In recent decades, there has been a resurgence in use of the term “capitalism” in the historical literature as well as considerable discussion of the economic characteristics and dynamics of capitalism in the social sciences. Some historians of economic life have been inclined to keep their distance from this debate, and even to circumvent it by appealing to alternative concepts in their research. Yet, even when historians try to excise capitalism from their work, and invent alternatives to it, questions arise about exactly how “the age of commerce” differs from merchant capitalism or “modern economic growth” from “industrial capitalism”. Dispensing with the term “capitalism”, therefore, requires just as much critical engagement with the concept as deploying it. And it is just such critical engagement with the history and theory of capitalism that this project proposes.
Its innovative character stems from a profit-oriented analytical approach and a methodology organized around global value chains. The project is organized around two research “streams” that address distinct questions about the practices and discourses of profit. First, how were profits understood, pursued and generated in economic practice? Second, how were profits constructed and contested in economic discourses about political economy? Crucially, these research streams are envisaged as complementary to each other, and will be brought into deliberate interaction to ensure that each stream is systematically enriched by ideas and evidence from the other stream.
The project’s core questions about the economic practices and discourses of profit will be addressed by studying continuity and change in the European textile complex between 1750 and 1850. Historians have long seen the wave of heightened industrial activity that diffused across European economies from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century as enormously significant for the history of capitalism. Certainly, there is no doubting the global significance of this transformative phase of European industrialisation, both for the distinctive process of economic and social change it set in motion and for the crucial role of the continent’s global economic relationships in facilitating that change. Since the textile sector was at the core of Europe’s industrial sector throughout this period of transformation, it serves as the focus of this project’s analysis of economic practices and discourses of profit.
Between 1750 and 1850, the European textile complex comprised a rich variety of economic activities structured around different natural fibres. The project will adopt a global approach by organising its analysis around the distinct but related commodity chains that linked the raw materials of wool, silk, flax and cotton to their transformation through spinning and weaving into cloth, its dyeing and finishing, and subsequent distribution and sale to consumers. It will adopt this methodological focus both to analyse the changing economic practices that generated profit in this crucial century in the history of textile commodity chains and to study economic discourses about profit in the widespread and persistent discussions about the political economies of textiles that marked this period.