Long before dreams of modern European unity, the same association between an intellectually liberal "open-mindedness" and economic liberalism was made in the early eighteenth century by Joseph Addison - this time, interpreted positively. Addison loved to feel himself a "citizen of the world" - but the place in which he felt most like one was the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City of London:
|The London Royal Exchange, late 18th c.|
Should we blame Addison for not being aware of these extended implications of the trade network he celebrated? And can his ideal of the "citizen of the world" not be separated from the historical accidents, crimes and misfortunes of commercial friction between peoples in his own time? Indeed it can - or so I will argue in this post. Yet one solution repeatedly proposed to the dangers of such commercial friction was not to increase, but to altogether suspend the free trade praised by Addison. This solution cannot be associated only with fascism, totalitarianism, or the impossible Romantic longing for a return to a state of rugged self-sufficiency. Rather, it represents an alternative - one which is politically demanding, counter-intuitive, but not impossible, and perhaps urgently necessary - to the unequal and unstable competitive regime of economic liberalism which has led in the past to the imperial exploitation of entire continents, slavery, genocide, and mass famine, and which in the present threatens the ecological safety of the globe as a whole. And although this alternative seems to bear more resemblance to a Brexit model of economic isolationism than any left-wing cosmopolitan could possibly be comfortable with, those who proposed it did so in a spirit very far removed from xenophobic bigotry.
One example of such an anti-free trade thinker from Addison's own time is Engelbert Kaempfer, author of a History of Japan (1727) that remained for a century and a half the standard reference work for Europeans curious about the country. (I draw here on David Mervart, who also makes the comparison with Addison: "A Closed Country in the Open Seas: Engelbert Kaempfer's Solution for European Modernity's Predicament", Journal of European Ideas 35:3 (2009), 321-9.) At the time Kaempfer visited, during the Tokugawa or Edo period extending from 1600 to 1868, Japan was one of the most deliberately isolated societies in the world. Contact with foreigners was only allowed through Dejima Island in the harbour of Nagasaki, and was carried on very selectively with trading representatives from Holland and China (Kaempfer arrived under the auspices of the Dutch East Indies Company). Any foreigners who arrived on Japanese shores by other means were put to death, as were any Japanese who left and then tried to return. Missionizing and non-official trade were outlawed. Kaempfer himself described Japan as a "closed country", a regnum clausum, and it was via the translation of his works that the Japanese term for Tokugawa foreign policy, sakoku, was originally coined. To be sure, Kaempfer admitted, it must look like a "signal breach of the laws of nature" and a denial of the "society which it was [God's] intention should be for ever among men" to maintain such a policy. And yet he is determined to demonstrate to his readers "the advantages that must and do accrue to the Japanese from the present condition of the Empire" (cit. Mervart, 322).
|Dejima Island, Nagasaki|
For Japan at this period was undeniably prosperous, populous, culturally highly developed, militarily powerful, and at peace both internally and externally. Edo, the capital (later renamed Tokyo), may have been the most populated city in the world; with 30 million inhabitants the country as a whole was larger than any in Europe, and more highly urbanized. European scientific and technological knowledge was channelled through contact with the Dutch, whilst Japan's own artistic, religious and aesthetic culture (including the Zen arts) was developed to a pitch of scarcely-equalled sophistication. This was the period of Basho, of Hokusai, Hiroshige, of the flowering of Rinzai Zen under Hakuin Ekaku, of kabuki theatre and of geisha culture. An inhabitant of Edo in the Tokugawa era would hardly have felt isolated, imprisoned, or in need of more cosmopolitan surroundings.
To Kaempfer, then, it was apparent that the Japanese "confined within the limits of their Empire enjoy the blessings of peace and contentedness, and do not care for any commerce, or communication with foreign nations, because such is the happy state of their Country, that it can subsist without it". They had "no reason to entertain any thoughts of invading the rights and properties of others". Contrast the nations of Europe at the end of the 17th century, increasingly committed to expansion through trade, but at the same time with all too much experience of the negative consequences that such expansion brought with it when combined with inequality, competition and national or religious rivalries: "murdering and plundering of each other, ravaging and unpeopling of whole Countries, laying in waste and ruin public and private, sacred and profane buildings, and many other calamities" (cit. Mervart, p. 324-5).
This was no historical coincidence. There was a logic to the association of economic liberalism or free trade and colonial exploitation and conquest, on the one hand, just as there was on the other between peaceful self-sufficiency, political stability and what would later be termed the "closed commercial state". As I will get on to explaining in the second half of this post, the logic of the "closed commercial state" was most systematically developed by the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his 1800 book of that title (Der geschlossene Handelsstaat). In the remainder of this first part, it makes sense to cast a critical glance at the other side of the debate: the intellectual justifications offered for both free trade and colonial policy during the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, I will concentrate on some aspects of the theory of property developed during this period, above all, property in land. (In this sense, this post fills a gap in an earlier two-part post on this site devoted to the work of Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi - "Reading Karl Polanyi: How wild goats and gold explain the last two centuries of global history" - in which I discussed the artificial process of "commodification" affecting two out of three key "factors of production": labour and currency, but not yet land. For Polanyi, all three are "fictitious commodities": if a commodity is defined as something produced for sale and consumption, then neither labour, nor currency, nor land fulfil that definition in full. Yet in a capitalist economy, all three have their price.) It is also precisely in his theory of property rights, as we will see, that Fichte innovates most radically, and with the greatest consequence for economic policy-making, providing a sophisticated philosophically-grounded alternative to the commodification and reification that afflict liberal conceptions of what it means to own something in the eyes of the law.
