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Abstract

This dissertation is an intellectual history of old regime France’s global economy. It shows how expansion of overseas trade after 1715 generated abstract ideas about political economy, expectations of progress, and critical discussions of commercial affairs in the public sphere—all of which influenced the way elites sought to develop the old regime’s overseas empire. “Commercial imperialism” was the product of these related economic and intellectual phenomena: the growth of merchant capital, and the emergence of critique. Organized around case studies of particular commodities—company shares, coffee, cochineal, acacia gum, gunpowder, and sugar—the dissertation tracks commercial imperialism across the Indian Ocean, the Levant, Cadiz, Oaxaca, Senegambia, French Guiana, and the metropole, from the “golden age” of commerce in the early eighteenth century to the Age of Revolutions. The commercial imperialism of old regime France had two defining features. First, it relied on the global proliferation of institutions that had been and still remained essential to the operations of merchant capital in France: corporations, privileges, sinecures, patrimonial social relations, aristocratic hierarchies of value and taste, and, ultimately, the absolutist monarchy. The old regime was exported overseas. The resulting growth of trade, profits, and luxury goods in select French markets in turn produced the second feature of commercial imperialism: a discourse of political economy that projected the emergence of efficient markets, the improvement of resources, and the progress of society—theories of commerce that were, potentially, at odds with the practices of empire. Commercial imperialism was given form and direction by this inner contradiction between capital and critique—between the methods through which France accumulated wealth and power in the world economy, and the ideals, expectations, and frustrations those methods generated. The dissertation makes three interventions. First, it reveals the specificities of capitalism and empire in eighteenth-century France. The old regime developed its overseas economy through a form of bricolage, taking institutions and social relations that had emerged out of prior domestic processes and turning them towards imperial ends. By attending to the concrete operations of merchant capital, the case studies explain how, why, and to what effect the old regime was exported overseas. Second, the dissertation explores the intellectual consequences of the global reproduction of France’s absolutist institutions, disjointed markets, and social hierarchies. To a far greater extent than historians have realized, prominent categories of Enlightenment political economy—society, self-interest, the entrepreneur, civilization, the conservation of value—were rooted in France’s overseas economy. Finally, each of the commodity chains considered in the dissertation traversed regions that, in the nineteenth century and beyond, served as cornerstones of French global power: the Mascarene islands, the Levant, Senegal, and French Guiana. The phenomenon of commercial imperialism therefore helps to explain the persistence of the old regime at the colonial periphery.

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