lefebvre, to name only a few intellectual giants, known for tackling similar issues from different perspectives. Likewise, the book might have benefited from a brief concluding discussion of rival forms of legitimacy emerging in Enlightenment France, explored with considerable skill by historians Antoine Lilti and David Bell among others, to reinforce its argument concerning the cultural centrality of debates about the grain trade. For certain ‘alter-économistes’, like Jacques Necker, were not simply hommes politiques and philosophes, but darlings of public opinion, celebrities even, who came to overshadow the king during times of crisis, and whose political fate was closely connected to the revolutionary journées of 1789. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. 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French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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