When it comes to theories of modern international relations, particularly with regard to their economic dimension, there is probably no better place to start historically than with the Dutch jurist Hugo de Groot (1583-1645), or Grotius, the "father of international law". It is significant that Grotius's career as an authority on the subject began with a case of colonial trade conflict: the seizure of booty by a captain of the Dutch East India Company (the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), Jacob van Heemskerck, from a Portuguese ship Santa Catarina off (what is now) Singapore in 1603. Given that the Dutch and the Portuguese were then at war, one might have thought that such an act would hardly be considered surprising or exceptional from a legal standpoint. Yet the legal status of privateering (piracy conducted to the benefit of a state) was not yet fixed, and so interpreting the Dutch prize within the framework of official hostility between nations was far from automatic. Indeed, as Martine van Ittersum has shown in one of a number of recent articles devoted to this crucial event in the history of international trade, the relevant Portuguese official, the capitão mor based in Malacca, was willing to administer justice quite impartially and give up claim to the booty, given the incident's local context (q.v. van Ittersum, "Hugo Grotius in Context: Van Heemskerck's Capture of the Santa Catarina and its Justification in De Jure Pradae (1604-1606)", in Asian Journal of Social Science 31:3, pp. 511-48).
|The Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina, contemporary woodcut|
It was Grotius who stepped in to argue that the seizure was justified specifically on the basis of natural law - a law that could be constructed and applied on purely rational grounds whenever a local established framework of justice was lacking. He produced his treatise De Jure Pradae (On the Law of Prize and Booty), which he privately referred to as "De Indiis" (On the Indies), in defence of Heemskerck's actions and at the behest of the VOC. As numerous historians have observed, Grotius thus immediately becomes important as a defender of nascent Dutch colonialism - not just a pioneering theorist in the abstract of a "law between nations". (The booty whose seizure he defended was worth 3 million guilders, approximately 50% of the VOC's initial capital.) Firstly, by arguing that in a condition of war no individual state's law or magistrate could adjudge the seizure of a maritime prize such as the Santa Catarina, his treatise marked the formalization of the notion of "prize" and thus of the legalized activity of privateering - a formalization which had become necessary in the new age of long-distance trade companies such as the VOC, underpinned by modern financial and legal structures such as stock trading and insurance. As Donald Petrie expresses it, even for merchants whose trade was at risk from privateers, the law of prize "brought a valuable element of certainty to their dealings. If the rules were clear and universal, they could ship their goods abroad in wartime, after first buying insurance against known risks. ... On the other side of the table, those purchasing vessels and cargoes from prize courts had the comfort of knowing that what they bought was really theirs" (The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999), pp. 145-6). International trade was thus made compatible not just with piracy, but also with war.
Secondly, Grotius argued that Heemskerck's act was justified not merely negatively (no-one could say it was wrong) but also positively: it provided redress, and material compensation, for a long-standing wrong done to Dutch rights by the Portuguese monopolization of trade with the East Indies, including driving Dutch commerce off important sea-trade routes. Grotius expressed this as a violation of an important aspect of natural law - the "freedom of the seas", under which title (Mare Liberum) the relevant chapter of his treatise was published in 1609. The Dutch wanted the freedom to sail wherever they liked: to visit new destinations in the Indian Ocean and establishing trading connections with them, to fish in coastal waters off England, perhaps also to involve themselves in trading and settling in America (as they began to do in the year of Mare Liberum's publication). Grotius's treatise defended all this, in the process setting up concepts of property and natural rights to it that were extended by later colonial thinkers such as John Locke. As Barbara Arneil has analyzed, Grotius's arguments constitute both an apparently logical type of reasoning from "natural law" and one "firmly grounded in colonial goals" ("John Locke, Natural Law and Colonialism", in History of Political Thought 13:4 (1992), 588-603 (p. 589)).
The distinctions involved are fairly simple. Property applies to objects. These are of two types: movable, and immovable. How one takes ownership of them, or if one can, depends on what type they belong to: "With respect to movables, occupancy implies physical seizure; with respect to immovables, it implies some activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries" (Grotius, De Jure Pradae, 229, cit. Arneil, p. 589). A ship's cargo is movable, and can thus be physically seized. Territory on the earth's surface is not, and so the only way to take possession of it is through enclosure, or by building on it. The sea cannot be owned through either of these methods of appropriation, and so is intrinsically free: no-one can stop those of another country from travelling across it, as they could if it were land that they had fenced in. These are definitions of "natural" law, we should recall, and operate in the absence of any more developed framework: in a modern European state, it does not suffice to seize an object or build on a piece of land in order to have legal possession of it. But in areas and circumstances where the law of a particular state does not apply, these definitions once again become the basis for decisions on the legality of action.
Those areas and circumstances turned out to be (not coincidentally) perfectly commonplace outside Europe, including on the high seas and in the conditions of colonial conflict or rivalry across "virgin territory" that prevailed for much of the ensuing three centuries. As Richard Tuck comments, "Grotius had provided a useful ideology for competition over natural resources in the non-European world...[including the] right to take what they wanted and protect [it] against threats" (Tuck, Natural Right Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge, 1979), p. 62). In Grotius's later treatise De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), war was justified as a defence of property, as well as of oneself - and property was something one had a right to, a specifically private and modern right. It did not apply to those who lived by holding and using goods in common - such as the native inhabitants of America. Here Grotius drew on the common equation between Native Americans and humans before the Fall. A prelapsarian "state of nature" is concretized in the New World - "This primitive state...exemplified in the community of property arising from extreme simplicity, may be seen among certain tribes in America which have lived for many generations in such a condition" (De Jure Belli ac Pacis, II.ii.2.i, cit. Arneil p. 590).
Not only had the natives of America failed to move past the stage of communal ownership, they had also not learned to appropriate land by enclosing and then truly using it, that is, cultivating it through agriculture. Such land is thus legally open to appropriation by Europeans: "If within a territory of a people there is any deserted and unproductive soil...it is the right for foreigners even to take possession of such ground for the reason that uncultivated land ought not to be considered occupied" (ibid., cit. Arneil, p. 592). Nomadic or hunter-gathering ways of life are permanently vulnerable, through what Grotius considers "natural" law, to expropriation of their very territorial basis. In a further extension of colonial logic, however, granting the argument from use did not mean that use had to be immediate. Rather, it was perfectly possible for a European state to take legal ownership over a tract of "vacant" or uncultivated land, as long as the intention was to divide that territory up into parcels of land which would soon be put under private cultivation. As Arneil observes, this was the practice of both the Dutch and the English in North America.
Toward the end of the 17th century, John Locke, who in the 1660s and 70s "played an important role in the formulation of colonial policy" in America through his roles as secretary to the Lords Proprietor of Carolina and the Council of Trade and Plantations (Arneil, p. 600), drew similar conclusions about the nature of property in his Second Treatise of Government (1689). Locke cements the idea that the only legitimate form of ownership in the New World is private ownership; since here the pre-existent tradition of common land (as still existed, despite centuries of enclosures, in England) has no legal basis, and ownership in the "state of nature" must be demonstrated by personal labour, that is, cultivation. "As much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property" (Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II.26). Uncultivated land was nothing but "waste", and demanded to be enclosed and tilled: "I aske whether in the wild woods and uncultivated wast of America left to Nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of...land doe in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?" (ibid., II.37).
That Grotius and Locke's conceptions of property relate integrally to their support of European colonialism is not only clarified by their statements and personal circumstances, but also negatively, by the fact that other European writers of the period, who were not in hock to colonial states, resisted their arguments. We have already met one such anti-colonial writer in Engelbert Kaempfer: though the VOC enabled his travel to Japan, his opinion of wise economic policy was diametrically opposed to theirs. Not all Europe was able to jump on the imperialist bandwagon, in any case: Sweden and the German states, for instance, held colonies only briefly and unsuccessfully. Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), a German who spent half his life in Sweden, produced there a work "On the Law of Nature and Peoples" (De iure naturae et gentium, 1672), whose conclusions significantly differed from those of Grotius and Locke. For him America was no state of nature, but a land with "nations" as worthy of respect and diplomatic treatment as those of Europe; there was no natural right that Europeans could assume to free trade or free travel across their lands; ownership rested on consent, not on exploitation, and could as easily be communal as private (Arneil, pp. 594-8).
Pufendorf also contested one of Grotius's most outrageous, and yet subtly persistent, claims to the legitimacy of war on "natural law" grounds: that any country violating the precepts of Nature or natural law could be "punished" for so doing (Arneil, pp. 593-4, 598-9). Such violations could in Grotius's view include anything from cannibalism (an "unnatural" practice of certain South American peoples, "men who were like beasts" in Grotius's eyes) to infringements of the "freedom of the seas" - both by non-Western peoples repelling the peaceful expeditions of Europeans and by empires like the Portuguese, jealous of their trade monopolies. Military intervention did not require the violation of reciprocal rights, but only of what was "natural" - something that, as Pufendorf was aware, could be defined to suit the wishes of those with military power. (As Montaigne famously wrote in his essay "Of Cannibals", 16th-century Europeans in the Wars of Religion had anyway proved themselves capable of far worse than cannibalism: "I conceive there is more barbarity...in tearing somebody limb from limb by racks and torments...than to roast and eat him after he is dead".)
|Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694)|
In theorizing property differently from Grotius and Locke, and resisting some of the conclusions they drew from the concept of "natural law", Pufendorf laid foundations for an alternative articulation of property as the meeting-point of justice and economics. They would be developed in the work of later eighteenth-and nineteenth-century thinkers, from Francois Fenelon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Fichte and the theorist of "national economics" Friedrich List - a lineage I examine in the second part of this post.